People into BDSM are psychologically normal and healthy.
by Michael Castleman M.A.
Both the book and movie versions of Fifty Shades of Grey got a good deal right about erotic bondage-discipline-sado-masochism (BDSM). But Fifty Shades also got one thing horribly wrong. It depicts the dominant (dom, top), Christian Grey, as the product of horrendous child abuse and implies that it propelled him into BDSM. In other words, Fifty Shades plays into the widely held belief that those involved in BDSM are psychologically damaged if not pathological.
However, the research shows that people into BDSM are psychologically healthy and no more likely to have suffered child abuse or sexual trauma than anyone else. In fact, a recent Dutch study shows that compared with the general population, in some ways BDSMers just might be psychologically healthier.
What Fifty Shades Got Right
First, I’d like to commend author E.L. James for her generally accurate depiction of BDSM relationships:
• Communication. Before Grey lays a hand on his sub, Anastasia Steele, they discuss in great detail how they want to play. This is quite typical—and a foundation of BDSM. Dom/sub play opens a huge realm of possibilities, and doms and subs discuss them at length, revealing their fantasies and hearing the other person’s. In fact, some BDSMers consider these discussions the most intimate element of their play.
• Negotiation of limits. Grey presses Steele on her personal limits, the hard boundaries she can’t conceive of crossing, and the soft ones that she might cross under the right circumstances. Both players declare their limits, and pledge to respect the other’s. As a result, BDSM is play, not abuse.
• Safe words. Grey tells Steele that if she feels at all uncomfortable at any time, she is always free to invoke their safe word, for example “red light.” Upon hearing it, doms pledge to cease all play immediately and re-negotiate the scene. Safe words mean that, ironically, the person ultimately in control of BDSM scenes is the sub.
• Contracts. Grey hands Steele a proposed contract governing their play and they discuss it point by point. Steel agreeing to some clauses, modifies others, and nixes a few. Not all BDSM players codify their negotiations in written contracts, but many do.
• Intimacy. Steele is surprised by how intimate BDSM play feels, and how emotionally close it brings her to her lover. Aficionados say that BDSM produces a depth of intimacy beyond what’s possible in ordinary (“vanilla”) sex.
James captures these aspects of BDSM quite well. Unfortunately, she’s poorly informed about its psychology. ...
It may seem like perplexing question — there are different kinds? But in fact, in an era of the growing acceptance of casual sex, a better understanding of polyamory and a curiosity about open relationships, there has never been more freedom and opportunity to figure out what works for you.
Because, as one epic chart shows, the kind of relationship that works for one person may not be the kind that works for someone else.
Settling with one person isn't the only way: The chart, designed in 2010 by polyamory and BDSM activist Franklin Veaux and recently shared by sex researcher and New York University professor Zhana Vrangalova, demonstrates how much more complicated and nuanced the options are.
"It's a great reminder that there are different strokes for different folks and no one relationship constellation that works from everyone," Vrangalova told Mic.
The idea for the chart came to Veaux when someone asked him why we even need the word "polyamory," when it seemed like a synonym for open relationships and swinging, he told Mic. "This idea seems to assume that there's really only one kind of non-monogamy, which is kind of silly," Veaux writes in a blog post on Xeromag. ...
Elaine O’Hara was killed by a man with whom she was involved in a BDSM relationship. As a BDSM participant myself, I wonder if we can continue to deny any links between kinky sex and wider societal abuse of women
by Emer O'Toole
In Dublin, Graham Dwyer, a married architect, has been convicted of the murder of Elaine O’Hara, a childcare worker with whom he was engaged in a BDSM relationship. The motive was sexual gratification. O’Hara was vulnerable, suffering from mental health issues, and Dwyer exploited this, banking on the likelihood that her disappearance would be read as suicide. He hid evidence of the murder at the bottom of a reservoir. If it were not for 2013’s unusually hot, dry summer, that’s where the truth would have remained, and Dwyer would be walking free.
A woman is dead: another victim of intimate partner violence. And treating her death with due respect should mean an examination of the social context that allowed a man to convince a woman that his sexual desire to stab and kill her was within the bounds of the acceptable. It should mean attention to the cultural mainstreaming of BDSM.
