Can BDSM heal the world?

By Kelly Brogan and Chantel Quick


Finding myself in a foreign, open-air space, I was instructed to cast my eyes downward while a well-built, fresh-smelling older man completed a rope knot and moved it toward me. As the rope drew tight around my wrists, I could feel helplessness and delight dancing in my system. The man kneeled me down into a bowing position, and I closed my eyes and went inward as he applied tension to the rope and to my back. This rope demo was one of several exercises I recently explored in the BDSM intensive led by Om Rupani and Laurie Handlers, an experience that radically expanded my appreciation for the role that polarity and consensual domination and submission can play in personal and collective healing.

I know it seems bizarre to think that domination and submission could lead to healing, but let me guide you through a deeper exploration of these concepts and common misconceptions. Most of us have only known warfare psychology: zero sum games, scarcity, and fear that demands relentless vigilance. But I believe that we now have the opportunity to mature the insidious backdrops of warfare consciousness and the idea of every man and woman for themselves into the consciousness of complementarity and mutual service. But first we have to learn how to Own Our Selves. When we each develop intimacy with who we really are, what we want and need, and what our limits and boundaries are, then, and only then, can we enter into conscious agreements and mutually pleasurable dynamics - in community, in business, and in romance.

Until we can truly embrace the notion that seemingly irreconcilable differences in nature should not be neutralized, but rather more fully expressed, we will not realize the potential of polarities. For example, as a woman, I can live a linear, “I’m available to perform every day!” kind of life, just like a man. But imagine what it offers me (and the collective) if I schedule my life, obligations, and creative endeavors around my menstrual cycle instead of pretending that my energy isn’t cyclical? What if I acknowledge that, even though I’m good at planning, finances, and managing, I’d rather express myself through homemaking and the artistry of space creation? What if I have the ability to ravish my man, but the truth is that I’d rather be ravished? When it comes to men and women, the masculine and the feminine, we can create the conditions for deeply fulfilling experiences only by organizing our relating into specific delineated roles, reaching depths that are not available through the commonly-accepted egalitarian “I’ll please you then you please me” exchanges. 

The denial of intrinsic differences between men and women and the celebration of gender parity are core themes in the organized assault on Eros: the animated life force energy that drives desire in each and every one of us. Eros is the same energy that we begin to disassociate from during our childhoods as we start to couple shame with our impulses and hide our sexuality (or even use it to secure safety). Psychiatrists like Alexander Lowen, who wrote Fear of Life, help us to understand the origin of this fear through Oedipal psychology and the triangulation of young children with their parents. As we become aware of our own Eros - our vital force energy that animates our bodies - so, too, do our parents. As daughters, we enter into this dynamic with our fathers and into tension with our mothers; as sons, the opposite happens. It is said that girls develop a fear that their erotic energy (expressed as prancing across a room, singing, or laughing) could get them killed, literally, if it is misplaced, unwelcome, or even incompletely available, and sons develop a fear of castration by their mothers who are conflicted about their own relationship to the masculine. The castration effect yields mommy-pleasers whose warrior energy has been stuffed into a shame-encased container. Women afraid of their own erotic energy are likely to require safe beta males, and they may also condemn other women expressing their sexuality, compete, disrespect, and deride men they fear, or use their sexual energy to manipulate and seduce men as a personal security strategy. I’ve checked all those boxes.

Adding to this division are psychological operations like the feminist movement, which have left us warring, man against women, when we could be uniting in mutual service. 

According to many, feminism was a Rockefeller-funded, socially engineered movement that offered women the poison apple of egalitarian opportunity, and in exchange, they were removed from their homes and role of primary caretaker of their children and added to the taxpayer population. Further, feminism created the conditions for industrialized schooling to program children into obedient workers. Over time, we women became more and more disconnected from our nurturing nature and our reverence for the natural world and our inner cycles. Instead, we morphed into embittered pantsuit-wearing corporate climbers, in an endless competition with men and other women. 

Enter the New Age, which encourages men to “get in touch with their feelings,” shames them for their aggression and anger, and ultimately demands them to apologize for their very existence. Meanwhile, men lack cultural initiation of any variety, and they are disconnected from each other and the unique support that men derive from brotherhood. 

Summing this all up, Om Rupani says, “women are flailing and men are failing.”

But what if there’s a way for us to serve our essential natures, heal the trauma at the root of victim consciousness, and to experience transcendent embodiment all at the same time?

Sign me up.

