Saturday, July 4, 2015

BDSM and Intimacy

Gloria Brame, PhD, author of Different Loving, an excellent guide to the world of kink

This post was inspired by Gloria Brame’s request on Facebook for stories from her friends about emotional intimacy in BDSM relationships.  She asked for examples and in no time at all she had collected many personal testimonials to the intimacy of BDSM.  Clearly there are lots of these and that intimacy can be particularly intense in kinky relationships.  The impossibility of even establishing how many people are in kink organizations, vs independently pursuing kinky relationships vs pursuing vanilla relationships makes it impossible to issue pronouncements about whether kinky intimate relationships are more or less prevalent than vanilla ones, but a few things can be said about how such relationships are perceived that might explain why there is conventional thinking that kink and intimacy are somehow antagonistic concepts.  After all, why should Dr. Brame bother to ask?  Somewhere in the zeitgeist is the idea that kinky relationships may be hot and dirty, but are they intimate?  Conventional thinking suggests they might not be.  Where did that idea come from?

First is the transgressive strategy of kinksters themselves to describe sex as a higher priority in kinky life than in vanilla.  And on the face of it, this makes a kind of sense.  Conventionals hearing this are likely to believe that sex for its own sake is a higher priority for the kinky than for themselves.  This practice of staring down stigma for being ‘too sexy’ is easy for the fearful to believe.  And this is particularly true for those who only know BDSM from the face it shows on Porn Hub, where many go for a quick jerk off to spend as little time thinking about their shame as possible.  Aside from the obvious additional burdens that those pursuing alternate lifestyles undertake from the social stigma surrounding them, there just isn’t much decent data to suggest that kinky folk value sexuality more than conventional folk do.

The entire apparatus of stigmatizing variant sexuality certainly does not make sacrosanct ideas like emotional intimacy seem to fit the kinky sexual script.  After all, by various turns kinks are crazy, too sexy, too aggressive, and too emotional; only pursued by the selfish, by the addicted and by under-socialized men.  For years mental health professionals hypothesized that only men were kinky, leaving everyone puzzled as to where all the men found anyone to be kinky with!  Furthermore, despite the fact that sex is in conversation all the time ,and is constantly used to titillate and to sell all manner of goods and services imaginable, even this sexual conversation is considered suspect, illegitimate, and not subject of serious study, education, or thoughtful deconstruction.  We can talk about sex, but the consequence of that stigmatization is that we must cop to doing something shameful and selfish at the same time, and in this manner romantic concepts like intimacy are kept shinny and clean, and transgressive sexual ideas don’t stick to intimacy in the popular discourse.  Our professional career might remain unsullied if we claim to study intimacy, but suffer if we rally to the banner of sexuality.

Its obviously Batman!


So it is easy to imagine we know that kinky sex isn’t very intimate even when we seldom discuss and never observe how intimate sex is outside our own bedrooms.  The mere raising of this topic is treated like the old Rorschach inkblot test, where the patient is invited to project anything that comes to mind on the ambiguous social stimulus.  We imagine we know, and use that framework to defend what we are perceiving as if it is an obvious truth.  Conventional thinking reveals the next door neighbors, who also appear conventional, to be very intimate, even though we have no real idea what goes on in their bedroom, while we ‘know’ the kinky aren’t very intimate, even though we are only fantasizing about what goes on in their dungeons.  It’s obvious really!  Which sounds more emotionally intimate to you; a bedroom, where you relax all vigilance and fall into a trusting sleep; or a dungeon, where all manner of dark and coercive things happen?

In queer studies, there is a long discourse about internalized homophobia:   the near impossibility that, after years of having been taught by the privileged to regard our sexuality as inferior, we are afraid of our own sexual identifications.  We have become identified with the opinions of some oppressor class.  This is an excellent example of just how insidiously Foucault’s concept of social control really works.  Only rarely can you round up specific examples of institutional oppressors preaching intolerance, while we internalize the intolerant messages ourselves.  So kinky and vanilla alike struggle against the tendency to define variant sexual expression as less intimate, and make such labelling part of our intimate histories which we only rarely share with others.  Our own shame becomes an obstacle to elevating those intimate experiences we have.  And when we share them, part of that intimacy is sharing shame and fear that come from the discoveries of our own desire.  We seek experiences that are carefully crafted to play with those fears just enough that we might overcome them, rescuing positive feelings of self from encounters with potential humiliation and judgment.  Intimate experience is achieved in the face of social shame, but also with its help imbedded in the context. 

Of course, the goal of kink is not always intimacy.  Sometimes it is intensity, mastering risk, escape from unwanted feelings, even escape from intimacy itself that is sought.  Esther Perel has shown how often we become willing to betray the intimacy of our closest relationships, which have in fact become not so very intimate because their routine satisfactions have become insufficiently comforting in the face of other fears:  loss of youth, of novelty, loss of the credibility of our fantasies that we might have more adventure and eroticism in our intimate lives.  These plagues fall upon the vanilla and the kinky alike. Kink sometimes functions in precisely as these affairs do.  We do not want to sully our most intimate relationship with dark and dirtier desires that turn us on.  We would rather do them with a pro dome or prostitute or discard-able partner who, having served as vessel to contain our unclean aggressive desires, can be discarded and carry away a part of our stigma.  We are keeping our intimacy clean through human sacrifice.  This can make for fun roll play, but unsafe intimacy.

