During a recent podcast, I interviewed David Singer, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a poly- and kink-aware professional who practices in Los Angeles, California. He specializes in working with people practicing or exploring consensual non-monogamy, those involved in kink and power exchange relationships, and professional sex workers.
Singer has a master’s degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy. He also has more than a decade of experience working with police and fire departments to help survivors of trauma.
Our interview focused on consensual non-monogamy, as well as the kink lifestyle, and what all of this means.
Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Dr. Joe Kort (JK): I understand you are not just a kink-aware professional, but you also are active in the lifestyle, which gives you greater empathy for the challenges [faced by those who practice kink].
David Singer (DS): Correct. For a long time, I provided this type of service in my practice but more on the DL. It was a slow process before I eventually said, “I’m actually part of this lifestyle.” I was a little worried about how people would react, but honestly, it’s been pretty positive.
JK: Has it been positive from other therapists, too?
DS: Yes. That one surprised me, especially over the last couple of years when I have really tried to claim this niche of LA Kink Shrink.
JK: So you instantly became safe because you’ve come out, and you’ve created safety for others to come out?
DS: I hope so. Yes, creating safety really is kind of a huge thing that I’m trying to do. And it’s really impossible, I think, in good conscience, to be in a room with a client and talk about accepting yourself, and loving yourself, and being okay with these things of yourself, while you are at the same time not doing it yourself.
JK: I agree. Now, let’s talk about what you call consensual non-monogamy, which is becoming more and more popular. It’s morphed into so many names, but that’s the name that’s being used today. What does it mean when you say consensual non-monogamy?
DS: It’s the idea that – breaking it down – it’s not cheating. It’s the idea of being, depending on how far you go, either sexual, or sexual and romantic, or romantic, with more than one person. And that you can do that with honor, with integrity, with transparency. Nowadays people talk about polyamory, the idea of being in multiple relationships. That’s one type of consensual non-monogamy. There’s also swinging. You’ve also heard the term monogamish. That kind of counts as a consensual non-monogamy.
Or, it’s like a hall pass. In some relationships, when the partner travels on business, for example, you can do what you want to do as long as there is communication and there’s honesty. It’s not cheating. In my experience, personally and professionally, it can increase the amount of intimacy in a relationship.
JK: I also think that can include consensual monogamy. When I ask my couples if they are monogamous, I also ask them if they have negotiated monogamy. They’ll look at me like I have two heads. What is there to negotiate? We’re monogamous, right? And I’ll say, well, what do you mean? Can you flirt on Facebook? Can you send private photos? Can you go online with someone in Romania and have web sex? One partner may say no, but the other may say maybe. You realize they have an implicit contract but not an explicit contract. So, isn’t it the same thing?
DS: I’m glad you asked that question because a lot of therapists don’t ask. There’s such an assumption of monogamy among therapists, too. And so, asking the question opens the door to being able to talk about it. And I love, like you said, consensual monogamy. I’m not against monogamy. I do think it’s become this automatic default that people get into because they don’t think they have any other choice. There are no Disney movies that end “and they lived happily ever after” when they end up hooking up with Jack down the street.
My experience has been, there’s no binary. But I think, in general, there’s a continuum of monogamy or non-monogamy that, with no science to back me, is wired in almost as much as gay or straight. I think some people are wired monogamous, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But explore it, make your choices consciously.
JK: Right. And just like those in open relationships have to renegotiate their contracts, so do those in monogamous relationships. Every few years, have you renegotiated, have you revisioned, re-examined? I think monogamous couples think monogamy is going to do the work.
DS: It’s like playing the video game on easy mode. Except it isn’t because you end up in these boxes that no one thought about. And you end up in this conflict that you didn’t anticipate because you didn’t really talk about what does monogamy mean to you?
JK: What’s the difference between kinky and vanilla?
DS: No one is really vanilla, everyone is vanilla-ish. Like the movie and book – 50 Shades of something or another; there’s probably 50 shades of vanilla.
I think, in general, vanilla is the opposite of kink. We come home after work, we watch a movie, we have missionary sex, and we go to sleep. That’s kind of the quintessential vanilla. I doubt if many people are as vanilla as we think they are.
JK: What would make somebody kinky and not vanilla?
DS: Anyone who is exploring is a little bit kinky. It’s just this label—and is this label really necessary? I tend to think not. So, a monogamous couple occasionally has sex with someone else together. So, they were occasionally kinky. Or occasionally, they like the idea of a blindfold. That’s kinky. Does that mean that you’re a kinkster? No. It just means that no one really is all that vanilla.
JK: I’ve heard some people say, kink is wherever your disgust response starts. Some people will say, “Well, I’m into all these things, but I would never do that. That’s kinky.” Well, they’re having a disgust response to it, but it’s only kinky because they wouldn’t get into it.
