Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Boundaries, Identity, and Transgression

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can walk abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding
To please the yelping dogs.  The gaps I mean,
No one has seen the made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet and walk the line,
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and others so nearly balls.
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side.  It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need a wall:
He is all pine, I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head.
‘Why do they make good neighbors?  Isn’t it
Where there are cows?  Here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense. 
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’  I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly and I’d rather
He said it for himself.  I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Mending Wall, 1917  Robert Frost

Brene Brown

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

Brene Brown

On the eve of American entry into World War I, American poet Robert Frost penned "Mending Wall," this playful, transgressive, and highly nuanced meditation on boundaries.  In it, he questions everything about boundaries.  Their necessity and utility, the need for cooperation in their maintenance, their relationship to tradition and identity, the fact that maintaining the boundary provides occasion for community, and he recognizes that boundaries are both responses and prey to aggression that menaces us from the dark place in others of which we are often fearful.  Despite his neighbor’s otherness, Frost’s narrator cannot resist poking him about the wall, and when he does, he finds psychological differences and defenses that have little to do with good husbandry.  In this he recapitulates our ambivalence about diversity:  that the recognition of difference often requires tolerance.

Woodrow Wilson imagined he could keep a divided United States out of World War I.  Once in, he violated many of our most cherished boundaries that protect freedom of dissent.

Back in 1914, secure within the natural boundaries of two great oceans, the United States had a strongly pacifist President, and little reason to fear that the dark forces gathering in Europe would engulf us.  Greater was our natural fear of our own fellow citizens, whose historical ethnicities and identifications would be deeply divided when the war broke out in Europe.  About a third of Americans were of German origin, and sympathy for Germany was widespread.  Another third, and many of our country’s cultural traditions, came from Great Britain,  one of Germany's opponents  And yet we would all have to pull together when the Atlantic proved not to be a boundary, but a battleground.  German insistence on using unrestricted submarine warfare sank American ships and killed American sailors, thus dragging the US into the war.  Uncomfortable with one another or not, Americans would fight together despite their differing ethnic identifications and identities over this 'boundary issue.'

In psychotherapy, boundaries are often viewed as a valued necessity.  In my shorter quote, Brene Brown sees them as a concomitant of constructive self-esteem.  She is emphasizing that we cannot uphold our values if we cannot say ‘no’ to pressures from others to compromise them.  Like Frost’s classic poem, which was apt to his times, Brown’s quote is apt to ours, when public servants decline to compromise across party lines for fear of betraying their principles.  Parlous times make for rough boundaries.  Some are even proposing a wall…

The Great Wall of China.  Our current President was hardly the first to consider a wall.  This one was indeed, 'great', 'big' and 'beautiful', although far from entirely effective.

Boundaries are an important kind of psychological resource, and those who experience serious boundary problems are vulnerable to many social ills.  But boundary problems are endemic to the human condition, careful thought and reflection are needed when clients appear to handle them in a dysfunctional manner.  Community context, subcultural values, client goals, and partner agreements must be thoroughly understood to interpret the meanings associated with boundaries properly.  Often, boundary problems are overdetermined, influenced by many factors, and are not susceptible to simplistic solutions.
Boundaries are often described as an individual psychological skill or attribute.  People do vary considerably in their skills at using them. However, this essay proceeds from a rather difference conceptualization; boundaries are socially constructed, and require collective participation to maintain or break.  Often, they are not a simple contract between two parties, nor is the responsibility for their maintenance clear or constant.  Anyone who examines successive maps of Europe over the last millennia sees that boundaries are far from static, as they ebb, flow, endure and evaporate over time.  Nor are they simple contracts between neighbors, as Frost observes.  For a look at how much the map of Europe has changed over the last 1017 years, click on this link to YouTube (takes about 2 minutes.) Changing European Boundaries 1000AD to the Present

In the previous essay on this blog, Darkness I closed with the suggestion that consent was an important ethic, but only the starting point for an ethical framework for BDSM.  Boundaries are an excellent example of how consent cannot cover all the bases.  Boundaries are often not a simple matter of agreement between two roughly equal parties.  Not only are parties not always nearly equal, but boundaries are defined, imposed and maintained by stakeholders who may not be present nor have any input in consent agreements.

One of the things I have often heard from therapists about kinksters is that they have “poor boundaries.”  This is a very interesting comment, and it does not do to immediately refute it.  This is particularly true because we all know clients, kinky or not, who do in some manner have poor boundaries.  They are late for appointments, or they fail to pay their bills.  They don’t do their therapeutic homework, or interrupt us or their partners in session.  They show off at inappropriate times, or hog the spotlight.  Sometimes they insist on being the identified problem.  Other times, they refuse our suggestion that they have any problem at all.  Some, in a meeting of G-7 participants, barge in front of the assembled heads of state.  Oops, sorry, that is not a kinky client, that’s the President of the United States!  “Good fences may make good neighbors”, but there is a lot of boundary violation going around these days.   In the electronic realm, we often do not even know where the boundaries are.

