“A pervert is anybody kinkier than you are.” (Wiseman, 1996, p. 23).
The novel Fifty Shades of Grey introduced BDSM into polite public discourse. Since its publication, hallowed papers such as TheNew York Times have published articles on bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Harvard University now hosts a student group for undergraduates interested in consensual S&M. And Cosmo’s sex tips have taken a distinctly kinky turn.
With the Fifty Shades movie and lots of BDSM clubs directories now coming to theaters, it seems like a good time to take stock of what we know, scientifically, about BDSM: Who does this stuff? What do they do? And what effects do these activities have on the people who do them?
1. How many people are into S&M?
According to researchers, the number likely falls somewhere between 2 percent and 62 percent. That’s right: Somewhere between 2 percent and 62 percent. A pollster who published numbers like that should be looking for a new job. But when you’re asking people about their sex habits, the wording of the question makes all the difference.
On the low end, Juliet Richters and colleagues (2008) asked a large sample of Australians whether they had “been involved in B&D or S&M” in the past 12 months. Only 1.3 percent of women and 2.2 percent of men said yes.
On the high end, Christian Joyal and colleagues (2015) asked over 1,500 women and men about their sexual fantasies. 64.6 percent of women and 53.3 percent of men reported fantasies about being dominated sexually—and 46.7 percent of women and 59.6 percent of men reported fantasies about dominating someone sexually. Overall, we can probably conclude that a substantial minority of women and men do fantasize about or engage in BDSM.
2. Are they sick?
For Freud, the answer was a clear yes: Anyone interested in S&M was in need of treatment—treatment that, by fine coincidence, he and his contemporaries were qualified to provide.
This is not to say that everyone into sadism or masochism is doing so for psychologically healthy reasons. The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) still includes Sexual Sadism Disorder and Sexual Masochism Disorder as potential diagnoses. But a diagnosis now requires the interest or activities to cause “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (or to be done with a non-consenting partner). BDSM between consenting adults that “does not cause the participants distress” no longer qualifies.
3. What do they do?
Both researchers and practitioners (Wiseman, 1996) have developed categories of BDSM activities. For example, Alison and colleagues have categories for physical restriction (bondage, handcuffs, chains); administration of pain (spanking, caning, putting clothespins on the skin); humiliation (gags, verbal humiliation); and a category related to sexual behavior.
4. What effect does BDSM have on the people who do it?
This is one of the central questions my research team has been investigating. In a BDSM scene, the person who is bound, receiving stimulation and/or following orders is called the bottom. The person providing the stimulation, orders or structure is called the top. We measured a range of physiological and psychological variables in bottoms and tops before and after their scenes.
Both bottoms and tops reported increases in relationship closeness and decreases in psychological stress from before to after their scenes, but bottoms also showed increases in physiological stress as measured by the hormone cortisol. We found this disconnect between psychological stress and physiological stress to be very interesting, and we wondered whether it might indicate that bottoms have entered an altered state of consciousness.
To test this theory, we ran a study in which we randomly assigned switches (BDSM practitioners who sometimes take on the top role and sometimes take on the bottom role) to be the top or the bottom in a scene. The results revealed that both bottoms and tops entered altered states of consciousness, but they entered different altered states.
Bottoms entered an altered state called “transient hypofrontality”, which is associated with reductions in pain, feelings of floating, feelings of peacefulness, feelings of living in the here and now and time distortions. Tops, in contrast, entered the altered state known as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991), which is associated with focused attention, a loss of self-consciousness and optimal performance of a task. We believe that these pleasurable altered states of consciousness might be one of the motivations that people have for engaging in BDSM activities.
Human sexuality journals such as Archives of Sexual Behavior and the Journal of Sex Research
Organizations such as the Kinsey Institute, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) and the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexuality (CARAS)
Advocacy organizations such as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF)
Community organizations such as the Society of Janus and the Arizona Power Exchange
Books such as Jay Wiseman’s SM 101: A Realistic Introduction
… Or you could simply Google “BDSM” and see what comes up, but I wouldn’t try it at work.
Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. He teaches courses on evolutionary psychology, attitude change and statistics. His research interests include social influence, resistance to persuasion, deception, jealousy, and infidelity, human sexuality and research methods.
ReferencesAlison, L., Santtila, P., Sandnabba, N. K., & Nordling, N. (2001). Sadomasochistically-oriented behavior: Diversity in practice and meaning. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 30, 1–12. Ambler, J. K., Lee, E. M., Klement, K., R., Loewald, T., Comber, E., Hanson, S. A., Cutler, B., Cutler, N. & Sagarin, B. J. (under review). Sadomasochism as a path to altered states of consciousness. Connolly, P. H. (2006). Psychological functioning of bondage/domination/sado-masochism (BDSM) practitioners. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 18, 79-120. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins. Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 12, 231-256. Joyal, C. C., Cossette, A., & Lapierre, V. (2015). What exactly is an unusual sexual fantasy? Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12, 328-340. Moser, C., & Levitt, E. E. (1987). An exploratory-descriptive study of a sadomasochistically oriented sample. Journal of Sex Research, 23, 322–337. Richters, J., de Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. A. (2008). Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660-1668. Sagarin, B. J., Cutler, B., Cutler, N., Lawler-Sagarin, K. A., & Matuszewich, L. (2009). Hormonal changes and couple bonding in consensual sadomasochistic activity. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 186-200. Wiseman, J. (1996). SM 101: A realistic introduction. San Francisco: Greenery Press. Wismeijer, A. A. J. & van Assen, M. A. L. M. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10, 1943-1952.
James-Robert Davis has been accused of sex slavery offences against a woman
The former solider appeared before Armidale Local Court in NSW on March 17
The 40-year-old is charged with offences including reducing a person to slavery
He was supported in court by five of his girlfriends, one of whom is pregnant
Davis’s barrister told the court the allegations against him would be defended
His alleged victim has been repeatedly caught driving with drugs in her system
James-Robert Davis, a self-proclaimed ‘kinky sex overlord’ and former soldier, allegedly had a woman sign a ‘slave contract’, which she believed was a legally binding document
A woman who claims she was kept in a cage and forced to wear a steel collar by a violently domineering partner has repeatedly been caught driving with meth and cannabis in her system.
The 30-year-old faced court in Sydney on Monday after pleading guilty to a string of charges including drug driving and carrying a knife in a public place.
The woman has alleged former soldier James-Robert Davis, a self-proclaimed ‘kinky sex overlord’, made her sign a ‘slave contract’ while they were in an abusive relationship.
When Davis was arrested in northern New South Wales in March he was living with five other women in a ‘consensual polyamorous relationship’ also described as a cult.
The 40-year-old has been charged by the Australian Federal Police with possessing a slave, reducing a person to slavery and causing a person to remain in servitude.
Downing Centre Local Court heard on Monday his alleged victim would produce evidence of her assistance to the AFP when being sentenced for the drug-driving offences.
