The term ‘sexual orientation’ is mostly used about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual (LGBT). This powerful concept – ‘sexual orientation’ – pioneered courageously by members of the LGBT community, has empowered people, within the last 50 years or so, to think of themselves as not bad, or sick, but just different.
Readers may remember that it is not all that long since homosexuality was considered a form of sickness. Until 1973 Homosexuality was listed in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a psychopathology: a form of mental illness. The underlying assumption here was that gay people had something wrong with them. While there are of course still individuals who think this, it is no longer generally seen in this way, at least in the USA and UK.
Most people have heard of S&M, or SM (in case you’re one of the few who hasn’t, it stands for Sadism and Masochism). Fewer have heard of D/s (domination and submission), but the most comprehensive acronym which is in general use by those who take part in these activities is BDSM (the B is for bondage). If you Google BDSM you will find a lot of porn websites, some community sites run by members of the BDSM community, sites of suppliers of BDSM gear (fetish clothing, specialist fetters and restraints, whips and so on).
However for those looking for serious research into the prevalence and experience of people who indulge in BDSM with consenting adults, there is not very much around. And yet these practices seem quietly to be sneaking their way into our consciousness, with a growing stream of articles and documentaries which, while they are not serious academic work, are also not purely porn. The internet, TV and mainstream magazines are providing media for people who are perfectly nice, and ‘ordinary’ (whatever that means) to reveal that they get off on BDSM activities. In these articles and TV shows, participants generally don’t seem to feel there’s anything wrong with them, or that they have anything to apologise for about their sexual practices. Having said that, most BDSM-ers feel uncertain about how they might be judged for their activities by, say, employers, friends, health professionals and family. In effect, then, it seems many BDSM-ers think of themselves as not sick, but as having a different sexual orientation.
If we think of BDSM as a sexual orientation then what are the implications of this? The following is a rough list.
- BDSM is not proof of some kind of emotional damage (e.g. trauma or abusive parenting)
- People cannot be counselled or otherwise ‘treated’ out of being into BDSM
- People should not be discriminated against for being into BDSM
- People are not in some way ‘ill’ if they are into BDSM
- People are not in some way ‘bad’ if they are into BDSM
Those who do see BDSM as a form of sickness can still find support in the DSM, where activities involving, for example ‘the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s partner’ are classified as a paraphilia: a form of mental disorder. But this is a grey area because there is a systematic ambiguity about whether ‘suffering’ or ‘humiliation’ within a mutually consensual roleplay situation is what is meant here. The BDSM players who are on our TV screens, or internet sites, or who are running businesses around BDSM are talking about exactly this mutually consensual game, as opposed to real, non-consensual torture or humiliation.
For therapists who may encounter clients who present with BDSM-related issues, I invite you to consider the bullet points above, and to see if any of these statements conflicts with attitudes you may have held about BDSM. I invite you to entertain the idea of BDSM as a sexual orientation.