For Kink Aware Professionals. Like everything on this blog, context matters. So if you find yourself acutely uncomfortable with a client’s material, what you do depends on when, where, and how it comes up. Some of these suggestions will not be helpful in all contexts. Some even contradict each other. Apologies to Mies van der Rohe, who didn’t first say ‘The devil and God are both in the details.’
Safety first, yours and theirs. Insofar as you can, do not back away from the material, and do not ask for details that you are not ready to hear and/or the client seems unready to discuss. You need the client to be able to observe their own responses, and for you to be listening to how it feels for them. Consent is critical in BDSM as it is in therapy. It is legitimate and often necessary to question the client about their consent when you reaction comes from ambiguity about whether they have agreed to whatever is disturbing you.
Ask yourself why you or the client are so offended. If the behavior violates your core values, or you are unwilling to do the work in understanding it in the client’s terms, maybe you need to refer the client out to someone who can. If the discomfort is primarily the client’s, then it may be resolved through therapeutic discussion. While the typical condition of human existence may involve some ambivalence, acute and intolerable ambivalence is a proper subject of treatment. Raw, unprocessed and out of control feelings do not advance the therapeutic process, and are signs that it may be premature to discuss disturbing material.
Give yourself permission to have your own feelings and do not rush to judge them a sign of inadequacy as a therapist. In order to use your own feelings in therapy, you must first have them and recognize them. Resolving countertransference is often a powerful resource in therapeutic change. It is often uncomfortable. Freud thought resolving transference was what therapy is all about, and countertransference was often how transference was first recognized. Even if you think your response is excessive, recognizing your feelings is the first step that can eventually lead to acting on them in ways that serve your client. If you have a strong therapeutic alliance with your client, any mistake you make is likely to be a point of learning for both of you, rather than ruin the treatment, if you deal with it honestly and directly.
Ask yourself if understanding and discussing the squicked material is essential to the treatment goals. Often a client’s kink is not central to the goals of therapy. If your client complains they are deeply troubled by their desire, obviously the details of their fantasies and actions are essential to understand. If they went to an event one time and had a bad reaction, you could be doing yourself and the client a favor to let the client vent as they need to, and return as soon as you can to the primary contract for treatment. And if you do not understand the relevance on any material, squicked or not, ask your client what connections they see. If neither of you see the relevance, let it go. One sure characteristic of treatment is that if you gloss over important issues, they will come up again, so if it is important, you are likely to get another good chance to discuss it.
Get more information. This holds the promise of helping you clarify why you are uncomfortable, and possible increasing your understanding in ways that make your reaction more manageable. The question is often where to get good information. Be careful of using sources like porn and fantasy sites, where there is a strong stylistic tendency to exaggerate for effect. On-line sources – yes, I realize Elephant in the Hot Tub is one of those – vary in their objectivity and reliability. Different Loving 2ed by Brame, Brame and Jacobs is a reliable resource for starters. Look also at reliable sources on edge play. It is wise when doing this work to have colleagues whose opinions you trust. Sometimes professional listservs and forums can be helpful. Triangulate information from multiple sources, and don’t simply cherry pick the information that suits your preconceptions. Do not take a poll on social media, or inadvertently out your client with specific information, even without names attached. Often edgy practices are rare or singular events, and public discussion creates the impression that people are being outed and confidentiality violated.
If you have such contacts, ask others in the kink community about how similar material is treated there. In this, you are not looking for advice, but trying to understand the context, contracting, consent, and community reactions to it. Kink communities differ, have their own micro-cultures and house rules, and are not unfailingly accepting or nonjudgmental. But understanding uncomfortable behavior in the likely context of the kink community can help you frame your own reaction, and perhaps, the client’s.
Know your strengths and limits. That knowledge is crucial in deciding which of the strategies listed here are most applicable to any specific case. In the Goode Olde Days, therapists had 5 years of psychoanalysis to deepen their self-understanding. That was good, but by no means a perfect assurance of self-knowledge. Nowadays you can practically get licensed by reading a few good books. Self-knowledge is fragile, but is also the best defense.
