It’s a common (and messed up) misconception that people who like kink are somehow mentally ill or deranged. This is simply sex-negative nonsense spoon-fed to us by our puritanical culture. BDSM, or bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism, is a perfectly normal thing to be into. All kink is normal, as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult.
Frankly, it’s not really anyone’s business what happens sexually between consenting adults, so I don’t know why we’re so obsessed with trying to police it.
Studies have shown that people who engage in kink are not mentally ill. Most recently, a 2020 study published in the Sexuality Research and Social Policy journal shows that people who participate in BDSM “score similarly on most measures of psychological health, have similar levels of trauma and childhood experience as the general population, and relationship health,” Kenneth Play, an international educator and creator of the Sex Hacker Pro series, tells TheBody. “Most people are exploring BDSM because it’s sexy, fun, and a form of self-exploration.”
While this is most certainly true, there are some people who utilize the unique power dynamics, pain play, and role play involved in kink in order to process their personal trauma. For those who use it in this way, it can be deeply healing. While BDSM does not nullify the importance of traditional talk therapy, it can be used as another tool in the old belt to help people cope with the pain of their pasts.
Using BDSM can be liberating for some struggling with trauma or mental illness, but it also has the potential to be triggering. This is something both you and a qualified therapist should discuss before you begin engaging in kink. In that same vein, you may be using kink already and are unaware of why exactly you’re drawn to it. This is something to consider in order to further you on your journey of self-discovery.
Here is what you should know about BDSM, the people who love it, the people who are healing because of it, the people who are growing from it, and the people who are doing all of the above.
BDSM Can Help After Trauma
Working through a past trauma can be a happy byproduct of one’s BDSM practice. When we experience trauma—whatever that trauma may be—and we don’t process it, it lives in our bodies. It’s as Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., explains in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Traumas live inside of us, festering, infiltrating many areas of our lives before we properly work through them in order to heal. In many instances of macro-trauma, we feel our sense of control has been taken from us and we disconnect from our bodies. The damage done to the nervous system results in a perpetual state of fight or flight, the body’s natural response to danger. It makes healing and moving forward very difficult without professional assistance in the form of trauma-informed therapy.
BDSM can allow trauma survivors, and sexual assault survivors specifically, to regain some of that control that was robbed from them. “For those who are submissives, it is a way for them to take control of the outcome of what is happening to them. It is a way to release fear and anxiety by giving up the control to their dom/domme and know that they are in a safe and controlled environment,” Taylor Sparks, an erotic educator and founder of Organic Loven, tells TheBody.
Scenes are highly negotiated between sub/Dom partners in order to ensure complete consent and boundaries. This gives the specific players the ability to create any scene they choose. For some, reenacting their assault can be helpful in allowing them to rewrite their own personal stories from a place of agency. Essentially, they reframe the narrative so that they aren’t a victim. For others, the use of pain play, impact toys, restraints, and other BDSM tools can allow a person healing from trauma an outlet for some of their pain. The physical pain helps to move the emotional pain out of the body. It can be extremely cathartic.
For others still, they may engage in consensual voyeurism or exhibitionism as a way to take back control of their sexuality, watching sex acts or being watched, without fear of violation. One of the beautiful things about BDSM is the diversity. There are so many opportunities to explore every fantasy you’ve ever had in one space. It’s an opportunity to let go of shame and accept yourself.
The research for how kink can aid in trauma healing is still developing, but there have been some studies that show that “participation in BDSM can help people access altered states of awareness,” Play says. “There’s great relief in accessing these types of trance states for everyone, including those with mental health issues, because it helps people temporarily escape their ordinary sense of self.” This is commonly called “subspace” and is akin to a meditative relaxation state.
“Practicing kink with a partner can improve communication and boundary-setting,” he says.
For trauma survivors, feeling at home in your body and safe with the people you’re spending time with is a beautiful step towards healing. If BDSM aids them in this way, that’s fantastic.
BDSM and Kink Can Improve Overall Mental Wellness
As we mentioned above, BDSM is not just for trauma healing. It is accessible for anyone and everyone who wants to play. For those who practice, BDSM helps foster a sense of overall well-being. It can help with improved confidence, the release of sexual shame, community building, and greater self-esteem.
“Kink—when done the way one wants to do it or have it done to them—can give you those feel-good endorphins and release stressful cortisol hormones,” Sparks says. “A good ‘scene’ can be therapeutic in your relationship with your partner as you learn to build trust with each other, knowing that your dominant will, in the end, have your best interest in mind. It improves your communication skills as both the dominant and the submissives learn to ‘use their words’ to be open and honest about their kink(s).”
Kink can be liberating, joyful, and healing in so many ways. This is by no means some big ploy to get you to jump headfirst into the kink lifestyle—but it sure does sound interesting, if you ask me.