BDSM stands for bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; sadism and masochism. In my work, I often refer to BDSM as “erotic power exchange.” In a BDSM experience, one person’s individual power and autonomy is consensually given to the other, within negotiated parameters, for erotic or sexual purposes.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but used carefully, with mindfulness and intention, BDSM can become a powerful tool for insight and healing. In my book, Conscious Kink for Couples – The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing, I explore this healing potential in depth. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction –
What is “Conscious Kink?”
Every relationship that I’ve ever had the honour of witnessing in my work as a marriage counsellor and couples therapist has included aspects of sadism and masochism, cruelty, power struggles, role-play, and various psychological manipulation, headgames, and mindfucks – even as one or both individuals in the relationship work desperately to hide these qualities from themselves or each other, keeping the dark elements buried in unconsciousness, and maintaining a veneer of innocence and normalcy.
The unwillingness to confront one’s own complicity in creating the suffering that inevitably arises in a relationship can be understood in part as an avoidance of facing one’s own shadow; a reluctance to enter into one’s own darker realms.
Conscious Kink and BDSM , in addition to providing sexual or erotic outlets and pleasures, can also become a structure and a practice for revealing, observing, and befriending our dark and shadowy parts.
Sex is a window to our deepest core, to the material of our soul, and by following our kinky desires, and intentionally adding the element of conscious awareness, we end up doing important psycho-emotional work.
Doing this work as a couple, within the sexual/erotic realm, and witnessing each other in the process; this has the power to foster incredible intimacy, growth, and healing. Conscious Kink combines sexual adventurousness with an intention towards awareness, creating a valuable integration practice for life.
Kink and BDSM: For healthy, loving, sensitive people
Hollywood and popular culture have, predictably, distorted kink and BDSM for their own sensationalist purposes. “The gimp” in Pulp Fiction… the stalker-ish behaviour of Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey… these are to real-life kink and BDSM what Tom and Jerry are to real cats and mice: Entertaining perhaps, but mostly bearing little resemblance or relevance to actual kinky people or kink practices.
Real-world kink and BDSM is practiced intelligently, consensually, skillfully, and inspiringly by people across all socio- economic, political, and even religious spectrums. I know kinky social workers, administrators, and public servants. I know kinky social activists, Christians, pagans, and single parents. Welders and bus drivers can be kinky, so can school teachers and entrepreneurs. Married, single, gay, straight, black, white, privileged, oppressed, happy, sad, fat, thin… you get the idea.
I’m painting this picture to help dispel whatever assumption you might have that only “other” people are attracted to kinky sex. If you’re struggling with feeling alone, marginalized, or weird for your (or your partner’s) unconventional desires, I assure you that you are in plenty of good company. Many healthy, loving, sensitive, intelligent people are into kink and BDSM.
Conscious Kinky Couples come from all sorts of backgrounds, and show wide variations in preferences, styles, and personality types, but those with some practice under their belt tend to develop three qualities in common. Interestingly, these same three qualities, or more accurately their absence, predictably show up again and again in the work I do with non-kinky client couples. Could Conscious Kinky Couples have something to teach us all?
Three qualities of Conscious Kinky Couples
1. Conscious Kinky Couples talk openly and explicitly about sex.
They have the courage to ask for what they want, and to represent themselves sexually. They don’t assume that their partner will read their mind. They negotiate to get both partners’ needs met. They share their sexual fantasies and desires. Conscious Kinky Couples might use mystery and intrigue intentionally to cultivate turn-on and eroticism, but they’re ready to talk candidly about sex, and they don’t hide behind assumptions, social convention, or their own shame and wounding.
2. Conscious Kinky Couples work to heal their sexual shame and wounding.
The intentional and explicit nature of their sex lives forces Conscious Kinky Couples to confront their shame and wounding repeatedly, often in many different contexts. Their kinky play or BDSM practice may include consensual humiliation or objectification, sadomasochism, erotic power exchange etc. The Conscious Kinky Couple uses these experiences, and the debriefing that follows, as opportunities for self-examination and integration.
