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The failed mad scientist – Why do we do BDSM?

At the end of a recent lecture about BDSM, a sexology Ph.D. student approached me to ask a few in-depth questions, including a true evergreen: «so in the end everything stems from childhood traumas, doesn’t it?»
Faced with such a query, many psychologists would answer yes. Almost all kinksters would resentfully burst out «Not at all!». I, after so many years immersed in the matter, have grown to think that the correct response is: «it depends». And, since this is an undeservedly unspoken subject, I guess it is finally time to address it once and for all

Let’s start with a necessary preamble. Today’s psychology has long diverged from Sigmund Freud’s, who believed that most human distresses were caused by the sexual turmoils primed by repressive – or outright abusive – parents. That was an oversimplification itself already, but one century of prejudices and even worse misunderstandings contributed to spreading a tragic condensation both in media stereotypes and among certain professionals. In a pinch: are you a “sexual pervert”? Then you surely were a victim of sexual traumas during your childhood – and if you don’t remember them it’s even worse, for this means they were so severe that you removed them. Come to think of it, come here and we’re gonna cure you.

Now, try saying that to someone who actually enjoys erotic domination and submission games, and they will feel understandably vexed. Besides the simple fact that nobody fancies being diagnosed as mentally disturbed, the echoes of the decades past when non-normative sexualities were repressed, condemned or punished even on a clinical and legal level still uneasily reverberate in our society. 50 Shades of Grey may have half a billion rabid fans, but in a world that still not-so-subtly discriminates even homosexuality, marginalizations remain a nasty burden.
The word ‘BDSM’ itself came into fashion as a way to disassociate extreme eroticism from pathological sadomasochism, and the international community of kinksters strives every day to clarify how playing with power exchange in the bedroom has nothing to do with having being raped as kids.

It is a simple matter, really. Psychologists deal with problematic people by definition, so they obviously come into contact with a statistically outstanding number of individuals with difficult pasts. This – and their studies – strongly influence their vision of erotic domination relationships while ignoring the most evident hard data: about 10% of the population practices that kind of sexuality, and it is unlikely that they all had such an atrocious childhood. More specifically, a recent survey found that about 18% of kinksters were molested before age 16 – a shockingly high number, but unfortunately aligned with abuses in the general population. Also, various scientific studies confirm that most BDSM enthusiasts fare pretty well.
The argument is so crystal-clear that, among advocates and activists, holding other opinions is essentially anathema, a sort of unacceptable betrayal of the good cause. But there is a problem.

The one thing BDSM taught me is the absolute importance of intellectual honesty: recognizing things as they truly are, without hypocrisy even when they’d come so handy to avoid having to question yourself. It is always a greatly beneficial approach in the end… but one that may feel like a damn burden while you are at it. Case in point: when you’d love being able to claim that all kinky people are perfectly serene, balanced and resolved – but years of observation unfortunately confirms the opposite. So, are we really sure they are free of traumatic distress?

Stop! Hold the instinct to lynch me for my last statement, or to weaponize it for your agenda. Like everything in nature, the matter is complex and cannot be reduced to one single phrase. So let’s examine it a little closer.

First things first: the observation that the BDSM world has an above-average concentration of somewhat odd characters is not just my impression, since this was also found by ethnographic and anthropological studies suggesting various possible reasons for that. Also, we are not generalizing about all  kinksters here, even if there is no objective data about it and… yes, now we are entering the field of my own personal conclusions, mostly educated by observing the Italian scene.

One that gave me lots of food for thought is that those who approached erotic domination games as adults generally seem more at ease than those who began having this kind of fantasies when they were very young, as it often happens. In fact, according to the above-mentioned survey, 89% of participants felt a call to BDSM before they were 15, 28% before age 9 and 9.4% even before their sixth birthday.
Another group who apparently lives their kinky sexuality less troubled than the average is composed by those currently aged 18 to 22. And why is it so? The two categories are similar in their ease of access to information about extreme eroticism, mostly thanks to the Internet. Everyone else grew up in an age when online resources were less common, as much as fluency in the foreign languages required to read most topical books and websites.

Therefore, a key factor seems to be one’s relation with these fantasies: the more familiar you are with their contents, the better you handle them. Which makes sense, especially whenever I recall all the times I was told or written «I thought I was sick or mad; then I discovered your books and I understood I was not alone, that my desires were common… and I now finally live them without fear!».
You can find the same phenomenon in anything generally related to sex, including its most “normal” aspects. Just think of the adolescents who worry about how their bodies change, or by incomprehensible mysteries such as the first ejaculation… if nobody ever explained these things to them. In our specific case, the presence of apparently violent aspects within the erotic dreams also makes things even more conflictual – at least until you discover concepts like SSC, or safewords and so on, making it all way more acceptable.

When the current minors will grow up enough to be studied, they too will probably reveal an advantage in their native familiarity with the Web. The problem in their case will be the confusion between pornography and reliable sex information, but who knows whether time will possibly solve that issue too.
Until then, however, we’ll have to deal with that eighty-nine percent of people who harbor BDSM desires since they were little, and ask ourselves once and for all: if the reason is not trauma and abuse, where did they get those ideas?

There probably is no one model fitting everybody. Contemporary psychology offers about ten different theories that sometimes overlap and sometimes contradict each other. Even examining them all, however, I noticed the absence – due to the above-mentioned bias introduced by the self-selection of examined cases, I suppose – of a model clearly describing the etiology I often encountered in my discussions with other kinksters.

