“Kink Helped My Mental Health”. The Healing Benefits Of BDSM

Illustration by Twisha Patni
Warning: This article includes mentions of suicidality, rape, drug misuse, eating disorders and self-harm.
Two years ago, 38-year-old Alice* suddenly went profoundly deaf. She lost her job, her boyfriend dumped her and the relentless tinnitus she experienced led her to have suicidal thoughts. "Before I went deaf, I was stable," she tells me. "I had trauma but I could live with it. With the tinnitus, I wanted to die. It felt like the only option. My mother died by suicide so it felt very familiar. I came so close."
In order to distract herself from this emotional and physical agony, Alice joined a dating app. It was there that she met a man with whom she started practising BDSM, which she credits with getting her mental health back on track. BDSM – which stands for bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, sadism-masochism – involves enacting scenarios, often in a sexual setting, where there is a power imbalance, generally between a dominant individual (a dom) and a submissive individual (a sub).
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The world of BDSM is broad and incredibly diverse, encompassing everything from the use of a blindfold during sex to forms of consensual torture. It’s difficult to define and the concept is marred by misinformation perpetuated by pornography and the media (and Fifty Shades of Grey).
People with an interest in BDSM used to be considered dangerous. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, described sadomasochism as the "most significant of all perversions" and Wilhelm Stekel, one of Freud’s earliest followers, went even further: he linked it to cannibalism, criminality, vampirism and mass murder. Until the 2013 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – a definitive text on mental illnesses and their treatment – anyone who experienced arousal by atypical stimuli, such as feet or cross-dressing, was classified as clinically disordered, even if the fetish caused no distress or harm.
Despite this, recent research suggests that BDSM does not indicate a disordered mind and that its practitioners have relatively good mental health: they’re less neurotic, more conscientious, less sensitive to rejection and more open-minded. In 2013, a study also found that they report being generally happier than the general population. So does BDSM attract people who are naturally more well-adjusted or does BDSM improve the lives of those who practise it? Does it have the potential to heal those of us who are suffering because of our mental health?
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In 2008, a paper was published which said that for most people, practising BDSM could accurately be thought of as a hobby, making it sound as wholesome as knitting or Zumba – just an innocent way to pass the time. However, when I ask around and speak to women on the kink scene, I find that they consider it to be a far more fundamental component of both their identity and their wellbeing.
Dr Gloria Brame is a clinical sexologist, sex therapist and author. "For some people BDSM is a hobby. I think it’s a weird hobby, but okay," she tells me. "For me, BDSM is a legitimate sexual identity, like being gay. It isn’t about the spanking and the whipping and the chains. I would be a kinky person without any of that. I’d still want to be in charge. It’s who I am."
"It helps me so much," Alice explains. "BDSM forces me to question my role as a disabled woman, to question the expectations I have for myself and the expectations society has for me. Vulnerability is not a weakness. I understand that now. I feel empowered through vulnerability."

For some people BDSM is a hobby. For me, BDSM is a legitimate sexual identity, like being gay. It isn't about the spanking and the whipping and the chains. I would be a kinky person without any of that. I'd still want to be in charge. It's who I am.

