If Sex Doesn’t Involve Kink or BDSM, I’m Not Interested

Hi. I am a single woman in my early thirties. Try as I might, I really don't enjoy sex unless it involves BDSM (I like to be submissive and humiliated, even tied up, smacked, spanked, etc.). Is there something wrong with me for enjoying a specific type of kink and no other type of sexual intimacy? I feel bad that I don't enjoy "vanilla sex" with my partners; I just end up going through the motions. A few lovers have pretended to enjoy BDSM as much as I do, for my benefit, but I always see right through it and it loses its appeal if it's not real. It's just not fun for me. Because I feel like an outlier, there's a nagging voice in my head telling me I'm abnormal and I'd be happier and more fulfilled sexually if I didn't have this fetish. I wonder if I'm mentally broken, basically, for liking what I like. Should I accept this aspect of myself or should I try to change it? Can it even be changed? I'm a little afraid of your answer, but knowing is better than not knowing, I guess. Thank you. —Kinky in Kentucky
Dear Kinky in Kentucky,

Thank you for your question, which took bravery on your part, I’m sure. I think I get the “I’m a little afraid of your answer” part, as I’m sensing some shame or self-doubt just below the surface of your question—as in, “Am I some kind of freak or something?” I really don’t believe any human phenomenon is freakish once we look close or long enough at the entire context of a person’s life experience. More information would be useful, but it’s possible you’re expressing some aspect of your self-experience from your past. Very often, pain or desire we somehow can’t express or articulate is often “acted out” in various parts of our lives.

In other words, don’t punish yourself or worry about being “abnormal.” Our sexual preferences come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, varieties, and intensities. There’s a reason Fifty Shades of Grey was wildly successful; submitting to another’s will can be exciting, and even “vanilla” sex is often tinged with a mingling of the tender and the violent. Many men and women love to be spanked, bit, tickled, squeezed, and pinched in all manner of ways, both pleasurable and painful. Even the phrase “penetration” is double-edged, as it suggests both union and intrusion. Many sexual slang words contain this strange combination of eroticism and violence. The line between pain and pleasure, as you may know, is often razor thin if it exists at all in the inscrutable, unconscious potpourri that constitutes human sexuality. (Curiosity of which spurred the foundation of psychology itself.)

There is a hint of a conflict in your question, in that part of you is enjoying these activities, while part of you seems to stand outside and wonder if this is all kosher. I would therefore encourage you to become curious about all this—what it might mean to you emotionally in terms of what it expresses about you and what is so rewarding about it—rather than judge or scold yourself. With practice (such as meditation or quiet reflection), or with the help of a therapist, one can learn to neutrally investigate one’s own desires, fears, sexual preferences, and so forth. Judgment keeps blame in place, while curiosity and self-acceptance can nurture a freer commingling of the wakefulness, unconscious fantasies, and wishes that manifest in sexuality.

Because of the limited information in your question about yourself (understandable), I’m going to guess there are two main concerns about your apparently “unusual” (but actually fairly common) attraction to BDSM. (For readers unfamiliar with this blended acronym, it stands for Bondage & Discipline/Domination & Submission/Sadism & Masochism.) As with so many behaviors, in sex—as I implied above—a person is often divided (loosely) into one who participates and one who observes. Here, your “participant” is having a good time, it sounds like, while the observer is stroking her chin, a bit skeptical, on the horns of some kind of dilemma. And yet this very dividedness may indicate you, at earlier points in your life, had to separate yourself or compartmentalize the desires and wishes that are “contained” or bound in BDSM activity.

Is it that you’re worried your preferences will turn off other people? I wonder if you fear judgment or disapproval or worry that if others do not understand or do not line up with your choices, you might end up alone—or, worse, judged or shamed and also alone, a punishment that is far from pleasurable or exciting.

Is it that you’re worried your preferences will turn off other people? I wonder if you are fearing judgment or disapproval, or have anxiety that if others do not understand or do not line up with your choices, you might end up alone—or, worse, judged or shamed and also alone, a punishment that is far from pleasurable or exciting.

In working with members of the BDSM community, I have found that S&M play both constricts and liberates the person simultaneously, whether one is the S or the M. Many otherwise mild-mannered, even shy people enjoy finding their inner “Master” or “Mistress” and taking control of another, who will (unlike others in “real life”) listen and submit rather than scoff or move away. Many “M’s” are actually fairly self-directed, sometimes perfectionistic folks who are thrilled at the sensual submission to another’s will, where someone else is (unlike their real-life experience) firmly in the driver’s seat, where decisions and agency is excitingly “handled” by another. Desire that is unexpressed in “real life” is free to play in a sexual context, but diverted or kept under wraps the rest of the time.

