The Kink-Poly Confluence, part 2
Continued from last week’s The Kink-Poly Confluence, part 1…
The Kink-Poly Dynamic in Therapy
Unfortunately, pathologizing attitudes towards kink and poly lifestyles persist among many therapists, therefore individuals with atypical sexualities or lifestyles may tend to avoid going to therapy, which can exacerbate the issues mentioned above1,2,3. When individuals do go to therapy, they may either avoid disclosure of their identifications or lifestyle, or try and suppress their desires in reaction to having been pathologized by a previous therapist1. “Newbies”—people newly aware of having BDSM desires—often come to therapy because of shame and fear around their desires due to socialization or internalized stigmatization, and may ask a therapist to help “cure” them1. However, attempting to “cure” people of their BDSM desires can be seen as analogous to conversion or reparative therapy for LGBTQ-identified individuals, which is no longer considered an appropriate or ethical form of therapeutic treatment, and is in fact harmful, as asserted in a report by the American Psychiatric Association on therapeutic responses to sexual orientation.
It’s important for therapists working with kink-identified individuals to approach the work with caution, and avoid common fallacies that influence the dominant negative discourses their clients may have internalized. These include: “BDSM is all about pain” (in fact, BDSM encompasses a wide range of behaviors, including some that do not involve any sort of physical stimulation); “those who enjoy BDSM come from a history of childhood trauma or abuse” (there is actually no reported evidence that people who enjoy BDSM are any different than those who do not in terms of histories of trauma or abuse); “BDSM is similar to addiction, in that participants will always want to try something more extreme” (there is also no such evidence of this phenomenon, in fact many report reaching a plateau that varies on an individual basis)1.
Kink-poly-identified individuals often come to therapy for issues unrelated to discomfort with their identifications3,4. While it’s not necessary for a therapist to be kink-identified in order to do good work, it’s important to have certain qualities, including the ability to: be affirmative and able to normalize alternative lifestyles; be well-informed about atypical practices and lifestyles; be comfortable discussing atypical behaviors and lifestyles; be self-aware and reflexive about countertransference; and avoid focusing on sexual practices that irrelevant to the treatment1,4,5.
Other clinical issues common to kink and/or poly identified individuals relate to relationship issues among partners with conflicting interests or identifications, or who are struggling with intimate partner violence6. Particularly in the case of abuse, it is crucial that a therapist have a clear understanding of the difference between a consensual kink-poly dynamic and sexual coercion or assault, and, particularly when in treatment with people new to one or both lifestyles, a certain amount of psychoeducation may be helpful6.
While the most common kink-poly-oriented individual seeking therapy is one new to the dynamic1, people in any stage of lifestyle and identity development might face issues that would benefit from bibliotherapy and additional community support3. The kink-poly relationship dynamic requires an understanding of the ongoing work and complex relationship skills involved, which can be made all the more difficult by a lack of relationship structure models available. At the outset of treatment, Labriola7 recommends exploring whether an individual feels more kink- or poly-identified, and whether one of those identifications takes precedence or influences the other. Poly and kink dynamics require honesty, with partners and oneself, which includes deciding whether the kink-poly dynamic is a good fit8.
Taormino9 asserts that BDSM-oriented individuals tend to be more successful at sustaining poly relationships than non-kinky individuals because they tend to: have more clearly delineated roles and expectations for partners; want to articulate their needs and desires; be willing to negotiate, set boundaries, and compromise; and avoid making assumptions about their partners’ desires, needs, or abilities. Those new to the kink-poly dynamic may need assistance with thinking through what areas need strengthening, within themselves and perhaps also their partners. For example, if an individual has issues with insecurity or self-esteem, this should be addressed before expanding any relationship into polyamory9. Transparency and conflict resolution skills should be encouraged, as well as clarification of roles, and how those roles function in relation to different partners9. Those who identify as submissive may have an inherent tendency to want to please, sometimes to their own disadvantage, in which case a focus on clarifying roles and boundaries and improving negotiation skills can be helpful4.
Another common element in kink-poly dynamics is “New Relationship Energy” (or NRE), which can affect the amount of attention that a partner gives to existing relationships because the new relationship feels powerfully distracting9. The power dynamic itself can also be a form of NRE for those who are initially poly-identified and expand into an exploration of kink9. In both cases, self-awareness and mindfulness are crucial in keeping a balance among and avoiding neglect of partners9.
A focus on communication in the kink and poly communities has become so commonly stated that many feel it is stating the obvious; however, stating and restating what seems obvious can be helpful in kink-poly dynamics, as most issues result from ineffective or lacking communication8,9,10. The benefit of consistent and clear communication and negotiation of sex between and among all partners has the added benefit of broadening potential for pleasure in creating a sense of foreplay around inter- and intra-dyadic erotic and/or sexual interactions, which Bauer10 terms “poly voyeurism…an erotic version of compersion” (p. 151).
Compersion is a term often used in the polyamory community to refer to the antithesis of jealousy—it is a type of relational empathy in which pleasure is felt when an individual’s partner experiences pleasure with another partner11,12. Jealousy is a common reaction for many unfamiliar with or new to poly practices, and is often motivated by feelings of inferiority or fears of being replaced or losing a partner’s connection or affection; though perhaps easier said than done, learning the art of compersion can be an antidote to jealousy8. Compersion can be particularly difficult to achieve when a relationship is expanded into a poly dynamic before it is ready; for example, if the relationship’s foundation is unstable or unclear, if partners are insecure in the relationship, or if one or more partners suffer from low self-esteem8. Having said that, having a positive self-image does not preclude an individual from experiencing jealousy, which can be deeply rooted due to the internalization of mononormativity10.
