Out of the Ordinary

The latest insights into sexploration, alternative relationships, and different ways of loving.

What's dangerous about BDSM?

BDSM: Loving, dangerous, or deviant?

Sadomasochism can be considered a type of sexual play, preference, or identity where an individual derives satisfaction from receiving pain, inflicting pain, or both. Often called "S&M," sadomasochism is part of a large category of consensual sex practices and lifestyles called BDSM. BDSM is an acronym for "bondage and discipline," "dominance and submission," and "sadism and masochism." 

Sadomasochism can be difficult for people to understand, and for some it can seem downright scary. For individuals who prefer a more "vanilla" sexual life with no kink, it can seem odd that there are people who want to be whipped, uncomfortably chained to a cross, caned, or otherwise tortured. Equally as disturbing can be imagining oneself being the person who enjoys doing these things to others. For many people the practices associated with sadomasochism can bring up strong reactions, one of them commonly being, "That's dangerous!"

In an article published by ABC News last year, and in other articles from mainstream news sources over the past few years, this seems to be the reaction. The ABC article, entitled, "Love Hurts: Sadomasochism's Dangers," discusses a 67-year old man who was rushed to the emergency room after losing consciousness in a sex club. He had passed out during an S&M scene that involved him hanging by his arms from a cross, and the damage was so severe that it took him a few days to regain consciousness. The article discusses how lucky the man is to be alive, and goes on to talk about the more unfortunate individuals who have died while engaging in S&M practices. Not surprisingly, the article's main message, as expressed by the sex experts they quote in the article, seems to be that people shouldn't get into dangerous sex.

It's true that some sex practices can be dangerous, and that people should always take precaution when experimenting with a new practice. But people can get injured or die from a variety of activities. A SCUBA diving death is not uncommon, nor is a rock climbing death. Even dying during sex isn't uncommon after a certain age. What makes BDSM injuries and deaths so newsworthy is that they occurred during alternative sex practices that are not widely well understood. The mystery surrounding these practices allows people to be easily frightened, and it can make judgment seem a little more okay.

In the ABC News article it seems like the reaction expressed ("That's dangerous!") is thinly masking a judgment toward BDSM. If the message is really just that S&M (and hence BDSM) can be dangerous for some people at some times, then it would make sense to give tips about how to reduce the danger (other than full abstinence). For instance, the dangers associated with BDSM can be greatly reduced by consensually playing with a caring, experienced partner, using safewords, and clearly defining boundaries ahead of time. There are many safety precautions taken by those who engage in BDSM, and nearly none of that information is presented in this article, which makes individuals who are into BDSM practices appear to be universally irresponsible and negligent.

In addition, the article appears to pathologize individuals who prefer BDSM to more normative sex practices, assuming them to be incapable of love. As quoted in the article, Judy Kuriansky, a sex psychologist, says, "There is a triumvirate of guilt, embarrassment, and fear of intimacy for these people... It's rare that all of the sudden they can give up on being interested in pain and suddenly capable of being loved." It seems that while the article started with one reaction, that BDSM is dangerous, it ends with a judgment that BDSM is a shameful, rarely curable pathology that afflicts those who cannot experience love and intimacy. By asserting that the inclusion of S&M in sex precludes a person from experiencing love, the article is endorsing the idea that there is only one way to love. However, many individuals in BDSM communities vehemently disagree, and maintain that they do love, and that BDSM allows them to do this more fully. To quote Lee, the main character in the S&M themed movie, "Secretary": "I feel more than I've ever felt and I've found someone to feel with. To play with. To love in a way that feels right for me."

So what's dangerous about BDSM? Is BDSM dangerous because it is bad for our health, or because it is non-normative and threatening to traditional views on love? Is BDSM only for deviants who can't love, or is BDSM just a different way of loving? Before deciding, it can be useful to take a look at the other side of the issue, from the perspective of those who enjoy BDSM in their lives. A few websites that explain pro-BDSM views are below.

BDSM Index: http://bdsm-index.nl/en/
Leather and Roses: http://www.leatherNroses.com/
National Coalition for Sexual Freedom: http://www.ncsfreedom.org/
Society for Human Sexuality: http://www.sexuality.org/
Wikipedia's entry on BDSM: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BDSM
XERO: http://www.xeromag.com/

 

 

JS is a doctoral student at Pacific Graduate School of Psychology-Stanford University School of Medicine Consortium. 

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