Staging Sacredness: The Practical Considerations of BDSM Ritual

One of the things that both BDSM practice and pagan ritual have in common is the feeling of sacred theater akin to both. In ancient Greece, the patron of the theater was the god Dionysos, who was also the patron of wine, drugs, orgiastic sex, and shamanic altered states. There is something very powerful about well-done, subtly staged theatrical production; its effect is literally to put you into an altered state of some kind, or at the least to force you into a specific emotional experience. When we use certain tones of voice, certain body language, certain Words Of Power (meaning that they have the power of millenia of built-up connotation), something in our audience responds. Blood races, hearts beat faster, pupils dilate or shrink, breathing changes, body tenses or relaxes. We are riveted to what is happening before us, and the rest of the world recedes away to inconsequential background. If the experience ends too soon, or is abruptly cut off, we feel as though we were suddenly dropped ignominiously to the ground, and we react accordingly.

In a ritual of catharsis, especially where there is sex involved, the thread of attention is even more fragile and difficult to maintain. Lots of things can go wrong, from a calf-muscle cramp to a malfunctioning tool to a ringing phone or doorbell. When we're dealing with the delicate balance of intense sensation (sexual and non-sexual) and strong, deliberately induced emotion, the whole applecart can be upset by an annoying and inconsequential detail. We all know how easily people can be made limp or dry by being poked in the wrong place, or by hearing their mother's voice on the answering machine in the hall. Some of the best catharsis rituals in my experience have been spontaneous ones, but this requires a lot of luck to pull off properly. More often than not, spontaneity has achieved varied results, from "well, that was pretty cool" to "aah, forget it, I can't get back into the mood after the cat jumped on my face!"

The best way to deal with this is preparation. Treat it as you would a formal ritual. Usually this falls to the top, unfortunately, although how much the bottom shares in the chores of preparation has a lot to do with how much both parties feel that a sense of surprise is integral to his/her experience. If the bottom has been the major planner of the scene and knows exactly what to expect, and the focus is less on how they will deal with the unexpected and more on how they will deal with dread and known pain, then they can be given the lion's share of the prepwork.

It will probably even aid in their psychic preparations. There's something about doing certain kinds of pre-ritual preparations that can help to bring one out of a mundane headspace and into a calmer and more sacred place. This is especially true when the preparations involve cleaning, which can be extended mentally into a personal purification, as in: "as I clean this room, so I purify and prepare my self," or "as I cleanse my bowels with this enema bag, I release my doubts and panic," or "as I lay out these tools for my partner, I lay out my fears nakedly and honestly for his/her examination and use." Careful, monotonous chores that require patience, repetition, and attention to detail are good for this sort of thing too; one dominant that I know starts the prepwork for each scene by giving his submissive all the tangled ropes and cords from their last scene to unsnarl and coil. As his bottom unknots and smoothes and makes them neat, he visualizes undoing all the knots of tension and doubt that daily participation in the rat race has given him, and as each rope is carefully laid out in neat coils, it becomes a calming meditation that allows him to enter the scene fully prepared.

Even if the bottom is doing most of the work, I firmly believe that the top should also engage in some kind of pre-ritual psychic preparation around the scene. Two things that have worked well for me are bonding with my tools, and patrolling the boundaries of the space. Marking and protecting the boundaries around the vulnerable bottom is part of the top's job anyway, so it follows naturally that this should be their assignment as well. To make the space safe, try using this checklist of potential problems:

1. Check for privacy. All windows should be covered, including spaces such as hallways that you might march a naked, bound submissive through from one room to another. You may think that the scene will only happen in one room, but I've seen them overflow into other rooms, especially bathrooms; excited scene planners often forget about potential calls of nature. Remember to cover small windows in doors. The neighbors don't need to see this, and your bottom doesn't need to worry about whether anyone is watching. If you're not sure, go outside the building and skulk about, checking for gaps in the drapes. Have your bottom call something out in a loud voice (not scream!) to check for what the neighbors can hear. If it's too easy to hear screaming, it's time to break out the gags.

2. Lock all doors, as long as they can be unlocked from your side, and make sure that you both have the keys nearby. If for some reason you can't lock a door, hang loud jingly bells on the doorknob so that you'll at least have a second of warning when it opens. Press doorbell buttons in and put tape over them to prevent them from being pressed. Put up a Not Home or Do Not Disturb sign on outer doors.

3. If you are outside, make sure that you have permission to be wherever you are. It's a real pain to have the cops break up a BDSM scene in the woods because you were trespassing and someone dialed the authorities. Remember that to accidental onlookers, this can look like their worst nightmare of rape and assault. Remember also that police tend to assume the worst until proven otherwise, being as they've seen so much nastiness in their time. Don't invite trouble by trespassing or using public land. If you're on your own or a friend's private land, go well beyond all the boundaries of the ritual space and make sure that no one can see anything without seriously trespassing themselves. (Do bother to ask your host if that's ever a problem to their knowledge -- neighborhood kids can range pretty far afield on some of their adventures.) I like to walk the boundary with a sword, drawing a line of energy to safely enclose us away from the world and turn all eyes away. Have your bottom call out to you, so you can figure out how far sound carries and whether gags are needed.

