Why you should care
Because BDSM is natural and therapy is natural, so it’s only natural that the two should go together.
You go to a therapist. You dump all your neuroses out. The therapist prescribes antidepressants against your will, tries to get your children taken away from you and reaches for the phone to call the cops.
Probably not what you bargained for. But it’s just one of the stories Charley Ferrer has heard from a client who told a past therapist she loved being whipped. Ferrer is a sex therapist and psychologist who specializes in clients who prefer so-called kinky sex, which essentially means unconventional sex practices. Ferrer’s particular focus is on people who engage in BDSM, or bondage/discipline, domination/submission, sadomasochism — think whips, blindfolds, paddles, cuffs and more. “It’s my job to help people accept themselves,” says Ferrer.
What about a man taught never to hit women — what’s he to do if his partner likes getting slapped?
Turns out, a huge chunk of the population is kinky. A 2005 Durex survey reported that 36 percent of Americans used masks, blindfolds or bondage during sex, and the more than 3 million users on Fetlife.com, a social network for kinky people, is a good indicator of how widespread kink is. What’s more, observers have seen an uptick in both therapists and clients — Ferrer’s have tripled in a few years.
But therapists with kink know-how are hard to come by — there are only 1,500 listed in the National Coalition of Sexual Freedom’s Kink-Aware Professional Directory — meaning millions are underserved. And those who practice it say this community in particular needs access to therapy: Stigma is still widespread, and past traumas can emerge during BDSM sex. Ferrer recalls clients breaking down when a suppressed experience came rushing back after a flogging session. The trauma could be the result of child/domestic abuse or even something seemingly unrelated. Other times, therapists have to help clients whose fetish is taking over their lives moderate their extracurricular activities. Plus, the overall social stigma can cause people to second-guess what they find attractive and develop anxiety or depression, says Dr. Randy Carrin, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist.
Still others need help puzzling out what’s going on with their desires in the first place. Take, for example, the successful, empowered businesswoman who manages a gaggle of underlings during the day but finds immense pleasure in playing submissive Betty Crocker the Housewife with her partner in the evenings. She might think to herself, “If I enjoy being demeaned, what’s wrong with me?” says Ferrer. Or what about a man taught never to hit women — what’s he to do if his partner likes getting slapped? It takes a certain approach to guide them through the apparent contradictions. Says Ferrer, “A closet is a closet, no matter who’s in it.”
When all’s ticking well up there, though, kinky folks can enjoy overall better mental health — fewer depressive tendencies, less anxiety — than non-kinksters, studies have shown.
But of course, there are some cases in which a psychologist should jump in to pull the plug, experts say. Sometimes people use kink as an excuse to simply hurt others. (The kink community’s motto, for its part: safe, sane and consensual.) It’s sometimes difficult to determine safe from unsafe or consensual from nonconsensual. Dealing with kinky people requires treading carefully, says Krista Regedanz, a Palo Alto, California-based licensed psychologist. If she suspects anything out of the ordinary, she immediately refers the patient to a kink specialist. For others, simply being kinky is a flag. A clinical therapist based in Mountain View, California, who wished to remain anonymous, considers much of kink to be a sign of bad news in the brain … or “outside the range of normal human behavior.”
As the community steps out of the shadows, “an explosion” of Ferrer-types will soon come around, predicts Susan Wright, founder of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom , an advocacy group for alternative-sex practitioners. Indeed, post-Fifty Shades of Grey, the public conception of whips and cuffs is changing: Until 2013, the American Psychological Association considered people mentally ill if they fantasized about or were voluntarily “humiliated, beaten, bound or otherwise made to suffer.” The new definitions undid that, opening the door for more Ferrers to abound. But the APA says it has no “official recommendations” on how treatment for kinky people should change.
We’ll see how many more clients step through Ferrer’s door now that Fifty Shades has hit theaters.