BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, Masochism) Part II: Interview with Dr. Gloria Brame

Background: Gloria Brame PhD  American sexologist, author, educator and writer. She is a member of the American College of Sexologists, and clinical sexologist. Her sex therapy practice specializes in consensual BDSM, sexual fetishism and sexual dysfunction and advocate for safe, sane, and consensual relating, especially among the BDSM, fetish, and LGBTQ communities.

NP: What is the meaning of kinky today? Is kinky an exploited term to gain attention to an uncommon sexual practice? And does such a word change meaning within the context of culture, time, and geography?  In different words, what is the effect of language on the sexually acceptable behavior? 

Dr. Brame: Today, I define kinky as “any type of consensual non-conformist sex.”  I prefer the vagueness of “kinky” to the over-used clinical approach that every aspect of human sexual behavior requires its own label.

What we now call the Kink Communities are a much broader spectrum of interests than what we called the S&M or B&D or D&S culture when I first came out in 1984, when kinky implied BDSM or “whips and chains.”  Online debates about our different needs and experience were causing fractures, particularly when a segment of our world insisted there was a “right way” (aka “One True Way” in the parlance of the day) to live BDSM, which of course implied that some of us were gormless wannabes for not conforming to their expectations of how a dom or a sub should act.

Eventually, leaders and politically aware members of the community argued for an umbrella term that distilled bondage & discipline, dominance & submission, and sadomasochism into “BDSM,” which was less explicit about what we do and refocused our energy on community organizing.  Using “BDSM” helped to have a unified voice when dealing with the public and has worked pretty-well.  But it didn’t credit two significant pillars of our community:   Leather (originally a gay male culture, now an all-gender welcoming community) and Fetish both played vital roles in creating our kinky groups, institutions, and social identities. So many of us started calling it the “BDSM/Leather/Fetish” community.  Pretty damn awkward but it felt more representative of who we were.

Again, over time, it also became obvious there were tons of fetishists and fetishes that didn’t do BDSM or Leather and didn’t want to be identified as such.   Furries, sploshers, woolies, wrestling fetishists, Keds fans, AB/DL are just some of the fetishes that have social networks and ethos independent from BDSM.  Similarly, while many BDSMers may do poly or swing, polyamory and swinging exist as stand-alone communities with their own unique identities.

Today “kink” means, more or less, that we acknowledge the overlaps between these marginalized sex and gender communities, we understand the struggle of being different in a sexually conformist world, and we work together to make the “Kink Community” at large a welcoming and safe space.

NP: In your research have you found more couples becoming open to variations in sexual practices in the current social and political climate? Or is it a mixed bag? What are trends in acceptability in different lifestyles and the influence of monied interests? Do the wealthy see themselves as more sexually openminded? Is there a pattern of behavior between one’s politics, money, education, and lifestyle? How would you describe the interplay of politics, religion, media, and sexual behavior today? 

 Dr. Brame: The kink cat is out of the bag: far more people than ever imagined share a curiosity about creative, non-conformative sex.  The Internet has proven that. Studies of porn traffic and search terms show an unquenchable human thirst for alternative sexuality. The data and the simple presence of places like FetLife have helped normalize kink among online surfers as well. The Internet has also allowed once-hidden communities of kinky people around the world to unite or at least become visible to others.  There are thriving BDSM/kink communities in Nigeria, China, Israel, Dubai, Iceland, and many, many other countries.  Depending on their political leaders and religious laws, some places have done a much better job of normalizing BDSM interests than the U.S.  I’ll note, for example, that Scandinavian countries were the first to remove BDSM as a pathology from their DSM, a visionary step forward that sent ripples around the world’s psychiatric communities.

While religious beliefs, politics, and laws put a huge damper on sexual behavior, the psychobiological drive for kinky/alternative sex crosses all demographic boundaries.  In other words, kinky people come from all walks of life, ethnicities, ages, etc.  The only difference is that some people feel entitled to engage freely and with joy while others feel ashamed and frightened to act on their needs. That’s not so much a demographic thing but how a person feels about their right to personal happiness — and that is more likely to be shaped by your parents and your self-image than by your demographics.

NP: What one defines as pornography in one culture may be considered a culture of awareness in another? For example, the penis festival (Kanamara Matsuri ) in Japan.   

Dr. Brame: There is no real international standard of obscenity.  The difference between what one culture considers obscene and another culture finds obscene are based on local religious and political beliefs.   Religious and state propaganda both set the tone for what any culture believes to be normal and healthy v. what is obscene or immoral. Both are belief-based (not fact-based) systems that attempt to control and redirect sexual impulses, usually for the betterment of the institution, not the people it controls.  It makes sense to some degree for a species that would otherwise be so consumed by their innate biological desire for sex that, one might argue, maybe we wouldn’t even have made it to the Stone Age without some taboos in place.

Given that sex taboos are universal, there may be an evolutionary benefit to suppressing our sexual exuberance as primates.  And some taboos do promote a safer and more humane society, especially modern laws against child molestation and domestic violence.  But have we gone so far that the concept of maintaining an organized and technologically productive civilization (a social good) has been destroyed by propaganda (a social evil)?  It’s one thing to protect children and vulnerable populations from sexual assault. There is plenty of scientific evidence of the harm caused by sexual predation.

