Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Conditioning in Kink

When I started as a kinkster I actually thought the idea of an imbalanced dynamic was ludicrous. One of the things that originally turned me off to power exchange was its apparent reliance on corporal punishment, which seemed too postured and fake. As someone incredibly stubborn, I knew that there was a very real possibility that if I felt the demand or expectation was unreasonable I would likely end the dynamic rather than accept punishment for obstinance or failure. Had I been interested in anal/oral sex this would have been simpler; the demands of submission could have been changed to something directly enjoyable to both parties. Unfortunately, with interests largely out-of-sync with most gay men, it was (and is) exceptionally difficult to trust that someone would pursue their interests while still respecting my own - men would often feign interest in being Dom only to just want an easy fuck. Eventually as I found more respectable Doms, I began to see the value of power exchange as it relates to honoring an obligation to be “lesser” within a given context, but found that no matter how much I wanted to I sometimes simply couldn’t control my aversion to a host of circumstances. There were often frustrations or activities or let-downs that would cause me to break the agreement I wanted desperately to keep, and I started to feel like it was more appropriate to see my sub side as a wild animal: more a slave to impulse than to men. When you have a sub who’s more like an animal than a boy, they’re a lot harder to keep on a leash - both metaphorically and literally. While a boy can elect to submit, an animal compulsively seeks to maintain or regain free will which merits a significantly different approach.

Animals communicate differently than humans in some ways, but what we essentially see as a foreign language is still something that resonates with us on an intuitive level. Had we somehow transcended beyond the realm of instinct, we wouldn’t still see evidence of the fight-or-flight response, and our actions would always be as a result of conscious deliberation. If you understand these latent instincts, you can use them to sculpt behavior through conditioning, which forces someone’s brain to make direct connections between behavior and repercussions. If you read any book about conditioning, it’ll likely harp on how it is everywhere, from work to personal relationships to interacting with a stranger. Many will give real-life examples, like how you can get people to be less negative around you or how to effectively motivate your employees, but the key point here is that it is so deeply ingrained we actually see results even when using it subconsciously. While conditioning and traditional punishment are both effective tools to shape behavior, they serve fairly different purposes. With things like corporal punishment, the consequences of actions occur at a time distinct and separate from the behavior, making it more effective at shaping deliberate or conscious behavior that necessitates thought. Conversely, the immediate responses that occur in conditioning do not allow for thought or hesitation, making it better-suited for modifying reflexive or instinctive behavior. To put it more plainly, punishment should serve as a means of encouraging a sub to rearrange their priorities (consciously weighing the emotional memory of punishment against a current desire that conflicts with an expectation) while conditioning should be used to reinforce a new “default” state that slowly grows into headspace.

Something important to keep in mind when building different headspaces is that they are essentially complicated systems of modified, reflexive responses. Any headspace will change behavior to create responses that would not exist outside of that headspace; a gimp, for instance, may be less likely to service indiscriminately if they are closer to their normal self while they may suck a cock without an inkling of hesitation when in headspace. Staying in headspace can take a lot of effort, largely because we are engaging in behavior that is only required (or even permitted) in an incredibly small portion of our lives. Expecting habit to be overridden by choice is not always reasonable, so - for purposes of creating a headspace - it is far more beneficial to focus on shaping reflexive behavior than it is to focus on deliberate behavior. Anyone who’s ever tried to give up a vice knows how powerful habit can be when it comes to overriding conscious choice. While sometimes we may not be able to willingly inhibit compulsive behavior, if the response we are used to receiving when engaging in that behavior is changed from positive to negative (a rubber band snap instead of nicotine rush), our natural aversion to negative stimuli can help make that choice for us. In training, the diminishing of expectations that create headspace can in and of itself be positive reinforcement as a sub’s stress level increases (cutting them slack feels like relief in the moment), so it can be important to know how to counter such behavior with correction.

