How BDSM Helped a Rape Survivor Recover

Author Jane Devin overcame fear to embrace an unlikely ally.

Human psychology is not always linear or straightforward, and the path to true healing is not, as many assume, always dictated by therapy sessions with a licensed professional. Rather, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people who have experienced emotional upheaval or some traumatic event don’t seek counseling. They lean on friends, time, and their own intuition and survival skills.

By the time I was 14, I had been raped and molested numerous times. The summer of my 10th year was when most of the events occurred. I was sent to live with a perpetrator who took pride in maintaining the integrity of my hymen as some sort of proof, should he have ever needed it, that he didn’t do anything criminal. Instead, he raped me anally and forced me to perform and receive oral sex in front of a camera. He took pleasure in seeing how much he could humiliate me with degrading poses and acts, like putting a finger in my vagina while sucking on a vibrator. When I finally got to go home, I told no one. It wasn’t only that he threatened violence on my sisters if I did, it was because I had no words, and feared that even if I found some, I would be punished and blamed. My home life was not a loving or supportive one, which I’m sure played into the perpetrator’s choice to make me his victim.

At 14, when I was on the cusp of recovery, and beginning to seriously ponder questions of sex and sexuality, I was raped by a 17-year-old, who tore into me so violently that I bled for two days. Again, I told no one.

I don’t disclose these events to be exploitive or sensational, but to try to explain why some former victims find themselves drawn to exploring the submissive side of the BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) realm. (Please note I said some, not all. Reasons are as diverse as people.) To outsiders, a survivor’s participation in BDSM often seems counterintuitive—why would someone who has been raped seek to recreate their vulnerability on any level? Why would they choose to place themselves in any position reminiscent of a traumatic event?

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BDSM is nothing new, but since Fifty Shades of Grey became popular, the discussion about sexual submission has ranged from excitement to condemnation. Having read only excerpts from the book, which didn’t inspire me to read any further, I don’t have anything to say specifically about E.L. James’s book, other than I’m glad that it has inspired open conversation about a topic that’s usually considered taboo, or relegated to some corner of the internet where nearly everyone’s anonymous. I’m probably as guilty as others who’ve seen the topic as off-limits for mainstream spaces. While I’ve hinted at some things on my blog, I’ve never actually come out and said, “I’ve been there. I’ve done that.” It wasn’t sexual shame that held me back, but the fear of being harshly judged. In some ways, I was still that girl who feared punishment if she disclosed her secrets to the wrong people.

I also had the belief that my BDSM experiences, and the curiosity that led to them, weren’t shared by many other women: That mine was some sort of unusual history that was relegated to the fringe. Having read so many discussions on erotica and BDSM lately—having seen the spectacular rise of a book popularized solely for its subject matter—I no longer believe that to be the case.

The discussions around Fifty Shades and sexual submission often fall short for me, though. On one hand, there are the giggly, gratuitous odes to strong manly men and their bodice-ripping sex appeal. On the other, there’s an outrage that—oh my god, it’s 2012 and women are still being objectified; where the outcry, and why aren’t they rebelling?

My experiences tell me that there are aspects to BDSM that aren’t covered by either of those discussions. Namely, that for a considerable number of women who engage in sexual submission, the practice is an attempt at self-healing.

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My partner in BDSM was an older man named Michael who was, in all ways outside of the bedroom, a gentle spirit. I was in my late 20’s when I met him and had been sexually inactive for a few years. After a short bout of teenage promiscuity, followed by a brief and bad marriage at 19, I found that while I could enjoy the physical part of sex with a man, it always left me feeling empty, like there was something vital missing. The suspicion that I was gay had been growing since puberty, but I truly had no idea what to do with it—it was a different and less accepting era, and I didn’t know anyone else in my small town who was gay. Anyway, when I met Michael, I wasn’t expecting more than friendship, but after months of exchanging confidences our relationship became sexual in that very sweet, vanilla way of mutual comfort.

