In 1886, a German psychiatrist named Richard Freiherr Von Kraft-Ebbing published one of the first clinical works which described, labeled, and diagnosed unusual sexual behaviors. This book was called ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ and was the first to clinically describe male homosexuality and coin terms such as masochism and sadism. Von Krafft-Ebing presented three categories of sexual disturbances in his book- pathologically exaggerated sexual instincts, absences of the sexual instinct, and perversions of the sexual instinct. He presented any sexual deviance from the norm as a form of mental pathology which could be treated and cured. This book shaped the clinical approach to sexual behaviors which are considered to be outside the norms.
In 2016, Quebec psychologist and researcher Christian Joyal published research based on a randomized sample survey of Quebec’s general population. This remarkable study found that nearly half of the sample reported interest in at least one or more of the sexual behaviors deemed as deviant or pathological by Von Krafft-Ebing. Around one-third of the sample reported engaging in these behaviors at least once and the interests such as voyeurism, fetishism, and masochism were reported by participants at levels above what could be considered statistically unusual. In many of these interests, there were no distinctions between men and women, and the interest in sexual masochism was significantly linked with higher levels of life satisfaction. This ground-breaking research turned Von Krafft-Ebing’s theories on their head and shattered various clinical assumptions about sexuality.
How can it be that the interest and behaviors that are showcased by nearly half of the population are viewed by clinicians and therapists as unusual, uncommon, and pathological when anonymous research finds that they may in fact represent the norm? Research by Keely Kolmes chalks it out to be the ‘clinician bias’, an assumption of deviance, disturbance, and pathology, which leads to people keeping their sexual interests secret from their therapists.
Kolme’s research as well as other research has revealed that people experience sad, dismaying, and harmful responses from therapists when they share their sexual interests with therapists who are poorly trained on sexual diversity. In fact, many patients reported being ditched from therapy for being kinky, having law enforcement called upon them for engaging in consensual sexual behaviors, losing custody of their children, and generally being shamed and told that they are sick by the therapists who still believe in the Von Krafft-Ebing’s theory that these sexual interests represent mental disturbances. This ignorance, bias, and lack of training on the therapist’s part have led to harmful, shaming practices which have forced patients to shamefully hide their sexual interests from everyone, including the professionals who are supposed to be non-judgemental and inclusive to all.
The sexual deviances noted by Von Krafft-Ebing are commonly referred to as BDSM. BDSM stands for sexual practices or kinks related to bondage, discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism. The most important thing to note here is that, even though some BDSM participants may engage in consensual non-consent, BDSM practices involve consenting adults by definition. Safe, sane, and consensual are the principles guiding BDSM play. Safe refers to the measures taken to prevent risk, as the activities can turn physically or emotionally fatal if done without safety measures. Sane means that people do not engage in BDSM when drunk, tired, or under the influence of substances and overwhelming emotions, but are in a sound state of mind. Consensual means that full consent of all parties is taken before entering into play. The other term for BDSM would be RACK which stands for Risk Aware Consensual Kink.
In a study conducted by Kolmes, Stock, & Moser in 2006, it was found that out of 175 kink-identified people who had been in therapy, only 65% disclosed their BDSM identity to their psychotherapist and 45% did not ever tell their therapist that they were kinky. It also found that 74.9% of 175 BDSM clients noted that the issues that brought them into therapy had nothing to do with BDSM. So if engaging in BDSM has got nothing to do with pathology and mental disturbance, then why would one seek out a BDSM counsellor or a kink-affirmative counsellor? Well, people can pursue BDSM counselling for the following reasons:
- Coming out to self, partner, or someone else or being fearful of others discovering their BDSM identity or interests,
- Compulsive issues around sexuality or BDSM.
- Discomfort with BDSM identity or wanting to diminish or extinguish BDSM interests.
- Fear of not being able to find partners with compatible desires/interests.
- Identifying or recovering from an abusive dynamic in a BDSM relationship.
- Guilt or shame about accidentally hurting a partner or crossing a partner’s boundaries.
- Lack of clarity about sexual interests or types of sensation or power dynamics that could be satisfying.
- Mismatch in sexual preference within a relationship.
- Difficulty sharing BDSM community space with a former partner after the breakup.
So who is a BDSM counsellor and how do they differ from other types of counsellors out there? Even though there are no formal guidelines by APA on BDSM counselling, guidelines suggested by Kolmes & Witherspoon (2012) and Kleinplatz & Moser (2004) give us a fairly comprehensive idea of what being a BDSM therapist entails. A BDSM counsellor adheres to the following practices:
- Awareness that distress over kink and poly identity may be a normal part of an internalized cultural bias against the sexual orientation instead of the evidence of a disorder. A kink-affirmative counsellor takes the role of validating this distress and helping the client to locate and get support from community resources.
- Take note of whether and how poly identities affect work, social, and family relationships.
- Be careful not to assume that a client’s present issue is caused by or is related to their kink or poly lifestyle.
- Be mindful about making assumptions about clients’ treatment goals, especially if these goals include changing their sexual desires.
- Not ‘curing’ clients with BDSM or poly desires.
- Not assuming abuse when someone is in a BDSM relationship.
- Not assuming that a client is cheating or tolerating cheating if they bring up other partners.
- Being aware of one’s own countertransference issues and how they may enter the therapy space.
- Not assuming that BDSM interests mean that a client is not also interested in conventional sexual behaviors.
- Educating oneself, seeking consultation, or referring out when one is practicing outside the boundaries of competence.
BDSM counselling entails not only a no-judgment zone but also therapists who genuinely understand identity issues and sexual practices. Another Light Counselling is one such organization that aims to provide a safe space to navigate the boundaries of people’s sexual experience without the negative messaging one may already have been exposed to. Counsellors at this organization help their clients process and recover from the harm of negative messaging while addressing the related trauma experienced because of it. Therapists here understand how kinks are one way to explore identity and sexuality for both queer and cis-het people and how they relate to and reflect power and society. They foster open and safe conversation-allowing their clients to shed the ‘shame’ society expects them to have.
BDSM as a term has evolved to include more terms and practices. The lines between abusive and consensually kinky dynamics often get blurred. At Another Light Counselling, therapists encourage safe and fun sexual experiences that are a part of adult life and aim to help their clients to understand their hard and soft limits while fostering these experiences. A BDSM counsellor can help one maintain healthy relationships and dynamics by providing resources and information to make one’s kinky play a safe and exciting experience.