Being Bad Never Felt So Good - Can BDSM be good for your health?

Debate’s feature writer, Alana McConnell (she/her) explores why people that practice BDSM may be more pathologically healthy than those who lean towards ‘vanilla’ sex. Alana speaks to Dee Morgan, an Auckland-based counsellor, on how when BDSM is done right, it can be an inclusive, non-judgemental and liberating space. Illustrated by Yi Jong.

For decades BDSM and kink have been considered to be deviant and taboo behaviour. It was used as a justification in court for a parent not being suitable to look after their children, and was at a time included in the DSM’s criteria for pathological behaviour. But times are changing, and we are slowly moving away from kink-shaming to kink-acceptance, partially due to the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon - which every kinkster has either derided and debunked, but admittedly can’t deny its impact on popular society.


A study conducted by Wismeijer and van Assen (2013) looked at 902 BDSM and 434 control participants who filled out online questionnaires. Using the Big Five personality test, attachment styles, rejection sensitivity, and subjective well-being, the results showed that those who practiced BDSM had more favourable psychological characteristics. They tended to be less neurotic, more extroverted, were more open to new experiences, had less rejection sensitivity, were more conscientious, and had higher subjective well-being than the control group. However they were less agreeable. The researchers then concluded that unlike previous popular and psychological beliefs, BDSM can be viewed as recreational leisure rather than an expression of negative pathology. It raised the question, are kinky people more healthy than vanilla-minded individuals?


To cover the basics, BDSM is an umbrella term which encompasses bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism. Before writing this article, a part of me found it difficult to wrap my head around the idea that those who practice BDSM could be considered more psychologically healthy than those who preferred vanilla sex. This could be down to my warped perception of the practice, influenced by violent porn that tends to be overly misogynistic and abusive and may not accurately represent BDSM. I have never personally participated in a local kink community, whether that be online or in my city, and of course this means my understanding is limited. BDSM is a huge spectrum which isn’t even close to being captured in popular culture and media. Some of the extremes can be body modification, paraphilic infantilism (regressing to an infant-like state), breath play, electro-play, mummification, and even scat play. Of course, there is also the use of handcuffs and rope, which for some would be considered light BDSM, and to others that would be the farthest they go.


I reached out to Dee Morgan, who is a practicing counsellor in Auckland, focusing on supporting sexual and gender minorities as well as those in kink and polyamorous communites. Dee spoke to me and drew on her personal and professional experiences regarding kink. On the misconceptions with BDSM, Dee said “many people who haven't explored kink (those who are 'vanilla') often assume that those who do practice only do so because they've been traumatised or damaged in some way.” It has been shown that those who practice kink are not more traumatised, but for the kinksters with past trauma “there can be ‘landmines’ accidentally stepped on in a play scene." Those who are experienced in the world of kink are aware that this is a possibility, which makes communication and negotiation with their partner all the more paramount. If practiced healthily, BDSM is something that can be a shared experience between people who want to engage in something that is pleasurable or affords them something, like even healing past trauma. One domme mentions how the controlled environment allows the sub to dictate what happens, to “rewrite traumatic moments from the past in a new way where she’s in charge, instead of them happening to her''. BDSM allows individuals to enter a “subspace” through pleasure and pain, the thin line where you are flooded with feel-good endorphins and a buzzy, floaty sensation is created. Dr Joe Kort, a sex and relationship therapist, said “the benefits are the same as children who have had traumatic things happen and then engage in play therapy. BDSM/kink/fetish - and truthfully all sex- is ‘play therapy’ as long as it is open, honest, and negotiated.” Healthy BDSM needs to follow the RACK principles (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink) and that is just covering the basics!

You could be an outspoken feminist in your life, advocating for equal treatment, but when it comes to sex all you really want is to be tied up and controlled.

