Four years ago, I left Los Angeles and (after a series of events both fortunate and un) returned to my staple of media consulting and copywriting. I’ve always loved those adventures, especially the people I meet and stories I experience. It was around that time that I met someone who directly asked me to discipline them as a form of therapy.
Naturally, I had heard and read about “spank therapy” or the emotional and psychological benefits of BDSM. Fifty Shades of Grey had been greenlit for production by then and, moonlighting at a book store, I had been in several conversations about the book and the romantic appeal of “a strong hand” inside a relationship. But until then, it has all been conceptual. The idea that someone would ask for this inside of a relationship I was a part of amused me and fascinated my research-directed mind. What would happen? Would the studies prove true? Would this person experience the calm and high of someone taking control of parts of their life? I did what I always do: I welcomed friends to share their experiences so I could learn from them. And then I sat on it for a while, promising that if I ever wrote about it, I would change names and identifying information.
Since then, I’ve been aware of a developing trend. Like all trends, there are those sharp and sporadic initial bursts of activity that level off, disappear, and re-emerge with new vigor.
“Spank therapy” is absolutely a real thing. In fact, it shows up (in a reduced way) in many relationships that you may know or in which you have an interest. Think of the guy who likes “a girl who calls him out on his bullshit.” Think of the woman who says she needs “a man who can put [her] in [her] place” and tell her when she’s out of line. To be more specific, I am thinking about my friends George and Samantha.
Samantha was pretty eager to get together with George when she met him. I admit, he’s a “mountain of a man” – not something I say casually. He’s a big guy, built thick, muscular, and keeps himself well groomed. I found it delightful the way that Sam went after him, and teased her about the way she behaved around him – giggly, girly, and little sassy. I wasn’t entirely sure how to read George, though. He seemed a little put off by Samantha acting like a teenage brat, but also kept things going with her, flirted a little – even if it seemed shy and tentative in comparison to her fawning. And then they disappeared for a few days. I chalked it up to the honeymoon period of all new relationships – they were getting to know one another outside of the friend circle. When Samantha reappeared, she was cautious and nervous with me until it all came tumbling out. “George spanked me. Yes. Like, over the knee. Like I was child.” Was she okay? Who did George think he was? “No, no… you don’t understand. I asked him to. It was exactly what I needed.”
John Scott Lewinksi, writing for Shape magazine, interviewed Shannon, a 29-year-old from who Minneapolis, never truly felt satisfied in traditional relationships. Although she felt she should be happy with her last partner, she also wanted to employ more fantasy in her love life. “I thought BDSM play was the best way for me to explore whatever was missing for me,” she says. “My relationship was failing and I wanted to fix it, but I was too embarrassed to look into it. I was worried about being judged in my small town, so it took me a while to find the courage to try something I really wanted to do.”
According to Lauren Eavarone, a New York-based marriage and family therapist with a focus on sex therapy, Shannon’s story isn’t uncommon. Eavarone says that similar confusion can happen in many relationships—especially if one or both parties have sexual interests not being met. “For some couples, that lack of passion is due to routine, and they can find excitement again by changing little things. Still, some couples—one or both members—are more experimental. They need adventure,” she says. “For these couples, a way to emit the same neurotransmitters that occur during the honeymoon stage is to do something new or on the edge sexually.” For some couples, this might mean venturing into BDSM—dominant/submissive play that can involve bondage and discipline and sadomasochism. While some might credit the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey with triggering more acceptance of BDSM, Eavarone credits the surge in popularity to simple evolution. “As taboos break down and society becomes more permissive, people realize there’s no harm or danger in experiencing sexually,” she says. Evidence of that? In 2017, 71 percent of OkCupid users report being into some sort of kink, according to their basic profiles that ask about sexual preferences, and other studies have found that 36 percent of American adults admitted to using “bondage tools” during sex.
BDSM has long been a cornerstone of kink, and it still exists mainly as a form of sexual recreation, fantasy play, and stress relieving entertainment between consenting adults. Still, there’s a growing subculture within this taboo tribe that embraces bondage, domination, and discipline as forms of therapy to explore everything from boredom and depression to abuse and trauma. Generally, individuals who seek this out are depicted as successful businessmen with a paunch hanging over the waistband of their boxers. But that is – at least in my experience – a far cry from reality. Gigi Engle, writing for Marie Claire, shares
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love a good spanking. I’m sure you’ve quickly surmised this thorny little detail, but I do mean spanking in a sexual way. Just a flat palm and a willingness to explore is all you need for this sado-masochistic activity—unless you’re into paddles and floggers (and if so, good on you, soldier). But what is it about spanking that people enjoy so much? Is it the raw nerves after a hand meets your butt? The flood of feel-good chemicals into the body? Spanking is for some, and for me certainly, the beginning of an exploration into the world of kink. It feels like being dropped into an ice bath and then wrapped in a warm towel: Shocking at first, unpleasant AF even, but overall quite soothing. It’s a reminder that you are, no matter how crazy life gets, tethered to this earth.
