In their book Rewriting the Rules, Meg-John Barker quotes Gayle Rubin (1984):
“Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere… Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone.”
What it’s not
Before continuing, it will be probably be helpful to dispel a couple of myths and misconceptions about BDsM/Kink.
Many will have heard about, if not read, or seen, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. Here we have Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey entering into what we are led to believe is a BDsM relationship. It is not. It is an abusive relationship. Consent is missing. There is no full consent between the two.
Also, BDsM is not psychopathological. It’s normal. It’s okay. It may not be your “normal”. You may not be “okay” with it. And that’s fine for you, so long as you don’t impose those thoughts and ideas on to others. Reread the opening quote, from Gayle Rubin, if you’re in any doubt about this.
BDsM is a term which covers a wide range of behaviours, generally involving the use and exchange of power in an eroticised relationship. Informed Consent (www.informedconsent.co.uk), the leading website about BDsM in the UK, defines BDsM as ‘a catch-all phrase’. I use ‘BDsM participant’ or ‘SMer’ to describe those who identify with BDsM as a lifestyle or as an activity, and ‘kink’ and ‘kinky’ to describe both BDsM practices and practitioners.
BDsM – Bondage and Discipline (B/D), Domination and Submission (D/s) and Sadism and Masochism (S/M) – is a term used to describe a range of practices or a lifestyle that is characterised by the consensual exchange of power, role play and often intense sensory stimulation (or deprivation). It is a kind of umbrella term for forms of sexuality that include restraint, pressure, sensation, and elements of power exchange between people.
“Sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors” so also in BDsM. It should though be noted that not all BDsM/Kink is sexually based. Some practices / scenes do not engage in sex at all.
The body is involved in the physical aspects, as are the emotions with relationships. For some, participation brings greater sexual desire, as interplay of relationships are managed, along with power and control. Amongst everything communication skills are vital. BDsM/Kink can also help in recovering from shame, which is where the brain comes in. Plus the mind can be caught up with the challenge BDsM/Kink brings to social, cultural and religious beliefs, sexual preferences, desires, attractions, tastes, along with the impact of societal censure, not being seen as a “normal” pastime.
A distinction can be made between the sexual and the erotic. There are many practices and activities that are not sexual, though may be experienced as highly erotic. An example, being restrained and put on display need not involve anyone’s genitals or any actual bodily contact, but can result in an intensely pleasurable and exciting experience. For those who do engage sexually with BDsM/Kink, the following quote on sexual health is relevant:
Sexual health: “a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”
In 2005, Margie Nichols wrote, “in many ways the BDSM community of the early 21st century resembles the gay community of the 1970s, and individuals who struggle with BDSM desires experience a similar internalized shame about their sexuality” (2005, p. 292). Similarly, the limited research done, as that of early LGBTQ research, has been based on single troubled individuals in a specific situation, unrelated to being LGBTQ, that are then, unfortunately, applied across the board.
Although recently de-pathologised in the DSM V, and is now viewed less critically in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) ICD-11, BDsM/Kink continued to be pathologised in the WHO’s ICD-10, so unfortunately myths still continue concerning the BDsM/Kink practice/lifestyle within society and even parts of the therapy community, as it can take a while for new approaches to be accepted. Here I hope to further break down some of the myths.
Much of society and culture sees the world in a binary way. Right and wrong. Good and bad. Female and male. Likewise gender and sex can fall into this viewpoint. So that many see BDsM/Kink as wrong, as being bad. Questions come as to who decides this? However, if we can move away from a binary view, towards a much less restrictive view of human sexuality, we are more able to embrace a diversity of the sexual and erotic. It is my hope readers will gain encouragement toward reflecting and exploring their own belief systems around BDsM. I examine some of the BDsM and kink practices and consider the meanings these may have for people. I concentrate more on the principles, than the specific practices. Before getting into what BDsM/Kink is about, I want to clarify guiding principles that underpin BDsM/Kink.
Safe, Sane and Consensual
Safe, Sane and Consensual – title of a wonderful book, also a crucial strap line for the values of BDsM and kink. I look at each separately, though like a lot of things when looked at individually something is often lost, as they overlap considerably. As well as values and actions being focused on behaving in ways that are “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” (SSC), an alternate phrase is “Risk-Aware Consensual Kink” (RACK) and more recently, “Caring, Communication, Consent, and Caution” (4Cs).
