When you think of edge play what pops into your head? Breath Play? Blood? Fire? I am willing to bet very few, if anyone, would have answered humiliation or degradation. Yet those types of play are extremely edgy and can lead to deeper wounds than a brutal whipping. Playing with someone’s psyche is not something to take lightly, and walking the line between humiliation and degradation is like dancing on a knife’s edge. There are things each of us can do to make sure humiliation and degradation is fulfilling rather than damaging.
Humiliation vs. degradation: what's the difference?
One of the biggest pitfalls in playing with humiliation and degradation is that the line between them is different for everyone. One of my favorite people in the world loves to be called a dirty little whore. This same amazing girl will burst into tears if you call her a bitch. In her eyes being a dirty little whore is delightfully humiliating while being called a bitch is degradation at its worst. I chose this example because it illustrates my point. You will often have no idea what will trigger a positive or negative response in your partner. Negotiation and exploration will help, but it is an emotional minefield and you must remain extremely careful when entering it. The key is to know your partner’s core values. Core values are the pillars on which we build our identity, and are extremely important to us.
I identify humiliation as play that attacks the societal norms that have been drummed into our heads. Degradation is far more personal. Degradation is deliberately attacking the very personal ideals that make up our identities. I will stress this point again, my definition is my own. I am writing this not as a how to guide, but as a primer that you can adapt to your own definitions. Going forward, I will be adhering to the definitions described here.
Let's start with humiliation...
What is humiliation? As I stated above, humiliation is playing with accepted societal norms. However, not everyone accepts the same ideals. Dressing up a sissy in woman’s clothing and dolling them up with wigs, make up, and cute accessories is mildly humiliating. Doing the same to a male identified bottom who is very proud of his masculinity is much deeper and something that can cross the line into degradation depending on the individual. My favorite type of humiliation is calling attention to someone’s excitement over something “wrong” or taboo. A good example of this would be pointing out the arousal of a bottom from nontraditional stimulation. In a recent scene I was being particularly mean to a bottom, but when I reached between her legs she was clearly excited. I dragged my fingers across her lips all the while poking fun at her arousal. This just increased her arousal. I wiped my hands dry on her face and went back to being mean. She was humiliated by the act because society told her that she should be disgusted by what I was doing, and instead she was turned on and wanting more.
Many of us engage in hidden kink in public. A butt plug inserted just before going out to dinner with friends, a vibrator on their sensitive bits while out on a shopping trip, or even a trigger word thrown into conversation casually can be a great source of humiliation. In this case, the idea of getting caught doing something against society’s accepted behavior adds to the humiliation. It also is enhanced by the delayed gratification of having to go home (or at least to the car) to get any release from the tension created by your little secret.
Keep in mind that degrading acts do not necessarily mean you are engaging in degradation play. Golden showers are an excellent example of this. The act of urinating on another individual is seen by many as disgusting, and that is what gives it the desired effect. A bottom willing to debase themselves as a urinal for their top’s pleasure can be intensely personal. This is a wonderful illustration of the power of emotional edge play. When your partner is willing to do things like this for you, it deepens your connection and makes the play more intense.
One of the more interesting things that is not often referenced in humiliation play is the struggle of the top to perform some of these acts. Golden showers can be difficult. The thoughts that flood your head the first time can be distracting. What if I cannot do it? What if my urine smells/tastes/looks gross? I have never urinated in front of anyone, how can I urinate ON someone while they look at me? etc. There is often humiliation on both sides of the slash during this kind of play. It is just something you have to push through if this truly interests you. Take the extra care during negotiation to assure yourself that this is something your bottom truly desires. Knowing that they crave it is a wonderful motivator.
I cannot give you a simple list of what is or what isn’t humiliation because it is intensely personal. Some bottoms could enjoy licking toilets, being spat on, and being forced to suck the cock that was just in their ass, but be horrified by the idea of wearing a collar in public. You can never assume anything when playing with these sensitive issues. Talk, negotiate, then talk some more. Tread lightly at first. Better for them to be bored than curled in the fetal position crying their eyes out because you pushed too hard, too fast, and hit a trigger.
...and descend to degradation.
To understand degradation, you have to understand the concept of core values. Core values are the tenets of our identity that define who we are. They help us determine what is right and wrong, how to act, and inform how we proceed through our lives. They are not something to take lightly, even if they may seem superficial to you. Core values can be nearly anything, even things that most see as trivial. Fitness, appearance, and athleticism are core values for some and can drive people to positive or negative extremes. Someone who holds appearance as a core value can use it as an incentive to always look their best no matter what the situation, or can be victimized by an eating disorder, shopping addiction, or many other issues that come about from not being happy with how they look. This is the fragility that we encounter when playing with core values. It is not something to do lightly.
Some of my core values are honesty, competence, and loyalty. If I were to bottom, attacking any of those ideals would be degrading. For example, calling me a stupid lying cheater would be painful to hear coming from someone I loved. Hearing it in the middle of an intense scene would make it even harder to process. Verbal degradation is extremely powerful when added into an already humiliating situation. Urinating on someone can be a fun and silly scene, but add in well chosen words spoken in a harsh tone and you fall down the rabbit hole of degradation.
How do you identify a partner's core values?
This is not as easy as negotiating a scene and following the parameters laid out for you. Many masochists can tell you exactly what they like and dislike, where you can hit and where you cannot. This is not true of core values. Mistakenly threatening a core value is why you should be very careful about engaging in humiliation with a partner you do not know well. If someone tells you that they like to be called names and talked down to, make sure you ask specifically what names they like and if there are any you should avoid. Race, gender, and sexual orientation are not always core values, but playing with them can trigger other emotions that you never expected or thought to discuss. Using a slur can elicit a visceral response, even if they do not feel attacked by the word. They could find the word abhorrent for many reasons and you should clear any words in negotiation before it ever leaves your mouth.
