Out On The Couch
Please note that this article contains content related to sexual trauma.
In this article, the first in a three-part series about kink-aware therapy, I will lay the groundwork for practitioners to gain an understanding of BDSM and key concepts such as consent and negotiation. Many may believe that BDSM represents bondage, dominance, and sadomasochism practiced during sex–yet these encompass only a small portion of the practices present in the BDSM and kink communities. After emerging in the late 80s and early 90s, the term BDSM itself has gone through a transformation as of the early 2000s (Taormino, 2012) to become more inclusive.
With the passage of time and availability of content on the Internet, the use of BDSM as an umbrella term has expanded to reflect the history of kink vocabulary and the wide variety of practices it encompasses. These include bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism. While the differences among them may not be immediately clear, these terms are neither mutually inclusive nor exclusive, and kink activity is not limited to sexual experiences.
BDSM has traditionally been pathologized through psychiatric diagnostic manuals such as the DSM (Reiersøl & Skeid, 2006), the effects of which are evidenced by report data. For instance, Kolmes, Stock and Moser (2006) report a concern among consensual BDSM participants that they will receive biased care from mental health professionals. This information was gleaned from a survey administered to both BDSM-involved individuals who have received psychological services and to mental health professionals themselves.
There are a number of reasons why a client might not disclose their participation in kink and BDSM to a provider. Regardless of the context, remaining affirming and empowering combats the classical psychoanalytic and medical traditions of pathologizing BDSM and kink. Because of this, along with evidence suggesting that kinky clients may fear that providers will focus on their “unconventional” sexual desires instead of their concerns, it’s essential that providers become familiar with some basics of kink-affirming therapy.
Moser and Kleinplatz (2004) propose that when therapists accept their clients’ sexuality, clients are empowered to focus on their own concerns rather than defend themselves. The client’s BDSM practices are not “curable,” and any connected distress and dysfunction needs to be understood in the context of discrimination and stigma.
Creating safety in therapy allows clinicians to dispel harmful myths surrounding kink and trauma, and where necessary, to facilitate healing through the basic tenets of kink: consent, empowerment, autonomy, advocacy, and fun. There are two common but contradictory myths, neither more damaging than the other, that prevent many clients from talking about kink with their therapists. Learning about these myths is a way to challenge provider bias, and constitutes a great step toward developing kink awareness. The first is that trauma inherently causes kink, and the other is that you cannot engage in kink if you have a trauma history.
In consideration to the first myth, I refer to a lesson from my undergraduate psychology course regarding a twin sibling study. The study stated that a set of identical twins were separated at birth and both were obsessively clean. When asked why they thought they had this trait, one sibling reported that they had learned it from their adoptive parents. The other stated that their adoptive parents were so dirty that they vowed to never be this way. Perpetuating the connection of experience to meaning not only reinforces shame, but creates a space in which therapists may potentially pathologize a person’s existence. It can be a function of human nature to look back over our lives to find meaning and significance, yet the narratives we choose are not always rooted in a truth of cause and effect. Truthfully, we do not know why individuals develop the fetishes or kinks that they do.
The second myth regarding trauma histories proposes that engaging in kink will cause further harm and will be addressed at length in my next article.
Navigating Kink: The Basics for Kink-Affirmative Therapists
It is important that clients who are first realizing their interest in kink educate themselves before taking action. This is the only safe way to engage in kink. Similarly, therapists require education regarding kink dynamics in order to provide kink-aware therapy and provide a safer space for clients. Consensual kink upholds partner/personal consent, limit setting, and full disclosure of the risks that exist in a kink dynamic, as well as other important considerations that help keep each participant safe.
Let’s explore the extensive communication surrounding consent, limits, safewords, aftercare, and risk awareness that create a foundation for a healthy sexual dynamic.
Here is a terrific guideline to consent that is as easy as FRIESS* from Planned Parenthood (2020). I’ve added an extra S for an important factor you may encourage your clients to take into consideration.