However, as I write this, we see lots of analogies on the international stage that make boundary violations inevitable, if not exactly acceptable, and the root causes for these is not always clear.  Fighting in Syria deliberately destroys the boundaries of people’s neighborhoods, and they find themselves struggling to smuggle themselves into Europe, thereby violating international borders.  Donald Trump determines to build a 30-foot wall on the American/Mexican border at a point when net migration from Mexico is zero.  And his conceptual boundaries decline to differentiate an American citizen of Mexican descent from an undocumented migrant.  These discussions of boundaries are impregnated with issues of power.

Syrian Refugees coming ashore on the Greek Island of Lesbos in 2016.

Boundaries are an important part of social life, and transgressive values can be highly problematical with these.  Often, therapeutic boundary discussions are saturated with power dynamics that conflict with constructive therapeutic goals.   We as therapists often assume our role is to set boundaries in therapy and if we have difficulties getting a client to accept our lead on how these boundaries are to be observed, we make negative judgments about the client.  That may be appropriate sometimes.  In kink, as in other walks of life, transgressive behavior can denote insensitivity, hostility, and a readiness to harm others.  But like those unwanted migrants, these behaviors originated someplace else before they wash up on the shores of our consulting rooms.  Often clients are using the best boundaries they are able, and their handling of limits is a reflection of their past experiences that seem far more compelling to them than our rules do.   In our own ways, all of us are like those Syrian refugees, living as best we can within the boundaries around us until we can’t, and then taking the risks that we will be sanctioned for violating somebody else’s rules.   It turns out, feeling like you can set your own boundaries is often correlated with having high social privilege.

Of course, this discussion of boundaries follows hard on the post about darkness because of the problems ‘boundary violations’ pose for the attempts of the kink communities to use consent and contracting as boundary processes.  Consent violations degrade safety, and undermine the integrity of kink’s PR claim that “Safe, Sane and Consensual” provides genuine security for participants to make sound decisions about which erotic risks they wish to assume.  Contrary to Frost’s implication that walls aren’t needed if there are no longer any cows to stray, boundaries provide a measure of security, whether we need it every moment, or only occasionally, and even when there are no longer any cows.

As a cautionary, I point to data from the 2014 Consent Violations Study, in which one sixth of those people who had had at least one consent incident to report, described five or more.  Given the prevalence of kink education efforts and the pervasive kink culture of consent, it is fair to conclude that there are people who repeatedly risk re-traumatization through BDSM experiences that are not conforming to safety norms in the kink community.  Although we found that consensual non-consent and 24/7 submission experiences are riskier than some other BDSM experiences, these multiple consent victimizations were not associated with especially high-risk types of play.  Rather, those complaining of these violations seemed to take little benefit from the norms and structures that kink has set up to make communities safer.
Therapeutic Boundaries and Ethical Considerations:

The culture of psychotherapy may share some fundamental values with the kink community, but the two cultures diverge at many points.  One of these key differences is in how boundaries are understood.  This essay on therapeutic boundaries for altsex clients is the beginning of a discussion about the various goods that are in conflict, but it is intended to legitimate the feelings often reported by kinky clients and the therapists who treat them that crucial goods are in conflict which are understood in fundamentally different ways by the two communities.  In such circumstances, it is typical to feel ambivalent and torn between competing values.  This is often a consequence of social role conflict, and competing values, not necessarily deep-rooted psychopathology. 

Some of these differences emerge from the histories of the helping professions and of kink, which will be briefly reviewed here.

In previous essays, I have reviewed the lives and some of the contributions to kink of crucial figures like the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.  These authors wrote and behaved in ways that were very critical and defiant of the conventional social boundaries of their times.  The Divine Marquis never saw a socio-sexual boundary he did not wish to break.  He eroticized murder and disparaged the use of the guillotine for bureaucratically decreed dispassionate executions.  Von Sacher-Masoch gave us the sadomasochistic contract, but despite his erotic fantasies of submission, he leveraged his social position to coerce his wife into behaviors to which she declined to consent.  Although these two writers did not dictate the modern boundaries of BDSM, they did much to establish its ethos.  And it is an ethos of violating contemporary sensibilities about how sexuality is conducted between partners in which conventional boundaries are ignored.

When kink began to organize as a subculture, however, it developed boundaries of is own.  This initially involved respect for other participants’ secrecy about ‘the Life’, and shared efforts to prevent those who were not part of sadomasochistic communities from knowing about BDSM activities until they were regarded as safe to tell.  In some of the early gay leathersex motorcycle cubs, new members had to prove they were sincere by starting out in submissive roles, regardless of their preferred sexual scenes.  This ensured that new members were fully indoctrinated in the group’s etiquette, as well as discouraging anyone who was not serious or sincere.  Early contact organizations carefully protected sadomasochists’ identities through re-mail services, in which codes were employed to ensure that participants’ identity and addresses were protected until they were ready to reveal them to those who corresponded to establish relationships or sex play.

Boundaries about doctor/patient confidentiality implemented by the United States Federal Government

Doctors and psychotherapists are also aware that many matters discussed with their clients are stigmatized.  Clients are afraid that others will know if they have a disease, disability, or painful history.  In an attempt to ensure that such matters are fully shared in treatment, doctor-patient communications are confidential.  Laws like the Health Insurance Parity and Portability Act (HIPPA) ensure that many aspects of a patient record remain confidential.  It is a measure of the social acceptability of these arrangements that such rules are characterized as ‘privacy’ when we discuss medical information, but ‘secrecy’ when discussing customarily private sexual behavior!  But therapists and altsex clients are both familiar with the importance of confidential communications even if some reasons are more widely viewed as legitimate than others for maintaining these boundaries.

