From face masks and scented candles to solo date nights, gym memberships, long walks and massages, the self-care movement comes with something for every occasion. Whether it’s the highs of a long-awaited promotion or the lows of a failed relationship, self-care is an admirable choice to make for yourself. An absolute essential, if online mental health movements are anything to go by. But what if we lived in a world where self-care looked more like blindfolds, leather cuffs, mouth gags, ten minutes of spanking or half an hour of bondage? The words kink and self-care may not typically be found together in mainstream dialogues around BDSM or even vanilla sex, but the word ‘trauma’ often pops up.
Perhaps that is exactly why the idea of categorising BDSM as a form of self-care feels increasingly important. You may have heard of the stereotype– only the traumatised choose BDSM. Vanilla sex is supposed to be for well-adjusted people in happy relationships while the assumption remains that only the dissatisfied and damaged would choose rougher forms of sex.
But what is trauma, really? Does it only show up in romantic interactions or sexual encounters? Or is it an event of any nature that makes you feel cornered, alone, vulnerable, at risk of harm and having to quickly find the nearest exit? Recognising and experiencing trauma is a vital part of our understanding of safety. It’s what trains you to be better at spotting a threat in the future so you can shield yourself. Trauma is essential and entirely unavoidable. It is in being unwell or injured as a child and not feeling cared for or safe around the adults in your life. It is in having a maths teacher who repeatedly degrades you in class or calls you names that other kids begin to use for you too. Trauma can also be found in the pressure of being the emotional rock for everyone else in the family and never having a chance to make mistakes or be looked after by others. Who among us hasn’t experienced at least one of those forms of neglect, chronic emotional fatigue or social humiliation?
For many of us, myself included, BDSM is where years of conditioning to act and emote a certain way often collide with these uncomfortable experiences. BDSM, though portrayed more frequently in our movies now, still remains largely misunderstood as a hobby or outlet for the bored. We see it in Christian Grey’s absurd need to dominate brunettes and his impressive collection of BDSM gear, as well as in Massimo who remains convinced that acts of shocking violence mislabeled as kinky sex will convince his victim to fall in love with him. None of these actually fall within the realm of Kink or BDSM.
BDSM involves consensual, explicitly discussed and heavily negotiated acts of Bondage / Discipline, Dominance / Submission, and Sadism / Masochism. Broadly, people in this community play one of three different roles– the Dom/Domme, who is the giver of one or many different forms of BDSM acts, the sub who receives those acts, and Switches, who may be the giver in some scenarios and the receiver in others.
This definition of the roles we play within BDSM scenes is crucial because it establishes some of the biggest facets of this form of play– power and control. Every act of play within this umbrella involves a negotiation for power and control; who gives it up, who takes the reins, and the full degree of power that all parties carry in escalating or ending an act is comprehensively defined. Unlike situations in the real world, where we must read cues or seek clarity in a conversation to calculate our safety, BDSM scenarios allow us to build a fixed script before the event even occurs. It’s like being back in that dreaded maths class again, only you hold the power to decide what your teacher can or cannot call you this time.
Where Kink and Trauma Connect
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That is precisely where trauma and social conditioning often define the form of social and sexual exchanges we prefer to have. People who feel burdened by the weight of being the decision makers or primary caregivers within their every day lives may often look to submit to a partner in BDSM or kink. For them, BDSM may not be a sexual experience at all, but may solely be for the emotional release of having someone else instruct them, make choices for them, and give them a break from having to be the active decision maker.
I have played the role of a Dom for nearly 10 years now. While stereotypes and poorly researched articles online led me to believe that I was broken for wanting to play with certain levels of power and control in the bedroom, practising actual BDSM showed me otherwise. I had grown up witnessing an abusive adult, and my biggest fear had always been that I might treat my loved ones the same way someday. Engaging with BDSM as a Dom, where subs gave me different forms of power and control in a scene allowed me to wield those powers with responsibility. I watched myself build a script with subs who wanted to be bound, spanked and called certain names for roleplaying. I watched myself commit to that script alongside subs who trusted me and cared enough about me to not push me beyond my capacities and watched them leave feeling safe and heard, not traumatised. It released me from my own darkest fears and continues to rebuild me. Now, I see myself as capable of offering care and comfort while staying in control of my actions.