Until the 1980s, S&M (sadomasochism) was classified as an actual mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. While the pop culture image of a dominatrix might be the cruel, sneering, leather-clad woman with the ready whip, Aleta Cai, a New York–based professional dominatrix who sees clients across the country, insists nurturing and pushing is a major therapeutic element of her work, and that kink can be a key to positive change, healing, and higher consciousness. Cai offers a wide range of services and experiences to her clients, like whipping, restraints, fantasy play, and erotic hypnosis. She remains on the dominant side of the equation and vows acceptance and discretion to all of her clients. She doesn’t engage in intercourse with any of them—and points to this as proof that BDSM and kink are as much therapy for her clients as they are sexual experiences. “I have always been naturally empathic, and I bring that to my work,” Cai says. “Regardless of the scene or type of play, I look to offer compassion, love, respect, and empathy. Some of my clients have issues they’ve hidden or buried their entire lives, and it’s only through our play that they can deal with them.” The joy of Cai’s work is seeing her clients—or “slaves” in some instances—release pain or shame they’ve held for years: “My clients gain confidence and self-acceptance. They release past traumas. They can explore trust issues. Most importantly, they can explore a part of themselves without shame or fear.”
Eavarone agrees that BDSM can serve as a form of therapy, at least so far as the fear and shame issues are concerned: “A consensual BDSM environment—especially with a professional practitioner—allows someone to enter into that fantasy or that turn-on without the judgment he or she could face in the more ‘vanilla’ world.”
Cai adds, “In many cases, I have clients that maintain more traditional relationships in a healthier, happier way because they’re able to explore other sides of themselves with me. They’re no longer denying those parts of themselves.”
Dr. Nikki Goldstein, a sexologist and author of Single But Dating, says that we are inherently excited by anything that seems naughty and different. “It’s not rocket science when we consider this is how we also get enjoyment out of life. We like to push the boundaries and especially when sexual boredom could be at play, any sexual act that is even a bit different excites us.”
Returning to Lewinski’s interview, Shannon (who has now been in the kink scene for more than four years) fits into that category. She describes her experiences with BDSM—now as both a dominant and submissive—as a sort of pressure valve allowing her to revel in fantasy whenever she needs that release. While her early steps into BDSM didn’t happen in time to save the original relationship, she’s in a new relationship now. She credits her kink experiences for making that new happiness possible. “I discovered I can indulge my fetishes and interests without limiting myself whenever I feel the need. Letting go of the fear, the shame and the confusion over those desires allowed me to relax and enjoy myself more with my boyfriend.”
For sex therapists and educators, this is hardly surprising. Dulcinea Pitagora, a psychotherapist, sex therapist, and founder of the series, KinkDoctor says that “Spanking can enhance excitement and physical sensations; increase adrenalin, endorphins, and oxytocin; explore and maybe push the line between pleasure and pain; increase intimacy and bonding.” According to an article from the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, there are far more similarities between how our brains process pleasure and pain than we recognize. What is often misunderstood, even confused in public discourse, is the ways that children seek out punishment as a form of comfort and stability. This is not (necessarily) evidence that something is “wrong” with the child, but rather that there is an exploration taking place within their minds and bodies that is not always understood until later in life. Often, adults – now equipped to understand, process, and name what they are going through, return to spanking.
As Samantha put it to me, she – a grown adult – “wanted to be spanked, yes, like I was a little girl.” Once she processed what had happened, and experienced it several more times, Samantha says she sought out George not only because of his physical attractiveness, but also because he was intimidating and made her “feel small. Look, I’m not going to overanalyze this, okay? But I had a messed up childhood and being with George – like, the whole relationship – really helped me grow up. I would have said it focused me.” Spanking is about more than just the brain converting feelings of physical pain into a rush of delightful dopamine. There’s also the psychological release of power. According to Psychology Today, “The essential component is not the pain or bondage itself, but rather the knowledge that one person has complete control over the other, deciding what that person will hear, do, taste, touch, smell, and feel.”