This is about the safety of all involved. Physical safety. Emotional safety. Psychological safety.
Some may wonder about safety, when aspects of BDsM/Kink can be about pain. The type and degree of any pain is though consensual. It is sought after, rather than being imposed on someone. I recognise that may seem bizarre to anyone not familiar with BDsM/Kink. Some may also worry, not only about pain, but about bondage or restrictions on breathing, breath play and asphyxia.
Safety though is a relative concept, as even what is termed, vanilla sex carries risks. Penises can get damaged through vigorous thrusting and then ‘snapping’ if one hits the pubic bone rather than entering the vagina, resulting in Peyronies, and people often have injuries from falling over or off the bed, or bruised throats or tired jaw muscles from vigorous oral sex. Any sex poses risk.
People need to consider risks and consent. Which is perhaps why SSC has fallen out of favour for some, with more people talking now about RACK or 4Cs.
As mentioned, BDsM/Kink is not necessarily sexual. Sometimes it can be about power. Though not power over, in the way power is often viewed, as that would be abusive. Whilst from the outside BDsM/Kink may be thought of and viewed as abusive, the BDsM/Kink community are very keen to protect participants from any kind of abuse. BDsM/Kink is where one participant submits willingly to another. They are not submitting because another wants them to, but rather because they wish to be submissive (often referred to as being a submissive or slave), having sought someone who is willing to dominate (often referred to as being a Dominant or Master) them for a specific activity and time period, commonly known as a scene, wherein a particular type of “play” occurs. Power is exchanged. The submissive hands over some control and yet can take it back at any time. Trust is crucial here. Safe words are crucial in this.
A submissive needs to be careful when choosing a BDsM Dominant. They need to be sufficiently educated, trained and aware to notice if a submissive has some unresolved trauma that may be behind the desire to be dominated or be caused pain. They would then not start the scene, signposting the person to an understanding counsellor / therapist. If this does not happen then the possibility of abuse is present. There are though times where abuse survivors find BDsM/Kink extremely helpful in processing their emotions. An example shown later.
A Dominant should not be out to inflict pain on others for their own satisfaction, more as a service, only as wanted, having deep concern present for their submissive, there being what might be termed genuine or perhaps great empathy and compassion between all participants.
Whilst you may not see any pleasure in pain being administered to yourself, it is certain, that for some there is pleasure, even ecstasy from receiving pain. It should be noted that because a person delights in pain received in a DBsM scene does not mean they appreciate all types of pain. Like many the pain often experienced having a root filling at the dentist is not enjoyed!!
Three quotes from submissive practitioners, show differing perspectives on the pain received:
“I use the word ‘intense sensation,’ it’s more than pain, it’s the energy in the sensations. It has always been an amazing spiritual connection with myself, blissful. It’s beyond pain. There is a ritualistic aspect which is very spiritually charged. (Interview, slave L, 2016)”
“The pain is there, but, within a short time it morphs into an embodied meditation. But it is not like a mental meditation, it’s both out of and in the body. I am flying, free, ecstatic, but fully in the body. (Interview, slave C, 2014)”
“I came across an online group who called themselves ‘The healthy self-masochist.’ Seeing the spin on the use of words healthy with masochism gave me an insight to affirming my experiences in a positive way. I was able to affirm for myself, yes I enjoy these things, these things come from a healthy place. (Interview, slave L, 2016)”
A comparison, that works for some people, is the marathon runner. There comes a point in the running, breaking through an initial pain barrier, when things can start to turn blissful.
To Check against possible abuse there are questionnaires to aid in this, such as the Shahbaz-Chirinos Healthy BDSM Checklist, where there is a set of questions that can be used to help determine if abuse is present. BDsM and abuse are not the same. It is unfortunate that books and films such as the “Fifty Shades” series imply that it was Christian Grey’s youthful abuse that contributed to his desire to be a BDsM Dominant, which he doesn’t do well at.
It can be difficult to detect when BDsM is being used in an abusive fashion, particularly if the activities involved are ones that ‘squick’ a therapist.” This being where another person feels discomfort from hearing about another’s pleasure. This is why it’s helpful to see a BDsM/ kink aware therapist.
