Recently Dr Simon Cassar interviewed integrative psychotherapist and co-founder of Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy Mark Vahrmeyer on the question of ‘What is Integrative Psychotherapy. This is the last in a three-part interview where Mark explains the difference between integration and eclecticism, why integration is about co-building a relationship between therapist and client and how integration is about psyche and body integration. Check out Part 3 here:
Recently Dr Simon Cassar interviewed integrative psychotherapist and co-founder of Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy Mark Vahrmeyer on the question of ‘What is Integrative Psychotherapy. This is the second in a three-part interview where Mark explains the difference between integration and eclecticism, why integration is about co-building a relationship between therapist and client and how integration is about psyche and body integration. Check out Part 2 here:
Recently Dr Simon Cassar interviewed integrative psychotherapist and co-founder of Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy Mark Vahrmeyer on the question of ‘What is Integrative Psychotherapy. This is the first in a three-part interview where Mark explains the difference between integration and eclecticism, why integration is about co-building a relationship between therapist and client and how integration is about psyche and body integration. Check out Part 1 here:
Have you ever felt curious about people who engage in BDSM?[i]Possibly interested in trying it out yourself, while at the same time feeling apprehensive. You would not be alone. Many others have similar thoughts. They also worry what this interest signifies; are they weird, unnatural, in need of treatment? This concern is hardly surprising, considering the stigma that has – until recently –accompanied BDSM. A brief historical and cultural review can help provide guidance.
What is BDSM?
The use of physical or mental pain to promote sexual stimulation has not always been perceived in a negative way. Until it became a medical diagnosis it received little attention and was not even classified as a sin. BDSM behaviour has been recorded throughout history, dating back to ancient Egypt. It was generally regarded in a positive light, with painful stimuli being viewed as an acceptable part of a person’s sexual repertoire, (e.g. The Perfumed Garden, The Kama Sutra). Much later, the writing of sadomasochistic activities (e.g. Marquis de Sade) was seen by physicians as a medical curiosity, but not something that required their intervention. However, following on from the work of Krafft-Ebing and later Freud, BDSM practices became seen as examples of sexual pathology, and were diagnosed as such. The belief that people who engaged in BDSM were mentally ill became established and continued for over a hundred years. This view was reflected in the highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in which BDSM has been classified as a mental disorder since the DSM’s first publication in 1952. Since the 1980’s a campaign has been waged for a return to a more enlightened understanding of BDSM, including the removal of BDSM from the DSM. This was fully achieved as recently as 2013 when finally, consenting adults were no longer deemed mentally ill for choosing sexual behaviour outside the mainstream.[ii]
So, in these more enlightened times, what could a novice curious about the BDSM scene expect?
The five main categories of BDSM
Dominance and Submission
Dominance is the appearance of rule over one partner by another. The dominant partner is variously called sadist, dominant, top, master, mistress or ‘S.’ The submissive partner gives the appearance of obedience to their partner, and is variously called masochist, submissive, bottom, slave or ‘M.’ BDSM participants are extraordinarily clear about which part they are playing. The experience of physical and/or psychological pain is used to express dominance and submission.
Role playing is about establishing a role primarily to act out sexual fantasies. Some participants like to take turns playing both the dominant and submissive roles (‘duals’) while others have definite preferences. Part of role playing is establishing a ‘scene,’ such as master and slave, teacher and student, mistress/master and servant. Some scenes are simple, some are more specific and can include a ‘script.’ Scenes can be enhanced by various paraphernalia including clothing, chains and restraints.
Most players in the BDSM scene would agree that one of the most important principles is that of consent. All acts should be safe, sane and consensual. It is assumed that everyone has the ability to mentally, psychologically and socially choose for themselves whether or not to engage in an activity. Everyone will be expected to practice risk awareness. This means that all understand the potential risks and have taken the necessary precautions for their safety. Participants soon learn who will not abide by these rules; word gets out and no one goes near them.
