When Getting Tied in Knots Becomes Therapeutic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Tim Murray-Wyles’ classes offer a new way to process trauma.
By Mark Hay
Tim Murray-Wyles ties up his clients slowly and deliberately — loop by loop, limb by limb. Once he’s tied as many knots as a client is comfortable with, he pulls everything taut, suspending them “so they’re fully immobilized and floating.” From the outside, this sounds, and looks, erotic — especially to anyone interested in the B in BDSM. But Murray-Wyles claims this form of rope bondage is a therapeutic service that can help clients process the trauma of having been nonconsensually constrained in the past, confront claustrophobia or simply relax.
“Meditative bondage” is one of several services he offers in his Conscious Therapeutic Kink (CTK) practice, a unique venture that strips the eroticism out of non-conventional sexual practices and tries to place them as a companion to mainstream psychiatry. CTK proper may not spread far. But Murray-Wyles, 42, is not pushing for his particular practice to soar. Instead, he hopes his work will wake people up to hidden therapeutic potential in practices like BDSM, turning kink into a broadly accepted wellness tool. In that effort, he may also turn on its head the fading yet persistent notion that kinksters are merely suppressing mental health issues.
He is hardly the first person to suggest that kink play might be therapeutic. Professional dominatrices have long cast their work in this light, notes Danielle Lindemann, an anthropologist who studies kinky folks. In recent years, kinksters have written in major media outlets about how bondage helps them manage clinical anxiety or submissive role-playing helps them heal from trauma, and studies have backed up the notion of kink’s potential mental health benefits. But no one has offered dedicated, explicit and focused services like Murray-Wyles’.
He felt kink’s therapeutic potential the moment he encountered the subculture — at a Halloween mixer in Seattle about 18 years ago. A development specialist at Xerox, he was not far out of a six-year emotionally abusive relationship with a woman who, while they were together, discovered she was a lesbian. By his account, her path brought up a lot of antipathy toward men. Murray-Wyles identifies as gender-chaotic today, most often using male but also accepting female and neutral pronouns. Still, at the time, he internalized her feelings and “ended up hating everything that was masculine about me, and myself” for years.
When he walked into that Halloween party, he saw people playing with gender roles and identities both in their appearance and in kink scenes. He felt acceptance “that I could be an effeminate guy who also liked to hurt people in the ways they liked to be hurt.” Kink play became a transformative, healing experience for him. And he felt an intense desire to share that experience in intimate relationships with others.
Kali, who got involved with Murray-Wyles around 2008 (and asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons), says their BDSM explorations helped alleviate some of her post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. But around the same time he met Kali, another partner humbled Murray-Wyles.
“A young woman asked me if I could help her re-create her rape,” he recalls, “allowing her to turn the tables and take back the power in the scene so that when she reflected on those moments and that feeling she wouldn’t only associate them with fear, pain and anxiety, but with pleasure and power.” He declined, feeling ill-prepared for the challenge.
A young woman asked me if I could help her re-create her rape.
So Murray-Wyles decided to go back to school, entering an independent study program at Goddard College in Vermont in 2009 to research the ways people use kink privately to process trauma and the science behind them. After three years of research and collecting stories, he turned some of the narratives he found into A Kink in the Cure, a Vagina Monologues-esque show aimed at building awareness of and conversation around kink’s therapeutic potential among mainstream and mental health professional audiences. He has performed the show in seven cities, mostly across the West.
Now based in Boulder, Colorado, Murray-Wyles has publicly advertised the CTK service for more than three years and has worked with about a dozen people who found him either through the show or word of mouth, most of whom want to work through sexual trauma or shame. While many of his clients swear by his services, traditional mental health experts point to the risks.
Kevin Foose, an assistant professor in the counseling department at Loyola University-New Orleans who is supportive of kink, says people working through trauma can benefit from BDSM and role-play. But, he cautions, they often need a specialist to help them figure out what is safe to explore, how to do so, and how to interpret and integrate their experiences.
Murray-Wyles requires anyone who works with him to have an existing relationship with a mental health professional who can help them approach and interpret the experience, but he acknowledges that he needs to know how to react if someone has a difficult reaction during a session. Foose has his doubts, based on Murray-Wyles’ lack of specialized training. “This is like holding dynamite in your hand near a lit flame,” Foose says, “and nothing I see … provides evidence of a demolitions expert.”
To address these concerns, Murray-Wyles has explored the idea of developing a curriculum for CTK practitioners, but he’s made little headway and doesn’t seem terribly interested in doing so right now. That’s a serious problem for the concept of CTK. Without established best practices and certifications, says Simone Justice, a dominatrix and licensed therapist, seeking out therapeutic kink services could be an entirely hit-or-miss, and potentially risky, endeavor.
No kinksters seem to have followed in Murray-Wyles’ footsteps yet, but that doesn’t worry him. His goal is not to build a new type of wellness specialist; it’s to spread the word about kink’s therapeutic potential. He’s not trying to expand his CTK practice at the moment and has handed A Kink in the Cure over to a theater troupe to develop, as he sinks more time into his current day job as a corporate leadership and culture adviser.
Murray-Wyles admits that it’s hard to quantify success in such a broad quest, though he is buoyed when he hears anecdotally about therapists or dominatrices speaking his language. “I’m not chasing dollars and saying, ‘Give me credit,’” he says. “The work itself is way more valuable” than him doing the work, or it being done in exactly the way he has dreamed up.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Tim Murray-Wyles
- What’s the last book you read? The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley.
- What do you worry about? Keeping up with the housework and yardwork.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? If I stay off the pedantic oxygen and water line, games. I play a lot of games.
- Who’s your hero? Desmond Tutu. If more people can look at healing like he does, the world will change dramatically.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Summiting a 14,000-foot mountain.
Read more: Would you like a side of kink with that coffee?
- Mark Hay, OZY Author Contact Mark Hay