NSW police have described her as a ‘self-confessed illicit drug user’ who was allegedly caught drug-driving three times since December last year.
The woman was first issued with an infringement for driving with an illicit drug in her saliva on the north coast of NSW on August 20.
James-Robert Davis has been charged with possessing a slave, reducing a person to slavery and causing a person to remain in servitude. He is pictured centre with lingerie-clad women who are not the alleged victims of the charges
A woman who claims she was kept in a cage and forced to wear a steel collar by a violently domineering partner has repeatedly been caught driving with meth and cannabis in her system. A cage in James-Robert Davis’s ‘House of Cadifor’ is pictured
The woman has alleged former soldier James-Robert Davis, a self-proclaimed ‘kinky sex overlord’, made her sign a ‘slave contract’ while they were in an abusive relationship. Davis is pictured with another woman at his ‘House of Cadifor’
She tested positive to meth and cannabis when pulled over in the same region on December 6 and was found carrying a knife in her phone carry case.
‘The accused stated that she had taken it off some kids and forgotten about it,’ a statement of facts said of the blade.
On December 19 the woman was charged with possessing a small amount of cannabis and eight days later she was pulled over again and tested positive to cannabis and meth.
When asked about her drug use on that occasion she replied: ‘I had a cone earlier in the day’, according to a statement of facts tendered in court.
‘The accused is a self-confessed illicit drug user and police regularly find drug paraphernalia in her vehicle,’ the statement said.
‘The accused should not be driving on the roads as she is a danger to herself and others and has been stopped by police three times over the course of December and January for the same offence.’
The woman has pleaded guilty to the December 19 and December 27 drug-driving and knife offences and is facing yet another drug-driving charge on the north coast.
Davis allegedly forced a woman to have a slave number tattooed on her body. ‘The victim recalls the slave number started with S/N 95, followed by a unique number,’ police allege
Australian Federal Police raided James-Robert Davis’s property in northern NSW in March and allegedly found property including a barber’s chair (pictured)
Most of her matters have been adjourned until June. Meanwhile, Davis is in Parklea jail under strict protection from other inmates due to his previous employment as a prison officer.
His alleged victim’s barrister George Thomas told a magistrate on Monday he had spoken to an AFP officer and would be submitting material which detailed assistance his client had given to the agency.
According to a statement of facts, the woman met Davis met in 2012 when he was in the army and the pair soon began living together at Maroubra in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
The woman allegedly initially consented when Davis began to introduce bondage, discipline sadism and masochism (BDSM) during sex because it did not intrude on their day-to-day lives.
But two months into the relationship Davis allegedly punched her to the ground. He allegedly began isolating the woman from her family and friends and took over handling her finances.
James-Robert Davis (pictured), 40, appeared before Armidale Local Court via videolink on March 17 having been charged with slavery offences. He was refused bail
About a month later BDSM began to be incorporated into all aspects of the couple’s lifestyle, according to the tendered statement of facts.
Davis allegedly told the woman she had to wear a ‘submissive collar’, described as a thick stainless steel ring which was secured by an Allen key and worn around her neck at all times.
By the end of 2012 a second woman was allegedly introduced to the relationship, followed by a third. Davis allegedly told the victim she was being promoted to ‘slave’ and asked her to sign a ‘slave contract’ which had accompanying ‘slave protocols’.
‘The accused informed her that the contract was a legally binding contract and if she breached the contract she could be criminally charged in a court,’ the statement of facts said.
Davis allegedly told the woman she was ‘worthless’, ‘broken’ and useless each time she broke the rules.
The woman was allegedly forced to ask Davis for permission to perform everyday activities, including going to the toilet, or face punishment.
The 40-year-old has shown his BDSM lifestyle at his home dubbed ‘The House of Cadifor’ with a woman who is not the complainant in the charges he faces
One of the punishments was allegedly being hit with a cane until she bled, which had led to permanent scarring.
The woman allegedly had to be naked at the front door when Davis returned home and remove his shoes so she could kiss his feet.
Police will allege Davis choked the woman to the point of unconsciousness multiple times and locked her in a cage for two nights and three days in a row.
‘While the victim was in the cage he would assault her by repeatedly ramming a pole through the bars of the cage and into the victim,’ the statement of facts said.
In 2014 the couple moved to Emerald in Queensland where Davis worked as a security guard for a strip club and the woman worked as the madam, without being paid.
‘The accused forced the victim to have her slave number tattooed on her body,’ the statement of facts said. ‘The victim recalls the slave number started with S/N 95, followed by a unique number.’
Australian Federal Police are pictured at the moment Davis was arrested by officers outside the Bunnings hardware store in Armidale, northern New South Wales, on March 11
Davis is also accused of coercing the a woman into prostitution without payment when the pair moved back to Sydney in 2015 and the woman began work in a Surry Hills brothel.
The woman allegedly worked at the brothel six nights a week and was paid cash which Davis allegedly collected from her each morning.
In 2015 the woman escaped and moved into share accommodation, according to the statement of facts.
When police executed a search warrant on Davis’ home outside Armidale on March 11 they allegedly seized metal slave collar rings and found Allen keys used to open them in his wallet.
They also allegedly located multiple slavery and servitude contracts between Davis and other women. One ‘contract of fealty to Master James’ was signed by him and a ‘hand maiden’.
He is not charged with any offence related to any of the women with whom he was living in an arrangement described as a cult.
The Australian Federal Police raided the sprawling rural property of James-Robert Davis about 30km outside Armidale, northern New South Wales, on March 11
Barrister Ian Lloyd QC told Armidale Local Court on March 17 the charges against his client would be defended.
‘My client won’t be on trial for being a member of a cult even if, ultimately, that was accepted as a fact,’ Mr Lloyd .
‘There is no crime in lifestyle choices, no crime associated with consensual BDSM, these matters are not crimes and he has not been charged.’
Mr Lloyd pointed to Davis’s five girlfriends sitting in the back of the court room – including two who are university students and one who is 17 weeks pregnant – and claimed they all had ‘no fear about their wellbeing’.
‘Each of these women – if they’re a slave – has had the opportunity to run away; they have not done so,’ Mr Lloyd told the court.
The AFP prosecutor told the court much of the case information came from videos Davis posted online and allegations aired by the ABC, including the use of a cage.
Four large wooden sandboxes with women’s names engraved on the side are pictured on Davis’s property. It has not been explained what the boxes were used for
Mr Lloyd told the court any cage Davis had used with the woman could be easily unlocked and had no bottom, adding it was a form of ‘affectation’.
He said the woman was a cadet at the NSW Police Academy in Goulburn during some of her ‘rather unusual relationship’ with Davis, and made no complaint about him at that time.
Mr Lloyd said it appeared the first complaint the woman made was to ABC current affairs program Four Corners.
‘It was Four Corners that reported this matter to the police, not the young lady,’ Mr Lloyd told the court.
The AFP alleges Davis referred to himself as the patriarch of a group known as the ‘House of Cadifor’. He will next appear in a Sydney court later this month.