Dr Gloria Brame
Eevi* is a 24-year-old woman who talks enthusiastically and expressively about BDSM, despite describing herself as a newbie. "I’ve always been a high energy, nervous person. I got into a lot of trouble at school, for not being able to focus, for lashing out. I had anger management issues and was diagnosed with ADHD," she tells me. "As a teenager, I spiralled, I developed anorexia. Looking back, I think it was a way for me to reclaim control. BDSM is a way for me to reclaim that control in a healthier way. It allows me the possibility of healing from bad experiences, including the rape I endured when I was 18. I’ve known I was sexually submissive from a young age but after I was raped, it took on a deeper meaning."
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"Of course, BDSM is just one of the ways I look after my mental health," Eevi adds. "I don't think it should be the only form of self-care, or considered as a replacement to therapy, but it definitely offers a lot of potential to process issues in a constructive way."
Lucy*, 36, is a psychology student whose own mental health journey has been tumultuous to say the least. In her early 20s she suffered with bad anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia. "I stopped eating and started to waste away," she explains. "I became addicted to [the benzodiazepine] lorazepam. Everything was just completely fucked up. I had to go into an addiction centre. After I was discharged, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder."
BDSM has always been something she wanted to explore but it was only last year, before the coronavirus pandemic, that she started attending kink events. "In the beginning I would look at people getting whipped and think, Oh my God, why would anyone want that? It looks so painful," she says, "but then I tried it and I realised that there’s this cathartic element to it. If you’re taking beatings, you’re taking lots of pain...that can be empowering. Afterwards you feel like, Fuck, I’m really strong! It’s like you get your demons beaten out of you. I haven’t had it in a while because of lockdown, and I’m craving it. It’s very strange, it’s like I need it."
Thirty-six-year-old Charlotte has been part of the kink community since 2015. Reflecting on her time in it and her preconceptions prior to joining, she says: "When I started out, my perception of BDSM was very wrong. I thought it was just a way for women to be used and abused by men. But really, it’s a way for me to communicate what I want and what I like and what I need. I’ve had depression and anxiety for most of my adult life but recently my mental health has been much better and BDSM is one of my coping strategies."
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Charlotte says that BDSM is both "a lot of fun" and that it "makes sex better". More than that, she says it allows her to escape from her head. "I self-harmed as a teenager," she explains. "I’m a masochist; I enjoy the pain. BDSM has provided me with a safe space to experience that. It’s no longer self-flagellation. I’m not punishing myself because I don’t like myself."
For a self-described "overthinker" like Charlotte, being in a space where someone else takes over feels "absolutely magical". 
"I’m constantly worrying about my blood sugar as I have type 1 diabetes," she says, "but during BDSM sessions, my dom will scan my glucose monitor for me. I don’t have to worry about it. I can stop being vigilant. I can relax. It resets my brain."
While conducting interviews with these women via video chat, I was struck by how much eye contact they made. We were talking about some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. I was expecting discomfort, maybe even embarrassment. But the women looked me dead in the eye – unflinching, strong, unashamed. It was, frankly, nothing short of inspiring.
"BDSM changed my life," Gloria says as she smiles and takes a long drag of her cigarette. "I feel like it has been transformational psychologically and emotionally. It radically changed my perspective, my ability to trust people. I used to have secrets I could never tell anyone, shame about my body. I was pounded down by patriarchal society. BDSM is incredibly empowering. My whole life I wanted to do these things that I thought were forbidden. Why would some guy let me boss him around, tie him up, put clamps on his nipples, you know?"
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While Gloria is a dominatrix and Alice is a switch (someone who enjoys performing both dominant and submissive roles), Eevi, Lucy and Charlotte all have very submissive tendencies and often engage in BDSM play with male doms. I asked them if they identified as feminists (they all did) and suggested that by letting men hurt them, they could inadvertently be reinforcing sexist and patriarchal norms. As the standard, hackneyed and reductive critique of BDSM goes: It’s men beating the shit out of women, like they have been doing since the beginning of time… 
"But you’re exposing the structural inequality," Eevi explains without hesitating in response to my question. She’s obviously considered this perspective before. "By playing with power dynamics, you’re forced to think about them and communicate about them and it makes you more critical. There are lots of people in vanilla relationships that are very traditional and heteronormative and they avoid thinking about these issues but in a BDSM relationship you have to think about them."
I’m forced to agree with her. "I think BDSM aligns beautifully with feminism," says Charlotte in response to the same point. "As a sub, I set the limits. I am in control. I have the power."

BDSM forces me to question my role as a disabled woman, to question the expectations I have for myself and the expectations society has for me. Vulnerability is not a weakness. I understand that now. I feel empowered through vulnerability.

