Is BDSM Just Another Lifestyle Choice?

Is this how you build trust (wikipedia.org)?

Is this how you build trust (wikipedia.org)?

The hoopla surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey has brought BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism) out of the shadows and into mainstream conversation. Do we like what we see?

We’re subtly – and not so subtly – reminded at every turn that everyone is entitled to her own sexual choices. We are expected to be cultural libertarians, withholding judgment about others’ sexual appetites. It’s one thing to say we shouldn’t waste public resources policing every adult who buys handcuffs for home use — absolutely — but what about impressionable teenagers?

What happens when someone’s choice, or experimentation, is harmful? Must parents and other concerned adults remain silent? We live in a nation

where one in five women will be raped within their lifetime, according to the CDC; where nearly 40 percent of those rapes will happen to women aged 18 to 24; and where troubling evidence of casual attitudes toward rape—such as in 2010 when a number of Ivy League-educated men thought it was okay to chant “no means yes, yes means anal” on their campus—is not uncommon.

We also live in a nation where the publicly subsidized Planned Parenthood of Northern New England “produced and posted online a video aimed specifically at teenagers that promotes bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM) and proposes ‘rules’ to follow when engaging in these activities.” The video’s narrator explains that “BDSM relies upon and creates trust.” (Of course, if participants need these activities to build trust, they might want to reevaluate the underlying relationship.)

Now comes the R-rated Fifty Shades of Grey, which portrays BDSM as one more (sexual) option. That has real-world repercussions.

For example, prosecutors say Mohammed Hossain, a 19-year-old University of Illinois-Chicago freshman, “brought a female student to his dorm room, where he blindfolded her, then bound and gagged her before beating her with a belt and sexually assaulting her. Authorities said Hossain confessed to police he was recreating scenes from ’50 Shades of Grey’.” Hossain’s lawyer argues that the sex was consensual. However, his partner disagrees:

After hitting her several times, the woman told Hossain he was hurting her, told him to stop “and began shaking her head and crying,” said [Assistant State’s Attorney Sarah] Karr. Hossain continued striking the woman — including with his fists, according to an arrest report — and she managed to get one arm, and then another, free. But he then held her arms behind her back and sexually assaulted her as she continued to plead for him to stop, according to Karr.

Initial consent may be necessary, but as Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Program in Medical Ethics at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, recently wrote in The Public Discourse, it is insufficient:

First, people often consent to things that they are not really comfortable with; they do so for many different reasons and under many different social pressures. . . Second, people often consent to things that turn out to be quite harmful to them. For consent to be authentic consent, it must be truly informed. To consent, people must understand the risks of what they are agreeing to do.

Atop that list of risks: BDSM has lasting, negative neurological consequences. “With BDSM, a person is fusing distinct neural networks that were meant to operate separately.” Such activities literally rewire human brains, fusing operating systems for fear, sexual arousal, and aggression that were designed to operate independently.

Once this happens, aggression automatically triggers sexual arousal. Or fear and anxiety automatically trigger sexual interest. When this fusion of neural networks becomes pronounced, people often will present to the psychiatrist with clinical problems.

And as with any addiction, participants require more intense pain to reach the same high over time. According to Dr. Kheriaty,

the problem of tolerance means that one needs to push the envelope more and more just to get aroused or climax. The aggressive, domineering, or painful behaviors need to become increasingly intense and increasingly dangerous in order to “work.” . . . As with a drug, what might begin with experimentation can end with a kind of enslavement.

Is that what we want for our daughters and sons, pain and enslavement? Should we actively, or passively, communicate that BDSM is just one more choice on the sexual buffet? It’s not. This one will absolutely leave a permanent mark, and it’s not a healthy one.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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