What Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t explain.
Written by Peter Chirinos and Caroline Shahbaz
There has been quite a bit of buzz about alternative sexualities such as Transgenderism, Polygamous relationships, BDSM and SM in the media since 2010. Often, there is a bewildering number of contradictory information, leading to confusion as to what these alternate sexualities are combined with at best an unease of abnormality, or fear due to ignorance.
The publication of Fifty Shades of Grey is one example of social acceptance, and indeed titillation, preceding public and professional understan
ding of what this alternative sexual expression entails. The release of the movie with the same name is bound to fuel further talk about “kinky” sex. BDSM is an emerging phenomenon in mainstream society and significantly misrepresented in the media. BDSM is also most likely to be misunderstood and pathologized by our profession. This is why I feel it’s imperative to educate professionals, doctors, therapists as well as parents about what BDSM is, and what it is not.
Defining Healthy Sexuality
Let me try to define healthy sexuality. A definition of healthy sexuality has always been socially and culturally defined particularly by those with the most social influence. The therapeutic definitions of sexual deviance and pathology goes back to late Victorian era and the rise of scientific thought. Krafft-Ebbing was a German psychiatrist who advocated a medical model of classification for alternative sexualities in his book, Psychopathia Sexualis. He cited case histories primarily concerning non-consensual sexual violence which have no resemblance to what we now call consensual sadomasochism or SM. He was Freud’s inspiration for developing a system of classification of pathology, of which he said “sadomasochism was the most perverse”. The ambitious Freud knew by setting up his pathology classification, his theories would get co-opted into legal fields. Freud’s legacy of classification lives on in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM. Once in there, DSM definitions become central to litigious arguments of fault and blame.
In 1973, as a result of community organization and political activism the gay community successfully had the classification of homosexuality removed from the DSM III. This lead to the psychological and legal de-pathologizing of homosexuality. The social shift following this change in the DSM initiated an ongoing process of acceptance as a legitimate expression of ones’ sexuality. However the other paraphilias continue to continue to remain in the DSM 5, largely without any scientific evidence.
If healthy sexuality is defined by those who have the most influential voices in society, then who are these voices now and how are they defining healthy sexuality? In my opinion, healthy sexuality is changing as social and cultural awareness becomes open to ideas. This exposure occurs through the arts, the media and, in particular, the internet. As a result of the internet the hidden marginalized sexualities of the recent past decades are now public. These social changes are preceding research, and affecting the practice of sex therapy.
I believe healthy sexuality as first and foremost defined by the client themselves … it entails the individual having a clear self affirming understanding of
1) “Who am I” in the context of my sexual desires and expression;
2) How does it impact others? And
3) “Does it impair my life in any way or does it impede me in having fulfilling relationships?
Owning and accepting ones sexual expression is a function of this definition. The questions require people to engage in an honest, insightful and introspective awareness of who they are.That is why I am emphasizing in this blog, what has been hidden and marginalized but now becoming more main stream and public from a therapeutic perspective. There are a number of alternative sexualities which we are seeing a social shift towards, of which, BDSM is most prevalent.
What is BDSM?
The acronym BDSM stands for a variety of concepts and behaviors. The B&D traditionally stands for Bondage and Discipline. These are activities related to restraining and punishing someone. I am sure you have all seen those type of images when BDSM is brought to mind. The D&S stands for Dominance and Submission. This is a more psychological aspect of control where one person gives the orders and another complies. The S&M stands for Sadism and Masochism or simply known as “SM”. The most vivid images of BDSM relate to inflicting and receiving of intense sensation, like pain in acts of SM.
Finally, reading the BDSM letters in reverse, the M&S, stand for Master and slave. This relates to an extreme unequal authority imbalance predominantly acted out in a relationship dynamic between two consenting adults.
These types of practices have been occurring for centuries as means to evolve, develop and enlighten. For instance, they are present in American Indian traditions, Sufi and Hindu practices and even in Christianity. These practices are referred to as the “ordeal path” and involve acts of devotion, surrender, sacrifice and, in many instances, community involvement through prayer, care giving and preparation. Many people experience an altered state of consciousness and report spiritual experiences. Similar experiences are described by people practicing BDSM. Feelings of intense love, devotion, gratitude and ego surrender are frequently reported by SM practitioners. There are those who use SM techniques as a spiritual path. What do
BDSM practitioners do?
The activities represented by BDSM fall along a continuum ranging from pure sensation play at one end to total authority exchange at the other. On the sensation end of this continuum, I am speaking more about the huge variety of physical activities that comprise BDSM. As I move to the right along this continuum, there will be increasing mental and emotional control that one person exercises over another.
The most significant thing to appreciate is that BDSMers consciously engage in consensually unequal authority imbalanced relationships.
They actively seek out relationships which involve conscious, consensual control & or surrender of control, physically, mentally psychologically or spiritually. Some of the physical activities included in BDSM practices include: bondage, percussive practices; penetration like piercing with needles and anal or vaginal fisting; “sensation play”; or simply, obedience and service to a Master.
