Recently, I’ve noticed quite a few questions—both in the Submissive Playground course and in the Ask Me Anything box—concerning kink, trauma, and wellness, particularly about psychological kink play like D/s and Daddy/girl dynamics and whether or not they are “good” for you.
After my own recent experience of a D/s Daddy/girl relationship dynamic “going sour,” as I’ve been phrasing it, I have many of my own questions about the ways that these dynamics can contribute to emotional or psychological damage, can play into our past hurts or traumas, and/or can cause further harm.
I do deeply believe that D/s and other psychological kink play can be healthy, but like any relationship, can also be profoundly unhealthy. It’s not the dynamic that determines that health or damage so much as it’s the relationship—and a thousand other factors.
(Even categorizing relationships as “healthy” or “unhealthy” is oversimplified, since I think no relationship is entirely “healthy” or “unhealthy” all the time.)
I realized I needed some other expert opinions on kink and wellness, so I have been reaching out to some of the mental health practitioners that I know who are kink-friendly and knowledgeable.
This is my first interview so far, with Dr. Matt Goldenberg in Seattle. He and I have been friends for more than 10 years, and I am really grateful to know him and have access to his smart brain!
A couple of the resources we mention in the interview:
- Kink Aware Professionals directory includes many professionals, not exclusively psychologists and therapists
- “Justine’s List” – FetLifer Referrals to BDSM aware & Kink-friendly helping professionals – Therapist, psychotherapist, psychologist, psychoanalyst, doctor, body-worker, lawyer, legal office, medical practitioner, health, insurance, family & probate, marital – on Fetlife.com
- Essay on finding a suitable therapist, in the Justine’s List group on Fetlife
As I’ve been pondering, and through this interview, this is what I’ve been thinking:
- I don’t believe any particular act is inherently healthy or unhealthy (except perhaps illegal ones, or ones deemed “morally wrong” by the community at large, which are generally things like non-consent)
- The same act can be “healthy” and feel great for some people and be “unhealthy” and feel bad for other people, and the same act for the same people at different times could feel healthy or unhealthy depending on the circumstances.
- The biggest indicators of “unhealthy” scenes or moments in kink are feelings. If things aren’t feeling right, they probably aren’t.
But I still have a lot of questions, like:
- It is my belief that no fantasy is inherently wrong, and that playing with deep psychological triggers can sometimes be incredibly healing. What to you is the relationship between mental wellness and the practice of kink?
- How do you know if the kind of kink you’re practicing is contributing to your compulsions or damage, rather than healing it?
- What are the signs that one should watch for that may indicate someone is in a “danger zone”, playing with things they perhaps shouldn’t be?
As I delve deeper into psychological kink play, the nuances of it are increasingly interesting for me … This may be the beginning of a larger project.
I have a few more psychologists and therapists to conduct interviews with already. Do you have any suggestions for mental health practitioners who are knowledgeable about kink (they don’t have to be kinky themselves, but some knowledge is important), and who may want to talk to me? Have them get in touch, or send an email introducing us: [email protected]
Do you have other psychological kink and wellness questions? Ask me here in the comments, and who knows, I may ask your question in the next interview.
The problem with butch identity—well, any identity category of social, sexual, political, geographical, or other significance really—is permission. If you get past the problem of stereotyping, of course, and how stereotypes are based on fact but simplified, sprayed down with fake plastic snow and called a tree when in fact they don’t grow or move or change or catch breezes or encourage nesting.
The problem with butch identity is permission. Who gives you permission to be butch? Are you butch “enough?” I questioned myself. I wasn’t sure I bought in to what I saw reproduced around me. So I sought out mentors: S. Bear Bergman, Ivan E. Coyote, Patrick Califia, Karlyn Lotney, Jack Halberstam. People whose writings I could adore secretly in the dark and examine with a microscope, searching for myself hidden between the lines.
“You’re not that butch,” others would say to me. “Oh don’t say that,” they’d shush me with pursed lips after I dropped That Word into casual conversation. As if I’d just called myself something insulting, something demeaning. A bad word. Butch is a bad word, one of those locked and loaded words used against us by classmate and teacher alike. Such a different, awkward, not-right way to be, according to the eyes of the world.
But I didn’t see it that way. From the minute a girl—a femme—I was madly, stupidly, unrequitedly in love with leaned in and whispered, “I think you’re butch,” I knew it was tattooed on all the walls of my heart and when they split this body open they’ll find those five simple letters ink-stamped over every organ. Butch heart. Butch lungs. Butch stomach and trachea and diaphragm and sternum.
I saw it as an honor.
(I still do.)