*Sober (C. Cathers, personal communication, November 22, 2020)
Consent is freely given when it does not entail any degree of coercion, threat, or intimidation and it is reversible. This means that consent can be retracted at any time; consenting parties have the right to change their minds. Consent can only be considered informed and specific when every participant is aware of and agrees upon what is going to happen, what would be okay if it happened, what cannot and will not happen, and where, when, and how events are to take place. Think of kink-informed consent like a contract that outlines the expectations and understandings clearly for everyone.
Sober has been added as a reminder that if any participant is under the influence of mind-altering substances, consent cannot be freely given (C. Cathers, personal communication, November 22, 2020).
Within BDSM communities, practices are always understood to be Risk-Aware and Consensual. You may see activities commonly referred to as RACK:
For example, if a client wants to engage in impact play or any other kink activity such as spanking, caning, flogging, etc., that is great! First, it is important to learn some basic human anatomy so they know where it is safe to give and receive impact before they attempt impact play. Education first upholds awareness so that each participant knows how to create an interaction that is safe while still understanding the risks that are involved in any type of BDSM and kink activity.
There are wonderful educational books and Internet-based resources out there. Two of my personal favorites for fun education are SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman and videos by Evie Lupine, which you can find on YouTube. Please keep in mind these are not substitutes for completing accredited CE courses or learning from kink educators, but they are a great start. Remember that risk-aware kink practices are meant to keep everyone safe and enjoying themselves.
Negotiation, if done properly, is a collaboration towards a common goal: each partner’s pleasure. Negotiation always comes before a kinky interaction and includes factors like participants’ wants, needs, and soft and hard limits. Soft limits look like activities one is willing to try under the right circumstances, but that must be discussed and agreed upon before trying. Meantime, hard limits are the ones to which a participant says, “No, I am not interested in trying this at all under any circumstances.”
To unpack this a little further, negotiation is multifaceted and will include information such as the logistics of who will be involved, in what capacity, and in which roles. Everyone’s responsibilities must be considered further through the negotiation agreement. A thorough negotiation will also include safety information, including any injuries or illnesses, triggers, psychological limitations, and safewords. If you have further interest in learning about limits or encouraging a client to discover theirs, there are wonderful tools available; my personal favorite is the The Yes, No, Maybe Workbook by Princess Kali.
Discussing and utilizing safewords is another essential aspect of kink safety. Use of a safeword communicates to all participants that a change or complete stoppage of play is needed. A few recommendations include making sure that the word is something easy to remember, but also something that you would not normally utter during kink or sexual activity. Deciding upon a nonverbal gesture is another important consideration, as some activities render a person unable to speak. Gestures can range from a hand signal to a double tap on one’s partner. Working with safewords can be a great exercise in helping clients learn boundary setting and communicating needs.
When kinky play ends, aftercare allows all participants to feel safe, connected, and cared for. This can facilitate a sense of being grounded, an important factor considering the mental and physical “drop” that is described after the rush of endorphins experienced during play. No matter a participant’s role, drop can be experienced and may include aches and pains, feelings of guilt, and sadness or fatigue. This experience is normal and a routine of aftercare can help restore balance. Aftercare looks different for everyone in the same way that drop does, but often includes cuddling, reassurance, praise, a drink of water, or even a warm bath. It can be helpful to elucidate in the therapy room that asking partners what they need after play lays a foundation for stability and connectedness.
While this article does not comprise a definitive list of all things kink, or even all of the basics, I hope it will serve as a starting point as to why kink is healthy and why we should be talking about it in therapy. In the second part of this series I will explore further how having a kink-aware practice reduces stigma, and how we can increase our comfort in working with kinky clients whose past experiences have included trauma.
A Few General Resources for Kink-Affirmative Therapists:
American Sex Podcast with Sunny Megatron
Kolmes, K., Stock, W., & Moser, C. (2006). Investigating Bias in Psychotherapy with BDSM Clients. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2/3), 301–324. https://doi.org/10.1300/J082v50n02_15
Kleinplatz, P., & Moser, C. (2004). Toward Clinical Guidelines for Working with BDSM Clients. Contemporary Sexuality, 38(6), 1–4.
Reiersøl, O., & Skeid, S. (2006). The ICD diagnoses of fetishism and sadomasochism. In P.J. Kleinplatz & C. Moser (Eds.), Sadomasochism: Powerful pleasures (pp. 243262). Harrington Park Press.