 

BDSM: The Unlikely Therapeutic

If a resolution of the war of the sexes creates complementarity, not egalitarianism, then we would organize into domains that serve both ourselves and another. As I believe that our inner and outer divisions largely result from our dissociation from Eros, exploring our sexuality in safe, defined, and consensual ways can create the container and practices that help us heal from inside out. I propose that BDSM, an approach to erotic dynamics that stands for Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism, can be an unexpectedly healing modality to help us see, play with, and rewrite aspects of ourselves that have been subverted. How can this be so? Let’s look beyond the assumptions that prevent a deeper understanding of BDSM and attempt to dismantle the egalitarian psychology that would suggest consensual hierarchy play is backwards, damaging, and dangerous. 

Importantly, BDSM offers a template for how the wildly risky terrain of sexual energy can be tamed through pillars of consent, agreements, and mutually-fulfilling engagements. 

BDSM organizes partners into defined roles, connects them through consensual agreements, and creates the conditions for ecstatic union to be channeled through the reclamation of safe power. In BDSM, the Submissive (who may appear as the “victim”) sets the parameters for her own sensory stimulation; these parameters often involve impact play, bondage, and other approaches to “coming into her body” so that she can fully surrender control in the safe conditions of a bigger energy handling her FOR her pleasure and embodied experience. The Dom, on the other hand, experiences his own divine power, creating the conditions for his Sub to move into liminal spaces only possible because of his mastery. 

BDSM practices often involve elements of transgression, such as physical restraint, power exchange dynamics, or the use of pain or pleasure as a means of arousal. These practices are taboo within certain cultural or social contexts, and as such they may have an element of excitement or transgression that enhances the erotic experience and creates conditions for Eros to thrive. When two people enter this vulnerable territory together, they feel a deep sense of connection, possibility, and romance. 

In BDSM culture, consent and communication around safe and explicit checklists of yes’s and no’s and everything in between are approached in advance of play. Interestingly, informed consent has been my rallying cry since I learned the untold story of pharmaceuticals and how impossible it is to make an empowered decision in the dark.  BDSM researcher Dunkley and colleagues write, “The explicit approach to consent practiced by those in the BDSM community is proposed as a model for discussions around consent in clinical and educational contexts.”(1)

How often are we making tacit and assumed consent, in our sexual dynamics and in the rest of our lives? Amazingly, most couples don’t discuss sex, what works for them, what doesn’t, what they want and don’t want, unless there’s a problem. It’s the this-seems-to-be-going-fine-let’s-hope-for-the-best-hope-he-can-read-my-mind approach.  In contrast, proactive, explicit, and clear communication is a prerequisite for couples engaging in BDSM. And once you get good at expressing needs and boundaries in the bedroom, this skill serves you in the reality of your everyday life as well.

When we get clear on what we want - which can often be located beneath a complaint (if I hate that my kids always barge into my room, what I want is more privacy) - we no longer take the bait of arguments and conflicts that are ultimately a distraction. We are also clear on what we are willing to and unwilling to do, as Betty Martin describes the continuum from wanting. My unwillings are my hard no. My willings are something wanted by another that are not a violation of my needs. And then my want to’s spring from my known desire, preference, and pleasure. 

 

Kasia Urbaniak is a taoist nun and world-famous dominatrix whose book Unbound was instrumental in my deeper understanding of how to intentionally assume either the dominant or submissive energy when asking for what it is that I want. The submissive ask is invitational, offering a role in the most beautiful fantasy vision you are sharing with the object of your desire or keeper of your wanted experience. This ask is feeling-oriented and is internally focused. This ask invokes the “prey” biology. The dominant ask is directive, clear and instructional, other-focused, and more predatorial in its energy. 

So, if my heart longs for my uncle to give me $1,000 towards my new business, a Sub ask would sound something like, “You have always been a hero in my life, and I have this dream to start an online awakened sticker company that I need $1,000 to get off the ground. I would feel like a princess being carried off to the castle if you could help me. Will you?” In contrast, the Dom ask could be a better approach if I knew my uncle well enough to know his weaknesses. Then I would say something like “You always know how to get a girl on her feet, so here’s an opportunity you can’t refuse. My new business needs rescuing to the tune of 1000 bucks. Let me know what you need to make that happen!” 

When we learn how to ask in organized energetics, we stop disorienting and confusing men with resentful, sarcastic entitlement coated with semi-nice, “I’m-not-a-bitch-I-promise,” on top. And we elicit the response we want. This is what Kasia calls “influence,” rather than power, and it may be the most essential path toward interpersonal fulfillment.

 

Why submit?

