B I S E X U A L I T Y A N D B D S M
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright c 2005, 2008 by William A. Henkin
(This essay was published originally in Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan, edited by Beth Firestein, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)
To me, sex is not about sticking a penis into a vagina (unless it’s sex for procreation). Sex is about tapping into, building, sharing, and utilizing sexual energy. The genitals are simply an exquisitely perfect generator for that sexual energy. Whether the genitals are male or female, or whether there are no genitals at all, does not matter to me. It’s about the energy. Since I have learned this I’m reaching whole new levels of sexual intensity, adventure, enjoyment, and satisfaction and have come to use sex for more than recreation and satisfying physical needs. I use sex as a healing tool, as a meditation, as a way of life, and as a path to enlightenment.
-- Annie Sprinkle, “Beyond Bisexual”
Taste of Leather: Serpent Mountain Scenes
In the 1980s, when I came out fully and publicly into San Francisco’s leathersex subculture, the major SM social event was the Serpent Mountain Scenes party, co-hosted every two months by my new lover, partner, and Mistress, Sybil Holiday. Sybil was a luminary in the San Francisco SM community of the time: a highly-regarded professional dominant and madam/proprietor of a small house where many of the other best pro-Dommes of that time and place – the most experienced, most sophisticated, most creative, and most adept – hung their shingles.
Like those women, as well as the men who also worked out of her house occasionally, Sybil had a preferred orientation, which, in her case, was pansexual. Within that context, also like her associates, she had a wide and sometimes deep personal experience with more specific orientations. Despite having primarily male partners she was readily accepted in San Francisco’s leatherdyke (lesbian SM) community: she was a founding member of The Outcasts, one of the earliest organized woman-to-woman SM educational and support groups; and twice in its first half-dozen years she was invited to be a judge at the International Ms Leather contest. As she often said, what engaged her was the erotic energy that could be exchanged between or among people. Where channels of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual communication were open, her erotic desire flourished regardless of her partner’s genitalia, sexual orientation, or gender identity; where the channels were closed or obstructed her erotic desire withered. She emphatically preferred wet.
Sybil did not originate the Serpent Mountain Scenes parties, but had taken over their direction from friends and colleagues. Invitations were derived from a closed list of highly experienced SM players Sybil vetted herself, orchestrating the guests so that in combination the party play would make a symphonic tone poem of erotic energies. Very few players at those parties were not, themselves, eminently competent to teach the activities they most preferred and many did so in fact, both in San Francisco and in the wider network of SM communities that was then developing across the land, in person and through their books, magazines, and instructional videos. But because Sybil was looking for “wet” music, she wanted more than just a group of technically proficient individuals who were skilled at SM activities.
In addition to and perhaps more important than knowledge of specific SM skills, Sybil was looking for people who played with energy consciously, knew how to exchange it with others, and how to move it to achieve results. As a consequence, the energy at her parties tended to begin with a casual warm intimacy, and then to build over the course of an evening through a series of crescendos and diminuendos that grew in waves to feel like an upwardly mobile vortex people who attended spoke about as a “cone of power.” Sometimes abetted by the actual sound system music that helped to score the party, that movement frequently arrived at a climax so furiously passionate no one at a Serpent Mountain party could miss it. I was not surprised, at my first Serpent Mountain parties, to find a fairly even mix of heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male people, nor that some members of every group were transgendered; I was not surprised to see a wide array of fetish interests on exhibit, from flagellation and bondage to age and gender play, from body modifications to extreme and sometimes theatrical edge play, from courtly service to overt slavery; nor was I surprised that many people present were more or less bisexual.
What did surprise me was to see women who asserted that they were absolutely lesbian whipping men who asserted they were absolutely gay, absolutely gay men throwing intricate rope harnesses onto absolutely gay women, and people of both sexes with impeccable heterosexual credentials doing scenes with gay same-sex play partners. What surprised me was discovering how little the exchange of erotic energy really had to do with genitals or gender identity. And what surprised me perhaps most of all was discovering how little erotic energy necessarily had to do with what most people probably regard as sex: it did not have to involve genital orgasm, and it did not even have to involve the genitals.