So the specific question would be how and if these scenarios both free up and protect something: what gets expressed and what stays tied up (pun sort of intended)? Is there a struggle with shame over your desires or hopes in romantic relationships? Is it that anxiety is “bound” or contained in this role-playing? Were there earlier experiences of being dominated or controlled or punished that weren’t so fun but are now excitingly transformed in the shadows of the bedroom? (This would give a person a sense of mastery or control over past wounded-ness.)

The other concern I have relates to compulsivity, or compulsively maintained rigidity around “roles.” A person once remarked to me in therapy that he liked BDSM because the boundaries were strikingly clear and defined: you do this, I do that, with no gray in between. (Most of our relating to others exists in the gray.) In other words, the rigidity of boundary making was exciting, but his beloved partner was not as enthralled with the role-playing, which started a rift between them that led to the end of the relationship. (Sexuality often serves as a metaphor for one’s emotional attachment patterns to others.) Until this man saw the emotional needs, in therapy, that were “masked” by the role of the M, he couldn’t communicate what he hoped and expected from his partner outside the bedroom. They couldn’t collaboratively find ways to say what they wanted or needed together, as allies. Instead, they got tangled up in power struggles that drove them apart.

So-called “normal” sexuality was ambiguous and confusing to this man. He often felt overly responsible for others’ feelings, and it was hard to ask others for help (at work, for instance). He’d take on more than he could handle most of the time and preferred in his nighttime activities to submit to another person, giving up overbearing responsibility. This was both thrilling and a relief, though it also masked an emotional vulnerability and desire for guidance and support. Only when such needs were sexualized, in a controlled role-playing context, were they safe to express. Otherwise, they stayed repressed.

The downside of rigidity, therefore, is that it is, well, rigid. Meaning there is no fluidity of roles, which might restrict play and lead to emotional frustration for one or both partners. Black and white boundaries are comforting and limiting, which is kind of the point, except that it’s also nice to be able to psychologically grow in relationship as time goes on. This means you may possibly be depriving yourself of a longer-term partner with whom you can grow as a couple, as mutual allies.

There is nothing wrong with these choices, by the way. I’m engaging in a longer-term viewpoint that sees, possibly, the potential to limit one’s developmental expansion with an intimate other, if the script must always stay the same. Again, sexuality becomes a metaphor for how we attach and relate to others.

Whether this means you try to find someone who matches your preference, or try to adapt to a person who has similar but different preferences with whom you can play and experiment and take turns, is of course a highly personal decision. Some would rather be part of a BDSM lifestyle or community, finding a kind of “family” within. In the end, this is one’s own existential choice, which, I believe, no one has the right to judge. Some would rather find ways to loosen those preferences, especially if the other person is loved but has different sexual needs.

But my main point would be to investigate all of the above with compassionate curiosity. In what ways do these activities symbolize emotional surrenders you may have experienced, or wished for but never found? Does the spanking mean there’s excitement in being punished for having sexual desire, or something else? Perhaps you experienced pleasure and pain in equal measure and were taught to conflate the two. Sometimes (but not always) there is correlation in the intensity of the BDSM play—harsh and strict versus light and sensual, for instance—and the emotional intensity found within one’s family of origin. Also, those who are attracted to dominance and submission may have had boundary violations as a child, violations that are replicated in the adult scenarios while being soothed with sexual excitement and pleasure. If this sounds like you, meeting with a therapist could prove very enlightening and beneficial.

I hope this is helpful and perhaps the start of a new and rewarding self-investigation. Thanks for writing!

Best wishes,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Cynthia

    Cynthia

    January 16th, 2016 at 5:15 AM

    I am sure that you could find a partner who would enjoy a little bit of this and then a little bit of sex in a way that maybe they enjoyed a little better. I know that even in my own marriage sex sometimes feels like a give and take, sometimes we do more of what I like and sometimes I try to make it more about what he likes. That is what compromise is about.

  • Boyd

    Boyd

    January 18th, 2016 at 9:33 AM

    Seriously there are many guys who would like this. I mean, I know that there could be a problem too to not enjoy all different kinds of sex but maybe if you found the right partner…?

  • Carla

    Carla

    January 21st, 2016 at 11:14 AM

    I am curious at what point would you start to look at if there was some past trauma affecting how you view sex?