Being creative is important in play, but not when you are playing with core values. Negotiation is a great tool for identifying sore spots before you play. If you pay attention to where those sore spots are you can start to identify where your partner’s core values are. If they tell you that they never want to be called stupid (competence) or useless (self worth) you can follow those clues to identify where their hidden core values lay. Stick to the script that they provide for you during play, and pay attention to their reactions.
Take what you can from play, and talk a lot during aftercare. Be specific and attempt to undo everything that you did during the play. Ask them to confirm everything you are saying, even if they begged you to call them the most awful things imaginable. For example, if you called someone a disgusting fuckpig, be sure to reaffirm how much you care about them, and how special they are. Aftercare will help build trust and allow you to go a bit deeper each time you play. When you are done building them back up, talk them to death. The more you talk about what they hold most dear, the more introspection they will do. They will help you find out what their values are and how to play with them safely and effectively.
One of my favourite kink instructors of all time is Midori. She teaches a humiliation class that is absolutely wonderful (as are all of her classes). At one point during the class she asks people in the audience to yell degrading things at her. People shout the typical names like slut, whore, trash, and other harsh terms. A former partner of mine told me that she was at one of her humiliation classes and that she yelled out some truly offensive names, and despite Midori taking them in stride, some people became so uncomfortable that they left the class. I do not think that Midori intended that to happen, but it was another great illustration of the power of degradation. You can affect people in ways you never imagined with words and tone. The people that left had their core values compromised, despite the words not being directed at them.
As you start to reveal these core values, you can begin to play with them gently. Talk, in depth about what you want to do and say with your partner and make sure they are okay with what you are going to attempt. Be aware that most people never think to safeword from emotional play. Some people advocate introducing an emotional safeword that can be added to the usual traffic light pattern. Blue is the word they recommend for emotional conditions that are getting out of hand. I think it is a good tool to keep in mind, but it will not work for everyone. In all my humiliation/degradation play, I have not met a single partner that could safeword in those conditions. It is imperative that you pay attention to physical cues from your partner. Do not get carried away. Be calculating in everything you do, and know when to pull the plug and take care of them.
The goal of this play can be having your partner reduced to a sobbing ball of tears on the ground at your feet, but you never want that to happen unintentionally. You know that feeling you get when your aim is just a bit off, when your hand slips, or a knot lets go? Take that and multiply it by ten. When you hit an emotional trigger, no amount of Neosporin, massage, or arnica will lessen the damage. You need to avoid doing this at all costs. When you slip, no matter how innocent of a mistake it was, you need to be there to fix it. Sometimes, this takes weeks of aftercare, and no, I am not exaggerating. You have to undo what you did, and they may never fully recover from it. Every one of us has that one thing that we believe about ourselves that we try to hide from the world. We are our own harshest critics, and when we hear someone say what we secretly believe, it is devastating. It takes a long time to get us back into a place where we can safely put those thoughts back in the little box we keep in the back of our heads, and we need our partners’ need help with it.
What are some examples of degradation play?
One of my favorite scenes to witness was someone I love being forced to call herself pretty. She was beaten, and forced to tell everyone how beautiful she is. Pretty was carved into her chest, and she was an absolute mess afterwards. One of her core values, even if she does not know it, is humility. She could not accept that others found her attractive and would never tell others that she found herself beautiful. This core value of Humility was attacked in a positive way, but it was still difficult for her. She needed a long time to accept what she had gone through, but the happy side effect was that she started to believe how pretty she actually is.
Writing on the body is a popular theme in humiliation/degradation. In the above example she was forced to wear the word “pretty” carved into her skin until it healed. There are a lot of pictures on Fetlife of pretty mouths with the word “Whore” written across them with the lips forming the O. More extreme examples of bottoms wearing pig snouts with their entire bodies covered in derogatory terms, covered in sweat, spit, and cum. Looking at those pictures it would be hard to tell which were scenes of humiliation, and which were degradation. If a bottom has a core value of being useful, then suffering, no matter how vile, for their tops gives them purpose. Yes, the scene is humiliating, but it does not cross the line. However, if appearance is on their core value list, appearing in picture while being turned into something “ugly” can be pure degradation. Only the people who created the image will ever know for sure.
Those of you that are fans of Game of Thrones may know the story of Tysha, Tyrion’s first wife and the love of his life. <spoiler> She is forced to service all of Tywin’s men while Tyrion watches under threat of being murdered if she does not comply. <end spoiler> She was a virgin before Tyrion, but by this act, he became convinced that she was just a whore and did not actually love him. At some kink events people can sign up to be kidnapped and used in various ways. The person being kidnapped typically sends a scenario with limits/parameters. Despite these parameters, the kidnapping can be extremely degrading as the “victim” is beaten, used, and then tossed away. Having their partners participate in the kidnapping can add to the degradation, especially if they are the ones they are relied on to perform the after care.
How do I get started?
If I have not scared you away yet (and that was not my intention), you may be wondering how to get started on this wonderful world of humiliation. The simple answer is to talk to your partner. When you have earned enough trust, you can ask about hidden fantasies that they keep to themselves. There are reasons that they make dragon, werewolf, and horse shaped dildos. We all have darker fantasies that we do not shout from the rooftops. Maybe it is being raped by a tentacle monster, getting fucked in front of others, or even something as simple as being forced to admit to liking something we should not. One of my very first scenes was bringing a partner to dinner and ordering her the messiest desert they served. I had her eat it without ever wiping her mouth. By the time she was done, she was a mess. She was so turned on that she dragged me out to the car and we fucked in the parking lot. There is a lot of fun to be had with humiliation, just be mindful of your partner’s emotional well being and you will open worlds of possibility and depravity.