Suspension – Top or Bottom, Are you ready for suspension?

Are you capable of being suspended?

Stefanos and Shay answered this question better than I ever could in their article BDSM Bullshit: Who can be suspended? which they have generously made available to share under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License:

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Let’s start with an easy one – here’s a statement I hope we all recognize as bullshit: “Only skinny people can be suspended!” With me so far? Ok. Now, here’s what I sometimes hear as a counter to that particular piece of bullshit: “Anyone of any body size can be suspended!” Unfortunately… also bullshit. It’s a pit of snakes! Let’s jump in!

Being larger bodied does not exclude someone from being suspended. That said, I think making a general statement about anyone being able to be suspended is potentially dangerous, for two main reasons: rigger skill and health issues.

The first of these issues is rigger skill. A rigger is a person who ALSO gets to have limits. Limits – they’re not just for bottoms! Those limits may be knowledge based (“I don’t know how to suspend larger-bodied people”) or preference-based (“I prefer to suspend only 100 lb bondage models”). Of course stating one’s own skills honestly is quite different from saying “it simply cannot be done!” and having a personal preference is quite different from being a fat shaming douchebag. There are unique skills involved in suspending a larger bodied person – not any rigger can or should suspend a bottom of any body shape. Some of that skill is relatively simple (generally, more rope and more wrapping turns are called for), but some is very specific and specialized.

There are safety concerns that extend to the rigger, as well. If a larger bodied suspension bottom needs down NOW, can the rigger partially support their weight while getting them down quickly and without injuring themselves? I think we can all intuit that this is more challenging with a 200 pound bottom than a 100 pound one. Having a “spotter” (another pair of hands to help should it be needed) and/or using an appropriate pulley system (which adds more complexity and another potential point of failure) may be all that is required to mitigate this, but it’s another area where additional expertise is required.

Moving on to the health aspect – being larger sized doesn’t exclude you from being suspended, but neither does being smaller sized mean you can do all the suspensions! There are actually potentially increased risks at the other end of the weight spectrum – most notably, very thin people are at higher risk for acute compression nerve injury (2). With regards to assessing general health, fitness is a more important factor than weight: “Data from a 2009 study showed that low fitness is responsible for 16 percent to 17 percent of deaths in the United States, while obesity accounts for only 2 percent to 3 percent, once fitness is factored out.” (1)

A focus on fitness is very relevant to rope, because here’s something no one told me before I got suspended for the first time: being suspended can be very strenuous! Dynamic suspensions involving drops and position changes, or especially challenging suspensions (four wrapping turns around your ankle and up you go!) require a high level of fitness and body awareness. Which is not to imply that dynamic suspensions are more dangerous than static suspensions – in some cases they are safer, but often they do require more athletic ability. The best parallels I can think of are yoga or circus arts training (bar, hoop, silks). Are you healthy and fit enough, at whatever size, for those activities? You may need to build fitness before being able to partake in the most strenuous/dynamic suspensions.

The fitness needed and strain involved in being suspended is eminently scalable, it is not an all-or-nothing either-you-can-do-it-or-you-can’t activity. If you want to do strenuous, dynamic suspensions (and there’s no reason you have to, they’re not everyone’s kink), be realistic with your rigger, and spend some time training! Rigging involves practice, skill, and training – a suspension bottom interested in doing dynamic rigs can also work on developing or honing rope bottom skills (like core strength, balance, and body awareness).

Everything we do in kink (and, you know, life) has risks. Specific health conditions increase those risks, and at some point those risks outweigh the rewards of a given activity and we sit back and say, hrm, maybe not such a good idea to do that. If you have frequent seizures, you aren’t permitted to drive. If you are on blood thinners, your doctor would likely advise you not to go downhill skiing. Likewise, there’s some kinky shit that you probably shouldn’t do if you have certain health conditions. Someone with poorly controlled diabetes probably shouldn’t bottom for bastinado (caning the feet) and someone on coumadin (a potent blood thinner) shouldn’t bottom for play piercing. This is simply about being rational regarding the risk vs. reward ratio of any given activity.