There is a basic vocabulary in the BDSM subculture: a set of terms and concepts that educators and therapists need to understand in order to meaningfully assist clients interested in or involved with these activities. In the previous section I used the terms “SM” and “leathersex” where the current procedural terminology would properly be “BDSM.” As Sybil and I wrote in the Introduction to the revised, second edition of our book, Consensual Sadomasochism,
all the activities now called BDSM were [in the 1970s and ’80s] generally known by the umbrella term of “SM” (or S/M, or S&M) or “leathersex.” Like some other people at the time, we made a conspicuous distinction in our teaching and writing between the physicality of sadism and masochism (SM) and the psychology of dominance and submission (DS); other people especially enjoyed activities they believed were more accurately seen as bondage and discipline (BD). Over time, as the SM community expanded into multiple communities, the single, more encompassing, overlapping letter-conglomerate BDSM emerged as a way to combine all three under a single alphabetic umbrella: BD, DS, SM. (Henkin & Holiday, 2004, p.14)
Top and bottom are terms that make no reference to sex, gender, class, wealth, education, intelligence, professional status, social standing, or any other conventional distinctions. They simply identify the two most usual roles or poles that otherwise equal human beings agree between or among themselves to occupy in DS relationships or play. In somewhat simplistic terms the Top – capitalized in print by long convention – is the person who commands or directs the scene or relationship, who performs the most assertive actions, or who is at least nominally in charge; the bottom is the one who obeys, is acted upon, or toward whom the activity is directed. Long-term, full-time relationships are likely to be founded in DS even though they include SM or BD activities.
When I refer to SM “play” I mean the activities generally regarded as BDSM, and by “players” I mean the people who engage in those activities. A “scene” is a specific BDSM encounter, although “the scene” refers to all the people, activities, organizations, and events that make up the wide BDSM communities. “Age play,” a term Sybil coined, refers to scenes or activities in which one or more persons is treated as if s/he were a considerably different age – usually much younger – than s/he actually is, as “gender play” refers to scenes or activities in which one or more persons is treated as if s/he were a different sex than s/he usually claims or appears to be. “Gender play” occasionally may have to do with genuine transgender identity issues, but more often has to do with role play or, in some circumstances, with a deliberate attempt to embarrass or “humiliate” the cross-dressed or otherwise cross-gendered player for erotic pleasure. “Edge play” usually refers to those activities that push a person’s boundaries, but can also refer to activities that are substantially enough outside the usual realms of even BDSM play to be regarded as extreme within the community itself. Edge play might include the use of knives and other instruments designed to penetrate the body envelope, or the “consensual nonconsent” of terror and interrogation games: some people positively like to be frightened under safe circumstances, as American movies of the past 50 years have shown.
Pain, Pleasure, and the Theater of the Sublime
So much of what takes place under the aegis of BDSM partakes of role play and other aspects of sexual theatre that it is a natural sort of home for people who self-identify as bisexual. Certainly there are people both in and out of the communities who live by their labels as Tops or bottoms or something else, but the more people participate in the deeper realms of BDSM, the less weight most labels carry.
As anyone knows who has had a tattoo, worn a corset, or even gotten an ear pierced for an earring, “body modification” is an experience all on its own, without necessary reference to BDSM. But like bondage, which many people also enjoy without reference to BDSM, body modification may be approached as a BDSM activity as when, for example, a Top restricts a bottom’s freedom of movement by binding her hands, blindfolding her, and dressing her in a high, stiff collar, a very tight corset, and extremely high heeled shoes chained closely together; or when one person who consensually “owns” another marks her property with a piercing, cutting, tattoo, or brand.
The way body modification finds expression in the context of BDSM is shown in the way the larger community has lionized Fakir Musafar, the acknowledged father of the Modern Primitive movement and the man who coined the term “body play,” and further indicates how compatible these activities and communities are with cross-over orientations. When he first appeared at San Francisco’s pansexual BDSM support club, The Society of Janus, Musafar – a man who famously plays with men though married to a woman who, herself, plays with women – was challenged because people did not understand how his activities fit into their world. But over time people came to understand the relationship between his activities and theirs. Consequently, his 1985 film, Dances Sacred and Profane, became an instant fetish classic, and in 1986 ReSearch employed as a title another term Musafar had coined for its book Modern Primitives, and built its text largely around an interview with him. In 1993 the National Leather Association honored him with its Man of the Year Award.
As with gender play, where people assume roles of the complementary sex, so in body modification men frequently wear jewelry and women tattoos. The very fact that some readers of the preceding sentence might not understand why this is remarkable shows how far the movement has penetrated popular American culture. While tattooed women and bejeweled men have long been customary in other societies and in some relatively underground American subcultures, they would have been unimaginable examples of role-reversal for middle-class men or women in this country in 1960; they would have been revolutionary in 1970, radical in 1980, and commonplace in 1990. Without ascribing cause or effect it is worth noting that the emergence of a visible and “out” bisexual middle-class culture also reflects this boundary-blurring temporal pattern.