 Because that’s actually what we want as women. We don’t want to be the best man in the room. We want to be well-handled by capable hands so we can finally exhale. Recently presenting at a Weston A. Price conference, I responded to a question about gender dynamics, in part, with the statement, “most women I know long to be well-handled by a powerful man,” and a sensual sigh swept across the 2,000 person room.

 BDSM provides the framework for this to unfold in a safe and transformative way. The dominant and submissive rubric is not limited to whipping and nipple clamps, but is a powerful lens through which to explore man-woman relating in the everyday world. 

 When we think of submitting, we might think of losing, of relinquishing control, of unwanted consequences and punishment. But what if we think about submission as surrender: letting go and having faith. And what if surrender is what’s required to access freedom and bliss? And what if the conditions to safely secure this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are set by you, yourself? It would be like water requesting a river bank so she can finally flow. The water doesn't care to be responsible for every bit of soil and the topography of the land. She wants containment, and she wants an experience. In the human world, containment refers to the attentive attunement of a stable, strong, courageous, and intentional man stabilizing a woman’s nervous system. He takes on the care and soothing of her system as he does his own and in return, her energy flows into and through him. 

 Complete surrender to the belief in Self is where your true power lies and where the real alchemy happens. Your tightly wound preferences about when and how you want it, and how it should look, and what is appropriate and “right,”  is strangling you and rendering that surrender impossible. Surrender is what wants to come through you, not what you force out into the world through your limited lens of reality. When you surrender to the benevolence of the universe (rather than exhausting your own egoic will that results in gripping, grasping, manipulating, and controlling things and people in order to achieve a certain outcome), a truth unfolds that is often so much more magical and interesting than anything we could have conjured up on our own.

 𝙏𝙧𝙪𝙚 𝙨𝙪𝙧𝙧𝙚𝙣𝙙𝙚𝙧 𝙙𝙤𝙚𝙨𝙣'𝙩 𝙢𝙚𝙖𝙣 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙧𝙚𝙡𝙞𝙣𝙦𝙪𝙞𝙨𝙝 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙛𝙧𝙚𝙚𝙙𝙤𝙢. 𝙄𝙩 𝙢𝙚𝙖𝙣𝙨 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙛𝙞𝙣𝙖𝙡𝙡𝙮 𝙜𝙚𝙩 𝙩𝙤 𝙧𝙚𝙡𝙞𝙨𝙝 𝙞𝙣 𝙞𝙩.

 In the context of man-woman relating, surrendering to a man as a woman isn't about resigning or giving up anything (except maybe your ego and tightly wound up death grip on life). It isn't about being controlled, it's about being contained. You still get to be wild, but you stop being feral, desperately searching for solid ground. You get to release the mechanisms that leak your life force energy and signal a false sense of control.

 And the truth is that if you have a submissive/feminine essence, you’re subconsciously creating the conditions for your life to form a constrictive container around your energy and impulses. Your life experience constricts you when you spend that money as fast as you get it, injure yourself so you can’t pole dance, surround yourself with friends who hold you back… In my case, my eroticized relationship to punishment for self-expression and boldness is probably responsible for my subconscious co-creation around experiences of censorship and public maligning (including being named one of the Disinformation Dozen!) as a “naughty provocateur.” 

 Trust me when I say that there is a more conscious and intentional way to secure the sense of being held, handled, and adeptly managed that is way more fun and expansive than existential kink with your lifescape.

Finally, you don't surrender to him FOR him. You surrender to him for the highest in both of you. Anchoring in your sovereignty and belonging to God, first and foremost. Amazingly, submission and conscious kink can be a sacred offering that initiates a resurrection of the exalted true essence in both of you. 

 

5 ways BDSM can heal your life

In spite of seeming hierarchy, the practice of BDSM inextricably links sexuality, communication, safety, care, self-awareness, and empowerment in service of both parties. In this world of mutual wins, Doms are fed by the energy that flows through the Submissive, and the Submissive is contained, inspired, and moved into transcendent states. An alchemical container emerges wherein one can heal in multiple ways, including:

Bolder self-expression

When we relax into our native polarity, whether it be embracing the sacred masculine or feminine, we can let go of the compensatory, reflexive habits of our persona and expand into our full, true expression. For women, assuming a submissive role means that we do not have to “take care of” (i.e. control) our Doms, and for men, leaning into dominance allows them to express their strength and power instead of repressing their urges in order to be a “nice guy.” 

Just like in a good parts-work session, BDSM creates the conditions for all parts to be welcome. An expansive permission field opens up for partners to simply be and to bring whatever wants to emerge to the surface. Any type of exploration can be held; for example, humiliation play is a specific way to explore a Sub’s own inner hater by  scripting the delivery of the most feared, most hated words (on retreat, mine in this exercise were, “you’re ugly inside and everyone knows it!” 😳). 

