Updated: Aug 23, 2022
After teaching my class “Power Exchange and Mental Illness” several times and corresponding with folks online who have read my writing about mental illness and BDSM, I have noticed most people assume that it is the submissive/slave/bottom who would be mentally ill. Statistically, this is incorrect. People on all parts of the BDSM spectrum experience mental illness.
While this blog is dedicated to the submissive side of the lifestyle, I want to address the issues of D-types with mental illness. I find it relevant here because as someone right of the slash, I love people on the left side and their mental wellness is deeply connected with mine.
Why Do We Assume Subs are the Ones with Mental Issues?
I think there is a strong argument to be made that stereotypes about mental illness, femininity, and submission are at the core of this assumption.
Many, many people associate submission with women. Yes, most sub groups I attend are heavily tilted toward the female side. Part of this, I am sure, is cultural in the United States. Women are culturally supposed to take the submissive role in a relationship. That is the way we are trained through the media, sometimes through family, often through religion, and through representation in the kink community.
Women are encouraged to explore their submissive side, we are featured in photos and videos of submission (when was the last time you saw a man featured bound in rope on Kinky & Popular on Fetlife?), and it is seen as completely “natural” for women to be drawn to submission. Male-identified submissives have a much harder row to hoe in discovering their submission without judgement.
Women and submissives are seen as “weaker” and the ones needing discipline. These are the same stereotypes of people with mental illness. There is a perception that someone with a mental illness is simply “weak minded” or “lacking discipline” and that with the right training and discipline we can “snap out of it.” None of this is true, but the stereotype persists.
2. Many people who are not submissive themselves, both inside and out of the kink world, don’t really understand the desire to submit. For many non-submissive folks, the idea of serving someone, giving over power in a relationship, and *gasp* enjoying the submissive side of sex is pretty unimaginable. If you ask someone who is not inclined to submission what they think about being told what to do, when to shower, or about letting a partner decide when they will get tied up and beaten is horrifying.
My ex- actually refused to use GPS devices because being told what to do was just not acceptable. The instruction “Turn right on J Street” would be followed by, “Oh shut up. I will turn when I want.” Not a submissive bone in that woman’s body. Not. One. The idea that someone could like being told what to do, what to where, where to be, and so forth is just foreign to her.
I know from conversations that people make the quick leap from “I don’t get that” to “there must be some form of mental illness” is not a far leap. Like getting hit? Then you must have been abused as a child. Enjoy being a little? Then you have daddy issues. Like being told what to do and what to wear, then you must be weak-minded.
3. People tend to understand being dominant. Most folks meet me or see a photo and assume I am a D-type. Anyone who has seen my professional c.v. automatically assumes I am a Domme. In fact, when I got to grad school, there was quickly a rumor in the dorm that I was paying for a Ph.D. by Domming. Bear in mind, I was not open about my kink, I wore mostly jeans and tank tops in the door, and I as a grad student (really, nerd/geek central).
When I came out as kinky, people automatically assumed I was a Domme. What else would anyone want to be? You get to beat people, humiliate them, and walk around like a king (that is the impression, most people don’t think about the real job of being a D-type). Being dominant seems healthy to many vanilla folks. So, naturally, it would be the subs with mental issues.
We Can’t Forget Our D-types
There are many D-types that live with some form of mental illness. No studies to this point have qualified what percentage of D-types have a mental illness or if there is a difference in the types of mental illnesses D-types and subs are diagnosed with. Statistically, about 20 percent of all D-types will be affected with a mental illness if they represent the general population (again, we don’t know if this is true). Nonetheless, there is some percentage of D-types living with mental health issues and we need to think about them.
So, first thing to remember, is D-types fall across the gender spectrum. It is not just men or cis-men who are dominant. When I talk about D-types, I mean all D-types (I hate the Dom(me) wording because it makes women parenthetical in does not include many different D-types).
D-types need love and support. However, no matter how much love and support you give a D-type, you cannot love a mental illness out of them. Mental illness, its presence or remission, has nothing to do with love. They are not connect. I repeat, how much you love someone is not connected to how they experience mental illness.
Second, D-types are generally in charge of many things in a power exchange relationship. They need to be in charge of managing their mental health (as do subs). However, they may also need support. This can be worked into protocols. For example:
The sub/slave can have a protocol to bring her D-type their medication every night or morning. This can help with remembering to take medication.
The sub/slave can help schedule time for yoga, meditation, exercise or other things that help the D-type manage a mental health issue.
The sub/slave can help create a safe space for the D-type to talk about the issues they have with a mental illness. Listening and being present is really important to people living with mental illness.
Play, Sex and Mental Health
Just as submissives have to be careful about playing when a mental health issue is flaring, so do D-types. As someone who is Bipolar, the last thing I would do is be the top in an impact scene while manic. My mania interferes with reading body language, I get focused on a task and loose track of time, space, and sometimes reality. If I were to top in an impact scene while manic, it is very probably I would go well past “red” and not register it. I know this, so I track my mood and make sure I am in a head space to play before engaging in play.
Everyone experiences their illness differently. For each D-type it will be getting to understand the risks and their reactions during an episode, so that they can keep everyone in a scene safe.
Subs also have to be careful about shaming D-types for things that may not be under their control. Many antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications impact sex drive. For men, they can cause erectile dysfunction. For women, they may not get wet. For all genders, the sex drive can plummet. Shaming a D-type for not wanting to play or have sex when it is due to medication can be very hurtful.
There is a lot more to talk about in terms of D-types and mental illness. The bottom line here is the same with submissives. You need to get to know your partner and the way their illness effects them. You need to develop an understanding as a couple about what is supportive and what is not. You need to allow space for each party to take care of their health and needs. And finally, you cannot love a D-type to good mental health.