  • everly

    everly

    January 30th, 2016 at 6:32 PM

    You are into some stuff that some others might see as weird, but who cares? If this is what floats your boat then what does it matter It’s what you like, just go with it

  • Isaac

    Isaac

    October 14th, 2019 at 11:08 AM

    I am Vanilla. I wanted to ask something though. I have NEVER tried ANY thing Kinky, Fetish, or BDSM, and don’t really ever intend to. But I have always felt I am not into BDSM because everything about it really just turns me off, freaks me out a bit, and I even find gross for my own tastes. A lot of BDSM repulses me (not in the judgmental, religious Conservative way) but for my own tastes personally. I don’t like PAIN like AT ALL.

    My question is: Do I NEED to try out any BDSM activities in order for me to have the right to consider myself full 100% Vanilla, and in order to say I don’t like BDSM, Kink, or Fetish? I ask because a lot of BDSM people tell me that I am judging a book by it’s cover that way, and that I don’t have the right to say I don’t like anything without at least having tried it out at least once. Is that true? Do I HAVE to feel OBLIGATED to trying out BDSM in any capacity even though I REALLY don’t want to, in order to properly say I don’t like it, and consider myself Vanilla? Just to shut everyone up, and prove something for everyone else despite my own disinterests, and aversions, and phobias to it?

    Personally, I feel Vanilla vs BDSM is like Straight vs Gay, and a straight person doesn’t have to try gay sex EVER (not even ONCE) in order to know he is not gay, and is in fact straight. He just KNOWS. Is Vanilla vs BDSM a choice, or a born thing like being Gay?

    I ask because a lot of people on BDSMAdvice SubReddit on Reddit told me that nobody likes a boring relationship, and Vanilla never works out for anyone, and that’s why there’s WAY more breakups, and divorces from Vanilla couples than there ever is from BDSM couples, because no one from Vanilla are ever TRULY happy, and why all Vanilla relationships are doomed to fail eventually. They said it is inevitable. Also, they said that Vanilla is only a starting point to figure out what you are REALLY into, but a lot of people make the mistake of staying Vanilla forever.

    They told me that Vanilla is not an authentic/valid way of being. That ALL Vanilla people are just people who are either ashamed of their Kinky side, or they are a dormant Kinster who just isn’t aware of it…yet. Does me being 100% Vanilla who is not even willing to try anything Kinky who only wants a 100% Vanilla partner, and would break up with anyone who revealed to me they were anything more than 100% Vanilla make me a selfish d*** unworthy of a partner, or a bland, boring, mediocre prude? One comment on Reddit told me that BDSM is like a giant Buffet and that we Vanilla folks are only eating, and gorging ourselves on two foods out of the hundreds, and not showing any interest, or willingness to try out, and sample the rest of the Buffet, which is apparently inexcusable. Should I listen to any of them?

  • Sherry

    Sherry

    December 4th, 2019 at 1:51 PM

    This response is really quite horrible. For many people, kink and bdsm is a sexual orientation. It’s like telling a man who is gay “maybe you are gay because you had a bad experience with women in your childhood, and a woman violated your boundaries”. Some of us, are just wired this way and there is no shame in it, just like there is no shame in being gay! Many kinky people start having kinky fantasies as children, just as a person who is gay will often start feeling attracted to the same sex as a child.

    With pain play (not one of my kinks by the way but I have a friend into it) the actual feeling of pain arouses her. Nothing more. There are no thoughts, no boundary violations, no abuse. This is just the way she is and its nothing to be ashamed of.
    Orientations cannot be changed. If you need this sort of thing to be happy in a relationship, and your partners can’t do it, you are like a gay man trying to date women. It’s just not something we should do. We need to find other kinky people that match our kinks.
    I highly recommend joining Fetlife. That’s like a social media forum for kinky people. They also have groups, and some groups allow you to post personals to find people. As a woman, it’s much easier for us to find partners than for guys. I posted an add a couple of weeks ago, and I got about 30 replies. So, people are out there… in your city or town (unless you are in podunk nowhere).
    All you have to do is let go of the shame, let go of what this “therapist” is telling you about how there is something wrong with you (boundary violations… psychological causes for this, woundedness, etc) and allow yourself to be yourself.
    Also if you ever decide to see a therapist yourself, make sure that they are at least “kink allied” if not “kink aware”. Otherwise you will be getting people telling you there is something wrong with you for your orientation. You can Google “kink allied” therapists and your city, and you will find them. If you are having trouble letting go of the shame yourself, someone like that will go a long way in helping you.

  • Isaac

    Isaac

    December 5th, 2019 at 12:46 PM

    Were you replying to my Vanilla post question, or to the article itself? hard to tell, sorry.

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