Bisexuality, Role Fluidity, and BDSM
Language can be tricky in the world of BDSM because we socialized humans are accustomed to speaking in shorthand for convenience, and among our most convenient forms of shorthand are labels. The confusions that follow upon our use of labels are well-known to bisexual people, whose relative attraction to same-sex or complementary-sex pairings may change with available partners, body chemistry, or any number of other variables. These confusions around labeling are among the dilemmas Fritz Klein sought to address by expanding the possibilities inherent, and inherently limiting, in the Kinsey scale.
Bisexuals have a counterpart in the world of BDSM, generally known as “switches.” A switch is someone who enjoys both Topping and bottoming. Some switches, like some bisexuals, happily go in either direction pretty much any time, even with the same partner or in a single scene; others are much more specific, and prefer to Top in circumstances that differ from those in which they like to bottom. For many people in the BDSM communities who are clear about their unitary orientations as Top or bottom, sadist or masochist, dominant or submissive, switches are confusing and even challenging in the same way bisexuals are confusing or challenging for some hetero- and homosexual people.
Labels are misleading in other ways as well, of course. For example, based on simple labeling it is easy to believe that the Top runs the scene, administers sensation, and gives orders, as by tying, whipping, or commanding the bottom. The very fact that some people do switch suggests the fallacy in this sort of belief, because it indicates how it is individuals and not labels that engage in BDSM activities. For many years this kind of assumption led to confusions in the communities themselves, when the terms Top, sadist, and dominant were used interchangeably or were conflated with each other. But I keenly recall a class co-taught by a dominant who enjoyed the feelings of intense sensation and required that her teaching partner, a submissive who enjoyed administering such sensations, beg for permission to pierce the dominant. Since the nominal masochist was in command she was certainly the dominant and hence the Top, while the nominal sadist was clearly the submissive and therefore the bottom. Among other agendas the scene demonstrated the need for clear communication and negotiation in setting up a BDSM scene, whether that scene is intended to provide pleasure for an hour or is an agreement between a Master or Mistress and slave intended, like a marriage, to last a lifetime.
In just this sort of way it is easy to imagine that someone who identifies as heterosexual only plays with people of the complementary sex, or that someone who identifies as homosexual only plays with people of the same sex. It does not always occur, of course, and is not universally accepted; but at least in the more sophisticated communities where BDSM is practiced, it is well established that people may play or love on bases other than genital matches, even when they have a genuine orientation preference. Insofar as it concerns something other than genital satisfaction, BDSM is inherently bisexual.
In order to work effectively with bisexual clients or clients of other identities and orientations, therapists and educators need to have an accurate understanding of the phenomena that draw their clients’ interest and attention. In the next section of this chapter I will discuss three major concepts with which the professional psychotherapist or counselor should be familiar in order to be able to educate clients and respond appropriately to their questions and concerns about BDSM. These concepts are (1) erotic energy exchange; (2) the BDSM community motto, “safe, sane, and consensual,” including the concept of informed consent in the negotiation of BDSM scenes; and (3) the use of “safewords” in BDSM play.
Erotic Energy Exchange
As I mentioned earlier, BDSM activities are not always directed toward genital orgasm, nor even, necessarily, toward genital sexuality. By this claim I do not wish to imply that sex is always or even usually excluded from BDSM, or that the activities that fall under the BDSM aegis are not erotic. Rather, I wish to underscore a different unifying aspect that frequently takes precedence over the genital, oral, anal, or manual versions of genital stimulation and satisfaction that are conventionally called “sex.” That unifying aspect, which may pertain to any and all BDSM behaviors, from flagellation to bondage to piercing to slavery, has often been called erotic energy exchange.
You do not have to have experience with BDSM or even sex to recognize energy as I am using the term. All you have to do is attend a circus, a funeral, a professional sporting event held in a stadium, or a major political party’s nominating convention. At any such event you can feel a spirit of the time and place generated by many, most, or all the people present, and directed toward a generally identifiable end.
You can feel energy of this sort erotically, as when your eyes meet the eyes of someone who is a sexual match for you, though erotic energy is about something more than just the visuals: you may have the same kind of response to a voice or tone of voice, or to a pheromone or other, more obvious, smell. In any case, we don’t all get turned on by someone pretty even if we recognize the person’s good looks, and lovers’ choices frequently and famously baffle their friends.
