“Am I a Freak for Wanting This? A Three-Part Series, Part One: BDSM

Emily brushes a blonde strand of hair out of her face as she nervously follows Raven into the red glow of the fetish nightclub. The bacchanalian call of the music is almost as loud as her pounding heart. Her deep blue eyes have trouble adjusting to the dim light, but she can still see Raven’s graceful body moving effortlessly through the club. Despite leaving her small town ideals behind when she moved to the big city, Emily’s staunch religious upbringing is still a constant companion; she wonders if she should have accepted Raven’s invitation. Curiosity, however, is far more powerful than guilt¦at least Emily thinks so.

Raven easily undulates through the crowd and enters the dance floor. She turns, flipping her dark locks back, revealing piercing black eyes and alabaster skin. She stares deeply into Emily’s eyes as she grabs her wrists and slowly pulls Emily toward her. Emily melts into Raven’s gaze as they become one with the writhing decadence of the dance floor. Emily feels her reservations slipping away. Her eyes close as she succumbs to the moment and the music envelopes her.

Reading Emily’s body language and sensing the moment is right, Raven directs her off the dance floor and up an ornate, spiral staircase. Here, the light is even dimmer and the space more intimate. Raven deposits Emily on a maroon velvet sofa, smiles, and excuses herself to say hello to a couple she seems to know. As Emily sinks deeper into the sofa, she notices a red light that shifts her focus to an empty small stage. Two men occupy a portion of the stage. As they kiss, the taller man unshackles his partner and leads him off the stage. Emily looks upon the faces of the strange and beautiful creatures gathered around the empty stage. She wonders if she belongs here.

Before she can meditate on the question, she notices Raven leading the female of the couple onto the stage. The girl’s boyfriend looks on with a pleased smirk as Raven shackles her to an iron cross. Raven begins to tease the submissive, pulling up her short vinyl skirt, dragging her nails down her back, stroking, then lightly smacking her perfect, pale breasts. Raven grabs the girl by the throat and pulls her hair, but always with a loving gaze, somehow letting her new toy know that she’s safe.

Eventually, Raven walks over to a wall full of various instruments and devices. She chooses a long, leather flogger and glides back to the girl with a delicious, devilish grin. As Emily watches Raven tease the sub with the flogger’s long leather strips, she feels the heat in her bottom lip increase and a corresponding heat grow below. She gasps as the whip comes down on the sub’s beautiful ass, and she feels warmth spread throughout her body as if she is the one submitting to Raven.

As the scene progresses, she feels her desire and curiosity grow into a delicious wanting. And as the night progresses, the want turns into a need. A corresponding fear grows, as well.

Later that night, as Emily lies in her bed, images of the night swim through her head. She closes her eyes and relives the night, imagining herself on stage submitting to Raven’s will. Her breath starts to get heavier as she feels herself becoming aroused. She begins to touch herself, but just as her arousal heightens, a fear dives in fiercely, unannounced. Suddenly, she finds herself upright in bed, in the darkness, with eyes wide open. Tears fill her eyes as a crystal clear question brutally takes hold, “Am I fucked up for wanting this?

Have you ever squirmed in your seat when a vampire in True Blood dominantly claims his victim? Does the idea of a handsome dark hero taking you by force make you swoon? Or perhaps you’d like to be in the Dom role, giving a good spanking to someone who has been very, very naughty. You are not alone. In fact, you might be drawn to the practice of BDSM.

BDSM is derived from the concepts of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (or slave/Master) and it is very, very common. According to the 2005 Durex Global Sex Survey of 317,000 people in 41 countries, about 20% of the surveyed people have at least once used masks, blindfolds or other bondage utilities, and 5% explicitly connected themselves with BDSM.

So, to answer Emily’s question and perhaps yours, you are not “fucked up for wanting this. However, as a psychotherapist, I have to discuss this subject more seriously than most of the “Sex Safari adventures that I will take you on. Safety comes first. So, with that tenant as our compass, let’s proceed into the dark, fun wilderness of BDSM.