On Valentine’s Day this year, Universal Pictures released its film adaptation of EL James’s erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Back in 2012, The Guardian asked me to review the book to mark the sale of its ten-millionth copy. I kept it light – riffing on James’s infamously terrible prose and characterisation, and musing as to whether the far-away film version wouldn’t leave us feeling a little less glib and little more, well, worried. The day is come, and I admit a heavier feeling. What is, at heart, the tale of an abusive relationship in which a reluctant, inexperienced and infatuated young girl is controlled and beaten by a rich sadist, is now being offered up as a sweet Valentine’s Day treat for naughty couples.
BDSM communities have been quick to distance themselves from Fifty Shades, and, indeed, from any beliefs or behaviours incompatible with informed, enthusiastic and uncoerced consent. This is because BDSM communities are often, in my experience, very politically switched-on places. However, it’s also my experience that kink communities are reluctant to acknowledge problems with the ideologies underlying their sexual practices, focusing instead on the pleasure or relationship benefits to be gained from BDSM.
I’m making this critique not as a judgmental outsider, but as someone who participates in BDSM behaviours and events and understands the excitement to be found therein. I’m making this critique not as a kink-shamer, but as a challenge to myself: what are my reasons and justifications for inviting or accepting male sexual violence? And, at this point in history, when kink is becoming ubiquitous, I’m calling on all responsible, egalitarian kinksters to take a step back from personal desire and pleasure and ask similar questions.
We live in a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist society. This gross fact informs our identities, our beliefs and our desires: it’s part of us at the most fundamental cognitive level. A prevalent theory in kink communities is that BDSM creates a sandbox or play space around impulses that have their roots in sexism or other prejudice, consensually mirroring non-consensual societal power dynamics. The sandbox allows role play that expurgates, inverts or otherwise contains hierarchical desires. It may give subs control over situations that would – in reality – make them feel powerless, or allow doms to cathartically express violent urges: in short, the sandbox gets it all out of our systems. ...
NCSF’s Incident Reporting & Response received 54 requests for assistance from individuals, groups and businesses in January, February and March. NCSF maintains the confidentiality of those who come to us for help. However we balance that need with the need to report the services we are providing and to provide the community with a record of where the need is the greatest. Here is a breakdown of the cases we assisted on in the first quarter of 2015:
There were 18 requests for assistance with incidents involving criminal law. 12 of those requests were from survivors of a kink-related assault/sexual assault who needed assistance in connecting with kink-aware victim services, education of law enforcement, investigators and prosecutors. 5 were requests for kink-aware defense attorneys and expert witnesses knowledgeable about BDSM vs. abuse. The other incident involved obscenity law.
13 professionals and organizations asked NCSF for information and resources to assist in them in providing their services to kinky clients. These included victim services, medical clinics, therapists, prosecutors and college professors. We also provided information and resources to 2 kink activists to assist in their training of professionals in their area.
There were 12 requests for help involving BDSM and swing groups. 6 groups asked for advice on banning members and dealing with consent violations. 4 groups asked for assistance in setting up a club and dealing with zoning. 2 groups needed assistance with reporters who wanted to attend one of their events.
There were 8 requests for help with child custody in which BDSM was brought in to contest custody. That is an increase from the 4th quarter of 2014 in which there were 6 requests for help with child custody. We assisted in family court cases in Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Canada.
There were 2 requests for help with kink-related discrimination. One person is being denied hospital visitation and the other needed help finding a kink-aware therapist in her area.
Civil law incidents
Only 1 request for help with a threatened outing, involving their FetLife profile.
If you need NCSF’s help because of discrimination or to remove kink as a barrier to service, please contact our Incident Reporting & Response today! Email
"I am zero percent interested in my new relationship becoming strictly monogamous," my friend revealed to me recently. A decade after her divorce, a decade of healing, dating, disappointments, and soul-searching has brought her to a place where she feels open and excited about exploring polyamory. But what makes her feel ready? And how does one even get started?