- “Don’t Yuk someone else’s Yum”
- “Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is ok”.
Part of staying safe is being aware of the equipment being used. Is it in good condition? Is it well designed and constructed to fulfill its purpose? Also, an awareness of surroundings. Is anything likely to get in the way? Plus, an avoidance of alcohol and drugs that would inhibit a person’s awareness of everything. This applies to both the Dominant, so they are in control of themselves and the submissive so they know if things do go too far for them, so they can appropriately use the agreed safe words.
This is where fantasy and reality are kept separate. People ideally will not confuse any exercise of power exchange negotiated within a BDsM/Kink relationship outside of that context. Part of recognition of this difference is what can make a play scene transformative. This may not work for everyone. Quoting from Safe, Sane and Consensual, to show the possibilities of BDsM:
“We can script a scene so we get to be child, parent, brat, hero, bully, betrayer, cops, criminals, prisoners, interrogators, priests – the possibilities are endless. We can also get to feel a particular emotion: rage, pathos, grief, shame, cunning, predatory, helpless, hapless, omnipotent. A friend of mine once set up a scene with four gay men she knew. She asked them to tie her firmly to a padded table so she could struggle as hard as she could while they flogged her and shouted every insult they could think of that men have shouted to women – cunt, bitch, on the rag and so on. What she wanted to experience fully was her rage, and so she did, screaming and struggling, yelling back, a burning ball of fury safely tied to the safely padded table. They played it through till they were all exhausted, and my friend felt she had accomplished her purpose to completely express her rage at the sexism she had been subjected to all her life. Note that she specifically chose gay men as her tormentors – hetrosexual men might have been a little too threatening.”
“Sagarin and his associates (2009) also reported findings that BDSM practices contribute to health benefits related to stress management, evidenced in decreased cortisol levels. They suggest the “flow” described by BDSM practitioners is similar psychobiologically to the “high” described by athletes and spiritual “peaks” meditators experience. In attempts to further explain these results, Sagarin and his team propose that BDSM may be transformative.”
People talk about consent being a crucial part in all relationships. However, within BDsM it is treated with a level of seriousness and detail not always present in many other places.
If consent is not present, it’s not BDsM, it’s abuse. Without full consensual understanding, by all participants in a scene, it’s either abuse of another or self-abuse.
On her Sexplanations YouTube channel, Dr Lindsay Doe interviews Midori regarding sexual negotiations that take place within BDsM/Kink relationships. See the video below. A 17 minute introduction on the topic, outlining communication skills applicable in all sexual relationships.
Another help towards consent is the Yes-No-Maybe list. The link opens a four page PDF of things to consider. This list is specifically for BDsM/Kink.
Mentioned here, Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent website is another wonderful place to learn about and further develop ways of consent in relationships.
For some BDsM/Kink practitioners this discussion of consent is very arousing, along with anticipation of what’s to come. Compared to, what might be termed regular sexual consent, which is often a yes or no to having sex in general, without much specifics, Kink consent is vastly different. As portrayed in the video above, not only what is going to happen is talked about, there is also the how, where, when, plus length of time.
Take flogging, for example. What type of whip. Soft, gentle, hard strokes. Where, as in which part of the body, buttocks, back, front. When, as in the first part of the scene or later. Length of time, 1 minute, 2 minutes, longer or perhaps how many strokes. Also, there are safe words chosen, which when used the Dominant will immediately slow down or stop whatever they are doing. Often yellow and red.
Such discussions are had about every aspect of a play scene, continuing throughout. If they are not then I’d have concern as to whether the participants are experienced or trained enough. If a client mentioned not having such consensual discussion prior and during a scene I’d offer a caution toward looking for a different Dominant or submissive or getting further BDsM/Kink education.
Following a scene after care is crucial, for both the submissive and the Dominant. Physical care may be needed. Also emotional and psychological support. Perhaps just a hug is needed. Sometimes greater support is required. Water, food are helpful.
Kink – what exactly happens?
Here are a couple of non graphic SFW (Safe For Work) introductions. A 5 minute 44 seconds video, BDSM 101 by lacigreen, interviewing and displaying some BDSM/Kink equipment.