Improved communication and boundaries

When you become practiced at learning your No’s, using safewords, and identifying what really gets you off, you bring this kind of self-awareness to the rest of your life and to the world. Long gone are the days of hoping and praying that someone will read your mind and then experiencing delicious resentment when they fail to do so. BDSM affirms that it’s your job to be clear about creating the conditions for safety and fulfillment of needs in your lifescape, and it’s your responsibility to treat yourself with the care, nurturance, and respect the way a good Dom would.

Ultimately, clearer Yes’s and clearer No’s lead to more secure attachment and emergent trust. In fact, the results of a research survey of 902 BDSM and 434 control participants conducted by psychologist Andreas Wismeijer indicated that “people in the BDSM scene reported higher levels of well-being in the past two weeks than people outside it, and they reported more secure feelings of attachment in their relationships.”(2)

 Get high and experience inner peace

Interestingly, pain and impact play during BDSM can have a calming and meditative effect. Many Submissives describe pain play (where they control the intensity) as one of the only means to effectively quiet their minds. When individuals are experiencing intense pain, their minds may become focused on the sensation of pain itself, and a complex inner pharmacopeia of endorphins seem to lace in and out of what would otherwise be unwanted sensations. This can create a sense of mindfulness or meditation, as the individual becomes fully immersed in the present moment and their immediate physical experience, taking them out of their heads and into their bodies. 

 A handful of scientific studies have found that BDSM interactions can create brain activity changes that are associated with pleasure (3) as well as measurable alterations in neuromodulatory molecules such as oxytocin, beta-endorphins, and endocannabinoids.(4) These changes in brain blood flow and chemical messengers have been documented as being a meditation or “yoga-like” benefit for the Submissive (5) and a “flow state” benefit for the Dom.(6) Preliminary research suggests endocrine parameters that correlate with the observed and experienced phenomena of flow, creation and connection, and self-enhancement.(7) 

 Increased intimacy

When you invest in complementarity with a partner, when you show them the whole you (including your shame and vulnerable points), when you entrust them or are entrusted, intimacy is inevitable. BDSM offers a framework to resolve the all-too-common pathology of cowering, insecure men and hen-pecking controlling women; when we get into Dom/Sub dynamics, a safety and coherence returns to the field that creates the conditions for true connection. The scientific literature is even documenting this phenomenon, as studies are finding that couples who participate in these practices have decreased levels of physiological stress and increased relationship closeness.(8)

Access to well-being

I believe in an order of operations: first get your mind right (Get Real), then get your body right (Get Well), and then meet yourself with love (Get Free). For true wellness and self-love, there is no avoiding the essential reclamation that is our sexuality. And this is because of how sexuality is tied in with our sense of worth, lovability, pleasure, trust, and even access to our own divine nature. Especially for those with sexual trauma - and let’s be honest; all of us have some form of trauma around sex - BDSM can help transform and transmute the confusion that is locked up in one’s relationship to their own sexuality.(9) I believe that the role that sexuality plays in our lives is a Gordian knot aching to be released.

And in a holofractal universe, as we relax and release our fear-based habits and step into our true power - through domination or submission - we reclaim vital force energy that melts illness and dis-ease. This vital force energy - Eros - radiates outward into all our relationships and actions, creating an impact too beautiful to be measured.

 

Summing it all up…

One of the simplest ways to summarize the path to personal empowerment is as follows: say yes to all of the no in your self, get to know it, and then claim the gifts that were held in that tension. Amazingly, BDSM is a practice and a lifestyle that creates the conditions for this reclamation and journey back to yourself. And wouldn’t it be funny if this intentional exploration has been so maligned and pathologized because of its power? A power that all of us can access as we relax into the alchemical container of the age-old technology of adult consensual erotic relationship. The system would love to remain in charge of determining who’s been a bad girl, who hasn’t, and who gets what punishment, but wouldn’t it be better to empower your man to do that for you? 😉


Sources

  1.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31010393/
  2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jsm.12192  
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34876387/   
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32044259/  
  5. https://www.livescience.com/43502-sadomasochism-mind-alteration.html  
  6. https://www.medicaldaily.com/sm-may-be-new-yoga-bdsm-causes-blood-flow-brain-alter-state-consciousness-269863  
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30040546/  
  8. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-008-9374-5  
  9. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14681994.2021.1937599?journalCode=csmt20

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More