Kink And Trust: How Some Trauma Survivors Find Healing Through BDSM

It can be a cathartic experience.

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As a survivor of sexual violence, I’ve found that exploring my kinks with partners I trust is a truly cathartic experience. It gives me a chance to reclaim my body as a source of pleasure—instead of anxiety or depression or trauma. I have complete control over how hard I want to be flogged and what sensations I want to experience with the other person. Through this, I’ve learned how to better communicate for myself and understand my desires.

BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism) is a powerful act that’s practiced for many different reasons. It can be a sexual practice, about power dynamics, or experiencing pain as pleasure. Play can even be used as a tool to help process trauma. BDSM is interdisciplinary, and therefore the actual practice varies for everyone in the community. That’s because kinks come in many forms—suspension play, role play, physical restriction, power exchange, administration of pain, spanking and age play just to list a few.

And while there’s a lot of debate around the topic of BDSM in general, people get especially up in arms when they hear that some trauma survivors have found healing through their kinks. Though psychologists have historically pathologized kinky behavior as “Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism Disorders”—there is research that shows people who practice BDSM are actually less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive and have higher subjective well-being than non-kinky people. A similar U.S. study found BDSM-identified couples reported less stress as well as increased intimacy following play.

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This is all to say that BDSM is a healthy and consensual form of expression—in fact, the current BDSM 4C Consent Model is based around caring, communication, consent and caution. “Fully engaged kink insists on full presence without pretense and the willingness to connect your raw humanity to another’s raw humanity,” says sex writer Midori.

While not every trauma survivor will find BDSM healing, it has been proven to work for some because of the direct correlation between trauma work and a BDSM “scene” (the scene refers to the act of play people are practicing). “BDSM taught me to use my voice and speak out when lines had been crossed,” Angie, a trauma survivor, tells GO. This most often works for people who are already kinky and want to use this as a tool to assist their healing.

The goal of trauma work is empowerment for the survivor. Psychologists use a specific three-step process to work through traumatic events with their clients. This three-step process closely mimics the three stages of a BDSM scene. However, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between trauma reenactment and trauma mastery. A scene could go wrong and re-traumatize someone if they’re seeking to reenact their trauma with no boundaries or safe words. That’s basically like allowing the trauma to be in the driver’s seat of a car while barreling 100 miles per hour down the freeway in the opposite direction. Practicing BDSM as a modality to work through trauma should be about mastering the trauma. You should be in the drivers seat the whole time while occasionally looking over at your trauma tucked in its booster seat.

“I once was told that BDSM could help me overcome my trauma, to which I completely disregarded with contempt—until I saw Shibari [Japanese rope bondage],” Jolene* tells GO. “My partner and I have been using restraints the last year and I have begun to feel pleasure from being submissive in a healthy, consensual way. When they restrain me, I feel a sense of power because I’m guiding them and I’m in control of how far we go. A little paddling can also be a great way to feel naughty, but not ashamed. After we finish, I sometimes weep because I’ve learned it’s okay to feel pleasure again.”

Phase one of trauma work with a psychologist is all about skills building. You work on creating stable coping mechanisms and boundaries for yourself around triggers. Which ties to the first step of a kink scene—it’s all about negotiation. You figure out with your partner(s) what everyone’s hard no’s are, what kind of play you want to participate in, what your safe words or actions are. All of this is integral for the scene to be safe and consensual.

The second step for working through trauma is about mindful and controlled exposure. The therapist usually exposes their client to talking about and remembering details of the trauma in a safer space to be able to process through it. This allows the trauma to exist in a container, separate to rest of everyday life. In a BDSM scene, the second aspect is the play. BDSM play is a chance to experience pain, fear, excitement, arousal and adrenalin in a safe and contained way. You get to decide what type of scene you want to do—whether suspension, needle play or role play—and if you’re the submissive, you’re allowed to safeword out if you begin to feel triggered. Which makes it a safer place to explore trauma.

“Safe, sane and consensual, in this case, also means the Dom isn’t just in control, it means you are responsible for watching your subs every reaction. If the lights go out, assume the worst, not sub space*,” writes Medic Rabbit.

* An altered state of consciousness that the BDSM community refers to as sub-space is a pleasurable and timeless, almost floating feeling due to the temporary reduction in prefrontal-cortex brain activity.

The final process for trauma work is integration. The therapist works with the client to integrate back into daily life and use the skills from step one in case of triggers. It’s basically like the savasana pose in Yoga. If you skip that pose after a Yoga practice, you’ll feel all weird and incomplete when you leave the class. This is all similar to the last aspect of a BDSM scene which is aftercare. You check in with each other on how the scene was, what worked and what didn’t, and what you want to try at higher intensity next time. This check-in can continue for a week after the experience since the way you process an experience isn’t always immediate.

After experiencing a traumatic event, where you felt utterly powerless, hopeless, feared death would result, or felt invaded—taking back control over your body can be extremely empowering. It’s an act of reclamation in the face of fear. Your body becomes a medium of healing through these cathartic scenes. Some rape survivors even choose to play out a scene similar to their rape—but with a different end result. They walk feeling a huge sense of release and healing. Which makes so much sense, because trauma can play in a loop in your brain until you break that cycle with different or new information.

The power of a visceral experience has been studied in psychology—mainly in a negative sense related to PTSD. There is actually growing evidence that the reverse is true. Scientists are now studying psychedelic therapy and how induced mystical states of intense visceral experiences can positively impact (sometimes even cure) conditions like depression, PTSD and anxiety.

“When I first started exploring BDSM it definitely had nothing to do with healing. I just wanted to explore my sexuality and BDSM seemed like a logical road to go down,” Angie tells GO. “I learned that I could establish hard boundaries during play that ended up helping me to learn to fully relax and enjoy being in the moment with my partner. I wasn’t focused on protecting myself or waiting for the other shoe to drop. After play I’ve experienced sub drop that was pretty shame intense. But because we, my partners and I, had established a relationship of trust before hand, it helped to navigate that moment.”

Angie’s experience mirrors many survivors who have felt lost in their attempts to re-navigate their sexuality after trauma. Knowing that it’s okay to experience pleasure again—especially if your trauma has somehow informed your sexual experiences—looks like something different for everyone. But you deserve pleasure. And if BDSM can help you heal, cum and explore your trauma in a safe environment, why not allow yourself that freedom?


If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). To find a kink aware therapist or professional, use this resource list. For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINNEnd Rape on CampusKnow Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Corinne Kai is the Managing Editor and resident sex educator at GO Magazine. She looks at the world through the lens of a pleasure activist, femme-of-center queer woman. You can listen to her podcast Femme, Collectively or sign up for her witchy wellness newsletter or just stalk her on Instagram