When Michael originally divulged his history as a BDSM “Master” I was intrigued, but slightly afraid, even of my own curiosity. In my young, repressed, and fractured mind, people who did “those things” were on the other side of some vague, but universally scary, partition of right/wrong. I recalled my rapists, but also every trench coat wearing deviant I’d seen on television in my childhood, who pimped out women, and frequented porn theaters. In that perfectly two-dimensional black and white world, there was only “normal” and perverted, strictly delineated by the level of society’s approval. There was no middle, no “other normal,” and yet here I was—a woman who was attracted to other women, having a relationship with a man who enjoyed sexual domination, and I didn’t feel perverted at all. Where did I fit in this neat schema?

As my black and white world started to turn grey, I found myself growing less anxious and more objective around the subject of sex. Eventually, I asked Michael to be my partner in a new, exploratory journey. Together, we agreed on some initial ground rules (some of which we ended up keeping, while others were quickly abandoned).

We started off slowly, with some light bondage, but it took no time at all to escalate my role as a sub or his as a Dom. It was an amazing thing to me—how easy, and even natural, it felt to hand the reins to someone else in the bedroom—all while knowing that I was the one truly in control. I had a safe word that would instantly stop anything that felt uncomfortable which Michael, by way of our agreement, was obliged to heed. I never used it, though. My trust in him was full and absolutely exquisite. It was that trust, so solidly and completely bonded to our intimate and physical relationship, that allowed me to break through one self-imposed boundary at a time with a confidence I’d never felt before.

Within weeks, the woman who would once only get naked in the dark became a stranger to me. You can’t be consensually tied up, spread-eagle on the bed, having agreed to be submissive to someone else, and keep a sense of self-consciousness—you can’t be that willingly open and vulnerable while harboring years of pent-up shame. At least I found that I couldn’t.

In the months that followed, I found myself healing not only from my history of rape, but also years of child abuse, in some very unexpected ways. Mentally and emotionally, I was rewiring old thoughts and fears, some of which I’d never verbalized:

  • If given any power, men will cause great suffering.
  • I cannot trust people. Trust will lead to pain.
  • If I let someone in too deeply, they will hurt me.
  • If I am vulnerable, I will be victimized.
  • My sex is a curse.
  • My body is a curse.
  • I must always be vigilant and on-guard.

The physical aspects of a BDSM relationship offered a tangibility that talk therapy could not. Instead of mere thought or theory—instead of struggling to change hardwired perceptions on a purely mental scale—my relationship with Michael was giving me actual, incontrovertible proof that I could trust someone emotionally and physically. Unlike a vanilla relationship, BDSM consistently challenges limits and pushes boundaries. Every “session” with Michael was another test, another experiment in which trust might either fail or hold. That it not only held, but grew exponentially, was healing in every single way. Sexually, I’d never felt more powerful. The shedding of shame and fear allowed me to let go and really feel my body’s pleasure without the restraint of self-consciousness or the need to be in control. I became more aware of my body’s responses, and less concerned with how I might look or how someone else might perceive me. All those things that might otherwise hide in a person’s bedroom—including socially learned lessons about what’s normal and what’s not; purity and deviance; sluts and shame; right and wrong—went flying out the window. There was only me and Michael, our bodies and imaginations, and a world of trust.

Trust is the sexiest thing one can bring to the bedroom. It far eclipses any of the usual accoutrements. Whatever else might turn someone on is secondary to this life-affirming, sex-positive element. For those who have been victims, the relearning of trust can be difficult, especially when social judgments are internalized and carry over, even subconsciously, into the realm of sexuality. As a survivor and feminist, I remember questioning whether it was even okay for me to enjoy sex at all—if my enjoyment of sex, non-violently and consensually, somehow made me complicit in my own victimization, or if it made me a passive contributor to the rape culture. I understand how absurd those questions seem now, but they—and a thousand painstaking others—were part of my recovery.