I asked my friend, a mother of three teens, what had changed for her. She said she'd done a lot of internal work and had finally arrived at a place where she felt like she could take care of herself and make herself happy. She feels settled in herself, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. "My life is beautiful and wonderful as it is, so let's see what we can find and explore and pull into myself."
But it's more than that. She's also felt a shift in how she wants to relate with other people. "I just feel like I really love having intensely close relationships with people, and that's what I do in my work, and that's how I behave in my life, and I'm just now having the courage to say that's what I want."
I think it's crucial that my friend is in this very grounded state of mind. She has just begun a relationship with a like-minded man and is looking forward to their adventures. This got us wondering about long-married couples who are also interested in exploring polyamory. How do you get started, and how do you make it a positive element in your relationship, especially if you're married?
We asked some experts for their advice. Here are their tips.
1. Make sure your relationship is in good health before you try anything.
"The key to any marriage, monogamous or polyamorous, vanilla or kinky, starts with safe attachment," says Jeffery Sumber, licensed psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming book, Renew Your Vows: Seven Powerful Tools to Ignite the Spark and Transform Your Relationship. "The experience of feeling safe with your partner, both safe to be yourself and safe to explore being someone else, is vital to the success to any long term partnership."
Dedeker Winston, a relationship coach, author of forthcoming book The Thinking Woman's Guide to Polyamory, and member of a polyamorous community, also says that this is an important first step. "Take inventory of your relationship. How well do the two of you communicate? Do you trust each other? Do both of you have a similar vision of what the ideal romantic or sexual life would look like? What excites you about the prospect of opening up your marriage and what terrifies you? What are your insecurities?"
2. Think about why you want to try polyamory.
"Be as honest and vulnerable as possible," Winston advises. "Be aware of whether you are making this choice to bring more love, affection, intimacy, and adventure to your lives or if you are making this choice to fix something in the relationship."
3. Do some research.
Winston recommends looking for stories from people who are practicing polyamory in a healthy way. "There are plenty of communities online, as well as numerous useful books." She recommends Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. Winston is also a co-author of the informative blog and website Polyamory.com. ...
Prior to starting my practice as a therapist, I was confronted with contradicting perspectives on the therapist’s disclosure of personal information to their clients. The prevailing thought behind this in the mental health field is that the therapeutic environment is not a place for therapists to disclose too much about themselves—therapy is about the client, not about the therapist, and disclosing personal information might distract clients from the therapeutic process for a variety of reasons. Having said that, recent research has shown potential benefits in certain types of disclosure, particularly when the therapist is a member of a sexual minority group, and the client in question might feel safer with a therapist who shares their marginalized identification(s).
I have to say, it was validating and such a relief to hear this perspective echo my own. The fact is, I was aligned with this approach to disclosure well before reading this research, having had the experience of searching for a therapist myself, and asking potential therapists to disclose their connection to and experience with BDSM. Not that I wanted to know personal details about the therapist’s sex life or partner status, but it was important to me to know that they had a working knowledge of my lifestyle, not only so they wouldn’t judge or pathologize my preferences, but so I wouldn’t waste time and money on educating them as I had with past therapists.
This is exactly why I’m out about the communities I work with and am a part of, and this is also exactly why I created ManhattanAlternative.com—a listing of providers in New York City who are openly affirmative to kink, poly, and LGBTQ communities and lifestyles. The last time I looked for a therapist for myself, I (successfully!) used NCSF’s KAP listing to help direct my search. I know I’m not the only one who finds NCSF’s work hugely inspiring, and I have to give a great amount of credit to NCSF for encouraging me to be out about my intersecting identifications, and motivating me to create a diverse network of affirming providers in the city where I live and practice.
I feel an obligation to the individuals I work with to be out about my identifications, not only because it might help them feel safer and more comfortable in talking to me, but because it sets the precedent that there is nothing wrong with feeling good about having an atypical identification and owning who you are. It is important to note that being out in this way is a privilege that not everyone has. Many people who are kinky, poly, or have a non-binary sexual orientation or gender identification (or intersections thereof) work and live in environments that could be dangerous if they weren’t closeted. Being out is definitely an individual decision, and depends on social context and individual readiness. I am of the mindset that the more of us who can be out the better, because it will slowly help those who can’t be by chipping away at pathologizing public perceptions and stigmatization.
