50 Shades of Stigma: Are we as kinky as we think we are?

Originally published at Psyched in San Francisco

The popularity of the 50 Shades of Grey books has been staggering. They have become the 9 1/2 Weeks of a new generation; glorifying the excitement of power, bondage, and…well, mind games. In fact, those who know what consensual BDSM participants actually do together have criticized the trilogy for portraying kinky sex as unhealthy and non-consensual. Others note that some of the activities in the book convey a lack of knowledge about keeping BDSM physically and psychologically safe.

However, it is clear that the public is fascinated by kinky sex. In fact, 14% of American males and 11% of American females have engaged in some form of BDSM sexual behavior (Janus & Janus, 1993). But BDSM remains a taboo topic in the field of mental health where sexual diversity training focuses primarily on the experiences of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Despite removing homosexuality in 1986, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders continues to list Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism as Paraphilias, or sexual disorders.

The tension between public interest in BDSM and outdated training of clinicians has created opportunities for psychotherapists who identify as “kink-aware” or “altsex friendly,” to identify themselves to savvy psychotherapy clients. These clients want to avoid wasting their time and money spending hours in therapy only to have their proclivities pathologized by clinicians who know nothing about their lifestyles. In fact, Kink-Aware Directories and Poly-friendly Directories exist to help consumers find a wide range of services from informed professionals. The Bay Area even has its own group: Bay Area Open Minds, to help clinicians network and to help clients find us.

Just as it’s not easy for all people to “come out” to their friends, family, or co-workers as kinky or polyamorous, it’s also not always easy to come out as an altsex-friendly mental health professional. Those of us who advertise these services – whether we identify as altsex clinicians or just allies — face the same challenges BDSM and poly clients face. Many health professionals believe that alternative sexuality is a sign of illness. If you truly want to see power dynamics in action, try coming out as an altsex friendly trainee in a psychology graduate program. It takes strength, courage, and support to do so surrounded by ill-informed colleagues. It is even more challenging to do this if you are a student, very much in need of affirmation from professors and supervisors.

Sexuality remains such a forbidden frontier that if one speaks up
 about the experiences of sexually marginalized people, it is assumed that they must be a member of the group. This circumstance keeps some altsex clinicians and their altsex positive allies silent. By contrast, few clinicians would worry that by specializing in treating substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, or depression, people might think they are in recovery, bulimic, depressed, or anxious. But most cannot imagine why a person would willingly speak up about kink in our field unless one were kinky herself.

I am a kink and poly-friendly professional who works with altsex clients. I discuss my altsex research, teaching, writing, advocacy, and clinical work in many professional settings. There are many reasons to be an altsex positive clinician. You may
 have known and loved someone who is kinky or poly, as a friend, partner, or family member. Maybe you have had your eyes opened to your own biases and judgment and want to make a difference. Maybe you believe in everyone’s right to fantasize or engage in consensual sexual acts, regardless of whether you experience the same desires. I believe that all clients deserve a safe, non-judgmental place to talk about their fantasies, behaviors and identities.

It is my hope that the public’s interest in exploring these fantasies and ideas in stories and media may begin to expand our notions of what is normal and will help change outdated ideas about sexual pathology. If every other person on BART and MUNI is reading 50 Shades of Gray, a book about sex and power, then shouldn’t it also be safe to go to your psychotherapist’s office and explore these issues there?

Janus, S., and Janus, C. (1993). The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior. New York: John Wiley & Sons.