In another chapter I discussed the development of the Safe Sane and Consensual (Slogans) ethos and its viral spread among the early above ground kink communities in the 1980’s. This led to the eventual development of an ethos of explicit sexual contracting, and educational programs aimed at making play safer.  Other attempts to create boundaries include the institution of Dungeonmasters to monitor the safety of playspaces, and house rules of conduct in playspaces to prevent outsiders or novices from interfering in scenes.  While there are many kinksters who criticize, disagree, or even reject some of these ideas and procedures for enforcing boundaries, it is fair to say that experienced participants in kink social organizations have extensive exposure to community boundaries, and many who have never played face-to-face have read about them.

Figaro was a barber and a surgeon.  Its all in the wrist, you know!

Therapists, proceeding from their status as allied health professionals, learned about professional boundaries from the professional ideologies of physicians.  Physicians in turn, learned their professional boundaries from their long emergence from quasi professional status in the medieval period to alpha professionals today.  Back in Galen’s time, “First do no harm” was their equivalent of “Safe, Sane and Consensual”.  Intended as a professional ethic, it also functioned as a public relations statement. Back when doctors had little knowledge of the boundaries of what they ‘knew”, it was impossible to implement except by rote repetition of accepted practice.  Remember that melodious buffoon in The Marriage of Figaro?  He wasn’t just a barber, but a surgeon, and as such he was the object of much jest, but also considerable fear.  Although adept with a blade, surgeon/barbers lost many patients due to the risks of therapeutic bloodletting and from unintended sepsis due to unsanitary incisions stemming from the lack of knowledge about the germ theory of disease.  With the emergence of medicine as a systematic science in the 19th century, physicians and surgeons gained the social and commercial power to dictate what good professional boundaries meant.  Good patient management has gradually come to mean not only that physicians, not patients, get to determine the time and place of their meetings with clients, but that they no longer make house calls and instead maintain offices with lots of diagnostic equipment and the tools to maintain sterile conditions.  The power balance between physicians and clients has been decided by physicians, hospitals, technological advances and medial insurers, with little input from their clients.

All of this was very far along in practice in 1980 when I began training as a clinical psychologist.  I was taught that I was responsible for determining the time, place, length of appointments, and great training effort was expended on what I could say about clients and to whom.  I was instructed that therapeutic boundaries were all important in establishing the boundaries for successful treatment, and that it was my job to educate my clients to these rules.  This did not mean rigidity was recommended for its own sake, but my ethical boundaries as a therapist, while grounded in Galen’s dictum, were not just between my client(s) and me.  I was a representative of my entire profession, not just my personal values or therapeutic orientation.  I had responsibilities to my client and even myself, but also to my profession, the state, and to the larger society that needed to be considered in setting boundaries and in contracting with my clients.  This is equally true in 2018.  As an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, I promise to adhere to The AASECT Code of Ethical Conduct.  This set of guidelines was adopted with three goals co-equally in mind:  protection of the public, protection of the profession, and protection of the individual practitioner.  Never mind that those lofty goods occasionally conflict, and their interpretation was dependent upon time, place and changing social context.
Boundary maintenance has a central role in the in how we as therapists think about professional ethics.  We set appointment times not only to regularize and regulate our own schedules, but to communicate our stability, predictability and reliability to clients.   We keep the focus on their thoughts feelings experiences and narratives as demonstration and fulfillment of our promise to put their welfare first.  We moderate our feelings about their stories because personal stories are highly emotional, and over-responding to their experience risks substituting our narrative for their own.   When Sigmund Freud discovered that severe behavioral symptoms might moderate from discussion alone, but that in such intimate discussion, patients often fell in love with their doctors, often in ways that went far beyond routine gratitude for the gifts of relief from illness, psychotherapists became sensitized to the importance of boundary maintenance in handling these transference feelings.  Professional neutrality wasn’t merely an expression of routine social discomforts about emotionalism, but disclosure might obscure the client’s symptomatic needs to view the therapist unrealistically, and failure to notice that in treatment might delay the process of cure.  So, all manner of personal information and contact outside of the therapeutic office became professional boundary issues too.

In June of 2017, AASECT put on an Ethics Workshop in Las Vegas addressing professional boundary issues in dealing with the alt sex communities.  Ruby Bouie Johnson, Angie Gunn, and I were moderated by Reece Malone and AASECT Ethics Advisory Committee Chair, Dan Rosen.  I went first and outlined some of the historical context I have presented above.  Noting that subjectivity was privileged in kink in a way that it was not in psychotherapy, I suggested that appropriate boundaries depended greatly on whether you accepted the Freudian ideas that transference was ubiquitous, and addressing it central to the process of therapeutic transformation. If you believed in transference, then you needed to keep firm boundaries so that therapy was not contaminated by what the client knows about the therapist’s life outside of the consulting room.  Ruby discussed process for negotiating boundaries in treatment in the context of intersectional cultural competence, and recognized that in her home state of Texas, some goods needed to be sacrificed to the necessity of maintaining a license to practice.  Angie emphasized the sex negativity of needing to hide our sexualities from our clients who were in the process of trying to decide to come out about theirs.  She maintained that authenticity required open expression of one’s gender and sexuality.  Still, you could hear a collective gasp when she revealed that she sometimes became nude with clients.  In the regulatory context of Portland, and with her clientele, Angie maintained that touch was a boundary violation, but nudity was a good role modeling.  Debate about this echoed for several weeks on the AASECT Listserv.