Like the more common definition of energy in physics, erotic energy may either be about something that is happening or about something that has the potential to happen. Once recognized, therefore, potential erotic energy can be made kinetic: for example, it can be elevated deliberately, which is often the intent of people who take advantage of their charisma, good looks, or powerful positions by seducing acolytes. Famously, it can also be elevated by music, from plaintive love ballads and driving rock ’n’ roll to sultry jazz and a wide range of classical pieces from the progressively compelling force of Ravel’s Bolero to the sensuous pas de deux from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. It can also be lowered deliberately, as anyone knows who has dressed down or played dumb in order to discourage an unwanted lover or suitor.
In “Music from a Bygone Era” Gayle Rubin briefly described this process by considering the selection of music used as a sort of sound track or score to accompany the activities at The Catacombs, San Francisco’s legendary 1970s fisting palace.
Safe, Sane, and Consensual
Since at least the mid-1970s the unofficial motto of the organized BDSM communities has been “Safe, sane, and consensual,” and groups, clubs, events, conferences, and play parties have generally affirmed this credo, sometimes to a fault. The identifiable procedures of safety, consent, and the negotiation they entail tacitly embrace the culturally more ambiguous definitions of sanity and are hallmarks of BDSM activities within those communities, which now are legion. Their practices are among the concerns that distinguish the BDSM of players in these communities from the abuse those activities may resemble and may even be designed to mimic, and whose appearance may, therefore, distress uninformed outsiders. Because I cannot cast my net so wide as to include everyone who does everything, my discussion about safety, negotiation, and consent concerns the common attitudes and approaches of the organized BDSM communities. Certainly many people who do not participate in the communities engage in the same and similar behaviors, some with attention to the sorts of issues that concern the communities and some without such attention to these issues.
By definition, abuse concerns harmful misuse. It is about deliberately treating someone or something badly, unjustly, or corruptly, or even treating the person well against his wishes or will, and it is inherently nonconsensual. If you want to kiss me, caress me, spank me, hit me, whip me, tie me up, call me names, or have any variety sex with me and I say No, your continued attempt to satisfy your desires against my wishes is prima facie evidence of at least attempted abuse. But if you and I have discussed our desires and discovered that I, too, want you to kiss me, caress me, spank me, hit me, whip me, tie me up, call me names, or have any variety sex with me, our encounter is – at least to this point – consensual.
Moreover, if I am aroused by a fantasy of resisting my assailant and finally being overpowered, I might like to scream No! No! No! while you are using me, without for a moment wanting you to stop. In this case we can agree that you will ignore my protests. Before beginning to play we can discuss our desires together and formulate a scene that allows us both to explore, exploit, and fulfill some of our fantasies – whether they are of abduction, seduction, or ego reduction – in order to bring pleasure to us both and harm to no one.
Consent and Negotiation in BDSM Scenes
Players come to agreements such as these through negotiation. In many political and business settings, traditional negotiation is the art of getting as much as you can while giving up as little as possible. But in BDSM, as, ideally, in other forms of lovemaking or noncompetitive mutual play, negotiation is the much more difficult and rewarding art of giving all you can so that you may receive all you can. This sort of negotiation is enabled by at least a modicum of self-awareness, as well as an ability to trust, and implies the possibility of intimacy – which is just what many experienced players claim they seek and can achieve through BDSM activities, sometimes in an extraordinary measure.
Most of the participant literature regarding the BDSM lifestyle has to do with teaching technical skills associated with the physical aspects of play: how to whip, how to bind, how to execute a scene. But some notable exceptions explore or examine the emotional, spiritual, and other psychological dimensions of these activities. Among the best such views are Guy Baldwin’s slavecraft; Masochism: A Jungian View, by Lyn Cowan; The Topping Book and The Bottoming Book, both by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt; To Love, To Obey, To Serve: Diary of an Old Guard Slave, by Viola Johnson; Urban Aboriginals, by Geoff Mains; Partners in Power, by Jack Rinella; and the essays “The Spiritual Dimensions of Bondage,” by Joseph Bean and “One Among Many: The Seduction and Training of a Leatherman,” by Tom Magister, in Leatherfolk edited by Mark Thompson. Some of Michael Rosen’s images in Sexual Magic: The SM Photographs similarly show intimacy through BDSM practices.
In a BDSM negotiation I tell you everything I can think of that I like, want, or need to make the scene or relationship successful for me, as well as what I cannot or will not do: my limits. I also let you know what skills, talents, experiences, and other resources I can bring to our play so that they can be available to us. You, of course, tell me the same things about you. Then we both know enough to decide together how best to play so we both get what we need and as much as possible of what we want, while not doing any of the things either of us would find problematic. As in any other setting, we can distinguish between what we need and what we want by what we find negotiable. Anything without which we will not be able to find satisfaction in our scene or other undertaking – any experience, item, or expression we must have – is not negotiable and hence a need. Everything else, which we can negotiate, is what we want. It is to be hoped that we also know enough about ourselves and each other that we can agree not to play if for any reason we anticipate that one or both of us will end up having a bad time.