The general scenario with those persons goes like this: the child is in a phase of his (or her, obviously) life focusing on exploring the world and himself, including whatever gives him pleasure. Not a strictly sexual pleasure, clearly, but an erotic one nonetheless, in the sense of a pleasurable sensory stimulation.
Right in such a particular moment he encounters… yes, a trauma. But not necessarily the tragic kind conceived by us adults: for our standards, ‘trauma’ is being raped, the shock of seeing our parents having sex, to be the victim of serious accidents. In the limited, self-referential and often incomprehensible universe experienced by a child, it takes much less to be scarred by a catastrophe instead. Maybe the ice cream you wanted so much slips to the ground and is “gone forever”; maybe the grownups separate us from the playmate we so have fun with “for an interminable week”; maybe we get scolded and convince ourselves that that person will never love us anymore…

An adult would have no problem solving this kind of problems, but kids are essentially powerless against the world. So how can they be happy again? If reality is beyond their reach, naturally they use their imagination, building control fantasies («I am the king of the world, and everybody do as I say!») or resilience ones («Whatever you do to me I will not break, and I’ll come out of this stronger than before!»). Daydreams, inherently pleasant and therefore mentally filed under ‘delight’.
Sometimes such delight happens to concur with other sensory explorations and more directly sexual pleasures. Lacking a way to understand what is happening, it is very easy for everything to merge in sadomasochistic-type erotic fantasies, possibly inspired by the immense and very widespread symbology of this kind. Just notice how many images of characters bound, tortured, beaten or degraded you encounter in any given day, even in products meant for children such as cartoons, fables, videogames and so on!

Let me remind you that the definition of pathological sadism and masochism is reserved for self-referential acts where the relationship between tormentor and victim is strictly functional, with no empathic connection between them. In other words: situations where you don’t care what the other person feels, but only about the satisfaction we are feeling ourselves.
Does this ring any bell? Sure: these are exactly those “unexplored fantasies” that cause so much conflict and distress to those who had no exposure to the BDSM culture, recontextualizing the instincts within a strongly empathic dynamic oriented towards the well-being of both partners and purged of dangerous elements.

Of course I have no ambition of revolutionizing modern psychology… but if you too had heard hundreds of personal stories sharing the model I just described, I believe you’d give some credit to this theory.
And here is where, if only I was a serious researcher, I should support it all with some case histories. My job however is merely to write and inform – so I can only offer my own story, as reconstructed over many years of self-analysis.

Since the subject is childhood trauma, let’s start with the original cause of distress. A pet dog run over by a train? Having been kidnapped by a zoophiliac kiddy porn gang? An aunt branding me with a solder every other day? Not at all. The simple truth is that I spent my primary school years in a rather desolate small town, where an underweight kid who used conjunctives like me was not bullied nor derided (ok, sometimes maybe), but basically just excluded. «And I was better off thanks to that!» I can say today as an adult, understanding how lucky I was not to get assimilated by such a squalid environment. But try telling that to my old self of six.

He was dejected, and with all the maturity of that age, the reaction was «I’ll show them» – at least in theory, since actually clashing with kids who carried a knife already, or did karate training every day in the best hypothesis, was not a viable solution. But I could take my sweet revenge in my fantasies. Truly cruel fantasies like only children lacking ethical superstructures can conceive of.
My idea of how to hurt my “enemies” was a confused mix of the various stimuli surrounding me. The sadomasochistic metaphores of ‘70s counterculture, the articles in the family magazine Domenica del Corriere about the atrocities perpetrated by the Argentinian colonels, the tongue-in-cheek bondage of the Penelope Pitstop cartoons, or even my grandparents, who occasionally let a wartime memory of Nazifascist tortures slip. In my cartoonish mad scientist vision, it was clear that they all had to be tortured in the most heinous ways.

Oh, what satisfaction it was to imagine the hateful Damato brothers or Chantal from Second B class pierced by spikes, or abandoned in dank cells full of hungry rats! I was the nicest of children 95% of the time – but in my dark hours criminal sociopathy proved to be hugely comforting. A few years later, during an exploration of “forbidden” places, the pornographic Lady Cruel comics further muddled my ideas, luckily followed shortly thereafter by a definitely more traditional education to sexuality.
With the wildest fantasies now disarmed, I remained curious about that weird stuff with whips and clamps and, always the geek, I began reading everything I could on the subject. Most of it flew over my head, but among that material there also were the first imported books about “safe, sane and consensual” BDSM. From there, growing a more realistic idea of unusual sex was but a short step. In the meantime I had gotten old enough to travel the world and experiment that culture firsthand… and here I am now.

Believe me, this coming out is no stranger than dozens and dozens I heard over the years from every sort of kinksters, a rather sexually happy bunch as a whole. They are the people I think of when I maintain – oversimplifying it a bit, I know – that «BDSM is the cure to sadomasochism».
And yet I am amazed by how this type of trajectory remains absent from the theories that try to explain the origin of erotic domination and submission games. Maybe I just met an extremely peculiar group of subjects, or maybe the kink scene censors anything even remotely reminding of the old Freudian theories, or maybe something else is amiss.
How would you like to let me know your thoughts in the comments?

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