When I was in one of my basic psychology courses in undergrad, the professor described sublimation with the following example.
Say you have someone who really likes to hit and beat up people. This is not an acceptable impulse in most of society. So he chooses to pursue a career as a professional boxer. He takes his desire to be violent and to hit people and sublimates that desire by channeling it into a professional career.
We can’t really talk about BDSM/kink and healing without addressing sublimation.
Sublimation is problematic for healing in BDSM. It can create very unhealthy dynamics and it fails to address the root of the issue someone is dealing with. The best example of sublimation gone wrong is what I have deemed “The Secretary Fantasy.” In the movie The Secretary the dominant (played by James Spader) finds out the submissive (Maggie Gyllenhall) is a cutter. He introduces her to impact play (spanking) and then tells her to throw away her cutting tools and he will replace it with impact play. In the movie this works. She tosses her cutting kit and they live happily ever after, never to be bothered again by that pesky mental illness.
This, of course, is complete movie magic and fantasy. Neither a command from a d-type nor sublimating kinky play for the desire to self harm actually works.
Mental illness isn’t something that can be commanded to go away or eliminated by the need to please some d-type. Mental illnesses are a combination of chemical disorders, unhealed traumas, distorted thinking, and brain physiology issues. Depending on the disorder, people can treat it with medication (both prescription and through supplements), body work, talk therapy, exercise and a whole host of other treatments. BDSM/kink might be part of the solution but will only help if the illness is approached more holistically.
I want to discuss a few ways people confuse sublimation through kink and actual healing.
Self harm is common. In the United States, between 12 and 37 percent of adolescents has admitted to self harming behaviors (e.g. cutting, burning). For most people, this behavior abates by the late 20s. This means that a significant number of people in the kink community have been or are currently engaging in self harm.
There is a perception that people may sublimate the need to harm by engaging in various types of kink play. For example, if you are a cutter and you choose to engage in knife scenes, people can assume that the need to cut will be replaced by the consensual play.
Here is where that falls apart. Self harm comes from an emotional place of needing to hurt or harm oneself. Most healthy kink play works to avoid harm (we talk about the difference between inflicting good pain and harming someone). If you are engaging in an impact scene, the goal is to use impact methods (canes, whips, hands, paddles) to bring about a certain feeling at the end. This may be catharsis, or joy, or erotic desires. Healthy kink scenes do not end in trying to destroy your partner physically. Basically – don’t break your toys.
Because healthy kink play has a goal of something other than the destruction and harm of the s-type, the emotional competent of why people cut isn’t being addressed. You may have knife marks on you from a scene, but the emotional aspect of feeling you were destroyed or harmed isn’t there. Therefore, healthy kink cannot replace unhealthy cutting (or impact, or other play).
The emotions which drive self harm also are not addressed during kink play. People who cut often also have eating disorders, mood disorders, or were sexually abused as children. If you do not address the underlying conditions or trauma during play, the desire for self harm will persist. This is why self harm cannot be sublimated through BDSM.
Some folks in the BDSM scene will frequently engage in cathartic play – engaging in a scene with the goal of being reduced to tears at the end. This type of play can be very useful for some folks.
However, I have known several individuals who live with severe depression. Clinical depression is more than just “feeling sad.” Clinical depression can include feeling numb, being unable to feel a connection to other people, feeling worthless, wanting to die, and feeling empty. Additionally, to get a diagnosis of clinical depression, the person has to feel this way for a minimum of two weeks.
Depression is horrible to live with (as someone with Bipolar Disorder, I experience clinical depression more often than I ever want too). The feelings of emptiness and hopelessness are not abated by having “a good life.” I have been my most depressed when people though I “had it all.” Even in a high powered, high paying job with several fun sexual partners, a place of my own and national attention, I was horribly depressed.
Some people try to relieve that depression with a cathartic scene. A cathartic BDSM scene can release a number of good neurotransmitters (oxytocin, serotonin, neuronitn) as well as endorphins and momentarily leave the person feeling great! There is a momentary reprieve from hopelessness and emptiness.
The problem is, after the scene ends, these good chemicals start to leave the system. Within a day or two, the person is back to feeling horrible, hopeless and empty.
Like a drug, cathartic play can lead a depressed person into an addictive cycle. Get depressed, engage in a cathartic scene, feel a bit better, get depressed, engage in a cathartic scene, feel a bit better, get depressed. This becomes radically unhealthy.
You cannot beat someone happy if they are living with clinical depression. You can’t love them into a happy space. Depression needs to be addressed outside a BDSM scene. For many people, they find either psychotherapy or prescription medications helpful in treating depression. For some of us, natruopathic supplements, meditation, energy work, diet and yoga are effective treatments. For others yet, there is a combination of medications and exercise.
Trying to mask the depression through intense BDSM scenes will not effectively address depression. It may break a cycle long enough to get someone to seek help. But BDSM alone will not fix depression.
Ultimately, if you engage in BDSM as part of your healing process, you need to understand what it can and cannot effectively address. Anyone living with a mental illness or trauma needs help addressing the underlying issues – trauma, chemical imbalances, distorted thinking – with a long-term solution.
If you are struggling with a mental health issue, the National Assocition of Mental Illness (NAMI) is a great place to start. They offer education for both someone living with a mental illness and for friends and family. They are connected with therapists and doctors across the U.S. If you need a good reference or peer support group, give them a call at: 800-950-6264