Think of conditioning as a way to force someone’s brain to forge new cause and effect relationships. We know from experience that touching an open flame will harm us, so we don’t touch fire; this will always be true and we recognize this as causation. In a scene, a boy can learn that looking up from the floor results in being slapped, and with enough consistency this aversion can become nearly as strong as his aversion to touching fire. Since these corrections are immediate, they evoke a response that is reflexive which cannot be rationalized or avoided. If we instead utilize CP, there are suddenly a number of possibilities we can consider: an infraction may be forgotten or the sub could even try to change their mental state to brace for the punishment, for starters. The fewer variables there are the stronger the association becomes, and this aversion can be strengthened enough to create apprehension or even anxiety. You cannot possibly communicate the repercussions of someone’s behavior better than making their brain believe that an action cannot occur without an immediate negative response.

As I've tried to explain the benefit of this methodology to new Doms, I generally find most of them can intuitively grasp how conditioning can help create and maintain deep headspaces. Unfortunately, getting there is usually built on incremental changes which is far more complicated. Along the way, subbing can generate a lot of stress as higher expectations are enforced; this means constant changes to how you correct behavior. For instance, you may find that spanking a boy at the same exact intensity yields completely different reactions throughout the scene as their mental state changes. Not only does this require every correction to be weighed against the boy’s current mental state, but that you have determine when various levels of duress are appropriate. This is an incredibly tall order, but so long as you have an understanding of a few basic principles, being conscious of them during training will keep you heading the right direction.

Setting Goals -
The first step in training (using conditioning or otherwise) is to set a general goal that both parties agree on for the overall scene or dynamic. It could be as general as reinforcing a submissive headspace, something specific that pertains only to a given protocol, or even physical training (pain tolerance, hole-stretching, deep-throating, etc.). In any case, both the Dom and sub need to expressly agree on the goal; without this consensus it is not possible to objectively determine progress. This may sound simple, but training involves a lot of logistics and it can be easy to get excited about activities we find appealing, losing sight of the bigger picture. Being pulled in too many different directions can mean nothing works quite as well as it should, and sometimes certain goals might even be mutually exclusive. If you can identify a set of goals, it helps serve as a filter for determining productivity; if your main goal is to stretch a pup’s hole but they can’t stay in headspace while trying, that regression may be a sacrifice you have to make initially to reach the specific goal of the training at hand.

If trying to generalize a goal from a specific interest, there can be several layers to work through. I know we’re talking about conditioning, but let’s look at a punishment-oriented example that is a little simpler: a sub who wants to be spanked if he is late for a scene. If the goal is to ensure timeliness and spanking is all the sub is considering, there are a host of other potential punishments. Is there a reason only spanking is being considered, or is there perhaps something more effective? What about specifically being late? If the goal is to correct a chronic habit that may be as deep as you can drill, but if the underlying goal is to emphasize the Dom’s presence in the boy’s life, there may be broader applications. Could this be expanded by requiring text updates? Occasional clothing choices? Public protocol? Generalizing whenever it is possible helps find other potentially viable options that may assist in accomplishing the same goal.

Reasonable Expectations -
While setting goals should always be determined prior to a scene, what is reasonable to expect of a sub at a given time is always in flux. It really isn’t always easy to submit, and being aware of where a boy’s head is at is paramount: there are both physical and mental limitations to every situation. When a sub approaches these limits, the drive to behave normally becomes stronger which can be very stressful as things begin to feel out of place. How this stress begins to amount can come from any number of things; a bondage position beginning to sour, feeling like expectations aren’t being met, or even just something from real life that comes to mind and won’t leave. Some of these may be legitimate reasons to mentally pull out of a scene and this can impact whether or not demanding a particular behavior is reasonable at the time.

What should be regarded as ‘reasonable’ will largely be based on the goal(s) we began with. This should be primarily defined by discussing reasonable sources of objection; conditional limits, necessary headspace, acceptable level of duress, etc. As a Dom, it is your responsibility to discern whether or not one of these conditions has been met. If a justified objection exists, it is no longer reasonable to expect the same level of compliance until that reason for objection is rectified. Lowering expectations at this point could mean less pain play, letting a specific protocol slide temporarily, or even switching to something from which the sub actually derives direct enjoyment. Because of how many potential variables there are in a scene, it may be easier to isolate which objections a sub is willing to waive the right to. This can range from a Dom being able to disregard a sub begging profusely to cum to a Dom not needing to de-escalate pain in the event a sub cries. Regardless of whether the potential is related to denying a sub’s request or being empowered to cross a threshold, it should be as specific as possible to minimize the potential for confusion.