Sexual Consent. (2020). Planned Parenthood. Retrieved November 23, 2020 from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/relationships/sexual-consent
Taormino, T (2012). The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and other Erotic Edge. Cleis Press Inc.
It can be difficult to find guidance on writing effective relationship contracts, largely because the therapeutic community lacks consensus on the efficacy of such documents. Many clinicians believe that contracts serve the purpose of simply negotiating sexual acts and dynamics, and that by creating a contract, clients can sacrifice creativity and spontaneity in a relationship.
But this is a myth. Contracts can go far deeper than addressing what happens in the bedroom, serving as a viable and necessary tool for people in relationships to see and understand each other. Contracts can be created to help begin honest conversations about each individual’s wants and needs within a relationship.
I was first introduced to the concept of intimate relationship contracts in a college course on human sexuality. The version of the contract I initially saw is popular specifically within BDSM communities; it helps clarify the roles and responsibilities of each person in a relationship. When beginning to develop contracts in a clinical or therapeutic setting, you may find overlaps between versions of sexual and intimate relationship ones. An important distinction is that a sexual contract’s goal is responsible “play,” whereas an intimate relationship version strives for an honest and shared understanding of a relationship as a whole.
For an example from pop culture, we might look at the well-known book and film trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey (James, 2012). This provided, to many, an introduction to what an intimate relationship contract can entail. However, those who already had familiarity with contracts might view Fifty Shades’ portrayal as inaccurate and watered down. For example, in the film, only certain parts of the contract were portrayed; to some, these seemed to be the most risque components, which were used to surprise the audience. And in the book version, the contract and relationship overall were more about issues of control and ultimately dominance and submission. But most will find that in reality, relationships are more complex than that.
Note that intimate relationship contracts are not legally binding; there is nothing that the courts would be able to uphold in these documents. So think of these contracts as more of a tool for understanding a partner, setting boundaries, and laying out expectations in writing. The documents give each individual the opportunity to state their desires and interests, and if an issue or argument arises later, both sides can consult the contract to remember what was agreed upon in the beginning.
It’s also important to note that contracts are limited; they are not designed for negotiating every specific point of a relationship. If, during a therapy session, the contract starts to go in that direction, it’s a good time to stop and refocus clients on the reasons for using this tool as a way to get them on the same page.
What might an intimate relationship contract look like? Some contracts contain more sections and logistical information, while others may include more details about expectations. Either way, any contract should include at least several basic sections; these are outlined below. Note that those sections are conversation starters, intended to help your clients move towards more in-depth discussions of their desires and dynamics, and they by no means constitute a complete list of topics. I hope you will be able to use this template to dig deep into your clients’ communication with each other, and to get to the bottom of their preferences.
COMPONENTS OF AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP/ SEXUAL CONTRACT
- Who is involved?
This question may seem obvious, but for couples who are consensually non-monogamous, involvement of other people can make or break the relationship. As a therapist working with couples, I have noted that when clients are connected in an intimate relationship, they sometimes assume they know each other completely, which will lead them to make decisions without consulting each other. This can contribute to confusion, jealousy, and sometimes the end of their relationship. So it’s crucial for clear communication to take place about who will be involved. Note that this of course doesn’t mean changes can’t be made. But now is a good time to discuss how modifications to the contract, like who is or is not involved, can be considered and accepted by all parties.
- What are your hygiene rituals?
This is another important conversation starter: discussing preparations for various sexual acts and for learning each other’s preferences. A person may learn that their significant other is allergic to or strongly favors certain soaps and perfumes. As a cultural norm, some people may bathe every few days, while others will shower daily. Communication about hygiene is key, and as a therapist, you can help address discomfort or shame that may emerge about discussing this topic openly.
- What are your fantasies?
