For most of us, when we hear the word ‘kink’, the first thing that comes into our mind is mainstream references about 50 Shades of Grey or Secretary, or episodes of crime shows like Criminal Minds. It is understandable that one would have a very limited understanding of BDMS or kinks when the only references we have around the topic are toxic representations in the mainstream media. Hence, it is no surprise that even today, BDSM practices are frequently equated with pathology.
Human sexuality is incredibly complex, multilayered, and varies from culture to culture. Even though many of us obsess over trying to fit into the ‘normal’, the reality of it is that ‘normal’ is a cultural invention. Much of human sexuality is equated with pleasure and isn’t connected to reproduction. And while many of us drown in shame over our sexual desires, especially in a conservative country like India, and think we are the only ones to have such disgusting inclinations, the truth is that whatever kink you might have, you can rest assured that you’re not the only one.
Unfortunately, this shame stems from the widespread historical teachings around sexuality that exist within the framework of shame and continue to influence public opinion and our personal thoughts around sex even today. For instance, the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that fulfillment of sexual desire is not possible without acting immorally, perpetuating the connection of shame and desire (Shrage & Stewart, 2015). On the topic of BDSM, in 1886, Richard Freiherr Von Kraft-Ebbing published his clinical work called ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ which described, labeled, and diagnosed unusual sexual behaviors. This book was the first to clinically describe male homosexuality and coin terms such as masochism and sadism. Richard Von Kraft-Ebbing presented any sexual deviance from the norm as a form of mental pathology which could be treated and cured and his book shaped the clinical approach to sexual behaviors which are considered to be outside the norms.
However, today the WHO has the following opinion on sexual health: When viewed affirmatively, (it) requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. There is no evidence that masochism or S&M is associated with mental illness. As Baumeister points out in this research, masochists may have better-coping skills than those with vanilla preferences. They also report having enhanced sexual functioning in many cases.
According to social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, while only around 20% of people practice sadomasochism, it is actually one of the most popular fantasies that people have. In his book ‘Tell me what you want’, he reported that about 60-65% of people have S&M-themed fantasies. However, as discrimination is sadly still common surrounding sexual diversity, people may find it difficult to come to terms with their choices and preferences, which can lead to deep feelings of shame. These feelings can lead to difficulties in relationships and internal conflict within the self.
In her exploration of this topic, Rice (2020) states that increased anxiety and/or depression, relationship stress, loneliness, development of negative coping skills, outbursts of emotions, irritability, and change in behavior are all among the psychological impacts of suppressing kink identity. Even though kink or BDSM may have nothing to do with why an individual is seeking therapy, it is still important to have a therapist who doesn't work with the intention of discouraging any kink practices. When therapists ask or encourage their clients to suppress kinky behavior or identities or fail to demonstrate any support toward it, they end up actively playing an oppressive role in their client's minds.
Therefore, seeking support from a kink-aware therapist or someone who practices kink therapy can help explore these feelings without any fear of the therapist being shocked or incapable of understanding, for example, the terms or slang used by their clients. A kink-aware therapist is someone who is aware that kinks are a normal part of the sexual spectrum and is someone who is particularly aware of being able to distinguish healthy BDSM practices from non-consensual abuse.
A kink-affirmative therapist is someone who remains present with their clients when they disclose engaging in the practice of kink or sexual self-exploration They bear witness to the client's journey of understanding and accepting the rollercoaster of healing and must have familiarity with specifics of ethical kink culture. This culture includes consent, limits, clear communication, and fun, with the goal of creating space for empowerment. There is no basis that exists for discouragement or pathologization of kink practice (Coppens et al., 2019).
Even though research shows that kink practice is healthy and that there is no correlation between kink practice and trauma or any kind of pathology, oppressive patterns around them are still quite prevalent in therapeutic practices. In a study examining self-identified BDSM practitioners' experiences in therapy, some participants reported that their therapists required them to give up kink practices in order to remain in therapy (Kolmes et al., 2006). Available research also showcases that many therapists rely on inadequate or inaccurate information on BDSM and kink practices (Ford & Hendrick, 2003). Other findings suggest that clinicians feel uncomfortable working with kink-identified clients and may use unhelpful or even unethical practices that may lead to inappropriate pathologization of BDSM practices (Lawrence & Love-Crowell, 2008).
However, when clinicians erase the shame associated with kinks and actively engage in kink therapy, they allow their clients to practice articulating their needs and meet those needs with respect and support which can ultimately positively influence other areas of their lives as well. With the specific knowledge a kink-aware therapist has around diverse lifestyles, consulting someone who is aware of arrangements such as poly relationships can make seeking support less complicated and free from judgment. Kink-affirmative therapists can also offer support in addressing any conflicting emotions you may be experiencing related to your lifestyle or desired lifestyle.
Kink-affirmative therapy can help with a variety of issues like:
- relationships issues: Kink-aware therapists understand the ways relationships are structured within the context of BDSM and understand how power and role dynamics may be involved.
- Everyday problems: Kink-affirmative therapists do not automatically assume that your concerns and difficulties like depression, anxiety, relationship conflicts, or family problems are related to your sexual preferences and practices.
- Coming out: kink-aware therapists can help you explore your sexuality and interests, find acceptance of your particular fetish or kink within yourself, disclose those preferences to a partner, and come out to others in your life (i.e about your participation at BDSM conferences or events).
- Cultural role conflicts: Kink-affirmative therapists can assist if you struggle with your identity inside the BDSM world and how that relates to expectations the larger society may have for you in the various roles you hold in your life.
- Vanilla and kink conflicts: You identify as kinky but your partner identifies as ‘vanilla’. This may invoke difficult feelings and it is important to have a therapist who can be accepting of your preferences while validating your partners’ and helps you process your emotions and reactions.
- Internalized oppression: In a sex-negative society, it is understandable to have developed shame around your sexual preferences. Kink-affirmative therapists can help you understand the sources of this shame, learn how to work with them, develop compassion for yourself and increase your self-esteem.
- Abuse and trauma: kink-aware therapists understand and recognize the difference between consensual BDSM practices and abuse or other forms of interpersonal trauma and can help you heal from non-consensual experiences and the impact they may have on your well-being and relationships.
Kink therapy 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 they may already have been exposed to. Counselors at this organization help their clients process and recover from the harm of negative messaging while addressing the related trauma experienced because of it. 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. They foster open and safe conversation-allowing their clients to shed the ‘shame’ society expects them to have.