Why BDSM Remains My Therapy of Choice

Rachael Williams
Dec 22, 2018 · 7 min read
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My very first BDSM experience left a bad taste in my mouth (figuratively). When I think back on it now, I find the absurdity of the memory hilarious:

Danzig was playing on repeat in the living room and was being serenaded by the barking of my play partner’s crated, hyperactive terrier, who was watching us. I was blindfolded and had a ball gag in my mouth, so my other senses were a bit heightened. The nipple clamps felt extra heavy, and so did the restriction of the handcuffs around my wrists.
bark, bark, bark…
…”Mother, tell your children not to walk my way”…
…bark, bark, bark…
The chorus was completed only by the persistent sound of unraveling plastic wrap. One. Tube. At. A. Time. He had only made his way up to my waist with the plastic wrap, and we had heard this song three times already. He would stop occasionally to fight the good fight with the self-sticking wrap, and his unbreakable spirit was commendable.

It wasn’t hot, and I was bored.
If I hadn’t been gagged, I would’ve been laughing.

He was so into it, and yet, it felt like we were just going through the motions and checking off to-do list items: Flogger? Check. Mummification? Sure, let’s do that too for some reason. Nipple clamps? Yep, firmly in place. The usual Intro to BDSM restraint combo? You bet! Communication? Eh, kinda…
So why wasn’t I into it?
Because I didn’t share any sort of emotional or intellectual connection with this person. There was no meaningful intent behind these seemingly arbitrary actions, but at least there were some good tunes involved. Still, I felt nothing, and that disappointed me. I had hoped for some deeper content that I didn’t yet know how to identify.

For a couple of years after that, anytime a discussion would creep into the topics surrounding BDSM (bondage, discipline/domination, sadism/submission, and masochism), I would shrug it off and say it wasn’t for me. I was basing this off my initially mistaken impression that I should be wired like everyone else, and that if I didn’t enjoy that first BDSM experience, I wouldn’t enjoy any of them. After all, the right elements were all present, weren’t they?

Of course not. Before I go on, I will say that the aforementioned scenario is something many people could easily find sexy, even without emotional intimacy, and that’s totally okay too! For me, it’s different, and I just had to figure that out in order to enjoy the benefits of BDSM. Years of trial and error in exploring with different people have helped me define and fine-tune my own preferences.

Now, I find BDSM empowering. Here’s why:

1. Shared vulnerability is hot.

First of all, BDSM is always consensual. Any non-consensual situation isn’t BDSM. As long as boundaries, safe words, and intentions are established before a scene, you and your partner are free to be 100% in the moment together and explore anything within that realm. To me, this is the most sensual part of BDSM, and it does not inherently involve sex. This aspect is purely about getting to know all the nooks and crannies of someone else’s mind, as well as those hiding inside your own mind.
Be ready for anything, because it can be intense and uncomfortable. You might lose time, discover surprising things about your identity, and learn new physical and psychological limits. It isn’t something to take lightly, and it takes guts to venture into this with another human being. They will see the good, the bad, and the ugly in you. It’s a crash course in getting to know yourself and the other person. That type of bond can be stronger than most, and it must be handled with care.

2. Scenes can be utilized to overcome fears.

Again, I can only speak from my own experience, and I will reiterate that what I’m writing isn’t universally true for everyone. I, for one, need to be able to fully trust someone in order to enter a scene with the intention of exploring something that scares me (or them).
This can apply to anything from past traumas to phobias, and anything in between. This is where the real therapy is, in my experience. It’s not easy to recreate a traumatic memory in order to conquer it, nor is immersing yourself into any fear likely to stimulate a carefree experience — but it works. It’s essentially a hands-on type of exposure therapy that simply isn’t possible to mimic in the office of a conventional therapist — nor would the therapist be allowed to explore these things with a patient anyway, beyond discussion.

Unfortunately, the DSM V classifies the majority of non-traditional sexual interests as “paraphilias,” which means it’s difficult to know whether or not your therapist is listening to you from a place of predetermined bias. They have been taught that you are sick, even though that may not be true. Keep in mind that until the second edition of the DSM in the 70s, homosexuality was still considered a psychological disorder by western therapeutic standards. Here is the current definition of paraphilias as disorders:
“any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physiologically mature, consenting human partners.”

The concept of disorders is based around culture-bound ideologies regarding norms vs. deviance. Regrettably, once a trait has been associated with criminal behavior, it is deemed “deviant” and socially shunned. Sometimes, this is beneficial, as is the case with consent or minors. Other times, however, it alienates entire populations of healthy, functional members of society. If we stigmatize unconventional traits by default, we force traumatized people into the shadows and therefore create deviant behavior.

Therapists are humans, not gods, and all humans are subject to trial and error (not to mention the law). We all make mistakes, and we are all capable of learning from them. That said, I do recommend tackling sexual and/or trauma-based therapy with a close, trusted partner in the bedroom instead of talk therapy in an office. Besides, in a therapist office, you get all the intimidation of power dynamics without the safety of intimacy.

3. Power dynamics can heal the deepest of wounds.

There is a lot to be said for reclaiming your body, your desires, and your capacity to share intimacy with others. For some, this can be done through conventional therapy. For me, it couldn’t. Perhaps it comes down to the fact that I’m primarily a kinesthetic learner, and I do have a hard time justifying automatic trust in complete strangers with a Ph.D. I know a lot of absolute jerks who have Ph.D. degrees, and some of them are deemed the ultimate authority when it comes to guiding the lives of people who are hurting.

Everyone is hurting from something. We are all just children, even if one child is sitting in the Authority Chair and the other child is sitting on the infamous Broken Person Couch we always see in comic strips.

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What’s cool about power exchange in the context of BDSM is that it helps everyone involved reshape and remodel specific aspects of themselves in a safe and controlled environment. Anytime you act with mindfulness and intention, you can become more aware of how to show compassion to yourself and to others, and not just in the bedroom. Power dynamics are everywhere, and they happen all the time — they happen when a cashier rings up a customer, or when another clerk offers to carry the grocery bags to the customer’s vehicle. They happen in every comedy sketch you’ve ever laughed at, and of course, they happen in abusive situations as well. We all have a profound impact on everyone we cross paths with, but we typically only notice this impact when the result is trauma.
Power exchange allows for the reclaiming of one’s mind, body, and spirit. The details of my own traumas are irrelevant; what matters is that countless therapists were only able to make a small dent in the mountain that was crushing me, and BDSM has smashed those gigantic heaps into small piles of rubble that I can simply step over when I do encounter them.

They will never go away completely, because they are manifestations of grief.
I can, however, control how much they impact me, because I have stared them in the face until I was no longer afraid. When I do occasionally bump into these ghosts of mine, now I’m confident in my ability to not be destroyed by them, so I don’t spiral out of control into a black hole of PTSD.

Honestly? I don’t care that my path to this place was taboo or unconventional. I care about the fact that it was possible at all. My first step was internally de-pathologizing the way I’m wired and dissecting societal norms down to the bare bones. When I did, I saw that we’re all made of the same stuff, and that systemic stigmatization breeds deviant behavior. I saw that we are all simultaneously victims and villains, and I saw that it’s all just shades of grey (but not the infamous 50, which I do NOT personally condone, for the record).

Don’t just go through the motions. We must treat ourselves and each other with care.

Rachael Williams

Written by

Sex, trauma, and health blogger / sword swallower / social scientist: [rachaelcwilliams1@gmail.com]

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