BDSM can help heal from trauma

BDSM, or Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism, is not usually associated with healing. Instead, BDSM in popular culture is usually portrayed and discussed as aberrant, dangerous, and violent. It is often linked to sexual violence, and, because (real or imagined) childhood experiences are sometimes incorporated into BDSM play between adults, BDSM can be highly stigmatized and even equated to pedophilia or child sexual abuse.

This negative view of BDSM is pervasive, but it is not rooted in facts. There is evidence, though, that BDSM offers real benefits for those who participate in it. For some who have suffered trauma or abuse, as children or adults, BDSM can be therapeutic and healing.

What is BDSM?

In mainstream discussions,  BDSM is generally talked about as if it just refers to rough, painful, or kinky sex. In reality BDSM is really less about pain and more about the power dynamic. This power dynamic can be explored without including any pain play. Sometimes BDSM doesn’t even include sex. Types of play in BDSM can include bondage, humiliation, sensation play, impact play, role play, acts of service, and more.  However, this is just one of the misconceptions surrounding this consensual practice, which this article attempts to clear up

Usually in BDSM,  some people participate as submissives and others as dominants. Submissives give their full trust to their dominant partner while they explore their fantasies with them. This emphasis on trust, and on giving up or being granted control, can make BDSM a powerful tool for healing or coping with trauma. 

As this suggests, it is crucial to have a partner or partners that you trust. It’s important to discuss the play beforehand, to check in with your partner during, and to check in after. People with a lot of trauma may have trust issues, so the very act of learning how to fully put their trust in someone can be a huge step towards healing. 

BDSM is not pathological

The idea that BDSM can help with trauma can be hard to grasp for some because of the misconception that BDSM is a maladaptive or pathological response to trauma. BDSM was in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 2013 when the 5th edition was published. Historically any sexuality or sexual practices outside of the norm have been pathologized. BDSM was classified as a mental disorder as a type of social control; the diagnosis was not based on evidence and did not take into account the mental distress to BDSM practitioners caused by stigma. Rachel Wells, a licensed mental health professional, argues that even in the rare cases where BDSM is linked to trauma, there is no harm in adults partaking in the play as long as it is safe, consensual, and fun for all participants. 

People who participate in BDSM are no more likely to have trauma or to have suffered from abuse than the general population. In fact, BDSM participants have actually been found to have lower levels of depression, anxiety, neuroticism, abusive tendencies, and pathological behavior than their counterparts.

BDSM can be helpful for improving relationships and bringing people closer together. Research shows that having strong social support increases resilience and may help prevent anxiety disorders. This aspect of having social support and community could be one of the attributing factors for why BDSM can be helpful for coping with trauma.

Benefits of BDSM for trauma sufferers

For those with trauma, BDSM can have healing aspects. BDSM is beneficial for some of the same reasons that yoga is beneficial. This includes breath work and rhythm and repetition. A large body of evidence shows how valuable breath work can be in helping depression, anxiety, and regulating the nervous system. Similarly, rhythm and repetition can be grounding and provide a sense of safety and security. 

In BDSM, individuals often focus on their breathing while they endure pain and other sensory play. Rhythm and repetition may be introduced through creating consistent rhythms in impact play or by having one of the participants count to a certain number while they do a certain task. It can be introduced in a lot of creative ways. 

The most helpful benefit of BDSM may involve the nervous system window of tolerance. When someone experiences adversity, their nervous system’s window of tolerance decreases. This means that  their nervous system activation fluctuates more quickly between hyperarousal or hypoarousal. Hyperarousal can lead to anxiety or overreactions. Hypoarousal can leave someone feeling rather numb or having minimal reactions. 

Angie Gunn, a licensed social work and sex therapist, emphasizes that BDSM participants must be careful and listen to their own body while partaking in BDSM so that they can know when they are going too far past their window of tolerance. However, when undertaken with care, BDSM can also increase this window of tolerance by “pushing the edge” of tolerance and then bringing it back. For example, with impact play the dominant may switch between spanking or flogging and then gently rubbing the area that was just hit. The impact will cause a rise in arousal while the gentle rubbing or massage is soothing and relaxing.

