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mental health

BSDM Can Provide Profound Healing Experiences

"When submitting to someone I trust, I’m able to let go of my anxieties.”

Sofia Barrett-Ibarria

Adam Berry / Getty

Cupcake Sinclair likes to be punished. As a professional submissive and fetish porn producer in Los Angeles, being tied up, spanked, and flogged is part of the job description. It's also what she does for fun. Last year, she became a somewhat of a FetLife celebrity when she produced and starred in a fetish video that depicts a man nailing her breasts to a wooden board as a punishment, aptly titled "Nailed."

"Yes, it's painful," she says. "Yes, there's screaming." The video is very real and undeniably unsettling for those not accustomed to watching a self-described "pain slut" have body parts nailed to a boar. But it's the product of Sinclair's literal "blood, sweat, and tears," she tells me, and she continues to recreate this scene for live audiences at local LA fetish clubs for fun—and as a form of therapy. Sinclair explains that extreme submission provides a release from the banality of boring, everyday vanilla living while also helping her preserve her mental health.

"So many of us shy away from pain. Being able to embrace it allows me personally to feel the catharsis I need, as well as to remind myself I'm stronger than any problems I might be going through. I've been in the lifestyle for about six years now and for me, it's therapeutic," Sinclair says. "I tend to develop a bit of a disconnect with my emotions, [and] by submitting and going through levels of pain and pleasure, I feel more honed in to reality. When submitting to someone I trust, I'm able to let go of my anxieties."

BDSM (which stands for bondage, dominance, submission, and masochism and involves bringing power, pain, and release into a sexual experience) can be therapeutic even if you're not in the porn industry. As S. Nicole Lane wrote in an essay for HelloGiggles, some individuals such as herself, who've experienced sexual assault, discover BDSM as an essential part of the healing process—a means to reclaim their bodily autonomy, rebuild trust, and treat their PTSD in a controlled environment that's "similar to yogic or meditation based sessions."

For some kinksters like Instagram user @mommyineedthis, who runs a popular ABDL (adult baby diaper lover) account, fetish role play can create a controlled environment where it's safe to revisit, recreate, or rewrite memories of trauma. "Growing up surrounded by nothing but abuse, I was very closed off [as a child.] I can only speak on behalf of myself, but this lifestyle allows me to heal," she tells me. Alyssa, (who prefers to use just her first name) an LA-based stand up comedian in her 20s, goes a step further, explaining how she's able to reclaim her sense of strength and power through submissive role play, something she calls a "sacred process."

"To be able to sit down and discuss 'this is exactly what I want, and this is exactly what I am unwilling to allow,' and have that be held sacred, opened my eyes to the realization that I am worthy of having my consent treated like the number one most important thing in the world—because it is," she tells me. "Having my comfort level, my consent, and my body treated with such deep reverence and respect was the gateway to giving myself permission to feel sexual pleasure again. This was something I had truly shut down after my traumas."

As described in a 2015 article for The Atlantic, some psychotherapists like Leslie Rogers and Tani Thole, founders of the Light and Dark Institute, are now harnessing the power of kink therapy to help treat patients with a variety of traumatic experiences. "BDSM is like war," Rogers says in the article, "but in re-creating war, I'm ending it. I'm going to a place where I shouldn't go, and we'll meet there, and in the end we'll realize that we are still capable of being loved."


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Los Angeles-based sex therapist Vanessa Marin says that the positioning of consent within these practices can make them helpful coping mechanisms. "I have worked with clients who had profound healing experiences through kink," Marin says. "Speaking in very broad brushstrokes, the kinky community tends to heavily prioritize consent. There are discussions of boundaries, safe words, and contracts. Sometimes scenes are entirely planned out before two people even touch."

Marin says that it's the topic of consent, in particular, that tends to be healing to sexual abuse victims. Any type of sexual assault sends the message that your wants, needs, and even safety, are not important to your abuser. Being able to reclaim your autonomy and have thoughtful conversations about the specific activities that you do and don't want to engage in with a partner who listens to and respects those boundaries, she says, can be transformative.

Kink and BDSM role play also may be beneficial to some people who've experienced trauma when used as a formalized therapy technique or a personal form of expression, explains Kristen P. Mark, associate professor of health promotion and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky. "[But] It is untrue to assume all of those who engage in kink and BDSM have experienced abuse," she adds. "That is a common misconception."

Sinclair agrees that it's important to debunk the myth that people are kinky because of abuse. Some people like to smoke weed and watch Game of Thrones to unwind after a long day and some people like to get slapped and thrown in a cage. Any of these are fine and normal ways to have fun and cheer yourself up when you've had a bad day—or a lot of really bad days.

Countering the idea that kinky people must be damaged in some way, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that self-identified kinky people actually "scored better on many indicators of mental health" than non-kinky people. According to the research, kinksters "were found to be less neurotic, more open, more aware of and sensitive to rejection, more secure in their relationships and have better overall well-being."

Like "anything else in life," Marin concludes, kink as therapy "doesn't work for everyone." Anyone interested in trying out a BDSM practice, whether for help coping from a traumatic event or just for fun, should proceed with caution. "Anything can be either helpful or hurtful (or both in some cases) to survivors of sexual assault or any type of violence," writes sex educator Shanna Katz for Outfront Magazine. "Sometimes, the survivor won't even realize that something might trigger them until they are in the middle of a situation," she said.

Katz writes that in these types of partnered scenes, communication, and flexibility are key, as BDSM play can often bring up a range of memories and emotions for anyone, whether or not they've experienced trauma. "Be aware that intimacy and sexual activities always can result in unexpected emotional reactions, regardless of experiences of sexual assault or other trauma, so just be open about what is going on."

When approached with care, respect, and in tandem with more traditional methods like talk therapy, Alyssa says her journey into kink has been transformative. "BDSM has been nothing but a positive addition to my life and my healing. I've experienced many sexual traumas in my life and before I got involved with the kink scene, I had no concept of healthy boundaries, sexual empowerment, or even my own worthiness for pleasure and consent." Leaning into physical pain on her own terms and under her own control, she's come out on the other side feeling strong, sexual, and seen.

Correction: A previous version of this story states that Vanessa Marin is based in San Francisco, which in inaccurate. She is based in Los Angeles.

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