If you’re looking to wander in to the mysterious world of BDSM for the first time, then this article is for you.
Kinky sex is wickedly alluring for many reasons. It breaks cultural taboos, pushes your erotic comfort zone, and potentially leads to thrilling peak experiences, which are otherwise inaccessible through quietly humping in the dark in missionary position.
There is a reason why the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy swept the Western world and sold well over 125 million copies (and it’s definitely not because of the high-caliber writing).
Deep down, people are kinky as fuck, and are desperately seeking ways to let their freak flag fly.
While the Fifty Shadesseries doesn’t necessarily reflect the rules and culture of kink and BDSM in real-life (at all), its sales success simply highlights the fact that people want to mess around with the subject matter. And that’s perfectly normal.
There are literally millions of people out there who want to be dominated, but are too shy to admit it and ask for it, while there are others who want to dominate, but they either feel shame for having that impulse, or don’t know how to explore that urge safely.
In this article, I’m going to break down what BDSM is, set the two foundational pillars, talk about how to be an awesome Dom to your sub, and pitch in a few other general tips to help you get started.
Since this is a beginners guide, we’re going to hold off on getting into the full lexicon of BDSM slang (which is absolutely massive) as well as everything related to the domain of edgeplay, which is the “edgier”, risky, or ultra-taboo stuff people may want to play around with during sex – like knives, needles, blood, torture, fire, advanced asphyxiation, etc. Edgeplay is definitely not for the faint of heart, and takes an extremely advanced level of self-awareness, trust, and impeccable communication to do safely.
In time, you might find you’re curious to explore these edgier areas a little bit, or simply want to learn all the language. But most people end up being very satisfied (and sufficiently challenged – in a good way) by splashing in the shallow end of the BDSM pool. For now, let’s take the appropriate baby steps and start with the basics!
Heads up – I’ll be using the word “scene” every now and then, which is a term many people in BDSM use to refer to the act of actively engaging in sexual play.
This is also really useful language because it implies preparation, communication, acting, direction and debriefing, just as there would be on a real movie set. We step into certain roles (i.e. aspects of ourselves), and once you call “action!” it could be stopped at any moment.
But Wait… Isn’t BDSM Abuse?
One question that gets thrown around a good amount when it comes to BDSM play is that some people still have a perception of BDSM equalling abuse.
Let’s set the record straight. Abuse is non-consensual. BDSM is consensual. If someone has explicitlyasked that you spank them, or bite their neck, or tie up their hands during sex, then you are not abusing them… you are simply delivering on exactly what they asked for.
Once establishing this difference, a common follow up question that I have received dozens of times is “Can BDSM ever actually be healthy… or is this just people acting out their repressed stuff around sexuality and secretly wanting to be abused?”
First of all, everyone has repressed stuff around their sexuality. We are complex beings who grew up in a world that has a collectively tight asshole and we all carry some degree of shame or resistance around our sexuality (even if it’s only 1%).
Second, a big emphatic NO to this question. Making someone wrong for enjoying pain (or the feeling of being dominated, or the feeling of being denied an orgasm, etc. etc. etc.) is as outdated and narrow-minded as thinking that gay people were gay because they were acting out repressed anger towards one of their parents. It holds no basis of validity whatsoever.
To be fair, there are absolutely some people who enter into the BDSM lifestyle because they have unintegrated shit that they haven’t faced within themselves, and do just want to beat and/or be beaten. But people also enter into vanilla intimate relationships in order to experience or inflict pain (mainly emotional and psychological). So this isn’t in any way a BDSM specific thing. This is an ‘a lot of humans don’t work through their shit‘ thing.
And if you still think that psychologically healthy people can’t engage in edgier sexual play, then this (9 times out of 10) is just the question-asker’s way of projecting their own unintegrated dark side on to the people who are engaging in BDSM. In other words, a part of them wants to do the thing they’re judging, but they’re in denial about it.
So, What Is BDSM?
The acronym BDSM encompasses three fundamental dynamics in the realm of kinky sexual play:
B/D – Bondage & Discipline
D/S – Dominance & Submission
S/M – Sadism & Masochism
Since it’s the foundation of most situations involving BDSM, let’s start with Dominance & Submission.
In kink, one person is usually designated to assume a dominant role, while the other will take on a submissive one. The common shorthand for these roles are simply Dom (for women, some prefer Domme) and sub. A person who enjoys taking on either role at different times would be known as a Switch.
In any given scene, the Dom will step into an assertive and directive energy, and the sub will be yielding and compliant, which could look like a Master/slave dynamic, for example. There are absolutely no gender rules for who “should” take on any role. The fluidity of the Dom/sub dynamic applies across same-sex and inter-sex play. This all comes down to personality and the types of fantasy any person wants to explore, or allow their partner to explore. Many men enjoy stepping into a hyper-submissive role and being dominated by a woman.
While playing those roles, what exactly it is you’ll get up to differs wildly. It could look like saucy pillow talk, or you tying someone up before teasing and fucking them, or someone making you crawl around on the floor like a snake, while wearing handcuffs and a leather mask and crying for your mommy, before they pee on you while screaming, “You fucking love it, you little reptilian loser!”
This is where communication and boundary setting is huge (more on that later). Before engaging in any kind of BDSM play, all parties express their desires, preferences, and hard limits, which is anything that is out-of-bounds and beyond your comfort zone. Everyone agrees on a safe word (or phrase) to be used in the event someone feels uncomfortable, unsafe, or simply ‘over it’, and wants to stop the scene immediately.
Many couples who engage in BDSM also have two safe words. One that, when uttered, ceases all sexual play, and another safe word that signals, ‘I’m happy to stay in character, but I want the specifics or intensity of what we’re doing to shift.’ Two of the most common examples of safe words are red, and yellow (yes, like the traffic light colours), where red means full stop and yellow means change things up.
Safe wording becomes crucial when we get into Bondage & Discipline. Bondage is any play that involves one partner tying or restraining another with either ropes, cuffs, belts, velcro, neckties, etc. Discipline is a type of play that involves an element of punishment. This dynamic could set up where the Dom sets rules and guidelines for what the sub has to, or cannot, say and do. Or, the sub simply enjoys the feeling of having been “bad”, and needing to be punished by the Dom in some way (ex. roleplaying a student in detention with a teacher.)
This “punishment” could range from strictly verbal discipline, to light spanking, to much more intense and edgy scenarios. Again, the direction is always determined by the desires and kinks of those involved, and the action is ALWAYS trumped by a safe word. As in, if the sub says ‘red’ mid-scene, all action stops, and the Dom checks in with the sub and gives them whatever they need to feel safe again.
Sadism & Masochism are two orientations in deriving sexual pleasure from pain, suffering and humiliation. A sadist is someone who gets off on inflicting it in another person, whereas a masochist gets off on receiving it. In BDSM terms, hardcore masochists are also often referred to as pain sluts.