Jealousy can be particularly problematic in a kink-poly dynamic due to unexpected relational developments, such as when interactions have been compartmentalized as purely kinky, erotic, or sexual, but become more intimate, or evolve into something else, for example an interaction that begins as a power exchange that leads to an emotional connection7. The most effective way to address these types of relational changes in a kink-poly dynamic is in making continual efforts towards self-improvement, and a desire to support partner(s) in the same effort9. It is generally not the erotic or sexual behavior that is at the root of jealousy, but the communication around the behavior, and the emotions or issues that the behavior triggers9.
As many kink-poly-oriented individuals are aware of and attempting to practice the central tenets of the dynamic—consent, transparency, and communication—mindfulness provides an intuitive therapeutic approach in strengthening these skills. Mindfulness is described as a way of increasing intentionality and compassion, and encouraging a present-focused, non-judgmental state in which individuals become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations13. When conflicts arise, some will fight against distress, but mindfulness offers a means through which to observe and endure pain in order to find productive ways to improve relationships13.
Many kink-poly-identified individuals have internalized stigma around mainstream sexuality, and problems in relationships may arise due to associated feelings of shame and guilt14. Mindfulness allows for a different response to conflict and suffering, and a space to embrace difficulties and engage in self-examination instead of avoidance and defensive behavior, and learn a perspective of interconnectedness and an ongoing process of self-reflection and growth14.
Insight dialogue within the context of mindfulness could be particularly helpful in addressing the issues that surface in the kink-poly dynamic14. The steps of insight dialogue include: slowing down habitual thoughts and responses; relaxing and accepting thoughts and feelings in the present moment; extending awareness beyond the self to the environment and to others; interacting without an agenda and or attempts to force or control interactions; actively listening and committing to learning; and speaking truthfully14.
The take home message from all of the above is that kink-poly-identified individuals may face additional stressors from external sources outside of their relationships, as well as within their relationships. The good news is that many kinky-poly people, simply by virtue of their lifestyle and the people around them, will already be aware of and in the process of strengthening their skills around transparency, communication, negotiation, conflict resolution, and self-awareness. The bottom line for kink-poly-identified people (as well as everyone else!) is to keep working on yourself, in whatever way you find works best for you and your partner(s), and to keep up the hard work! Relationships, in whatever form or structure, are an ongoing challenge that can be well worth the effort.
1 Barker, M., Iantaffi, A., & Gupta, C. (2007). Kinky clients, kinky counselling? The challenges and potentials of BDSM. In L. Moon (Ed.), Feeling Queer or Queer Feelings: Radical Approaches to Counselling Sex, Sexualities and Genders (pp. 106-124). London, UK: Routledge. Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/17272/2/4AD665D2.pdf
2 Kolmes, K., Stock, W., & Moser, C. (2006). Investigating bias in psychotherapy with BDSM clients. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2-3), 301-324. doi:10.1300/J082v50n02_15
3 Kleinplatz, P. J. & Diamond, L. M. (2014). Sexual diversity. In D. L. Tolman & L. M. Diamond (Eds.), APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology: Vol. 1, Person-Based Approaches (pp. 245-267). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. xxviii, 804. doi:10.1037/14193-009
4 British Psychological Society (2012). Guidelines and literature review for psychologists working therapeutically with sexual and gender minority clients. Retrieved from www.bps.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/rep_92.pdf
5 Nichols, M. (2006). Psychotherapeutic issues with “kinky” clients: Clinical problems, yours and theirs. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2-3), 281-300.
6 Ortmann, D. M. & Sprott, R. (2012). Sexual outsiders: Understanding BDSM sexualities and communities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
7 Labriola, K. (2010). Love in abundance: A counselor’s advice on open relationships. Eugene, OR: Greenery Press.
8 Rinella, J. (2011). Partners in power. Gardena, CA: SCB Distributors. Kindle Edition.
9 Taormino, T. A. (2008). Opening up: A guide to creating and sustaining open relationships. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.
10 Bauer, R. (2010). Non-monogamy in queer BDSM communities: Putting the sex back into alternative relationship practices and discourse. In M. Barker & D. Langdridge (Eds.), Understanding Non-Monogamies (pp. 142-153). London, UK: Routledge.
11 Klesse, C. (2011). Notions of love in polyamory—Elements in a discourse on multiple loving. Laboratorium, Russian Review of Social Research, 3(2), 4-25.
12 Wosick-Correa, K. (2010). Agreements, rules and agentic fidelity in polyamorous relationships. Psychology & Sexuality, 1(1), 44-61. doi: 10.1080/19419891003634471
13 Boyd-Franklin, N., Cleek, E. N., Wofsy, M., & Mundy, B. (2013). Therapy in the real world: Effective treatments for challenging problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. Kindle Edition.
14 Barker, M. (2013). Mindful counselling and psychotherapy: Practicing mindfully across approaches and issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.