Just the Tip: BDSM for Trauma Survivors

Leg and foot tied with rope BDSM for trauma survivors

Just the Tip logo with Jera BrownJust the Tip is a sex and relationship column from queer non-monogamous kinkster Jera Brown. Here you will find interviews with sexuality researchers and educators as well as smart and compassionate responses to anonymous questions. If you would like to be interviewed or have a sex or love question you’d like Jera to answer, email justthequestions@gmail.com or DM Jera on Twitter @thejerabrown.

Before I got involved in the kink community, I didn’t realize how hard it was for me to say no.

It wasn’t until I was encouraged to say no that I recognized I was uncomfortable doing so. And it wasn’t until I was assaulted that I really truly understood that “no” was not my default.

Especially for women, gender minorities, and trauma survivors, learning to articulate one’s needs and  comfortably set and maintain boundaries —  these things take practice.

I personally believe that BDSM and other kinky practices can be this practice. It can also be therapeutic for trauma survivors and help them regain a sense of agency and power over their bodies and their choices.

I spoke to psychotherapist and fellow queer kinkster Laura A. Jacobs about how participating in BDSM and related kinky play can be therapeutic and why.

But one caveat. As Laura explained in a phone interview, “Just because it can be healing doesn’t mean it is healing. I suspect some people intuitively are drawn to it for those reasons and maybe intuitively enact it in those ways.”

It’s often not kink per se that’s therapeutic: it’s the common practices surrounding kink.

Traditional kink play involves exhaustive conversation around boundaries, expectations, and how to navigate the experience. In workshops and community spaces, we are warned: If someone doesn’t offer to negotiate before a scene, or if you get weird vibes from them, don’t play with them. We’re taught to use our voices and our intuition.

As we explore best practices to make kink healing and empowering, keep that in mind. It’s not the kink, it’s the way you go about it.

BDSM and Kink as Sources of Empowerment

Trauma is often about the loss of control. Sexual trauma is often accompanied by feelings of disempowerment around sex.

In risk-aware kink, before two people interact in an intimate way, we set boundaries, explain what we’re comfortable with and not comfortable with, set safe words or other ways to explain when to stop, and so on. These protocols give individuals “a measure of control over something that happens over an emotionally charged experience … BDSM can also help us have a sense of emotional safety,” Laura explained.

This comes back to sexual scripts (which I’ve written about before). In traditional sexual scenarios, we don’t have conversations around what we like and dislike, where it’s OK to touch, etc. When they’re not practiced, these conversations can be awkward. Because negotiating a scene is commonplace in the kink scene, it often feels less awkward. (OK, it can still be awkward. But since it’s expected, we do it anyway … and really good things come from it.)

BDSM can also allow for sensual or sexual experiences that aren’t as triggering. Assault survivors can be triggered around specific body parts involved in their assault. Similarly, a trans individual can have dysphoria around specific parts of their body, Laura explained.

Making certain body parts off limits allows individuals to access their body and access pleasure in ways that aren’t as available in traditional non-negotiated “vanilla sex.”

The Empowerment Spreads to Other Areas of Life

“I’ve seen in a lot of people who were just learning that they can speak up about their desires, it teaches them that they can speak up about themselves in any other context,” Laura explained.

When individuals practice articulating their needs and are met with respect and support, it can help them speak up in other environments, such as work.

The Possibility of Being Triggered and/or Retraumatized

Picture of Laura Jacobs on a couchWhen people are putting themselves into situations similar to their trauma, it can intensify that trauma. It may also trigger a PTSD response, which is different than something increasing the trauma or creating new trauma.

One of the objections I hear the most about trauma survivors participating in BDSM is that it can be harmful to re-enact a situation similar to one’s original trauma over and over again.

But, as Laura explained, “it can go either way. We can either use that energy to heal —because we need to be in a charged place to heal — or it can re-victimize us.”

“Repeating the hurt again and again and again, each time experiencing it not as pleasurable and loving (as we would hope kink to be) but instead as hurtful, those emotional pathways are reinforced. The effects of the original trauma are magnified.”

So if a survivor is interested in kink play (or any physical interaction) that resembles a traumatic event, how does one safeguard against this?

By choosing caring partners you trust.

“If these scenes are replayed in a context of trust … the emotional meaning can be shifted from suffering to joy. Now those activities are about retaking control where one had before been powerless, feeling connection where one was previously isolated. Over time the loving pathways can be reinforced.”

Don’t Forget About Pleasure

Sometimes playing with our triggers can be pleasurable. Laura gave the example of a male-identified person who is flirting with transitioning and plays with forced feminization.

“Exploring feminine feelings can be really, really painful and traumatic — to have gone through life up to that point living as male. It’s so shameful in our culture. So playing with forced femme for somebody flirting with being trans feminine is really playing with the trauma, but also it’s giving them the opportunity to explore it.”

This “forced” situation can be not just healing, but also pleasurable. And embracing and accepting that pleasure can reduce shame.

Don’t Forget about Community

The BDSM community also offers … community.

Here’s Laura:

“The connection, the sense of belonging, being with other people who might have similar experiences or similar feelings — don’t underestimate the power of that. Just being in that environment, for trauma survivors, and having a sense of belonging and nonjudgmental belonging can be powerful in and of itself.”

Neither Laura nor I want to idealize the kink community. There are problems, and the community frequently does not live up to its values. The truth is that anything capable of healing — community, relationships, etc. — is not going to be perfect. You still have to be careful. But even if they aren’t perfect, there’s real potential for good.

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Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.