These physical BDSM practices require great skill & knowledge making each activity a unique “craft” that must be learned, honed and developed so it can be practiced safely. Many classes and events are held across the country teaching these skills. When BDSMers engage in SM they often refer to it as “playing” with someone. Some ‘play’ in private while some enjoy public play spaces like public dungeons.
SM always involves negotiations regarding each partner’s limits and safety. In fact, safewords are used to put a stop to any activity that goes beyond ones negotiated limits.
There are so many aspects I don’t have time to elaborate on but this one is important. Symbolism and ritual play a huge part in BDSM. The leather clothing symbolically signifies the dark side of one’s personality … which is part of all human nature. Leather also symbolizes what mainstream society mentally, emotionally, sexually, and psychologically suppresses. Leather gives permission to express the dark side of the human self with in an acceptable alternative culture. SM and the Leather culture provide a “container” a portal into, and a means of intentional and relatively safely, consciously navigating through these darker aspects of our humanity.
Variety in BDSM Relationships
I want to explore the types of relationships in BDSM. I am sharing these terms to make some distinctions for you. In truth, these distinctions are very blurry.
The way people define their BDSM relationship depends on where they place themselves on the continuum described above. On the sensation end are those who are more purely identified as Sadist and masochist or Top and bottom. These terms primarily refer to relationships where one partner is the giver of sensation and the other partner is the receiver of physical sensation. In the gay leather community, top and bottom are common terms people often use to define relationships at this end of the continuum. For people at this end, a lot of it has to do with satisfying a fetish, intensifying sexuality and physicality. These relationships may last for one ‘scene’ or evolve into a relationship in which the pair come together only for the purposes of acting out some form of physical sensation. Sometimes people switch which role they play, others do not, preferring to remain in one or other category.
There are others who define their relationship as Dominant and submissive. Typically these dynamics are more to the right along the sensation continuum and incorporate more of a mental control dynamic exercised by the Dominant partner over a willing submissive partner. This can be for a brief period as in a role play, or, for a longer period of time, as a consensual preferred relationship dynamic.
At the extreme end of this continuum, there are people in relationships they define as Master & slave, which embody an agreed and consensual authority transfer focused on obedience and service. One person takes total responsibility for another. The slave commits to serving and obeying the master. These dynamics are often longer term relationships. Sometimes they involve some BDSM activity, other times not. These dynamics encompass relationships in which the individuals consider master slave as their identity and live it more or less 24/7.
The biggest misconception people have about these terms is believing that slaves are submissive doormats. Most people who identify as slaves tend to be very dominant in their lives, operating in job positions of decision making and authority. They are typically driven by a strong need to serve, and choose to be obedient to their Master.
Sign posts for a healthy BDSM relationship.
People exposed to media messages about BDSM,.in an attempt to ‘liven up their sex life” may begin experimenting with an alternative sexuality. As a professional, it is important I explain the implications of their curiosity and discern the difference between Healthy BDSM and maladaptive behaviour.
In healthy BDSM relationships, there is first and foremost … un-coerced consent which is given free from emotional blackmail. The amount of authority and control granted and accepted is determined and negotiated by each pair. The core values found in healthy BDSM relationships include; honor, mutual respect, integrity and responsibility. Furthermore, if the BDSM relationship demonstrates trust, care and mutual growth, we have valid indicators of positive relationship dynamics.
There are also certain principles that are proscribed by the larger BDSM Community which guide what is considered healthy behavior or action. These include values focused on behaving in ways that are considered Safe, Sane and Consensual “SSC”, as well as Risk Aware Consensual Kink or “RACK”. These values and social frameworks all indicate the practice of BDSM operates in its own valid cultural construct and context.
There is no research that indicates clients with alternative sexualities have a greater history of past abuse or trauma that predisposes them to this form of sexual expression. In my experience, they generally tend to have a higher level of self esteem and tend to be healthier than the average person.
They have better than average communication skills, imagination and self awareness and are capable of undergoing insightful reflection in psychotherapy. In these relationships, there are often contracts that involve considerable negotiation so folks do tend to be more introspective and “thoughtful” regarding what is important to them, what they want and what they don’t want. In regard to these strengths, it takes strong, intact personal boundaries to negotiate a sexual scene related to one’s fantasies.
BDSM Porn versus BDSM Practice
As this marginalized community gains prominence through social media and the internet, many people have been drawn to explore often long suppressed cherished sexual urges or fantasies. However, the internet has become an engine of connection as well as the propagation of porn. BDSM pornography invariable portrays heterosexuals in SM acts, usually doing unsafe and non consensual acts. These pornographic images do not reflect the real life practice of BDSM or its culture. Unfortunately, these images are assumed to be the “norm” by newbies.
As a result of the boom of online BDSM connectivity, the tight knit culture of BDSM communities is in danger of becoming diluted. Too, the internet has provided ready access to sexual predators who often troll for “newbies” online promising to fulfil sometimes long held fantasies, only to deliver abuse. Dabbling in BDSM can be dangerous if one is not aware of these pitfalls.