That said, here is a summary of specific conditions that at the very least require extra caution, awareness, and expertise (from both rigger and bottom) for suspension. In some cases these issues may make certain suspension positions particularly (and probably unacceptably) risky, or may mean someone shouldn’t be suspended at all — these conditions all exist on a continuum and evaluation of a bottom needs to take into account the entire picture of their health and fitness, not just a single diagnosis.

  • Any condition that causes significant neuropathy (nerve damage/impaired sensation), impaired circulation, or impaired lymphatic drainage requires caution with any bondage, and in many cases may exclude the affected limb from load bearing bondage. Such conditions can include diabetes, lupus, stroke, mastectomy, lymph node removal, carpal tunnel syndrome, Raynaud’s disease, etc.
  • Serious respiratory issues (severe asthma, COPD, etc) (especially a problem for chest heavy ties and positions like face down or inversion)
  • Heart issues (CHF, arrhythmias, valve abnormalities, etc)
  • Diabetes that is severe or poorly controlled (3)
  • Joint problems (this depends on the intended suspension of course)
  • Clotting abnormalities (hemophilia, taking coumadin or other potent blood thinners, etc- speaking for myself, I would not suspend anyone in this group, but others may have a different risk assessment)
  • Aneurysms (cerebral are a particular concern for inversion, risk increases with diabetes and obesity) or hernias
  • Eye problems (conjunctivitis, glaucoma) (especially an issue for inversions)
  • Spinal injury
  • Bone weakness (severe osteoporosis, osteogenesis imperfecta)
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure (especially for any position involving inversion)
  • History of gastric bypass (likely means the person should not do inversions, and be extremely careful of putting pressure on the abdomen with rope)
  • Pregnancy – see this article for more details about pregnancy and BDSM
  • Skin integrity issues (like long-term prednisone use)
  • This is not a comprehensive list! If you’re comfortable being “out” to your doctor (which I highly recommend… and that could be a whole separate article), asking your doctor if you’re healthy enough for suspension bondage is an excellent way to get a personal check! If you don’t feel you can be “out” to your doctor, you might ask whether you are healthy enough for strenuous yoga involving inversion (4).

Suspension can be amazing, sexy, and fun — but it’s also one of the riskier things we kinky perverts do. It’s edge play and is not for everyone — top OR bottom. I hope you can use this information to help you make a more accurate risk aware assessment… instead of believing bullshit.

There are three distinct areas of my personal background that inform this article and seem relevant to understanding my perspective. Those are medical/safety, bondage/rigging, and body size.

Starting with medical/safety: Whenever I write something like this, I am asked about my “qualifications”- which is certainly a reasonable question. I’m an ER nurse and ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) instructor who has spent way more time than is reasonable researching bondage safety. This post was also proofread by a kinky MD (Miette Rouge). I would, however, emphasize that I’m not posting this in any sort of “official” capacity (please don’t sue me). Also, nurses (and doctors!) can and do say idiotic/incorrect things, so using your own judgement no matter how “qualified” the source is always a good thing.

Bondage/rigging: I began doing floor work (mostly as a bottom) in 2005. I started bottoming for suspension and learning to rig in 2011, and self-suspending in 2012. I’ve since done a LOT of self-suspension and created the web site selfsuspend.com

Body size: this is perhaps the most personal. I’ve struggled with eating disorders my entire adult life, and my weight has been as low as 120 lbs and as high as 230 lbs. Right now I’m in the middle of that weight range, but even at my current size, I find that I’m larger than many riggers seem used to working with, and I have to be explicit about the accommodations I require (I won’t do load bearing upper arm ties, I can’t tolerate suspension without a hip harness, I need double the number of wrapping turns around my thighs than most riggers seem to consider “standard”, etc).

I received feedback and edits on this article from a number of awesome people, most notably @MietteRouge (a kinky MD), @Guilty, and @FrozenMeursault. It is also informed by awesome bondage classes I’ve taken from instructors too numerous to name. Any remaining errors are mine.

