“While it’s great that people are exploring their sexuality,” says Asmi Uniqus, an active BDSM practitioner and lifestyle coach, “it’s frustrating that there are so many misconceptions.” For example, BDSM does not have to be driven by sex or risky forms of play that involve drawing blood, asphyxiation or other such extreme practices.
According to Uniqus, “BDSM is a different form of expression of intimacy, love and care. It is sacrosanct consent. It’s about shared responsibility for safety and sanity, and detailed communication. Anything that violates consent, manipulates it or abuses the trust is not BDSM,” she says. “When trust supersedes the possibility of harm, the result is something incredibly erotic and intimate.” She would know. Uniqus has been a lifestyle submissive for over 10 years and has written several e-books on the subject. Here are some myth busters:
1. You can’t trust anyone blindly. Basic safety checks, personal responsibility and support systems are a must.
2. Uniqus calls it one of the most nurturing and intimate forms of human contact and play. “In vanilla or non-BDSM space, people can jump into bed without conversation, negotiation, or emotional connection. In BDSM, the players always arrange things in advance with clear, intimate communication.
3. Finding the right partner to ‘play’ involves communicating what works and what doesn’t. For instance, the Dominant partner may be a sadist, but the Sub may not want pain. “However, while not many people communicate clearly in vanilla sex, in BDSM that choice of not communicating isn’t there,” says Asmi.
4. “There are pre-decided safe words,” she clarifies. “These may or may not indicate that I want to close the book on the entire session. ‘Red’ may indicate closing the book, while ‘amber’ is for when I’m done with a particular aspect of it. ‘Green’ means I’m in my comfort zone.” When using gags, people decide on non-verbal cues to indicate distress.
5. Submissives in erotica are portrayed as doormats manipulated into ‘slavery’ by smarter dominants. “I am not coerced into being a submissive,” says Uniqus, “It is a lifestyle choice. The sexual aspect of my relationship is completely separate from other aspects of it.”
6. Alpha men, who always call the shots and men, in general, are expected to be in control all the time. For them, it helps to ‘let go’ in a safe environment, with a trusted partner.
7. “For some, BDSM may not be about sex,” says Uniqus. “There is an emotional connect between a submissive and dominant, but there may not necessarily be sexual contact. Some submissives are into domestic servitude and derive pleasure out of maybe just washing their partner’s dishes. I could kneel at my dominant’s feet without shedding a thread of cloth and still be satisfied. It is as gratifying as a sexual act.
8. Then, isn’t BDSM the same as submitting to one’s elders or authority figures? “In a socio-cultural context,” answers Uniqus, “we do submit to our elders’ authority, but we do not develop sexual bonds with them. BDSM may not always be about sex, but it has an undercurrent of physical and sexual intimacy, even when fully clothed,” she says.
9. “Choosing BDSM as a lifestyle just because you’re going through a bad phase in life is the wrong way to approach it,” says Uniqus. “Fifty Shades of Grey did help bring BDSM out in the open in India, and when its popularity increased, people’s sensitivity towards it decreased. Now 20-year-olds want to try it because it is a fad.” She warns that considering the legal ramifications involved, with some kinky acts coming under the purview of Section 377 (anal penetration, or oral pleasure, for instance), it is important to figure out which activities are medically and legally safe.
10. There are international books to guide you through the technique, however they have a different cultural context. There’s also Uniqus’s BDSM Concepts: A Practical Guide.
11. Keep a First Aid kit handy, and also arrange a ‘safe call’ i.e. a trusted friend who can come and rescue or support you, should anything go wrong.
12. Monogamy is still the leading form of relationship in the dominant and submissive equation. Couples who enjoy BDSM together, do not feel the need to add other people to the mix.
13. So what happens when only one partner is inclined towards BDSM? “Most spouses stay restricted to an academic interest in the lifestyle. People value families, relationships and marriages,” says Uniqus. “Some people may experiment outside wedlock, but there are also marriages where a spouse has been patient enough to slowly and lovingly initiate the other into the lifestyle, sometimes taking 10 or 15 years to do so.”
14. Those who enjoy pain are not necessarily wired that way because of trauma. “Pain acts differently for different people. For some, it is cathartic. For others, it’s as an aphrodisiac. Think of the adrenaline rush a heavy workout gives you. Although your body is sore, that pain gives you a high,” she illustrates.
