What Does Pushing Boundaries in BDSM Mean?


In some of the (mostly online) discussions I’ve seen around BDSM & kink, there’s a sticking point that seems to come up over and over. What does it mean when people say that they get turned on by “pushing boundaries”? I think this is worth unpacking because there are at least two different meanings to that term and that often seems to be one reason for conversations getting stuck.

One of the ways that people use that phrase is somewhat similar to what a friend of mine describes as her role as a personal trainer. She works with people to “push their boundaries” and expand their capacities to perform whatever task they’ve agreed on. It might mean running a little longer, or lifting more weight, or doing more crunches. Whatever the specifics are for a particular client, my friend knows that growth happens when we stretch outside our comfort zones and follow the ever-shifting edge. And as a client gains speed or skill or strength, pushing the boundary has to change in response.

Of course, as a trained fitness expert, my friend knows that leaning into the edge can easily go too far and become an injury. She talks with her clients and closely observes them in order to figure out where their real physical limits are, what they believe they are capable of, and develops a plan to help them discover where their perceptions are holding them back. But at the end of it all, both she and her clients might talk about it as “pushing boundaries” or “pushing limits.”


The same thing can happen in kink. If a top is doing a scene with someone who wants to explore the edges of their capacity, the top can similarly bring them to their perceived limits and invite them into that zone where transcendence takes place. It really doesn’t matter what the specific practice is, either. For some, it might mean doing it with the lights on or keeping their eyes focused on their reflection in the mirror. For others, it might mean getting paddled to the point of deep bruising. Edge play can take a lot of forms. But whatever the method, facilitating someone’s ability to go beyond their perceived limits can be a profoundly moving experience and a lot of people make it part of their BDSM lives.

Just as my personal trainer friend plans a program based on an understanding of her client’s needs and goals, a skilled top will plan a scene by taking their partner’s experience, physical and emotional capacity, well-being, and desires into account. After all, if you want to bring someone into new terrain, it’s important to know where they’ve been and what they want to get out of it.

On the other hand, “pushing boundaries” is also used to describe what happens when people ignore clearly stated limits. Given the many factors that reinforce the cultural dynamics that tell us that men are supposed to test and push potential sexual partners’ boundaries (usually, but not exclusively women), it’s really easy to see how that phrase can take on a different meaning. It’s also easy to see how that can lead to miscommunications, triggers, and flame wars on the internet.


Last night, I was talking with someone about a guy she had been making out with during a date. When she started to pull away from him because she wanted to stop, he put his hands on her hips and pulled her back. There are many possible reasons why he thought that was something he should do, and not all of them are malicious. Given how many women have told me that they expect a man to challenge their limits, or play hard for a bunch of different reasons, I can understand why some men who have no intention of actually assaulting someone might do something similar.

At the same time, there are predators. There are people of all genders who get off on blasting past someone’s boundaries or who simply prioritize their desires over another person’s safety and well-being. Some of these folks use kink as a smokescreen in order to make it seem as if their actions are the same as the top whose goal is transcendence.

The key difference, of course, is the motivation behind it. Do they want to collaboratively create an experience that brings joy, pleasure, self-awareness, and passion? Do they want to take what they want without regard for the effects that has on the other person? Do they see their partner as a person whose needs and well-being are equal to theirs, or do they see them as someone to use for their own purposes?

Given that “pushing boundaries” is used in these two rather different ways, it makes sense that there’s a lot of confusion around what it means. And since one of the sticking points in discussions about kink centers on consent and sexual assault, I think that it’s time that we find better ways to describe what we mean. I’d like to find a way to talk about the transcendence of our perceived limits within the terrain of kink, consent, communication, and joy, while distinguishing that from assault. Though perhaps that’s overly optimistic. It’s possible that the predators will simply adopt whatever new language is created in order to camouflage themselves.

One of the difficulties is that unless someone has undergone a transcendent experience, talking about it in those terms makes no sense. I know that I’ve seen some eyes glaze over when I use that phrase, but there really doesn’t seem to be anything in between that and “pushing boundaries.” So let me ask you- how do you talk about this? What phrases do you find useful? And which ones work (if any) when you’re talking with people with no personal experience with kink? What about with people who assume that BDSM is inherently violent? What works for you?

11 Responses so far.

  1. Fizz says:

    Funny, I was having a very similar conversation with Ali not 24 hours ago. The way I worded the distinction as I intended was “It’s not about pushing my limits, it’s about finding my limits”–since we’d been discussing the process of trying things that were previously scary, *because* they’re scary, either to make them less so or just to experience that scariness. I used “finding” because a lot of the whole field is new to me (more so than for her, which made it a relevant difference between us); I could also have used something like “remapping” or “expanding” to connote change.

  2. M says:

    After having had several intense edge play sessions this weekend, this is a really relevant post for me right now. I’m still thinking about how to talk about it and even how to process it for myself. It’s even edgy stuff for some kinksters I know. In my conversations so far, I’ve tried to acknowledge and make room for my friends’ concern for me when they hear some of the things I endured, but I’ve also been honest in the excitement I feel about it, and the emotional intensity of the play and what came up for me. On some level, I know that nobody can understand really, not even my play partner. It’s an experience that is mine and mine alone. 

