We know that sex has health benefits. It stimulates circulation and improves cholesterol, lowers pain and generally makes us feel good – thank you endorphins. But one thing that keeps coming up for me is the way sex interplays with emotional pain. Particularly the emotional pain of trauma. I’ve been exploring this intensely for years and am always trying to bring more consciousness to how my pain and pleasure relate. It’s less about erasing the past and more about integrating lessons and rewiring the emotional responses to past hurts. Which, when successful, leads to a far greater openness to pleasure and an ability to feel love and connection. Of course… this all requires immense courage and vulnerability and sounds much easier than it may feel.
Something I often hear when I mention kink to ‘vanilla’ people, is the idea of BDSM being inherently tied to trauma. Many times it’s people who are carrying shame and fear themselves, who speak spread this message to ‘push away the scary thing’. It’s a myth that isn’t helpful to anyone. There was a 2013 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, which concluded that ‘BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes’. BDSM isn’t about ‘being messed up’ or ‘damaged’. That being said, as a counselor, with PTSD, who is also heavily into kink, I’d like to suggest that things are not always black and white. And no, this is not a ‘50 shades’ reference – don’t get me started on that book.
Re-enactment is a trauma phenomenon which occurs for many reasons. I won’t say there aren’t a bunch of people getting whipped and tied up because of it. (or for that matter, doing any number of other far more socially acceptable things). What I will say, is that people engage in behaviours all the time that aren’t healthy. And as adults, they have a right to. Whether they have experienced trauma or not, infantilizing people or shaming them, isn’t the way to go. However saying kink is practiced only because of deep-seated emotional disturbances is like saying that people only visit cafes because they are addicted to caffeine.
Now, onto the healing. This is where it gets yummy. Whether someone has PTSD or just your average dose of shame, anxiety or fear, there are times and ways in which sex and BDSM (which need not be sexual) can be healing and help us grow emotionally. No one is immune to feelings. Some people are more self-aware and emotionally tuned in than others. It’s a skill to be conscious of our emotional landscapes and to be able to read those of others. The former is key in having a healing practice based on sex and BDSM. Only when we are able to bring awareness, to our responses to the touch of a lover or the feelings stirred by our own arousal can we truly use these as tools to grow.
It’s hard to write about this because it isn’t a simple linear process. Neither can one be prescriptive and generalize on how people – nuanced and individual as they are – may heal using sex and BDSM. But I will endeavour to offer a few useful points on the subject.
Firstly, I believe that we live in a world where our self worth and productivity are far too tied together. Everyone is incredibly busy ‘doing’ and people find it painfully hard to ‘just be’. Finding ways to exist without needing to be productive is an incredible practice for having amazing sex, and for developing the consciousness needed to navigate healing in sexual contexts.
Meditation is the obvious example of being and not doing, but in a counseling context I would suggest whatever the client is most drawn to. Having a ‘being not doing’ routine does a lot for developing emotional intelligence and the ability to observe our feelings without trying to numb them out. When we are numb, we are more likely to engage in behaviours that our heart does not truly desire. We seek activities that repress our feelings further and if we come into sex or BDSM in this state, pleasure tends to remain physical only. We get high from the happy chemicals but we do not heal. We tie a pretty bow around our festering wounds and walk away thinking everything will be fine. Over a long period of time, our bodies stop communicating as much with us. We lose physical sensitivity as well as emotional acuity.
Vulnerability, openness and honesty are key in this work. Once we come to a place of being able to actually know how we feel, what we want, what we fear and what we do not want, half the work is done already. The next part, which is at least equally as hard, is to express this. We need play partners who we trust. And we need to trust ourselves – this links in with emotional resilience and fostering a deep sense of worthiness. More on this later. We need to be able to communicate effectively, so that our boundaries are respected and understood and so that our hearts remain present. How do we do this? We use our words and our bodies. I push away someone’s hand when it’s somewhere I don’t feel like being touched. I tell people what I’m not okay with. I tell people what I fear. I tell people what I desire. ‘Don’t touch me there or in this way’. ‘I’m scared I’m not going to get this right’ ‘I want you to slap me/kiss me/penetrate me like this’.
When people tell me what they’re afraid of, I understand them better. I see them as human as I am, I feel trusted and I connect. When people tell me their boundaries I know that they are able to say no, which means they mean it when they say yes! When people tell me what they want, I get excited. Verbal communication in sex (and especially in BDSM) goes beyond the way most people view consent. It isn’t as simple as saying yes to sex. There is SO much depth gained from knowing the specific things within sex we want.
Which leads me to my next point. Find out what you want. This is something you can do alone and with others. When it comes to self-pleasure I see this as very linked to the previous point on ‘being not doing’. BDSM (or any kind of sexal play or creative approach) is fantastic for getting away from the goal-oriented view that many people have towards sex. When orgasm ceases to be the goal or the end point, we are left with a space and time in which to get creative and explore. There are infinite activities I would suggest for having a healing self pleasure practice. Personally, I love dance. Singing to the ocean naked, being caressed by waves also does the trick. Breath. Breath is important no matter what your practice. Discover together and discover alone.
Ultimately, we are the only person we are always going to be with. And we need to be our own biggest allies. Sometimes things go wrong and we go too far and miss the ‘sweet spot’ on the challenge and comfort scale. This is where self care is particularly useful. In kink, aftercare is the care given after a period of play has ended. Self care is something we can do on our own (though I tend to count asking for specific things from others as an act of self care too). Many people don’t nurture themselves regularly enough and underestimate how often or how much self care they deeply crave.
What nurture looks like is different for everyone. Finding the things that naturally recharge us and leave us feeling whole and centered is an incredible tool. Believing we are worthy of going for a walk in the park and eating well, or saying no to invites or yes to time alone, is also tied in with sexual healing. We may not be in the bedroom or the dungeon, but it’s a lot easier to be fully present there when we spend time recharging elsewhere. It’s also a lot easier to say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ with confidence when we believe in our intrinsic worth. One thing that keeps being true for me on this topic is that if self worth is low, doing things that are nourishing still help. Kind of like laughter yoga when you’re sad. Fake it till you make it sometimes works.
Now I wonder whether many of you are wanting to hear more about BDSM specifically. For me, sex and BDSM are both different and also just one big spectrum of sensation, expression and sensuality. BDSM can obviously have specific aspects that are especially edgy and therefore interact with trauma in specific ways. For example, I once worked with a man in his late 60’s who came to me with a fear of constraint. He had been a firefighter during a landslide and was seeking therapeutic bondage ropework. The key is knowing what your medicine is and finding the right dose. The right dose is usually an amount that feels challenging enough to stretch you but not too scary that your amygdala fires (your brain’s alarm system that puts you in fight/fight or freeze) and you disengage.
Listing every possibly kink and going into how it could be a medicine or a poison is not something within the scope of this piece of writing. (Though I’m tempted to create a manual for this!). What I will say is that developing a healthy relationship to your sexuality can extend into consciously using it to expand, grow and heal. BDSM can be used specifically in non-sexual ways or combined with sex play. Having a personal practice that expands your emotional awareness and resilience and developing your communication skills and courage is the best start to being able to heal your sexuality and heal using your sexuality.
I'm working on a specific program related to this exact topic, so watch this space. In the meantime, I do have some limited spaces for seeing one on one clients. Contact me to find out more.
First image is copyright Christine Dengate with credit to Mo Latin for rope. Following images are copyright Bianca Wolff.