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When my relationship with Michael ended, I didn’t feel a need to carry BDSM into my relationships with other people (although certainly some aspects still come into play). I felt healed in ways that I don’t think any other type of relationship could have offered me. BDSM allowed me to break down great, big walls and trust another person, a man no less, on an almost supernatural level. The fear I had built around all men, not just my rapists, dissipated. I no longer viewed the entire sex of men as a dangerous entity. Moreover, the sexual identity that had been thwarted by childhood rape became clear: I was gay, and felt freer to be gay than ever before. I no longer cared so much about the possible judgments or recriminations of others. The partitions were no longer divided along black and white lines of what was socially acceptable and what was not. I felt like I had fought a long and noble battle for my sexual freedom and had won. I was no longer willing to make concessions for the scars inflicted by rapists, or to be bound by any convention that was not in my own best interests.

BDSM allowed me to take my power back. In shades of grey, I found the light I needed to recover from a traumatic past. I found the freedom to trust myself and others with my vulnerability. In speaking with several other women who have engaged in BDSM, or even made a lifestyle out of it, I’ve learned that my story is not unique at all. Almost every single woman I’ve spoken with on the subject has survived either molestation, rape, or some other trauma. Given that one in five women (or one in six, depending on which studies are read) experience rape in their lifetime, I find this significant.

I have to wonder if perhaps the popularity of Fifty Shades and other BDSM novels isn’t all due to their erotic subject matter. If perhaps, above the appeal of carnal sex, what some women are really lusting for is a kind of reparative, powerful, emotional trust: The assurance that if they let go of hindrances and self-doubts—if they allow themselves to experience a shameless, open, unbridled sexuality and be vulnerable—they will be safe.

In other words, maybe the draw isn’t really man as Master, but men who can be completely trusted.

Photo: dazjohnson/Flickr

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About Jane Devin

Jane Devin is an author and essayist. Her memoir, Elephant Girl, is available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com. You can Tweet her on @JaneDevin or follow her on Facebook. Her next book, a novel, is scheduled for release in March, 2013.

Comments

  1. Ashiantiiinlove says:

    Congrats, I’m very happy for you. You made some very good points that I have come to recognize myself. It was nice to see that there are other people who agree

  2. Thank you, Jane, for writing this…so weird and honest!

    I took up karate a few years ago to learn self-defense and to get over my panic attacks (induced by a stalker)….and it helped me so much to get over the past….so true what you say about doing something tangible or physical that helps you move through so many feelings (i.e., fear, trust, betrayal, anger, and, eventually, joy and friendship)….words are sometimes so false when people interact….sometimes just facing someone eye to eye and sparring together and learning how to fight back is so indescribably healing….doing karate takes so much concentration and effort that it becomes so easy to forget what was bothering you in the first place…being in the flow of some intense activity (even if you don’t always like it) is like a meditation….and then you come out invigorated….bruised but okay…

    The physical and emotional aspects of abuse are so hard to describe in words since so many victims were forced to be silent….doing something so physically tiring is very healing….

  3. Thank-you for sharing your story, I learned a lot.

  4. Everybody finds the thing that helps them cope with their Crazy and I am using crazy as a cached term for trauma and other issues … It can be something positive and enjoyable like sports, sex or music or can be something destructive like drug, drinking, cutting etc….

    Thanks for sharing and you’re a very talented writer ..

  5. DIY sex therapy not recommended for safety. What if your “Master” was another abuser, taking advantage of situation? Craigslist, and online dating prove vulnerability is magnet for risk. Victims need rights supported, and social advocacy. Kids, please don’t try this at home.

    • Valter Viglietti says:

      She was NOT “recommending” this way. She was just telling her story.
      Besides, she obviosly took her time to know that man and to be sure she could trust him.
      Remember, reality is no black OR white, it’s made of shades of grey.

      Your comment is pretty shallow and rooted in fear/panic, instead that in knowledge and understanding.

    • As my article pointed out, I didn’t seek this particular sexual experience in order to heal, or as a SIY therapy. I sought it out due to my own curiosity. Rape victims, like others, have sex drives and an interest in exploring them. The healing side effects of BDSM came as a surprise to me, and were likely had because of my own, unique set of issues & the wonderful partner I had.