It’s worth examining where our desire to dominate and be dominated in the bedroom comes from. “Many of us have internal fantasies, which they’d never want to actually engage in - but turn them on. And many people also have external fantasies: things they’d like to explore by themselves or with a consenting partner” says Dee. You could be an outspoken feminist in your life, advocating for equal treatment, but when it comes to sex all you really want is to be tied up and controlled. Or maybe you participate in vanilla sex but your fantasises involve rape, kidnapping, and being tied up. I would say that a majority of us have some pretty wild fantasies we wouldn’t feel very comfortable divulging to others about. Perhaps for those who haven’t done enough inner work, this can bring up a mix of strange and contradictory emotions, some of shame, some of confusion. Many of those who practice BDSM have done lots of self-exploration to understand themselves and their kinks, and also could have worked through potential shame or difficult feelings around the practice. Dee acknowledges there are certainly unhealthy ways to practice BDSM as well as individuals' perceptions of their desires, such as “being ashamed of your interests, assuming it means you’re ‘broken’. There’s still a lot of unspoken assumptions about being deviant and wrong, and that’s simply not true.” Chances are, if you are an active member in a kink community, especially one operating locally with meetups or play parties, then you are not tied down by societal stigma or pressures, having worked through potential feelings of shame or feelings of brokenness. In kink communities there is also a strong emphasis on safety and looking out for one another, especially those new to the scene who could be vulnerable to being taken advantage of.


For an argument against the psychological health of kinksters, the point can be raised that some people who identify as “submissive” or “bottoms” may have chronically negative self image or self-destructive tendencies. My best friend once dated a guy who was submissive, who loved to be treated terribly and wanted to watch my friend with other men and have her call him demeaning and derogatory names. She told me that he had a pretty difficult childhood, resulting in incredibly low self esteem, which had manifested into his sexual tendencies. It didn’t seem healthy to maintain low self esteem through sex and avoid addressing the clear issues head on. The important question to ask is, is the kink behaviour reinforcing the negative self image, or is it being used to work through the pain and turn it into something pleasurable? That is highly subjective and down to the practicing individual.


Some of those who identify as “dominants'' or “tops” may use this title as a way to enact their potential misogynistic or abusive ideals onto others in an accepted fashion. Dee acknowledged this, saying “within every community there can be potential abusers, the kink community is no different to a sports club, a church, or a gym. Some people who are looking for others to victimise see the potential in the kink community to do so.” But these are the exceptions. From the outside, a Dom can be seen as abusive and cruel, but with healthy BDSM the submissive is the one who is in control, laying out what they want in a checklist, where the Dom has to stay within those agreed parameters. My best friend is enthusiastically outspoken about practicing kink with those she is intimate with. She told me that the one partner who was the most kinky and dominating was actually the most progressive and feminist partner she had, and she believed the two things were linked. He was constantly checking in and communicating, and within the safety of their partnership was exploration and the testing of their limits. As I talked to my friend, she also drew parallels with the kink and polyamorous community. With healthy polyamorous relationships, every potential concern or future issue is talked about extensively, so that every party knows exactly what is happening, much in the same way extensive communication is vital to healthy BDSM. Conventional, monogamous relationships, and conventional ‘vanilla sex’ can have a lot of unspoken rules and regulations, resulting in miscommunication, possessiveness, and ultimate ruptures in the relationship. The definition of cheating, for instance, is so variably defined for different people, but in a polyamorous relationship, clarity is at the forefront of conversation.


Clear communication is paramount, because what may be hot and sexy for one person can easily be uncomfortable and painful for someone else. Everyone has their own unique threshold as well, and that’s where safewords come in. Consent can also range from enthusiastic and clear “I know that I love to do this!”, to more cautious but still agreeing “I haven’t tried this before and I’m not sure if I’ll like it, but I’m open to it.” Those who lean towards vanilla sex can actually learn a lot from those in the BDSM community who practice it correctly and safely. With BDSM, there is extensive negotiation surrounding consent ahead of time, and then this is maintained through the use of the safeword and regular check-ins. Consent is incredibly difficult if you don’t even understand your own sexuality, and that is the beauty of the BDSM community, where lots of work has been done to understand your own desires. What makes you tick, what you like and don’t like. There is a large space for acceptance and non-judgement, the freedom to explore, something that we don’t always see with traditional sexual relationships, where a lot of the time we are afraid to voice our desires for fear of rejection or judgement. We are scared to really say what we want, and we go along with things just for the sake of it.


While our understanding of BDSM has come a long way, it is clear it remains misunderstood. Too often shunned to the edges of our society and the corners of our imaginations, a more open and accepting perception and conversation surrounding the topic stands to benefit us. It is no wonder that the results of the study found those in the BDSM community are more open, conscientious and showcase less rejection sensitivity, among other positive attributes; these are fundamental to being a part of this community. You don’t have to get out the whips or the handcuffs (nothing wrong with a little missionary) but learning from those within a community that are willing to explore, communicate, and express themselves and their desires can crossover to our more traditional ideas of sex and relationships.