People in the real life BDSM culture advise those who are wishing to explore this alternative sexuality to take the following common sense steps to remain safe.
1. Know yourself. Why are you interested in BDSM? What is your motivation? Is this a sense of being versus a fad that you want to explore?
2. Educate yourself. Go to BDSM events, meetings (often known as “munches” where people simply socialize and meet one another with no BDSM activity), BDSM conferences. There are numerous workshops and conferences devoted to learning particularly for newbies. Going to these enables one to understand the risks involved as well as to learn about real life BDSM practice.
3. Take your time and explore who the person is. BDSM relationships are like any other relationship: you need to have more than sexual compatibility to have a sustainable relationship. At the very least you need to be aware of their medical health, STD’s, and relationship status. As these relationships often start on line, it is wise to inquire as to the person’s real name and contact and to have others you trust know who you are meeting with, and where.
4. Ask what is their experience and their level of skill in BDSM. It is important to know whether a person has spent time acquiring skills in the type of fetish they proclaim to be expert in. There are numerous workshops in every state across the nation teaching BDSM skills and they should be able to name one or two individuals or events at which they developed the skills. This allows one to know this person is genuine, known and displays appropriate BDSM values.
5. Ask the person you are engaging with for community references who would vouch for them. If the person is legitimate and bonafide, they would be known in the BDSM community and would have no problem providing references to vouch for them. Again this demonstrates they understand and conform to real life BDSM culture.
DO NOT enter into a SM experience or relationship with the first person you meet on line who promises to fullfil all your fantasies.
Is it abusive?
The burning question because of the emphasis on psychopathology is, is it abuse? How can I tell? People in the BDSM community have spent a lot of time defining the differences. What is the difference? This table highlights the key difference between an abusive and a healthy BDSM relationship.
The difference between Abuse and SM (Adapted from NCSF)
- An SM scene is a controlled situation.
- Negotiation occurs before a scene to determine what will/ will not happen.
- Knowledgeable consent is given by all parties.
- The “bottom” has a safeword that allows him/her to stop the scene at any time for physical or emotional reasons.
- Everyone involved in an SM scene is concerned about the needs, desires and limits of others.
- After an SM scene, the people involved feel good.
- The people in an SM scene make sure that they are not impaired by alcohol or drug use during the scene.
- Abuse is an out-of-control situation.
- One person determines what will happen.
- No consent is asked for or given.
- The person being abused cannot stop what is stop the scene at any time for physical or happening. emotional reasons.
- No concern is given to the needs, desires and about the needs, desires and limits of others. limits of the abused person.
- Alcohol or drugs are often used before abuse
- After an episode of abuse, the people involved feel bad.
The key element in BDSM is a controlled consensually negotiated situation in which all are concerned with the other’s needs and limits. Abusive relationships are out of control, non-consensual situations in which there is no agreements or concerns to meet one another’s needs or limits. Most importantly after an SM scene, the people involved feel good. After an episode of abuse, the people involved feel bad.
It is important to note though that because BDSM is a marginalized alternative sexuality, many of its practitioners fear or have experienced being stigmatized, alienated or persecuted.
Finally, a word about how prevalent BDSM practices are. Several recent surveys conducted in Australia and the USA reported that 15-20% of the surveyed participants reported having engaged in BDSM at some time in their lives.
It has also been shown that the percentage of people practicing BDSM is almost comparable to the percentage of people who are gay and lesbian.
The Kinsey Institute’s 1990 report on sex indicated that 5-10% of the US population does some form of S/m at least occasionally. This is an older study, so the percentages are likely higher today. The REAL significance or importance of this study, is that demographics indicate that those who engage in BDSM represent a viable sexual minority comparable in size to the gay and lesbian community.
Because of social and cultural ignorance and misunderstandings promoted by media and professionals, people who openly engage in this alternative sexuality are often stigmatized and persecuted. Engaging in or wanting to engage in BDSM is not a sign of mental illness, weakness, or psychopathy. However, because it is a marginalized community, it is a community that is open to predators and charlatans who prey on the naïve and uneducated. We hope this article helps inform and provides you with reasonable knowledge with which to understand those in or wishing to engage in BDSM.
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BDSM Events Calendar
Leather Archives and Museum
Masters and slaves together (MAsT)
Los Angeles Boys of Leather
Los Angeles Leather Coalition
Orange Coast Leather Assembly (OCLA)
The Eulenspiegel Society
The Societ of Janus
Threshold Society (Pansexual)
Community Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities.
Kink Aware Professionals (KAP)
Leather Archives Museum
National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF)
Beat me in St Louis
Bound in Boston
International Ms Leather
Folsom Fringe SM Odyssey
Leather Leadership Conference
Power Exchange Summit
South Plains Leatherfest
Southwest Leather Conference
Thunder in the Mountains
Northwest Leather Celebration
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This is not meant to be a complete list of all available resources.