How BDSM Helped Me Cope With Sexual Trauma

When asked what taking care of our mental health looks like, most of us say the same answer by heart. Talk about therapy, medicine for those who need it, and then that vague concept of “self-care,” which today means everything from keeping a journal to eating healthy food to buying expensive candles. But the reality is that no one’s journey to mental health will be the same. Each person’s brain, trauma and way of navigating is different and as a result, individuals have long adopted more personal ways of staying on top of their mental health, whether it’s exercise for stress or ice cold baths for anxiety. . But for some, mental healing can come from a more unexpected place: the latex and leather of BDSM.

How BDSM Helped Me Cope With Sexual Trauma

While I never thought it would work like this, it has been the case even for me. After a sexual assault in 2018 that took place on a busy street, a street I still pass often, I found myself withdrawing from sex – feeling extremely disconnected from my body and partners, swallowing the feeling that I didn’t want to be touched counting down the time until every sexual encounter stopped in my head and then sometimes cried uncontrollably. Even now, there are times when I find intimacy so difficult that I dissociate. For anyone not sure what “dissociation” means in this context, let me explain. Basically, when I’m supposed to “enjoy the moment,” something bizarre happens in my brain – it feels like I’ve detached myself from my body and float, passively watching everything that happens from the foot of the bed.

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At the time, I never really wanted to talk about my experience in a formal way, but it often came out as a whimsical confession with hot tears after having one too many to drink. Probably therapy would have been the answer (isn’t it always?) but I started looking for alternative solutions. Inspired by teenage years spent on Tumblr and a summer spent in Berlin, where sex clubs were everywhere, I thought BDSM would be worth a try. It was a whole culture that celebrated around sex, a culture where all shame was left at the door and fun reigned supreme — what if it could help me process some baggage, I wondered. And as you probably understood from the title of this article, it was.

It was the fact that BDSM often involves a lot of pre-negotiation, where you go over specific scenes or actions and come to an agreement.

But the little that helped me? Well, it wasn’t even the sex. Instead, it was the fact that BDSM often involves a lot of pre-negotiation, where you talk through and agree on specific scenes or actions. In practice this means that a) you spend a lot of time talking and b) you already know how everything is going to go before you start. This proved to be a great relief to me after the shock and trauma of what had happened to me before. It was also a way of slowly trusting someone, knowing that we were in fact having a verbal contract, rather than having to delve into intimacy. According to my partners at the time, I could never “let go” during sex, so it was a huge relief that BDSM offered a judgment-free space of calm and control – even if as a sub I was supposedly the one who gave up control.

Removing Misconceptions About BDSM

Admittedly, it’s a stereotype that if you’ve been traumatized, you might be drawn to BDSM, especially when you look at depictions of kinks in pop culture. Whether it’s the sexual assault dominatrix Tiffany experiences in Netflix’s bonding or the child abuse Christian Gray mentions in Fifty Shades of greyTV and film writers are more than a little complicit in spreading the prejudice, through awkward dialogue, that you have to be traumatized to get tangled up. But does this have any root in real life? Well, away from our screens, research has found a link between child abuse and developing an interest in sadism or masochism later in life. However, it’s important to remember that the research here is scant and the link is far from definitive. However, if it is doing exist, we need to question the ways we talk and think about this correlation. Rather than seeing a tendency toward BDSM as a “perversion” of “normal” sexuality, what if we saw BDSM rituals as a form of harm reduction, a coping mechanism, or even a type of therapy?

“During my participation in BDSM, I was able to look deep inside, learn exactly what I like and want, and communicate these things openly and honestly to my partners.”

And while BDSM can be particularly associated with people who have experienced a specific type of trauma, it can be useful for people with many different experiences. This is the case of Prish, a 25-year-old non-binary person who, after a childhood where their boundaries and needs were not listened to or respected, tended to nod. As they struggled with codependent relationships as a result, BDSM allowed them to connect with their desires and learn how to communicate them. “During my participation in BDSM, I was able to look deep inside, learn exactly what I like and want, and communicate these things openly and honestly with my partners,” they explain. “When these needs were listened to and they were respected, and when my pleasure was centered on the people who dominated me, this was incredibly healing.” Ultimately, the ability to express what they wanted sexually has had a much greater positive impact. “I felt stronger than I’d ever felt in my entire life, like I finally had some control over what made me happy — and I was able to extend this to other aspects of my life.”

