Spanking Is Essential To My Mental Health

“Do you want me to hit you?”

For many, this question would be a threat, a violent incitement, barroom brawl bait. But that’s not how I interpret it at all. My friend Georgia’s just asked me this in the sweetest tone of voice, her face filled with concern, as if she had asked if I wanted her to make me some chicken soup for my sniffles.

Tearfully, I nod, stand up, and bend over the end of Georgia’s sofa. This isn’t the first time she’s made this offer, nor the last time I’ll accept it. She retrieves her paddle, and the first blow lands on my ass with a dull, thunderous thwack.

I’ve been crying all evening, unable to stop. What was supposed to be a fun get-together has turned into a pity party for me and the bad depression day I’m having. I’ve talked my friends’ ears off about romances gone awry, career setbacks, familial disagreements — but the dire truth is, I’m sad because my brain is wired to be sad. My type-2 bipolar disorder is acting up, as it often does, and tonight that manifests as endless tears — and a desire to get my ass beaten until it’s bruised.

Spanking has been a kink of mine for a couple years, my favorite form of foreplay or a titillating treat all on its own. But in the past few months, I’ve started to use it as a mood-lifter when I’m depressed or anxious, too. It’s versatile that way.

While Georgia continues to smack me with the paddle, another friend holds my hand from where he’s sitting on the couch, while still another pal mutters in my ear about what a good girl I am, how well I’m taking my spanking. My friends are well used to my peculiar preferred way of shaking off the sads, and they — fellow sufferers of depression and anxiety — understand that whatever helps, even a little bit, is worth doing.

The pain moves my focus from my racing brain into my body, and psychologically it feels like I am being punished for my bad thoughts about myself — like all those doubts and worries and tears are being whacked out of me, one blow at a time. So-called therapeutic spankings can seem weird, violent, and incomprehensible to “vanilla” outsiders looking in, but they help me. And I’m not the only one.

A new study out of Northern Illinois University recently confirmed what many kinksters already know: Participating in BDSM induces a pleasant, altered psychological state. Researchers Joseph K. Ambler et al. recruited seven couples from local kink groups, and each participant was randomly assigned to play either the “top” or “bottom” role in a BDSM play session (known as a “scene”). As per the participants’ personal preferences, these scenes included kinky activities such as sensory deprivation, bondage, and various types of pain — including spanking.

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The study used a blend of self-reporting, cognition tests, and chemical analyses of participants’ saliva samples to track the tops’ and bottoms’ psychological states before, during, and after their scenes. The researchers found that while BDSM raises practitioners’ levels of cortisol, indicating a bump in physiological stress, participants reported feeling psychologically happier and less stressed after their scene than before. Crucially, the researchers also found that post-scene, both tops and bottoms scored highly on a measure called “flow.”

Pioneered by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “flow” is a psychological state also known as being “in the zone.” It’s a highly rewarding state of mind, characterized in part by intense concentration on the task at hand, a loss of self-consciousness, and a distortion in the experience of time. This “flow” has been reported by skilled musicians, elite athletes, experienced meditators — anyone so good at what they do that they can get lost in it. This new study posits that while kinksters have their own terminology for the high they experience in scenes — “subspace” and “top space,” depending on what role they’re inhabiting — it may just be a version of the fabled “flow.”

Csikszentmihalyi claimed that flow improves the overall mood and temperament of people who regularly experience it. This may be why kinksters experience mental health benefits. A 2006 study found that people who practice BDSM are less likely to be depressed, anxious, and paranoid than people who don’t. In 2013, another study found that kinksters score higher on measures of sociability, conscientiousness, openness to new experiences, and overall subjective well-being than their vanilla counterparts. It’s been suggested that this may have to do with kinksters’ increased self-awareness and self-acceptance: After all, it takes incalculable confidence and soul-searching to not only know what you’re into sexually, but to then ask for it. But the relaxing “flow” experienced during and after kink scenes may be another reason why BDSM practitioners enjoy such healthful side effects.

It’s important to note here that kink is not, itself, a replacement for therapeutic modalities or a cure for mental health issues. But for some neurodivergent people who enjoy kink, the two can interact.

