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Enough With the Trauma Reductionism!

Nonnormative sexual practices are not a byproduct of trauma.

Source: John Everett Millais' The Knight Errant of 1870, Wikimedia

I recently ran across a study being promoted on social media that apparently found that sadomasochism was directly correlated with childhood trauma. Since I think this is a common viewpoint in the psychotherapy community, and perhaps in larger society as well, I'm going to take a moment to deconstruct this, as I find this viewpoint to be one of the most pernicious and pathologizing when it comes to sexual minorities.

First, let me clearly state that trauma does indeed play a negative and dramatic role in a number of peoples' lives, particularly if the trauma occurs in childhood. I have published research in this specific area, so there is no denying the harmful and deleterious effects of childhood trauma.

That said, using trauma in a reductionist way (meaning, reducing it as a sole cause) when it comes to sexuality, particularly BDSM, is not just ideologically dangerous, it's just plain wrong. Let's take a closer look why. There's not a ton of research out there about the origins of BDSM interests, but the research that does exist shows that those who are kinksters are not any more likely to have suffered trauma, be depressed, or have some sort of psychological psychopathology than an ordinary community sample. 

The bigger picture is that trauma reductionism takes on a "blank state" perspective, meaning it assumes that we as humans are born as completely malleable beings, totally vulnerable to be transformed by any environmental influences we experience in our lifetime. However, trauma research seems to indicate otherwise. Research by George Bonnano, a Columbia psychologist, shows that reactions to grief don't happen in the linear 5-stage model previously believed. Some people go through a process of resolving grief over time, some people are stuck in the trauma and may experience long term PTSD-type symptoms, while others seem to not be fazed or affected at all. Indeed a study showed that individuals that were exposed to 9-11 and were provided psychotherapy for trauma afterwards experienced no benefit, and sometimes even worse long-term effects than those that went without any therapy at all. I would argue that genetic dispositions play a part in why some people are vulnerable to trauma, while others less so.

In a broader context, what we are really talking about here is the argument between nature/nurture and essentialism/social constructionism. I will assume you have all heard of nature and nurture, so for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the difference between essentialism and social constructionism. Basically, the essentialist school of thought argues that all of our thoughts and behaviors come down to plain genetics. Through this lens, such categories as gender, race, and personality all come down to biology. Nothing is affected by the social environment. Obviously this is ridiculous, but I'm illustrating what a purely essentialist perspective would look like.

A social constructionist lens would offer a completely opposite viewpoint. Nothing is biological. Everything is a social construction. Gender either doesn't exist or it definitely is not affected by biology whatsoever. Taking this even further, we are born as "blank slates" and completely influenced by the social mores and beliefs of our time. I think that this is also too simplistic of a view of human nature. Of course we are influenced by our social environment, but isn't it obvious to anyone who approaches human nature with an open mind that even within a litter of 2 week old kittens or puppies, that even these little creatures show differences in innate temperament? As an example, some are more curious and playful, while others more cautiously stay closer to the mother. These are all examples of innate temperament, which has been studied extensively by psychologists, especially pioneer Stella Chess.

However, there is a middle ground. As I demonstrate in my upcoming book, Modern Sexuality, an emerging field that seems to unite both camps is called epigenetics, which refers to the science of how the external environment influences gene expression. Research shows that environmental factors can turn genes off or on like a light switch. Indeed, researchers theorize that sexual orientation is epigenetic in nature, since identical twins are more likely, but not guaranteed, to be homosexual if their identical twin is also gay.

Keeping this in mind, it may very well be the case that some people are more resilient or more vulnerable to trauma due to differences in their genetic traits. However, we again cannot escape the indelible truth that significant differences exist between individual subjective reactions to trauma, and this doesn't even take into account the wide assortment of traumas that exist on a broad continuum of severity. Boiling everything down to some monolithic understanding of "Trauma" is so over-simplistic, it borders on making the entire concept of trauma completely unuseful.

Source: 'Damsel in Distress', Gee Whiz #3 (magazine), Wikimedia

That said, these studies that warn of the dangers of S/M and correlate its etiology to trauma almost always have some blatant bias or agenda lurking between the lines, which can be easily spotted if you know what to look for. Let's take a look specifically at the article in question, linking S/M to childhood trauma. First thing we notice is that the entire study consists of three subjects, unlike the large-scale studies demonstrating no correlation between BDSM and trauma cited above. That's a red flag. 

Moving along, the very first sentence of the second paragraph confidently states that "sexual masochism, like most paraphilias, interferes with achieving meaningful sexual relationships." Where is the evidence for this? In a yet-to-be published study I am conducting, which has so far been completed by hundreds of participants, those who stated they participated in BDSM also were more likely to state that they felt closer to their partner after engaging in S/M behaviors. Without any empirical justification, is it not seemingly the case that the author of the other study already approaches his work from an extremely biased lens?

The author further justifies his beliefs with some outdated Freudian theories, but where is his research on those individuals who enjoy S/M but were not traumatized or those who were traumatized but have no S/M interests? Does he truly believe that a simple equation exists in human psychology that is equivalent to Trauma= S/M. Come on! 

This article has focused on the sex-negativity inherent in any study that desperately searches for some clear link between trauma and non-normative sexual behavior. Let's finally put this nonsense to rest. And while we're at it, let's put all of the other trauma reductionism to bed too. We are not all the helpless byproducts of negative past life experiences and to attempt to paint people as such is nothing less than an attempt to strip us all of our individuality and self-agency. Enough with the trauma reductionism!