And so I started reading, and I saw it as a lineage, connecting me to dozens of other writers and thinkers, radical activists and dapper dressers, people I could look up to for style, advice, insight.
But still: Was I enough? Was I “faking” it? Was I an imposter? Goddess knows that’s the most dangerous thing to be.
My experiences told me no, this is real, but my head took convincing. I craved permission. A card to carry, a gold stamp: certified, verified, “real” butch. I tagged along, hanging on my mentor’s every room for approval, validation. I consumed like I’d been starved of knowledge of my own people—which I had.
Ultimately, it wasn’t anyone else who gave me permission: it was me. I splashed around enough to know that while I didn’t have the answers, no one else did either. They only had guidelines, ideas, what had worked and what hadn’t, the stories of their own piecemeal patchwork lives. But boy, did we have questions.
Questions like: What is butch? What does it mean to me? I savor these questions like a fine rich dessert. I turn them over and over in my mouth with my tongue. And as much as I crave their answering, I crave the questions they raise even more.
So here’s what butch is, for me: Permission. Permission to be myself, that little solid stardust shiny nugget I feel somewhere in my core, like a diamond lodged between L5 and L4 of the lumbar spine vertebrae. Permission to wear what I like, to love who I desire, to play how I crave, to decorate and adorn my body how I choose. To experience all the things this world has to offer, without guilt or obligation, but with curiosity and an open heart and experimental hands. Permission to be right where I’m at, regardless of whether that’s where I was yesterday. Permission to explore and seek pleasure, to connect and create friction, to question and make change. Permission to be exactly who I am, doing exactly what I’m doing, to have bright burning faith that everything I do works toward the greatest liberation for everyone, as much as possible, all the time, in all ways.
And just in case you need it: I give you permission, too.
“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” —Hafiz
I haven’t found an official psychological definition of the Outsider Complex, but I think it does exist in those circles. Maybe the phrase seems common sense enough that nobody feels the need to define it somewhere. You can tell what I mean by it already, right? The occasionally overwhelming obsession of being an outsider, which sometimes means either putting oneself in a position of being an outsider (be that consciously or unconsciously) and often lamenting “not fitting in” or not being part of the status quo.
Well, let me tell you something: the status is not quo. It seems like just about every marginalized group has their own sense of the Outsider Complex, but I think queers are susceptible to it in our own ways. Especially genderqueer queers. Especially kinky genderqueer queers. Especially kinky genderqueer queers who grew up in a place that insisted, over and over and over, that fitting in, climbing the social or corporate ladder, following along on the assembly line, is the only way to live one’s life.
And as usual, I believe that if we can name something, define it, study it’s parameters, that when it comes up in our own lives, it will feel easier to deal with, because we have some sort of Big Emotional Reaction and we can point our finger and say, “Outsider complex,” take a breath, and have some sort of context for what’s happening. I believe that making the process conscious will improve it.
I’ve been talking about the Outsider Complex a lot lately. Everybody’s got their own version of it, I think—even most straight white Christian republican cis guys, I would argue, still get their own healthy dose of it, perhaps it’s just an inevitable side-product of this individualist culture. But it’s been coming up for me because Kristen’s version of it and my version are very different. And sometimes, that has created some tension between us, because I just didn’t get where she was coming from.
See, I grew up in Southeast Alaska. If you’ve been following along with my column Mr. Sexsmith’s Other Girlfriend, you know all about it; I’ve been writing about my relationships with places a lot over there. Not only did I grow up very much outside of suburbia, American cities, and even American farmland, I also grew up with hippie parents who don’t buy much into pop culture, I grew up vegetarian, I grew up with a lot of pagan influences. Combine that with my particularly unique name, and just those factors alone gave me a sense that I was different from the time I was little. But instead of feeling like that was a problem, I saw it as a badge of uniqueness. I like being different. I like being outside of mainstream culture.
So yeah, I do have an outsider complex, but it acts a bit differently than other people’s—in particular, than Kristen’s—and different than what I observe in the queer communities as a whole. Generally, I think the outside complex works more as a badge of shame, thinking ourselves inferior because we don’t fit it.
For many of us, hitting puberty and discovering that there’s something “different” about ourselves, even if we don’t quite pinpoint our gayness or butchness or transness until later, was the turning point, the place of no return, before which we were “one of the gang” and just going along like all the “normal” kids, and perhaps we have this deep-set feeling that if we could just get back to that, everything would be alright.
Perhaps that too is partially a loss of innocence process, where we learn something new and we can’t ever go back to when we didn’t know it, even if we wish we could.
