When my older sister asked what schoolwork I had to do over reading week, I admit my answer was probably not what she had in mind. BDSM as healing for sexual assault survivors? There is indeed a concerted academic interest in the psychological value of BDSM play, I managed to convince her. Scholars like Pitagora note that an ASC (altered state of consciousness) can be achieved through reaching subspace. “This state is often characterized by activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of epinephrine and endorphins, and a subsequent period of non-verbal, deep relaxation.” As an interaction ritual concentrated on the body, BDSM uses physiological reactions to pain to reach mental and emotional relief. The pain administered is at once physical and emotional – the sensation of being whipped or bound is a way to feel humiliation, for example. Relaxation is considered a typical product of a successful BDSM scene, to such an extent that some dominants consider themselves in some respect as taking on a therapeutic role, as in this video. Part of that therapy or catharsis comes from a loss of control by the sub.
Though rituals are the most efficacious when everyone involved is enthusiastically consenting, there is always an element of giving up one’s immediate agency so as to be guided by another to a state of transcendence. In religious rituals, that other is a spiritual leader or the deity itself. In body modification rituals, it is the tattoo artist or piercer. In the context of BDSM, it is the dominant or top. This is the defining feature of subspace: a relinquishing of control that results in a “psychological reprieve from the pressures of postmodern life,” such as maintenance of public and professional personas, large amounts of responsibility or the urge to quash desires that may not be acceptable to mainstream society. Much writing in this field explores BDSM’s ability to take someone out of their self/ego in an emotionally or even spiritually productive manner.
However, there is much less academic material exploring BDSM as a treatment method specifically for sexual trauma. It was online that I found the most comprehensive outlines of the ways in which BDSM allows practitioners to experience healing and to reclaim agency. Sexual assault support website Pandora’s Project details the methods, reasoning and outcomes to survivors engaging in BDSM to treat their trauma. The article articulates that there is more than one way that a survivor can ‘rewrite’ or reinterpret their sexual trauma. Some totally flip the power dynamic and assume the role of the dom, so that they can physically be in control of the sexual situation. Others will participate as subs in scenes of consensual non-consent, reenacting their trauma in such a way that they regain agency: during a scene, they can say “no” and stop at a crucial moment, the thing they did not have the power to do during their actual assault. “Mains argues [role-playing] often plays on the themes of buried or frustrated emotions and can function as an enabler to heal emotional wounds.” Acts or sensations associated with trauma can thus be relearned as positive, pleasurable and safe. Indeed in BDSM, as with many rituals, fully understanding and discussing the boundaries and actions of the ritual is necessary before engaging in it. It is easy to see why this focus on informed, enthusiastic consent and a clear threshold between reality and fantasy would be attractive to survivors. The key is that they have control, regardless of if their role is one of passivity, and that their partner respects them and the boundaries of the ritual.
True, destructive shame can be removed from the sexual equation by performing shame in a way that forefronts trust and inclusion: the literal acts may be the same as their assault, but the context is completely different.
Buenting does argue that BDSM has both the potential to “contribute to the eroticization of violence … [and be a] release of sexual energy and power dynamics.” There is a danger of survivors using BDSM – and sexual activity more generally – as a self-punitive measure, which of course is not cathartic but deepens the trauma and can enhance feelings of responsibility and shame. Psychology Today describes the difference between negative and healing usage of BDSM as trauma reenactment vs. trauma play, respectively. Again, context – the interplay of understanding, meaning-making, intimacy and intent – is everything.
There is still much research to be done concerning BDSM as a treatment method for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, both in terms of its ethics and efficacy. It’s research that I believe is pertinent and could provide relief and hope for individuals affected by this kind of violence.
Author Bio: Caitie Annear is an undergraduate student at Queen’s University studying Film and Media. Outside of cinema, she is interested in the different methods of treatment for sexual trauma and the ways in which survivors frame their experiences.
 Dulcinea Pitagora, “No Pain, No Gain?: Therapeutic and Relational Benefits of Subspace in BDSM Context,” Journal of Positive Sexuality 3.3 (2017), 46.
 Charlotta Carlström, “BDSM, Interaction Rituals and Open Bodies,” Sexuality and Culture (2017), 10.
 Ibid, 2.
 Julianne Buenting, “Rehearsing Vulnerability: BDSM as Transformative Ritual,” ATLA Serials, 46.