Shades of Play: Trauma Reenactment Versus Trauma Play

Shades of Grey is an opportunity to explore clinicians’ biases surrounding BDSM

The field of psychology has a history of seeing BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) sexuality as pathological. I’ve heard therapists say that BDSM is merely an adult response to childhood trauma. “Sex should never be about pain or suffering; it should be only about joy and pleasure.” (This doesn’t take into account that, for many people, pain and pleasure are mixed together, and suffering can be eroticized in healthy ways.) What I love most about the book, and now the movie, Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is provoking a discussion about kinky sex and whether or not BDSM is a healthy expression of human sexuality.

The controversy surrounds the male protagonist of this erotic fairy tale. Does the fact that he’s kinky mean he’s damaged? Christian Grey has a history of suffering physical and sexual abuse—as well as poverty and neglect. There are many therapists who believe that all BDSM sex stems from childhood abuse and trauma and that any sex that includes pain, bondage, discipline, or humiliation is unhealthy. I am not one of those therapists. There is an important distinction between trauma reenactment and trauma play.

Trauma reenactment is when people recycle the events and relationships from childhood, repeating old wounds by placing themselves at emotional risk or in physical danger in a compulsive mimicry of the past. An example of this may be a man who was physically beaten by his mother, who finds himself in relationship after relationship with physically abusive women. This is obviously unhealthy and we work with clients to stop engaging in behaviors that put them in harm’s way. Trauma play is when someone learns how to “play” with their childhood traumas without putting themselves in danger or stunting emotional growth. A person learns to transcend his or her past rather than having it in inflicted upon them. Using the example of the man who was physically beaten as a child, he may have some sexual kink in which he becomes physically aroused by being spanked or whipped. This is possible in a non-abusive relationship between consenting adults. Just as an artist may use past trauma to express herself in her work, a person may use past trauma to express herself in the bedroom. Nobody tries to get an artist to stop expressing past traumas!

The character Christian Grey participates in trauma reenactment. He doesn’t “do romance.” He has trouble with attachment, with saying, “I love you.” He may not be putting himself in danger, but he is not growing emotionally and instead repeats one stunted affectionless relationship after another. This is the true problem that drives the book’s plot. His inability to love, not his sexual kinks.

Many therapists will keep a client in therapy for years “helping” to get rid of unwanted sexual desires—especially if that client is non-normative and non-heterosexual. Let’s face it, for the unscrupulous therapist, sexual taboos can be an untapped goldmine. We have seen this with so-called conversion therapists, burying facts, and lying to clients (and desperately homophobic parents of clients) about changing sexual orientation from gay to straight. But while there is a strong consensus in the psychological community against conversion therapy, there is no such strong consensus against “curing” BDSM sexuality. This exists despite the fact that no creditable scientifc study has shown any trend of psychological pathologies in people drawn to BDSM.

In 2013, BDSM activities were removed as “disorders” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5, 2013) used for diagnosing mental disorders. If we, as psychologists ask ourselves, “Why is this sexual behavior unwanted?” the answer is likely because our culture and world demonizes sexual desires, often attaching them unconsciously to violent and offending behaviors.

An example of this is the case of Bob Bashara, who lived in my area of Detroit, and who killed his wife rather than divorcing her. It was discovered during the investigation that he was a sexual dominant with a secret life in the BDSM world. The media had a field day, attaching this “shocking” revelation to the killing of his wife—as if one had to do with the other. To me, the connection is as relevant as if we had discovered he was a recreational skydiver or bungee jumper. Who, after all, but a mentally deranged person, would willingly put himself in unnecessary danger?

Hollywood movies (Silence of the Lambs) still love attaching the villain or killer to a “deviant” sexual act or identity. It’s tired. It’s cliché. Yet it still goes on and on while the public eats it up.

The truth is that not all people who are into BDSM have a major trauma or abuse history. However, there are many who do. Many therapists wrongly refer to this as trauma reenactment and focus on what happened in childhood to make someone interested in kinky play. But the term reenactment should only apply in cases where the adult returns to the scene of the crime to unconsciously seek to correct it—or to remain emotionally trapped and stunted.

In cases of BDSM play, however, the return is consciously manipulated or played with to enhance a sexual experience. Period. There need be no angst or shaming involved. And no need for years of therapy to correct. The truth is that most of our sexual fantasies stem from our childhoods. “Tell me how you were loved as a child, and I will tell you how you make love as an adult,” said the eloquent sex and couples’ therapy expert, Esther Perel. An excellent book is Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Sexual Passion and Fulfillment by the late Jack Morin. Jack was a pioneer in the 1990’s on this topic, and his work reveals how childhood shapes our adult sexual preferences and fantasies.

Safe, sane, and consensual sex of any kind cannot be logically or humanely called criminal or pathological. The BDSM network is a well-organized community with its own set of ethical rules and customs, educational materials, and activities. It takes maturity and trust-building for those who are into this type of play. And while many see the character Anastasia as rescuing Christian from his sexual kinks, it is more likely that she is rescuing him from an inability to fall in love.

Happily enough, the playroom can stay.

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