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Here we can see that BDSM is far from the tool of self-destruction that is often portrayed as in the media. Instead, it can be a way to work through intimate struggles, both sexual and emotional, with people you trust. While it can be a lifelong practice for some, for others it can be something to pop in and out or go to alone in a time of need. And different scenes can have different emotional effects. This is the case for 24-year-old Hannah who, recovering from a serious breakup, staged a life-changing kink encounter. After several years of being involved in BDSM, she started talking to someone she knew from the scene – and they were able to act out a long-held fantasy of hers. “One thing he’d done that I’d always wanted to try was sexual hunting: think predator/prey games but IRL. We met for drinks to discuss boundaries and then the date rolled around for us to to do the deed,” explains Hanna.

On the day of the scheduled meeting, Hannah and her play partner met in a forest and she was given a “head start” as part of the screenplay. This was, as she explains, where an emotional transformation began. “I felt such an exhilarating rush of being chased, like I was running away from my problems,” she says. “It was like stepping out of my skin and my sadness.” According to their arrangement, Hannah was then “caught” and they both had sex, which led to her emotional breakthrough. “He asked me what my ex would think if he knew I was doing this and in that moment I knew I didn’t care anymore. It was so purifying and cathartic and it gave me the space and the sexual confidence to move on.” with my life – I will always be grateful for it.”

Both Prish and Hananh’s experiences focus on the emotional aspect of BDSM, using it as a tool that allowed them to reframe negative experiences and mindsets and regain power. Although this is their personal experience, there is even a boy line of research that supports it, looking at how individuals use kink as a form of trauma recovery. And it’s not that hard to see how BDSM sometimes mimics techniques seen in talk therapy – after all, Gestalt therapy can even include “role play” sessions. But while we know that BDSM can be beneficial for some people, is there a way to seek it out as part of a recognized mental health treatment plan?

How BDSM Can Be Therapeutic

Well, we are still a long way from having BDSM listed on the NHS website as a fully funded alternative therapy. However, some work has already begun among mental health professionals willing to explore kinks and the role it plays in people’s lives and emotional states. There are more and more kink-positive and BDSM-informed therapists and, excitingly enough, there is even a growing number of BDSM therapists who combine traditional talk therapy with BDSM sessions. Among them is mindful nodding facilitator and qualified counselor Divine Theratrix, who provides potential clients with integrative talk therapy, somatic healing sessions, and animal play classes to enable individuals to “get out of their heads and into their bodies in playful and tactile ways.”

The beauty of BDSM is that it is always about connecting our physical and emotional selves.

Divine Theratrix, also known as Lara, was first inspired to use BDSM as an aid in her work after thinking about how the mind affects the body. “In addition to my traditional integrative therapist training, I embarked on further studies in the relatively new field of somatic psychology and became convinced that touch could be a missing piece for some people on a trauma healing journey,” she explains. Somatic psychology focuses on the influence of the body on the mind and has been studied practically through somatic therapies that target the body. These techniques focus on regulating your nervous system (which can get stuck in fight or flight responses) and creating physical awareness, and are especially helpful for those with trauma or PTSD.

Obviously there are many different physical aspects to BDSM and you may not have thought about how these can affect your brain before, but they do. Take one of the most famous parts of BDSM: impact play, which involves hitting your skin with a hand, paddle or whip. While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, scientists have shown that it has a positive impact on the mental health of kinksters – individuals can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after a kink session.

But if we take a break from all this technical stuff, the beauty of BDSM is that it’s always about connecting our physical and emotional selves. Whether it’s the feel of latex on the skin or the psychological tension of power play, kink connects us to our bodies, our instincts and allows us to fully embody our emotions. As Lara puts it, “When body and mind work together, learning usually has more impact.”

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