But it’s overreaching to tell consenting adults what they’re allowed to do in bed with the partner of their choice.  Laws that punish adults for normal harmless sex behaviors should be viewed as human rights violations.  Whether it’s pornography, sex work, homosexuality, or BDSM, all forms of mutually pleasurable sex should be treated as inalienable human rights. Everything that 2 or more people like doing for fun and pleasure together is normal.  What is most definitely NOT normal is to be forced into conformity by institutions under threat of imprisonment or ostracization — although most people are brainwashed from childhood on into believing that such punishments are justified.

It produces cultures of shame and ignorance about sex too.  And enormous internal social contradictions, as certain parts of the body or specific sex acts appear to be almost randomly glorified (the penis festival) or degraded (the penis is obscene), depending on what your local or national culture believes.   The fix for this is pretty straightforward: evidence-based comprehensive sex ed from youth to adulthood.  But you’ll note there is massive hostility among people entrenched in cultural constructs towards teaching sex based on sex science.

NP: Also, are not rituals associated as part of rites of passage truly deviant or unconventional depending on culture?

Dr. Brame: Rites of passage that are traditional to a culture are not deviant.  They may, however, be harmful if they are based on the ignorance of our ancients. The ancients didn’t have Google to correct their assumptions.   We do.  They didn’t have science either.  So some traditions must be dismantled and adapted to what we know in the 21st century that we didn’t know in the 9th century.

A good place to start would be to leave infants and children intact and not medicalize (or ritualize)  the mutilation of their genitalia.  This applies to boys, girls, and intersexed kids.   It is, among other terrible things, BAD MEDICINE.

NP: Are there trends in lifestyles….are we headed towards a Reformation and or Renaissance in thinking or are there hints to a return to the Dark Ages of ignorance? Will we experience the evolution of new mythologies? 

Dr. Brame: Enlightened people and troglodytes co-exist in all times. It depends on who is in power more than trends. An alternative culture can be torn down almost overnight (as the Nazis did in Berlin, murdering gays and sending them to prison camps, destroying Berlin’s thriving queer culture of the 1930s-1940s).  An alternative culture can be boosted or permitted (Alexander the Great was what we would call sex-positive today).  The arc of history is in constant motion. Attitudes towards sex continually evolve, roll back, move sideways, and so on, depending on the place, the historic period, the political zeitgeist, and religious sentiment.  So I fully expect new mythologies to form, particularly in the absence of adherence to what science has revealed about human sexuality in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

I am very, very, happy to be alive to see LGBTQI+ rights and visibility surge in so many beautiful new directions, to witness the rise of trans/nonbinary communities, to see Leather Pride celebrated openly around the world.  I remember how dark the past was for people like me.

That said, I do not take it as any kind of guarantee of a future sexual enlightenment sweeping the world or becoming a universal norm.   Reading human history has taught me there is no such thing as linear progress.  It’s more like fighting battles again and again and then again, inching ahead in some ways while losing ground in others. So I try to be happy about living in a world which  — to varying degrees — has acknowledged sex and gender diversity.

There is no perfect world. There never was.  There never will be.  There is only the world we inhabit in the here and now. The best we can do is to do what we can while we’re here.

NP:  A few of things that we have learned from experience and among colleagues that have experimented with diverse ways of approaching life, even the word lifestyle has a Madison Ave/homogenous quality that lacks appeal. When two or three people are open to a consensual, evolving relationship, e.g., supervised masturbation, chastity, cuckoldry, etc., though they may not categorize it in those terms, they are expressing diverse tastes, in a world of relative homogeneity. Why not give people their due? Will BDSM become an outdated term in a world where in the words of Gandhi, poverty (non-consensual) is the worse form of violence? And perhaps war and its associated technologies (consensual?)?

That’s the billions-of-dollars question — a rough guess at what it would cost to institute evidence-based sex ed around the world which would dispel the nonsense spouted by demagogues. Will the self-appointed moral police of the world fight sexual truths to death?  Probably yes, because it would mean surrendering a significant measure of the power they wield.

Acknowledging diversity seems so honest: we see it, we read about it, we know that every individual has unique characteristics and, therefore, has unique needs, desires, and drives.   But the more we know and try to progress, the more we rile anti-sex ideologists.   So when will there be a universal acknowledgment that harmless, consensual, pleasure-oriented sex (which includes fetishes and BDSM, of course) or authentically diverse gender expression are normal?  And when oh when will we universally acknowledge that anything less than facts about sex creates swamps of shame, ignorance, misery, and disease?

There is no way of knowing if it will ever happen.    I stay optimistic because I’ve seen so many astonishing positive changes in the U.S. in my own lifetime. So why not hope that new generations will build better worlds?  Even better, why not do what you can NOW to make it happen! It’s the ultimate goal people like me work towards, on the principle that every small battle we win is a victory for human rights.

In retrospect, I’m proud of writing Different Loving, not just for what it did for the BDSM/fetish communities but for inspiring much larger dialogues about “what is normal sex?”  It took me another 20 years to answer my own question (in “The Truth About Sex”) series.  Diversity is the human norm.