Get quality supervision from someone who knows about the scary practices that are vexing you. That does not necessarily mean falling back on an old supervisor who is a fantastic clinician, helped in your training, but knows nothing about kink. It is generally unwise to try to clinic such cases on listservs where just anyone can chime in, both for reasons of confidentiality, and for reasons that people unfamiliar with such material are at risk of being made uncomfortable too, and may simply and unintentionally reflect widespread social prejudices. That may mean cultivating professional relationships ahead of time with people who have a wide familiarity with outliers among the populations you treat.
If you think your own reaction violates your core values, or reflects incomplete work on your part, by all means return to psychotherapy. Being made uncomfortable by someone’s material is ultimately a problem you can walk away from. Be made uncomfortable with your own material is not.
Discuss your discomfort with an experienced and open client. This is their work too, and to the extent that they can cooperate in understanding together what your discomfort means, the client is an important resource. Ultimately, you are responsible for your feelings, but when they are a reflection of the client’s conflicts, showing the client you are comfortable with discussing your own discomfort can be good role modeling, and help them achieve important insight. When you lack a trusting relationship and good working alliance, discussing your own discomfort can be disruptive and drive away a client. It is wise to out-refer to someone better able to help. If a client is gaming you in a way that feels manipulative, make sure that you take steps to ensure your own safety. BDSM edge play, that is play that is known to be more dangerous and transgressive in the kink community, is mostly unsafe to discuss with severely personality disordered clients and clients with weak observing egos.
Therapy is a great way to fight social problems and social injustice in the world. But it operates under ethical guidelines that put the client first. Perhaps you can bring your own reaction into balance better by confronting some of the root problems that make you uncomfortable through teaching, advocacy, or direct social action and philanthropy better than through your psychotherapy with any one client. This is a special subset of my final suggestion:
Make sure that you are adequately supported in the clinical work you are doing. This may include your primary and secondary relationships, your institutional setting, your fees, office, training and other aspects of the context of doing treatment. It may include proper organizational affiliations, and friends who do similar work. And it includes collecting referrals and biblioresources that support the psychotherapy you are doing. All of these factors make it easier to understand intense and/or unexpected client materials if they suddenly arise and help you use them to better serve your clients.
That is a starter list, but it is far from exhaustive. Perhaps you can think of good coping strategies or additional resources I have left out. By all means, include them in the comments section.
Finkelhor, D., Araji, S., Baron, L., Browne, A. Peters, S. D. & Wyatt, G. E. A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse. Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc (1986). 276 p.
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.
Andreas A.J. Wismeijer PhD, Marcel A.L.M. van Assen PhD: Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, Volume 10, Issue 8, pages 1943–1952, August 2013.
Patricia A. Cross PhD and Kim Matheson PhD in the book “Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures” (2006), published simultaneously as the Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 50, Nos. 2/3.)
“Psychotherapeutic Issues with “Kinky” Clients: Yours and Their’s” by Margie Nichols, PhD in Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures ed. P Klienplatz and C. Moser (2006) published simultaneously as the Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 50, Nos. 2/3.)
2015 Russell J Stambaugh, Ann Arbor, Michigan. All rights reserved.
Whenever we hear "sex education," most people imagine a high school health class teacher outlining the basics: monthly periods, the human development cycle, birth control, and maybe an uncomfortable informational film. However, the topics in these classes barely skim the surface of the depth and breadth of our human sexuality.
For each individual, sexuality is a process of self-discovery, and it can be one of the most invigorating journeys of your life.
Did you know that both male and female genitals come from the same embryonic tissue and are identical in the first stage of fetal development? During the whole first stage, the sex of the fetus remains undetermined. After the first stage, the addition of a Y chromosome produces testosterone, which leads to the external and internal sexual differentiation of a male, or an additional X chromosome will prompt production of estrogen, leading to a female.