3. Conscious Kinky Couples make time for sex, and they consciously cultivate eroticism in their relationship. Lack of time is a universal theme I encounter with the couples I counsel. Kids, work, family, friends, holidays… there’s a long list of commitments and priorities that creep in to take precedent over sex. Conscious Kinky Couples, however, are more likely to dedicate time to sex. Conscious Kink gives couples a structure for actively supporting and growing their sex lives, a structure that is sorely missing in many modern relationships.
BDSM, Kink, and Shadow Integration
“We find that by opening the door to the shadow realm a little, and letting out various elements a few at a time, relating to them, finding use for them, negotiating, we can reduce being surprised by shadow sneak attacks and unexpected explosions.”
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Each one of us has qualities or parts of ourselves that we have denied, repressed, or “split off” from consciousness. Pioneer psychologist Carl Jung called these exiled parts of self “shadow” because, pushed away from awareness, they remain hidden from us.
We deny these parts of self, often from childhood, because they were unacceptable to our parents, to society, or to our immature, narrow vision of ourselves. We all originally exiled parts of ourselves for good reasons; it was our way to adapt and survive, and also to create a positive self-image, to “be good.”
For some of us it was our anger or rage that was unwelcome, and so we rejected that part of ourself. For others it was our power, or maybe our weakness. Either strength or vulnerability might have offended our caregivers when we were young; any quality at all might have been deemed unacceptable, and so was driven underground.
Individuals and families have their own standards for which qualities are allowed and which are denied, and every culture and subculture also has its own codes for what it rewards and what it punishes.
Each of us in our lifetime is faced with the task of, one way or another, bringing these repressed parts into consciousness and finding them an appropriate and enriching place in our lives. Until we do, they continue to drive our thinking and our behaviour, and have an enormous, though invisible, impact.
These rejected parts of ourselves not only cause suffering as they shape our lives from beneath conscious awareness, on the flip-side they also have valuable gifts to provide once we do the work of retrieving them. Thus the benefit of retrieval is twofold.
Reclaiming our lost parts, integrating our shadow… this is a process of becoming whole, of healing. In fact, some psychotherapeutic models put shadow retrieval or integration, in some form, at the center of the healing journey.
This work is difficult because to integrate the shadow, to retrieve the lost parts of self, means to face tremendous pain and confusion. We must face that which we long ago deemed unacceptable, bad, or even evil. But we must first find it. We must summon that which we banished, that which we fear most. And we must do it without yet knowing how these parts of self will eventually be integrated. We have no place reserved for them in our home, and yet we must welcome them in.
We can not face our shadow directly because it is unconscious, and therefore invisible; otherwise it would not be our shadow. It must be viewed through a veil or intermediary. Shadow must be approached indirectly, through metaphor, myth, art, role-play, poetry, and other forms of suspended disbelief. Shadow retrieval and integration happens on the edge of consciousness, in the liminal spaces, in the places in between. Conscious Kink can provide these places.
Making a place for sadism and masochism in a relationship
“Hatred and aggression — and carnivorous sexual intent — aren’t our ‘dark’ side. Our dark side is the side that denies its own existence.”
~ David Schnarch
Two of the most commonly denied, most present, and most influential, though unconscious, aspects of self are in fact twin shadow archetypes: the sadist and the masochist.
We all have an inner sadist taking pleasure in the suffering of others, and also an inner masochist finding comfort in our own suffering.
BDSM can turn sadomasochism into an art and a practice, and provides, if we use it consciously, a structure for beginning to glimpse and reconcile our own denied or projected sadism and/or masochism.
Conscious Kink allows us a soundstage, a theatre for playing out a sadomasochistic drama, for bearing witness to our own sadistic or masochistic desires and tendencies, and potentially for finding them a home, an appropriate place in our psyche via our erotic lives.
Without a practice of this sort, we might continue unconsciously playing out our sadomasochistic patterns in our lives and relationships, denying our own complicity, and projecting our capacity for cruelty or martyrdom onto others, where we can judge it from a safe distance.