In the prologue to her new book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, philosopher Carrie Jenkins is walking through Vancouver, from her boyfriend’s apartment to the home she has with her husband. She wonders at how the romantic love she experiences firsthand is so different than the model presented by popular culture and academic theory alike. “If indeed romantic love must be monogamous, then I am making some kind of mistake when I say, ‘I’m in love with you’ — meaning romantically — to both my partners,” she writes. “I am not lying, because I am genuinely trying to be as honest as I can. But if romantic love requires monogamy, then despite my best intentions, what I’m saying at those moments is not, strictly speaking, true.”
Her book examines the long, sometimes awkward legacy of philosophers’ thinking on romantic love, and compares that with a new subfield in close-relationships research — consensual nonmonogamy, or CNM. While singers and thinkers alike have been riffing on a “one and only” for decades, she argues that space is being made in the cultural conversation to “question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.” These norms are more fluid than they appear: In Jenkins’s lifetime alone same-sex and cross-ethnicity relationships have become common.
When I asked Jenkins to describe how it feels to have both a husband and a boyfriend — she rejects the “primary relationship” moniker altogether — she said that it’s like having more loving relationships in your life, like a close family member or friend. She and her boyfriend, whom she’s been with for about five years, used to work in the same building; he was teaching creative writing on the floor above her philosophy department, though they didn’t meet until they matched on OkCupid. While both men have met each other, they’re not close; Jenkins describes the relationship as having a “V shape,” rather than a triangle. Both helped in the development of the book: husband refining philosophical arguments; boyfriend editing the writing, and helping her to sound like a normal person, rather than an academic.
Still, CNM faces lots of stigma; even the study of it is stigmatized. Yet in the limited yet rich vein of research out there, the evidence suggests that it’s a style that, in some populations, leads to greater relationship satisfaction than monogamy. In any case, the researchers tell me, the insights into what makes more-than-two relationships work can be applied to any given dyad, given the communicative finesse required when three or more hearts are involved.
In a forthcoming Perspectives in Psychological Science paper, Terri Conley, a University of Michigan psychologist who’s driven the field, defines CNM as “a relational arrangement in which partners agree that it is acceptable to have more than one sexual and/or romantic relationship at the same time.” That’s distinguished from the “polygamy” practiced by some religious groups, where it’s not always clear whether wives can opt out of the relationship.
I was surprised to discover how common it is: A 2016 study of two nationally representative samples of single Americans — of 3,905 and 4,813 respondents, respectively — found in each case that about one in five people had practiced it during their lifetime. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 31 percent of women and 38 percent of men thought their ideal relationship would be CNM in some way. Other research indicates that around 4 to 5 percent of Americans in relationships are in some sort of CNM, be it swinging, where partners have sex with people outside their relationship at parties and the like; an open relationship, where it’s cool to have sex with other people but not grow emotionally attached to them; or polyamory, where both partners approve of having close emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships outside of the couple itself. People are curious, too: From 2006 to 2015, Google searches for polyamory and open relationships went up. Other data points to how sticking to the boundaries of monogamy doesn’t come easily to lots of people: A 2007 survey of 70,000 Americans found that one in five had cheated on their current partner.
Jenkins says that as a tenured philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, she’s in a unique, privileged position to openly talk about being in a nonmonogamous marriage. She’d been interested in being in more than one relationship ever since she can remember, but it used to seem like some sort of impossible dream situation — she didn’t realize it could be an option in her real life until she was about 30. (She’s now 37.)
Jenkins met her husband, Jonathan, who’s also a philosopher, back in 2009, at a philosophy workshop that he organized at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; they later got married in the same hall the conference took place. They took one another’s last names as middle names.
Now married for almost eight years, they talked about polyamory early on, though defining the relationship that way came later. As philosophers are wont to do, they soon wrote a bit of a manifesto about their arrangement. They observed that even if their wedding guests were woke in any number of ways — not batting an eyelid if a colleague was gay or bi, eschewing heteronormative assumptions, and the like — there’s still the shared assumption that a nonmonogamous relationship is less sexually safe and less committed than a regular ol’ monogamous one. “Even our very liberal pocket of our relatively liberal society is massively — and, to us, surprisingly— mononormative,” they write. “Acquaintances, friends, and colleagues are constantly assuming that our relationship, and indeed every relationship that they think of as ‘serious’, is a sexually monogamous one.”
To Jenkins, the biggest struggle with polyamory isn’t from managing multiple relationships — though Google Calendar is a crucial tool — but rather the strong, sometimes violently negative reactions that she gets, especially online. When I spoke with her by phone, she was struck by a comment to a YouTube interview of hers, where a pseudonymous user invited “everyone” to read her column in the Chronicle of Higher Education about having multiple loves.
