(Trigger Warning: This article references trauma and sexual assault)
This weekend I was taken with force. Forcibly and powerfully taken by a man I love and trust completely. With my full consent.
While we didn’t set out to create a curative experience, this experience was deeply healing for me. It unexpectedly echoed back 35 years ago to when I was 15 years old and taken by a man against my will. It was a stunning and sudden full circle – both moments happened when I was discovering myself in new ways, learning (or relearning) who I am in the world, in relationship, in myself as a woman, as a sexual being. Discovering who I am and what I want and how to become the biggest, best version of myself, including how to do it in intimate relationship.
The major difference between these two experiences? Consent.
When I was 15, I did not give consent. I was taken in spite of what I wanted. I was raped.
This weekend, I was in full consensual surrender. Being taken was exactly what I wanted.
That single difference – consent – made the difference between an encounter that caused trauma and one that healed it.
Power exists. In every relationship, in every moment. In some relationships it is more obvious: For example, boss and employee. Parent and dependent child. Police officer and citizen. But power dynamics are also layered in relationships through race/ethnicity, citizenship, gender, sexual orientation, socio economics, age, language, and on subtler levels related to access of love and affection, time, assistance, and sex.
In other words, the dynamics of power exist in every relationship on multiple levels. The question is not IF it exists, the questions are: Are we conscious about it or not? Do we explore it or not? Do we abuse it or not?
When we aren’t conscious of it, it has the potential to cause harm, in both major and minor ways. When we are conscious of it, it has the potential to heal.
There has been little research on BDSM (Bondage & Discipline/ Domination & Submission / Sadism & Masochism) encounters or relationships. Depending on how the question is asked, numbers range from 2% (Juliet Richters et al, 2008) to 62% (Christian Joyal et al, 2015) of individuals who report engaging in some sort of BDSM-related fantasies and behaviors. What the little research that has been done shows is that most BDSM practitioners suffer from lower rates of some mental disorders than their counterparts, and positive attributes and personality traits.
That said, what does BDSM do for its practitioners? Brad Sagarin, Ph.D. and his research team have been studying physiological and psychological variables in bottoms (the person who is bound, receiving stimulation and/or following orders) and tops (the person providing the stimulation, orders or structure) before and after their scenes. Interestingly, they found that both participants reported increases in relationship closeness and decreases in psychological stress from before to after their scenes. Additionally, they discovered that both participants experience different types of altered states of consciousness that are highly pleasurable.
Anecdotally, there are reports by people who’ve had similar experiences as my own. In her essay for HelloGiggles, S. Nicole Lane wrote about how BDSM has become an essential part of her healing process from her sexual assault – a means to reclaim her bodily autonomy, rebuild trust, and treat her PTSD in a controlled environment. There are professionals, therapists, and practitioners who are using BDSM scenes and/or experiences intentionally to create healing experiences and working-through all kinds of trauma.
This is not to say that everyone engaging in BDSM does so for healthy reasons or experiences a positive outcome. If people engage in it in an unconscious manner, or with people with whom they don’t have a deep experience of trust, or with others who have issues related to power and control or abuse, the experience could be as damaging as it has the potential to be healing.
That said, it is a practice that might give us access to a way to explore power dynamics in a relationship – to play with choice, surrender, power, and empowerment. And it might just be a way to explore avenues of healing for people who have had their power stripped from them in violent ways. Whether we engage in it or not, it seems there is something in it we may all be able to learn from.