Three Questions strategy to navigate your rope experience and stay safe
Pain naturally belongs to the experience of going out of your comfort zone. When playing with physical restriction and gravity, compression, extension, torsion, and all possible ways of bringing the body into stressful positions, chances are at some point you will interact with pain.
The common understanding is that pain exists there to keep you safe. Here is what happens on a physiological level: special sensory neurons called nociceptors respond to damaging or potentially damaging stimuli by sending signals to the spinal cord and the brain. If the brain perceives the threat as credible, it creates the sensation of pain to direct attention to the body part, so the threat can hopefully be mitigated. Interestingly enough, nociceptors have their own “wiring” system separate from processing regular sensations like touch. A good analogy can be that of a system of fire detectors in a public space with their own separate wires running to the central office.
So that explains nociception, but not pain. It is not mechanical. We all are different, we all have different endurance limits and different needs for safety, different wounds, and different mindsets. Nowadays scientists don’t put an equality sign between nociception and pain:
“Pain is an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage… Pain is always subjective. Each individual learns the application of the word through experiences related to injury in early life… Activity induced in the nociceptor and nociceptive pathways by a noxious stimuli is not pain, which is always a psychological state, even though we may well appreciate that pain most often has a proximate physical cause”
International Association for the study of Pain, 1979
So the experience of pain is complex and highly subjective. There is no Pain Authority Intl. that tells you when you should feel like “being in pain”. Now, it’s even more complex in the realm of impact play where we deliberately choose to play with these sensations otherwise considered “unpleasant”. Some of us yearn to be confronted with pain… not just any pain, but the kind that suits us:
„Pain in S/M doesn’t mean just any old pain. We don’t enjoy stubbed toes any more than anybody else does. Stimulations are carefully chosen to feel both right and tolerable. And we like to create an environment that feels safe so that we can let intense stimulations in without tensing up or panicking.
The New Bottoming Book, Dossie Easton &Janet W. Hardy“
Pain can feel good when it is the right kind. When asking rope people about that, I mostly hear likes and dislikes: I like dull pain and I don’t like a sharp pain, I cannot stand futomomo because of my tibia, I love backbends, etc. It also can be about the degree of stimulation and of course, interaction with the partner, whether it feels right in the moment, and whether the pain is caused by intention. And of course, we still like to pay attention to whether there is a potential danger because in rope bondage, the damage actually CAN happen.
„Experienced SM practitioners come to know the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain”. “Good pain”, such as might be produced by pinching the bottoms’ nipples, typically has an erotic component to it, is not significantly damaging and adds to the energy of play. “Bad pain” such as painfully tight bondage typically does not have an erotic component, may be significantly damaging and detracts from the energy of play.
Erotic Bondage Handbook by Jay Wiseman“
So here is our Three Questions Schema to help you make a distinction between bad and good pain and stay safe when interacting with pain. Please keep in mind that this is a model, which means certain generalization has been made. We offer you questions with the hope that you will find your own answers.
So let’s say you are in the middle of a rope scene experiencing a painful sensation. The first question you want to ask yourself is:
“Is it damaging?”
How to tell? There are a few key indicators you are crossing over into a bad pain. The answer is likely “Yes” when you experience the following:
- Joint pain: ankle, knee, hip, back, shoulder, elbow… There is no “good joint pain”, period!
- Pain after “popping”, “clicking”, “snapping” sound
- Radicular pain (shooting from one area to another)
- Sudden sharp knife-like pain
- Visceral pain: related to the internal organs such as heart, lungs, bladder, abdomen, kidney etc, pain in your chest
- Acute nerve sensations manifesting nerve injury: tingling, numbness, “pins and needles” sensations, stinging, pricking, burning (it takes additional effort to get to know the difference between nerve injury and reduced blood circulation which is not as urgent)
This is not a comprehensive list. It can come as a result of poor body handling (no, the leg just doesn’t bend this way) or poor lines management where your body ends up in an anatomically wrong position, overstretched, or experiencing very strong mechanical pressure, twist, overload, dislocation… This is something you feel that you instinctively know shouldn’t be happening.
When your answer is “Yes” to one of those kinds of pain listed above, it’s likely that there is a risk of getting injured and this is what we call “Bad Danger Pain”. This pain indicates injury. Do not tolerate this kind of pain! Continuing the rope session with such bad pain will lead only to more bad pain and possibly injury. Communicate it immediately using the stop word you agreed on with your partner and finish the rope scene. Same time communicate the problem you are having so that your rigger will pay attention to this area when getting you out of ropes.
When your answer to the initial question is “No”, meaning you are pretty sure there is no acute danger, there is another question which you might like to ask yourself:
“Does it feel good?”
