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BDSM and Therapy: Playing with Power

My senior year of college, I wrote an 80-page thesis on BDSM. Although re-reading that thesis makes me cringe now, I am surprised and delighted that I continue to revisit BDSM as a pathway into trauma resolution and therapeutic dynamics.


Power differential is inherent in therapeutic spaces. And when we allow ourselves to embody these roles with awareness and care, therapy can be mutually generative and potent. When the therapist and the client can each trust that the other is rooted in their sovereignty, the therapist can tug and the client can willingly follow, the therapist can offer and the client can receive.


Societally and culturally, we are so afraid of power. And this is for good reason. Power has been used and abused to inflict harm on so many of us and those that we love, within our families, friendships, communities, and systems. As a white person, and as a queer person from Jewish lineages, I can feel the ways in which I embody the oppressor and the oppressed. I can sense how terrified I am of causing or experiencing harm, and I know that I have been in both positions. I feel how I've protected myself from the impact of my own and others' misused power.



In my therapy practice, I consistently grapple with power and what it looks like in sessions. When I started out, I wanted to relinquish all power, I wanted to let clients lead entirely. This approach felt safe because it appeared as though I couldn't cause any harm. I was able to provide a non-judgmental and reflective space, but when clients expressed that they wanted to take steps towards change, I feared that the tools I had learned might become weapons in my unskilled and hesitant hands. I often felt flaccid and jostled, and I questioned whether this career would be sustainable for me. In short, I wasn't able or willing to take on the role of the steady guide. I was afraid of the power I held in session.


As I've developed a potent therapeutic perspective, and my confidence and skills improve over time, my approach has changed. I am less afraid of embodying power, and my capacity to offer a grounded presence has expanded beyond what ever felt possible. I trust that my clients have chosen me because they value my perspective, and I trust that they have the agency to receive or reject what I am offering.


As I see it, when choosing to engage in therapy, we are placing our trust in someone that we believe can guide us towards ourselves - towards pleasure, towards aliveness, towards the erotic, as articulated by Audre Lorde:

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

In a therapeutic relationship that honors the power play between equals, we can begin to sense the erotic tension - this place where all creativity is generated. This is what BDSM can teach us: it is possible to engage in consensual power differential for the purpose of deeper connection to self and others. When done consciously and carefully, therapy can be a space where we surrender our defenses and discover the possibility that lies beneath them. In my experience, transformation becomes possible when power differential is acknowledged and roles are consciously claimed.


BDSM isn't just about sexual pleasure. Like therapy, it can be about the thrill of seeking sensation and emotion in those dark, shadowy corners. It can be about accessing our whole range of feeling, the overwhelming cacophony of being alive and present in each moment among all of this messiness. It can also be about escape, to safely and pleasurably access the wise and important mechanism of dissociation. BDSM inherently acknowledges that power play can help us thaw our frozen parts, embody sovereignty, yield with agency, access safe and secure attachment, re-wire neural networks, and re-write old stories.


BDSM also acknowledges what therapy spaces so often forget: feeling our feelings can be playful and fun, even and almost especially when they're challenging. It is possible to find pleasure in pain.

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