To deconstruct it a little more, consider training a sub who wants to increase their pain tolerance. As pain increases people tend to progress through a series of reactions, the most universal of which is moving in response to it whether tensing up or struggling outright. You may have an end goal of the sub being able to endure higher levels of pain without moving, but this can only be done by acknowledging and nurturing progress. In this instance, you may want to do slow ramp-ups of pain, levelling off at the first sign the boy is struggling and holding there a little longer each time. Demanding a boy immediately overwrite such a deeply ingrained reflex is definitely not reasonable; you cannot reinforce behavior that you cannot elicit, so setting an expectation that a sub cannot achieve is not useful for this sort of training (great for a mindfuck though). If you can’t bring out the desired behavior from a boy, it’s important to dial your expectations back to a level you know he can accomplish.

Refining expectations -
While establishing what are reasonable expectations focuses more on ensuring productive levels of pressure are used, it’s still necessary to know how to get from point A to point B. Even for simple behavior, perfection is rarely achieved on the first try. With bio-dogs, for instance, “come” starts as a simple command: you stop what you’re doing and come near me. Great! Here’s a treat. Once this behavior is solidified we raise the bar a little; now you have to sit as you arrive in my vicinity. Still wagging your happy ass, blankly staring at the treat? Nope, no treat for you: ass on the ground or GTFO. As we work on making the command progressively more formal, eventually the only correct response to sit straight in front of me within a foot while looking up at me. Not two feet away, not stepping on my toes, not at a 20 degree angle one direction, not looking at your friend: ass on the ground, straight in front of me, staring at me, or no treat. Without deconstructing this final behavior into progressive steps, there is virtually no way to get the dog to reliably engage in that behavior.

If you’re going to condition complicated behavior, breaking down that behavior must be an active pursuit. When training one of these steps or parts, it’s best to work on correcting as few behaviors as possible: the simpler the given task, the easier it is for a sub to retain and focus. This can be complicated for something as immersive as pup play (reinforcing silence/barking may be rare while posture corrections may need to be more frequent), but the important thing is simply being conscious that having individual or specific goals within training is necessary for it to be effective. Remember that environment or circumstances can impact how likely unwanted behavior may be to come out, which can either complicate training or provide opportunities for correction; if a pup is having trouble learning not to speak, there are apt to be more outbursts to correct in a social environment than sitting at home with them watching TV. Deliberately exposing the sub to this means giving yourself more opportunities to correct specific behavior, however if this is over-utilized to the point of ensuring failure it can quickly make their stress level unmanageable.

Escalation of Corrections -
In dog training we attempted to communicate using as clear of a reward gap as possible. This is the concept that the bigger the difference between good and bad behavior, the easier it is for the dog to understand what was expected - moreover, it was a tool to communicate the difference between what is unacceptable as opposed to undesirable. Since my primary focus was with aggressive and unsocial dogs, many of them were one successful bite away from being put down. To avoid this, if the behavior escalating to a bite was caught appropriately a very intense correction would serve to draw a line that says “That behavior is never acceptable.” This was not pleasant for the dog or handler, but it was paramount in establishing a dynamic that kept the dog from harming someone or, functionally, themselves. Essentially, the severity of a correction should be directly proportionate to the importance placed on avoiding the behavior being corrected. This importance is part of what should have been determined while setting the framework for reasonable expectations as mentioned above.