Through kinky play, I have witnessed partners recreate scenes or dynamics where they felt helpless. Re-experiencing those emotions in the arms of someone who will stay close, hold you or engage with you with explicit consent, allows our nervous systems to slowly heal from the stress and tensions that we never got to process when the incident of trauma first occurred.
Imagine having an opportunity to rewrite the way a particular word, sensation or dynamic makes you feel. Someone who was hit as a child but never offered compliments, may ask to be hit again and have their head gently kissed as their Dom calls them a good girl. Someone else may roleplay to explore interactions that resemble their past, only to ensure a different outcome this time where they are respected more or feel more heard. Others may experience a renewed sense of strength and confidence after using a safeword to end a scene, especially if they did not have the chance to verbally defend themselves in the past.
Realising The Role Kink Plays In Trauma Recovery
When interviewed about the role of BDSM and kink in trauma recovery for Dame, licensed marriage and family therapist Pam Schaffer explains, “BDSM can be an excellent way to help people explore their own sense of agency and safety, which can be deeply healing when it comes to trauma. Trauma comes from events that happen outside of our control, while in BDSM, the events that unfold during a ‘scene’ between partners are discussed beforehand and either partner has the ability to stop the action with a ‘safe’ word.”
A large facet of trauma recovery includes forgiving yourself for not knowing more during the act of violence, or for not being able to assert a boundary, seek cover or keep your body safe. Kinky scenes allow you to rewrite those endings. “For many people who have experienced trauma, it means learning to trust themselves first and foremost, but also learning to trust others,” says Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist. “When it comes to sexuality, BDSM and kink is an ideal practice ground because it requires such conscious awareness, decision making and communication before anything begins.”
For people who were left with physical scars from traumas, BDSM can rewire your nervous system to associate new and fully consensual bruises with a sense of pride and achievement instead. What once was a scar that brought shame, grief and fear, can now be a reminder of just how far your body is willing to go to protect you, stand up for you and help you make it to the nearest exit. While many can and do enjoy kinky acts for the intimacy they build between partners and the conversations they encourage you to have, most of us find ourselves looking into the language of kink to liberate ourselves as individuals. The detailed negotiations within kink also allow for people with chronic illnesses and injuries to engage with sexual desires, intimacy and play in controlled ways that do not aggravate their existing pain. Some even prefer the stinging pain and bruises from BDSM to the chronic pain they always live with, because the high from intense kinky scenes can momentarily reduce or diminish the pain they may feel in other parts of their body because of chronic illnesses. People with disabilities who may have been shamed for their bodies before can build scripts to ensure their body is held, touched and explored in ways that do not pressure them to endure discomfort or duress.
When explored right and supported by informed and understanding partners, even hours of submission and degradation can have you walking home feeling positive. To have negotiated with your Dom, followed their instructions, executed their demands and handled pain or submission with such power, is no easy task. The beauty of BDSM and kink is that it acknowledges that not all play, whether sexual or not, is for the fulfilment of others or for strengthening the bonds you share. Its primary goal is to ensure that you have the tools and support to foster a better connection with yourself– where you can trust your body to differentiate pleasure from pain, your mind to stay present and signal you to keep going or to stop or slow down, and for your mind and body to feel like a synchronised team.
That’s what trauma robs from us– a chance to feel whole. A good BDSM scene brings you a partner who understands that and facilitates your journey into yourself. Some of us learn how to build ourselves back up again through therapy alone, and some of us turn to friends or family for comfort and reassurance, but the rest of us? We will be right here with our floggers and chains, rebuilding our homes and redefining safety, one safe word at a time.