(This is part of my BDSM Bullshit series – the first article can be found here! Interested in a self-suspension perspective on this? Check out this page!)

References and Notes

(1) I want to focus this article on fitness, because it is generally a more important consideration than weight. “Our culture’s view of obesity as uniquely deadly is mistaken. Low fitness, smoking, high blood pressure, low income and loneliness are all better predictors of early death than obesity. Exercise is especially important: Data from a 2009 study showed that low fitness is responsible for 16 percent to 17 percent of deaths in the United States, while obesity accounts for only 2 percent to 3 percent, once fitness is factored out. Exercise reduces abdominal fat and improves health, even without weight loss. This suggests that overweight people should focus more on exercising than on calorie restriction.” New York Times, “Why You Can’t Lose Weight on a Diet.”

(2) Winfree C, Kline D. (2005) Intraoperative positioning nerve injuries. Surgical Neurology. 63: 5-18

(3) On diabetes and suspension: “Epidemiological studies have confirmed an association between diabetes and an increased prevalence of PAD. Peripheral arterial disease is usually characterized by occlusive arterial disease of the lower extremities.” -Peripheral Arterial Disease in Patients With Diabetes, Journal of the American College of Cardiology. “The prevalence of diabetes increases with increasing weight classes.” -Relationship between obesity and diabetes in a US adult population: findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2006. “The degree of diabetic control is an independent risk factor for PAD.” -Peripheral Arterial Disease in Patients With Diabetes, Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Again- what does this mean? Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) in the lower extremities = poor blood flow to the legs. This is often undiagnosed, and is why diabetics can end up having toe/foot amputations. As a lay person in the field, you can’t know whether a particular diabetic has PAD or not (there are some assessment hints, looking at color, temperature, pulses, capillary refill, etc- but this requires training to assess and is ultimately not conclusive to diagnose the condition). I think it wise to avoid load bearing lines on the lower extremities of someone who has PAD, and you may have to base this assessment on risk factors (diabetes, degree of diabetic control).

(4) There is actually quite a bit of literature specific to inversion- on the use of “inversion tables” to treat back pain and on the safety of various inverted yoga poses. A few things happen when you’re inverted- for one, the weight of your abdomen (including organs and adipose tissue) press up against your diaphragm, making it harder to breathe. Your intrathorasic pressure is increased (especially if you strain or hold your breath while inverted, which us perverts are known to do), as is your intracranial pressure. Blood pressure is increased (“Both systolic and diastolic blood pressures increased significantly [in response to two minutes of inversion traction]” – “Blood pressure response to inversion traction”, Journal of Physical Therapy.). Common contraindications listed for inversion include high blood pressure, glaucoma or other eye problems, pregnancy, cardiovascular disease, diabetes  (I would add that degree of diabetic control is the key here, some diabetics can do inversion and some probably should not), and ear or sinus infections. You can see an example list here. As a side note, most articles on yoga inversion I researched also listed menstruation as a contraindication for inversion. The only reason I could find for this had to do with beliefs about chakra energy flow (see this example) rather than anything I would consider a medical contraindication.

Are you ready to become a suspension rigger?

Do you want to be a suspension rigger?  Are you ready be trusted with next level of responsibility?

This is just one person’s opinion, but my (somewhat long) answer is that you are ready, when you…