There are primarily two times when severely escalating the intensity of corrections is appropriate: when a line of predetermined, unacceptable behavior is present, or when a sub is backtracking on trained behavior they have clearly demonstrated mastery of. While I said earlier that it is important to focus on making improvement one behavior at a time, that doesn’t mean you need to forget every deeply ingrained behavior, only ones that might directly make current goals unattainable. It’s not really possible to put a definitive qualifier on how to tell when a boy finally has learned a behavior, but as you need to issue fewer and fewer corrections it should become clear how reliably you can expect a given behavior. If staying on all fours becomes reliable enough on command, then you could layer in enforcing posture or paw placement, or requiring the boy match pacing with a “heel” command. If the boy decides he’s going to randomly try and stand, this should merit a very different level of correction than if his posture relaxes too much because it is regressing to something clearly established as unacceptable.

Upkeep and Extinction -
Without consistency, shaping a reliable behavior is simply not possible. Part of this consistency amounts to simple upkeep; once a behavior is trained, that behavior still needs to be reinforced periodically. If a behavior is consistent it does not necessarily need to be reinforced every time, so long as it registers that you’re still being mindful. Think of how to manage upkeep like a scale: on one side is reliability, the other side corrections. As the reliability of a behavior decreases, the frequency or intensity of corrections should increase. When a behavior is no longer reinforced (positively or negatively), eventually it reaches a point of extinction where the subject no longer expects that behavior to be reinforced. The process of extinction can either come unintentionally from an unobservant Dom in unravelling trained behavior, or as a deliberate means of managing specific behaviors by showing that behavior can simply never be engaged in without consequence. In the case of the former the sub learns to find loopholes that excuse prohibited behavior they wish to engage in, while the latter case diminishes any desire for the sub to attempt said behavior in the hopes of finding an exception to the rule.

It’s somewhat intuitive to grasp how a Dom can train a sub, but depending on the level of desired power exchange it is also possible for the sub to instinctively try to train the Dom as a means of avoidance. To reiterate from before, subbing can generate a fair amount of stress and it’s very natural to reflexively try and put an end to that stress. If you’re observant enough as a Dom you can see the signs of this; a clenched jaw, stiffer movements when struggling, a change in the pitch of a grunt, slower response to instructions, etc. While these are not often conscious decisions, they are attempts from the sub to communicate using conditioning: if you do this, I will exude negative energy to try and make this less enjoyable for you. Being mindful of this can not only help with actively using reinforcement to reduce these tendencies (as was discussed in escalation of force) but also understanding that an overall disregard for the value of these attempts to communicate can lead to extinction of these subtle behaviors.

At every point in this process, observation is paramount. It’s not only how you find ways to improve behavior, it’s a gateway into a boy’s head. Most of these dynamics are going to involve a considerable amount of repeated activities and stimuli, so we are processing a large amount of information in every scene. The easiest way to handle this is simply to focus on consistency with your actions; the fewer variables, the better a read you can get on a boy’s head. If you’ve ever missed your mark when spanking a boy, it’s easy to see how a slight, unpredictable change can immediately alter his anticipated responses. If something seems “off,” you must give some thought as to why: is he favoring an arm or side of his body? Is he not resetting even after pain stops and a ramp-up is restarted? Has he suddenly gone nonverbal or vice-versa? Pushing past a response you don’t understand is incredibly irresponsible since it takes conscious effort to determine if it is an emotional response or unknown physical issue. The two best rules of thumbs for this are: if you can’t reasonably predict how someone will respond to something don’t do it, and if you can’t discern why your prediction was incorrect don’t push past the current level of intensity. There will always be exceptions to what you have experienced with a sub, so the best way to ensure their mental and physical safety is to respect how they are communicating with you through their reactions.

When working out a training regimen, keep in mind that progress is often slow. Fine-tuned behavior or physical progress can take a lot of work, and it’s important to not rush. That being said, progress can certainly be maximized by understanding the principles discussed here: set mutual goals, establish and maintain reasonable expectations, refine those expectations incrementally, know when it is okay to escalate, and don’t let bad behavior resurface by neglecting to reinforce failures. Remember, training at this level will sometimes be unpleasant for the sub, but it will also sometimes be unpleasant for a Dom: repetition can be tedious as hell when someone is being stubborn, so you need to keep a calm head and respect that you’re bound to the same agreement of standards as the sub. The end result of training should be fun (even if only in retrospect), but if you give up every time training isn’t fun you’ll never get there.

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