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Erotic asphyxiation: treatments of kink in therapy and the media

Posted at 16:45 on 4 Jan 2011 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: Gender politics, in the news, Kink activism, Politics, rant, those crazy kinksters

Just before Christmas, Dr Petra Boynton called my attention to a worrying article in Psychologies magazine (remember, the one which supplied the bad science which has been used to justify the idea of a UK opt-in system for online porn).

This nuanced piece of journalism, entitled "Erotic asphyxiation why do people do it?" springboarded off the unfortunate death of MI6 spy Gareth Williams, who was found mysteriously dead in his flat. As soon as it was "revealed" that he liked to look at bondage websites, speculation abounded that auto-erotic asphyxiation was the cause of death.

Public opinion has a strange relationship with erotic asphyxiation (better known to you and I as breathplay). The stereotype of the solitary version is a sad man in a suit, accidentally hanging himself to death while seeking cheap masturbatory thrills. When I was 15 my dad, aware of The Story of O's presence on my bookshelf and concerned for my moral and physical welfare, had a long Talk with me about the dangers of BDSM. He cited the tragic case of a couple he knew, wherein the gentleman was accidentally strangled during a consensual bondage game, leaving his widow harrowed by guilt.

Psychologies magazine quoted relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, who explained to the layman reader that this bizarre yet fascinating quirk of human sexuality was "like taking a drug. As with all addictions when youre not doing it you start to fantasise about doing it." Oh dear; that doesn't bode well, for a start. There are all sorts of things I think about even when I'm not doing them. Sex, work, creative projects, music, food, things that made me laugh ... clearly those are all dangerously addictive, too.

As it happens, I enjoy breathplay a lot, but it's neither an addiction nor a core component of my kink. In fact I almost never fantasise about it - it's more about the doing. The actual 'headrush' physical stimulus enhances my orgasms, and the threat of a hand, rope or blade against my throat makes for powerful D/s play.

But never mind that, my experience apparently doesn't count for much - since according to Quilliam, practitioners of erotic asphyxiation are "usually male".

"Because a woman needs to feel safe and secure to orgasm there's a direct contradiction between the high risk of asphyxiation and pleasure."

Problematic? Oh, let me count the ways.

1. A woman needs what? This bogglingly sexist statement might be true of Susan Quilliam, but such inane generalisations are impossible to make of a whole gender, and this one in particular buys into the toxic "men need cheap thrills, women need security and romance" stereotype which damages all of us.

2. Personally, I quite like a bit of danger. In fact a hand around my throat as I'm being fucked can pretty much guarantee me a blinding orgasm. And I'm a woman.

3. Since when did orgasms equate to the sum of sexual pleasure anyway, for people of any gender?

4. Breathplay is edgy! That's sort of the point! My experience and observation strongly suggests that it's something responsible kinksters undertake warily, with trusted partners, not on a first play session with a casual fling. "Safe, sane and consensual" is the watchword of many BDSMers for a reason - everyone has boundaries, and needs those boundaries to be respected in order to enjoy risky play. Trust and security enable a better experience for everyone. It's not gendered, it's just good sense.

So not only were these damaging, incorrect generalisations peddled without comment, criticism or a balancing perspective from someone who actually knows what they're talking about, but the article closed with this gem:

Sexual therapist Simone Bienne says bondage and sado-masochistic fetishes are subconsciously related to childhood trauma. "It's about a struggle with life. They could work through their issues in a normal way, of course, talking to counsellors or using self-help books."

Talking to the kinds of counsellors who will pathologise their sexuality and make insulting assumptions about their childhoods, you mean? Hrm. Psychologists claiming that in order to be "normal" people should spend money on their services and products. Let's just think about that for a second.

Just to set the record straight: BDSM isn't a pathology, studies have provided no evidence that it's linked to trauma. The assumption that a kinky sexuality is a symptom of post-traumatic stress is harmful and outdated. There is no such thing as "normal" or "abnormal" when it comes to the colourful spectrum of human sexuality.

This sort of speculative reporting peddled as science is irresponsible, judgemental and dangeous, and sets psychology back by decades: pathologising kink is so last century. And yet many therapists and medical professionals still receive inadequate training in how to engage productively with kinky patients; and the media is all too quick to reproduce the resulting assumptions and stereotypes.

Therapists and counsellors hold a position of immense responsibility. Particularly when helping people with issues of sexuality, it is vital that they do not let ignorance or prejudice distort their duty of care. A couple of friends have already left excellent comments on the guilty Psychologies article - it would be great to see more. And a complaint or two to the writer Sophie Herdman, or editor Louise Chunn might not go amiss. They and other healthcare practitioners may find the following resources useful in coming to an understanding of kink and BDSM:

A kink in the process - Su Connan (Therapy Today, July 2010)
"Sadomasochistic sex is arguably one of the least understood and most demonised forms of consensual sexuality. How able are we to offer ethical therapy to kinky clients when there is so little awareness of the kink experience?"

Kinky clients, kinky counselling? The challenges and potentials of BDSM - Meg Barker, Alessandra Iantaffi and Camel Gupta, 2007.

Health Care Without Shame: A Handbook for the Sexually Diverse and Their Caregivers - Charles Moser, 1999.

Safe, Sane and Consensual - Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism. Edited by Darren Langdridge and Meg Barker, 2007.

(Thanks to Dr Petra Boynton for the twitter chat and links.)

The bottom line is that kink is nothing to be ashamed of, not a symptom of any mental or emotional disorder, and can be a vibrant part of a healthy sexuality. Moreover, kink and BDSM practitioners often come to an enhanced understanding of their own desires through the emphasis on personal boundaries and communicative consent which arises from a responsible approach to power and pain play. All sex is risky; these themes are not exclusive to kink, merely thrown into focus. The vocabulary and discourse of kink can offer meaning to people of any sexuality, and better the sexual discourse of our society as a whole.


The thing that really impressed me in this piece is that your Dad knew about "O" and Talked openly with you about BDSM. Of course our role as parents is to warn about dangers but I know so many parents who can hardly bear to discuss sex let alone kink with their kids.
As for Psychologies - what load of tripe and marketing.

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