If you fall into the S&M category, knowing your orientation is especially helpful in enabling you to communicate with current and potential partners, since you already know the type of person whose kinks would compliment your own.
Now that we’ve broken down the acronym…
Two Pillars of Healthy BDSM
1. Getting The Right Mindset
The 2nd pillar (communication) is absolutely crucial, and will be the most frequently used during your kinky adventures. But I’m putting this point about mindset before it because it’s the invisible force that shapes all your communication with partners in the first place, as well as how you end up leading your kinky fuckery.
It also ensures the safety and emotional/mental health of your playmates when you get into more intense BDSM play in the moment.
In order to properly communicate what you want, who you are, and what you can offer, you first have to KNOW all those things, and feel confident/comfortable enough to voice them.
If you’re just starting out, it’s perfectly fine to not know exactly where you fit in to the BDSM landscape. In that case, you can honestly say, “I’m new to this and really interested in exploring domination and a little bondage (or whatever you’re into). I think that might be for me, and I’m looking for someone who’s open to experimenting as my Dom/sub.”
Take time to really think about the experiences you want to have for yourself, or what you want to provide for others.
Then, beyond those details, the most important part of this point is something you may never actually discuss with another person: examining your shadow side.
The place you’re coming from when engaging in BDSM matters a lot. The motivations behind your desires to dominate, submit, punish, etc, have a massive influence on how you come across when you’re in the moment, and the ultimate level of safety, respect and enjoyment the other person ends up feeling. Any unhealthy intentions will shine through in the way you conduct yourself.
You can’t just be blindly acting out your repressed anger, mommy issues, or self-loathing. Your foray into BDSM needs to be about conscious exploration. If you’re aware of the real reasons behind why you have the kinks you do, then you can express your dark sexual energy in a healthy way, rather than let it run you and put other people at risk.
Look at your kinks with curiosity. Ask where they might have come from, or what some part of you wants to get from exploring them. For example, there is nothing wrong with admitting you have a lust for power, and want to feel like you’re controlling someone, and then communicating with your partner to help create a consensual sexual container in which you can experience that feeling.
What you don’t want to do is stop at the thought, “I just want to fucking dominate and punish someone”. Left unexamined, this impulse could be backed by many unhealthy things, such as a subconscious hatred for women, which makes you an especially volatile and unsafe partner for BDSM.
No matter how edgy you get, it should ALWAYS be backed with a capacity for sensitivity, empathy, and care. BDSM play is about expanding, exploring, and liberating yourselves. It all starts in your own mind. How open, honest, and total you can be with each other is a reflection of the extent to which you’ve already done that with yourself.Exclusive Content – For Men Only
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Respectful communication and consent are always important in relationship. But they become vitally necessary pre-requisites for BDSM. Deeply exploring this is only possible when there is completetrust between partners, and this trust should be treated like an antique porcelain doll.
In BDSM, people may get into the most vulnerable situations they have ever experienced (ie. being tied up and punished). Because people’s emotional health and most intimate sense of personal safety is involved, you have a responsibility to look after them and conduct yourself with integrity.
Follow the acronym RACK – Risk Aware Consensual Kink. Fully flesh out each other’s needs, wants and preferences. Be fully explicit. How total you can be in this conversation sets up just how total you can be when it comes to actually playing with each other.
Examples of things to consider: Do they have any preferred nicknames? Do they like minimal/no talking? Do they like a lot of mind-fucking and dirty talk, or prefer simpler/cleaner language? Do they want to play with toys? Are they open to being tied up or would they prefer that you hold them down with your bare hands? Do they have any sexual trauma or triggering situations you should be mindful of? What dynamics do they want to explore? What is off-limits? What is a maybe/wait-and-see situation that they’re curious about?
A) Hard Limits & Safe Words
When BDSM is done right, the people involved feel totally free and absolutely dripping with juicy ecstasy.
That sense of freedom comes from implicit trust, a sense of safety, and having set up clear parameters to play within. This is where expressing your hard limits and creating a safe word pays off big time.
Hard limits are the things that cross a personal line and make you feel unsafe, violated, or turned off. You could a have a simple limit around the language another person uses, such as names like “slut”, or “my bitch”. Or it could be around something more physical like slapping, spanking, choking, being tied up, anal, etc.
Talk with each other about your hard limits up front and set up clear boundaries for what you’re into and not into. Keep it spicy by talking about what turns you on, and be descriptive in the process. This will also allow the other person to ask qualifying questions to better understand your arousal and where you might want to push the envelope.
Safe words are distinct words/phrases you use in the moment to clearly communicate that you want to STOP immediately. Because saying or shouting the actual word “stop” could play into the scene, or someone’s kinks, it’s a confusing word to use to communicate that a boundary has actually been crossed.
Instead, choose something distinct that you would otherwise have no reason to think to say during sex or a kink scene. Like, “Martha Stewart”, or “Orangutan”, or “Quidditch” (unless you’re roleplaying Harry Potter, cooking shows, or a zookeeper… but get creative and generate some ideas).
There is no shortage of gear, gadgets and gizmos to put on the inside, or outside, of someone getting into BDSM play. Some people like using a ton of toys, while other people like ‘primal BDSM’ (no toys at all).
Talk about whether or not you’d like to explore with some gear. If you’re curious, but unsure of what you actually like, you can pick up a pretty cheap starter kit online with some classic items, like cuffs, blind-folds, leather wrist restrains, floggers, whips, etc. Vibrators, anal beads, paddles, masks, collars, leashes, leather tops and zentai suits (full-body spandex) are all optional goodies to choose-your-own-adventure with.
These toys all have different effects, depending on the kind of play you and your partner want to engage in, and you’ll never really know until you try them.
Another fun way to shop for toys is to go to an actual retail store in person and browse the shop together to find something that turns you on. You’ll get some solid laughs, at the very least, and good bonding time (pun intended) in the process.
When you finish a scene, always spend a little time talking and touching base on how it went. While it won’t always be appropriate (or advantageous) to debrief the scene right away (say, because your sub is in sub space and just needs to enjoy the delicious afterglow), it is a good habit to be in to discuss how the scene went for them at some point after it has happened.
How was that for you? What really turned you on? What will you be thinking about for days? Did anything surprise you? Did anyone come close to crossing the line at any point? What are you curious to try in the future? What do/don’t you want to do again? Is that a good level of pain/bruising/biting/etc.?
This time is about celebration, calibration, respect and connection. The best BDSM partner’s are talkative and show open interest in learning about both themselves and the other person, to have even better experiences in the future. Just like any ‘normal’ sex life, BDSM is an iterative process that gets better with time. And it gets better by having an open channel of communication surrounding it where anything goes.
How To Be A Loving Dom To Your Sub
Before people get into BDSM, they might think that the Dom has all the power. But the exact opposite is actually the case. The sub is actually in total control of the scene. Not only can they drop the safe word or redirect the action at a moment’s notice… but all of the action that is being carried out is being handpicked (by the Dom) from the sub’s menu of items that they enjoy. It is a highly curated experience for the sub.