In order to negotiate in this manner I must be able to consent, and to consent to anything I must have both the information on which to base my consent, and also the capacity to consent. Real information about BDSM practices used to be extremely hard to come by because they were just behaviors people engaged in privately or on the margins of society. Without intending to make rules about their sex lives, those same people evolved through their own experiences some guidelines that later became codified, which I am describing in this essay.
Until the 1980s nearly all the available literature on the subject was produced by pornographers who earned their livings by appealing to fantasies; psychologists with little or no training in human sexuality who were looking for varieties of human experience outside some abstract norm, which they described as deviant and defined as psychopathology; and journalists looking for sensational stories within the context of their own cultural biases. Beginning with Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook (1972), Gerald and Carolyn Greene’s SM: The Last Taboo (1974), Samois’ Coming to Power (1981), and Geoff Mains’ Urban Aboriginals (1984), however, the shelf of knowledgeable participant literature has burgeoned; by now it includes dozens of well-written and expertly informed volumes on which curious novices or outsiders can rely quite satisfactorily.
Consent is a topic in every one of the relevant participant contributions to the field. Yet, the nature of informed consent is frequently open to question. We assume at least the probability that an ordinary adult has the capacity to become informed – hence the notion of caveat emptor – and so we allow an adult to take responsibility for her own behavior. But we neither can nor do make the same assumption about children, which is one of several obvious reasons children are excluded from BDSM activities. Children are not generally competent to consent psychologically, and even when they mature as late teens so that they might be competent to consent psychologically, minors are never competent to consent in the eyes of the law. The same holds true, as it does elsewhere in our society, for people who are asleep; under the influence of medications, alcohol, or other drugs; or are mentally incapacitated. Consent is only consent when it is informed consent; uninformed consent may very well be or lead to circumstances of abuse.
Use of Safewords in BDSM
Most people in the BDSM communities are greatly concerned to distinguish between their preferred erotic behaviors and abuse. To this end, one long-standing strategy is the use of “safewords” to provide readily communicable guidelines for individuals who unexpectedly feel out of their depth in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable scene, as well as to accommodate players who enjoy resistance, interrogation, or other consensual nonconsensual play such as cop/prisoner scenarios.
Back in 1972, in the original Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort recommended neutral safewords such as “pickle” and “radish,” but real players in real scenes either forgot those words in the heat of passion because they were meaningless, or found them too silly to adopt. Although variations still abound, the safewords most frequently in use have turned out to be the common colors of traffic signals: green for “go,” yellow for “caution” or “slow down,” and red for “stop immediately.” In a party and other public situations, many communities have adopted the articulated word “safeword” as a sign that non-violent outside intervention is required for a scene that has gotten out of control. No knowledgeable or experienced player would ignore another player’s safeword, and because the communities tend to be self-policing, players who fail to honor safewords are usually identified quickly.
The danger that some innocent outside observer might well misinterpret behavior that looks like abuse is one reason most BDSM takes place indoors, or in outdoor settings so secluded or protected as to be considered outdoor “rooms.” Containing play also ensures that “civilians” or “vanilla” folk – people who do not participate in BDSM activities – will not be exposed to BDSM play nonconsensually. All the attention players give to negotiation and consent makes it more likely that their play will be safe, but safety can no more be guaranteed in BDSM’s theatrical erotics than it can be guaranteed in skiing, eating, or driving to work. My informal conversations with physicians suggest that any one of those conventional activities result in more injuries, fatalities, and emergency room admissions every year than all negotiated, consensual BDSM activities combined.
Mental Health Issues and BDSM
There is enormous value to the normalization of alternate sexualities because when seen by the light of reason almost all turn out to be harmless, both to those individuals who practice them and to the society in which they live. Whether the activities are expressions of unusual creativity, symptoms of deep-seated emotional disturbance, or simply ways of being sexual, has never been shown; and what little has been shown indicates that the profiles of people who engage in BDSM activities differ in no significant way from the profiles of people who do not, just as individuals cannot be distinguished on the basis of sexual orientation (Moser, 1979; Baumeister, 1989).
At the same time, while the increasing normalization of BDSM has made its practices and practitioners appear less threatening than they used to seem to the general population, it has also lowered the bar for people who want to enter its communities or lifestyles. As BDSM has appeared in more and more “vanilla”* households, not only has the most
visible BDSM become tamer, but BDSM players as a group have become less knowledgeable. Where the wider acceptance of BDSM seems to be a good thing overall, it is not without concern, simply because BDSM is an unusually sophisticated form of sexuality: for a BDSM encounter some communication is necessary lest a Top who likes to whip be paired with a bottom who likes to serve tea, and because some BDSM activities can be dangerous when practiced by people who do not know the ropes.
