Hot Healthy And Horny: What I Wish I’d Said To Lisa Ling About BDSM

Margie Nichols, Ph.D.by Margie Nichols

    “Our America with Lisa Ling” – Shades of Kink – airs on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network)  on Tuesday, January 22 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Last Fall, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Ms. Ling, whose critically acclaimed show begins its fourth season on the Oprah Winfrey Network .  She’s tackling the topic of BDSM and felt she needed an ‘expert’ – a sex therapist knowledgeable about the kink community- to help explain some things to the viewing public.

   Ling is intelligent, sincere, and amazingly open minded.  It was a lot of fun being interviewed by her – she made it easy.  After the interview I thought of lots of things I wished I’d said, which I’m sure is normal.  But a few issues stuck in my mind, so I decided to write about them. And now that I’ve seen the ‘Sneak Peek’ for the show I have a suggestion for viewers.
    The one question that threw me involved a scenario Lisa asked me to ‘explain’ to viewers who might be shocked or repulsed.  Apparently they will show footage of someone who likes to be burned by cigars. How, asked Ling, are we to understand this?  As I remember, I fumbled and finally said something about behaviors having a context surrounding them, e.g., the eroticism might have had to do with being ‘marked’ by a beloved dominant.
     But afterwards I realized why this question threw me off balance.  It’s because, frankly, it MAY be hard for many viewers to see some of what is shown as anything but crazy, self-destructive behavior.  It’s too far outside of their own experience for anyone to ‘bridge’ with their personal knowledge.
    And I also realized that it reminded me of the early days of Gay Pride marches.  Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, when queer people were still, in the eyes of most of the public, freaks and weirdos, it was a guarantee that on Gay Pride day the media would ignore the masses of marchers that looked like your neighbors or family members and would interview Rollerena, the wonderful drag queen who roller skated down Fifth Avenue.  Or they’d show the guys wearing nothing but glitter and leather jock straps.
    Not that there’s anything wrong with glitter, nudity, or drag queens – au contraire.  But at the time, before everyone realized they had a gay uncle, parent, child, or cousin, it did nothing but enhance a sense that lesbians and gay men were ‘the Other,’ that they were different from ‘the rest of us.’
    And that’s what showing cigar burns does to people in the BDSM community.  Not that Ling has the choice that media people had back then.  Reporters and photographers deliberately went for the sensational when they had the option of showing gays who looked like ‘regular people.’  Because BDSM is so stigmatized, and because openness has such dire consequences in the real world (like losing your job, housing, even your children), only those with nothing to lose can afford to be open.  Often those are the most marginalized members of a group, the ones who CAN’T hide who they are.
     But mainstream people can’t really relate to anyone who is THAT different from them. Fortunately, now that I’ve seen the trailer, I feel pretty sure that some of the kinksters interviewed will look ‘familiar’ to viewers – like the people next door.That’s a good thing.
    And what I would say to Ling now is this: some things you WON’T understand.  But you don’t have to.  It doesn’t have to turn you on – you just have to understand that it turns others on, it’s consensual, and it’s not self-destructive (unless you also think tattoos and piercings are self-destructive). You have to believe that sex is innocent until proven guilty, that people have a right to their preferences even if they aren’t yours.
    And that leads me to some other questions Ling asked that I wish I had answered in more detail.  She asked why I thought BDSM was coming into the mainstream more.  I wish I had talked about the fact that in the LGBTQ community, kink has been ‘mainstream’ since, oh, say, the 1970’s (for men) and the 1980’s (for women.) 
She wanted to know if I thought there were any kink practices that were so inherently dangerous that I thought they should never be practiced.  I said no, but I wish I’d said more.  First, I wish I had talked about the ‘risks’ involved in anything pleasurable – alcohol, for example, which can be very dangerous.  I wish I’d mentioned that I’m a little concerned that BDSM toys are being promoted by E.L. James herself without a commensurate amount of education about consensuality, negotiation, and safe technique.
     And I wish I had directly addressed the fact that the kink community, like any community, has members who do their thing ‘unsafely.’  Any marginalized group is going to contain its share of people who are, well, ….crazy, unstable, unbalanced.  Maybe more than its share, because the ‘minority stress’ that such folk face is sometimes so overwhelming it could make a sane person lose their mind.
   And so it won’t be hard to find the exception in the kink community that proves the ‘Safe, Sane, Consensual’ rule.  Anything pleasurable can be abused, anything with any risk at all can be self-destructive.  Sex is certainly pleasurable, and even so-called ‘regular’ or ‘vanilla’ sex has risks.  Are there people who use BDSM abusively? Absolutely.  Is it an organic part of kink? Absolutely not.  Ask ER docs how many kinksters they see, compared to, say, rape victims or battered women.  BDSM isn’t a significant source of medical – or emotional- problems.
   But despite the things I wish I’d said, I’m really pleased that Ling is doing this show and I’m happy to have been a part of it.  And if we are lucky, it will start a conversation going so that the topic of BDSM and kinky sex will start seeing the light of day, and myths and stereotypes will be shattered. And maybe more people, those who are not at risk of losing too much by doing so, will start to reveal their true sexual interests.  Then we’ll see that our neighbors, friends, and family members – people ‘just like us’ – are doing the kinky thing.
     Oh, and a word of advice to viewers.  Even if your mind tells you that what you are seeing is ‘beyond the pale’ – pay attention to your genitals.  If you’re feeling something down there as you watch, you understand the appeal of BDSM.  And you might just have a little kink potential yourself.  There’s a reason why ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has sold so well.

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