If this was intense enough to be worth doing, you may not want the therapeutic consequences of needing to discuss it's impact on the client who saw you.

Boundaries are not just about what goes on within the psychotherapeutic consulting room, however.  Among the most persistent inquiries in AASECT from those serving the kink communities are questions about how proper boundaries with that community are to be maintained.  In many places the alt sex communities are small, polyamorous, and it is not possible for kinky therapists to play near where they practice without risking the possibility of running into clients.  Many clients would not be offended and have no basis for objecting to seeing their therapist expressing personal sexualities.  But AASECT itself, and the other psychotherapeutic professions have serious and cogent objections.  Those of us who hold licensed professions and who have signed our agreements to uphold the codes of conduct from our professional organizations are contracted to uphold their standards of conduct.  Often these were made with the recognition that unethical therapists often used the intimacy of the consulting relationship to meet their own sexual needs with vulnerable clients who were seriously harmed by such behaviors.
While this may go a long way towards clarifying the boundaries of professional behavior, it does not really resolve Angie Gunn’s challenge about the benefits of clients who are coming out about their sexuality.  For myself I have resolved this as follows:

1)   About 70% of 2014 Consent Violations Survey participants, all of whom discovered the survey either through on-line kinky groups or their local BDSM social organizations, said they were not out to family, co-workers, or other people with wom they interacted routinely.  As important as the decision to be out can be, under the prevailing conditions of social stigma, it is by no means a sure sign of sexual authenticity for all clients to be out.  I regard therapy as a place to explore such questions where, as passionately as the client, or even the therapist may feel about the issue, the opportunity is preserved for neutral discourse about it.
2) 150 years of professional sexology have failed to reveal enduring scientific principles about how people choose their preferred forms of sexual behavior.  In this vacuum of good theory, the dictum ‘first do no harm’ is better served by neutrality, and by trying to privilege the client’s discourse over the therapist’s about such matters.  In many cases, I refer clients to external sources for their psychoeducation.  Making clear that these are the opinions of the writers, not my own, the client is invited to discuss anything the readings may bring up.

3) While at SSSS 2017, I saw data suggesting that early childhood sexual experiences involving older, but non-adult participants, might account be correlated with paraphilic interests relative to normative ones.  This is the best data ever that some specific historical factors might predispose a client to kinks.  But even the biggest effect sizes accounted for only a substantial minority of the variance between measures: about 30%.  So even with such data, I would be assuming a lot if I tried to apply this to clients who didn’t volunteer such stories spontaneously in treatment. (Poster:  Associations between Paraphilic Interests and Early Sexual Experiences: The Role of Partners and Perceptions – Lauryn Vander Molen, BA; Scott Ronis, PhD; Raymond McKie, MSc; Terry Humphreys, PhD; Robb Travers, P.)

4) While therapeutic transference has never been adequately demonstrated by properly scientific means, it has been widely clinically understood for 130 years.  For half of that period, it was seen as the crucial factor in all treatment.  If a client’s feelings toward the therapist are crucial in many cases, I owe my clients’ freedom from the burden of knowing about my sexual interests and behaviors, even if this constitutes a kind of paltering that implies support for cis-gendered heteronormativity I may not really support.  I can only oppose conventional or alternative practices in therapy if I believe that these represent a clear and present threat to the client’s welfare or self-determination.  A client running into me at a kink event or a conventional one risks the possibility of provoking them to realistically re-context our work.  That has draconian implications for my ‘freedom’ to express myself sexually in place clients might encounter it, even if I had their full foreknowledge and permission.  If I am to be an authentic professional, I must put client welfare first, but I might still be an authentic kinkster if my kink did not require the general public to know about it.

5)    The fly in this ointment of personal disclosure is power. I enjoy professional power and privilege and a freedom to negotiate the boundaries of my treatment with clients who, from their personal discomfort, suffering, and even psychopathology, must turn to me for help.  In return for those powers, I must not demand of clients that they assent to being exposed to my personal sexual choices.  The professional consulting relationship deprives them of the full freedom to say whatever they think about my sexuality, no matter how hard I try to level the inherent power imbalances.  When advocates demand that I ‘check my privilege’, this is how I interpret the checking in question is to be accomplished.

6)    Because I cannot immediately effect the resolution of social power imbalances in American society, I have a professional and ethical obligation to advocate against arbitrary stigma.  This may be a long and arduous process, but it creates the possibility that a day may come when being out or not will not be a risky hallmark of personal authenticity.  When that happens, the boundaries we need will change, and therapists and clients might enjoy greater freedom of sexual expression.  I do not believe that day is yet here, but this essay is a tiny piece of the work towards bringing it about.