The internet is both part of the blessing and part of the curse. People who are curious can learn a great deal on the net if they know where to go and how to read the websites they find. At the same time, many self-proclaimed Masters who say they have huge stables of devoted slaves have never actually played, exercised erotic command with a live consensual partner, or even held a whip: they can talk the talk, but have no idea how to walk the walk. Similarly, many self-proclaimed slaves have not yet distinguished between the extreme scenes of possession they use as masturbatory fantasy material, and the genuine pain that can accompany even a simple spanking, or the discomfort they may feel relinquishing control over important facets of their lives. Outside a small, tight-knit community such as the one that used to attend Serpent Mountain parties, there can be no reliable oversight. Consequently, genuinely dangerous people may sometimes find their ways into the confidences of people who trust too readily, and harmful activity can ensue. Sometimes well-intentioned but ignorant people are too easily seduced by the words of a bold come-on, and bad experiences follow.
Surely too, even where the ideal prevails in the real world of BDSM, it fails occasionally, as ideals also fail from time to time in political parties, academic institutions, or psychotherapeutic guilds. Even experienced players are sometimes swept away by passion, and neglect or overstep some bounds; even the most careful player misunderstands a communication now and then. Whether through a failure of ideals or a failure of the system, unintended consequences sometimes befall players; and some of them show up at the doors of psychotherapists.
Differentiating Psychopathology from Consensual Erotic Power Exchange
For some people under some circumstances the suffering of the victim is certainly arousing, and in the absence of consent or in the presence of identifiable harm that arousal indicates a concern to be addressed. But when the Top’s arousal derives from the bottom’s suffering in consensual erotic power exchange, it may have a deeper meaning. The arousal may be associated, for instance, with the trust the bottom offers the Top by making himself extraordinarily vulnerable; the willingness of the Top not to abuse that trust by exercising skill, restraint, and compassion to contain the scene and assure the safety of the bottom; and the intimacy the players can share by venturing into areas that are highly charged erotically in part because they could be dangerous or at least unpleasant in other, unsafe hands. In similar conditions of trust with much more palpable possibilities of harm we would not offer up diagnoses for trapeze artists or tandem sky-divers who literally place their lives in one another’s hands, however much we viewed their acts with trepidation, nor would we diagnose a pathology in devotées of tantric yoga who work for years to achieve the energy movements people sometimes learn to accomplish in a few hours of expertly choreographed flagellation.
The justification for diagnosing consensual sexual acts, urges, and even fantasies as mental disorders closely resembles the justification by which moral judgments used to be rendered in psychiatric terms that marked homosexuality – and, by extension, bisexuality – as a psychiatric disorder. And as it was with that now‑liberated trait, which may yet turn out to be genetic or biochemical rather than a purely psychological predisposition, the psychiatric judgment itself creates a social justification for intolerance and prejudice that may provoke, among people who engage in erotic power exchange: guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, and other iatrogenic disturbances that are not otherwise significantly inherent in their personalities.
In other words, by pathologizing consensual erotic power exchange as if its activities were nonconsensual and uninformed, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2000) has created a class of disorders out of traits that do not otherwise meet clinical criteria for any disorder: that do not impinge upon the rights of others, and that neither impair people’s functioning nor cause them distress. Apart from the DSM’s historical encounter with homosexuality, the closest parallels our society offers to this sort of confusing evaluation exist in the imposition of morality onto law, which has created whole categories of victimless crime, and of those religions that have invented harmless sin.
Paraphilic activities, like personality traits, are psychologically meaningless by themselves; it is individuals who imbue them with significance. Given the historical and current diagnostic criteria, it is little wonder that many psychotherapists confuse the clinical disorders of sexual sadism and sexual masochism with the give and take of intense mental focus or physical sensation that marks much erotic power exchange. But this confusion can be ameliorated by redefining as disorders only those paraphilic behaviors that cause either significant functional impairment or subjective distress, and recognizing as traits or preferences those that are victimless, harmless erotic expressions.
Such a redefinition is important beyond the specialized world of psychological or sexological diagnosis because lay people may readily accept professional assertions that a non-standard behavior is pathologically deviant without considering why or to what extent the definition of deviance itself is created by a committee of psychiatrists, or to what extent deviance is simply socially defined. In a society where sex education is as famously lax as it is in the United States, for example, erotic behaviors may be regarded as deviant simply because they are socially or culturally misunderstood, rather than because they are signs of psychological disorder.
