Friday, May 10, 2013


"Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black."  Henry Ford (1922)

The Model T came in just one flavor!

Thinking about BDSM as a therapist...

If there is one thing that BDSM is not, it is a single monolithic, disciplined organization.  Likewise, the sexually variant do not all desire similar things, form community with one another, or vote as a block.  Anarchic libertarian diversity mostly prevails. It is quite difficult to specify any single activity that all kinky people enjoy.  Membership in a BDSM community is likely to overlap many other communities, and because of the social risks of being out, many participants limit their participation.  It is an excellent bet that, while the top two overt social gatherings, the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco’s Mission District, and New England Leather Alliance’s Fetish Fair and Flea Market draw thousands of visitors--The Folsom Street Fair boasts 400,000 attendees, a veritable Woodstock of kink!--the vast majority of kinky people have never joined a face-to-face organization, never attended a munch, and have never gone to a marquee event like the aforementioned fairs.

The Folsom Street Fair

Kinky people often use the ice cream analogy to understand sexual variability.  If the sex ‘average’ people do is vanilla, kinky folk have the run of the entire ice cream parlor.  There are as many flavors as there are different kinky people.  Some want try them all, and others stick to butter pecan, in a waffle cone, please.

The organization of BDSM into various dimensions presented here is a way to think thoroughly about BDSM when it comes into treatment.  Not all of the distinctions drawn here will be relevant most of the time, and often, clinicians do not need to know very much about the world of kink to treat the client’s presenting problem.  The biggest single mistake clinicians have made in the past, and have alienated and ill-served many clients thereby, is to assume that the kinks are the presenting problems. But thinking about these dimensions, and exploring them with clients will make working with problems that arise from sexual variations easier.

I think of BDSM as a series of overlapping Venn diagrams centered on activities and fetishes.  Many of the activities in the dimensions I’m about to describe are almost entirely within the world of BDSM, such as Boot-blacking, or pony-play.  But others, like infantilism and gender play are viewed by some participants as BDSM, while others do not identify themselves that way.

I’m agnostic as to whether BDSM is an orientation or sexual identity.  For some, this may feel true, for others, it may not.  Whether it should be viewed this way is sometimes occasion for political debate, much as it was for homosexuals about whether homosexuality is a choice, a lifestyle preference, or an immutable identity.

Here are some of the dimensions of BDSM, and when I’m done, I’m sure someone will be able to find something left out.  We will start with the explicit dimensions centered on kinky activities:

Female Domination, an example of power exchange

Power Exchange:  This reflects the Dominance and Submission dimension of BDSM.  Someone gives up control of him/herself to someone else for pleasure or other satisfactions.  This could be as vanilla as one partner being thrilled to have the other call all the shots of sexual activity that is centered on coitus and conventional foreplay.  Or it could entail 24/7 lifestyle sexual slavery.  Often it involves feeling that one is being forced to do something by the will and command of another.  Being forced may be associated with feelings of freedom from responsibility, pleasure at serving the other, or conversely with shame, humiliation, and degradation.  Forcing may be associated with feelings of power, control, service or caring.  Power exchange can be subtle and complex, and people in BDSM debate whether the dominant or the submissive is ultimately in charge.  But when a scene is actually contracted, the dominant drives the action and the submissive complies with the dominant’s directions.  A person in a contracted long-term relationship, or who typically plays the role of dominant is called a Dom or Domme.  ‘Dominatrix’ is now mostly used for women who top for money.  The terms ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ tend to refer to temporary relationships, where people are only briefly taking the dominant or submissive roles. They can also be used as verbs for performing domination or submission, as I did in the definition of ‘dominatrix’.  Slaves are submissives who play with deeper, longer-term power exchange relationships in which consent is temporarily or permanently given up.  ‘Master’ is generally an honorary title, but sometimes applies to people who hold slave’s contracts.

Florentine Flogging Technique, a type of Sensation Play.