4. If there are other people who live in your home, make sure that they are all warned, and will preferably be elsewhere. Even if you like and trust them, sometimes the presence of someone foraging loudly through the refrigerator or whistling in the shower will distract you both from what you're trying to accomplish. Work out beforehand where they'll go, and when they'll be back. Work out what they'll do if their first plans fall through. It's often good to do something nice for them later, to make up for the inconvenience.

5. Make sure that the ringer is turned off on the phone. Do not unplug the actual phone. If there is an emergency, you'll want it plugged in. If there is an answering machine that can actually be heard in the area, find its volume and turn it all the way down, or if that can't be done, cover it in many blankets or sofa cushions.

6. Check the climate of the room. If it's warm now, a scene with all that sweating and heavy breathing will make it worse. On the other hand, some bottoms have better circulation than others, and not all of them warm up well from painplay. If there are fans going, have them well away from the area of swinging toys, tossed bodies, and flying hair.

7. Confine all pets. Cats especially love to jump on bound, helpless bodies and start doing the happy-feet kneading thing. Make sure they have water and a place to eliminate, but keep them out of the space.

8. It should go without saying that all children should not have access to the area either; find them sitters, preferably in another building. Yells and screaming can scare them, especially when the adults are refusing to explain what's happening. (Note: if you are the person caretaking small kids, and they hear SM practitioners yelling in another area of the house, the best thing to do is to refrain from acting worried, suspicious, disapproving, or otherwise tense. Cheerily tell the child(ren) that so-and-so are playing a pretend game, where one of them is being a monster and the other is pretending to be scared of the monster. You've played that, right? Have you ever pretended to be lions, or bears, or monsters? Let's all make monster noises right now! OK, now I'll be the monster and you all pretend to be scared of me! How loud can you scream....Kids understand pretend games a lot better than you think, and it's good for them to know that grownups play these games too, with each other. Couching it in terms they'll get will defuse any potential fear they might have around adults they know getting hurt. It's also OK to set limits by saying that when grownups play pretend games with each other, they're just for grownups, and kids aren't allowed until they're older.)

9. Make sure that the floor is reasonably clear of clutter that could be stepped on by a barefoot participant. If the bottom is a submissive, crawling around cleaning the floor can be an appropriate task to assign them, and the top can merely inspect for safety.

Another good checklist to have is tools, toys and props. This can be taken care of by either party, although the top needs to inspect the layout of his/her toys so as to know whether they have been placed easily to hand. There's nothing more annoying than realizing in the middle of a heavy ritual that you need X, and you have to go hunting around the house for wherever it was put after the last time we used it. I find that nothing makes me lose my dominant/priest space quicker than a sudden undignified hunt under beds and couches for a missing tool with one's bottom waiting to find out why you just disappeared. Start going through this list a day or so in advance, in case some things need to be acquired, or re-acquired because you've run out.

1. First, never use any toy or tool for ritual BDSM that you've never used before, or that you are not skilled with. The place for trying that sort of thing out is casual BDSM, where mistakes aren't as much of a big deal. It may not even be a question of skill; new toys could have shoddy workmanship that isn't apparent until the first use, when things pull apart or snap, and it's better to find that out during casual sex than when the bottom is halfway to the Underworld.

2. Check over all old, friendly toys for problem, cracked, or loose bits. Clean anything that needs cleaning. Make sure that you have a place to lay things out that isn't underfoot or easily knocked over. Racks on the wall are good for that.

3. Make sure that there is water on hand for both participants, in a place that is easy to reach but unlikely to get knocked over. If you don't want to take your bottom out of bondage if they merely have to urinate, make sure that there is a container you can hold under their urethra to collect it, and a place to put that container where it won't spill. If either player is hypoglycemic, keep a quick and easy-to-down protein thing around. I like yogurt drinks for this kind of thing. Blood sugar in general should be accounted for, especially if either party is likely to be too excited to eat first.

4. Make sure that there is a well-stocked first aid kit on hand. Make sure that you've got boltcutters in case something metal freezes up on you, which I've had cliplinks do to me. Make sure that any handcuffs or locking things have more than one key, kept in different places in the same area. One should ideally be kept on the body of the top.

5. If you are using lit candles indoors, have a fire extinguisher handy. I mean it. I've had friends lose their houses to ritual candle-fires. No candle should be left unattended in a room, or on a rickety shelf, or anywhere within range of the aforementioned swinging toys, tossed bodies, or flying hair. If you are using candle wax on someone as painplay, make sure that you have stearin candles and not the beeswax type, and check to make sure that no one is sensitive to any candle perfume. Have plastic ready to put underneath the recipient of the wax, don't count on not getting any on the carpet. Large trash bags cut open and laid flat work well, and can be bundled up quickly afterwards. If any candle-wax participants have long hair, have hair ties ready just in case. If you use incense, make sure the room is well-ventilated and nobody is allergic to the variety.

