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Thinking Kink: Is BDSM Therapy "A Dangerous Method"?

[TRIGGER WARNING for discussions of child sexual and physical abuse]

I hope I've already covered plenty of ground about the differences between consensual kink and actual abuse. However, I think some people still believe that even if BDSM itself is not an abusive act, the only person who would willingly consent to it must be "a damaged victim choosing submission as a way of healing from or processing past trauma" (Stacey May Fowles). This assumption does not match up with reality—several studies  found no higher rates of past abuse or trauma among BDSM practitioners than among non-kinky people. However, it's equally unhelpful to dismiss the experiences of those who do practice BDSM "to gain control over trauma by eroticizing it"(Margot Weiss).

I got to thinking about this while watching David Cronenburg's A Dangerous Method,which depicts Dr Carl Jung's relationship with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient admitted to his psychiatric hospital exhibiting hysterical behavior. Practicing the methods of psychoanalysis recommended by his teacher/father figure Freud, Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) delves into Sabina's past and discovers an abusive childhood.

Sabina admits that her father used to force his children to strip naked before beating them, and would make them kiss his hand afterwards. The part Sabina is most ashamed to confess is that, "I liked it. It excited me...I would start get wet," and her father's maltreatment has given her a taste for "any kind of humiliation." Her shame over the fact she eroticized these terrifying experiences leads her to conclude "there's no help for me. I'm vile and filthy and corrupt."

Her psychoanalyst isn't so sure. Disregarding Freud's warning that "some form of sexual repression [has] to be practiced in any rational society," Jung begins a relationship with Sabina which includes bondage and spanking—remedial BDSM, if you will. Sabina is both consenting and demanding, telling Jung, "I want you to be ferocious. I want you to punish me," and later says she feels she's been given her freedom back. She goes on to become a successful psychologist herself.

The idea that someone would sexualize childhood abuse makes a lot of us very uneasy. Most people would support the idea of working out past trauma rather than suppressing it, and the idea of doing it by actually replaying scenes of violence, domination, or sexual coercion is just a bridge too far for some. In Margot Weiss's study of BDSM practices, Techniques of Pleasure, a male interviewee describes a female play partner's preference for "Daddy rape" scenes. He notes that this woman was sexually abused by her father as a child, but goes on to describe how he managed to turn a tale of pure horror into a "hot" scene. Weiss goes on to explain how "many practitioners who play with trauma such as rape understand their play as recoding or remaking a traumatic experience into a pleasurable one." Or, as renowned BDSM educator Mollena Williams puts it, play that reenacts abuse "might help people 'get past the guilt over the fact that perhaps they had a level of eroticism' about such scenes."

Part of shedding the guilt that can accompany emotionally risky "edge play" is understanding that, as Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy remind us, "the desires we play with are not rational ... the most profound of the roles we like to play, do not come from the responsible and adult part of us." The point of BDSM is to provide a safe space where dark desires and thoughts can be released.

To return to the example shown in A Dangerous Method, Sabina does find that safe space with Jung, a man who both cares for and respects her, but who will give her what she needs through "ferocious" sexual play. Far from being a cowering victim, Sabina blossoms in her education, confidence, and sexual self-awareness. When she decides to leave, it is Jung, not Sabina, who is on his knees sobbing. The film does a great job of showing Sabina to be a multi-faceted, strong and intelligent women who has worked through past trauma and come out the other side. And this is me speaking as someone who usually can't abide Keira Knightley!

Of course, I'd still like to see a pop culture representation of a female submissive who comes without baggage, but perhaps I'm being unrealistic—none of us come without baggage, after all. Still, it's important to stress that the majority of BDSM practitioners aren't abuse victims, and even those who are are not necessarily always using BDSM to process that abuse. But what A Dangerous Method shows us is that we should not be judgmental of, nor afraid of, those who do use kink to reclaim the power and pleasure they lost through abuse.

Previously: Lesbian BDSM and the Male Gaze, Safewords

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Comments

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damage from pinning

i have been in a Master slave relationship for several years quite happily, but have had an issue this past month. My Master likes to put a clothespin on my clitoris to heighten my pleasure, however now when he removes the pin, I cannot feel anything instead of the rush i used to get. Does this mean that my clitoris is permanently damaged? Please help!!

Dear slave, Most likely,

Dear slave,

Most likely, your clitoris is not damaged. It takes a lot to permanently damage nerves in general, typically over long periods of time. Unless you had the clothespins on for hours on end, turning your clitoris blue (a sign of lack of blood flow, the lack of oxygen would cause some nerves to die) you're totally fine.

The lack of sensation is probably due to your brain adjusting to the extreme sensations. In other words, you're getting "used to it" and don't feel such a "rush" anymore. This is quite common with some "adrenaline junkies" like sky-divers and rock climbers, who need stronger stimulation and more extreme stunts to get the same rush.

My advice is to not use clothespins on the clit for a while. Your brain will return back to "normal" so that after a few month when you try it again you will most likely get that rush again. Many BDSMers keep things hot by introducing variety of activities and ideas. Doing the same thing over and over again will get boring!

All the best.