When we hear “boundaries” or “limits,” perhaps we think of something negative like a “restriction,” or “obstacle”, something that limits our free expression or experience. I recall a conversation I had with a woman who just experienced her first back bend in ropes and was obviously challenged. She literally said: “That’s not me, that’s just my back” and I said, “But my dear, that is you.” This got me thinking about how deeply rooted this perspective is in us. Reaching out for our idea of how we want it to be, we are almost eager to objectify ourselves.
I offer another perspective, borrowed from nature. Imagine river banks holding deep waters, forming a river-bed. There would be no sea without a sea shore. Instead water would be running over the surface in all directions. It is only because there is solid land holding in water, that we have a river at all. Isn’t it the same with our boundaries? We actually need them to contain our experiences in ropes—and everything else in life. They are not blocking the flow; they hold the water stream and direct it to go deeper… I find this to be a more loving and nurturing image, inviting us to take care of our boundaries, and not denying them or feeling frustrated for having them.
Limits and boundaries are the topics that show up frequently in workshops. People are concerned with how to recognize and communicate a sexual boundary, or the type of play or its desired intensity. The main question from beginners sounds something like, “How can I know my limits and boundaries are without having a bad experience?” They are thinking of a “limit” as something they don’t want, and wishing they knew it in advance. Is there a way to know in advance? I think that yes there is a way to know and communicate in advance, as there is also a way to play with intensity at the edge of your capacity without being hurt in a bad way, but it is not so linear and takes some learning and patience!
Your boundary is like a personal property line that marks the aspects of yourself that you have a right to and a responsibility for. Or as Dr. Betty Martin calls it, “Our Domain”. This domain includes: My body, my sensations and my sexuality, my needs, my emotions and my thoughts, my values and my opinions, my time and my personal space and so on. This is what I own. That ownership never changes!
Even if you are being tied up, your domain remains your own.
By getting into ropes you don’t give away your responsibility. You still own your body, emotions, sensations and are still responsible for it all. What you give away temporarily are some of your choices or some of your power ( “power” here is understood as our ability to make a choice). You don’t give away your responsibility, you exercise your responsibility by consciously choosing the partner you give your power to and clearly drawing the limits of that given power. By doing so, you take responsibility for your experience.
By not doing so, you avoid taking responsibility for your experience, but that doesn’t mean that your boundaries have shifted somewhere else. They are still yours as is your body. Sensations and emotions,pain you experience, and your skin is yours too, there is no one else in the world who can or should decide instead of you what experience you are to have. This is very important to feel in your bones, in your body, that this is your home and you are the one who is allowed to enjoy it and who is responsible for taking care of it.
It’s worth repeating. No matter what “conceptual” responsibility your rigger claims that they have, in reality, it is yours. Wounds can be healing when it was your choice to receive them. Choose wisely and responsibly to whom you give power over yourself and to what extent.
Limits are our choices about how we exercise our boundaries. This is your decision, this is about how you feel in the moment. Limits are changing all the time, depending on the situation, our mood, our partner, and so on. I will probably have different limits when tying with my life partner versus with someone I just met at a rope jam. And again, when tying with the same partner, my limits may differ from day to day. Those limits may overlap with our objective limitations or not, it doesn’t matter. This is your decision that you don’t have to justify to anyone.
Physical limits are the most obvious kind, when we think of rope bondage, defining what kind of rope play we are willing to engage in, what intensity is acceptable for us, how high our endurance limit is in particular tie, etc . There are also emotional and mental limits, defining how far we are willing to go emotionally and mentally in our rope play. There are sexual limits, defining how sexual and intimate you would like to become with your partner during a rope scene.
There are limits in regard to my choices: “I’m not willing to be suspended fully, just floorwork and partial suspension for now,” and there are limits in regard to my capabilities: “I’m not able to sustain a waist rope in a vertical position for more than a few minutes, I tend to faint.” There are limits I want my partner to stay away from: “No rope, no fingers, nothing in my mouth.” And there are limits that I’m looking forward to exploring: “I feel quite anxious in the strappado, since my hands go numb very quickly, but I love the feeling of fragility connected to this position”.
