BDSM

Riding crop, handcuffs, and lace mask lie on red satinBDSM refers to a set of sexual practices or kinks related to bondage, discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism. Activities in the realm of BDSM vary greatly and may focus on physical experiences, psychological pleasure or stimulation, or a combination of the two. Though some participants may engage in consensual nonconsent, BDSM practices involve consenting adults by definition. Rape, abuse, and assault are not BDSM practices.

BDSM in Sexual Practice

There are as many ways to practice BDSM as there are people who engage in it. For some, elements of BDSM occur only during sex or on infrequent occasions in the interest of sexual gratification and pleasure. For others, BDSM is a full-time lifestyle in which those involved have established roles in all aspects of daily life and interactions.

Though BDSM usually involves a power dynamic or imbalance of some kind, it does not always incorporate pain. For example, during BDSM play one partner may perform chores or sexual favors for another partner. Others may be interested in verbal humiliation rather than physically painful sensations. More examples of BDSM activities include:

  • Rope bondage
  • Consensual nonconsent
  • Suspension
  • Master/slave dynamics
  • Collaring or ownership
  • Whipping, flogging, caning, or paddling
  • Cutting, piercing, or burning the skin
  • Hot wax play
  • Shaming or degrading
  • Choking or breath play
  • Role playing

Psychology of BDSM

Attraction to BDSM seems to occur across all genders and sexual orientations, and sadomasochistic desires can arise at any age for any reason or no reason at all. Interest levels of those who practice BDSM vary greatly, from those who need a power dynamic element to have sex, to those for whom it is completely nonessential. While some people might seek BDSM as a respite from their day-to-day life, as a way of feeling more or less control, others simply enjoy the dynamic as a part of sex from time to time.

Stigma and misunderstandings surrounding BDSM and kink in general have led many to believe an individual’s interest in BDSM signifies a history of abuse or other psychological trauma. Research has proven this false, however; an attraction to BDSM activities or culture does not indicate psychopathology or an aversion to sex without BDSM. Other studies have attempted without success to liken BDSM sexual proclivities to various types of addiction. No research has established a link between BDSM interests and mental health issues or history of mental health issues, though the two might coexist.

Sexual sadism and sexual masochism, along with other common kinks such as voyeurism and exhibitionism, are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) under the category of paraphilic disorders. Behaviors associated with each sadism and masochism by definition can involve physical or emotional harm, and there is a chance individuals with these interests could act on them with a nonconsenting person or otherwise inflict trauma. Someone might be diagnosed with sexual masochism disorder or sexual sadism disorder if they experience significant distress or an inability to function in daily life because of these urges or behaviors.

Therapeutic Practice and BDSM

Because of societal perceptions of BDSM and those who engage in it, individuals who practice BDSM may be more hesitant to seek therapy out of a fear their therapist may hold beliefs that link BDSM and psychopathology. This worry is not unfounded, especially considering parts of BDSM are considered concerning enough to warrant inclusion in the DSM by the American Psychiatric Association. The number of sex-positive therapists who work with the kink community is growing, however, as is the amount of research and information provided to help educate therapists about kink and BDSM. Practiced safely, BDSM can serve as a platform for exploring various levels of kink and power dynamics in sex. Some studies have even shown BDSM practitioners are more likely to have healthy relationships, greater psychological well-being, and stronger communication skills compared to individuals who did not engage in BDSM sex.

Sex-positive and kink-positive therapists may work with individuals on any aspect of the incorporation of BDSM interests or practices in their life. People seeking therapy for issues related to BDSM might be curious about how to talk to their partner(s) about their interests, wonder how to safely participate in a way that fulfills a partner’s needs, struggle with aftercare following BDSM experiences, worry their interests are interfering with relationships or responsibilities, or simply desire greater understanding of how their BDSM interests fit into the context of their life.

Maintaining Safe Practices in BDSM

Conscientious practitioners of BDSM are committed to the health and safety of all participants; however, many types of BDSM are risky or even harmful by nature. While it’s unlikely that any BDSM activities will have unintended lasting effects–physical or emotional–a bad experience can leave a person in need of medical attention or psychological care. Without proper aftercare, someone in a submissive or masochistic role might experience sub drop following a BDSM encounter. This state of emotional overwhelm can be described as a “crash” due to extreme vulnerability, the conclusion of a particularly impactful scene, or sudden lack of attention or sexual stimulation.

BDSM also carries some risks for those in a dominant or sadistic role, though the potential damage is more likely to be emotional than physical, especially if the individual has been neglectful or caused unintended harm. Someone in this role may find they are particularly attracted to the idea of engaging in BDSM without another participant’s consent or troubled by the amount of enjoyment they receive from inflicting pain. If engaging in BDSM is worrisome or problematic for any participant, seeking therapy can help address any underlying psychological issues that may be present and influencing their level of enjoyment during the experience.

Practiced safely, BDSM can serve as a platform for exploring various levels of kink and power dynamics in sex. Some studies have even shown BDSM practitioners are more likely to have healthy relationships, greater psychological well-being, and stronger communication skills compared to individuals who did not engage in BDSM sex. Those who practice BDSM can minimize potential risk by gaining enthusiastic consent from all participants; communicating thoroughly about boundaries and hard limits before any activities; establishing a safeword and other safety precautions such as contracts detailing limits and consented-to behaviors and activities; and incorporating aftercare regularly.

References:

  1. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Nichols, M. (2002). Psychology & BDSM: Pathology or individual difference. Institute for Personal Growth. Retrieved from http://www. ipgcounseling. com/sites/ipgcounseling. com/files/content/pdf/3psychology_bdsm.pdf
  3. Pappas, S. (2013). Bondage benefits: BDSM practitioners healthier than ‘vanilla’ people. LiveScience. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/34832-bdsm-healthy-psychology.html
  4. Richters, J., De Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline,“sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5(7), 1660-1668. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00795.x/full
  5. Turley, E. L., King, N., & Butt, T. (2011). ‘It started when I barked once when I was licking his boots!’: A descriptive phenomenological study of the everyday experience of BDSM. Psychology & Sexuality, 2(2), 123-136. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19419899.2010.528018
  6. Wismeijer, A. A., & Assen, M. A. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(8), 1943-1952. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsm.12192/full
  7. Kelsey, K., Stiles, B. L., Spiller, L., & Diekhoff, G. M. (2013). Assessment of therapists’ attitudes towards BDSM. Psychology & Sexuality, 4(3), 255-267. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19419899.2012.655255

Last Updated: 09-29-2017

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