A good Dom isn’t a ruthless tyrant. They’re actually incredibly sensitive, acutely aware, and big-hearted. They are hyper-plugged in to their partner and sensitive to their inner state at all times. They know who really has the power – and it’s not them.
A good Dom knows stepping into the dominant role is an honour and act of service. They acknowledge the privilege of walking someone to the edge of their sexual boundaries and allowing them to experience peak levels of pleasure. The Dom is simply the servant to the subs wishes.
They know their sub has to trust them in the most intimate way, and put themselves on the line, and a good Dom does not take that act of trust lightly. They’re protective, cautious, mindful, communicative, and nurturing.
They know their outer limits of their own personal edges, understand their minds, and wield their power and intensity responsibly with intention.
Extra Tips For Doms:
Language – Verbal communication is huge in setting and supercharging an erotic container. Don’t be shy to indulge in tons of dirty talk. Have fun and try to surprise yourself. Once you know your sub’s preferred, or off-limit, nicknames, use one to order them around, tell them what you want them to do, or get them to tell you how much they love what you’re doing and/or want more of. You can even sneakily ask your sub what they want, and still remain in a powerful Dom position, if you do it with vigor and authority. Ex: “You want it harder, you squirmy little thing? Oh yeah? Is that what you want? My pretty little slut? I’ll give it to you when I’m good and fucking ready.” And then build up to going in the direction they’re yearning to go.
Hair pulling – grab a fistful at the nape of the neck/back of the head. Tug slowly and firmly at first, and progressively increase the intensity. BDSM is all about timing and building anticipation. Once you get going, you might use that same grip to direct their head or attention.
Spanking – Just like hair pulling, start slowly and build up. Warm up with light spanking to bring blood flow to the area. This increases pain tolerance (as opposed to starting with viciously hard spanks right off the bat) and makes the sensation more enjoyable. Use your nails to lightly scratch, or grip, and vary the stimulation. Then work your way up to harder spanking. Depending on your sub’s threshold, go hard! Don’t be afraid to leave marks. Make lots of noise, grunt, be vocal. Let your enjoyment show.
Biting – You’ll discover where your sub is most responsive to being bitten. Good places to try are: the side of the neck, where the bra strap falls above the collar bone, ribs, hips, shoulders, thighs, etc. Some people like light grazing with the teeth, whereas others want to see marks for a week. Talk ahead of time, experiment in the moment, and calibrate accordingly.
Takedown/Wrestling/Physical domination – Holding your sub down with your hands is another fun thing to play around. Whether you take their wrists and pin them down during foreplay, or put the majority of your weight on their shoulders and hold them down while you’re inside of them is up to you. The sky’s the limit.
Rules – It’s fun to play around with different types and levels of rules, in and out of the bedroom. You can have standing rules for your sexual play that your sub has to adhere to.
Some examples of rules that your sub can follow:
Always keep your lips parted/legs parted/palms open during sex
Always call your Dom daddy, or sir, or master
Always ask for permission before you have an orgasm
Always thank your Dom for spanks/orgasms/your punishments, etc.
Always beg to be penetrated/to be spanked/for your Dom’s cum/etc.
Punishments – When your sub fails to follow a rule (or whenever you feel like it) punishments can be dispensed liberally. These punishments can be pre-agreed on or they can be improvised (within the stylistic range of what you and your sub have pre-agreed upon).
Some examples of punishments:
Denying them an orgasm (once, repeatedly, or altogether during a scene)
Spanking X number of times while they count along with the number of spanks out loud
Discontinuing pleasuring them for a minute (taking the vibrator off of their clitoris, taking a break from penetrating them, etc.)
Slapping them on their face (watch out for the eyes and ears)
Putting a ball gag in their mouth (if that is a challenge for them/something they mildly dislike)
Putting on nipple clamps and hanging small weights off of them (if that is a challenge for them/something they mildly dislike)
The thing about punishments is that, again, this is all mental. Sometimes you want to frame something as a punishment that is actually quite enjoyable (i.e. “I’m going to fuck you viciously for the next 20 seconds and I don’t want to hear the tiniest sound out of you”). And other times their punishment could just be you taking something immensely pleasurable for you (essentially using them) which they might also enjoy. So the punishment/reward part of BDSM is largely just in how you frame it with your words and energy.
Toys – Talk about what you might want to use during this particular scene. Your sub might be in the mood for restraints or anal beads one week, but not into it at all the next. Maybe they want you to have free reign to use anything you want. Again, if you want to ask mid-scene, it doesn’t mean you have to kill the polarity. You can do it from a place of power with a sense of ownership.
Orgasm Denial – Like building anticipation with hair pulling or spanking, don’t just rush your sub to orgasm. When you can feel it building in them, back off and build them back up again. Tell them exactly what you’re doing when you’re doing it. Leading them up and down the arousal arch multiple times can lead to a massive release once you let them go all the way. This takes confidence, intuition, and a sensitivity to and intimate knowledge of your partner’s body to do well.Exclusive Content – For Men Only
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If you take on the role of Dom, you immediately take on the responsibility for the wellbeing of your sub. When you wrap the scene, pamper your sub and get them whatever they need – towels, a glass of water, ice packs, lotion, cuddles, etc.
BDSM and domination will look vastly different for each couple/group engaged in it. But know that if you’re getting rough and take things to a sub’s edge for a prolonged period of time, their body is going to dump a ton of chemicals into their system, which is a cocktail of panic and arousal. They will likely need extreme tenderness and care after the fact.
This can also lead to something called a “sub drop”, which is very similar to the fallout people experience for a few days after a manic episode. Or how some people experience ‘vulnerability hangovers’ when they share something personal with a close friend (and then wonder, the following day, if that was the right thing to do).
Keep checking in with them in the days following any intense scenes to make sure they’re keeping well, know that they are loved by you, and supporting them through any issues that might be arising in their mind.
At the very least, if they’re new to BDSM, the person might just have questions, doubts, fears, shame, or confusion arising after trying it for the first time. Having a compassionate, supportive voice of reason goes a long way in helping them stay grounded and remember everything you’re doing is perfectly okay, so long as it’s consensual and within your personal boundaries.
How To Talk To Your Partner About Trying Out BDSM Play
So you’ve read this far in the article and you haven’t been scared off yet. Great!
If BDSM still appeals to you (somewhat, or extremely) then you might be asking yourself, “How do I bring this up with my partner?”
Similarly to initiating the conversation of ‘opening up’ your relationship (aka engaging in polyamory/having multiple partners), this is a conversation that is easier to have up front/in a new relationship compared to it already being an established thing… but only marginally. It all comes down to how comfortable you are with talking about your sexual desires generally.
If you’re in an established relationship and you want to introduce BDSM play, then there are a few ways in which you can go about that.
You can introduce media about the subject. While there is no perfect media portrayal that I can point to just yet, I would recommend watching The Secretary (the 2002 film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal). If you must, you can watch the Fifty Shades of Grey film but honestly it’s so bad. Like, laughably bad. I’d recommend the books over the films (and that’s really saying something).
