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A Compendium of BDSM Advice Columns

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin

It is said by some that there is no fixed time or order between the embrace, the kiss, and the pressing or scratching with the nails or fingers, but that all these things should be done generally before sexual union takes place, while striking and making the various sounds generally takes place at the time of the union. Vatsyayana, however, thinks that anything may take place at any time, for love does not care for time or order.

-- The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana
Chapter III, "On Kissing,"

The Society of Janus, founded in San Francisco in 1974 by the late Cynthia Slater, is the second-oldest pansexual group in the world devoted to educating and supporting people who have an interest in what is now called BDSM. By the late 1990s this amalgam of overlapping letter combinations – BDSM – was the widely accepted umbrella term used to designate in a single statement three related but distinct areas of consensual erotic power exchange: bondage and discipline (BD), dominance and submission (DS), and sadomasochism (SM). The umbrella terms that had most previously contained them all were simply SM (or S/M, or S&M) and "leather." "SM" ceased to be a satisfactory designation when it became broadly apparent that people who were involved with bondage, role-play, and other sexual fetishes, or with the emotional components of dominance and submission, often had little or no interest in giving or receiving the pain or other intense physical sensations that marked people more properly thought of as erotically sadistic or masochistic. "Leather" remains an alternate term in use, even though leather itself is in no way essential to BD, DS, or SM, and fetish costuming with clothes made from animal hides often has nothing to do with the behaviors or interests such clothes once stood for.

The Society of Janus, or simply Janus, publishes a monthly newsletter for its members called Growing Pains, which has been edited to date by more than a dozen different people, several of whom were remarkably competent in exploring what was once a little-examined and little understood form of human sexuality. In 1974, when Janus was founded, there was almost no participant literature on the subject that could be easily found. Certainly there was some zamizad – underground writing that circulated hand-to-hand among cognoscenti. But otherwise, apart from bad porn usually written by people who knew nothing of the subject and marketed for people who were culturally encouraged to feel guilty about their own forbidden fantasies, Gerald and Caroline Greene's somewhat starchy but even-handed SM: The Last Taboo (1974) and Larry Townsend's extremely knowledgeable and articulate primer for gay men, The Leatherman's Handbook (1972), were about all that stood between SM practitioners and the ill-informed pronouncements of the first psychiatrists who followed Freud (e.g., Wilhelm Stekel, Sadism and Masochism {1929}).

All the psychiatric writings about SM until the very last part of the 20th Century were based on cases that involved one person's desire to give to or receive from another person: pain, control, humiliation, and/or another form of personal diminution in the context of extreme psychopathology. None even entertained the rather tantric possibility that erotic energy – Freud's "libido" – might be deliberately exchanged as a feature of mutual pleasure, and all reflected to some extent the impetus of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's distant and very evident distaste for sex in general, which he demonstrated in one 19th Century European edition after another of Psychopathia Sexualis, his concordance of human sexual horrors featuring as the worst of all carnal sins: homosexuality, cross-dressing, masturbation, and sadism and masochism. These last two were terms Krafft-Ebing himself coined based on his readings of the Marquis de Sade, who was dead, and Gustav von Sacher-Masoch, who was very much alive and very put out at the Viennese psychiatrist's gall in appropriating his name.

Within a decade after Janus opened its doors players began to publish their own accounts of what they did, and by 1990 there was a shelf full of books about SM written by intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate people who knew what they were talking about, even when they differed with one another.

I could go on, but I intend the preceding, very cursory history only as background from which I can now digress. For additional, accurate information about the evolution of the SM community in San Francisco, see anything on the subject by Gayle Rubin, Ph.D., e.g., "Visions of Paradise: SM Communities and Their Limitations," Cuir Underground, June, 1995, or "Elegy for the Valley of the Kings: AIDS and the Leather Community in San Francisco, 1991-1996," in Levine, Nardi, and Gagnon, In Changing Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. For a comprehensive look at leather history, consider visiting the Leather Archives & Museum, 5007 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640, phone (773) 275-1570.

To continue. In the fall of 1991Pacifica Fran, then editor of Growing Pains, invited me to contribute a monthly advice column for SM practitioners, or "players," from a therapist's perspective. Alone and with my partner, Sybil Holiday, I was teaching and participating a good deal in San Francisco's so-called "radical sex" communities at the time, including the SM community, and I readily agreed. "Ask the Therapist" started to run in October, 1991, and it ran every month for nine years.