George, for his part, did not want to be directly quoted for this article but said he was uncomfortable about “beating a woman.” This was, he said, a real challenge for him especially because of his size. He is not alone. Many men, even those who are keenly interested, are reluctant to hit a woman because of obvious social stigma.
“I’m old-school,” Doug*, author of The Reluctant Husband’s Guide to Becoming Christian Grey, says. “I’ve never hit a woman in my life, and the idea of hurting Pam was absolutely abhorrent to me.” When Doug was asked by his wife to tie her up, what Doug misconstrued about BDSM is that the sessions are not so much about pain as they are about sensation. “Fear triggers adrenaline, so that introduces the adrenaline rush into your playtime, which really heightens your sensation of everything else,” Doug says. “The pain factor gets the endorphins going and leads to what they sometimes call subspace, a total euphoria. … [Endorphins and adrenaline], they are the body’s natural high.” The couple began exploring BDSM with Doug deciding where they would eat, what Pam would wear and what they would do in the bedroom, “but not before discussing limits beforehand – all with the purpose of pleasing her.” They dove into a world of leather and latex, went to swingers’ clubs (which turned out not to be their thing), and visited public dungeons. It’s now been six years since they became part of the lifestyle, and the one of the most important lessons the couple would wish to share with those who want to change the power dynamics in their relationship is that “Most couples think that honest communication is the key to a happy relationship, but they don’t understand that honest communication does not mean just talking honestly. It means talking completely, being unafraid to be vulnerable enough to each other and admit that you have thoughts, desires, fantasies that some people might think are strange, but you need to have the comfort level with your partner to not hold anything back.”
The benefits within the relationship with Samantha were immediate and profound for George. “He never beat me. It wasn’t like that,” Samantha insists. “It was discipline, not abuse. Consensual – all the time. All the way. I was the one who asked for it and it was never ever abuse. Never. Not even once.” If anything, she says, “it was therapy. Like I would be all over the place and anxious and depressed and just a mess, and then [he] would spank me and it was like my brain chilled out. He spanks me, and… I feel high or something.” Pressed on what she meant by this, Samantha said,
I have so much anxiety before [George] spanks me. Not only am I stressed out from life, but just the anticipation – which can be amazing, really – of, you know, getting your ass whipped. I feel so small and, well, anxious. I mean, I’m about to be spanked! But once it’s over, it’s like ‘Whew. It’s over. I can move on.’ It hurts, but I feel zeroed in on life and – I don’t know – clean. Like when you’re at a hotel. The showers are always better, the soaps are always better, everything to clean and in it’s place where it belongs. That’s how it feels when George takes care of me. I’m where I belong, he’s where he belongs, and we can relax and just be.
As Sandra LaMorgese, PhD. puts it, “It feels good to be totally in control, and sometimes it’s nice to be totally submissive. Power play is a way to break free from the roles we’re trapped in during our everyday lives, and it can be a powerful release.”
Returning to something Shannon mentioned, and even something that appeared in several other conversations, spanking is not an all-time experience. It does not mean that those who practice spanking therapy (or even the more debatable Domestic Discipline where spanking is a form of punishment, rather than personal or relational maintenance) engage in these practices all the time. Like most kinks, it can be an occasional and highly sexualized experience. It can be daily. It can be episodic, or seasonal – say, during a time of transition and high stress during grad school – and then remain dormant for some time. Even last night, a friend called me to ask if it was possible to be a “part time little”, occasionally participating in ageplay and submission without necessarily being part of that end of the kink community. It absolutely is – and the same it true for spanking. It can be as intense and frequent as you need and agree on with a partner.
The process of seeking an experienced, professional domme for experimentation, therapy, or education resembles the procedure for finding a doctor or lawyer. BDSM and sex industry pros maintain websites listing their services, and ad services or bulletin boards like Eros.com or Slixa.com keep complete listings with reviews from previous clients. But before trying any level of kink or sexual play, whether with a partner or a professional, Eavarone urges individuals to do their research and to start out slowly. “Everyone has a love map—their ‘yes and nos’ to what they prefer sexually. When considering venturing out into BDSM, it is useful to consider your limits and what you enjoy,” she says. “Create some ground rules and discuss what is okay and what is an absolute ‘no’ with your partner or the professional you’re seeing.” Both Cai and Eavarone recommend using as much detail as possible when establishing boundaries, for example, “Being restrained is okay, but only using scarves on wrists, not ropes on feet” or “Light paddling works, but whipping into welts does not.”