“THIS WOMAN IS A DISGUSTING ANIMAL,” the troll wrote. “Every bit as twisted and queer as the Mormons with their multiple lives [sic]. This femme-pig is the spectral opposite of Trump; a far far left-wing freak that desires to completely overthrow Western Christian Civilization.” Jenkins walked me through a deep reading of the bile: Bundling in politics — the “left-wing freak” bit — with the monogamy norms signals to her that there’s a judgment of what it means to be a good person in here, since politics is about living correctly, collectively. Plus “if you’re an animal, you’re out of the range of humanity,” she says. She’s also gets a lot of “get herpes and die, slut” suggestions, she says, which speaks to the hypersexualization of CNM. Nonmonogamy leads to lots of sex, the presumption goes, and with that STIs, and it proceeds from there. The way news articles covering CNM tend to be illustrated with images of three or four people in a bath or bed doesn’t help, either.
“The way we normally think about romantic love, we don’t imagine that it’s entirely about sex,” she says. “For a lot of people sex is a part of it; if we’re just having a hookup or a friend with benefits, we don’t call that romantic love. When it comes to polyamorous relationships, if you’re in love with more than one person, the same applies — to fall in love with someone is not the same as to sleep with them. We’re clear with that distinction in monogamous relationships, but in CNM that distinction between love and sex gets collapsed.”
Researchers who have studied stigma around CNM have found lots. In a 2012 paper, Conley and her colleagues found that monogamous relationships were better rated on every metric by different sets of the population, including nonmonogamous people. When 132 participants recruited online read relationship vignettes that were identical except for one being monogamous and the other not, the CNM was seen as riskier sexually, more lonely, less acceptable, and having a lower relationship quality. People in CNM were also seen as worse with non-relational things, like making sure to walk their dog or paying their taxes on time. Amy Moors, a co-author on the paper, says it had some of the biggest effect sizes she’s seen in her research. Elisabeth Sheff, a leading polyamory researcher who left academia for lack of grant funding, now frequently serves as an expert witness in custody battles; she says that often a grandmother or a former spouse will find out that a co-parent has multiple relationships, be scandalized, and demand to take the kids — even though her longitudinal research, reported in The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, indicates that kids who grow up in polyamorous families aren’t any more screwed up than average American children.
That same paper finds that there were no differences in relationship functioning between monogamous and nonmonogamous couples. People in CNM had lower jealousy and higher trust — yet also lower sexual satisfaction with their partner. Polyamorists were more satisfied than people in open relationships, perhaps because it’s hard to block of feelings for people you sleep with frequently. Polyamorous people were a special case, with higher satisfaction, commitment, trust, and passionate love than monogamous individuals, though they had lower sexual satisfaction. CNM people also had higher sexual satisfaction with their secondary partners than their primary partners, though that difference fell away when controlling for relationship time, with primary relationships averaging three times the length of secondary relationships.
“Overall, the standard for human responses for relationships is habituation,” Conley says. “That involves a loss of sexual attraction, and we can tell that from stats from therapy. And to the extent that a couple is frustrated sexually, it spills over to other parts of life.”
There are other explanations for high satisfaction scores for polyamorous people, she adds. It could be that they’re just acting out a social desirability bias, given that they’re participating in a study about CNM and want the lifestyle to look good; it could also be that people who enter into polyamory have self-selected themselves into a hypercommunicative population — all the poly self-helpbooks emphasize the importance the need to explicitly talk things out. “People interested in polyamory are more relationship-y than the average person,” she says. “They like thinking about relationships, talking about relationships. That’s great in monogamy, but needed in polyamory.”
All this suggests the kind of people that are the right fit for CNM. Beyond being relationship-y, a Portuguese study out this year found that people with a high sociosexuality, or disposal to casual sex, had less relationship satisfaction when in a monogamous relationship, but those effects disappeared if they were in CNM. Still, they were just as committed to their relationships — signaling that exclusivity and commitment may not be one and the same. Harvard sexologist Justin Lehmiller has found that people who are more erotophilic — i.e., that love sex — will be a better fit for CNM; same with if they’re sensation-seeking.
Amy Moors, the Purdue psychologist, has found that people with higher avoidant attachment — where you’re just not that into intimacy — have positive feelings about and a willingness to engage in polyamory, but they were less likely to actually partake of it. While a correlational study, Moors explained that from a subjective perspective, it makes sense: “When you have avoidant attachment, you like a lot of emotional distance, physical distance, time by yourself,” Moors says, which is not a fit for the relationship-y remands of a poly lifestyle. Also, there’s reason to believe that folks who have relational anxiety, and are thus sensitive to separation, might be prone to the jealousy that’s known to flare up in CNM, though it’s not like that doesn’t happen in monogamy, too.