What Am I Getting Into? A Broader Definition of BDSM

Did you vicariously enjoy Angelina Jolie as a dominatrix in Mr. & Mrs. Smith or maybe you enjoyed the fetish gear in The Matrix? BDSM subtly pervades our culture through mainstream movies and many a romance novel; however, true cultural acceptance and understanding is far, far away. Some people outside of the BDSM community assume that if a male is a Dominant (Dom), he must be abusive. And, if a female is a submissive (sub), she must be a victim or weak, setting the women’s movement back 40 years.

In my personal experience (knowing many people in the BDSM community), the reality is often the polar opposite of that stereotype. For instance, many subs (both male and female) have high power jobs and cherish being able to escape their stressful responsibilities while under the control of a Dom. With this thought in mind, perhaps you’ll look at our politicians and CEOs a bit differently now.

Let’s start out by stating what BDSM is not. The BDSM community does not condone non-consensual activities. Instead, BDSM is an erotic expression that may or may not include sex and involves the consensual use of bondage, intense sensory stimulation, and fantasy power role-play. Discipline is played out within the context of dominance and submission or “Master/slave roles. Here are some key terms:

Tops or Doms: They direct the activity or exercise control.

Bottoms or subs: They are usually the recipients of the activities and maybe “controlled by their partners.

Switches: Individuals who vacillate between the Top/Dom and bottom/sub roles.

Play, Scene and Session: BDSM activities are usually referred to as “play” and take place within a time-limited “scene” or “session.” In order to establish a consensual experience, partners agree on the perimeters, rules and boundaries of the role-play or “scene in advance. A “safe word is established to ensure that either partner can end the scene at any time (since the words “ouch or “no don’t necessarily mean “stop). A scene may include the use of ropes, whips, paddles, gags, among many types of gear and equipment designed to heighten the sensory experience.

BDSM is an intense practice, precisely because it is one of intense connection. To quote Lee, the main character in the BDSM themed movie, Secretary, “I feel more than I’ve ever felt and I’ve found someone to feel with. To play with. To love in a way that feels right for me.”

Influences That Make BDSM Exploration Feel Dirty & Wrong

You might ask yourself, “If it’s okay, then why does it still give me the heebie-jeebies? That is a complex question, but the answer comes in two parts; first, irrational doubt tends to be instilled by society and, second, we have an innate rational fear of causing emotional or physical harm to ourselves or others. Covering all aspects of societal influence is way too big for this little article, so let’s focus on psychology and the law.

Psychology

The field of psychology has played a big part in shaming this practice, but the field is slowly coming to realize that many healthy individuals and couples engage in BDSM safely.

Until 1994, the psychiatric community labeled BDSM participants as having a mental disorder. However, in 1994, initial changes were made and, in 2000, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-IV TR was revised. This psychiatric bible of disorders now makes the distinction that sadomasochistic behavior can only be described as a mental disorder if the patient “has acted on these urges with a non-consenting person and if “the urges, sexual fantasies, or behaviors cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty. So in other words my naughty and curious friends, if you are having safe, sane, consensual BDSM play that makes you happy, you are not in need of psychological help for your sadomasochistic behavior.

The Law

This is the tricky part. According to the 2010 article “Consent Counts “ Or Does It? on the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom website, Judy Guerin writes,

“BDSM is still prosecuted criminally as assault, and the legal precedents related to consensual BDSM assault prosecutions are not in our favor. Many of the laws intended to protect victims of domestic violence and rape need to be modified in their application to consensual BDSM activities. The DSM criterion still needs further reform\’it is still used against us, and we can still be defined as mentally ill for what it is that we do. And, members of our communities still routinely face ongoing issues of divorce, child custody, job discrimination and even criminal charges.