DS: And these same people who say they would never do that, are getting into it two years later. So, I think, when you have a really, really strong disgust reaction, it sometimes means maybe there’s something that’s happening there within you.
JK: Exactly. It’s so true. What would you say to people who think people are kinky because they’ve had a history of trauma?
DS It’s not true. I mean, it’s based upon assumption and no research. There are some people who try to gain mastery over past trauma through BDSM. There also are people who try to gain mastery [over] past trauma by painting with watercolors. We don’t create a causal relationship in our theory because of that one.
JK: I’ve tried to find research that would affirm or not affirm it’s from trauma, but there is nothing definitive out there at all. For some people, even if they’re not kinky, their sex comes from trauma. And so, we don’t pathologize that and say something’s wrong with them. It’s about people in a position of two consenting adults, isn’t it?
DS: Yes, I think you hit on something that’s really key: when therapists choose to stigmatize, to blame causality on something that basically they don’t like. With consensual non-monogamy, it’s not like when you’re in a consensually non-monogamous relationship, you have a magic pill and you never have relationship problems. You do. And a lot of “vanilla” therapists will put the causality on, well, you’re trying to do this consensual non-monogamy thing. That’s what’s causing these problems.
JK: What if you were working with a client and their kink does come from trauma and they’re putting themselves at risk? How do you help them work with the kink in a safer way? Or how do you work with them?
DS: I think, as opposed to using an addiction model where you pathologize the problem, you try to understand the voice of the problem or the action that could be problematic. As opposed to saying, “Well, you shouldn’t do that. That’s risky. That’s bad.” Try to understand what’s the message.
Everything we do has a voice. Try to understand what’s being communicated. And try to do it in a way that’s non-shaming and not creating an us-versus-them situation where everyone digs their heels in. Try to create a collaborative look at what’s behind it, and then try to find out if there are ways where this can get expressed in a less potentially dangerous manner.
JK: Have you worked with couples where one is kinky and one isn’t?
DS: Yes. But most of my practice at the moment is consensual non-monogamy. I have had couples where one wants to be non-monogamous and one doesn’t. And what happens, and frankly this happened in my own life, so I can have some empathy for it is, mid-relationship, one of the partners discovers this concept of consensual non-monogamy. And they feel like, this is what they have always wanted, while the other partner is thinking how hard this is. It takes a lot of work. I do a lot of praising for the partner who doesn’t want to be consensually non-monogamous or is very threatened by it and really confused by it to be willing to come to a therapist who calls himself L.A. Kink Shrink. That’s one of the hardest things – working with clients on negotiating that. It really comes down to easing some of the fears and doing some defining and educating.
JK: I always talk about how therapists are more than happy to talk with couples and help them with differentiation; differentiation around how they’re going to parent differently, or how they’re going to come to an agreement around money, communication, housing responsibilities. But, when it comes to sex, they’re not going to help them erotically differentiate. And that’s so unfair and so unfortunate to couples, because they deserve a therapist who will not align with one or the other, but stay neutral and help couples negotiate through that, with empathy for both of them, but particularly for the one who doesn’t want this. It’s going to take a lot of discussion.
DS: Yes, and a lot of educating, and a lot of tenderness. Family therapists have often said the amount of tenderness and respect the couple have for each other is a big indicator of whether it’s going to work. I try to make it clear, that, even though I am a kink therapist, I don’t have a vested interest in what their answer is. I think some people are wired monogamous. And, if they tried not to be, it would be like if you tried to be straight. It would not work.
JK: Before we conclude, is there anything else you would like to add on the subjects we discussed?
DS: Yes, mainly about the population of consensual non-monogamy. I think people still think this is just a really weird, rare thing. And the reputable peer-reviewed research finds 4 percent to 5 percent of the population currently is involved in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. That’s roughly the same number who identify as LGBTQ.
I’m not saying we’ve had a Stonewall struggle. I’m not saying we face the same discrimination. I am saying there’s a lot of resources that people know about for the LGBTQ community, but very little for poly. They are not a protected group. A lot of people are losing their children in custody battles because they’re consensually non-monogamous and the ex-partner makes the case in court that they’re cheaters.
About 20 percent of Americans say that, at some point in their life, they’ve had a consensually non-monogamous relationship. It’s like they’re dating multiple people. It doesn’t mean they’ve made a plan. And that’s roughly the same number of Americans who have a cat. So, that’s a lot of people.
JK: Thank you, David, for sharing your background and your expertise. I know how hard it is for you to do this, especially in our profession, which is very traditional. I hope it is changing. And I hope we are contributing to those changes. You are right in the forefront.
DS: Once I decided I was going to try to claim this niche, I had to jump in. I never get in a pool slowly from the shallow end.
To learn more about David Singer, visit his website: LAKinkShrink.com or email him at [email protected]
If you would like to hear the entire podcast, you can find it at SmartSexSmartLove.com
This post was previously published on Psychology Today and is republished here with permission from the author.
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