© Russell J Stambaugh, March, 2018, Ann Arbor MI, All rights reserved

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


“Oh, you never turned around to see the frowns
 On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you.
You never understood that it ain’t no good,
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you.”
“Like a Rolling Stone” – B. Dylan

Mary Gaitskill in 2017, courtesy of the New York Times

Back in April, the New York Times printed a review of Mary Gaitskill’s new book, “Somebody with a Little Hammer: Essays”.  Those of you who have been paying close attention know that Gaitskill is the gifted author of the short story that became an iconic 2002 movie about kink, The Secretary.  In this review are included some remarks which serve as an excellent jumping off point for our exploration of a heretofore neglected discussion about kink that emphasizes its dark side.  Trite as it is to say, if you have been reading this blog closely, you may well fail to know the power of the dark side.

Despite the extreme good fortune of inspiring a commercially successful movie of our chosen subject, and there is only a handful of such films, Ms Gaitskill was not altogether satisfied with the transition of her oeuvre to the screen.  Here I shall quote directly from the Dwight Garner’s review.

“She was displeased with that movie, [Gaitskill] writes.  It was breezy and upbeat, absent the darker shading.  The takeaway, she writes, ‘is that S/M is not only painless; its therapeutic:  It has made both characters more confident, better looking, happier, freer, and self-actualized.  Best of all, it has led them straight to marriage!’”  How kinky is that?

It would be easy to dismiss this as the conventional culture and its agents; director Steven Shainberg; or the movie’s producers, cleaning up BDSM for mass market consumption.  For her part, screen writer of record, Erin Cressida Wilson, won a Sundance Festival Award for this work, her very first screenplay.   At least that awards committee didn’t see her work in such a critical light.  But if you have both read the short story and seen the film, there is no debating that Gaitskill’s original is truer, grittier, and the more sadomasochistic of the two works.  And in the rest of Garner’s review, it Is made clear that Gaitskill has enough sadism to recognize it for what it is in others and that she sees herself as the wielder of those little hammers, a characteristically kinky position.  In her own way, she is a social critic.

Kink and the problem of idealization:

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Secretary (2002)  Nice blouse!

One might be tempted to accept the ‘cleaning up’ of Gaitskill’s story as evidence of the intrusion of ever present fetish elements into kink.  And it is true that the movie settings are lovely, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s blouses exquisitely pressed and silky as any fetishist might crave, but hardly consistent with her role as a down and out woman for whom a job as a secretary constitutes social advancement.  And kink itself has a somewhat convoluted relationship to erotic idealization.  Fetish itself represents the triumph of fantasy over utilitarianism, just as Krafft-Ebing warned us long ago.  For those not so inspired, it is difficult to imagine a brassiere, an opera-length glove or a well-turned boot could provoke more passion than a human body expressly designed by eons of evolution to stimulate procreative desire.  But fetishism is not simple idealization, as anyone who has encountered its intense specificity can attest.  As a teen, I remember reading those letters to Dear Playboy and Penthouse Variations in which fetishists would go on and on about how only barefoot hogtied cheerleaders would do, tennis shoes were completely outrĂ©!  There is something going on in fetishism beyond simple idealization.  But it also takes a certain optimism to believe that, with billions of people engaging in various forms of sexual intercourse around the planet, a specific regime as stigmatized, awkward, often alienating, and sometimes downright dangerous form of human expression could be transformative.  Good psychotherapy doesn’t routinely leave bruises except perhaps to the ego.  But there is a serious discourse about kink that it isn’t genuine if it isn’t dirty, doesn’t leave bruises, isn’t dark enough, and doesn’t break the rules.

As a therapist, I have encountered any number of people who earnestly represented to me how kink is therapeutic.  I believe them, as far as it goes, but I also take such declaration with a large grain of salt.  As beneficial as it can be to get what you want, so much human behavior is difficult to explain in terms of simple drive satiation.  If it was, millionaires would quit work when their earnings exceeded their initial ideas about how much money they need to spend, rock climbers would quit climbing El Capitan’s sheer face after a single success, and no one would go back to the exact same kind of lover who left them broken-hearted the conclusion of their last affair.  Often, exactly the opposite is observed.

El Capitan in Yosemite.  Granite sheared by glaciation makes for a steep ascent. "That was fun, let's climb it again"!  Photo by the author
People do accomplish therapeutic achievements sometimes in kink, but when it comes to shadow play, that process of knowing our dark sides, Freud and Jung, its original proponents, were frighteningly pessimistic about the possibilities.  In Analysis, Terminable and Interminable(1937), Freud wrestled directly with the observation that no amount of good psychoanalysis ever made the unconscious go away altogether even though therapy was the process of making the unconscious conscious.  For Freud, the process of confronting repression was valuable, but one could never know all of one’s dark side, and there were some impulses it would never be OK to enact no matter how insightful one became about them.  Jung was more optimistic, but, looking at the broad cultural sweep of symbols, he was the first to admit that darkness never really goes away.  So, what does it mean to ‘play’ with it?  It is a pathway with no clear destination.

