Power Exchange Relationships I: Fundamentals and Science of BDSM

What is BDSM?

BDSM is an acronym for Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/submission, and Sadism/masochism, also commonly referred to as SM. BDSM interactions can be sexual or non- sexual and can involve direct contact and online engagement. “BDSM is also commonly interpreted from discourses focusing directly on sexuality, yet such an approach is limited given that many BDSM participants do not experience BDSM activities as being a part of sexual interaction” (Dancer, Kleinplatz, & Moser, 2006; Newmahr, 2010). In fact, new research found that some people with asexual identities are attracted to BDSM participation as a means of forming “intimate, but nonsexual, relationships” (Williams & Prior 2015). Thus, BDSM is a form of eroticism rather than a form of sexuality as pointed out by Ortmann and Sprott (2015). BDSM communities create ideological play spaces where sex, power, and relationships take on a far broader set of meanings than in conventional constructs. Therefore, as mental health provider, it is essential to note that simply because a client states they participate in BDSM activities does not immediately imply that this is sexually based. Additionally, not all power exchange relationships are based upon the inflection and reception of pain. It is important that during intake, if this discussion comes up, that you clarify exactly what activities your patient chooses to participate in.

Myths About BDSM

There are a number of misconceptions and biases related to that need to be overcome both culturally and clinically. The battle to normalize this behavior has been an uphill one for many progressive clinicians specializing in sexual medicine and sexual psychology. To teach cultural sensitivity, one must be mindful to practice it. Mental health clinicians who succumb to their own cultural bias, who view these activities as a form of abuse, can alienate their patients.

They identify BDSM behaviors as pathological or as abuse despite the inclusion of consent and no clinical data supporting classifying it as pathology. Nichols (2006) notes that a common discourse around BDSM as addiction is that practitioners will escalate and become more extreme in their play (the ‘slippery slope’ argument) yet there is no evidence of this. Instead, while it varies from one individual to another, most people experience ‘leveling off’ after their initial experiences in BDSM. Finally, there is a misconception that BDSM is an exclusively sexual practice, when it is actually an erotic practice where sex or intimacy may not always accompany play. It is important to ask what BDSM means to your client.

Williams and Prior (2015) have a radical theory that there are three types of BDSM participants within the community. They identify a) those that participate as a form of casual leisure, a.k.a. Kinksters, b) those that consider it serious leisure and c) those that view it as their orientation, a.k.a. lifestylists. Kinksters like to enjoy Kink as an addition to sexual play and often can give or take a Kinky activity as a part of their lives. Often, they explore the softer side of Kink and avoid edge play. These Kinksters tend to be more private and do not spend a large portion of their leisure time participating in community activities.

Serious Leisure BDSM participants will attend conferences, spend a significant amount of money, time, and energy learning new tricks and will also participate in community, but these individuals are extreme hobbyists and although they would feel a loss to give it up, it does not define their lives. Lifestylists see BDSM as an orientation, no different than being heterosexual or asexual, and see the BDSM community and associated activities as part of their basic needs. In communities, there does seem to be a distinct bias against Kinksters as they may be seen as rude because they either are unaware of or disregard proper etiquette at community gatherings and tend to pose a liability when they participate in edge play activities without the proper training.

What Is A Power Exchange Relationship?

Clinically, a “power exchange” relationship is one in which a submissive or “s-type” consensually gives power and control to a Dominant or “D-type.” In Kink etiquette, it is considered proper to capitalize the title of Dominants and to use lowercase when referring to submissives, and we will adhere to those rules for the remainder of the text.

Who Participates in BDSM Activities?

There are a number of myths and misconceptions surrounding the desire to practice BDSM. Some feel that the choice is a way of resolving previous trauma or that it is a product of some pathology. Although there may be some individuals who fit both of these hypotheses, current research shows that the majority of participants do not fit into these criteria. As mentioned in the previous chapter, Thaddeus Birchard (2015) supports Solomon’s (1980) hypotheses that paraphilias develop as a result of our brain’s protective mechanism, turning trauma into triumph thus sexualizing an object of trauma. However, in a national survey performed by Richters, J., De Visser, R.O., Rissel, C.E. Grulich, A.E. and Smith, A.M., (2008), they concluded that exploration and participation in BDSM activities was part of normal sexual expression and was not tied to sexual dysfunction or previous sexual trauma. Andreas Wismeijer (2013) examined an online questionnaire with over 1300 participants and concluded that BDSM may be thought of as leisure activity rather than an expression of a pathological process.

What is Sub Space and Top Space?