Russell Stambaugh, blogger, Esther Perel, author, and Susan Wright NCSF spokesperson at AASECT 47th Annual Conference in Minneapolis


Perhaps you can think of ways that kink, like affairs, are both ways of turning away from some intimacies, and an attempt to find different ones.  For anyone who chooses to protect a primary partner from the painful risks of discussing dissatisfaction in an otherwise good relationship, is bidding to find new satisfactions for those concealed desires in a new relationship.  If a partner can be found who will accept those desires and share their eroticism, there is an excellent chance that will be experienced as intimacy.  This is why affairs persist.  Not only can partners be found, but needs might be met and concealed aspects of the self might feel accepted.  So can it be with kink. 

As much as we idealize intimacy and hold it aloft as a kind of cleanser for the dirtier aspects of sex, intimacy is not always desired in sexual relationships.  As pointed out above, this is not just a response to stigma from without but from our own judgments.  The games of creating a double life and pulling off a seductions have an allure of their own sometimes.  Can I make him like me?  Can I meet her needs?  Isn’t it fun to be in a world that is centered on sex and attraction and free of the quotidian demands of insurance, mortgage payments and housework?  We therapists are inclined to judge double lives on their obvious splitting of authenticity from the primary relationship.  But it is also interesting to ask about the risks of stripping the context of a sexual relationship from the mundane aspects of ordinary relationships.  How much intimacy can you have when you are preferring to play pirates or furries or video game characters who have highly circumscribed lives in the first place?  While it is easy to dismiss role paly as not intimate, we do confer that as a compliment to movies and stage productions in which actors, clearly playing scripted roles, convey ‘intimate’ performances.  The argument can and has been made that releasing one’s inner pirate constitutes an honest, insightful and more intimate and authentic self, despite one’s lack of experience executing letters of marque on the 17th century high seas.  Good intimacy, perhaps, but probably not very good maritime leadership.  Real world pirate lives made ‘nasty, brutish and short’ look good, and careers were often brief and violent, and only rarely touched by erotic self-fulfillment.   The social construction of authenticity is complicated.

But the truths of vanilla and kinky relationships alike is that intimacy is not always desired in our fantasies of great sex. Peggy Kleinplatz and Dana Menard asked this question.in their report Components of Optimal Sexual Experiences in The Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research (2014) pp 1148-52.  Indeed the concept sexual peak sexual experiences as interpreted by a mostly middle aged sample of respondents of highly mixed orientations, and intimacy was not the most common factor they identified, but it did make the list of attributes of sexually experienced people’s ideas about their peak sexual experiences.  According to the researchers codings of peak sexual experiences, the following factors, listed here in order of greatest to least frequently mentioned, were identified:
Being present, focused and embodied in the moment.
Feeling connected, aligned, and in synch with partner(s)
Deep sexual and erotic intimacy.
Extraordinary connection and heightened empathy.
Feeling authentic, genuine, uninhibited and transparent.
Feelings of transcendence, bliss, peace, transformation and healing.
Feelings of exploration, adventure, interpersonal risk-taking and fun.
Feelings of vulnerability and surrender.

Not listed, but potentially in play are: mastering of various fears and prior losses, avoidance of negative feelings, statements about social elevation of peak personal performance, changes in social status, material benefits of sexual relations, wished for conception, personal safety and freedom from disease and many other feelings that might attend successful sexual intercourse.  We may do sex for these reasons, but we do not describe peak experience very often in such terms.
Even in less extraordinary kinky experiences, intimacy may be ardently desired and achieved.  Finding someone who is excited by one’s own outlier excitement can feel intensely validating and intimate.  Submissives desire ardent and unselfish tops who can know just how far to push them.  Tops desire submissives who are genuinely eager to serve.  Finding someone who compliments your desire after a long search feels like intimacy.  Everyone suffers that acute pangs of broken attachment, but it is commonly understood how painful the loss of one’s first great BDSM attachment is.  Do these sufferings reflect special intimacy?  Often the answer is yes.  We may not be able to make evidence-based arguments about what kinds of sexual behaviors hold out the easiest promise of emotional intimacy, but stories of intimacy abound across the wide spectrum of sexual variation even as we struggle to find measures with which to compare them.


Resisting the stigmatization of sexuality means confronting the fact that intimacy does not redeem sexual discourse, and recognizing that intimacy may not even be a very important dimension of many encounters, none the less requires recognition that intimacy is a very important dimension of many encounters, is valued by many of the kinky and conventional alike, and is an important part of many successful kinky encounters.  Intimacy is important in therapy, but it is not the sole proper goal of sexual intercourse, and may be as common on the edge as it is in the mainstream.   And an important therapeutic take away in these discussions is not just how much intimacy the partners wish to have, but questions about what intimacy is desired.  Is intimacy about acceptance, about shared risk, about the yearned for perfect match between desire and action?  Or is it about acceptance of loss, surrender, or giving the perfect emotional gift?  Like sexuality itself, intimacy is a great deal more varied in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies, Horatio!  And more common than we imagine, as well.

2015, Russell J Stambaugh, Ann Arbor, MI. All rights reserved.