Again, how to tell? If you are not sure (or if you are new to the idea that pain might feel good), see if there is a shift in your state… It can manifest itself as a warm wave of energy (basically, hormones washing your tension away and giving way to emotions, tears, or laughter, it can bring bubbling joyous feelings, sexual arousal, feeling foggy or high…
“Pain can give you an “excuse” and open up a pathway for emotions that are too strong and frightening to let loose in other contexts. You may experience a state of catharsis in which you feel terrifically powerful…These are just some of the cathartic and empowering ways in which pain may equal pleasure…”
The New Bottoming Book, Dossie Easton &Janet W. Hardy“
Good pain is even more difficult to describe because everyone experiences it differently. The main point is that you are able to relax into what is happening. Deep inside of you, it feels like “Yes!” even if you might feel overwhelmed or scared at times… there is a possibility for you to relax eventually into these stimuli, soften your muscles and breathe out. As a result, there is a shift in your state due to the received impact that you were able to process without tensing up.
So when your answer is “Yes, it does feel good”, you are in “Good Pleasure Pain” Zone. What to do then? Enjoy! Breathe… Feel what is does with you and share it with your partner!
The only danger involved with getting high on “Good pleasure Pain” is that you might be losing your ability to evaluate the situation and take care “when it’s enough”. I’ve experienced that a few times begging my partner leave me on hashira longer and longer. Afterwards, I feel grateful that he doesn’t listen.
When your answer is “No”, meaning you are in pain with no signs of danger though and you cannot quite relax into what is happening, you might like to ask yourself a third question:
“Can I change it?”
As there is no danger, you can take three breaths, as deep as the tie allows you, and check in with yourself. The thing is, the reason for you experiencing bad pain (or generally not enjoying the scene) might be on the riggers’ side: poor rope technique, bad lines management, poor body handling etc. But it can be on your side as well: your own attitude, mistrust, fear, insecurity. When getting warning signals from those nociceptors we talked about before, our brain also minimizes, exaggerates and misinterprets. We might think major issues are minor and vice versa. The brain’s decisions are affected by our moods, anxieties and expectations:
“…pain intensity depends surprisingly heavily on how dangerous/scary/disturbing the situation seem to us, on our “opinion of the state of the organism.” If you think the organism (you) is safe, pain will be dulled. If you think you’re in danger, then pain will be more painful. This is clearly not the same thing as being “all in the head.” It’s pain being affected — dialed up or down — by what’s in the head, both consciously and unconsciously…”
So what is it in our heads? Anxiety can be triggered by lack of experience or information (I’ve read something about nerve problems, but have no idea how it feels and what to do then), by not feeling safe with the tying person, and by many other things:
- Not trusting the partner (on skills or personal safety)
- Worrying about possible outcome or performance
- Resistance to let go, “fighting” the rope
- Being insecure about the limits
- Being insecure how to communicate
- Feeling anxious expecting pain
- Fearing to lose control over the situation
- Being not comfortable with my own sexuality
I think we all can find ourselves there once in a while. Whatever it is, our internal attitude plays a massive role in the experience you create together and even with perfect rope technique, proper tension and correct placement, we can end up having a lot of bad pain and not getting to the point where we can let go. The good news, it is within your power to work on your internal attitude – when YOU choose to do so.
How to check in? Take three deep breaths and observe what is happening with you. Allow yourself to stay a bit with these uncomfortable sensations and emotions since there is no acute danger. Check if your muscles are tense, especially facial tension, notice if your jaw is clenched, your whole body is tightening, if you are holding your breath. Try to focus on your breathing. Breathe in. Breathe out. See if something has changed. Does it become easier? You are likely in “Good&Bad Mixed Pain” Zone.
I can tell you one thing – breathing is always a good idea. Either your tension goes away and you feel much better in this tie or you realize that you do have real reasons to feel this way.
In case it doesn’t become easier, despite your attempts to breathe and relax your anxiety is increasing and it just doesn’t feel right, you are in “Bad Non-Danger Pain” Zone and you need to communicate with your partner. Not everything could be and should be breathed through and pain-processed. It can be that this is not the kind of impact you can deal with, it can be that it is more intense than you can take in the moment.
It also can be objectively “sloppy rope” with wrong tension (too tight, too loose – yes, too loose can be a problem too if the rope structure doesn’t hold you have to hold yourself by tensing your muscles), wrong placement (for instance too low TK wraps), no control over rope impact, bad tsuri-line management. Do not tolerate it and do not silence issues. You serve your rope partner much better by giving them friendly and honest feedback about how it felt. Communicate immediately or after the scene depending on how urgent the case is for you.
I think this is worth repeating: the experience of pain is subjective. There is no objectively bad or objectively good pain. What matters is how YOU feel. If YOU cannot handle the stimuli, if YOU cannot relax into it, if it’s exceeding YOUR limits this means for YOU it is a bad pain.
There is a lot of material on pain processing out there. Some of it has very good tips on how to breathe, what to imagine, and where to put your attention. I think before we work on anything, we have to become AWARE of the situation how it is. We might have real reasons to feel anxious and thus exaggerate the pain. What you feel comes before anything you read or heard – about how it should feel, about how great your rigger is, before anything.
Yes, receiving the impact is a skill that can be developed. The right way to develop this skill is by slowing down, learning to notice what our bodies are telling us, and trusting it. It’s never a good idea to force. There is some truth in this common knowledge that pain is there to protect you.