You can blame your curiosity on me and tell your partner that you read this article and now you wonder what introducing a bit of BDSM play into your relationship would be like.
Or you can just have a plain old direct conversation with your partner about it where you tell them, “Hey, I’ve been fantasizing about stuff like X, Y, and Z lately. Would you ever be open to try anything like that with me?” And then letting them respond, and calibrating/finding your mutual overlap from there.
Because, hey, if you’re mature enough to have sex, then you’re mature enough to talk about sex.
To wrap up:
Take time to figure out what you like and want to explore in BDSM
Examine the deeper and darker motives behind your kinks (we all have them – leave no stone unturned)
Talk, talk, talk. Flesh out your sexual boundaries, hard limits and preferences, and those of your partner(s)
Set up a safe word or two
Roughly plan your scene dynamics, call action, and always play within the mutually agreed parameters
Conduct yourself with totality, sensitivity, and respect
Do your best to ditch self-consciousness. Let go and have fun!
Do proper aftercare and follow up with each other
Talk some more! Debrief on how the scene went and what you want to do/change next time.
I applaud the deep courage it takes to let yourself fully step into the strange, kinked up world of BDSM. If you communicate with your partner, give yourself permission to cut loose, and treat each other well, you’re likely about to have some of the most exhilarating sexual experiences of your entire life.
Remember that BDSM is ultimately about liberation, exploration, empowerment, increased self-knowledge and (above all else)… FUN. Be playful and stay kinky you beautiful people!
Dedicated to your success,
Ps. If you enjoyed reading this article, you will also love checking out:
Pps. A quick reminder that BDSM doesn’t have to hurt! Many people equate the idea of BDSM (or even bondage) with pain, and this isn’t necessarily the case. Some people find the idea of restraint and the power dynamics themselves the turn on. You can have your partner hold you down… or call you a raunchy name… or tie up your wrists and make you climax with a sex toy, with ZERO pain… and all of these things would still easily fall under the BDSM category. Remember, you can make BDSM into whatever you want it to be for you. Your sex life should be as unique as you are. There’s no correct way to do sex, ever. What works for you and your partner(s), is what works for you – and that’s perfectly fine.
BDSM is an acronym that refers to Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, or Sadism & Masochism between consenting adults. It may be considered a practice, a lifestyle, an orientation, and a subculture. However, many people may engage in BDSM practices while not identifying with this label. Other terms you may hear to indicate an interest or affiliation with BDSM include kink, fetish, leather, and S&M.
Although popular culture may convey BDSM as something that is about inflicting or receiving pain, there are many people who engage in BDSM who simply eroticize bondage, sensation play (pain, hot/cold, touch, tickling, etc.), or power dynamics. Some prefer just one of these activities and do not pursue play that includes the full range of these behaviors.
People who engage in BDSM may take part in “scenes” when they “play” together. Those who practice BDSM may identify as dominants, tops, masters, mistresses, or sadists. Those who are in more passive roles may identify as submissives, subs, bottoms, masochists, boys and girls, or slaves. Some people switch roles during play and are called switches.
People engage in very careful negotiations before play in which boundaries, limits, and sensitivities are explained and agreed upon. For example, a submissive may expressly state that he or she does not like being called certain names during a scene. Or, he or she may object to pain play but enjoy performing acts of service. It is the responsibility of both parties to clearly communicate preferences and limits before play.
Another part of negotiation includes what each party (especially the bottom or submissive) may need as aftercare when they are coming down from the scene. Many people also require some aftercare and a check in the day after play.
Skilled “players,” understand these aspects of play and they also have usually obtained education in learning how to practice these acts without causing serious harm. For example, they know where on a person’s body it is dangerous to engage in “impact play” (e.g., spanking or flogging). Or they know how to put someone into bondage safely without risking loss of circulation, inability to breathe, or damage to limbs or organs.
SSC = Safe, Sane, and Consensual
These are the principles guiding BDSM play. Safe means measures are taken to prevent risks. Sane means that people do not engage in BDSM when drunk, tired, or under the influence of substances or strong emotions, but are sure to be in a sound state of mind. Consensual means that the full consent of all parties is obtained before entering into play. Other people use the term RACK which stands for Risk Aware Consensual Kink.
What are Safe Words?
These are agreed upon words that any partner can use to slow down or end a BDSM scene immediately. For example, “yellow,” might be used to indicate that the bottom or submissive needs things to slow down, whereas “red” would indicate, we need to stop now. But tops and dominants might also decide to slow down or stop scenes if they become concerned about safety. If someone is gagged, other cues may be used such as one hand squeeze or two, or having the bottom drop a handkerchief she is holding to communicate non-verbally to her top.
Who Engages in BDSM?
The Kinsey Institute estimated that 5-10% of people in America engaged in BDSM for sexual pleasure (Reinisch & Beasley, 1990).
Janus & Janus (1993) found that up to 14% of American males and 11% of American females have engaged in some form of BDSM behavior.
A 2005 survey of 317,000 people indicated that 10% of people in the U.S. have engaged in BDSM and 5% of people worldwide have engaged in it (Durex, 2005).
Over 60% of 1,516 people have fantasized about BDSM (Joyal, Cossette, & Labierre, 2014).
People of all genders, abilities, ethnicities, and sexual orientations engage in BDSM.
Why Learn More About Kinky Clients?
Because there may be kinky people in your practice who just haven’t revealed themselves to you. You don’t want to commit a microaggression against such a client.
Because a friend, family member, or partner of a kinky person may be a patient of yours and they may wish to discuss this with you.
Because you will need to be a safe and knowledgeable clinician by the time a client discloses these things to you.
Because you should know when it is appropriate to refer a client to a kink-aware clinician or when you need to consult with one.
In a study on 175 kink-identified people who had been in treatment, 65% disclosed their BDSM identity to their psychotherapist and 45% did not ever tell their psychotherapist they were kinky (Kolmes, Stock, & Moser, 2006).
Why Do They Do It?
Most participants who engage in BDSM report that it is trust enhancing. It is experienced as pleasurable and joyful. They report enhanced intimacy and greater sexual satisfaction.
It is important to remember that not everyone experiences sensation or pain in the same way, and when aroused, many people experience pain differently than they would when not aroused. Others enjoy playing with the power dynamics.
Many people consider kink just one of the activities they enjoy and they also enjoy and engage in “vanilla” (non BDSM) sex and intimacy.
Are BDSM People Pathological?
Despite being historically stigmatized and pathologized, there is empirical evidence negating such theories of mental illness for BDSM participants.
One study of 132 American BDSM practitioners showed that the sample was comparable to published norms on tests of clinical pathology and severe personality pathology (Connolly, 2006) and there were no elevations on measures of depression, anxiety, OCD, psychological sadism or masochism, or PTSD. This study did, however, indicate slightly higher levels of narcissism in the BDSM group.