In a review of the current research on demographics, sexual behavior, family background, and abuse experiences of male participants in sadomasochistic activities, Sandnabba et al. (2002) concluded that, despite a lack of available relationship partners, subjects had overwhelmingly positive and ego-syntonic view of sexual behavior and showed no impairment in their economic or education lives. Although several of these studies support the hypothesis that BDSM is neither a pathological process nor a result of previous trauma, I encourage that further research be explored in this area. Many of my BDSM clients have reported experiencing an altered state during BDSM play, which is supported by available BDSM literature. When an s-type has reached this altered state, they have entered what we call “subspace”. When a D-type experiences this, it is called “Topspace”. These states of mind have been described by my clients as feeling high, hypnotize, and deeply relaxed like a meditative state. However, there has been minimal clinical data to support the empirical data that either Top or subspace exists. In a recent study, Ambler et al. (2016) reported that “topping was associated with an altered state aligned with Csikszentmihalyi’s (1991) flow (measured with the Flow State Scale), and bottoming was associated with an altered state aligned with Dietrich’s (2003) transient hypofrontality (measured with a Stroop test) in addition to some facets of flow. Additional results suggest that BDSM activities were associated with reductions in psychological stress and negative affect, and increases in sexual arousal.

The Science of Power Exchange

From a pure neurobiology standpoint, there are a number of speculative hypotheses surrounding the biochemistry of subspace and Topspace. One theory involves the biochemistry of pain. Rozin (1990) examined the pleasure/pain principle of spicy foods in humans and suggests that both pain and pleasure stimuli activate dopamine neurons and areas responsible for perception and consciences. In addition, many pain and pleasure neurons overlap boosting an endorphin response. Thus, following the burn of the capsaicin is relief and pleasure. It is not a far leap to hypothesis then that there may be a similar response when participating in a BDSM scene.

Zule (2009) takes the research on Anticipatory Stress Response (ASR) performed by Stefano, Stefano, and Esch (2008) and applies it to BDSM. ASR refers to the cascade of chemical reactions in the body when an individual is predicting some form of future stress. Stephano at al. (2008) report that “the initial activation of this stress component of the total response, i.e., love, relaxation, and mental or physical stress responses, is significant and represents a common protective mechanism since activation/stress response is started first.” Thus, upon initial stimulation, our bodies have not differentiated the difference between safe and unsafe, resulting in the same neurochemical response. Once the body assesses danger vs. safety, there is either a relaxation response or a sympathetic nerve response.

Zule hypothesizes that:

unconscious fear would cause an increase of adrenaline. The amygdala associates fear to excitement. Then, we would realize trough the brain cortex that we shouldn’t be afraid; but that couldn’t stop yet the adrenaline release process. This adrenaline would be added to the one release because of our sexual arousal, love, surrender, etc. In this way, the pleasurable feelings would increase its intensity by using the adrenaline produced by this irrational fear.”

(2009, p. 37)

Additionally, he reports that:

the fact that the amygdala seems to be involved in unconscious sexual desire, besides being involved in the fear, adds more reasons for the fear being able to lead to pleasure. Several studies seem to indicate this involvement of the amygdala in sexual desire. Besides, we could say that the amygdala is a little “disorganized” organ: there is not a clear distinction between the area in the amygdala that is in charge of fear and the ones which are supposed to do other tasks. Even in an individual an area of the amygdala seems to answer to fear, whereas in another individual this same area answers to a different sensation”

Zule 2009

Our body reacts to a stimulus, and then our conscious brain confuses our amygdala, the emotional regulator, combining the pleasure response with the fear response. Therefore, we can see how something that appears traumatic could become pleasurable.

We know that pain, stress, certain exercises, and fear all trigger a cascade effect of neurochemicals and hormones that induce altered states. During continuous exercise, there is release of endorphin and the effect is called a “runner’s high” (Roakade, 2011, p. 435). Roakade also notes “when the athlete crosses the limit of his exercise then endorphins are released which reduces the pain by stopping the pain signals and the athlete is able to work out for more time even after his threshold limit is over” and the release of endorphins gives people strength, confidence, and put them a good mood (2011, p. 435). Often times, Topping, usually done by the D-type, can be a strenuous workout similar to running. On the receiving end of a scene, the pain response also triggers the release of endorphins, with the same results. SM practitioners often begin with “warming up” activities, similar to the warm up prior to exercise, where the Top will begin the scene lightly progressing to more intense activity as they observe their bottom moving towards a space of greater tolerance. Based upon this research, I speculate that it is during this period that we can identify that endorphins have been released and the tolerance of their bottom has increased.

Research suggests that in a sympathetic nervous responses, dopamine and adrenaline, are also triggered which we can then hypothesize could be linked to an altered state. Dopamine, specifically, is known to trigger the pleasure response in the brain that attributes to an altered state. Lenkes and Tracey report that: emerging evidence from the pain and reward research fields points to extensive similarities in the anatomical substrates of painful and pleasant sensations. Recent molecular-imaging and animal studies have demonstrated the important role of the opioid and dopamine systems in modulating both pain and pleasure. (2008)


It is also important to note that, studies show the release of endorphins reduces the ability to achieve orgasm, thus, the pleasure experienced through pain, may be different than the pleasure experienced during an orgasm (Zule, 2009, p. 38). One of the biggest obstacles in researching the effects of BDSM on biochemistry is the challenge of measuring these chemicals in the body. Often, they are in the blood stream for a limited time, meaning we miss the windows. However, with the recent advent of modern neuro-imagery, I suspect we now have a better platform for further research though these assessments are still very expensive and current research has been primarily self-funded. Nonetheless, current literature does support the need to further examine the biochemistry of BDSM.