Much has changed in what the SM scene was when I first entered it, not the least of which is that a community that was just coming out from a long life in the underground became so popular inconographically that Madonna embraced it, Versace utilized it, and SM costume moved from art statement to political statement to fashion statement to a sort of historical curiosity in just a couple of years.

What was once the SM community became the SM communities, plural, and is now the BDSM community; soon it will be something entirely different again. Meanwhile, new players debate in public the once-forbidden sexual practices we codified and wrote books about, and I suspect still other players practice them yet as they did before Janus and dozens of other leather organizations appeared: playing like sexual outlaws in the underground without codes or rules or the niceties with which our organizations smoothed out their rough edges for our own and other people's popular consumption.

Generally, "Ask the Therapist" has consisted of one question and one response; sometimes, when they've been short, I've included two questions in a column. Sometimes the questions I addressed came to me in writing, in person, or over the phone from Janus members; sometimes they were posed at SM classes I taught alone or with Sybil. A few times I borrowed what seemed to me to be a relevant question from the "Head to Head" advice column I wrote for five years (1990 - 1995) for the gay men's skin magazine Fresh Men. On one occasion I wrote an open letter to Janus members that is not included here, and on yet another the then-editor of Growing Pains turned the entire issue over to my writings: that issue is also not included here. Some questions come to me in variant forms with almost predictable regularity, and though each version and each reply has its own emphasis, a certain amount of repetition occurs in the collection of columns when these themes are stated and, a few months or years later, restated with their variations.

Someplace in my filing system I seem to have doubled up my records of a few months' publications and elsewhere dropped a couple others by the wayside, so here and there two columns may claim the same month while there is a gap in sequence elsewhere: these peculiarities in timing claims are due to my own inadvertence, and do not reflect the reality that was. I always felt I had the right, and sometimes even had the duty, to rewrite questions for clarity, brevity, and style – mea culpa, I was once an English teacher. I've cleaned up a few columns here for the sake of accuracy or to keep matters up to date, but otherwise, mostly, I've tried to leave the columns alone to constitute a record of what people wondered and what I had to say at a time that is quickly receding into a past without – I feel – enough attention to its sub-cultural history. What follows here, then, is in very large measure what followed from Fran's original invitation.

In preparing these pages for cyberspace I found it a little embarrassing to rediscover what a pedant I can be sometimes, and how full of myself, but such discoveries seem to me to be part of what learning's for. And despite any concerns I may have about what I've said and done, the questions I continue to get – from members of Janus, in classes I still occasionally teach, from clients involved with BDSM, and elsewhere – persuade me that there's still a need for this same information – and, yes, these same opinions – from those columns, and so that is what I offer here.

The Inevitable Disclaimer:

The purpose of the column was and is to provide information and advice only. It is not meant to constitute psychotherapy or any other form of formal counseling, although what I say necessarily reflects my experience as a psychotherapist and a sex therapist, as well as my personal experience with BDSM. Since the questions are often general in nature, the answers could not be absolute or necessarily correct under all circumstances or in every case. And then, as every person is ultimately responsible for his or her own behavior, the author of the column, the editors and the publisher of the magazine, and the organization the publication serves – as well, I'm sure, as the site on which the collection of columns now appears – disclaim responsibility for any actions people may take on the basis of the column's contents. As Sybil and I said over and over again in the classes we taught, in presentations we made, and in the book we wrote together, from our perspective the primary commandments of healthy SM play are these:

tell the truth, at least to yourself and preferably to other people including your play partners;

keep your agreements, and if you are unable to keep them, get the agreement of the people with whom you've made them before changing them: don't act unilaterally where others are also involved;

play safely, which includes knowing what you're doing and acknowledging what you don't know; and

play consensually: don't impose your trip on others.

Finally, my thanks to Fran for the original invitation, and to the editors who followed her for keeping the column running, for reminding me on the few occasions I was tardy with my copy, for forwarding the questions that came to them instead of to my office, for putting in the enormous amounts of time required to perform what is after all the relatively thankless task of editing a club newsletter.

And thanks beyond measure to Sybil Holiday, my primary partner in life's conventional sense for nearly a decade, and in my heart my partner in process forever.

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