Activities are placed within a sexual context. Even if there is very little sexual contact during the encounter most participants say what they are doing has a sexual meaning and is clearly erotic. Sometimes the main sexual activity takes place when the role play is over.
Participants have to agree that what has taken place is BDSM. For example, even quite intense physical pain will not always be seen as BDSM, with participants preferring a mutual definition of masculinity and toughness and/or unwillingness to give into pain, explaining that everyone else in their group ‘can take it.’
This description above of the five main categories observed may help to lessen your fears of further exploration of the BDSM community.[iii]It can be seen that BDSM activities usually operate within clear boundaries, with issues such as consent and safety being a primary concern. However, there remain those who advise caution.
Is it a mental illness?
Some of Freud’s successors continue to speak of BDSM in the language of mental illness. Sheldon Bach, Clinical Professor at the New York Freudian Society maintains that some people are ‘addicts’ who use BDSM in an attempt to cope with emotional deficits. They feel compelled to engage in BDSM acts, doing anything that is asked of them. Sheldon claims this is because they are unable to experience love. They are searching for love and BDSM is the only way they can try to find it because they are locked into sado-masochistic interactions they had with a parent.
The BDSM community itself have expressed related concerns, explaining the real danger is that some people have misplaced anger and pain, and are trying to resolve these issues in destructive ways. Instead of confronting their emotional pain they seek physical pain to relieve their distress. The relief is usually short lived and the need for destructive behaviour quickly returns.[iv]Thus, there are both mental health professionals, and members of the BDSM community who acknowledge possible negative effects of BDSM activities. However, most people in BDSM circles are dominant or submissive in very specific situations, while in everyday life they can, and do play a whole range of roles. But if the only way a person can relate to someone else is through sadomasochistic games, there is probably a deeper psychological problem.
In spite of the above, the idea that BDSM is pathological has been largely dismissed by those who work in the field of mental health. BDSM is increasingly being seen as one part of the continuum of sexuality and sexual behaviour. The ingredients in good S&M play – communication, respect and trust – are claimed to be the same ingredients found in good traditional sex. The outcome is the same too; a feeling of connection to the body and the self. With regard to communication, the BDSM community may have something to teach others. For example, when setting the scene for BDSM activity, there is discussion ahead of time about what everyone wants to do and also their limitations. There is usually far less discussion between those who engage in ‘vanilla’[v]sex. If there were better communication we might avoid many misunderstandings, from awkwardness between couples to accusations of sexual assault. We need to get more comfortable with these conversations. Presently we are poorly equipped to have honest dialogue about sex. BDSM are one of the few communities who elevate/prioritise sexual/erotic communication in this way. Perhaps we have a lot to learn from them
Hopefully, this brief exploration will help to clarity your thoughts and feelings about whether to further explore BDSM.
[i]In recent years the term S&M, has given way to BDSM. BDSM has become an all-encompassing term for sexual activities between consenting parties. Within BDSM there are several subcategories including bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
[ii]This was similar to the removal of Homosexuality from the DSM in 1987
[iii]These categories were derived from interviews and observations conducted over an eight-year period.
[iv]Yasuko Thanh, blogger and member of the BDSM community.
[v]Vanilla sex is the BDSM community’s description of conventional sexual practice.
Over two blogs I have focussed on one area of sibling relationships, namely rivalry. In part 1, I looked at some aspects of sibling rivalry as they can surface in childhood. In part 2, I will suggest how these might impact on ongoing struggles in adult life, before suggesting ways in which problematic issues with rivalry can be helped.
Sibling Rivalry in Adulthood
Feelings of competition and rivalry are perfectly normal and to be expected in adulthood. However, when childhood rivalry has been particularly problematic and unresolved, this can shape and lead to intense struggles later in life. Below are some thoughts about sibling rivalry and adulthood.
An obvious impact is in relationships to competition. Difficulties might particularly arise at work, socially, in educational settings, or any other situation where competitive feelings are heightened. This might lead to over competitiveness at the expense of other experiences – for example friendship, fun, comradeship etc. The rivalrous person may be driven towards success, however, often these feelings just seem to cause paralysis, procrastination, and low-self-esteem, as the individual constantly measures themselves against others.