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  • …you have faced a number of emergency situations and have developed the skills and emotional resources that you no longer panic, you calmly and quickly evaluate the issue and react appropriately.
  • In my opinion, you will have enough new variables to be keeping track of, skills to master and a whole new list of issues that may arise that you need to be planning for and ready to respond to as you are first beginning to suspend. Having dealt with a few crises on the floor will give you a leg up, so to speak.  If you are experienced with dealing with general rope issues, you won’t be on that learning curve at the same time.
  • It is also good if you have tied your planned harnesses before as well and maybe to have used them at the floor level before you use them for suspensions. This will get you used to how they work and how to tie them smoothly and well so that you have that skill set too before you suspend.  That will give you confidence as you begin your suspension scene.
  • You are not a god of rope bondage. You are not infallible.  Nor am I, nor is anyone else you have ever met or will ever meet.  Things can and will go wrong.
  • You can learn all the information in a day or weekend–you can get the knowledge–but you will not yet have the ability and competence to apply that knowledge safely
  • Tie at your level. To build you level, leave the ego behind and ask for help from an experience rigger; you will gain competence much more quickly.
  • But there are some things that you can only learn by doing, so have a safety net in the form of an experienced person guiding you the first few times.
  • Basically: When you are learning, have a spotter.  Gymnasts do.
  • Pro tip: If you can get can find experienced suspension bottom for your first few times, jump at that opportunity.  They can be some of the best teachers you can find.  They know what feels right and what does not.  If you have the gift of this advantage, respect that amazing investment they are making in you, and respect them.  This is you leaving your ego behind and being grateful.  You will be a better rigger for having done so.
  • When you have your partner helpless and suspended, there is almost nothing they can do on their own to alleviate an issue. They are entirely dependent on you to fix anything that is wrong or to properly handle any emergency that may arise.  They may be able to shift their weight a little to temporarily take pressure off a spot, but that is about the only thing they can do and it will only help for a short time; if something is wrong, you need to detect it and fix it.
  • If there is an equipment failure, or medical issue or you hit a psychological trigger and the suspended person panics, you need to be able to deal with that. They are dependent on you.
  • Therefore you…
  • There is a cardinal rule among suspension riggers:
  • Always be more than one fuckup or failure away from disaster.
  • I don’t know who first articulated this simple rule in this way, but it is brilliant.
  • You need to plan ahead to control as many variables as possible…
  • You have several mental checklists that you run through as you are preparing a suspension scene. Once competed (it is still being written), see the “General Suspension Safety and Scene Planning” Tutorial for examples.
  • You need to have points built into your planned scene where you check yourself, check your partner, check the full context of the scene to make sure things are still going as planned.
  • You need to know how to detect it if things are starting to go wrong.
  • Ease into suspensions slowly. Don’t plan for an inverted dynamic swinging suspension your first time out.  Start with the most simple and safe, branch out from there as you gain experience and competence.  You have time be an overwhelming force of nature later.
  • So perhaps you lay out a plan like this:
  • A few partial suspensions (one leg still able to reach the ground)
  • A face-up, seated suspension, with the arms not bound while getting your partner suspended and taking them down
  • A few suspensions just like the partials you did, but with the
  • Extend the seated suspension into a horizontal suspension
  • And then build from there…
  • Leave the fully helpless suspensions and exotic positions until you have gained experience. You will start to feel more comfortable, you will have dealt with a few issues and built the techniques and emotional reserves to be able to handle yourself and what you are doing with much more competence.
  • Eventually something will go wrong. Something will give out or break or behave unexpectedly or you will fuck up.  When that happens, what is in place to protect your partner from harm?  And what will you do to resolve the issue?  How will you react?
  • You need to have a plan for reasonable scenarios: “If X happens, I will do Y.  If Y fails, I will do Z.”
  • AND you need the ability to do so quickly, and with calm and control–not with panic.
  • You need to want to do suspension. Don’t be pressured in to it just because you or anyone else thinks that real riggers do suspensions.  Not true.  I know plenty of very experienced riggers that simply prefer floor work.  There is nothing wrong with that.
  • You need to have put in the study, lined up a mentor and have done what you can to prepare. There is plenty you can learn from study, but there are things you can only learn by practice.
  • You will – or you *should be* — nervous when you are doing this the first few times. Don’t worry, that is normal and good.  Complacency is the enemy, it breeds fuck-ups.  A little well-controlled fear keeps us sharp, helps us focus, gives us an edge.
  • But if you feel all roiled up inside—flooded with adrenaline, jittery—that is too much fear. If you are feeling that way, perhaps this isn’t yet your time.  Be honest with yourself.

(You expanded each section and read the details, right?)

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