A conventional lover might protect their self-image of innocence, claiming, “Oh no, I never, ever punish my partner for not meeting my expectations. I take no joy in cruelty.” And then they give their partner the silent treatment, or with-hold affection, or explode with accusations.
By contrast, a practitioner of Conscious Kink, in a carefully negotiated BDSM session or “scene” with their partner says “Do as I say or there will be a consequence.” The sadism is revealed. It is summoned onto the stage where a couple can see it, work with it, play with it, learn from it, find its erotic energy and harness it. Here we find potential for mutual pleasure, as well as shadow integration; transformation; alchemy.
The BDSM scene becomes a sacred space between the world of reality and the world of pretending. Sadomasochistic dynamics are first acknowledged as desire in the self, and then they are given a life through collaboration and negotiation. Within a BDSM scene, sadomasochistic dynamics become “play,” but they are also rooted in our deepest, most real, core selves.
The BDSM scene provides the “in-between” space necessary for retrieving the sadism and masochism we have denied in ourselves but projected onto others. The result, by any name, is healing.
Erotic power exchange: Dominance and submission
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” ~ Oscar Wilde
Power dynamics exist, mostly unconscious and unacknowledged, within all relationships. So much so that therapists often talk about the “power struggle” phase of a marriage or relationship as though it were inevitable.
Beneath the spoken agreements in any relationship, beneath the obvious labour divisions and the negotiated sharing of responsibilities, lurk shadowy power struggles, uneasy balancing acts, and resentment-laden asymmetries.
Consciously bringing power exchange dynamics into a relationship in an erotic or sexual form can add more than “spice” or excitement, it can shine a light on some of these hidden power struggles and imbalances.
Also illuminated is your own personal relationship to power –
Are you comfortable with power? Are you afraid of it? Do you fight for power in your relationship? Do you crave it? Do you share power well with others? Do you consider the responsibility of power to be a burden?
Are you trustworthy with power? Do you trust power in the hands of your partner? Do you abdicate your power and then resent its loss?
How about powerlessness? Do you fear loss of control? Do you crave loss of control? Do you long for surrender?
Uncovering the hidden power dynamics in ourselves and in our relationship through a practice of Conscious Kink can have surprising and even disturbing outcomes.
Control issues may be revealed. Fear, cruelty, punishment, with- holding… these are all normal dark-side aspects of power that may present themselves. They’ve been there all along, but now we see them in a new light.
Conscious Kinky Couples can collaboratively and consensually play with power dynamics, eroticizing them, finding pleasure in them, and perhaps, over time, gleaning some of the deeper meanings that power (and powerlessness or surrender) holds in their relationship and in their lives.
Conscious Kink and BDSM practitioners usually identify as either top, bottom, or switch. The terms dominant and submissive are often used interchangeably with the terms top and bottom. Tops (dominants) hold power, bottoms (submissives) surrender power, and switches, as the term implies, can go either way. The degree of power exchange, and the specific nuances, are carefully discussed and negotiated until full consent and understanding is reached.
You’re not bound (pun intended) to any particular identity, and you’re free to experiment with whatever sort of power exchange suits you and your partner.
Like what you’re reading here? Get my new book –
Conscious Kink for Couples:
The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing
Want to read a sample?
Download the first 10 pages free –
Click here now to download the 10-page sample (one-click pdf download).
Learn to use kinky sex and BDSM as an awareness practice for healing and growth (like you might use yoga, meditation, or martial arts).
~ Bring more awareness, creativity, and intention to your sex life.
~ Reconcile your “darker” sexual desires with the deep love and caring that is the foundation of your relationship.
~ Make a place for consensual Dominance and submission alongside equality and respect
~ Confront the shame, doubt, or self-consciousness that thwarts or confuses you.
Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide individual counselling, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships. Serving clients worldwide by phone/skype. Email email@example.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com
Sign up to get my articles by email –
Want to share this article? Use the buttons below.