What motivated Jenkins to write What Love Is, she says, was a gap — or silence — in the philosophical literature, that polyamory was rarely discussed or even acknowledged as a possibility. “Noticing these philosophical silences and denials, while simultaneously being made aware of how society at large viewed me for being a polyamorous woman, made me realize there was something important here that I needed to do,” she says. “To do it meant bringing my personal life and my philosophical work into a conversation with one another. The familiar slogan says that the personal is political, but the personal is philosophical, too.”
Two key themes emerge from reading the book: that love is dual-layered, with social scripts overlaying evolutionary, physiological impulses. And that the “romantic mystique,” like the feminine one before it, assumes that love is mysterious and elusive and corrupted from examination — a sentiment that protects the status quo. But with investigation, and conversation, the mechanics of love reveal themselves, and norms can change socially, and be tailored locally. Like Jenkins, you can custom-fit your relationships to your life — if you dare to talk about them.
Do people with disabilities have sex? Should they marry and have children?
As part of a research project, Emily Hops, a graduate of CSU Channel Islands, and I interviewed eight college students with disabilities about their general experiences with intimacy and sexual health last spring.
Each student expressed his or her own internal struggle with whether or not they should bear children themselves.
One said, “Is it selfish to have a kid? Even if your kid doesn’t have a disability, are you putting that burden on that kid to one day take care of you because you have a disability?”
Some students shared stories about professionals, even teachers, who dissuaded them from developing intimate relationships with others.
Even though California passed the Healthy Youth Act of 2015, which mandates adapted sex education for students with disabilities, I wonder if we have fully embraced the sexual rights of people with disabilities — especially considering California’s dark past with something called the “eugenics movement.”
Eugenics is essentially selective breeding in order to increase the occurrence of desirable inherited characteristics. California was a leader in the eugenics movement, which resulted in the sexual sterilization of 20,000 people in the state between 1909 and 1979. Seventy percent of those sterilized without their consent had various disabilities, spanning from schizophrenia to a casual diagnosis of being “feeble-minded.”
With a total of 60,000 sterilizations across the U.S., California was responsible for a third of all the procedures. Castrations and tubal ligations were common procedures performed. Some even argue that the U.S. led the way for Nazi Germany’s mass use of sexual sterilizations during the Holocaust.
Along with sexual sterilization laws in the eugenics movement came laws prohibiting marriage between people with disabilities, with the assumption being that reproduction was the reason for marriage.
California passed an annulment law, which specifically stated physical or mental capacity and consent as reasons for deeming a marriage null and void.
While there were other reasons that a marriage could be annulled, physical and mental capacity as well as lack of consent were the only reasons that involved third parties, such as parents or physicians.
These third parties could argue that either the bride or groom was “physically incapable of entering into the marriage state” or “was of unsound mind” at the time of marriage, and the marriage could be annulled.
If third parties were aware of a couple with disabilities planning a marriage, those third parties could make an argument about the incapacity of the bride and/or groom before the marriage date and shut it down altogether. In the early 1900s, 28 percent of marriages were annulled on these grounds.
The law is still on the books. Although rarely enforced today, these reasons for annulment remain in the wording of California Family Code Section 2210.
Not only is marriage annulment due to disability still lawful, but our history of perceiving people with disabilities as “asexual” beings still lives on today.
My hope is that we can learn to appreciate all people with disabilities as sexual beings with full sexual citizenship in hopes that they themselves do not question their own rights as human beings.
Think of the things you might have learned about BDSM from Fifty Shades of Grey. OK, now forget pretty much all of that. While the books and movies got a few things right, there’s a lot more to the multifaceted world of BDSM that people should know (and try out, if they’re interested!).
BDSM is an umbrella term comprising the words describing the erotic practices of Bondage and Discipline (B and D), Domination and Submission (D and S), and Sadism and Masochism (S and M). Carvaka Sex Toys — creators of the informational and ultra-classy Butt Plugs 101 video — just released another instructional video that breaks down the basics of BDSM. Here’s what anyone interested in delving into the kinky world should know.
Words to know:
Bondage — The act of tying someone up. This is done to render the submissive or “sub” vulnerable to the desires and actions of the dominant.
Dom — The dominant partner.
Sub — The submissive partner.
Switch — Someone who switches between the roles of dominant and submissive.
Discipline — When the submissive obeys the commands of the dominant.
Sadism — Enjoying the act of inflicting pain.
Masochism — Enjoying the act of having pain inflicted on you (ex: flogging, spanking).
