"Humiliation play," sometimes also called "erotic embarrassment," is a powerful but often misunderstood aspect of BDSM play, and one I receive more questions about than any other single type of BDSM activity. Put most simply, it's any kind of activity in which one person says or does something that causes feelings of embarrassment, shame, or humiliation in the other. This can be something as simple as "dirty talk," for example by using terms like "slut" or "whore" to refer to your partner, or it can be as complex as creating situations that are embarrassing to your partner, like exposing him or her nude in front of others or walking him or her around on a leash.
Because different people have different emotional triggers, the range of activities involved in humiliation play is huge, and what one person finds embarrassing another person might not react at all to. For example, some people find it very embarrassing to be naked in front of others; some people don't. Wat's humiliating for one person might not cause any reaction in another; humiliation play is about the feelings it produces, not the activities themselves.
But why would you want to make someone feel that way?
I've spent a lot of time thinking about that. Humiliation play is something that's relatively uncommon even among folks who are otherwise quite enthusiastic about BDSM; it's important to understand that this is not something that everyone who likes BDSM does.
The appeal of humiliation is very difficult to explain to people who don't understand it. It seems to be one of those things that either you get it or you don't, and if you don't, it's just degrading and objectifying and awful. Certainly I've known plenty of people who have a strong squick response to humiliation. Many of my partners have (and do) enjoy humiliation play, for many different reasons.
For some people, humiliation and shame provoke a very visceral response; under the right circumstances and with the right people, there is an immediate sexual arousal attached to it. It's always dangerous to try to attach a "why" to someone's turn-ons, but one possible explanation is that we grow up in a society with a strong Puritanical streak that teaches that sexuality is something shameful. A lot of people go through periods of intense shame during puberty...especially if they grow up in repressive or sex-negative environments (Catholic schools, I'm looking at you here). It starts off with feelings of arousal and sexuality provoking reponses of shame and guilt, and those two emotional experiences become linked, so eventually feelings of shame become coupled with feelings of arousal.
For other people, it seems to be the powerlessness and the sense of helplessness or objectification associated with many types of humiliation play that really do it. I can understand this; on some visceral, irrational level, which has nothing I can see to do with anything in my past or any of my experiences, powerlessness (and, conversely, control) crank my motor. It's not associated with any kind of trauma while I was growing up; it has nothing to do with any past event, or with trying to work through problems in childhood; for whatever reason, a strong psychological control dynamic just gets me off. It's a purely irrational thing that in some ways is like what I imagine having a foot fetish or a crossdressing fetish to be like; something that makes no sense to a person who doesn't have it, something that has no logical reason; simply a quirk in the wiring or whatever that makes this particular stimulus really, really arousing.
Don't you have to have some kind of abuse or trauma to think that humiliation is a turn-on?
For some people, maybe. I have talked to a few people for whom various types of BDSM, including humiliation play, is a direct response to some specific form of trauma. I've known people who explore BDSM as a way to get through or to gain power over some event or some part of their lives that was harmful or damaging--and I think thewre are both healthy and unhealthy ways that people do this. (There's a term that's used in the psychiatric community for the act of processing damaging or traumatic experiences in ways that actually deepen and reinforce the trauma, with the belief that they are working through it when in fact they're making it worse.) But as with any other form of BDSM, it's certainly not true that only people who have past trauma of some kind will enjoy it. In fact, I'm actually quite skeptical about using BDSM to deal with trauma; I think it's just as likely to make things worse.
Why on earth would you even WANT to degrade someone you love? Isn't that kind of sick? Who would get pleasure from being degraded or made to feel worthless?
It's not about being made to feel degraded or worthless. There is a difference between activities which are humiliating and activities which are degrading.
The two may seem similar, at least superficially, but they're not quite the same. Humiliation play is still play; it's done because you and your partner enjoy it. It isn't real. For example, if I call my partner a "slut," it's because she likes the feeling of being a sexual person, and the term "slut" has emotional associations with someone who is highly sexual. Those emotional associations can, in the right context, be a powerful turn-on. But it works because it isn't real. She knows that I have a tremendous amount of respect for her, and when I use the word, it's not because I feel that she is worth less as a person. She knows that I'm using the word because it turns her on, not because I don't think she deserves respect.
Humiliation play is probably not a good choice for people who do not have a strong sense of self and a positive self-esteem. If a person internalizes the word "slut" and it makes that person think less of herself, or if a person feels like he is really worth less as a human being if his partner puts him on a leash, then humiliation play probably isn't a good choice.
Think of it as a form of playacting. The emotional response of embarrassment or shame is real, but it isn't internalized. It isn't degraded, and the people involved are not trying to make each other feel worthless. I know many people who love humiliation play in various forms, and I'm one of them. But all the people I know who enjoy it have a cast-iron sense of self and rock-solid self esteem; the humiliation play does not affect their self-esteem for real.
What's the point of it, though? Even if it doesn't affect your sense of self, why do it?
The simple reason is "why do anything?" Because it's fun; because the emotion can be a big turn-on. Any kind of strong emotional response can get you going sexually; that's why so many people love having sex after they have an argument. Human beings are emotionally complex, and any strong emotion in the right situation can get turned into sexual arousal. Strong emotions often make sex more intense, and intnsity is fun!
But there's more to it than that. For me, the real appeal of humiliation play is as a vehicle for emotional intimacy.
When I am engaging in some kind of erotic scenario built around humiliation or shame, from either side but most especially from the receiving side, it exposes me emotionally to my partner in a way that nothing else I have experienced does. it strips away any emotional defense mechanisms I may have and lowers all of my emotional boundaries. The person you see when you see me i that context is me, undefended, completely exposed. As a tool for emotional intimacy, it can't be beat; there's no bullshit, no filtering any of my responses; what you see is what I am, completely unfiltered.
I'm a big fan of emotional intimacy; I like to learn who my partners are, and I like my partners to see who I am.
For that reason, I can't do humiliation play with a casual partner, or with a person I'm not in an intimate, stable, long-term relationship with. I use it precisely because the emotional vulnerability creates a vehicle for intimacy; for me, it's that, not the orgasm, that really matters. The fact that it gets me off is what makes me able to do it in the first place, because no doubt about it, that kind of vulnerability and emotional exposure can be pretty scary. The sexual aspect makes it fun, and puts it in a context where it's safe and supportive. Like I said before, I would not engage in humiliation play, giving or receiving, with any partner I did not trust and respect.
Another nice aspect about humiliation play is that it can make being a sexual person OK. We're often taught that sex is dirty and shameful, and that people who enjoy sex and embrace their sexual side are bad, dirty, disgusting people. That's why words like "slut" are used as insults.
But when you're having sex with someone, then enjoying sex and embrcing your sexuality are good things. Sometimes, embrcing words like "slut" are a way to do that; you're saying, "Right here, right now, with you, I am a sexual person, and that's good!" Taking a word that is often loaded with negative associations and using it in a sexual context with a partner you know and trust can be liberating...not to mention fun.
In the end, though, what it comes down to is this: For some people, humiliation play is exciting, arousing, and makes sex more intense. It's like anything else, really. If it gets you going and makes your sex life more fun, then go for it! If it doesn't get you going and doesn't make your sex life more fun, then don't do it!