Some theories espouse that these hormones actually encode our brains before birth -- and that the many external social factors we experience during childhood development do not determine our sexual and gender identity. Some medical researchers even theorize that our sexual orientation -- whether we consider ourselves heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual -- is something that is hard-wired into our brains.
As I was deciding to become a professional dominatrix and fetishist, I asked myself, 'Can I handle other people's judgmental attitudes about my sexuality? Can I accept another person's sexuality without judgment?' In the end, I decided I could -- or at least that I would try. It was a slow process that required me to first deal with my relationship to my own sexuality, and then to practice my free will enough to choose how I wished to express and explore it in my everyday life.
One conversation that never got old at the dungeon (the BDSM/fetish club I used to work in) was sexual preference. It was actually very empowering and freeing to hear a group of women speak openly about their sexualities. Never before had I heard women express with such confidence their gender preferences, curiosities about sex, and interests.
On my second day of work as a Mistress, we sat around the lounge creating my image. I had no clue how I was going to present myself as a Mistress, but I knew I wanted to operate with class and dignity. Seeing my hesitation, Mistress Deborah chimed in: "I'm going to tell you exactly who you are. You are the sexy cougar, mommy, aunt, school teacher, and so on. You are so sexy, I would fuck you myself, and I don't even like white girls!"
Well, hot damn! I thought to myself. I'd never heard a woman speak so openly about her sexual preference for the ladies in public! Lesbian, bisexual, straight, formerly lesbian now bisexual, formerly bi now straight -- the attitude around the dungeon was "change happens." In other words, whatever floated my boat six months ago may not be working for me anymore, and that's okay.
What it boils down to is personal growth, personal progress, and personal choice. ...
Fifty Shades of Grey has shaped a whole culture’s view of BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism). In that fictional world, a powerful man plays out his sadistic fantasies as a powerless woman indulges her masochistic ones. This narrative demonstrates what’s called the "playing out" hypothesis of sadomasochism: In sexual fantasies we re-create our daily power roles. A new paper, however, presents an alternative hypothesis and some surprising findings, including that, all else being equal, high-ranking executives are more turned on by fantasies involving sexual submission than are their underlings.
Joris Lammers and Roland Imhoff report on their "disinhibition" hypothesis in an upcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science. They base their predictions on extensive research showing that social power — having control over others’ outcomes — reduces inhibition. In one 2003 study, for example, participants primed to feel more versus less powerful were more likely to reposition an annoying fan blowing on them. Other work finds that wealthy people are more likely to commit selfishly unethical acts than are poor people, by virtue of their feeling more powerful — and therefore less accountable and vulnerable.
Many people have sadomasochistic impulses — one meta-analysis reported that between 31 percent and 57 percent of women have rape fantasies — but such impulses go against social norms that separate sex from violence, affection from domination. Therefore, the thinking goes, many people inhibit them. And because traditional gender roles prescribe men to be active and women passive in many social domains, men should be especially likely to bury fantasies of submission and women fantasies of domination. But the disinhibition hypothesis predicts that power frees people to let their freak flags fly, increasing sadomasochistic thoughts in everyone and especially masochistic thoughts in men and sadistic thoughts in women.
To test their predictions, the researchers invited readers of a science website and a lifestyle website in the Netherlands to complete an online questionnaire, compiling data from 14,306 anonymous respondents. As a measure of power, people rated their professional position, from unemployed to top-level management. They then rated their agreement with items such as “It sexually arouses me to fantasize about torturing a consenting person” and “It sexually arouses me to fantasize about being tortured by a person on my own demand.” People also rated their desire for social dominance in everyday life, by evaluating statements such as “I like to give orders and get things going.” (The study could only measure correlations, but given the known psychological effects of power, a case for its causal influence on disinhibition in the bedroom can be made.)
Overall, men were more into fantasies of sadism than women were, likely in part because of socialized gender roles. Yet while real-world power increased women’s attraction to sadism (controlling for age and social dominance), the picture for men was split. Among those with an especially strong impulse to dominate others, more power was associated with finding greater appeal in sadism, but among men who shied from dominance, power decreased their interest in sadism. This pattern suggests the men felt free to take on the role that suited them personally — not the one that suited the masculine ideal.