    For me, pushing boundaries in this way is about first, finding where those boundaries are, and then having someone be willing to push me past them just enough and not too much. I’ve been very lucky to find someone who is sophisticated enough to get the nuances of this, and to even introduce me to edges I didn’t know existed.

    The result, at least after the initial intense emotional reaction, has been an increase in my confidence and sense of power. my excitement at having gone to an emotionally deep place that I believe will help in my growth. I don’ t know how to explain this to non-kinksters, and I probably won’t bother with that.

  3. Madison Young says:

    Great blog Charlie.  I often explain that bdsm is another form of energy exchange.  In my Zen Submissive class I lead folks through guided meditations and visualizations of to use during simple exchanges of energy.  I have folks toss a stuffed animal or ball back and forth breathing in as the receive the object “the energy” and exhaling as they toss the object to their partner, keeping eye contact the whole time.  I also use massage as a way to talk about bdsm.  In massage some folks like light sensation and some folks like karate chops and folks standing on their backs.  Massage moves energy around in our bodies, often releasing deep emotions with deep tissue massage.  I feel like folks that have a vocabulary around yoga, meditation, and massage or energy work tend to understand the physical and psychological energy and power shifts that occur during bdsm when explained in this way.

  4. Fantastic post, Charlie!  You have nailed the difference between when it’s OK and when it’s not.
    The only problem is, how do you communicate this to someone who is clearly overstepping the limits and prioritizing his desires over my safety to an unworkable extent, but who *thinks* he’s being Sir Appropriate Dom? 
    How do you convey that he cannot do it that fast, particularly after trust has already been violated, and hasn’t been rebuilt enough yet?
    How do you make him understand the difference when he obviously doesn’t get it?  (And perhaps doesn’t *want* to get it?)
    How do you convey what’s OK to push, in what ways, when, and how, and what isn’t?
    I always thought I was really good at explaining these things, but my ex so thoroughly overrode virtually every boundary I had (and injured me repeatedly into the bargain) that I’ve been left seriously doubting my own ability to explain.
     

  5. Jaeleen says:

    Another great article, Charlie ~ thanks so much!

  6. shadowedge says:

    This distinction is a hard one to navigate conversationally, to the point that I have stopped using in negotiation. Usually, I can convey what I am after without using the phrase “push my boundaries,” but I tend to engage mostly in fairly clearly negotiated scenes with long term partners. If I want to experience intense sensation, I can ask for that, rather than asking to have my boundaries pushed. If I want to do an activity that is not generally on the menu (or my partner wants to) we discuss that, and what safety (mental and physical) precautions we might need. 

    I get the transformative nature of trying things I’m a little bit (but not too) uncomfortable with, while still always having my safeword, and right to change the plan respected. 
    Playing past a safeword, or without a safeword is not something I personally feel comfortable with, which is something that sometimes shows up in descriptions of limit pushing.
    Basically, willingly doing something that I don’t want to do (for whatever reason) , and being MADE to do or have done to me something I don’t want to do is the difference between  consent and violation.

  7. SSS says:

    As a stranger rape survivor I am fucking sick to death of listening to people wax poetic about “rape play”. When you actually get raped and end up with lifelong PTSD it’s not so “fun”. Sexual kink is not a fucking right. Do what you want in your own bedrooms, but when you are being very vocal and public about enjoying “rape play” you are fucking over real rape survivors by disseminating to the public the myth and lie that people want to be raped.
    Glad your pithy orgasms are more important than the lives of real human beings. BDSM advocates are no friend of rape victims. You aren’t writing in a vacuum and don’t pretend that saying people like rape play doesn’t effect people (MEN AND WOMEN) who are actually raped to get justice. Putting your brief muscle contractions (ie:orgasm) on a pedestal above human beings and pretending that your fantasies are so important that it doesn’t matter if one or two people are denied justice because you disseminate the idea that people secretly want to be raped. Sick fucks.

  8. SSS, I’m not quite sure where that came from. The point of my blog post is that “pushing boundaries” means many different things, from exploring someone’s comfort zone and helping them expand their capacity, to coercion and rape. So I fully agree with you- respecting other your own and other people’s well-being is incredibly important and needs to be part of any sexual interaction.

    And I also agree with you that a lot of people get so focused on advocating for their fantasies that they neglect the impact that can have on other folks. Though I have yet to meet anyone who engages in consensual rape play who thinks that survivors don’t deserve justice, respect, and care. There’s a difference between playing with fantasy and reality, just as there’s a difference between being on a roller coaster and being in a car careening down a mountainside with no brakes. Unfortunately, there are predators who use the BDSM language as camouflage. Nevertheless, I have NEVER said that anyone wants to be raped, so I don’t know where you got that idea.

  9. pup says:

    i took time to read this and again i see a blur limits are things that are pushed and changed but boundiers are normally things that dont change just like a boundery around a house or a piece of land. 

    what are your views on limits verses boundiers.

    pup

  10. pup, if that’s how you define those two words, I can see how this would blur. I tend to use the two words in much the same way, as in “to set limits” or “to set boundaries.” But they both have other meanings. I’ll have to think about this some. 🙂

  11. pup says:

    hi there came to do some reading as its a new year now i wondered if you did much more thinking re the question i asked above and you said you think some more … so hows the thinking been or not?
     
    hope you had a nice christmas and new year
     
    pup
     
    another thought to think on ….. do you think there is a difference between a kink or lifestyle?

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