In a nationally representative sample from Australia, BDSM play was not related to any sexual difficulties or higher psychological distress, and, in fact, men had significantly lower psychological distress than the non-BDSM control group (Richters et al, 2008).
In a Dutch study of 902 participants, BDSM participants were found to be less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, but less agreeable. They also had similar or better attachment scores than the control group, were less sensitive to rejection, and reported higher subjective well-being. (Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013).
BDSM vs. Abuse
Sometimes abuse does occur in a BDSM relationship. It is when this is happening that a clinician well-versed in the community norms can help a client identify this. Abuse in BDSM relationships can be particularly difficult for a client to deal with. Because the BDSM community is already stigmatized, many people feel afraid of telling others about abuse, especially if it happens with an experienced player who has a good reputation. This may lead to greater isolation. NCLR offers a good document defining the difference between BDSM and abuse.
Why Do BDSM or Kinky People Seek Treatment?
In one study, 74.9% of 175 BDSM clients noted that the issues that brought them into therapy had nothing to do with BDSM (Kolmes, Stock, & Moser, (2006).
However, when several kink-aware practitioners were asked by this author to note themes that had come up in therapy with kinky people when the treatment issues were directly related to kink, the following items were listed (personal communication, 2013):
Coming out (to self, partner, or someone else) or fear of others discovering BDSM identity or interests;
Compulsive issues around sexuality or BDSM;
Discomfort with BDSM identity or wanting to extinguish BDSM interests;
Fear of not being able to find partner(s) with compatible desires/interests;
Identifying or recovering from an abusive dynamic in a BDSM relationship;
Guilt and shame about accidentally hurting a partner or crossing a partner’s boundaries;
Lack of clarity around sexual interests or type(s) of sensation or power dynamics that would be most satisfying;
Mismatch in sexual preferences within a relationship;
Difficulty sharing BDSM community space with a former partner after a breakup.
Are There Guidelines for Working with BDSM Clients?
APA has not published formal guidelines; however, those familiar with kinky clients in psychotherapy have suggested some. These guidelines (Kolmes & Witherspoon, 2012) were adapted from Kleinplatz & Moser (2004), and they also include polyamorous people (those who practice consensual nonmonogamy).
Be aware that distress over kink or poly identity may be a normal part of internalized cultural bias against the sexual orientation rather than evidence of a disorder. The clinician can take the role of validating the distress and helping a client to locate and get support from community resources.
Take note of whether and how kink or poly identities affect work, social, and family relationships.
Be careful to not assume that a client’s presenting issue is caused by or is related to their kink or poly lifestyle.
Be mindful about making assumptions about clients’ treatment goals – particularly that these goals include changing their sexual desires.
Do not try to “cure” clients of BDSM or poly desires. This may be as ineffective as reparative therapy for LGBT clients.
Do not assume abuse when someone is in a BDSM relationship.
Do not assume a client is cheating or is tolerating cheating if they bring up other partners.
Do not assume that BDSM interests mean that a client is not also interested in conventional sexual behaviors.
Be aware of your own countertransference issues and how they may enter the therapy. Consult with colleagues who are knowledgeable about altsex behavior.
Educate yourself, seek consultation, or refer out when you are practicing outside of your boundaries of competence.
Who Are Kink-Aware Professionals and Where Can I Find One?
If you are looking for a Kink-Aware professional in your community to refer to or consult with, the best national resource is at the National Coalition of Sexual Freedom. Their Kink-Aware Professionals database also includes other professionals such as attorneys and accountants.
“I don’t know how to explain it … but I have more clarity the morning after. It’s come to a point where my partner and I ensure we engage in a play scene before any big meetings I have. It really gives me the boost I need.”
R.P. is a 32-year-old consultant living in Mumbai. When she joined a high-powered consulting firm seven years ago, she found herself struggling to keep up with the pace and make herself heard.
“Around the same time, I got into a relationship with a man who was into BDSM [bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; sadism and masochism] and kink play. He introduced me to it and I instantly took a liking to it,” R.P. says. “Surprisingly, I found myself gravitating towards the role of the Dominant. Within the confines of a loving and safe space with a partner I trusted, I was able to assert myself in ways I couldn’t outside my bedroom. Slowly, I began to notice that especially on days after we had engaged in a play scene, I would feel more focussed, composed and clear-headed. It was almost as if the satisfied feeling I felt in bed, in that position of power, flowed over the next day. I feel like I know more about myself — my mind and my body.”
According to recent research by Dr. Brad Sagarin, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, kinks such as BDSM alter the blood flow pattern in the brain, creating altered states of consciousness. For those who assume the dominant position in BDSM, these mental states are called “flow” — the term popularized by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It’s a state of hyperawareness, laser focus, and euphoria, which resonates with R.P.’s experience. “I just feel more brave, if that makes sense,” she says. Sagarin’s research confirms just that. The study found that people who regularly experience flow as an effect of dominant BDSM roles report improved concentration, clarity about goals, decision-making skills, and listening and intuitive skills. They also demonstrate lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, less self-consciousness and less aversion to risk.
The study also found those taking on submissive roles in BDSM play experience “transient hypofrontality,” a peaceful, dreamlike state, often compared to a runner’s high or described as being “in the zone.” Creativity and productivity peak in this state of decreased self-awareness.
R.P. explains how her female friends from the BDSM community have discussed this before: “Sometimes when we share — and we’re all doms — our experiences with each other, we all agree that we are in a great mood throughout the next day and feel more energized and creative. It’s like a strange high, knowing what we did the previous night.”
People who experience either of these altered mental states report higher levels of happiness, creativity, and productivity for up to three days after, according to research by Harvard University professor Teresa Amabile. They also report transferring the focus, confidence, concentration, and decision-making skills of BDSM into everyday life. It is no wonder, then, that people who engage in BDSM are less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less sensitive to rejection, and have higher subjective well-being outside the bedroom, according to a 2016 study on the psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners.
“It’s like learning how to negotiate with another person.”
Additionally, partners who engage in sadomasochism are more connected and more intimate than those who do not engage in it, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. The honest expression of one’s fantasies and desires, and consensually, respectfully and safely executing that as a BDSM scene, requires a high level of communication and trust between partners — a feature regularly absent from non-kinky or “vanilla” sex, as the BDSM community calls it.
“My boyfriend and I have definitely become much closer since we started exploring this space together. We don’t lie to each other in our relationship — white lies not included, and even those we mostly confess — because the trust between us is the same, inside and outside the bedroom,” says R.P. “There’s very little drama and if we ever fight, we usually resolve it by talking to each other. But it almost never reaches that point because every day, in a way, we tell each other about what it is that we want from the other person and what we don’t. It’s like learning how to negotiate with another person.”