Safe word — A word that is decided upon before the session and is said when the sub wants the act to stop. A safe word is used in place of “stop” because the safe word is supposed to be something that wouldn’t come up naturally during a session, in order to ensure that the word, when spoken, is taken seriously and that the action is stopped.
Hard limit — An act that can’t be tolerated and that cannot be done. Doing the action may provoke the usage of the safe word and can also end the session/relationship.
Soft limit — An act that stresses a sub but that he or she can “take in moderation.”
And one of the most common questions: why do people enjoy bondage? Well, it’s pretty simple. It’s fun!
BDSM can be exciting and can even allow participants to feel like they are experiencing a new world. Many subs enjoy the feeling of security they get from being controlled, and oftentimes doms enjoy the feeling of power that comes along with being the one in control. BDSM may not be for everyone, but for many, it’s the perfect way to explore their sexuality and add excitement to their sex lives and relationships.
Whips. Chains. Paddles. Rope. Thanks to the pop culture explosion that is 50 Shades of Grey, these words are now part of the mainstream sexual lexicon. But while the book and film franchise has increased awareness about kink, many people are still keeping their bedroom habits secret, and it’s impacting their health.
Amy in Winnipeg has lived the BDSM lifestyle (that’s bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism) and she’s the first to admit that, “it’s nothing like the tame version of the books or movies.” She’s experienced, abrasions, rope burn, sciatic nerve pain and spankings that left her so raw that “it got to the point where I had huge pieces of flesh missing…I couldn’t sit for a week.”
As Amy explains, “if not looked after properly, abrasions can lead to bacterial infections,” which is exactly what happened to her after a particularly painful spanking injury. “I went to the doctor to get cream and I explained myself,” she says.
While Amy wasn’t afraid to open up to her healthcare practitioner, she’s in a minority. According to a new study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine titled “Fifty Shades of Stigma: Exploring the Health Care Experiences of Kink-Oriented Patients,” less than half of individuals surveyed were open with their doctors about their kinky sexual practices. The main reason for keeping quiet? Fear of judgement. Also, as the study highlights, many individuals are afraid their physician will misinterpret their consensual sexual acts as partner abuse.
It makes sense. While my experience with anything kink-oriented is extremely limited, years ago I sustained some gnarly carpet burns after an encounter with an ex. When I went to see my family doctor for my annual exam, I blurted out, “I slipped while playing a game of Twister with friends!” I have no idea why I thought this sounded remotely plausible to anyone, but it was the first thing that came to mind. In retrospect, I think she knew what the deal was, but chose to be discrete. However, not everyone is so lucky.
Despite increased visibility in pop culture, the stigma associated with BDSM is still very real. However, so are the potential risks. Injuries that arise from BDSM can potentially mushroom into more serious issues if left unattended. Anna M. Randall, LCSW, MPH, is a San Francisco-based sex therapist and the executive director of The Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance (TASHRA), the team behind the study. As she told Cosmopolitan magazine recently, “big bruises can develop into hematomas, for example.” She goes on to say that “there are rare injuries from rough sex that may lead to serious complications, such as torn vaginal tissue or scrotum injuries, and because more risky sexual BDSM behaviors may include controlling the breathing of
a partner, those with asthma face real risks if they’re not treated for attacks immediately.”
However, for Cassandra J. Perry, an advocate, researcher and writer, her injuries were all due to health conditions she didn’t realize she had at the time. Perry’s first injury occurred when she shredded the cartilage in her left hip joint (an injury called a labral tear.) She says, “even if you think you’re sex-savvy smart, you could probably be and likely should be safer!” Also, as she points out, “If we practice bdsm, that’s a good reason why we should have our annual physicals. And it’s a really good reason to pay attention to what our mind-body tells us. If something seems off, we need to be persistent with getting answers and care (when possible) and to be cautious when engaging in BDSM activities that may interact with some part of our health that concerns us.”
However, as Stella Harris, a Sex Educator & Intimacy Coach explains, “The risks of BDSM aren’t just physical.
Make sure to look out for the emotional implications, as well. Some of this play can be very intense, and you want to make sure you’ve planned all the necessary aftercare.” This is going to look different for everyone and can include everything from cuddling with your partner to routine check-ins with them over the following days.
Lastly, Harris reminds us, “I always advocate honesty with your medical professionals. When you’re finding a doctor, screen for someone you can be open and honest with, who has passing knowledge of kink, and who isn’t judgmental. If you go to the doctor with visible bruises, just be honest about it and tell them the bruises are from consensual kink activities. They might have questions, but it’s best to be clear and upfront, before they assume the worst.”