Sensation Play:  This reflects the sadism/masochism dimension of BDSM.  Although it is very common for kinky people to enjoy some sensation play and some power exchange together, there are pure forms, where only sensation is given or received.  This means that a masochist could be a top who commands someone to hurt him or her just right, or a sadist could be a bottom looking for someone to tell her exactly how he wants his pain administered.  Sometimes the importance of pain is symbolic; it is punishment for sins real or imagined.  Sometimes it is a reward for good behavior.  And sometimes people who enjoy pain actually feel it as pleasure, others are bidding for endorphins to kick in, and endure pain as the price of getting to later ecstasy.   Even people who like lots of pain tend to be ambivalent about it, and I have never met anyone who has an orgasm when they stub their toe in the dark on their way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Shibari, Japanese Rope Bondage

Bondage:  This reflects the Bondage and Discipline dimension of BDSM.  Bondage lies astride both the power exchange and the sensation play dimensions.  Some people like the feel of rope or leather restraints, some like the helplessness, others use it as a way enforcing feelings of helplessness, or to control a feared aggressive response that would break the scene.  Bondage is relatively dangerous activity, and requires a measure of technical expertise to do safely, and to avoid unintended discomfort. Bondage is often important in sensory deprivation and breath play scenes. A tremendous amount of commercial equipment is marketed or home made to enable bondage scenes, and it somewhat overlaps with the next dimension:  Fetishes.

Fetishwear:  Ballet Boots, Latex Tights, and a Corset.  Walking in them is sensation play!

Fetishes:  This dimension reflects the degree to which the various material components of BDSM activity are eroticized.  Some kinky people are indifferent to fetish, for others, the gear is the main course.  As this term has come to be used among the kinky, it is far removed from its original clinical meaning: a non-sexual body part or material object not ordinarily used for procreation that has become essential for sexual response.  As used in BDSM, a fetish is synonymous with a kink, it’s the script of whatever you are into.  But as I’m using it here, I’m reflecting the relative importance of stuff.  The most common fetishes are items and materials associated with sex.  That may include sex toys, sex-specific clothing like lingerie, shoes, leather, latex, rubber, PVC and the like.  Sometimes the instruments of sensation play, or restraints are fetishized.  Often costumes and accessories associated with role play are eroticized and this eventually overlaps with the world of fashion where the costumes of BDSM are expropriated by designers like Vivienne Westwood, and Jean-Paul Gaultier for haute couture.  Many BDSM events have a dress code, so everyone looks like a fetishist, whatever their intrinsic enthusiasms; black is always fashionable.

BDSM Cosplay, role play that features costumes.  Many are from anime

Role Play:  This dimension reflects the degree to which one plays oneself during BDSM sex, or pretends to be somebody else.  This is significant because intimacy is not always valued.  Sometimes it drives BDSM action, and sometimes players need to feel like they are not in their workaday roles, or even their mundane identities, to find satisfaction.  Even when one needs to be a different age or gender than one’s ordinary role, some pretend to be someone else, for others, they feel like they are younger, older, or a different sex versions of themselves.  Age play refers to playing a younger or older social role, gender play refers to gender role.  There is substantial overlap between the BDSM and transgendered communities, but they are far from identical.  Likewise, many people into diaper play and infantilism do not see themselves as part of the BDSM community.

Orgasm Control using a male chastity device.  Sometimes it is erotic to be denied sex.

Sex:  It is by no means to be assumed that BDSM play results in coitus or orgasm.  Partly as a result of legal issues; for many years, paid female domination was legal in many jurisdictions as long as the professional did not engage in certain overt sex acts, there is a perception that BDSM does not involve any sex at all.  Sometimes partner experiences are arranged for the purposes of driving later auto-erotic activity.  Sometimes there is no sex, and behavior is experienced as pleasurable or satisfying without direct stimulation or orgasm.  My guess is that in these cases, BDSM activity is more about identity or anxiety reduction than sexual pleasure.  Often, such as in cuckolding, participants indulge in the erotic fantasy that they are not allowed to have sex.  In fact, it is a very interesting question how we know sex is happening at all in some BDSM contexts.  But often, BDSM activities are thought of and experienced as directly sexual and pleasurable and lead to orgasm.  Play can be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Kinky, Poly, and out!
Polyamory:  This is not necessarily an explicit dimension of BDSM activity, and poly has a scene all its own, but many people in the BDSM world are also poly.  Sometimes multiple partnerships violate the rules of the polyamorous lifestyle.  Kinky folk are often unable to reveal their wishes to (presumed) non-kinky partners and solve the problem by cheating.  Some explicitly polyamorous relationships reflect power exchange;  the dominant gets the power to say who the submissive can play with, but reserves the right to choose other partners as s/he sees fit.  Sometimes polyamory reflects logistical and economic restraints when there is a scarcity in the community of people who wish to take on roles or activities that are in demand.  Needless to say, auto-eroticism, monogamy, and serial monogamy are also commonly encountered.

© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 2013. All rights reserved.

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