Author Jillian Keenan’s book Sex with Shakespeare chronicles the connections between her love of the Bard and her lifelong spanking fetish. While few have written so frankly about their all-consuming obsession with spanking, so-called spankophiles or “spankos” aren’t a small group by any means: almost 500,000 members of kinkster social network FetLife have marked spanking as an interest of theirs. Keenan told me she regards her kink as her sexual orientation and that it operates much the same as any other sexual orientation. “A heterosexual person may find that sex helps with depression or with anxiety, while another heterosexual person may not find that,” she said.

The same is true of fetishists, spankophiles included: Not all of us can use our sex to buoy our mood, but some can. For people like me, kink can be every bit as intimate and life-affirming as “standard” sex — even if, viewed through a vanilla lens, spanking appears violent and scary. Sometimes when I tell a well-meaning vanilla friend — or even occasionally a therapist — that spankings ease my depression and anxiety, an uneasy look crosses their face and they ask, “Isn’t that basically self-harm, though?”

Stephen Biggs, a kink-positive psychotherapist, told me spanking is different from self-harm, even when taken to its extreme, because you’re not alone when you’re getting spanked. Good, consensual BDSM is performed with a partner who wants to please you and support you, not destroy you or punish you the way you do to yourself when you self-harm from a depressed headspace. Biggs argued that kink should be viewed similarly to any other thrill-seeking activity that gives people pleasure. “It seems sort of funny to judge, as a therapist, a person seeking out an extreme spanking, unless they’re also going to equally judge a person who is a skydiver or a mountain climber or a boxer,” he said. “It seems like it can get very biased by a person’s particular moral stance.”

Biggs is open to his clients sharing their kinks with him, and some practitioners take that even further. A D.C.-based practice called Spanking For Wellness offers “active listening and support, spanking and massage in a caring, safe and non-sexual manner for those who find it helpful for their growth and well-being.” Their main service provider, a woman identified only as Rev. Fisher, is an ordained minister and spiritual counselor who considers herself “committed to helping expand people’s awareness of the powerful transformational benefits and joys of spanking.”

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I already knew firsthand how receiving a spanking can relieve my mental health symptoms, but it wasn’t until I started talking to friends about this that I realized giving a spanking can have similar effects for some people, as the Ambler study confirms. My friend Taylor J. Mace, a pornographer and escort, finds that “top space” — the mindset some folks get into when giving a spanking or otherwise being dominant in a scene — helps him with his anxiety issues. “In that space, there are fewer external distractions, which is really nice for my brain, ’cause it’s always in so many different places at the same time,” he told me. “It’s sort of a mental quietness.” He compares it to the feeling of being so absorbed in a project — like updating his blog or cleaning his apartment — that his mind singularly focuses on that thing and only that thing. In other words, when he spanks someone, he experiences “flow.”

I got to see Taylor in action recently at my best friend Bex’s birthday party. The proudly masochistic Bex — who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns — requested a spanking party for their milestone 25th birthday. Each attendee, Taylor and myself included, was invited to give the guest of honor 25 smacks with an implement chosen from a veritable buffet of paddles, crops, and canes we amassed for the occasion. Bex considers spanking a balm for their generalized anxiety disorder. “Where my anxiety makes me feel like I can’t do anything, spanking makes me feel like I can do something monumental,” they told me, “because I am enduring this pain that, for a lot of people, would probably be too much, or scary, but for me it’s just comforting and makes me feel like a badass.”

And indeed, they took their birthday spankings like a badass. All told, they were smacked about 350 times over the course of the evening, giggling and grinning the whole way through. When at last they called it quits, friends cuddled them on the couch, scratched their head affectionately, and fed them chocolate — they’d earned it. “I felt loved by them — like, ‘Look at how much these people like me, that they’re doing this to me,’” Bex told me later. “I guess from a non-kink standpoint, it seems weird to be like, ‘They love me so much, they’ll kick the shit out of me!’ But that’s how it feels. It feels like something people do out of love and affection for me.”

This echoes my feelings on the subject. When I request a spanking for emotional relief, and someone gives me one, it’s like they’re giving me a massage, an orgasm, or a home-cooked meal. The same level of love, caring, and attentiveness is involved. And if someone else thinks it looks weird from the outside, well, they don’t have to join our party. I’ll still be here, breath hitching, butt bruised, and face aglow with the sweet solace of subspace.

All images courtesy of author

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