Women have traditionally been discouraged from developing such open and clear communication skills. In 2018, former dominatrix, Kasia Urbaniak started The Academy, a school to teach women the “foundations of power and influence” via month-long female empowerment sessions in New York. Speaking to The Guardian, she says: “It’s about the communications that women carry that either make them go speechless, or afraid of coming across as too bossy or too needy.” Urbaniak explains that by being in the dominant role of BDSM, women learn to project their strength and attention outward. It’s a skill they can then use to flip the power dynamic in the outside world, where women are forced to turn their attention inward, with self-doubt and over-analysis.
Not everyone is convinced of BDSM’s benefits, however. The feminist sex wars over BDSM’s potential for women’s empowerment rage on, with one side seeing BDSM as a way to explore and enable female sexuality, and the other side seeing it as yet another manifestation of the hyper-masculine, patriarchal order’s violent idea of sex. But, as black lesbian poet and feminist writer Audrey Lorde puts it in a personal essay, embracing the erotic fosters a deep and irreplaceable “self-connection and fearless underlining of [one’s] capacity for joy.” Released of social context, when examined in individual’s lives and homes, BDSM seems to allow, well, release. And that kind of release writes Lorde, “flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”
Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle’s Features Editor. When she isn’t fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.
For kinky people, finding a shrink who knows the difference between ball gags and cock and ball torture can be a godsend.By Alice SandersMay 23, 2016, 9:00pm
ILLUSTRATION BY ELEANOR DOUGHTY
Finding a therapist can be a major problem for anyone who’s into BDSM or fetish. The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, updated in 2013, is the first version in the 62-year history of psychiatry’s diagnostic bible that does not classify BDSM as a marker of mental illness. But surveys show that far more people are into kink than commonly assumed: A 2008 survey from Durex found that 36 percent of people in the US deploy masks, blindfolds, and bondage tools as part of their sexual repertoire.
Kinky people need therapy to deal with the stresses of life just as much as their vanilla peers, but they can run into problems when trying to find a therapist who knows the difference between a dungeon monitor and a domme. Demand for kink-identified therapists has led to websites like LGBTQ-oriented Pink Therapy in the UK and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom in the US. On the NCSF website, therapists are divided into three classifications: kink friendly, kink-aware, and kink-knowledgeable.
“By stating that you work with kinky clients you’re raising the possibility that you’re also kinky,” says Joanna*, an integrative therapist working in London. “Some clients will make that assumption, especially if you have a high level of kink knowledge.” She goes on to say that she’s comfortable outing herself as a BDSM practictioner to a client if they have explicitly told her that they are part of the community.
There are good reasons to do this. Clients often come to her having already had a bad experience with a therapist who lacked BDSM understanding. Katie*, a psychodynamic therapist also working in London, tells me that she sees one kinky couple who have been through four previous professionals. “I believe they’ve been treated poorly by the therapists they’ve approached.”
More than just a simple lack of knowledge of kink, vanilla therapists can sometimes bring their own negative preconceptions of BDSM to sessions. It’s something both Joanna’s clients and friends have had to deal with in the past. “Therapists have suggested that kink is externalized self-harm; that’s it’s problematic playing with power, that it’s a form of unhealthy risk taking.” She explains that some keep bringing up kink as symptomatic of a deeper mental health issue, but kink-positive therapy means that “clients can reveal this information in passing, and it’s accepted as a normal healthy part of their relationship.”
Kink can sometimes involve behaviors that someone not in the scene may struggle to wrap their head around (toenail fetishes, anyone?) and clients often don’t want to waste time educating a kinky therapist on the terminology and dynamics of the scene. When a shrink come out as kinky, it’s not just to assure their clients that they won’t have a bad experience in therapy, but to show they can have a positive one.
“There’s often an assumption that BDSM-ers are attempting to re-enact childhood abuse, whereas no studies have ever found any correlation,” Joanna explains of non-kinky therapists. With those who do incorporate S&M into their personal lives, however, “there’s a better understanding of the differences between consensual kink and an abusive dynamic, which may be more difficult for therapists who aren’t kinky themselves.” In fact, a recent Northern Illinois University study showed that those who participated in BDSM are far more likely to understand key issues of consent.
But identifying yourself as a kinky professional can come with its challenges, too. Therapist and client will usually have zero relationship outside of the therapeutic space, but that isn’t possible in places with small kink scenes. It brings with it the risk that the client will learn personal details about a therapist. Katie suggests that any extra information revealed to a client can tamper with the therapeutic process. “You can get into a bit of a problem if a client is able to glean so much information they can say, ‘That person is like me, that’s why I’m going to them.'”
But Joanna calls into question the concept that the therapist is ever really a ‘blank screen.’ “I don’t try to conceal the fact I’m kinky, and similarly I don’t conceal that I’m queer. I want to model that I’m not ashamed rather than risking appearing complicit in the shame that marginalized people are often made to experience.” There’s an untrue assumption, she says, that presenting in a normative way is somehow ‘blank.’ “Why is it more acceptable to model that than a queer proud person?”
But perhaps the most important reason for a therapist to come out as kinky is the not-inconsiderable chance that therapist and client might end up at the same event and lock eyes over a whipping bench. Once Joanna has acknowledged that her and a client are both kinky, she will encourage them to tell her if they plan to attend a play party or fetish night. If it became clear that she and a client were planning to go to the same event, she is likely not to attend. The other option is to talk about it: “We may negotiate how it would work depending on the size of the event and what it was.”
So what happens if a therapist crosses paths with their client at a fetish club? The usual professional policy for running into someone out of the therapeutic space is to only acknowledge them if they acknowledge you first. This prevents putting a client in a situation where they have to explain themselves if they don’t want to. Katie thinks it doesn’t have to be that different when it comes to kink, adding “but it brings in an element of something that at the moment I just feel quite uncomfortable about.” That element, I’m guessing, is the awkwardness that might come from spotting your shrink in a dog collar—or vice versa.
But different people have different boundaries when it comes to seeing their clients at kink events. Joanna used to belong to a professional group of kinky therapists; much of their conversation centred on this problem, and everyone came to different conclusions. “Some therapists have policy statements of the way they deal with clients in kink communities and how they’ll interact at the same events,” she says, adding that no therapist would ever engage in play with a client.
For kinky therapists, there may even be the temptation to distance themselves from the kink community to avoid clients altogether. Joanna points out that this may be detrimental to both their social and professional lives: “What does that bring into the therapy session, if you’ve had to give up something that’s really important to you? People need to coexist in small communities. It’s not about the therapist having to sacrifice everything for their client.” She suggests that it would be preferable, should the therapist choose to attend the event, to negotiate with the client to decide upon appropriate boundaries within the event space, and process how that was for the client during the following session.
Katie, on the other hand, feels the only way she can currently deal with the situation is to remove herself from the kink scene; she says she needs to withdraw until she feels a bit clearer about how to manage it. “I take the clinical responsibility I’ve got very seriously and I just don’t want to fuck it up.”
What is very clear is that both of these therapists have given a great deal of consideration to how to be out and proud as kinky, but still behave ethically and function with their clients in such a small community. In therapy as in kink, it’s all about boundaries.