Alice*
"It’s a big question early on in a submissive woman’s journey; surrendering power to a man can feel patriarchal," Gloria muses. "On the other hand, that’s what gets you off. There’s something to be said for finding someone who will give you the best orgasms of your life."
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As Charlotte describes to me in detail what she might be (consensually) subjected to during a session, it occurs to me that it is counterintuitive to seek out humiliation, degradation and pain for pleasure. But studies show that physical pain can actually have a profound effect on us. Dr Brad Sagarin, founder of the Science of BDSM research team and a professor of social and evolutionary psychology at Northern Illinois University, has compared the pain experienced to 'runner's high' – the sense of euphoria and increased tolerance for pain that some joggers feel after a long run. 
For those participating in BDSM, the pain shrinks the world to the immediate present. Anything beyond the here and now feels irrelevant, even ceases to exist. The stresses of everyday life melt away. And that, for anyone with mental health struggles, is where the relief comes. "BDSM forces you to stay in the present," Gloria says. "That in itself, even if it’s just for a few hours, is amazingly rehabilitative."
Sex therapist Kandice van Beerschoten explains further: "There’s good pain and bad pain. Within any sadomasochistic relationship, the masochist has a say in what’s being done to them. It’s going to be controlled, and they’ll have a safe word that they can use if they are no longer enjoying the experience."
Zayna Ratty is a hypno-psychotherapist, activist and podcaster whose own experiences also support the idea that BDSM can be healing. "BDSM can be used to recover from trauma. Lots of people think you’re re-enacting the trauma, when in fact you’re re-scripting it. The survivor has the power in that negotiation. It’s a powerful tool."
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All this sounds great. So what are the risks?
"There are people who don’t take themselves seriously, who don’t take discrimination seriously, who don’t take consent seriously," warns Zayna. "If you’re playing with people like that, or with someone who isn’t very experienced, there is a potential for harm."
"There are serious medical risks too," points out Kandice. "For example, if you choke someone and you don’t know how to do that, that person could die." Consent, as ever, is key. 
As well as engaging in one-on-one play, many people enjoy the sense of community provided by kink events and the parts of the internet devoted to it. Gloria ran the first online BDSM support group on CompuServe (the first major online service provider) in 1987 and still organises community events. She understands the importance of collective engagement. I ask how her community is coping in corona times. "We miss seeing all our friends, going to classes, playing with new people. We’re on Zoom a lot. A lot of places have had to close down but we are a strong and powerful community; we’ll survive."
Before COVID-19 hit, London was experiencing something of a kinky renaissance, with events such as Klub Verboten and Crossbreed attracting a younger crowd than might typically be associated with the scene.
Alex Warren runs Crossbreed, the club night and record label. As well as hosting sex-positive raves, Crossbreed has also hosted talks on racism and intersectionality. "The kink community as a whole is quite a caring place," Alex tells me. "There’s lots of danger hidden within that of course but in general it’s well structured, supportive, nonjudgmental and welcoming."
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I wonder what the consequences of the COVID lockdown might be for kinky people. Neither Klub Verboten nor Crossbreed has received any relief from the government. Even if they do recover financially, will individuals who rely on BDSM as a strategy to cope with stress be able to survive the temporary drought?
"When you’re displaced from your community, that causes isolation, that causes psychological distress," says Zayna. "We have these feelings of grief. We’re experiencing mass loss. If you’re neurodivergent especially, it’s possible that you might get stuck in complicated grief and find it difficult to navigate through."
"I really miss the events. At every one I’ve been to, everybody has been really respectful," says Lucy. "It’s easier to be abusive online. You get some really dark messages on dating apps and [kinky social media website] Fetlife. Men message you talking about rape, saying they hate women, describing all the horrible things they want to do to you. I end up blocking a lot of them."
I ask Eevi about the scene’s dark side. Has anything untoward ever happened to her? "Once I was having sex with a man and he ripped my panties without asking. I wouldn’t normally mind but they were pretty expensive. That’s like the worst thing that’s happened to me at an event, that I can think of." Despite that grim encounter, Eevi has no regrets. She sighs nostalgically. "I felt so free at Klub Verboten. It was amazing."
The benefits of BDSM definitely seem to outweigh the downsides, especially for people like Alice.
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"I’m healing," Alice tells me. "I’m finding energy through BDSM and using that energy to replenish myself."
*Names have been changed to protect identities
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please visit FRANK or call 0300 123 6600 for friendly, confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.

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