Wow! Okay. Take a pause and breath. So now you can see that BDSM isn’t just fun and games. There are some real risks. You have to decide your level of exploration and risk that you are comfortable taking. The law has not been able to distinguish between abuse and safe, sane consensual play, but you maybe very capable of making that distinction. Assuming you are, let’s flesh out further what safe, sane, and consensual means.

Our Own Rational Fear

Fear of hurting yourself or others is valid. Consider, though, that much of that instinct may stem from your fear of the unknown. As you grow to understand safe, sane, consensual play, your fear will likely begin to subside. So let’s start out by defining these three words:

Safe: Being knowledgeable about the techniques and safety concerns involved in what you are doing, and acting in accordance with that knowledge.

Sane: Knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, and acting in accordance with that knowledge.

Consensual: Respecting the limits imposed by each participant at all times. One way to do this is to create a verbal or written contract defining what you consent to and what is off limits.

Complying with all three of these standards takes education. Everyone has a bar that defines what they consider to be “safe. As a psychotherapist, I can only back BDSM community members who set the safety bar very high, especially as their activities become more extreme. No one should ever require medical care (beyond a small Band-aid) and the ideal is psychological healing rather than damage.

In order to meet this high standard, one should have:

  • High emotional intelligence, intuition, and ability to be honest with self and others.
  • Knowledge of equipment and gear regarding their affect on the human body.
  • Knowledge of human physiology and limitations.
  • An in-depth knowledge of “subspace and “sub-drop (as described below).
  • A detailed plan and practice of aftercare following a scene.
  • A detailed knowledge of state law and understanding of legal risks.

Key Areas to Consider In Creating Safety

Community members of Fetlife.com can direct you to BDSM books, articles, and blogs regarding safety guidelines. Please study up! In addition to these resources, coming from my psychotherapist lens, I feel there are three areas that need special attention: “subspace, “sub-drop and past trauma.

Subspace: It has many definitions, but subspace can be described as an altered mind/body state. Native Americans, performing flesh hook suspension rituals resulting in spiritual clarity and profound visions, might fall into this realm. Clearly there are many benefits to subspace, and it’s no surprise that subs covet this sometimes elusive, altered state.

So how does it happen? During play, the sympathetic nervous system triggers a rush of chemicals, such as endorphins and enkephalins that act as natural pain killers, creating a blissful morphine-like state that may feel like flying or floating. These chemicals reduce the sub’s ability to know if they have been injured, but also reduce the sub’s ability to communicate and vocalize a safe word. However, safety is still possible! Communication is reduced, but not eliminated. And a good dom has no intention of sending you to the hospital. As one experienced dom put it, “If you know the human body, and know where to flog, it is very difficult to cause an injury. So by all means simplify communication! Here are some suggestions:

  • The Ball Method: Give your sub a ball. If play needs to stop, the ball can be dropped without saying a word.
  • Red, Yellow, Green: Give your sub a choice of three single word responses, such as “red, yellow, green. “Red can easily be uttered if play needs to stop. “Yellow can indicate the need to slow your speed, soften intensity or find out more information. “Green, of course, means all is yummy is the land of your sub.

Sub-drop: For all you future doms out there, sub-drop is a great time to show what an amazing, intuitive, and caring dom you are. Sub-drop is the depressive state that a sub experiences in the hours or even days after an intense BDSM scene (although this does not always occur and may not occur at all for some subs). The state occurs due to the physical reaction of the adrenaline and endorphins leaving the body and the emotional reaction to factors, such as the withdrawing of the Dom’s focused attention, aspects of the scene or other emotional triggers.

Sub-drop may manifest in many ways, including tears, irrational fears or a deep sense of loneliness. Both the Dom and the sub are responsible for aftercare, which may include re-hydrating, eating, rest, tending to any wounds that may have resulted from play, gentle massage or taking a shower or bath. Many a kind, nurturing Dom allows the sub to relax, talk about the experience when ready, and honestly share about what worked and what didn’t. Keep in mind that, for some subs, aftercare may be needed in phases and over a period of time.

