The intersection of kink and trauma, especially sexual trauma, is a source of perpetual angst and controversy, both within and outside of kink communities. This is, in part, because of how sexual sadism and masochism were viewed by many a mental health professional since Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis. Anecdotally, I know of many kink identified folk whose therapists assumed that their kink was the result of some deep seeded childhood trauma. This is not necessarily the case, and a number of new studies are debunking the myth that kink and psychological distress are directly linked.

However, given the overwhelming prevalence of sexual trauma in the general population, paired with the growing interest and general cultural awareness of kink, it is inevitable that people with trauma histories (of both the "big" T and "little" t variety) will be drawn to BDSM. I've seen many survivors grapple with layers of shame and stigma when they engage in kinky play and sexualized power dynamics. If the play they engage in resembles what happened to them in the past, there is often an automatic assumption that what they are doing is unhealthy or potentially re-traumatizing.

Now, there is no denying that kinky play can sometimes be an unhealthy rehashing of abusive dynamics, leaving the survivor triggered and psychically shredded. Reenactment, especially of the unconscious and self destructive variety, is extremely common among trauma survivors of all stripes. It's no wonder, then, that so many survivors struggle with self injury and addiction. In that light, it's also reasonable for an outside observer to assume that a survivor's interest in kink, which can have the outside trappings of unsanctioned violence, is an unhealthy expression of unexamined trauma.

In certain circumstances, however, the constructs of kink can actually be healing, given the right context and container. Revisiting past abuse through a scene sometimes allows a survivor to face her trauma in a space where she has control over what happens and how the scene ends. Some people have therefore found more healing through transformative play than they have through years of therapy.

Once you understand the mechanics of trauma and trauma therapy, this phenomenon isn't actually all that surprising.

Why is this the case?

There are a number of different methodologies for the treatment of trauma in mental health. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) laid out guidelines for best practices in trauma treatment a few years ago. They identify three basic phases of just about any trauma work. Stage 1 involves establishing both physical and emotional safety. No work can begin when someone is still in crisis. This is also the phase where the client and therapist build a working relationship, and the client learns some basic self regulation skills. Clients are encouraged to learn mindfulness, basic body awareness, and techniques for self soothing.
Once this groundwork has been set, treatment moves to stage 2, which involves the client actually confronting or re-experiencing past trauma. You read that correctly. As part of evidence based practice, therapists intentionally expose clients to certain aspects of their past trauma. Part of a trauma therapist's work is to help the client remain grounded, present, and safe through this journey. To quote the ITSS guidelines,

The therapeutic benefit of the process arises from the patient’s capacity to maintain emotional engagement with the distressing memories while simultaneously remaining physically, emotionally and psychologically intact..... Its purpose is to facilitate the reorganization and integration of the traumas into autobiographical memory in a way that yields a more positive, compassionate, coherent and continuous sense of self and relatedness to others.

In stage 3, clients cement and integrate the skills and lessons learned in the previous two stages. They start making plans for reintegrating back into their social circles with a new, and hopefully healthy frame of mind.
If a survivor has successfully built the skills that are developed during stage 1, has a trusted partner or partners who are capable of and consent to establishing a safe container, and can use that space not to wallow in, but re contextualize aspects of past trauma, kink can effectively function as stage 2, and sometimes even stage 3 of effective trauma healing.

Important Disclaimer

Is this guaranteed to work for everybody? Of course not. Am I suggesting that kink is or should be a substitute for proper trauma informed therapy? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Just as I discussed in my post on mental health, there is often no substitute for therapeutic work with a well trained professional. Transforming trauma through kink, if not handled extremely carefully, can be a risky endeavor. Confronting past demons without the right safety nets can be a recipe for revictimization for the survivor and vicarious trauma for the facilitator(s).

This will hopefully be the start of a much longer conversation. There are so many intricacies of trauma work and kink that are important to be mindful of. This topic is fodder for multiple books, never mind blog posts.

If you or someone you know has navigated these waters, I invite you to think about any or all of the following questions:

My Questions

  • If you found healing through kink, what was that like? What elements of your scene or situation provided space for you to heal?
  • Has anyone found healing through kink by taking on the role of a top or Dom?
  • When a scene that was intended to be therapeutic went awry, what happened? What went wrong and did you find a way of repairing those relationships and/or your relationship to kink?
  • If you went the professional therapy route, did it help? What worked for you? If you were out to your therapist as kinky, how did they frame your kink? Did you feel validated or shamed for your interest in kink?
  • Did a therapist ever break your trust or fail to maintain a safe container for your trauma?

I invite you to share your story, and I would be honored to hear/read it. That said, the risk, trust, and vulnerability involved in doing so is not lost on me.

Tell Your Story

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