Women, on the other hand, were more into masochistic fantasies than men were. Women with more versus less power were slightly more aroused by thoughts of masochism (meaning power increased their interest in both ends of the sadomasochistic spectrum), but power increased men’s appetite for masochism nearly twice as much as women’s. This is where the findings most strongly support the disinhibition hypothesis and challenge the "playing out" hypothesis: Powerful men are not enacting their typical roles of domination, but tapping into a buried interest in submission that clashes with societal expectations. ...
The wildly varied world of BDSM can provide a safe space to communicate, play, and release the pressures of everyday life.
At pre-dawn on a Monday morning more than 20 years ago, two friends and I sped towards a four-hour cleaning job that had to be finished before our uni classes started. We’d been out. Mr Bungle was blaring from the stereo, the chainsaw guitar and rapid percussion accompanied by Mike Patton’s uniquely tuneful bellow, It’s not funny, my ass is on fire. The three of us screamed along, because it was true. I couldn’t sit down through my classes all that day, and I took the next day off.
My introduction to BDSM was a public spanking at a Melbourne kink club back in 1993. It was prearranged by a friend as a Buck’s Night ’gift’, and I gave explicit consent; I just didn’t know what I was consenting to.
Three chairs lined the stage, and the spankers took their places. We were a clichéd trio of The Blonde, The Brunette and myself, The Redhead. We laid across laps and I faced The Blonde, and as my underwear was gathered up to expose my cheeks, I took her hand. A slap rang out, and I flinched, even though I hadn’t been touched. When I was, there was no doubt.
The initial spanks were pure shock. I felt fight-or-flight kick in, and cursed myself for getting into this position. A hail of slaps hit home, and a sobbed gasp in my ear confirmed I was not alone in my struggle. I reassured The Blonde with emphatic hushes, and the hotness of my arse became secondary to controlling my breathing enough to check in with my friend.
The next thing I knew, the slaps had stopped and a hand caressed me gently, a voice in my ear asking how I was. I found I was more than fine.
This experience fascinated me. The strength I felt was powerful; the connection sparked with my fellow spankees almost magical; and, later, watching my arse turn from maroons and blues to reds and yellows was an aesthetic and sensual pleasure. With hindsight, it’s certainly not an introduction I would ever recommend. Personally, I suggest having an idea of how hard the play may get before engaging, and a ‘safe word’, in case things get too much.
Iceland is the only Nordic country that still lists BDSM as a mental illness. A clear example of thoughtlessness, says the chairman of the Icelandic BDSM association. Members want the government to acknowledge BDSM as normal sexual behaviour. Not categorize it as a sickness.
“Its not easy to realize your sexual desires are categorized by your government as a mental illness, it’s actually really difficult. Categorizing BDSM as a mental disorder only makes it harder for people to come in terms with their sexual identity,” says Magnús Hákonarson, chairman of the Icelandic BDSM association which has formally requested the Director of Health for Iceland to remove BDSM from its list of mental illnesses. BDSM in this instance referring to “Dual-role transvestism, Fetishism, Fetishistic transvestism, and sado-masochism”.
In its letter to the director, dated September 3rd, the association claims there is nothing indicating that these tendencies are in any way a sickness. But stating the opposite can have severe and negative consequences.
“As I say the fact that BDSM is categorized as a mental illness has a negative affect on a person’s sexual identity,” Magnús points out. “It’s also makes people more vulnerable to prejudice – their own and from others – and discrimination. And because of that they become afraid of living out their BDSM side, even hiding it as they’re afraid of negative effects on their lives and their job security. This can inhibit them finding a partner, building a healthy self-image and, ironically, good mental health. Because hiding in the closet can really damage your health.”
Magnús adds that the stigma surrounding such classification can even prevent BDSM people from seeking police assistance or medical support, such as going to the emergency room, if needed. And for good reasons.