Organized BDSM tries to create space for darkness to be expressed ‘safely’, and as might be expected, such safety is always a little bit relative.  Certainly, it is safer to lie at home in bed masturbating to fantasies of whipping someone and imagine they are loving it than it is to go out and find such a person, acquire the whipping skills to do this safely, get to know the partner well enough that you serve Goldilocks her porridge up at just the right temperature, and suffer the possibility that your partner will flee in terror somewhere in the middle of the process before you learn enough to make the enactment satisfying enough to both of you become sustainable.  For all of kink’s confrontation with conventional romantic idealization, there is a genuine dollop of optimism, if not wild-eyed idealization, in such attempts to find kinky liaisons.  Yet this was even more true in the past, before the internet, use groups, self-help references and FetLife, and people still attempted kink and succeeded in establishing relationships based upon conducting it.

Vlad,'the Outer', Putin, Kompromat King, courtesy of Getty Images.  "Your secret's safe with me"!

Likewise, is it rather optimistic to imagine that one’s life will be greatly improved if someone knows about your kink and accepts it.  Surely this achievement would be balm to life-long fantasies and case histories of actual rejection, but it won’t cure your herpes, fill your bank account, or stop your excess drinking. People in BDSM all face stigma over their behavior, and this is a powerful leverage to create community, although kink was stigmatized for years before such communities became common and above ground.  And just when it  appears that kink is making genuine headway to social acceptance, out comes evidence of the Ashley-Madison hack, or content changes at Fetlife due to credit card billing restrictions, or Russian kompromat trying to out the President of the United States for urophilia, to rub our noses in the fact that doing kink still carries substantial social vulnerability even for out practitioners who have taken reasonable steps to protect themselves from the consequences of the judgments of others.  If kink still carries risk, so too is idealization a potential motive to undertake risks in hopes that getting what one wishes for will be as good in reality as one has long imagined only in erotic daydreams.  And before we mistakenly attribute this kind of thinking exclusively to kink, please note how similar this kind of idealization is to conventional heteronormativity.

Despite the idealization surrounding fetish, and the optimism that facing risk will bring delights far beyond mundane sexuality, kink is rather contemptuous of conventional idealization.  Some of this goes back to de Sade’s confrontation with Rousseau and The Church, but modern kink is dismissive of conventional relationship structures, often surprisingly disparaging of conventional sex behaviors even though conventional folk (and kinksters) pursue them with durable enthusiasm, and kink is often strongly anti-romantic.  This is not to say that great loves are not built among kinksters, but many kinks can’t be pursued without eschewing romanticism.  While many new submissives dream of finding and all-knowing top, part of a good top’s role description is keeping submissives from over-whelming themselves and that involves denying them some of what the submissives imagine they desire.  Tops want to frustrate sometimes, and bottoms desire to be frustrated and give consent to exactly that treatment.

Perhaps stigma can be blamed for this variant of MKIBTYC (My Kink is Better than Your Kink) is an occasional form of socially divisive behavior within the organized kink community, where it is actively discouraged.  Here I have creatively perverted the term to apply to kinksters’ occasional tendency to assume superiority over ‘Conventionality’ and use the term ‘vanilla’ as a put down for those who just aren’t hip enough to recognize that kink is ‘superior’.)  Cognitive dissonance alone might be sufficient to explain anyone preferring their chosen forms of sexual expression: having paid the costs of such ‘choices’, we are vulnerable to becoming wedded to their benefits.   Alfred Adler would have no trouble explaining the shaming of conventionals as a turning passive into active after enduring lifelong shaming of one’s kink, and seeking mastery over the very tools of one’s historically experienced vulnerability.

Serious leisure can be arduous.  Rhymes with sex work is real labor.  

Like other areas of human striving, BDSM is sometimes a great deal of work to get to the fun.  Dolling up for those sexy fetish pin ups can take many hours of perspiring in latex under klieg lights.  Good suspension rigs can take hours to do aesthetically.  Playing so quietly that you don’t wake the kids is mostly a turn off that needs to be overcome rather than central to the fun, just as it is for conventional folk.  And rough play requires days of self-care long after the endorphins have worn off.  For many sensation players, that discomfort is a source of pride, but it still hurts, too.

Similar routine inconveniences plague other forms of what DJ Williams refers to as ‘serious leisure’, and conventional sexuality, too.  Serious snow board enthusiasts just as regularly cope with the dangers of taking a spill, or from triggering avalanches.  In kink, it is not always sufficient to overcome routine negative emotions, but to court and intensify them to the limit of personal endurance.  Kinksters don’t just crave intense orgasms, but intense theater that evokes the darker emotions.  Transvestism, cuckolding, and other erotic role play are often shame-based even as participants complain about the social stigmatization of their kinks.  People who crave acceptance do so acting on impulses to do the unacceptable.  All the conventional fears and disgusts: rejection, abandonment, loss of control, loss of autonomy, loss of freedom, loss of identity, injury and loss of bodily integrity, racism, sexism, infantilization, even evil itself are sometimes directly courted. 