Outside of paid services, many relationships offer the stability and reassurance necessary to balance the experience. I prefer to think of those paid experiences just like a therapy session – important to individual health, occasional, scheduled, and a service one pays (even tips) to receive but an experience that one can walk away from after an agreed upon time or even terminate when things become too intense. A hazard with these experiences, however, is the “drop” that takes place afterwards. Two of my friends meet after their therapy sessions to decompress from the experience. It is a “post-therapy therapy” of sorts. Once you open up and reveal the inner workings of your life in counseling, it can feel strange to return to your daily life as though it never happened. Many people who find comfort and clarity being spanked by a professional dom/domme, they say, experience an emotional or psychological aftermath that is not always addressed inside the service experience. In traditional therapy, this vulnerable space – when left unaddressed – can lead to confusion and misplaced feelings both negative and romantic. We hear all the time of someone “falling in love with their therapist” while the detached therapist, professional and punctual, sees the exchange as part of their schedule.
In a relationship where partners agree to experience spanking and being spanked together, like Samantha and George, “aftercare” becomes part of the experience. Sometimes this takes place immediately after the spanking, other times it takes place later as needed. Also, inside a relationship, there is the opportunity for both relational maintenance (like Sam and George) and sexualization (spanking as an erotic activity). “Maintenance” may seem decidedly un-sexy, but in many ways it can provide a high degree of stability and reassurance. Discussing spank therapy with another one of my small circles of friends, it came out that spanking and other forms of discipline are used to confront issues with Bipolar Disorder such as sleep disruption (that is, putting the body and mind through a cycle of stress and decline to achieve relaxation and sleep – like a late night run or other form of exercise), to confront Attention Deficit Disorder by focusing the mind, or – yes – to allow for the stagecraft and theater of Daddy-domme and little “so he kind of has to cuddle me for as long as I need. Daddy spanked me! I’m his little baby! He has to cuddle me until I feel better!”
Commonly called “Domestic Discipline,” the practice of spanking as punishment within a relationship is described as the practice between two consenting life partners in which the head of the household (HoH) takes he necessary measures to achieve a healthy relationship dynamic; the necessary measure to create a healthy home environmental and the necessary measures to protect all members of the family from dangerous or detrimental outcomes by punishing the contributing, and thus unwanted, behaviors for the greater good of the family by advocates and even certain branches of Christianity. To be clear, supporters of domestic discipline insist this arrangement is not abuse or abusive.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three U.S. women has been the victim of domestic violence in an intimate relationship. Almost 20 people of any gender are abused by a partner every minute. If you are in a domestic discipline marriage and you’re uncomfortable with the arrangement, please seek professional counseling so you can make an informed, rational decision about your relationship.
There are conflicting thoughts among experts and researchers on whether or not spanking can be used as a true form of therapy, but it can (emphasis on can – maybe, potentially, possibly) be a coping mechanism for those dealing with trauma. Sure, it’s a surreal concept for those who have never participated in BDSM before, but La Morgese says it’s more common than you think. “Just Google ‘spanking therapy’—it’s all focused on positivity, healing, and working through issues in a safe, supportive space. Think of it as a form of massage.” It’s about remembering how intertwined our physical and mental sensations are. “For some, spanking is a way to let go, relax, and surrender to physical sensation so they can have a clearer and calmer mind.” The kink community can be a place to grow and learn about yourself. It isn’t all scary dungeons and the stuff of nightmares, but a faction of like-minded individuals exploring sexuality. So long as people’s rules, boundaries, and consent are being respected, says Dr. Goldstein, “It’s a world where people’s emotions and well-being is paramount.” She uses aftercare as an example, where a dominant will nurture a submissive after a sexual act and bring them back to reality by holding them and comforting them. “There is so much care there that someone with trust issues and problems with personal boundaries could benefit from.”
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- Why I Chose to be Submissive, by Erin Zammett Ruddy
- Christian Domestic Discipline Promotes…, by Meredith Bennett-Smith
- Is Domestic Discipline Loving Correction or… by Sheri Stritof
- Not Being a Jerk to a Sexually Submissive Person, by Emily of XOJane
- Lelo Explains Adult Spanking, by Donna Turner
- National Sexual Assault Hotline via Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network