Some therapists believe that BDSM allows people to heal through a physical “embodiment of trauma” that is not accessible in talk therapy. BDSM can help people feel how their body reacts to stress in trauma and give them the opportunity to feel more familiar with the uncomfortable sensations or even to control them. 

Another reason that BDSM may be beneficial is due to the use of after care. After care is the time after play where partners or participants check in with each other and take care of each other. Aftercare is associated with a type of trauma response called quiescent immobility.  This is a period of time after arousal that stimulates healing and rest. Aftercare is an essential part of BDSM that leads to comfort and trust. Oxytocin, the neurotransmitter associated with bonding, is released during aftercare. 

What is trauma play?

Trauma play is an umbrella term for different types of play. It can include age play, rape or consensual non-consent play, incest play, and even race play. 

Trauma play should be approached with care. Even among experts it can be controversial. While some professionals believe trauma play has benefits, others warn that trauma play can have emotional and physical risks. Angie Gunn, a licensed social work and sex therapist, recognizees the benefits of BDSM, but strictly advises against reenacting past trauma. Even for participants who find trauma play enjoyable in some circumstances, it can be painful or traumatizing if there is not a high enough level of trust with partners.

To those unfamiliar with BDSM, trauma play may sound problematic and detrimental. It includes some of the most controversial types of play. For example, some people assume that anyone who would participate in age play, rape or consensual non-consent play is just an undercover predator. While there are predators in every community, individuals who partake in rape play may be less likely to be predators. Some research shows that the rate of assault appeared at a smaller rate than for individuals who didn’t participate in this kind of play.  

Benefits of trauma play

With all these caveats, why participate in trauma play? Some may simply enjoy the humiliation or the increased powerlessness of the play. Using trauma play could be a way to exaggerate the aspects of BDSM that interest participants in all of their play. 

This type of play is certainly not for everyone, but for some it can be healing by allowing people to work through traumatic experiences in a way that allows them to control what happens. Joe Kort, a licensed sex and relationship therapist, makes the important distinction between trauma reinactment and trauma play. Trauma reenactment is when people find themselves stuck repeating cycles of toxic events or relationship patterns. This is a result of unhealed trauma. 

Trauma play in contrast allows people to work through their trauma by being able to reenact it on their own terms. They are manipulating the traumatic events they have experienced rather than falling victim to old patterns. This can be transformational and empowering. Some individuals who partake in trauma play say that it allows them to feel more in control of their own oppression. This allows them to have less of a physical fear response when they do experience oppression in their everyday lives. 

Trauma play can also be helpful because of its role-playing aspects. The commonly recommended book among therapists called The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. has an entire chapter dedicated to how theatre can help people heal from trauma. In Drama Therapy people are able to manipulate traumatic events that have gone through and change the narrative to give themselves more power. There are many parallels with how people use BDSM trauma play.

Conclusion

BDSM participants are not especially likely to be mentally ill, nor are they more likely than the general population to have suffered from trauma. Nonetheless, BDSM has a number of benefits that can help people cope with trauma. It can help people to build trust, to explore and control their tolerance levels, and to work through past trauma. When undertaken with care and knowledge, it can help people heal.

Comments

  1. I never knew of BDSM until this amazing article more than a month since I read. I want to give big hug to Shaye, who maybe save my life! I have struggled in last few years, even suicidal, but after read this 6 week ago I steeled my nerve for BDSM therapy. It gave confidence to meet a BDSM man on craiglist Japan. He do age, rape and genital spanking trauma play, recreating what my father did to me when I was little. I carry guilty, humiliation and conflicted feelings from orgasms when he used to rape me. When this man doing BDSM to me, I go inside of a flashback, and somehow it feel like I able to begin the process of remembering and understanding my participation and feelings of what happened. I am sorry for so long comment, I did not know email to say thank you!

    1. Hi Atsuko! Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing with us! I’m glad my post helped introduce you to BDSM, and that BDSM is helping you to process your traumatic past. Wishing you all the best!

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