Dom/mes and tops, and even submissives deliberately dress to look scary.  They play in ways that routinely exceed any hope of plausible deniability.  Often, they appear to be showing off.  Edge play may be in the eye of the beholder, but being edgy is often seen as a source of status in the communities.  While many try to conceal their kinks, there is considerable pride and public esteem to be had in the community for being out about them; often, the edgier the better. This is not a new development, back in the forties and fifties, this was a characteristic of the S/M outlaw motorcycle cultures only a few of whom may have been presumed to have ever read de Sade or Genet.  There are many in kink who are openly contemptuous of being normalized, suburbanized, or commodified for mass market consumption.  There is a thrill to be enjoyed scaring children, and furry little animals.  It is not just sensation-seeking that keeps emergency room staffs telling tall tales of removing gerbils from the occasional rectum.  An otherwise respectable kink research organization nicknamed their survey of the health needs of the BDSM communities “The Gerbil Survey” in jest, but playing on precisely this dynamic.  An anonymous wag suggested to me that the survey needed a trigger warning!

Kink often embraces things that are despised, dirty and disgusting, from the scut work of polishing boots, to playing with urine and feces, to giving up power and social status, to eroticizing performing the dusting.  The problem of idealization is again illustrated by kink eroticism, which tends to veneer over the unpleasant implications of all this.  While cinematic depictions of Pauline Reage’s perverse training at Chateau Roissy are invariably clean stylish and resplendent with fetish appeal, cleaning up must be a fulltime job with all the blood, saliva and feces involved in all that slave training.  Laundry must be a constant preoccupation despite the scanty attire.  And the Marquis de Sade’s writings would have required an army of hired help he could never afford (He may have been an aristocrat, but the Divine Marquis was chronically short of money!) just to clean up after his literary parties, and that is before we get to the problem of disposing of the dead bodies.  In reality, the Divine Marquis got into plenty of legal difficulty precisely because, once the judgments made at the height of concupiscence were made, he was unable to clean up after their messy interpersonal consequences.  While many of these literary exploits are ‘only’ fantasies, they are willfully messy ones.  No one gets pregnant or an STI unless it serves a dark story line.  It should be noted that most kinky play does not require unwanted contact with dirt and disgust, but the critical term is ‘unwanted.’ What is the point of having a slave if they cannot be forced to sleep in the wet spot?  And how do you know you have surrendered any power unless you have to do things that are genuinely unpleasant?

Jack Morin, reworking John Money’s theory of love maps--or personal erotic templates--could not escape a conclusion that would have nonplussed the late 19th century learning theorists:  rather than mainly stemming from early but repressed positive experiences, eroticism in Morin’s view was equally likely to be erected on earlier experiences of fear, loss and emotional travail.  Robert Stoller for a time considered that kinks might be caused by childhood medical ordeals.  Von Sacher-Masoch believed his love of being beaten by imperious women and his erotic fixation on fur stemmed from a preadolescent experience of being whipped for disrespecting his haughty aunt.  Suffice it to say, she had not specifically intended to awaken his eroticism, but to punish him into submission.  In this way, turning an oppressor’s intended punishment into a source of lust constitutes a kind of mastery.  It restores some personal agency to a story in which the victim rescues something symbolic from maltreatment.  These examples illustrate Morin’s idea that sexual excitements come as frequently from ‘troubling’ experiences as they do from routine drive expression or the desire to repeat good times.

 Lambert Wilson as the chief Merovingian in the Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Well dressed, but what the heck is a Merovingian?  The short answer: bad guys.
The long answer: an early Frankish dynasty (457-752) that established French rule of Gaul.

In conventional media, kink is just emerging from a period in which sadomasochistic attire is used to denote villainy.  Only in the last few years have immaculately suited villains in haute couture duds been opposed by good guys who look like they emerged from the fringes of punk rock (for example, The Matrix)!  Ordinarily, a kinky costume is an unsubtle device to spare us the trouble of character development.  Kink is bad, and everyone knows it.  But not only is it sometimes highly erotic to be bad, it can be socially productive and necessary.

Perversity, creativity, and transgression:

I have pointed out that when Krafft-Ebing first used the term perversion to characterize his kinky psychopathologies, he expropriated a term from moral, religious and legal cultures to characterize erotic preferences that did not serve obvious Darwinian and reproductive purposes.  But he was persuading the professional class on the strengths of medicalizing sexual problems when he did so, and trying thereby to ease the acceptance of his model of sexually variant behavior.  When the Freudians appropriated this language, the lay understanding of psychoanalysis was that kink was moral perversion.  Never mind that Freud believed that we are all perverted in the unconscious, the public understanding lagged the psychoanalytic one.  Freud thought perverse desires were normal, even if their expression in behavior was atypical.  The part the public understood is that these unconscious desires were in opposition to all good conventional social norms.  But Freud laid the intellectual foundation for dramatic philosophical and artistic changes.

A still from the notorious razor/eye sequence from Un Chien Anadalou (1929), Luis Bunel's and Salvador Dali's surrealistic silent film.
The artistic and intellectual works of Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton and Salvador Dali, Jean Genet, Michel Foucault and Mick Jagger all keep us mindful that the unconscious and kinky were meant to be seen as transgressive, somewhat turning Freud on his head.   Kinks aren’t normal, they are shocking, crazy, and bad!

