Some Beneficial Aspects of Exploring Personas and Role Play in the BDSM Context

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Some Beneficial Aspects of Exploring Personas and Role Play in the BDSM Context


by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.


copyright (c) 2006, 2008 by William A. Henkin



{“Some Beneficial Aspects...” was published originally in Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism, edited by Darren Langdridge and Meg Barker, published by Palgrave Macmillan (Hampshire [UK] and New York, 2007). This essay is taken from the author's original manuscript, has not been edited, and is reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. The definitive version of this piece may be found in Safe, Sane and Consensual, edited by Dr Darren Langdridge and Dr Meg Barker which can be purchased from An earlier version of this paper was the basis for a presentation at a conference of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), San Francisco, California, 4 February 2006. In that presentation I was joined by Sybil Holiday, CCHT, who did not participate in writing this paper, but who contributed substantially to its development; whose remarks form part of its narrative; and whose efforts I am grateful to acknowledge. My thanks also to Susanna Bonetti of the Psychoanalytic Institute of San Francisco for her valuable research assistance.}



The self divided is precisely where the self is authentically located…. Authenticity is the perpetual dismemberment of being and not-being a self, a being that is always in many parts, like a dream with a full cast. We all have identity crises because a single identity is a delusion of the monotheistic mind….We all have dispersed consciousness through all our body parts…. Authenticity is in the illusion, playing it, seeing through it from within as we play it, like an actor who sees through his mask and can only see in this way.


– James Hillman, ‘The Fiction of Case History,’ Healing Fiction, p. 39.



Whereas mechanical acting makes use of worked-out stencils to replace real feelings, over-acting takes the first general human conventions that come along and uses them without even sharpening or preparing them for the stage.... never allow yourself externally to portray anything that you have not inwardly experienced and which is not even interesting to you.


                        – Constantin Stanislavski, ‘Action,’ An Actor Prepares, p. 36




The activities that fall under the heading of BDSM are not new in history, nor are they new in the lexicon of psychology. But for most of the years psychodynamic theory has held sway, and in the absence of any significant research to support or contradict the position, they have been regarded by mental health professionals as developmental psychopathologies (e.g. Stekel, 1963, 1964 [1929]), even when they neither cause participants distress nor interfere with their healthy functioning in other areas (American Psychiatric Association 2000, 1994, 1987, 1980, 1968).

I will begin this paper by defining three terms relevant to the concept of role play and personas in a BDSM context. Thereafter I will offer two perspectives concerning the development of personas, suggest why personas might be important aspects of BDSM that can lead participants to personal growth and related benefits, and conclude with some discussion about the risks, as well as the rewards, of BDSM role play.


Three salient definitions


Role, persona, and archetype


As I use the term, a role is a part or a character, like Femme Fatale, Awkward Schoolboy, Prom Queen, or Tough Guy, that a person tries on as he might try on a suit of clothes. It might fit, or it might not. It does not fit if it has no resonance for the actor: it feels either wholly external or simply wrong. A person might be able to fake the part, as he might wear unsuitable or ill-fitting clothes, but it fails to engage the actor who is, therefore, unlikely to choose it again. If a part does fit, on the other hand, the actor feels as if he might actually live this character’s life. Such comfort in a fit suggests the role is something more: it might be a persona.

A persona, as I use the term, is not a role adopted from outside images and worn like a suit of clothes, but is rather a state of mind or a single facet of someone’s personality expressed as a whole, if limited, personality: a full expression of an ego fragment, for example, that emanates from a person’s authentic experience. Some psychologists use the term subpersonality to identify a persona (e.g. Rowan, 1990).

Whether personas are innate features of our deep selves (Assagioli, 1965) or spring from historical areas of unresolved emotional trauma (Herman, 1992) they coalesce around what Jung called archetypes: the general and universal forms of which many personas are our particular expressions (Jung, 1964). Sometimes a role is archetypal in itself. The Wicked Stepmother is a classically archetypal role, for example, and her behavior in fairy tales, such as thwarting her equally archetypal Innocent Daughter, is an archetypal fantasy (e.g., Woodman, 1985). But the fact that a role is archetypal does not mean it fits my archetype: the Heroic Prince may fit me better than either Mother or Daughter. As we can discover our own personas from the roles we adopt to fulfill our fantasies and the comfort with which they fit us, so we can learn about our archetypes – and about who we are – from the personas that emerge in our personal explorations.

From Civil War re-enactments to conventions of the Society for Creative Anachronism to costumed teens at cult movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, people in many subcultures and interest groups negotiate parts for role play in order to act out mutually enjoyable fantasies. The most significant difference between those sorts of play-acting and the sexual theatre of BDSM is that in BDSM people generally act out ideas about power dynamics they find erotic.