Some of this Outsider Complex can also be growing up queer without any sort of queer influence. No older queers, no peers, no mentors, nobody who even said words like lesbian or gay or queer or kinky or butch or femme or trans or whatever. I think that’s changing, more and more, what with that little revolutional technological thing called the Internet, and with the advances in the gay rights and gender movements in the recent years, so perhaps kids today (oh my god did I just say that? I’m old) are growing up with much less of a sense of the Outsider Complex, just by their very different exposure to queer culture.
I continue to see this manifested, though, in so many ways with queers who are adults now, who have been out for a decade or more, who do take part in some sort of queer community: there’s still this sense of isolation, of being different than, of being not fully accepted or not fully understood for who you are or what you love.
I even think it is sometimes used by us in martyr-type ways: oh look how much of an outsider I am, oh look how different I am than everyone else, you couldn’t possibly understand me, woe is me woe is me. In the worst case scenario, perhaps.
It’s something personally I haven’t quite struggled with. And I don’t say that with any sort of hierarchy or judgment attached to it, one is not better than the other, it is just the way it is. Certainly I have my own complexes and issues, regardless of whether I have this one.
So to witness it in others is curious. What’s going on there? I want to ask. And when I see it in others, it breaks my heart a little. How would I ever explain how deeply you do belong? How common it is, to feel this way? How many thousands and thousands of other queers and kinksters and butches and femmes and whatevers just like you there are out there?
Maybe it’s because I spent years reading Wild Geese every single day, memorizing it, reminding myself, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.” Maybe it’s because I was never indoctrinated into Christianity and have never believed in hating myself. Maybe I’m just really lucky, I don’t know.
So tell me, readers, Redhead Army Sugarbutch Fans, queers of all spots and stripes: Does this make sense? Do you witness this outsider complex in queer worlds? Is this something that you experience? How? Have you been able to address it and get past it? Or is it something you struggle with ongoing?
The “unthought known” is a phrase that I first heard through my therapist, when we were talking about trauma and memory specifically. But immediately, I recognized it as extremely useful to identity development, especially in that many of us feel that we’ve always been this way (whatever way “this” might be – queer, kinky, gendered), but never really knew that we were.
That’s basically the definition – something you’ve always known but have never thought about, have never really known that you know.
I remember going through these realizations multiple times as I developed a feminist identity, then a queer sexuality, then a butch gender. As soon as I had those moments which really “clicked,” I was almost confused as to why I hadn’t gotten to this sooner. It was so familiar on a cellular, deep-gut level, and yet it was never how I’d been previously.
One of my former writing mentors used to say, art is a way to get to know what you don’t know that you already know, and I think that’s related – or, maybe more specifically, art is one of the techniques that we can use in order to get the unthought known to become the thought known, as sometimes the creative process can take us to new places and uncover connections to things that are already inside of us, but that are not quite conscious.
I did some research online trying to find more references to it, and there is not a whole lot. It’s a psychology term that was coined in 1987. I did find one interesting essay – Embeddedness, Reflection, Mindfulness and the Unthought Known by Michael Robbins – which is worth reading. Only 4 pages, and it discusses some very interesting concepts related to the unthought known and mindfulness.
What then is the “unthought known”? Christopher Bollas first coined this provocative phrase in 1987 (Bollas, 1987). Basically it refers to what we “know” but for a variety of reasons may not be able to think about, have “forgotten”, “act out”, or have an “intuitive sense for” but cannot yet put into words. In psychoanalytic terms, it refers to the boundary between the “unconscious” and the “conscious” mind, i.e. the “preconscious mind.” In systems-centered terms, it refers to the boundary between what we know apprehensively, without words, and what we know, or will allow ourselves to know, comprehensively with words. (In many ways, although the methods are very different, the psychoanalytic goal of “making the unconscious conscious” is equivalent to the systems-centered goal of making the boundary permeable between apprehensive and comprehensive knowledge.) [… W]e conceptualize the unthought known as what we already know but don’t yet know that we know.
I find it really useful to think about in terms of gender and sexuality, since so much of those identity concepts are deeply, deeply embedded but often completely subconscious. What do you think? Are there particular things in your life that have been “unthought knowns”? How did you get them to be thought knowns? What was your identity development process around them?
i have noticed elsewhere online that you have added ’sadistic’ to your lineup of adjectives. i was very interested in your explanation of how you came to claim those words as part of your identity (forgive me if this is not accurate), and would be interested in hearing a similar description of how you came to claim sadistic as well.
Yes, I have added “sadistic” in a couple of my taglines or bios or descriptions recently, and it is an identity label that I claim, at least to a degree. I think the identity of “sadist” is understood much less – outside of kink communities and circles – than the other identity tags I use (queer, butch, top), and it can be incredibly off-putting for folks who don’t understand it.