All those towering creative figures were transgressive, as they took a current line of thinking about art and society and overthrew conventional understanding for a new one that emphasized differences with the old ways of seeing and interpreting social reality.  Picasso attacked the illusion that experience is contiguous, and reality was concrete.  Breton sought beauty in ugliness, and emphasized ways in which the primitive and modern were contiguous, not opposites;  he reveled in making scary and incomprehensible narratives.  Genet made a mockery of morality; Foucault of professionalism.  Where Elvis Presley and Black R & B made the emerging rock n roll explicitly sexy, Jagger reminded us that what makes us hot isn’t orderly, obedient, or even all that good for us.  In the 1970 movie Performance, getting in touch with your dark side involves not only hot wax play, but bending your mind, light, and gender before getting you killed.  Maybe I’ll skip the cinema this evening and stay in and just listen to Their Satanic Majesties Request on the hi-fi!

A promotional poster for the 1970 movie, Per
In 1984, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel outlined this relationship between perversion and the creation of new artistic paradigms in her book, Creativity and Perversion.  Although she was careful not to license all kink as creative, she did recognize that the impulse to transgression played a key role in looking at things in new ways.  Like psychoanalysis itself, perversion sometimes provided the impulse to look at the world in new ways, and for artistic, scientific and intellectual progress to occur, sometimes the old ways needed challenged or even to be overthrown.  The perverse impulse to reject conventional wisdom could provide that motivation and freedom of thought.  Although Chasseguet-Smirgel is writing in the Freudian tradition, she goes well beyond Freud in this assertion.  Where Freud thought we all had a little perversion in us, erotic variation only became pathology when it displaced healthy sublimations of the (re)productive sexual impulse.  Chasseguet-Smirgel suggests that rejection of conventionality could be personally productive and good for society.  Carried to its logical extreme, well beyond her limited argument, kink could be, is some cases, the healthiest adjustment for some individuals.

This, of course, is congruent with the argument that Richard Sprott and David Ortmann; Michael Aaron; Chris Donahue, and others who think the first order of business in any therapy of someone coming in disturbed by their kink is to hook them up with the kinky communities.  There the client(s) can learn to put their kinks in perspective and profit from the stories of others who are somewhat out about their own kinks.  Of course, not all kinks are created equal, and genuine destructiveness and non-consent can limit this for rare individuals, but it rests upon the assumption that out kinksters are healthier than closet ones, which we simply have no data to demonstrate.  And, according to the 2014 Consent Violations Survey, 80% of kinksters are not out to someone.  So there is good reason to question whether every person who comes in the door is ready to profit from attending BDSM social organizations despite the excellent educational sessions and sound consent ideology to be found there.  But plunging clients into the steamy world of social kink where they will learn what they like to the accompaniment of the drumbeat of the lusts of others is a far cry from Freud’s idea that making the unconscious conscious in the quiet meditation of the consulting room will sublimate desire.

Peter Chirinos and Caroline Shabaz refer to the potential benefits of shadow play in their recent book on Kink Aware Psychotherapy.  They, like myself, have seen individuals whose kinky ‘play’ takes an important constructive role in their response to traumatic experiences in the clients’ personal histories.  Michael Aaron and Dulcinea Pitagora also write about this.   Tops and Dom/mes also say that they see this in their play partners.  While clinical anecdotes can be highly persuasive, they cannot inform us of whether the client we are just starting to see is engaged in such constructive ways, any more than good epidemiological data can.  They do, however, show that others have found such ways can be healthy for some clients.

Transgression is not an unlimited virtue, however.  Kinksters can be ashamed and guilty in unhealthy ways about their kinks, or they can take so much satisfaction from their kinks that this overpowers the empathy they need to moderate their behavior with others.  Willful rebelliousness is a constant problem for those who try to establish norms and provide safety in the kink community.  Recognition of the flaws of authority and conventionality can feed narcissism, romanticize defiance, and fuel anarchy.  I side with Chasseguet-Smirgel in her opinion that perversity can be highly adaptive and creative, but it can also be compulsive and reductionist.  One hates to imagine two kinky ships devoted to hogtied cheerleader bondage passing in the night over the obstacle of bare feet vs tennis shoes!  It should be expected that kinky folk will be conflicted about their perversity, and simply offering permission and affirmation of it in treatment is not likely to resolve deeper internal conflicts.
The best initial place to begin work on perversity in treatment is from a suspension of judgment that does not privilege conventionality.   It is important to empathize with the client’s experience of this dimension of their personality, both in perversity’s constructive, neutral, and damaging aspects.  The rush to confront or affirm these feelings makes no sense until you can understand the complexity of the client’s relationship to them.  That takes time, and is not usually possible in brief treatment.  To help with many problems, it is not necessary.  But it is often necessary with people who are deeply conflicted about their kinks, and who are torn between their desires to be accepted as conventional but remain fascinated with their darkness.  In such struggles, ‘authenticity’ may not lie in identification with our light sides, or our dark sides, but in the interplay between light and shadow, which is often experienced as struggle.  In her own way, Gaitskill is trying to tell us that kink is not for the faint of heart.  Then again, conducting psychotherapy isn’t for the faint of heart either!

© Russell J Stambaugh, September, 2017, Ann Arbor MI, All rights reserved