In my first post on BDSM/Kink I looked at how the traditional psychotheraptic narrative of it being harmful was not supported by either the lived experience of kinksters, or an every increasing body of research. Despite its relatively recent removal from the DSM, and upcoming removal from the ICD many counsellors and psychotherapists still feel an interest in BDSM, or a kink identity is something that needs to be “fixed”. In this post I shall go further, and explore the idea of kink as healing.
Safe, Sane and Consensual Contemporary Perspectives on BDSM is one of the works which has attempted to tackle the conventional view of kink. In their chapter, Barker, Gupta and Iantaffi look at how an increased interest in BDSM, and the mainstreaming and commodification of some BDSM practices has brought forward the idea of BDSM as healing. They are very aware that this increased visibility does not necessarily mean increased acceptance, or that privilege and oppression does not play out in whose BDSM is acceptable, and whose is not. One only needs to look at the difference between R v Wilson and Operation Spanner to see that heteronormativity and monogamy are privileged above other forms of relationships and sexualities.
As with the authors it seems important to be very clear that BDSM should not be considered acceptable, or more acceptable/less deviant because some people find it to be healing. It reminds me somewhat of the “born this way” arguments around sexual orientation, Califia’s “charity fuck” which positions the non mainstream person as a petitioner, begging for, and having to prove their acceptability.
That disclaimer made, it is clear that some do find a relief to distress, a way to explore negative emotions, and to heal from past trauma. A number of kinksters have written about how submission and Domination have helped them recover from sexual assault and rape.
“It has become an empowering mechanism for me to control my sexual environment” (Hellogiggles, 2017)
There are a number of ways that kink can be part of someones narrative of healing and recovery. Sometimes, as for Giggles in the linked to blog, being in control during sex allows them to overcome those moments when their power and autonomy were taken away. This rewriting, or re-framing can also happen more directly, survivors of childhood abuse and rape can rediscover what it is to be safely vulnerable within the negotiated consent and trust that can exist within kink relationships. Some survivors take this a step further, with what might be seen as reenactments of the abuse, but this time in a way which allows them to heal, often the aftercare can be a vital component of this. It must be said that when one is exploring triggers, and previous experiences of abuse, it is vital all concerned by very aware of the dangers. Turley explores this idea of embodied exploration, although not necessarily as a form of healing from abuse here.
When individuals belong to a marginalized identity it can feel that we should either put our best face forward, or be that penitent begging for acceptance. The healing narrative can belong to either camp – look I need this to recover, or look I am a victim and therefore deserving of your pity and allowance for my deviance (the “they couldn’t help themselves” defence). Barker, Gupta and Ignatieff highlight a third tension, that of confirming anti BDSM biases. It has long been the claim of some feminists, and many therapists, that people engage in BDSM because they are survivors of abuse. Therefore there has been a tendency to silence one-selves about being survivors of abuse, and to use terms such as safe, sane and consensual. Similar silencing is observed in sex worker communities, who often fear to discuss abuse, since it is used to pathologize their experiences.
There is, I believe a fear of the erotic which we must also highlight. In his exploration of the eroticism of pain (Landridge 2007) explores the many reasons previously suggested for the practice of masochism, with some conflation of submission, bottoming and masochism. The fact that pain can arouse, and cause orgasms is dismissed by many. A more complex, non erotic explanation has been sought. Yet sportsmen (among others) can speak of the erotic power of pain and achievement, it is neither unusual or particularly an outlier of human behaviour. Perhaps even researchers into BDSM fear to say that X occurs because it sexually arouses, excites and brings satisfaction. The healing trope is one which encourages us to draw a veil over the erotic, to santaise and attempt more respectable explanations. However, this does not mean something cannot be healing and erotic, pleasurable, and transformative. Perhaps we would have to fully interrogate the impact of Protestantism on our ideas about pleasure, and pain, something I have no intention of doing in a single blog post, to fully understand why we struggle with the idea something can be pleasurable and bring us closer to healing. It reminds me of the saying that nothing is born without pain, and perhaps it is only the pathologisation of alternative sexualities and practices which considers it might be odd that pain could bring forth something positive.
For some kink is most certainly healing, especially when there is a knowingness or self awareness of previous trauma by all parties. It is important here to mention that kink may also be retraumatising (although this is by no means to be expected, or a sign BDSM is necessarily dangerous). One of the reasons it is not enough to rely on safe words is that a sub, or indeed a Dom may dissasociate should they be triggered. Generally, it is a good thing if all people intending to have sex with other people have discussed consent, its limits and its boundaries. Generally it is also a good thing if you are having sex with someone (or any other intimate physical interaction which comes under the heading of BDSM) if you both have a way of saying stop this, whether it be because you have cramp in your leg or are triggered and having a panic attack. There will be moments where straightforward ascertaining of consent is not possible, and relying on a safe word where a sub may be stubborn, scared, angry, wanting to please, triggered, forgetful, or determined to win praise is simply not enough.Taylor and Usher touch on this in their paper Making sense of S and M (Taylor, Usher, 2001) particularly the fluid nature of consent and boundaries. Fundamentally the rules are not different, you need to observe and check in with those you are engaged in intimate physical contact with whether you are a monogamous married non kink couple or a kinkster tied to a bed at an orgy.
As therapists we can often want to draw neat lines, and a sub explaining how acts which might resemble previous abuse, or a dominant exploring how they can be in control, brings healing and closure, can be messy. When working with this we need to be OK with the messiness, with the lack of neat lines, whilst holding the well-being of our clients as central. Part of that wellbeing however is learning to trust them, as they learn to trust themselves.