Warning: This article includes mentions of suicidality, rape, drug misuse, eating disorders and self-harm.
Two years ago, 38-year-old Alice* suddenly went profoundly deaf. She lost her job, her boyfriend dumped her and the relentless tinnitus she experienced led her to have suicidal thoughts. “Before I went deaf, I was stable,” she tells me. “I had trauma but I could live with it. With the tinnitus, I wanted to die. It felt like the only option. My mother died by suicide so it felt very familiar. I came so close.”
In order to distract herself from this emotional and physical agony, Alice joined a dating app. It was there that she met a man with whom she started practicing BDSM, which she credits with getting her mental health back on track. BDSM – which stands for bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, sadism-masochism – involves enacting scenarios, often in a sexual setting, where there is a power imbalance, generally between a dominant individual (a dom) and a submissive individual (a sub).
The world of BDSM is broad and incredibly diverse, encompassing everything from the use of a blindfold during sex to forms of consensual torture. It’s difficult to define and the concept is marred by misinformation perpetuated by pornography and the media (and Fifty Shades of Grey).
People with an interest in BDSM used to be considered dangerous. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, described sadomasochism as the “most significant of all perversions” and Wilhelm Stekel, one of Freud’s earliest followers, went even further: he linked it to cannibalism, criminality, vampirism and mass murder. Until the 2013 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – a definitive text on mental illnesses and their treatment – anyone who experienced arousal by atypical stimuli, such as feet or cross-dressing, was classified as clinically disordered, even if the fetish caused no distress or harm.
Despite this, recent research suggests that BDSM does not indicate a disordered mind and that its practitioners have relatively good mental health: they’re less neurotic, more conscientious, less sensitive to rejection and more open-minded. In 2013, a study also found that they report being generally happier than the general population. So does BDSM attract people who are naturally more well-adjusted or does BDSM improve the lives of those who practise it? Does it have the potential to heal those of us who are suffering because of our mental health?
In 2008, a paper was published which said that for most people, practising BDSM could accurately be thought of as a hobby, making it sound as wholesome as knitting or Zumba – just an innocent way to pass the time. However, when I ask around and speak to women on the kink scene, I find that they consider it to be a far more fundamental component of both their identity and their wellbeing.
Dr Gloria Brame is a clinical sexologist, sex therapist and author. “For some people BDSM is a hobby. I think it’s a weird hobby, but okay,” she tells me. “For me, BDSM is a legitimate sexual identity, like being gay. It isn’t about the spanking and the whipping and the chains. I would be a kinky person without any of that. I’d still want to be in charge. It’s who I am.”
“It helps me so much,” Alice explains. “BDSM forces me to question my role as a disabled woman, to question the expectations I have for myself and the expectations society has for me. Vulnerability is not a weakness. I understand that now. I feel empowered through vulnerability.”
Eevi* is a 24-year-old woman who talks enthusiastically and expressively about BDSM, despite describing herself as a newbie. “I’ve always been a high energy, nervous person. I got into a lot of trouble at school, for not being able to focus, for lashing out. I had anger management issues and was diagnosed with ADHD,” she tells me. “As a teenager, I spiralled, I developed anorexia. Looking back, I think it was a way for me to reclaim control. BDSM is a way for me to reclaim that control in a healthier way. It allows me the possibility of healing from bad experiences, including the rape I endured when I was 18. I’ve known I was sexually submissive from a young age but after I was raped, it took on a deeper meaning.”
“Of course, BDSM is just one of the ways I look after my mental health,” Eevi adds. “I don’t think it should be the only form of self-care, or considered as a replacement to therapy, but it definitely offers a lot of potential to process issues in a constructive way.”
Lucy*, 36, is a psychology student whose own mental health journey has been tumultuous to say the least. In her early 20s she suffered with bad anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia. “I stopped eating and started to waste away,” she explains. “I became addicted to [the benzodiazepine] lorazepam. Everything was just completely fucked up. I had to go into an addiction centre. After I was discharged, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.”
BDSM has always been something she wanted to explore but it was only last year, before the coronavirus pandemic, that she started attending kink events. “In the beginning I would look at people getting whipped and think, Oh my God, why would anyone want that? It looks so painful,” she says, “but then I tried it and I realised that there’s this cathartic element to it. If you’re taking beatings, you’re taking lots of pain…that can be empowering. Afterwards you feel like, Fuck, I’m really strong! It’s like you get your demons beaten out of you. I haven’t had it in a while because of lockdown, and I’m craving it. It’s very strange, it’s like I need it.”
Thirty-six-year-old Charlotte has been part of the kink community since 2015. Reflecting on her time in it and her preconceptions prior to joining, she says: “When I started out, my perception of BDSM was very wrong. I thought it was just a way for women to be used and abused by men. But really, it’s a way for me to communicate what I want and what I like and what I need. I’ve had depression and anxiety for most of my adult life but recently my mental health has been much better and BDSM is one of my coping strategies.”
Charlotte says that BDSM is both “a lot of fun” and that it “makes sex better”. More than that, she says it allows her to escape from her head. “I self-harmed as a teenager,” she explains. “I’m a masochist; I enjoy the pain. BDSM has provided me with a safe space to experience that. It’s no longer self-flagellation. I’m not punishing myself because I don’t like myself.”
For a self-described “overthinker” like Charlotte, being in a space where someone else takes over feels “absolutely magical”.
“I’m constantly worrying about my blood sugar as I have type 1 diabetes,” she says, “but during BDSM sessions, my dom will scan my glucose monitor for me. I don’t have to worry about it. I can stop being vigilant. I can relax. It resets my brain.”
While conducting interviews with these women via video chat, I was struck by how much eye contact they made. We were talking about some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. I was expecting discomfort, maybe even embarrassment. But the women looked me dead in the eye – unflinching, strong, unashamed. It was, frankly, nothing short of inspiring.
“BDSM changed my life,” Gloria says as she smiles and takes a long drag of her cigarette. “I feel like it has been transformational psychologically and emotionally. It radically changed my perspective, my ability to trust people. I used to have secrets I could never tell anyone, shame about my body. I was pounded down by patriarchal society. BDSM is incredibly empowering. My whole life I wanted to do these things that I thought were forbidden. Why would some guy let me boss him around, tie him up, put clamps on his nipples, you know?”
While Gloria is a dominatrix and Alice is a switch (someone who enjoys performing both dominant and submissive roles), Eevi, Lucy and Charlotte all have very submissive tendencies and often engage in BDSM play with male doms. I asked them if they identified as feminists (they all did) and suggested that by letting men hurt them, they could inadvertently be reinforcing sexist and patriarchal norms. As the standard, hackneyed and reductive critique of BDSM goes: It’s men beating the shit out of women, like they have been doing since the beginning of time…
“But you’re exposing the structural inequality,” Eevi explains without hesitating in response to my question. She’s obviously considered this perspective before. “By playing with power dynamics, you’re forced to think about them and communicate about them and it makes you more critical. There are lots of people in vanilla relationships that are very traditional and heteronormative and they avoid thinking about these issues but in a BDSM relationship you have to think about them.”
I’m forced to agree with her. “I think BDSM aligns beautifully with feminism,” says Charlotte in response to the same point. “As a sub, I set the limits. I am in control. I have the power.”
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Dec 2, 2020