I was 12 years old when my first cousin was born. My parents were pretty young when they had my sister and I. They called us “surprises.” My mom was 19 when she had my sister and 21 when she had me. My dad was 21 and 23. So I spent my teenage years playing with my baby cousins, who all happened to be boys. Every holiday, the adults would sit around the table and talk about boring things, so I would go and wrestle with my cousins. Somehow, by the end of every night there would be a handful of toddlers hanging from my limbs, like little monkeys in a tree. There definitely reached moments when I had had enough - where I got punched or my hair got pulled or what have you. But I remember distinctly feeling helpless and just waiting for one of the adults to walk into the room and “save me”. For some reason it felt against the rules for me to say “no” to one of them.
The wildest part is that - looking back on these memories - my aunts, uncles and other family members seemed to just know me as “the kid who didn’t have boundaries.” As such, I would also need to be supervised to some degree - ironically as I was playing babysitter.
It’s one thing to play with your cousins. But, it’s another thing to reach your limit as someone who is boundary-less. Then it becomes exploitation. That’s what happens within capitalist mono-normative hetero-patriarchy. Child care is systemically under-resourced, so you reach the point of desperation where you're willing to exploit someone else just so you can get an ounce of relief. It turns us against each other, not towards.
I had always felt like the family pet. Wasn’t allowed agency. Couldn’t say “no.” Within a physically violent household, my role was to diffuse the tension. I was trained to be a loyal puppy. Like a pup, I got physically punished for crying. Even as a toddler, I remember feeling so miserable in the dresses my mom would put on me. I protested, cried, screamed, and said “no”. But I got punished for protesting. For having an opinion. I was denied agency. I was treated like a doll by anyone who interacted with me. People would touch me without consent. They would adore me in a way that made me want to peel my skin off. I felt objectified. Like they were using me as a canvas for their own pleasure. I didn’t like attention. I would hide and cry if a stranger talked to me.
Sometimes it can be hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that so many years had passed as my most inner circle of trusted humans witnessed me without the ability to set a single boundary and laughed it off like, “I guess we’ll have to set them for him.” If you love someone, you help them learn to set their own boundaries. It's like riding a bumper car without bumpers. What did you think was gonna happen? The absence of boundaries is exploitation, which is rooted in control - not love.
When I was forced into the role of service dog I felt exploited. I knew people loved me - I just couldn’t connect with that feeling. But when I choose the role of puppy, I feel empowered because I get to define for myself what that means. And to me, being a puppy means receiving your unconditional love and affection. I’m not there to service you. I’m there to be adored and loved on. I don’t need to prove my worth. You simply adore me for existing. You don’t try to put me in a box or paint your own picture over me. It’s a moment of conscious connection that goes beyond words. An act of love and respect.
Without conscious awareness, I can easily fall into those service dog patterns by providing emotional support when I don’t have the bandwidth. I've been trained to override my body's instincts in order to process other people's emotions. That muscle has been exercised for years. I reclaim my agency by flexing a different muscle. A muscle where I consciously choose to play a role on my terms. When I feel respected in my agency, I'm able heal from betrayal and start building trust.
As painful as it is to feel betrayed by people I trusted, I don’t take it personally. The absence of love in my most intimate relationships isn’t because of someone's character flaw. It simply mirrors the deficit of love in society as a whole. Looking at one piece of the puzzle can give you an idea of the bigger picture. We've collectively inherited centuries of violence and exploitation.
Consensual role play (kink) has immense capacity to transmute that violence into love. If we're following the scripts we’ve inherited (hetero-capitalist patriarchy) we are unconsciously re-enacting violence. Because violence is the default. The mainstream. It takes conscious awareness to break free from these scripts. To choose love. And you can’t consent unless you’re conscious.