“I know rape victims who’ve been discouraged by the justice system to prosecute their attackers. Just because they had in good faith allowed the perpetrator to tie them down before the assault occurred. The victims were basically told by the system that it was their own fault. It’s the same argument rape victims get when they are told that they were attacked because ‘their skirt was too short’. And when put in that context, you can see how absurd it is.”
He admits that because of the stigma the public has a rather negative image of BDSM. The problem being the connection people make with violence.
“When speaking about BDSM, people tend to stereotype, thinking of black leather, someone being spanked and bondage. People are thinking specifics. But in reality BDSM is about so much more,” he explains. “It’s about the general frame, that we are working with communication, trust, what is allowed and what is not allowed, that this is an alternative form of communication.”
He goes on to say that the BDSM group consists of very different individuals. “The only thing we have in common is that we call ourselves BDSM. For some BDSM is a sexual identity where as for others it’s only to spice up their sex. What we get out of it varies greatly but mutual respect is the key, it’s the main thing.” ...
I was once a little girl too with little girl dreams. I wasn't always a sex-positive, independent diva of the highest order. I just happened to have some divergent imprinting at an early age that suggested that the traditional family dynamic (married to a dude with 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence) wasn't quite the path for me.
You see, straight missionary has never worked for yours truly. I wanted it to. Heaven help me, I did. I wanted to believe that one person would ring my bell forever and ever amen, but it quite literally hasn't happened yet.
And at age 35, after a great amount of living, I don't expect it to.
Whenever I attempt to deviate from my normal (being engaged in an open relationship, swinging, and polyamory, with space for kink and fetish play) the associated people pleasing and ignoring my own needs backfires in my face. I don't represent authentically. My writing suffers. My livingness is forfeited. I have to shut down parts of myself that rallied for visibility and were ultimately victorious already. I wind up fighting old wars and that's just plain-old boring.
I've always been a bit of a rebel with a healthy respect for authority. A bit of a dichotomy. I believe that you need to know what you're up against before you defy it. You need to understand its psychology.
So I gave vanilla it's shot at age 30. You can't be an out-of-the-box freak, was my thinking.
I went back to all of the things I was taught growing up in the Midwest. I sought to digest some concepts perpetuated by the media, the church, and state. I returned to my roots just to see what would happen if I played by the rules and did what was suggested.
I was living the suburban dream. I had married the love of my life, had given birth twice, and had a decent vanilla job making 70K a year, and yet I was suffering visibly. My early imprinting came knocking — the joyously open sexual experiences with other girls that comprised my adolescence, the free-range f*ckfests of my undergrad years, the BDSM explorations with a fellow kinkster who opened me up to the wide range of possibility at my fingertips, the literal partying with rock stars who adhered to no one's code but their own and were praised for it.
You don't just forget experiences like that in an effort to blend in or to more fully grasp the vanilla experience. I started to feel the vital parts of me dying.
As a bona fide sexual freak, all I required was a like-minded community to sign off on my authenticity. When that happened, I began to appreciate myself a bit more. I gave myself the credit I deserved as someone who had figured out what worked for them and didn't seek to oppress or harm others with my thinking.
My husband and I began swinging in September of 2014 by pure accident. My Playboy Radio show did a promotion at the local sex club here in Columbus, OH, and had a blast doing so. The people were so laid-back, honest, and surprisingly hot. Everything I had heard about swingers to date was inaccurate (that they were old, overweight, and uneducated). The people we interacted with were lawyers and dentists, ex-Marines and venture capitalists; they were high achievers with about 10 percent body fat, who approached sex in a much more adventurous, lighthearted manner.
When I shared my dissatisfaction with all things vanilla, the Ohio swingers were responsive and kind. We were very much welcomed with open arms and began attending local events — parties, hotel takeovers, and other happenings. We met up regularly with like-minded couples and I engaged in a great deal of action with other women while my husband sat back, had drinks with the male counterparts, and spectated. We joined a website that catered to swingers and helped link us to other individuals in different geographic areas. Things picked up for us in a big way. Our experiences were illuminating and proved that the paradigm we had stuck to our first few years of marriage — to adhere to one another like rubber cement and to be everything to each other, no matter what — that this paradigm was exhausting to other people too and could be transformed into something more sustainable.
