’50 Shades’ in therapy?


The leather pride flag, which has become a sym...

The leather pride flag, which has become a symbol of BDSM and fetish subcultures. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Note: This is the article that appeared in Person-centred quarterly, BAPCA‘s magazine. Also, I could/should have added ‘Discipline’ into the BDSM acronym, but it slipped my mind as I was writing it. It came out of first the letter for therapy today, and then an expansion of a recent assignment.


50 Shades in therapy?


In terms of diversity, we expect pretty much any issue that comes through the door with our clients. We can’t think about every issue in advance though. That would be ridiculous, not to mention impossible. So it’s entirely possible that there are many things that might be confronting to us on a personal level that we have never looked at because it’s never been within our personal experience.


I recently wrote a response for the letters section of March’s ‘Therapy Today’ challenging a therapist’s response to issues surrounding a particular identity, and I am not going to re-write that article here, but instead, am writing afresh on the topic as it’s still in my mind.


The identity being discussed was that of BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission/sadism masochism), which is an umbrella term for behaviours commonly referred to as ‘kink’ (Shaw et al., 2012). It is easy to feel that kink is not relevant (or at least only relevant where a client is talking about sex), but in today’s world, a world where the ’50 Shades of Grey’ trilogy is one of the most popular books world-wide, this is something we need to be informed about now more than ever.


To be clear from the start – aside from the writing style of the books (which I dislike) – the books themselves are problematic. The author professes to have had no connection with kinky people and in her books she conflates kink with abuse regularly, but kink -in and of itself – is not abuse. The difference between the two is consent – and it is this that is not always clear in the book. So whether or not ’50 Shades’ is YOUR only avenue into the world of kink (whether you enjoyed it or not), please see the Richards and Barker (2013) book, recommended at the end for a brilliant resource for clinicians, covering not just kink, but all sorts of alternative and less alternative sexualities and lifestyles. Richards and Barker clearly set out what E.L. James does not, and unlike E.L. James, their views on kinky people are clearly informed by their work as clinicians.


Some studies have shown that people mention kink-related behaviours at about the same rate as they mention same sex activities (Lawrence & Love-Crowell, 2007). Kinky people live and work and breathe, just like non-kinky people. They will have better or worse mental health. So of course, kinky people will be our clients.


Since the publication of ‘50 Shades’, and the plethora of books on the topic that has followed, kinky sex has become more and more commonly talked about, and certainly more accepted. This means that more and more of our clients will be a) reading about this and b) exploring it for themselves. Others of our clients will have been kinky for a long time. For some of our clients, ‘kink’ will be something they do just as part of sex. For others, it will form part of their identity. They might go to one of the local social gatherings (commonly known as ‘munches’) held in most larger towns and cities across the country. They might consider their partner to be in control of them, and the partner might be choosing their food, their exercise, their clothes. They might like to inflict pain on their partner on a regular basis; they might consider that they own their partner and that their partner has no rights other than the ones your client gives them. This, for someone who has never come across kink before, could be extremely challenging. How are we to know if the control is abusive or kinky unless we know what kink is?


Rogers (1951:437) states

“It seems desirable that the student should have a broad experiential knowledge of the human being in his cultural setting… Such knowledge needs to be supplemented by experiences of living with or dealing with individuals who have been the product of cultural influences very different from those which have molded the student”


And it seems to me that if we are not aware of this culture (or any other culture that is a salient part of our client’s identity, we would do well to put ourselves in the position of ‘student’. Otherwise we risk viewing any clients who disclose a connection to kink through the lens of a trope: ‘people who like to dish out pain are abusive’, or ‘people who like to receive pain are clearly victims of domestic violence’, and react accordingly, which could put our clients in the way of active harm through our actions.


Much as gay men used to talk about their partners as their ‘wives’, if any of our clients are in a kink-based relationship, given the numbers of people mentioned above, they will also potentially be changing their language; when talking about a consent violation, our clients may be saying ‘rape’, when what they mean is a ‘safeword violation’ (a safeword is a pre-agreed on word between the consenting people that when spoken stops the events happening, just as a ‘no’ or a ‘stop’ should do, but in this instance, it allows for ‘no’ and ‘stop’ to be said freely without risk of the event stopping. The pre-arranged use of the word ‘red’ however, should stop events immediately). A safeword violation is clearly an equally important and potentially devastating event, but at the same time as talking about high-emotion-events, our clients are investing time and energy into ‘translating’ for us. There is a potential here for the therapist to read this incongruence, and misattribute it to something else, when our clients are trying to protect their identity. If a client wants to talk, they need to have space to do that, and it will be more easily facilitated by a therapist who understands BDSM (Kolmes, Stock, and Moser, 2006). We need to make sure that we have a basic understanding of what our clients are bringing, as there is a danger that a client, when faced with a blank response, will interpret this as a negative response (Davies, 1998) and this will inhibit further frank discussion on the topic, leaving our client potentially further distressed.


Also we must consider that, if we have never considered any type of kink and our reactions to it or its possible place in our lives, then it is possible that an in-depth discussion with a client about a “scene” (much as someone might talk about sex to their therapist) will cause some level of sexual arousal in the therapist; something that they will not have previously been aware of. Whilst this can be managed in much the same way as any other reason for arousal, it will necessitate some level of self-exploration on the part of the therapist and, if this awareness can be facilitated to arise for the first time outside of therapy, this would help us to maintain congruence with our client, as we will not be struggling to assimilate new information and our physical and emotional responses to it, whilst at the same time being present 100% for our client.


As well as being informed about the issue, we need to find ways of letting our clients know we accept alternative lifestyles. A note on our advertising that we welcome alternative relationship styles; a book or two on our shelves (that we’ve read!) would go a long way. For training, as an organisation, Pink Therapy (pinktherapy.com) has a wealth of resources not just on LGBT issues but all sorts of alternative relationship styles and sexualities. Their website has papers that can be read, they also have USB sticks purchasable that hold almost 5GB of papers on alternative sexualities, and they run training courses on most topics and hold an annual conference. These are some easy ways to provide ourselves with a little bit of knowledge so that we can let clients know that they are welcome for all of who they are, rather than just the society-approved bits. And whilst as therapists (and trainees!) we might hope that by virtue of our person-centredness clients will know this already, for some clients this may need to be explicit before they feel safe to come out of that particular closet to us. We have nothing to lose, and our clients have everything to gain.


Lynne Potter






Davies, D. (1998). The six necessary and sufficient conditions applied to working with lesbian gay and bisexual clients. The Person-Centered Journal, 5(2), 111–120.

Kolmes, K., Stock, W., & Moser, C. (2006). Investigating bias in psychotherapy with BDSM clients. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2-3), 301–24. doi:10.1300/J082v50n02_15

Lawrence, A., & Love-Crowell, J. (2007). Psychotherapists’ Experience with Clients Who Engage in Consensual Sadomasochism: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 34(1), 67–85. doi:10.1080/00926230701620936

Richards, C., & Barker, M. (2013). Sexuality and Gender for the Mental Health Professional. UK: Sage Publications.

Rogers, C. (1951). A Current view of client-centered therapy. A current view of client-centered therapy.

Shaw, L., Butler, C., Langdridge, D., Gibson, S., Barker, M., Lenihan, P., and Richards, C. (2012). Guidelines and Literature Review for Psychologists Working Therapeutically with Sexual and Gender Minority Clients.


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