Past Trauma: Now to get a bit heavy. If you or your partner has past trauma, you need to be aware that BDSM could profoundly affect you. Imagine this impact on a continuum. At its best, BDSM could provide a beautiful and powerful healing experience. At its worst, a BDSM experience could be completely re-traumatizing. Let’s start with the worst-case scenario and move to the best.

When past trauma is triggered, a person might feel as if he or she is back in the past traumatic experience. For this reason, it is so important to know who you are playing with and negotiate a scene in advance. Consider this example:

Devin has never played with Marcy. He’s brand new at being a dom and she’s so hot that he rushes the negotiation of the scene. He ties a blindfold over her eyes to hide his awkwardness as advised by a sex educator at a BDSM lecture for newbies that he attended. What he doesn’t know is that two years ago, Marcy was mugged at knifepoint and the knife was held to her jugular vein.

During play, Devin decides to do some knife play, just intending to tease her and build tension. He runs the knife inside her thigh. She giggles, not realizing what it is. All is going well. He decides to take the blindfold off. At first, she looks into his eyes with passion, but then her eyes drop and she sees the knife. Instantly, she begins to hyperventilate and panic. Devin did not account for this. What the hell is he going to do now?

This could have been avoided. Again, know your partner and negotiate the scene in advance. Ask about triggers. A trigger is anything that makes one upset very quickly. If triggered, a person with a trauma history could go into a panic attack or a negative dissociative state. If the sub goes into a negative dissociative experience, it might go unnoticed if it’s interpreted by the dom as subspace. However as one experienced dom stated, “When a sub goes into subspace, it feels like she is opening up to me. But when a sub goes into a dark place, it feels like she is shutting down. It feels completely different. For some people with trauma histories, BDSM should be entirely avoided and is too risky. For others, simply negotiating a scene in advance and weeding out potential triggers might be enough. And for still others, BDSM can be incredibly healing.

So let’s talk about the potential for healing. Trauma is stored inside of us as a body memory. Cutting-edge psychotherapy like Somatic Experiencing and the Trauma Resiliency Model (TRM) work to reprocess and release the trauma that is stored in the body. Similarly, BDSM play can produce a healing emotional release and provide a corrective experience. Some subs have described amazing corrective experiences that help them rewrite their original trauma. Their play might be loosely reminiscent of the trauma (restraint, for example), but the scene creates a new and positive outcome. This new outcome begins to rewrite the original damaging body memory.

For a corrective experience to occur, the following conditions should be in place.

  1. The sub must has a benevolent, emotionally intelligent partner that he or she trusts implicitly.
  2. Play must occur under controlled circumstances, in a safe environment, and
  3. A clear agreement must be established in advance.

In summary, trust and love can heal our mind, body and spirit. Take the time to know yourself and know your partner. BDSM should be stress relief not re-traumatization. Be good to yourself. Be good to your partner.

Closing Thoughts

Bettie Page, an American icon, makes it apparent and hard to deny the hotness of a good spanking. According to Carl Jung in his 1938 book Psychology and Religion, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.  So let your shadow self release it’s dark, naughty energy in the safe realm of your sex life. If not in your bedroom (or dungeon), then where? In doing so, you are releasing pressure, keeping our body/psyche in your resilient zone, and maintaining a healthier, happier you! And remember the cardinal rule: all play must be safe, sane and consensual. With that said, happy spankings!

I hope you enjoyed exploring the dark realms of BDSM in this installment of  “Sex Safari. Please look out for the next articles in the “Am I a Freak for Wanting This? series, which will include swinging and polyamory.

Photo by Grendelkhan [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Kate Loree

Kate Loree, LMFT, ATR, MBA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in sexual minority lifestyles, such as polyamory, swing and kink. She is also affirmative for LGBTQ, sex workers and those who love them. She has been practicing for over eight years. Her private practice resides in Encino, CA. For more information, please visit her on the web at KateLoree.com.

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