My goals in creating Manhattan Alternative are to make it easier for people who have been wanting to reach out for support but have been reluctant to, or haven’t been able to find someone they feel comfortable talking to, and offer support to those with intersecting marginalized identities (e.g., kinky and poly; kinky and gender-nonconforming; poly and gender-nonconforming; kinky, poly, and queer; etc). Another goal is to encourage providers with practical knowledge of these communities to offer support by being out about their knowledge of and connection to these communities. Especially in the wake of the 50 Shades franchise, many providers are advertising that they are kink- or alt lifestyle-friendly, and while I don’t doubt many of them are affirming, they may not have the practical knowledge or experience that Manhattan Alternativeproviders emphasize.
My hope is to create a network of providers that is as inclusive and diverse as possible, which is why I’m putting a call out to therapists and health care professionals of varying races, ethnicities, abilities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations—particularly those with an intersection of identifications—to fill out the Manhattan Alternative Provider Application Form if they are interested in being listed as a kink/poly/trans/LGBQ-affirmative provider.
Guest Blogs do not represent NCSF but are the opinion of the blogger. NCSF provides space for activists to post their opinions in order to get feedback from the kink and nonmonogamous communities on the work they are doing and the information they are providing to the mainstream. Please leave your comments below and go to the blogger’s website to join in the conversation!
From the beginning, it was apparent this was a court case like no other.
The jury was informed on the first day that "acts of stabbing" were an "essential part" of Graham Dwyer and Elaine O'Hara's sexual relationship.
For many, "knife play" and "blood play" were foreign terms.
It seemed surprising such an extreme sexual sub-culture could exist in Ireland.
Bondage and sadomasochism are not common terms in the eminently respectable suburbs of Blackrock and Foxrock.
But as details of the trial emerged, it became apparent a thriving Irish BDSM (Bondage, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism) community existed.
The BDSM sex dating site O'Hara and Dwyer met on, alt.com, claims that more than 28,000 Irish swingers, singles and couples avail of its services. Fet life - a sort of Facebook for 'kinksters' - has a 10,000-strong following in Ireland.
There are also regular BDSM master classes run around the country, suspension stage shows in Temple Bar, erotic arts festivals in County Down, fetish nights in Cork.
Despite the details that have emerged during the court case, a degree of mystery continues to surround the BDSM world.
This is partially due to the term BDSM itself - a clumsy umbrella phrase that encompasses a huge range of sexual preferences and persuasions.
It refers to anything from wearing a pair of novelty handcuffs to being hoisted into the air on hooks, or stabbed with retractable blades.
"There is huge variety within BDSM," Beth Wallace, founder of Sex Festival Bliss Ireland, explained. ...
Only 15% of Americans age 18 to 29 would ever consider being in an open relationship, according to a new survey conducted by the Huffington Post and YouGov. That proportion is nearly identical to — not higher than — the numbers for adults age 30 to 44 and 45 to 64.
The survey also found that 18% of 18- to 29-year-olds have been in an open relationship, while only 14% have attended a party where they engaged in sexual activity with multiple partners.
It turns out we young folks might not be as edgy or non-monogamous as everyone assumes. And that's totally OK.
Overexcited headlines: This lukewarm attitude toward open relationships isn't the edgy portrait of millennials the media often paints in articles such as Rolling Stone 's conversation-starting feature on millennials' sex lives. "Millennials realize that they're pushing the boundaries of the sexual revolution beyond what their parents might have expected and their grandparents could even conceive," Alex Morris excitedly reported.
Indeed, Amy Moors, a University of Michigan sex researcher, told Mic, "Questioning the often unrealistic ideals and expectations of monogamy is having a moment right now."
But despite the increased interest in casual sex and hookups, data suggests that millennials are having sex about as frequently as previous generations. And while we're surrounded by a culture that's more sex-positive than ever, the 20-something dating landscape itself might be tamer than we envision.
Moors' research shows that many young men and women have positive attitudes towards open relationships and express an interest in swingers' parties and threesomes, but most couples still don't actually engage in non-monogamy. ...