What is Sub Drop and Top Drop?

Hypothesizing that the neurochemical responses of Topspace and Subspace are true, we can further hypothesis that “Topdrop” and “Subdrop,” the physical and emotional crash that an individual experiences generally 4-12 hours following a scene, are two other commonly reported phenomenon, are also true. In a study performed by Sagarin, Cutler, Cutler, Lawler-Sagarin, and Matuszewich (2008), they evaluated 58 SM practitioners and examined the changes in salivary cortisol and testosterone levels as well as administered psychological evaluations on closeness before and after a scene. Cortisol rose for the receivers of the play but not the givers. Female participants who received several BDSM techniques also had a rise in testosterone. Those who felt positive about their scenes had a reduction in cortisol and an increase in closeness. Those who reported a poor scene alternatively noted a reduction in a sense of relationship closeness. There are few studies that have examined the neurobiology of the BDSM post scene, thus this is an area that requires further research.

Non Consensual Power Exchange

In a non-consensual power exchange, one party is taking power from the other individual by elevating themselves and degrading the other person. For example, if I say that I know more than you, I am elevating myself above you and creating a space that prevents intimacy. If you give me permission to be your guide and allow yourself to learn from me, you are gifting me that power and in return, I have the responsibility to use that power in a way that makes the connection grow. Intimacy builds trust and trust builds connection (Clark, 2011).

Consensual Power Exchange

Consensual power exchange relationships on the other hand can be a very intimate and can foster trust. In these relationships, the s-type is trusting the D-type is going to push them while also protecting them at the same time. Due to the fact that BDSM can trigger the production and release of oxytocin dopamine, one can hypothesize that the simulated, controlled, physical trauma of a BDSM scene, provided both parties followed their pre-negotiated boundaries, the release that they both feel and the connection that they develop can be positive. Additionally, this connection can be nurtured further through the process of aftercare. This hypothesis requires further clinical study.

Roy Baumeister hypothesized that the desire for submission was a form of escape from one’s self. In my clinical practice, while I have seen this a number of times, I also have observed the reverse. There has been no support of any single desire or correlative etiology to the desire to explore power exchange relationships and BDSM activities.


References

Ambler, J, Lee, E., Klement, K., Loewald, T. Comber, E., Hanson, S., Cutler, B., Sagarin, B. (2016). Consensual BDSM facilitates role-specific altered states of consciousness: a preliminary study. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cns0000097

Baumeister, R. (1997). The enigmatic appeal of sexual masochism: why people desire pain, bondage, and humiliation in sex. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 1997 16(2), 133-150

Birchard, T. (2015). CBT for compulsive sexual behavior: A guide for professionals. Hove, East Sussex: Routledge.

Clark, C. (2011). Addict America: The lost connection. (n.p): CreateSpace.

Dancer, P., Kleinplatz, P. & Moser, C. (2006). 24/7 SM slavery. Journal of Homosexuality 50(2), 81-101.

Leknes, S., & Tracey, I. (2008). A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure. Nature Reviews 9, 314-320.

Nicolas, M. (2006). Psychotherapeutic issues with “Kinky” clients: Clinical problems, yours and theirs. In P. Kleinplatz, & C. Moser, Sadomasochism: Powerful pleasures (pp. 281-300). New York, NY: Harrington Park Press.

Ortman, D. & Sprott, R. (2015). Sexual outsiders: Understanding BDSM sexualities and communities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Richters, J., De Visser, R., Rissel, C., Grulich, A., & Smith, A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants od bondage and discipline, “sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660-1668.

Rozin P. Getting to like the burn of chili pepper: biological, psychological, and cultural perspectives. In B. Green, F. Mason, & M. Kare (Eds.). Chemical senses, vol 2: Irritation. (pp. 217–228) New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Stefano, G., Stefano, J. & T. Esch. (2008). Anticipatory stress response: A significant commonality in stress, relaxation, pleasure and love responses. Medical Science Monitor 14(2), RA17-21.

Williams, D., & Prior, E. (2015). Wait, go back, I might miss something important!: Appling leisure 101 to simplify and complicate BDSM. Journal of Positive Sexuality, 1, 44-49.

Wismeijer, A. & van Assen, M. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. International Society for Sexual Medicine 10(8), 1943-1952.

Zule. (2009). Bioquimica de la sumision. In Caudernos de BDSM 6, 39-46.

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