6. Make sure that you have plenty of lube. I prefer to pour some into a bowl rather than have a squeaky lube bottle if we're doing high ritual. If you're worried about bugs getting into it, cover it with an easily flicked-off cloth rather than a hard lid that may fall or need struggling with. Remember to treat an open lube bowl like any other thing that will touch someone's bodily fluids multiple times and possibly cross-contaminate. If you're going to go back and forth between two non-fluid-bonded people, it might be wise to have more than one bowl.

7. Even if you're fluid-bonded, it may be wise for the top to have latex or PVC gloves on hand to do sticky things with. I've found that when the bottom's wrist starts to spasm and they need to get down from that bondage right now, it's useful to be able to whip off your gloves and have dry hands to fumble with those cliplinks and locks and ropes. Trying to undo bondage with your hands slippery with lube and body fluids can make you want to scream, especially when you're in a hurry due to the wrong kind of pain. It goes without saying that if you're using safe sex, have plenty of latex, or Saran Wrap, or whatever you use, ready to go. Running out of condoms or gloves in the middle of a scene is frustrating.

8. Have a stack of body fluid rags around to wipe hands, thighs, sticky genitals, mop sweaty brows, etc. Paper towels are rough and hurt (unless that's the idea) and tissues shred on wet skin. I use old clean T-shirts rather than linty towels. Don't underestimate how many of them you'll need, especially if people's fluids are not supposed to touch each other.

9. If there are to be grand ritual gestures, or even the waving of large toys, make sure that there is actually room for this. Practice it beforehand, keeping in mind how much smaller a space gets when there are props and multiple bodies around. Be aware of overhead light fixtures!

A subtler issue is the problem of verbalizing articulately in the midst of an intense scene. If this ritual is going to require lots of talking during (not just before) the scene, and especially if it is going to require memorized lines, be sure that the bottom is actually capable of handling this, and have a Plan B on hand mentally if they can't. I've had even the most articulate and poetic people go confused and non-verbal as part of a scene. While some tops simply move into punishment mode for forgetting one's lines, that might not be a dynamic that you want to work with in a ritual scenario.

If you're the top, and it's time for the bottom to say X, and the bottom has clearly gone beyond the ability to remember anything more complicated than three short Anglo-Saxon words strung together, you have a number of useful options. You can skip it and go on the the next phase. You can word their part into a question that you ask them, so that they only have to choke out a yes or no. You can stroke them and calm them down until they have regained enogh rational ability to say their lines, although the danger with this is that it might lose the intense energy of the ritual. You can find things to say to cue them. You can call-and-response it, walking them through the lines by repeating your words. (This may sound counterproductive if part of the impact of them speaking is to willingly accept or agree to something, but hearing one's voice faintly repeating the resounding words of a dom/me that are still ringing in one's ears can be a pretty powerful experience.)

If the top has a lot of lines, remember that they too might space it when those hormones rip through the brain. Practice saying the same thing in different ways, so that one of them might stick. Reading off of a paper is pretty undignified under such circumstances; it's better to wing it if you forget it. Unless the bottom is an awful picky detail-queen, they'll be too nervous and excited to notice much. Cut each other lots of slack with regard to ceremonial details, as long as the action of the ritual is not damaged to the point of uselessness.

Remember that if a BDSM ritual didn't work for technical problems, you don't have to throw the entire idea away. Do give it some time to percolate before trying again; I'd suggest a minimum of a month to a maximum of a year -- but do try it again, perhaps with an entirely rewritten script and better preparations. Sometimes the stars just aren't right for these things, and it's better to try again at a more propitious time. Whatever you do, try to avoid blaming each other for things that go wrong. If it clearly was someone's fault, perhaps it might be better to quietly find a different partner to do this with, instead of flinging waves of recriminations.

As a final note, spiritual aftercare is an important part of this work. Deities who were involved should be thanked, sacred space should be devoked, and sacred objects returned to their places. This may well involve dragging yourself out of the cuddling phase when you'd really rather just roll over and sleep, but it's necessary. It's a matter of respect for these forces that we work with, that are such grand gifts of the Universe. Like any gift, they shouldn't be left lying around uncared-for. The discipline of spiritual clean-up may be inconvenient, but it reminds us -- top and bottom alike -- of our actual place in the Grand Scheme Of Things, and that we should be grateful. Don't just thank your partner; if the Gods are still listening in, thank them as well for sending him/her to you. Remember that a little gratitude goes a long way when kneeling before any altar. The Gods, like us, want to be loved and appreciated for who and what they are.