There is a real difference between pathological behavior that is physically dangerous, psychologically debilitating, and interpersonally non‑consensual on the one hand, and non‑pathological behavior that is physically safe, psychologically uplifting, and interpersonally consensual on the other. Absent distress, harm, or functional impairment, to define such activity as a mental disorder is to place chains on the human spirit, and to produce a chilling effect on the very processes we as psychotherapists are trained and charged to abet: the healing and liberation of damaged and imprisoned personalities, and their integration in the full creative expression of human beings.
Suggestions for Counselors and Therapists
For counselors and therapists seeking to serve bisexual clients, familiarity with the BDSM subculture is important if for no other reason than that once a person begins to examine the nature of her own sexuality – as actively bisexual people virtually must have done in order to recognize the ways their desires differ from those of hetero- and homosexual people – she is likely at least to consider the nature of erotic power dynamics. To a large extent, contemporary BDSM communities are just part of the wider world and not the special places on the margins of society that they were a couple of decades ago. In many BDSM communities, heterosexuals, gay men, and lesbians do not treat bisexual people any differently than bisexual people are treated anywhere else: with ambivalence, uncertainty, apprehension, and derision. In other regards, however, the present-day BDSM communities evolved from a rich base of acceptance and enthusiastic experimentation with sex and erotic energy that can still allow for something more than tolerance in interpersonal relationships. Some communities even pride themselves on celebrating diversity, including diversity of both sexual orientation and gender identity.
Therapists who already understand bisexuality have a great advantage relative to most other professionals in the field when dealing with BDSM because they are familiar with the impact of an inappropriately pathologizing label on otherwise ordinary people. Yet, that awareness carries with it a kind of moral imperative to broaden the base of education. For the time being, given that the DSM continues to misrepresent BDSM behaviors as disorders, therapists can serve their clients, bisexual and otherwise, who have an interest in consensual erotic power exchange by getting some education of their own about human sexuality in general and the paraphilias such as sadomasochism in particular. The following are some key recommendations for counselors seeking to serve this population.
First, it is important that we seek education on alternative sexual practices from people who have hands-on experience with and knowledge of BDSM practices and communities, as well as from researchers whose hands may be too clean to be informed. We may learn that things are not as we have been led to believe they seem. This is what happened for Stoller, who regarded consensual sadomasochism as a sexual psychopathology in his early writings, and changed his mind when he took the trouble to educate himself. Certainly too, there is nothing different in educating ourselves about BDSM than there is in educating ourselves about bisexuality. And just as certainly, bisexual people may experience the same sorts of misunderstandings in the current BDSM communities that they experience in the more strictly vanilla world.
Second, as we did or would do concerning bisexuality, we can spend enough time in our own therapies and consultations to become conversant with our countertransference issues concerning sex and power dynamics. In that way we will reduce the chances that we will make hasty, rash, ill-informed judgments about what other people like to do.
Third, if someone consults with us to work on feelings of anxiety or depression, or because of a communication difficulty at home or at work, and he turns out to be involved with BDSM, we can proceed without assuming that the person’s sexual lifestyle is the “real” problem any more than we would assume her bisexuality to be a problem in the same situation. That way we can avoid trying to fix what isn’t broken, and seek instead to address the problems that distress our clients.
Fourth, we can proceed without expecting our clients to pay for the privilege of educating us about what they like to do in bed or in the playroom or dungeon. If we need to know about BDSM in order to interact fruitfully with a client we can do what we would do if the client was involved with anything else we didn’t understand: we can read, take classes, or get consultations, or we can refer our client out. If we want to work with people living sexually alternative lifestyles but have difficulty talking with them, whether they are bi, BDSM players, or anything else, we can learn. Charles Moser’s easy-to-read reference book Health Care without Shame should be on the shelf of every health care professional anyway.
Fifth, in the realm of paraphilias and elsewhere, we can become more proactive in educating others, including those authorities charged with formulating our diagnostic criteria for future editions of the DSM.
Sixth, we can proceed with harm reduction in mind. To that end I will next introduce the PLISSIT Model. I have found this model useful when working with clients around issues of alternative sexuality.
Applying the PLISSIT Model to Assisting Clients with BDSM Interests*
In the event that a client really does want to address her concerns about BDSM or some other form of erotic power play, we can proceed with a harm reduction intervention such as the PLISSIT model developed by Jack Annon. In its very structure, PLISSIT recognizes that not every person coming in my door wants the same thing, and asserts that most people want less rather than more – and few want all – of what is available through the psychotherapeutic process.