How exploring roles in a BDSM context can be beneficial


Acting out a fantasy with one or more consenting partners can be a useful way for people to encounter those of their own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors they might ordinarily keep hidden, even from themselves. In this way all sorts of theatre games can be windows through which people may come to know themselves (Moreno, 1943, 1959, 1969; Perls, 1969; Blatner and Blatner, 1988).

Even the act of negotiating a BDSM scene may be beneficial. Considering how I will perform a role and learning to draw on aspects of myself to fulfill parts that might otherwise be mere play-acting (Blatner, 2006) can help shed light on who I am both alone and in relationship. For example, in DS role play, negotiation can help to separate someone who believes himself to be submissive from someone who is actually a bottom, or from someone who wishes to be a pet, or from the good boy or girl who deeply wants to please. Being a bottom or a good girl may look like submission, but it is not. The good girl’s agenda is to be perceived as being good so she can reap the relevant rewards; the pet’s agenda is to be prized and pampered, which is reward in itself; and the bottom’s agenda is to have her own needs met; but the submissive’s agenda is to fulfill the Dominant’s agenda. The corollary, of course, is to distinguish among Dominant, Top, sadist, Master or Mistress, and someone who just wants his way and gets it by being bossy or domineering.

Clinical experience confirms that when a person fantasizes by himself the process tends to be circular: the fantasy goes around and around in his mind, and with no feedback or new information from outside his loop he remains stuck in his repetitions. The fantasy may please the fantasizer over many months or years, but where there is no process, neither psychological progress nor growth is likely. When the person brings the fantasy into real time and explores it with another person, however, the interaction can open some doors of perception (e.g., Berne, 1961; Assagioli, 1965).



            How people learn about their personas


We cannot know if the seeds of our personas exist in our natural personalities as infants, but we can observe two ways they develop: through natural evolution and through conscious creation.


                        Natural evolution


In the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud (1963 [1913], p. 339) likened the process of human development to an early nomadic tribe that moves from one place of domicile to another. ‘[W]e may be certain,’ he wrote,


that the whole of them did not arrive at the new location. Apart from other losses, it must regularly have happened that small groups or bands of the migrants halted on the way and settled at these stopping-places while the main body went further.



From his researches as a neurologist he found evidence to support his hypothesis that this kind of ‘lagging behind at an earlier stage’ occurs throughout nature in individuals and species alike; he defined it in human development ‘as a fixation … of the instinct’ (Freud, 1963 [1913], p. 340).

Whether or not we think in terms of fixation, psychodynamic understandings of personality from psychoanalysis to object relations to trauma theory proceed in the belief that the child is father to the man or mother to the woman: that the way the child learns to behave, so the adult will behave in fact; and generations of clinicians of various theoretical orientations have concurred that what we learn as children affects, influences, shapes, and determines the adults we become in ways that start so early, root so deeply, and persist so thoroughly in our habits, personalities, and ways of living that we never even start to realize we weren’t just born that way (e.g., Freud, 1963 [1913]; Winnicott, 1945; Klein, 1952; Kernberg, 1966; Kohut, 1985; Herman, 1992; Ross, 1994).

Some events that shape us are unremarkable; others we experience traumatically, whether we define the event as bad (e.g., being mugged) or good (e.g., winning a substantial prize), because they contain more input than we can process as they occur in real time. While we are liable to remember some traumas, we may forget others; and as Ian Hacking observes, it was Freud who ‘made us all aware of how forgotten trauma could act upon us’ (Hacking, 1996, p. 77).

Real-time events may re-engage or ‘trigger’ traumas that are unresolved (Miller, 1984 [1981];  American Psychiatric Association, 2000), some of which we can identify through body memory (Feldenkrais, 1977; Johnson, 1977; Rolf, 1977). For example, if as a child I behaved in some way for which I was shamed by my parental figure, and if I was unable to process my feelings of shame so they persisted, then when I feel a similar sort of shame about any other form of embarrassment many years later, I might feel an echo of the same embarrassed flush to my cheek, the same tightening in my gut, the same clenching of my jaws and sphincters, that I felt at or in reaction to the original shaming; but once I become aware of the connection I can begin to distinguish my adult, present-time feelings from my unresolved historical reaction to the event (Lowen, 1958). It is a cornerstone of psychodynamic theory that resolving the early trauma is a precondition to resolving later feelings (e.g., Miller, 1981 [1979]).

A principal benefit of BDSM role play is that it can enable people to become aware of such incidents simply by pursuing their erotic interests. The introspection that ideally precedes negotiation, the negotiation itself, and the actual play that follows, can all enhance self-awareness because each step encourages players to pay attention to what they want and, if they will, to the reasons or impulses beneath their desires. Examining those reasons leaves people freer to choose and less liable to simply do what they have always done without reflection. When the lover of a well-known therapist and writer on the subject of alternate sexualities noted that she knew her fantasies had ‘dirty roots’ the author asked, ‘how else would you grow roses?’ (Easton and Liszt, 1994, p. 89).