As siblings are the earliest relationships they become a kind of template for later relationships. If feelings have never really got beyond negative experiences of aggression and dislike, this can make it hard to establish positive, caring and cooperative adult relationships.
Siblings who hold onto intensely rivalrous feelings, may be unable to establish a good adult relationship with each other. They therefore lose out on what these uniquely close alliances can potentially offer.
Sometimes sibling rivalry that’s not overt in childhood later manifests in adulthood. This can often be triggered through a change in the family dynamic. The most common is the serious illness or death of one or both parents. In these circumstances, feelings of rivalry can intensify or, if latent, can suddenly manifest. This is particularly common if there are issues around sharing responsibility or care for the parent, or around inheritance.
Fair shares and mutual concerns
Dennis Brown, a group analyst, wrote a paper entitled ‘Fair shares and mutual concern: The role of sibling relationships’ (1998). He explored how these rivalrous battles with siblings belong to an early stage in the individual’s development and that in healthy childhood psychological growth there is a shift to a more cooperative position towards siblings and therefore later relationships.
Our relationships with our siblings are usually the earliest experiences of grappling with love and hate for our peers. It’s important that aggression, jealousy and rivalry can be countered by experiences of love, companionship, and affection. Achieving this in childhood helps this balance of positive and negative feelings in later relationships.
The potential for change
But if this change hasn’t taken place in childhood can anything be done in adulthood? Below are some suggestions of how to work towards resolving the more crippling preoccupations with ‘fair shares’ towards a greater feeling of ‘mutual concern’ for and with others.
One way forward is to try and develop an adult relationship with your adult sibling. Sometimes family members get stuck in a narrative belonging to the past. We carry the child templates of our siblings inside us without perhaps getting to know the adult version. This is particularly compounded if relationships don’t develop outside of the family environment, for example when siblings only ever see each other in the presence of the rest of the family, particularly parents.
During or after times when you find yourself preoccupied with doing better than others, or having painful feelings of inadequacy or exclusion, it can help to reflect on links between this experience and what you may have felt as a child in your family. This can help you step away and separate from those past dynamics, reminding you that this is no longer the actual situation you find yourself in.
I mentioned earlier that sibling rivalry can worsen or manifest after a major family dynamic change such as brought on by the illness or death of a parent. Sometimes the opposite shift can happen. For example, the loss of one or both parents, or other family events, can suddenly bring problems of historic rivalry between some siblings to a natural end.
The Role of Group Psychotherapy
Group psychotherapy is particularly helpful in working through the difficulties arising from unresolved sibling rivalry.
Being in a therapy group stirs feelings of rivalry for everyone in it. In this way, it tackles rivalry in a way that individual therapy (where you have all the attention to yourself) can’t. Bringing these feelings alive and to the foreground means they can be worked with head on in the safety of a therapeutic environment.
In a therapy group, members find that each other remind them of their siblings, some more obviously than others. This offers an opportunity for working through difficulties that they may have had growing up with actual siblings. Members can then develop the kind of affection and closeness with rivals that might not have felt possible growing up or since.
Group members often find that the group feels a bit like an alternative family. This gives the opportunity for everyone – including ‘only’ children – to have different kinds of ‘sibling’ experiences than those they grew up with.
Preoccupation with ‘fair shares’ is symptomatic of a world where we feel pitched against each other and encouraged to see ourselves as alone. These feelings can be particularly heightened if the conflicts of our earliest peer relationships have not been resolved. Psychotherapy and counselling give the opportunity to explore and understand these deep rooted and painful experiences and how they may continue to have impact. Psychotherapy groups emphasise our connectivity as human beings. This challenges the notion that we are on our own, offering a direct release from the paralysing grip of rivalrous conflicts, towards greater co-operation, affection, and ‘mutual concern’ in our relationships.