      Also, my partner and I knew each other well. There was no Craigslist or online dating involved. Again, as the article states, the healing mechanism was an enormous amount of trust, not merely sex. Sex was only the path there — and there are many paths. This is one that I took, and I don’t seek anyone’s approval for or of it. I am merely relaying my own journey.

      • Jane,

        In light of the recent events @ Amherst and the Trey Project, I’d like to share how very grateful I am that you are ok. That you are writing, and sharing.

        50% Women in society report a similar experience to your painful past, and 25% Men. Every restaurant, every park, every department store, ice cream shop. 50% of the women in that public place, and 25% Men intimately know your pain inside their pain. And we can’t talk about it, nor support each other openly.

        Trey changed that. He asked us to care. He asked us to try.

        Admittedly, your story is not light reading. Strong in content, and in context with your past, challenging to process. Conflicting feelings ensue.

        Romance is hard to come by with buried pain in society, and denial.
        Not the best karma for our children. Trey would agree.

        Best from a Survivor.

  6. Kudos to Jane for her honest and thoughtful story.

    I’ve been writing about BDSM and abuse for a while. Anyone interested in the topic might check out my book The S&M Feminist, and also some of the articles I’ve written about the topic, such as:

    The Psychology of S&M

    Sex Communication Case Studies

    Thinking Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse

    S&M Aftercare … or Brainwashing?

  7. If given any power, men will cause great suffering.
    I cannot trust people. Trust will lead to pain.
    If I let someone in too deeply, they will hurt me.
    If I am vulnerable, I will be victimized.
    My sex is a curse.
    My body is a curse.
    I must always be vigilant and on-guard.

    This,,,so much this, thank you for sharing and I understand so much where you are coming from.

  8. What can I say? Sometimes it is easier to see the light when you are standing in the dark.

  9. Thank you, Jane. This resonates and is a quote that, in faith, I’m likely to treasure for the rest of my life and relationships. “Trust is the sexiest thing one can bring to the bedroom. It far eclipses any of the usual accoutrements. Whatever else might turn someone on is secondary to this life-affirming, sex-positive element.”

    Best,
    -A

  10. Valter Viglietti says:

    Thank you Jane.
    Yours is an enlightening story, and beautifully written.

    Since I’m into BDSM and my girlfriend has abuse trauma, this sounds very personal to me. It’s revealing and good food for thoughts.

  11. Bradford says:

    Wow. Just wow. I would NOT have understood this, 20 or 30 years ago…it has only been through my OWN long, slow, painful journey of recovery and learning and healing that I can fully understand the message here… Buty, sadly, at root, is men who were abused in various ways, then turning and abusing others, including raping girls…Michael the DOM I can understand completely…But, the sicko perv who would anally rape a young girl, is really beyond my full understanding…so many victims, so many victims… And, speaking as a GOOD MAN, too many of us good men get the blame for too many bad men…What more can we good men do to help our whole sick society create fewer abusers in the first place?…My self-imposed celibacy is getting nauseating!…Am I really depriving some woman of a good man, by being a Buddhist monk???…Is my (imagined?) “chivalry” really an excuse for a fear of women whom I actually do enjoy?…Thank-you for your brave honesty, Jane….

  12. Thank you. I thought I was crazy. At 15, I was raped by a 21 yo US marine which I never knew how to get over. Instead I became permiscuous. I couldn’t explain why, and most of my longer relationships after failed… Usually on account of trust. Real trust… Not that I was being cheated on but that this person loved or cared for me as much or far more than they wanted my body. Like I couldn’t reconcile the separation and/or connection between my body and my internal emotional needs. I read 50 shades, and for the first time began exploring my needs. I couldn’t understand why… While at times I preferred to be Dom… Almost abusive… I desired extreme control… I also felt odd shame for desperately wanting to relive the sub role… In a similarly aggressive situation to my rape but where I was the one to say “yes, this is what I want… Because I trust you… And I need to understand better… That somehow this will help me.” So I did… With a close friend. We tried things I never tried before and there was this understanding that when I wanted to stop we would stop. But he was most caring and sweet outside of this to me. It was liberating. Your experience helps me not to feel as alone. Thank you.

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