                        Conscious Creation


Under another name, Sybil Holiday, now a clinical hypnotherapist, was a famous burlesque artist from 1968 until 1980; her many acts expressed such archetypal images as a hippie flower child, an SM dominatrix, and a 1950s burlesque queen. During the 1980s and ’90s she was a well-known professional dominatrix and teacher in San Francisco’s leather community. She had performed many roles in the theatre, and was already aware of an erotically dominant persona in private life. Yet, working as a pro-domme challenged her to play intimately with someone with whom she had talked by phone for only half an hour and had never met, and who walked in the door five minutes before they were supposed to be erotic together. She concluded she needed a separate dominant persona for her professional life – and so she created one.

There were many activities the professional Mistress Cybelle enjoyed in which Sybil took no interest. Sybil found bondage boring, for instance, but Cybelle found satisfaction in taking people on intricate bondage journeys. The longer Cybelle plied her trade the more particular Sybil became, distinguishing what she liked from what she was willing to do professionally, and each aspect lived by her own boundaries. Mistress Cybelle was not an evolution, then, but rather was Sybil’s conscious, deliberately developed creation.

Even before creating Cybelle, Sybil discovered she was good at being a nurturing erotic Mommy. Then, as she reports,


inner Mommy evolved into Mommy Sybil; and as Mommy Sybil started to evolve, my Inner Child began to find it safe enough to come out as well; so by creating one part I made it safer for other parts to speak up. When I discovered I had an Inner Mommy I also discovered how to create a persona (Holiday, 2006).





To become a whole, integrated human being, it helps to be intimately familiar with our own personas. We can become co-conscious when we explore ourselves through real-time play.

The term ‘co-conscious’ was coined by Morton Prince, one of the first researchers into multiple personalities in the United States (Prince, 1906). By now, a century later, its use refers not only to a process in resolving Dissociative Identity Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), but also to any simultaneous awareness of the multiple moods, states of mind, complexes, or personas embodied in a single life, and even in a single moment. An experience of co-consciousness makes it very clear, for example, that even when an inner child is frightened, an inner adolescent may be angry, one inner grown-up may be concerned, and another may be protective, all sort of stacked up simultaneously in the same psychic space. Once a person is aware of living through a co-conscious moment it is never quite as easy as it was before to identify completely with just one of state of mind (Hillman, 1983), so this simultaneous awareness makes it easier for an individual to choose a mode of being at any given moment, regardless of the conditions she passes through. In this fashion, co-consciousness is also useful for identifying and choosing role-playing parts in BDSM encounters.



            The risks of role play


I have proposed that there are rewards available in exploring personas and role play in the BDSM context, and that chief among these rewards is enhanced self-awareness. Certainly, however, role play cannot guarantee psychological safety any more than do other methods of seeking self-awareness. But greater knowledge does permit a person to minimize the risks entailed, whether those risks are encountered in person or less directly, as on the telephone or on the web.


                        In person


One kind of risk, which I call ‘doing therapy in the dungeon’ (Henkin and Holiday, 2003 [1996], pp. 103-108), usually involves a Dominant or other Top trying to ‘fix’ some real or imagined failing in a submissive or other bottom; sometimes the sub tries to fix the Top, and occasionally either party might try to fix her- or himself.

In basic SM courses, experienced players often talk to novices about negotiating everything, from age play to water sports. But in more advanced courses experienced players generally acknowledge that such extreme negotiation may often talk the fun right out of the play. While politically correct, a clear, complete negotiation can eliminate the risk of edges in favor of safety. Yet, whether bringing someone to a party in a collar and on a leash or addressing a player’s fear of knives, a great deal of BDSM not only represents play at someone’s edge but is actually about the edge: A can tell B to get her cup of coffee and B can obey, but because they have produced no tension, they have also produced no excitement. Telling B to fetch the coffee under various forms of consensual and erotic physical or psychological duress makes the effort a very different task. Since playing at some edge is part of what makes BDSM exciting, it is inconceivable for experienced players to imagine that this sort of risk will not occur from time to time – usually deliberately and willingly, and sometimes successfully. But the risks must be acknowledged.

One risk players encounter involves someone – usually but not always the bottom – going or being taken beyond his limits, and perhaps not even knowing there was a limit to go beyond. In such a situation a young persona, or ‘inner child,’ may be elicited, simply because going past one’s limits is generally stressful and all people are liable to regress emotionally under stress. Since greater stress implies at least the possibility of greater regression, a player may experience himself as exceptionally vulnerable or fragile under those kinds of circumstances.

