Kink Education Is an Ethical Obligation
How mental health clinicians must shift our own systems to be more inclusive.
Posted Jan 08, 2021
The inclination for people to understand the unknown is often fueled by an immense inability to tolerate discomfort. If we look back throughout history, when folks have been presented with unfamiliar concepts, desires, or identities, there are a few ways in which they have typically responded. The first group is a subset of people who see differences and acknowledge their existence but let them continue to exist in the world without much of an opinion, understanding that those differences have little to no impact on their own lives. They do not approach these individuals with judgment; rather, they continue to live in a space of neutrality.
We then have people who attempt to understand differences, who value and embrace the beauty of diversity, and who put energy into learning about those who are different from themselves. These folks may not only approach others with acceptance, but sometimes they will fight to bring to light the problematic nature of discrimination and stereotyping.
Lastly, there is a category of folks who immediately dismiss anyone whose identities or desires are outside of their perceived conventional understanding of "normal." Further, they seek to change those folks in an attempt to mold them into inauthentic, silenced, and truly false versions of themselves in order for them to fit within the constructs that society has deemed acceptable. It is this category of individuals who continue to perpetuate hate, shame, and deep pain that so many folks have to deal with on a daily basis.
The problematic response of immediately expressing negative judgments towards individuals whose differences are unfamiliar or inconsistent with one's own way of living is unquestionably something that needs to be targeted on a global scale. However, within the mental health community, specifically the sex therapy community, it is our ethical responsibility to make sure that this discrimination is not being perpetuated within our own field, and it is painful to reveal that it is. While advancements are indeed occurring in all realms of psychotherapy, the blatant harm that is being done to the kink community as they attempt to seek mental health resources indicates a significant need for advanced training in the realms of kink.
In a study released in 2012, researchers found that in a sample of 766 clinicians, 25 percent automatically pathologized kink. While this number is damaging in and of itself, what is both startling and appalling is that 30 percent of those clinicians agreed that kink should be eliminated by therapy (Kelsey et. all, 2012). We cannot dismiss the fact that eight years have passed since this research was conducted, and it would be beneficial to see how these numbers look today. However, mental health clinicians pathologizing the kink community is not an issue that has been entirely eliminated, and it must continue to be addressed.
The pathologizing of kinky desires has existed for centuries, and as mentioned in past articles, was exacerbated by Freud and Kraft-Ebbing's works in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, there was little to no understanding of kink; it was commonly dismissed first as insanity and later rebranded as existing as a result of psychological conflict. The psychopathological theory, influenced by Freud's beliefs that psychological disease must be occurring if someone has BDSM desires has since been thoroughly examined by researchers.
In fact, there has been "no evidence that BDSM practitioners, in general, suffer from any particular form of psychological disturbance" (Richters, De Vidder, Rissel, Grulich & Smith, 2008) and further research has indicated that those who participate in BDSM "seem to be mentally and emotionally well-adjusted” (Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013). While the psychopathological take is just one of many etiological theories studied and further explored by decades of research, it still remains one of the central stereotypes that influence mental health clinicians.
The rumor mill that has fueled the misrepresentation of the kink community could be completely demolished if folks would read the research that is so brilliantly conducted by leaders in the kink world. These false narratives that burn so brightly around kink could be quickly extinguished by turning to the people in the field whose lives are dedicated to understanding kink not just for the reasons of merely satisfying curiosity but whose work exists to open doors to resources that could quite literally change the lives of people suffering for the better.
It is both perplexing and frustrating to consider the various reasons and hypotheses around why this research is not readily and frequently presented in graduate programs and mental health settings that are not solely focused on human sexuality. While one would expect a human sexuality program to emphasize all forms of erotic expression, we cannot dismiss the importance of inclusive sex education in ALL graduate-level programs.
As long as we live in a society where discrimination and hatred continue to run rampant, it is our ethical responsibility as mental health professionals to attempt to heal the pain that comes from perpetual harm. It is our duty to work with our clients to process and eliminate shame, not contribute to it. When therapists are the ones causing damage, whether intentional or not, we must turn to our fellow clinicians and speak up. I long for the day when clients no longer share the horror stories of their former counselors who shamed them for their erotic desires or kink identity.
Until then, we must shift the system in which we live and work. We must begin to use our knowledge to educate those who have not been exposed to a truly inclusive education. Perhaps the voices of those of us advocating for the kink community need to be louder. Maybe we need to step out of our own fear of the push back that we so often receive while making our voices heard. I do not know the answer, but I do know that whispering is not making the waves that must exist to wash over this broken system.
Katherine Kelsey, Beverly L. Stiles, Laura Spiller & George M. Diekhoff (2013) Assessment of therapists’ attitudes towards BDSM, Psychology & Sexuality, 4:3, 255-267, DOI: 10.1080/19419899.2012.655255
Richters J, de Visser RO, Rissel CE, Grulich AE, Smith AM. Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, "sadomasochism" or dominance and submission (BDSM): data from a national survey. J Sex Med. 2008 Jul;5(7):1660-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00795.x. PMID: 18331257.
Wismeijer, Andreas & van Assen, Marcel. Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. J Sex Med 2013;10:1943–1952.