BDSM In The Real World: Three or Four Shades of Grey?

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Periodically a patient or a couple ask me about BDSM. What’s it like? Why is their partner interested in it?

Are people who like it sick, or maybe the victims of childhood molestation or sexual violence? Or is it an orientation, like homosexuality?

Should they try it? Will it rev up a boring sex life, or unleash a bunch of demons? Can you get addicted to it?

BDSM (bondage/dominance, sadism/masochism) is erotic power play: consciously playing with the power dynamics of an erotic situation.

It can involve equipment; it can involve restraints; it can involve pre-determined scripts and roles; it can involve temporary, intense moments of pain. Or it can involve none of these.

In fact it might only involve a few words and a couple of looks. Context, prior agreements, and the psychological makeup of those involved can make those few words and looks a powerful erotic experience. Without that BDSM psychological container, those few words and looks could easily mean nothing at all.

For example, a person may say to their partner over lunch, “If we have sex this weekend, don’t expect me to kiss you.” That may be an invitation to wrestling, pretend bullying, or pretend begging. For people who don’t play these games the same statement may express frustration, or a developing cold sore; in most couples, the statement simply wouldn’t come up.

BDSM always involves three things:

Trust: The fundamental dynamic in BDSM is trust. Without it, there can be no surrender, no experimentation, no intimacy. During BDSM activity, people are highly connected with each other. That kind of focused minute-by-minute attention allows them to relax and trust each other.

Communication: BDSM players talk about sex, bodies, and feelings a lot. If people are going to play with their limits, and see their bodies as vehicles for experimentation, there’s a lot to talk about. In fact, for a lot of couples BDSM involves way more talking than “sex.” That’s why it’s impractical—even potentially dangerous—for people who are drunk or essentially strangers.

Safety: In every BDSM encounter there’s a safe word, which both partners know means “Stop, and I really mean it.” Participants know and respect each others’ limits. Joe may like his nipples pulled just a little too hard, but not pinched; Mary knows that, and knows the difference between a little too hard (good) and too hard (not good). And she knows that gradually pinching Joe’s nipples harder and harder is not a game he’ll enjoy, so they don’t do it.

BDSM isn’t:
* Coercive: If it is, it’s violence.
* Impulsive: If it is, it’s extremely difficult to do right, as it requires a lot of cooperation and subtle communication.
* Simply about pain: It’s about intensity and mutuality. If there’s pain, it’s in the service of these other things.

So BDSM is about trust, not pain; about surrender, not powerlessness; about dominance, not selfishness; and about expanding the conventional definitions of sex.

So is interest in BDSM “normal?” Various participants call it a kink, a fetish, or an occasional detour. Some people just don’t enjoy sex as much without it. That’s because of the psychological intensity it can provide on top of whatever physical stimulation they’re having.

Questions about the “normality” of any given sexual preference are primarily political rather than scientific; yesterday’s “perversion” is today’s “preference” or “empowerment.” A century ago clinical professionals considered the desire for cunnilingus a pathology. Today it’s typically considered a woman’s right, and often recommended by physicians and therapists.

The definition of sexual “orientation” has changed dramatically. It used to refer to the gay-straight-bisexual continuum; that is, the gender of one’s preferred partner.

Today the meaning of “orientation” mostly involves perceived identity—and the insistence on being categorized “correctly,” no matter how idiosyncratically an individual defines themselves.

Various people claim, for example, that Asexual is an orientation. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with people being uninterested in sex; the majority of Americans over 60 are (not all, just more than 51%), along with millions of people of every other age group.

There are also people who have no interest in Chinese food, Barbra Streisand films, puns, or fashion. We don’t have special names for these people, and they don’t seem to need one. They don’t seem to think that their lack of interest in fashion is a centerpiece of who they are.

Asexual is an orientation like not playing golf is a hobby.

And now you can read about a supposed orientation called Demisexual: Someone who only feels sexual attraction when they’re emotionally connected with a partner. The word for that used to be “mature.” While the “Demisexual” approach reduces the risks of getting sexually involved with a person who shouldn’t be trusted, it’s certainly not a sexual orientation. In fact, up until recently, Western culture expected adults (especially women) to limit their sexual interest to those they knew and felt close to.

These days I also hear about Sapiosexuals—people turned on by intelligence. Again, there’s nothing wrong with such a preference, but if that’s an “orientation,” what about preferring sex with a person who has good hygiene? Or with a person who’s nice to you, or sexually competent, or funny?

It seems that the meaning of sexual orientation is now a matter of tribal identity politics.

That’s too bad. While everyone’s sexual preferences should be respected, you don’t need to be special in order to simply enjoy what you enjoy. You don’t need to establish and belong to a club in order to have sexual rights. Claiming that you have sexual rights because your preferences are an “orientation” is short-sighted politics.

And what about overlapping “orientations”? What if you prefer sex with a person who’s intelligent, funny, sexually competent, smells clean, and treats you nice? Does that mean you have five sexual orientations, or is that combination of the five its own orientation?

If that combination is an orientation, we already have a word for it. The word is “sensible.”

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