Every person is a unique universe of endless possibilities, contradictions, desires, and wounds that your partner doesn’t know. We often struggle to know ourselves. This is why you need to communicate, if you want your limits to be respected by your partner. This is not your partner’s responsibility to guess what they are by “reading you.”
To summarize: Limits are subjective decisions about how we exercise our boundaries, they change depending upon the situation and the partner, and they require communication from your side.
Limitations are basically conditions that are not our choice. They can be physical or mental conditions, for example: I had a knee operation and I cannot bend my right knee. Or health issues like poor circulation, allergies, joint problems and so on. Mental limitations might be connected to a past trauma, fears or other reflexes that affect our experience in ropes.
Some of these are permanent conditions, and others are within your power to change.. It is your decision whether you want to work on these limitations to improve your rope experience, or not. Once you have communicated them, your rope partners must respect them. Normally due to the objective nature of these limitations, people have the least problems with identifying and communicating them.
However, the limits that normally cause the most confusion are not objective limitations, but the choices made by the rope bottom.
How to find your limits?
“Limit” is a feeling.
The key to finding your authentic limits in rope bondage is to develop your ability to feel yourself. This means at a level beyond cognitive knowing, but a living reality in your body. To “feel yourself” means to notice, then trust, and then value what you find. When you have learned to feel, you can communicate (sometimes that must be learned too).
There is no other way to find and know our limits than to feel them. Your ability to feel your limits is directly related to your ability to feel yourself in general. And the way to develop your confidence in your limits is to develop your capability to feel yourself to the utmost.
We become better at it with the constant practice of living in our skin, deliberately going with our attention inside, sensing ourselves in the moment. When we want to become better, we need to commit to this practice every time we go into ropes.
Over time, we develop a sense of our limits, so that it’s not a cognitive “knowing” anymore, but a living reality in our body, in the here and how, in every moment. Over time, it becomes a habit of noticing, trusting,and valuing our feelings and naturally, after a while, you don’t separate these three “learning” steps, and just react to and communicate what you feel, even in the hottest scene, even under stress.
If you are just beginning…
When you are new to rope bondage and you want to explore in a mindful way, and possibly avoid having bad experiences, how do you go about it?
Go slow, do less. Assume your resilient edge of resistance is very close to your comfort zone and go very slowly expanding it from inside outwards. That means, define what your comfort zone is (the amount of impact that you are pretty sure you can process) and communicate it as your limit. For instance, this sounds to me like a reasonable agenda for a first session: short (10-15 minutes); low intensity: floorwork, no suspension; body parts: the legs, not the neck, just 1-2 ropes, without gagging and blindfolding.
Taking it slow is a good rule of thumb. You can always be tied up again, but you won’t be able to reverse something that was too much. Take your time to integrate, up to a few days. You will feel how your body and your mind react, what is happening with you afterwards.. Go slow when expanding intensity, adding just one new thing in every session.
Learn from the beginning to show up in the process. Develop your way of expressing yourself depending on what feels natural to you, so that you keep your rigger in the loop as to how you are doing, using your tone of voice, breathing, moaning, making sounds, movements, you can let them know when you are close to the limit. Generally, if you don’t show up in the process, you risk that your partner will do too much or too little.
At all times, when deciding to venture into unknown territory, “listen to the pull, not the push,” to quote Dr. Betty Martin. What is the difference? The “pull” comes from inside as this quiet whisper that says: “This feels kinda hot, even though it looks scary, I wish I had a partner to try that!” The “push” comes from outside as all those concepts of what rope play should look like, or what expectations your rope partner might have. It feels like something we “should” be doing, as in “I should be ok with this pain” or, “I should be able to take that.”
In conclusion, I would like to say that the skill of communicating a limit (at the moment you are approaching it) is a natural skill. We have a natural ability to communicate our state (how we feel) as soon as we feel in danger. There are non-verbal communication cues that we would naturally send out and our partners would naturally pick up. In such perfect natural circumstances taking bottoming workshops is not necessary. We have all the natural skills we need to enjoy what we like and to refuse what we don’t like. Unfortunately, in reality we are all not so natural, as many of us growing up picked up a great deal of unnatural behaviour along the way. Eventually, I want to encourage you to do nothing more than to follow your deepest, natural impulses and give them more value than our learned behaviour to comply, behave, deliver, perform etc. Trust your body’s wisdom.