My friend, Dr. Zoe, has a way of framing monogamy that makes sense to me. She defines monogamy as something that exists on a spectrum. Everyone is at a different point on the scale from totally monogamous to entirely nonmonogamous. I tend to gravitate toward the nonmonogamous side of things, as does my partner. Dr. Zoe's assertion is that the more successful relationships in the world are predicated on an honest assessment of where you are at on this spectrum and partnering with someone at a similar place. When truly monogamous people partner with those who are fundamentally nonmonogamous, trouble brews. Both partners are unsatisfied. Issues like dishonesty and people pleasing crop up and people start to get pissed off and act out.This is when people start cheating, start withholding sex, have emotional affairs and "work husbands," and wind up sleeping in separate bedrooms. ...
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom launched the Consent Violations Survey in 2014 to gather details about consent violations in a BDSM context. We asked about: the severity of the violations, who is being violated, where they were violated, the relationship and intent of those involved, the power dynamic at the time of the violation, as well as information about false accusations and from people who have committed consent violations. This survey was intended to expand on the info gathered through the first NCSF Consent Counts Survey in 2012 that gauged attitudes about consent in a power exchange context.
A total of 1,307 people (29% of 4,503 respondents) reported that their pre-negotiated limits and/or their safeword have been violated. Among those who reported why they thought it had happened, approximately 1 in 3 involved manipulation or coercion (345 people/8% of 4,503 respondents), and another 1 in 4 said they were attacked by a predator (245 people/5% of 4,503 respondents). Nearly 1 in 3 said the consent violation was caused by an accident, miscommunication, or a lack of skills or knowledge (310 people/7% of the respondents). 71 people said it was part of their dynamic and they were ultimately okay with it (1.5% of the respondents), while 27 people said it was a result of alcohol.
The majority, 70% of the people who said their consent was violated (775/1098), reported their first violation occurred before or within the first three years of their participation in the BDSM community. In all, one-fourth of the people whose pre-negotiated limits were violated said it happened before they started to participate on BDSM websites or attended a BDSM meeting, club, munch, party or event.
As for what happened, the largest percentage of participants said that they were nonconsensually penetrated in the vagina by a penis, finger or dildo (29%). One-fourth said they were touched nonconsensually in a way that violated their pre-negotiated limits, while one in five said they were touched on the genitals or breasts, penetrated in the ass by a penis/finger or dildo, punched or humiliated.
Twenty-nine people (2.7% of the 1,041 people who answered the question) say that they reported the consent violation to the police. 96 people experienced an injury that required medical attention (2% of the total survey respondents and 7% of the number of people who reported a safeword or limit violation). One-half of one percent (0.5%) of the survey respondents (23 people) reported receiving a serious physical injury that was life-threatening or serious enough to cause dysfunction in an organ or limb.
In addition, nearly 36% of the respondents reported being touched without permission at a BDSM meeting, club, munch, party or event.
Out of 4,578 respondents, only 7 people reported they had been falsely accused and reported to the police (0.1% of the sample). Just over 3% of the respondents (140) say they have been falsely accused within the BDSM community of touching someone without permission at an event or party. Just over 3% (137 people) reported they’ve been falsely accused of violating someone’s pre-negotiated limits in a BDSM scene.
For the complete analysis, go to: https://ncsfreedom.org/images/stories/2015_Survey_PDFs_ETC/Consent%20Violations%20Survey%20analysis.pdf
The survey questions were created by Susan Wright, M.A., Co-Principal Investigator, National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, and Russell J. Stambaugh, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator. Derrell Cox, M.A., Department of Anthropology, Center for Applied Social Research at University of Oklahoma, assisted in the analysis and is the statistician. This project has been reviewed and endorsed by a community advisory board of the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS), a community-based research support organization which includes members of alternative sexualities communities.