As BDSM surges in popularity (thanks, Fifty Shades), more women are turning to dommes and kink for recreation—and as a form of therapy.

By By John Scott Lewinski
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Shannon, a 29-year-old from Minneapolis, never truly felt satisfied in traditional relationships. Although she felt she should be happy with her last partner, she also wanted to employ more fantasy in her love life.

"I thought BDSM play was the best way for me to explore whatever was missing for me," she says. "My relationship was failing and I wanted to fix it, but I was too embarrassed to look into it. I was worried about being judged in my small town, so it took me a while to find the courage to try something I really wanted to do."

According to Lauren Eavarone, a New York-based marriage and family therapist with a focus on sex therapy, Shannon's story isn't uncommon. Eavarone says that similar confusion can happen in many relationships-especially if one or both parties have sexual interests not being met.

"For some couples, that lack of passion is due to routine, and they can find excitement again by changing little things. Still, some couples-one or both members-are more experimental. They need adventure," she says. "For these couples, a way to emit the same neurotransmitters that occur during the honeymoon stage is to do something new or on the edge sexually." For some couples, this might mean venturing into BDSM-dominant/submissive play that can involve bondage and discipline and sadomasochism. (Related: The Beginner's Guide to BDSM)

While some might credit the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey with triggering more acceptance of BDSM, Eavarone credits the surge in popularity to simple evolution. "As taboos break down and society becomes more permissive, people realize there's no harm or danger in experiencing sexually," she says.

Evidence of that? In 2017, 71 percent of OkCupid users report being into some sort of kink, according to their basic profiles that ask about sexual preferences.

BDSM As Therapy

BDSM has long been a cornerstone of kink, and it still exists mainly as a form of sexual recreation, fantasy play, and stress relieving entertainment between consulting adults. Still, there's a growing subculture within this taboo tribe that embraces bondage, domination, and discipline as forms of therapy to explore everything from boredom and depression to abuse and trauma.

While the pop culture image of a dominatrix might be the cruel, sneering, leather-clad woman with the ready whip, Aleta Cai, a New York–based professional dominatrix who sees clients across the country, insists nurturing and pushing is a major therapeutic element of her work, and that kink can be a key to positive change, healing, and higher consciousness.

Cai offers a wide range of services and experiences to her clients, like whipping, restraints, fantasy play, and erotic hypnosis. She remains on the dominant side of the equation and vows acceptance and discretion to all of her clients. She doesn't engage in intercourse with any of them-and points to this as proof that BDSM and kink are as much therapy for her clients as they are sexual experiences.

"I have always been naturally empathic, and I bring that to my work," Cai says. "Regardless of the scene or type of play, I look to offer compassion, love, respect, and empathy. Some of my clients have issues they've hidden or buried their entire lives, and it's only through our play that they can deal with them."

The joy of Cai's work is seeing her clients-or "slaves" in some instances-release pain or shame they've held for years: "My clients gain confidence and self-acceptance. They release past traumas. They can explore trust issues. Most importantly, they can explore a part of themselves without shame or fear."

Eavarone agrees that BDSM can serve as a form of therapy, at least so far as the fear and shame issues are concerned: "A consensual BDSM environment-especially with a professional practitioner-allows someone to enter into that fantasy or that turn-on without the judgment he or she could face in the more 'vanilla' world."

Cai adds, "In many cases, I have clients that maintain more traditional relationships in a healthier, happier way because they're able to explore other sides of themselves with me. They're no longer denying those parts of themselves."

Shannon, who has now been in the kink scene for more than four years, fits into that category. She describes her experiences with BDSM-now as both a dominant and submissive-as a sort of pressure valve allowing her to revel in fantasy whenever she needs that release.

While her early steps into BDSM didn't happen in time to save the original relationship, she's in a new relationship now. She credits her kink experiences for making that new happiness possible. "I discovered I can indulge my fetishes and interests without limiting myself whenever I feel the need. Letting go of the fear, the shame and the confusion over those desires allowed me to relax and enjoy myself more with my boyfriend."

Eavarone believes the kind of adventure Shannon sought will become more common as polyamory, kink, and open relationships become mainstream. "I encourage women to enroll in workshops and explore their own bodies to learn their sexuality and assert themselves in the bedroom," she says, "Your sexual well-being is an important aspect of your overall health and it is worth dedicating the time and effort to make it your personal ideal."

Want to Give It a Try?

The process of seeking an experienced, professional domme for experimentation, therapy, or education resembles the procedure for finding a doctor or lawyer. BDSM and sex industry pros maintain websites listing their services, and ad services or bulletin boards like Eros.com or Slixa.com keep complete listings with reviews from previous clients.

But before trying any level of kink or sexual play, whether with a partner or a professional, Eavarone urges women to do their research and to start out slowly. "Everyone has a love map-their 'yes and nos' to what they prefer sexually. When considering venturing out into BDSM, it is useful to consider your limits and what you enjoy," she says. "Create some ground rules and discuss what is okay and what is an absolute 'no' with your partner or the professional you're seeing."

Both Cai and Eavarone recommend using as much detail as possible when establishing boundaries, for example, "Being restrained is okay, but only using scarves on wrists, not ropes on feet" or "Light paddling works, but whipping into welts does not."

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