And a slightly longer, 17 minute 38 seconds video from Dr Lindsay Doe, with Amp from Watts The Safeword:
Many studies suggest that counsellors who have negative misconceptions about people involved or interested in BDsM/kink, are largely unfamiliar with key research findings on BDsM/kink relationships and practices, plus there can also be a lack of basic clinical skills needed to provide adequate care for people involved or interested in BDsM/kink. Unfortunately this can result in unethical clinical practices and ineffective or harmful therapeutic outcomes.
In an article Y. Gavriel Ansara identified five essential clinical skills for trauma psychotherapy with people interested or involved in BDsM/kink:
- understanding and identifying BDsM/kink relational roles and headspaces
- distinguishing BDsM/kink from abuse
- understanding and identifying key components of non-abusive BDsM/kink relationships
- determining the clinical salience of BDsM/kink
- and identifying and managing freefall
There isn’t space here to detail this. If your interest is sparked here’s the article.
When someone comes to see a counsellor regarding BDsM/Kink one thing to determine is are they BDsM/Kink aware or perhaps a practitioner themselves.
As a client are you the partner of someone involved in or who wishes to be involved in BDsM/Kink. Are they hoping you’ll perform some kind of reparative therapy for the partner who wants to or is engaged in BDSM/Kink? We, of course, do not engage in reparative therapy.
The book When Someone you Love is Kinky can be helpful in helping the partners to understand each other more.
Something to take into the counselling room, is that if a client/s comes to see us regarding their experiences with BDsM/Kink, we must not make assumptions about their motivation or be dismissive and try to “fix” them, by implying that what they may have experienced or desire is wrong. We do though need to be thoroughly aware of the possibility of abuse and check that is not occurring. See above for a checklist to assist in this.
As counsellors/therapists we need to decide early on if a client comes to us about some aspect of BDsM, do we or do we not feel able to work directly with the BDSM/Kink community? If not we need to be aware of counsellors who are experienced working with the BDsM community who we can signpost a client to.
Communities and finding one
The sites below are BDsM/Kink communities, some in the UK, others elsewhere. They are NSFW (Not Safe For Work). There are also educational and enlightening.
If you want to get invloved in BDsM / Kink take your time. Maybe see a BDsM / kink aware therapist, to explore your whys and wherefores. If looking for a Dominant here are a couple of articles to help – How Do I Find a Dominant? and How Do I Find a Dominant Partner (in a Nice Way)?
- https://fetlife.com/ (NSFW)
- https://thecage.co/ (NSFW)
- https://www.fetster.com/ (NSFW)
- https://www.kinkly.com/ (NSFW)
- https://thebdsmclub.co.uk/ (NSFW)
- https://www.subs-and-doms.com/ (NSFW)
- https://bdsm.com/ (NSFW)
BDsM/Kink is hugely complex. This blog post is but an introduction. If this has sparked an interest in any aspect of BDsM/Kink, or you feel a personal desire to be involved, I’d recommend further study. The books listed in the references will be helpful, plus courses, such as those from Pink Therapy. Don’t rush. Take your time. Enjoy yourself 😊
- Rewriting the Rules, Meg-John Barker, Routledge; 2 edition; Mar. 2018
- Becoming a Kink Aware Therapist, by Caroline Shahbaz and Peter Chirinos, Routledge; Oct. 2016
- Life Isn’t Binary, Meg-John Barker and Alex iantaffi, Jessica Kingsley Publishers; Mar. 2020
- Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism, D. Langdridge (Editor), Meg Barker (Series Editor), Palgrave Macmillan; 2007
- Williams et al., 2014
- squick – combination of the words ‘squeamish’ and ‘icky’.
- Margie Nichols, 2005
- Life Isn’t Binary, Meg-John Barker and Alex iantaffi, Jessica Kingsley Publishers; Mar. 2020
- Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM Sexualities and Communities, David M. Ortmann and Richard A. Sprott, Rowman & Littlefield; 2013
- Trauma psychotherapy with people involved in BDSM/kink: Five common misconceptions and five essential clinical skills, Y. Gavriel Ansara, PhD Psychol, MSc Soc Psychol, MCouns, BA Intl & Cross-Cultural Health with African Studies, Dip Adv Clin Family Therapy, CCTP-II, CFTP, Ansara Psychotherapy & Imanadari Counselling Melbourne Branch;
- When Someone you Love is Kinky, Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, Greenery Press; 2000