BDSM, which stands for bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism, has always been a topic that has sparked my interest due to its complex psychological implications and its place in the lives of some of, but not all, of the members of the kink community. Due to my interdisciplinary psychology and religious studies medial, I have been able to analyze certain parts of human sexuality from a religious studies perspective; thus, I have found that BDSM has some of the qualities of religious/spiritual practice. However, this discussion is dependent on how one defines religious practice—so for the purpose of this blog, I will define religious practice as a means of self-expression, community fostering, relationship building, connection to an “other”, and a type of transforative experience.
First, it is important to note that BDSM activities are used in some contemporary, non-western religious practices. In The Religious Studies Podcast, Alison Robertson, a British religious studies scholar, describes how some contemporary pagans will use sadistic activities in their rituals to offer their bodies as a sacrifice to their deities or to achieve the ‘sacred whore’ archetype as a key component in some scared rituals. In addition, some traditions use self-harm practices in their sacred right of passage, such as the indigenous tradition of the Sundance, in which young males show their bravery and discipline by piercing their skin with hooks attached to a pole and dance until the hooks rip out of their skin. All of these practices may seem extremely unconventional to those who practice western religions, like how BDSM may be seen by some as an unconventional expression of sexuality. But pain in the form of religious ecstasy has evidently been around for centuries and still continues to be used today.
The kink community is arguably one of a kind. Yet, from an analytic perspective, it shares some characteristics with religion and religious practice. BDSM has created a community for like-minded individuals to congregate and share their experiences and beliefs about relationships, life, and their sexuality, much like how religious communities do. Some of the BDSM play could be comparable with ritual practice, as ritual is defined as a “stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities of forces on behalf of the actor’s goals and interest” (Carlstöm, 210). Some forms of BDSM play have scripts and props, and the use of certain jargon that could fit into this definition of “ritual”. Within these communities, members of the kink community engage in BDSM for plenty of reasons, such as arousal, connection, and stimulation. But all in all, BDSM actively creates meaning in their lives by helping them to express themselves, by pushing the limits in their conceptions of the world around them and their selves, along with fostering a relationship with the world, people in their lives, and a sense of sexual other (Cotter & Robertson, 2016). Some, like the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lecan, like to describe this connection to the other as ‘jouissance’ or the physical, psychological, or spiritual experiences of immense ecstasy in waking of extreme pain; BDSM could be considered a means to achieve this erotic, mystical connection. For people with the inclination, BDSM provides these emotional, psychological, and even spiritual outlets for the members of the kink community that may even satisfy the desire for connection that some traditional religious practices have done in the past.
Yet, not one BDSM experience is like another; they all have their own idiosyncrasies that are extremely personal to the individual and their preferences. This uniqueness is why one might consider BSDM as a more spiritual, mystical experience rather than as a religious experience, given that the term “religious” may suggest a more rigid, authoritative means of being (Cotter & Robertson, 2016). Personally, I would consider “religious” and “spiritual” experiences as relatively similar because the differences may be too minuscule to consider. But drawing upon the mystical, some members of the kink community have reported that their play has facilitated alternate states of consciousness like some mystical, religious practices do—just think of the process of deep meditation or the Indigenous practice of the sweat lodge. In The Religious Studies Podcast, it was recounted that the experience of sub-spacing--an altered psychological experience that a submissive may experience during BDSM activity--could be considered similar to mystical/religious transcendence. In the podcast, a person who had experienced sub-spacing reported that they hallucinated that their dominant partner was sitting crossed-legged on the ceiling and that they would not come down (Cotter & Robertson, 2016). Thus, it could be argued that BDSM can be a means to transformative psychological states that religious/mystical practices also aim to achieve.
BDSM can and has provoked mixed reviews from the general public. Some people get a little freaked out when ropes are mentioned in the same context as sex or when they see someone reading 50 Shades of Grey in public. This reaction is unfortunate because some people who identify with the kink community might not feel accepted by their peers. Finding ways to normalize BDSM and ways to spread accurate information to the public might be one way in which we can create a more accepting atmosphere for members of the kink community. By shaping BDSM in the light of religious practice, this perspective might allow people to fully understand the impact that BDSM has on these people’s lives and correct any false notions of what it is like to engage in BDSM. Normalizing pain in the sense of pleasure and showing that it has been a part of human and religious traditions for centuries may help change the discourse and prejudice around kinky practices and perhaps shift the paradigm with respect to how BDSM and kink are seen by members of the general public.
Meghan O’Sullivan, B.A Psychology & Religious Studies, Queen’s University
Carlström, C. (2018) BDSM, Interaction Rituals and Open Bodies. Sexuality & Culture, 22, 209-219.
Cotter, C. R., & Robersron, D. G. (2016, May 23). BDSM as Religious Practice. The Religious Studies Project, [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://itunes.apple.com