In Working with Limits – Part One, we defined what a limit is, and laid out a couple of options on what to do when you and your partner encounter one. The first option is to accept and live with it. While this is the easy option, it’s not necessarily always the best one. In this post, we’re going to consider some factors that might influence your decision to take the second course of action–choosing to work with the limit.
The primary goal of choosing to work with a limit is to minimize or possibly remove the restrictions it lays on the BDSM relationship you and your partner enjoy. There may also be a secondary goal–to leverage the power of approaching or overcoming the limit to add extra energy to individual BDSM adventures or the entire relationship. Both of these goals sound attractive, but before you make the choice to work with the limit, it is wise to examine why it exists in the first place.
Generally, limits may be classified as follows:
- Limits of Convention: A limit of convention is encountered when the activity proposed falls beyond the limit-holder’s personal understanding of “acceptable” behavior. As an example, when someone is first introduced to BDSM from vanilla life, the entire concept of bondage and being bound for sex may be beyond their personal sense of acceptability. Note that what is “acceptable” not only varies from person to person, but will also change over time as more experience in BDSM activities is gained. Limits of convention tend to be the most malleable and easy to work with.
- Limits of Ignorance: The word “ignorance” carries a negative connotation, but in this case, it’s not meant to. Instead, it’s used in it’s purest form, meaning “lack of knowledge”. A limit of ignorance is encountered when the limit-holder has incomplete or inaccurate knowledge about an activity, and based on this, considers it risky or distasteful. A good example of this might be the belief many women have that anal sex is painful, which causes them to decide they do not want to try it. Note that limits that are caused by a previous bad experience with an activity often fall into this class. Like limits of convention, limits of ignorance are relatively easy to work with.
- Limits of Preference: A limit of preference occurs when the limit-holder simply doesn’t enjoy a given activity. To illustrate, suppose that the dominant partner in a relationship wishes to move down the corporal punishment track by introducing flogging. The submissive partner allows an initial, light flogging session, but quickly discovers that they do not enjoy it and do not wish to do it again. Limits of preference are much harder to work with than the first two classes, and chances of success are not good. Sometimes it is possible that the limit-holder may learn to enjoy the activity, but often this is not the case and the best that can be attained is grudging toleration of light activity. If a limit of preference is encountered, acceptance of the limit is often the best strategy.
- Rational Limits: Some types of BDSM activity can truly be risky for one reason or another. In some cases, there may be reasons why something is more or less risky for one individual than another. Each person must make their own decisions on what level of risk is okay for them to accept, and what is not okay. When a limit is set based on a logical thought process involving risk, it is a rational limit. An example of this might involve breath play (not recommended!), which truly can be dangerous, and which either a dominant or submissive might object to on highly rational grounds. Rational limits are difficult to work with, and should generally be accepted. The only exception to this is when the information the limit-holder uses to form their rational objection is incorrect, at which point this becomes a limit of ignorance. Note that rational limits may also exist due to legal or ethical concerns with an activity. These limits should be accepted!
- Irrational Limits: BDSM can place practicioners in unusual and stressful situations, and it is therefore not surprising that it can sometimes trigger responses that are rooted in emotion or deep-seated fears. In extreme cases phobias, such as claustrophobia, can become engaged and result in highly negative reactions. When a reaction is much greater than seems commensurate with the suggested activity, it is possible that an irrational limit has been encountered. Irrational limits should be accepted. Attempting to work with an irrational limit is playing with fire, and is strongly discouraged.
It is not always easy to know the cause of a limit! The best way to try to determine it is to discuss it with the limit holder. In the example we used during part one of this topic, Stan and Joanne hit a limit around Joanne accepting a gag. If the two talk about what happened and why Joanne reacted the way she did, chances are good that the cause of the limit can be understood. It is certainly possible, by the way, that a limit may span multiple classes–for instance, a limit may exist for both reasons of convention and reasons of ignorance.
Unfortunately, talking about limits can be difficult for some people and in some relationships, so a discussion is not always as effective as one might hope. In that case, non-verbal and indirect cues may help diagnose the cause. It may also be helpful to wait and let a little time pass, then come back to the topic in another discussion to see if more information can be gained.
The final post on this topic will cover how to proceed when the decision to attempt working with a limit has been made. Until then…