There’s just so much stigma around it – you like to give others pain? You enjoy that, you get off on it, it turns you on? That’s seen as, well, kind of fucked up by a lot of people.
And it kind of is fucked up, if that’s the way you’re looking at it. But the details of how sadism works a lot more complicated than that – at least, it is for me.
It’s taken me a long time to come to claim a bit more of a sadistic identity, and it’s still something that I say with a little bit of reservation or even shame, partly because I don’t want it to come on too strongly and freak someone out.
First: playing with sadism, for me, must be consensual and intentional. I do not enjoy being cruel in general, and actually it is sometimes very difficult for me to treat someone I love with humiliation or damage, to hit them, to slap someone in the face. I’ve had to go through the feelings of top guilt and, to a greater extend, sadist guilt, when I started exploring this. Those feelings aren’t completely gone, but I know what I’m doing more now and I have more confidence in my perspective and standpoint, so I don’t have as much guilt about it.
I remember precisely when I realized I was a sadist: it was 2002, and I was in a Body Electric workshop called Power, Surrender, and Intimacy. (This is going to get a little bit sacred sex/spiritual, just to warn you.) We had been discussing power, dominance, and sadism – and receiving that with surrender, submission, and masochism – and had been doing exercises all relating to tapping into those feelings. We were in the middle of a ritual (I won’t go into details) when someone had a very strong reaction, and began crying. I was going through my own experience and starting to really feel myself come into some power and dominance in a new way, and I was flooded with the witness of her release. It was a solo ritual, so we weren’t working together or touching, and she probably wasn’t even aware of me, she just started sobbing, loudly, in her own world of release, and I felt the energy as the grief and emotion flooded through her, I was so attuned to the shifts of energy in the room, and started realizing that I was incredibly turned on by her release. It was beautiful – pure and unhindered, just letting go of some really deep things that she’d been carrying and holding on to for who knows how long. I wanted to coax her through it, support her, and in my mind I was soothing her, cradling, holding the space around her so that she herself could have room to be safe and release. I loved the feeling of doing that for someone (even though I wasn’t really doing that for her, I was just imagining the scenario where I would do that) and I got such a rush and release myself from witnessing someone else get into that space of deep release, deep surrender, and then come back, smiling and whole.
So there’s a lot of psychology to it for me: we carry around all sorts of grief, pain, shame, anger, rage, distrust, disassociation, and guilt, especially about our physical bodies and our sexualities. And one of the ways that BDSM and power play and pain play taps into that is through acknowledgment and, ultimately, release – which is why we can feel renewed, refreshed, energized after a deep scene.
We also just don’t have very good tools for release and replenishment available to us. We’re not exactly taught how to remake ourselves and let go of some of our deep grief, and I believe this kind of emotional release is one of those ways.
Aside from the psychology, I also like pain. And as much as I talk about being a sadist, I have spent many years as a masochist also – I’ve been beaten, flogged, caned, whipped, pierced, cut, and slapped; I’ve had 13 piercings (only one of which I wear anymore); I’ve had some experience submitting and surrendering, and using pain as a way to get more present in my body, and then to let go.
There’s a degree to which, though, at this point, I feel like I’ve had enough of that kind of release, I seek something else now. I know how to get myself into a state of deep body release, mostly through yoga or meditation or masturbation or running, and I wanted to explore other things related to that kind of bodily release – namely, guiding it in others. I get more out of the experience of taking someone through it than I do going through it myself, these days. I don’t expect that to be permanent, but I don’t expect it to change either – for now, I know I’m a top who really likes to play with my sadistic side, and that really works for me.
So, after this series of revelations and after some further investigation, and being very sure that I wanted to get deeper into this kind of play, I began studying it more intentionally: how to get someone into that state, how to keep them safe when they’re there, how to encourage the release (but not overwhelmingly so), and how to bring them back from it.
There’s also that moment … how do I describe it. Where put your hand in water and you can’t tell if it’s super hot or super cold – how our senses cross-fire sometimes when sensation is so deep and heavy and stimulating that we can’t tell if it’s pain or pleasure.
I love playing with that line, partly because it is a way to practice pain without suffering – a way to practice pain without being hurt, but to experience it as a release, change, and growth. I think pain play can do a lot of that, too, and it is very interesting to me, as someone who is interested in algology (the study of pain), and someone who studies the cessation of suffering, how to encourage these moments of transformation where pain becomes pleasure, useful, and a methodology of study.
What I’m saying is: sadism is the intentional use of pain, discomfort, and other dark emotions to find deep release, move energy, and renew the self. As someone who is deeply interested in dark emotions, the messy stuff, the hard stuff, and personal transformation and self-awareness, this is a tool that I find incredibly useful.