It may appear that addressing deep-seated traumas can be readily accomplished in scene because BDSM play is designed to be intense, and intensity can be both extremely cathartic and extremely intimate. But catharsis is more likely the beginning than the end of trauma resolution, which makes the risk more potent. Even a trained, experienced psychotherapist can never really be neutral in her feelings and thoughts about someone she has played with; she can never be available to someone on the regular sort of schedule a therapist must be to her clients; she will never be able to do without some sort of emotional reciprocation from a lover or play partner, as she will and must where a client is concerned; she will never have no vested interest in her love or play relationships, as she must have with her clients; nor, finally, does her profession have a place in her play time.

Certainly people can learn about themselves in BDSM play, which is the thrust of this paper. But the general purpose of BDSM play is to take erotic pleasure in a particularly intense form of intimacy, while the purpose of psychotherapy is to discover, explore, examine, resolve, and heal trauma, as well as to learn about and develop oneself as a person. While some people find pleasure being in therapy, it is a very different kind of pleasure than is available in BDSM. Most accomplished Tops will be able to bring most accomplished bottoms to a point of catharsis, but none I have ever known has been ready, willing, or able to devote the requisite hours, months, or years to work through the catharsis he has engendered.

Since there are risks and dangers inherent in some forms of BDSM play, it is imperative that players be aware how scenes can go awry and be as prepared as possible for emergencies. To that end it is very useful to read the community books that cover these topics in some detail (e.g., Jacques, 1993; Wiseman, 1993; Henkin and Holiday, 2003 [1996]; Moser, 2006 [1999]); to know basic first aid and CPR through courses sanctioned by organizations like the Red Cross; to know other experienced players they might be able to call on for advice, assistance, and/or support; to know community resources such as local BDSM organizations and the Kink Aware Professionals list (KAP) at If a player has a therapist it is useful to know how to reach her or him and be willing to make the call, even if only to leave an alert message for later response. And, of course, for true emergencies players must know how to reach their local police, fire, and hospital emergency rooms.

In the event these resources are needed there is neither any point nor any value in permitting fear or embarrassment to stop the call: the organizations exist to serve the whole population, not just the vanilla world, and it might surprise both players and non-players to learn how many of their public servants are players too. Besides, almost no one trained to deal with serious emergencies has not already seen a greater variety of embarrassing problems than are ever liable to crop up in a scene.


                        Online and on the phone


Different sorts of risks are associated with playing online, in chat rooms, or over the telephone than are associated with playing in person. It is difficult to ‘fix’ much in cyberspace, and the impossibility of presence and follow-through are apparent to anyone who wishes to avoid them. Nonetheless, people can talk on the phone when they cannot meet in person, and the internet has proved a great boon to the diffusion of BDSM knowledge, allowing people who otherwise would not even have known where to turn for information and play partners to find both, to discuss methods of play, learn about safety issues, post their profiles, and respond to those of others. And just as ignorance is the enemy of awareness, so knowledge is its ally.

For better and for worse the net is not vetted, however, and there is no way to verify much of the information disseminated there. It is important for novices to avoid – or at least not to get hooked by – the legions of porn sites that also advertise BDSM opportunities until they know what they’re really looking for. After all, while anonymous role-play can provide a vast window for exciting fantasies, no one can be sure that the person in the chat room who claims to be the Great Master Oz with a stable of 49 slaves has ever even seen a real whip or collared a real submissive. It is not even possible to know that Esteemed Mistress Whosis is female, or that pretty barely legal submissive sally isn’t a someone very different from the persona she presents, whose online role play may be neither honest nor consensual. The uncertainty that is built into this kind of activity on the web can be eased as the novice player becomes more sophisticated and adept. Sites such as those associated with established organizations like the Society of Janus ( or The Eulenspiegel Society ( are generally reliable, contain useful information, and have links to other valuable sites.





As people in theatre have long known, and as drama therapists have described extensively, role play is one way to learn about who we are. Even in role play, however, it has often been difficult to explore sexuality in our journeys toward wholeness because sex is poorly understood in our society both by the general public and by psychological professionals.* As a result, sexual expression is frequently suspect, and often gives rise to fear of and anger toward individuals who talk about it, write about it, or otherwise represent it in any but legal, moral, or academically restrained clinical terms.

Yet, where circumstances dictate that even a modicum of awareness be paid to the nature of a sexually charged performance, as is exemplified in BDSM role play, an individual may discover aspects of herself that are deeply and personally meaningful as personas. And among those personas some that are archetypal can be transformative and even critical to the development of a whole, integrated self, with all parts present, accounted for, and fully accountable as only a complete human being can be.


* Only one course in human sexuality is required to become a licensed psychotherapist in the State of California, for example.






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