Fantasies aren’t always purely sexual in nature, though this part of the conversation can certainly go in that direction. But your clients may go beyond sex on this topic: fantasies could entail thinking about extravagant dates, a day in which one partner is completely dedicated to the other’s wants and needs, a weekend without the children, etc. Remember that fantasies are thoughts or dreams, not acts in which we will necessarily engage. That is why fantasies change–while the thought of doing something can be interesting and exciting, actually following through with it might be too much for a client. This section can entail a simple conversation between two individuals if they are brave enough to venture through the topic on their own. Therapists can also provide exercises and worksheets to help clients further understand each other’s desires. I like to sometimes use a worksheet by Lisa Page (2010) that helps women in particular to explore and look at some of these desires. Some other counseling methods, like the Gottman method, EFT by Susan Johnson, and sex therapy techniques, among others, can help clinicians learn how to explore topics with couples clients.
- What are the things that you know you are okay with?
Fantasies are thoughts, so in this section, clients will consider actions. What have clients actually done that they enjoy and would like to continue? Again, it’s important for your clients to know so that they can relay this information effectively to their partner(s).
- Interests in exploration?
Another thing to remember about fantasies is that most of them are thoughts or dreams, not something the person has actually engaged in. And that is why fantasies change–because while the idea of something can be interesting and exciting, actually doing it or following through with it can be too much for some.
For components 3, 4, and 5, there is a helpful article on Autostraddle (Osworth, 2014) that describes how to talk to your partners about sex. It includes an excellent set of worksheets that I like to use with individuals and couples to help them learn about themselves in conjunction with their partners.
- Limitations/Hard Limits?
It is important to think about your hard limits, defined as those areas in which a partner is not interested and is not willing to try. Just as it is important to know about an individual’s actions–what they enjoy or are willing to do–it is important to know their boundaries: where they draw the line when it comes to their interests and exploration.
- Safe words/hand signs or gestures?
Sometimes things can get passionate and out of control in erotic situations. Safe words, signs, and gestures are ways of making sure that everyone involved stays on the same page, and that activities remain SAFE and CONSENSUAL. Consent, in this context, entails seeking permission or agreement for an act taking place, and the nuances of the definition of consent continue to evolve. It is important that, as clinicians, we encourage partners to continue to ask for permission, and to never assume that they have the right to do something with a partner because they “think” they know each other well enough.
- How often should sex happen?
A lot of couples can get stuck on the question of how often sex should happen; they might fear being completely open and vulnerable with one another in exploring this difficult topic. As a therapist, it is important for you to encourage a conversation about this. A couple may need to compromise on the frequency of sex in order to progress forward. It is essential for each member of a relationship to gain an understanding of their own sexual desire and libido, which can fluctuate and differ from those of their partners, and this will play a role in determining how often sex takes place. I find that if individuals don’t understand this in themselves, they will have a hard time understanding it in others, which is why it’s helpful to have a facilitated conversation with you as therapist present.
- Who initiates the act?
Who is dominant and who is submissive in the relationship? Does this dynamic apply? Are any of the individuals involved switches? This section can introduce a conversation about who feels most comfortable initiating contact, either in a sexual or an intimate context. By intimate, I mean affectionate, without leading to any sexual acts.
- What type of aftercare rituals are desired?
Aftercare is what an individual needs after a sexual encounter. For some it may be taking a shower, followed by cuddling while falling asleep together. Others may want to eat ice cream or have a smoke, while still others might just want to get dressed, eat something, and move on with life. Whatever the case, it’s important to know what each person seeks after an encounter so that wrong assumptions can be avoided.
Communication is the basis for working on these issues and concerns. In order to truly understand and know each other, couples need to be ready and willing to communicate and learn from each others’ wants and needs, and contracts are a vital tool to help with this process. By starting this conversation early in the relationship and continuing to have the support to discuss their desires throughout, clients may feel significantly safer about communicating openly in the future.
Gray, J. (June 14, 2016). How to Write a Relationship Contract. Retrieved from www.jordangrayconsulting.com/relationship-contract/
James, E.L. (2012). Fifty Shades of Grey. New York: Vintage Books.
Osworth, A.E. (June 19, 2014). You Need Help: Here is a Worksheet to Help you Talk to Partners about Sex. Retrieved from www.autostraddle.com/you-need-help-here-is-a-worksheet-to-help-you-talk-to-partners-about-sex-237385/
Page, L. (2010). Sexuality and Fantasy Exploration Worksheet for Women. Retrieved from https://lisapage.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/sexuality-fantasy-exploration-workbook-by-lisa-page.pdf