The first thing nearly every client wants from me is Permission to be him- or herself. I don’t mean he has not wrestled with and even resolved this matter – maybe he has and maybe he hasn’t – but that he needs permission to be himself in my life, in my space, and in any process we are going to share. In this regard permission is similar to Rogerian unconditional positive regard, or something related to empathy. Permission does not
mean encouragement any more than it means discouragement; it neither applauds nor condemns; it simply accepts: permission is acceptance without anything added or taken away.
Most clients who feel accepted – who have permission to be themselves with me – next want some forms of Limited Information. One person may want information about her process, another may want information about resources, a third may want information about my training and background. But at this point the underlying quest is more likely for information about where we two might meet, where we might go together as client and therapist, and how we might go there. Often the information is requested and provided implicitly, underneath the conversation that might be transcribed from a tape recording of what we seem to say; frequently the client does not articulate what she is trying to find out. Yet, if I fail to read the underlying questions, our alliance will likely be short-lived. The client who asks me for resources can surely find them elsewhere, and may chiefly want only to know, for instance, if I have the depth of knowledge that is relevant that knowing about those resources attests. The client who asks about my training may be confirming or questioning feelings of permission, or testing my boundaries. The client who asks about my process may want a model she might adapt personally.
When my client is satisfied that we can build an alliance – and when I am similarly satisfied – he may want Specific Suggestions about what to do next. Asking for such suggestions, whether overtly or tacitly, does not imply he doesn’t know already. It may mean he is asking me to demonstrate the way I work: to show how we can work together.
Whether she and I will ever do Intensive Therapy together, which may or may not be what she came to see me for, we will certainly not do it unless we reach this point. For many clients this is the point at which I become something different than a good parent, a source of referral information, a counselor, a fount of knowledge or advice, an ear, or a paid friend. This is the point at which I become – if I am going to become one at all with a particular client – a psychotherapist.
Return to Serpent Mountain
Organizing erotic energy is what Sybil Holiday sought to do at the Serpent Mountain parties, and she made a kind of music with it. It was essential to such delicate orchestration of human interactions that everyone present have at least some general idea what she was about so they would feel consulted rather than manipulated, and so they could direct their attentions to the parties’ common ends as well as to their individual goals. It was equally important that people who attended these parties be able to negotiate their general needs and desires with Sybil and their specific needs and desires with their play partners, so they could give or withhold consent concerning activities in which they might be asked to participate. And while it was never important that an individual play across orientation lines, it was certainly taken for granted that no one at a Serpent Mountain party was so rigid in his gender roles that he would be upset or even surprised to find such play taking place. In the same way that players understood that men or women could equally well be Tops or bottoms, this sort of assumption could not have obtained unless the communities were functionally bisexual, and often led to individuals and groups self-identifying their tastes even more globally, as Sybil did, as “pansexual.”
Although bisexuality was just one area of knowledge people at the Serpent Mountain parties could assume, Serpent Mountain is gone, and the era of élite SM, when anyone who wanted to play almost had to know the ropes in order to find a willing partner, prevails no longer. When Sybil, her colleagues, and their predecessors were running the Serpent Mountain parties in the 1980s, only three or four leather community activities were available in any given month in San Francisco. By 2004, again quoting the Introduction to the revised edition of Sybil’s and my book,
combining the list of SM activities posted under “Directory” at the primarily gay Leather Journal www.theleatherjournal.com/ with the list of the het/pansexual BDSM – find the local scene near YOU! www.darkheart.com/sceneusa.html yields more than 800 active BDSM groups in the United States, ranging from small local meetings to major conventions like Black Rose and Thunder in the Mountains to the annual Leather Leadership Conference. There is no major, secondary, or tertiary urban area in the country where you can’t whip, get whipped, learn to whip, analyze whips and whipping, buy a whip, make a whip, or watch a whipping at a public forum almost any night you want.
It is never my job to decide how my client should live his or her life, of course, but it is always my job to help a person come to his or her own choices. In doing so, it sometimes helps to remember that the paraphilias are not necessarily or exclusively psychological or even sociological expressions. Just as recent research suggests that sexual orientation and gender identities may be consequences of genetics or other biological factors, so also may there be natural predispositions for other sexual tastes. And even if such questions always and only arise because of biological factors, there is a great deal of understanding and healing people need in order to live in satisfactory, satisfying, and fulfilling ways, that begins with simple acceptance. In the course of this work it is usually helpful and often essential to have a knowledgeable and compassionate witness who can facilitate the process. And that, I think, is exactly what I am there for.
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