SM And Child Abuse: For Some, A Difficult Connection With The Past

For anyone paying attention to current issues in the news, child abuse has become a hot topic in the last several years. It is now estimated that as many as one woman in three and one man in five was physically and/or emotionally abused or sexually molested as a child. It is important for me to mention that the incidence of child abuse in the histories of practitioners of the SM/leather/fetish sexualities is astounding. While presenting seminars to leather folks, I have often asked how many in the room were subjected to child abuse as children, and I am still shocked when usually more than half the hands in the room go up.

Many survivors of child abuse (some simply don’t survive) end up with a host of difficulties in their adult life that can be more or less directly traced to their abuse history.

The difficulties include, but are not limited to troubles forming intimate relationships, trouble with sexuality, trouble making new friends, trouble with people in the next older generation, and numerous other psychological problems.

In the therapy room, I frequently discover that SM bottoms are in the scene because they unconsciously try to recreate their abusive experiences in the hopes that they can somehow un-do the traumas of their past and find love. During the SM scene itself, the bottom is returned to the emotional site of the original trauma back in time, but that is usually as far as it goes. Sometimes, things go a bit further when, after the bottom “breaks” in a scene, the Top moves closer emotionally to support the bottom. Then the desired “love” happens for the bottom. The irrational belief operating in bottom’s head is, “If I can just get through this, the love will be waiting for me on the other side.”

This sometimes resonates with messages the bottom may have received during abusive experiences as a child from a parent, such as, “I’m only doing this for your own good,” or “I’m doing this because I love you and I want you to turn out right.” Tops with physical abuse in their childhood history can come at the SM scene from having made an identification with the abuser, so his (unconscious) belief can sound like this: “I’ll show you my love the way that Dad (or Mom or whoever) showed me love (That is, I’ll cause you pain).” Who can be surprised that love and abuse become emotionally linked together when children who received such treatment grow into adulthood?

Bottoms suddenly realize that something is wrong here when they first hear themselves say something like, “I get really uncomfortable when I meet a guy who is just too nice to me.” The (conscious and aware) healthy part of them knows that that’s just who they should be with, but the unhealthy (unconscious and unaware) part can’t recognize such a person as a loving man without the abusive elements that remind them of childhood.

When the childhood abuse was sexual rather than physical or emotional, the child may grow up thinking that sexual intimacy is love. In adulthood, these victims often run their sex lives ragged in the unconscious belief that sex equals love. They search for love in sex. But sex doesn’t equal love, and so each sexual escapade leaves the adult feeling unfulfilled and depressed. They conclude (irrationally) that love didn’t happen because it wasn’t the right guy, or that they didn’t do the sex “right”. And so they are driven to go out and try again with someone else. They become sexual compulsives.

I know that my comments here will anger some who feel that I am playing into the hands of the psychiatric view that all SM is a maladaptive response to child abuse. But I have learned that in some cases, that view is correct. I also know that some will be annoyed by my opposition to the SM elements of anger and humiliation in the playroom, but I have reason to suspect that anger and humiliation in the playroom often signal the unconscious attempt to recreate the emotional environment of childhood abuse. While it is true that people have a right to play the way they wish, I cannot support what I feel amounts to the ongoing abuse of the inner child. At the same time, I recognize that people have a right to hang on to behaviors that don’t work and don’t make them feel better.

Clearly, not all adult survivors of child abuse end up in the SM scene; if that were the case, the SM scene would be much larger than it appears to be. Likewise, not everyone in the SM scene is there to unconsciously work out his child abuse issues, but I am convinced that some percentage of us are there for just this purpose. But the SM scene, even with all its glories, does not have the power or ability to accomplish the psychological restructuring that is necessary to really heal the wounds suffered during childhood. At best, it can only offer a setting for the recreation of the abusive environment, and then apply a BandAid. At worst it doesn’t even offer the BandAid.

The SM scene does offer the opportunity to transform consciousness and stimulate ecstatic erotic catharsis. And even though SM can sometimes feel psychologically refreshing, that is not the same thing as the psychological restructuring of psychotherapy. SM should never be expected to heal the wounded inner child who doesn’t belong in the playroom in the first place. SM is for consenting adults only, and when we bring our wounded inner children into an SM scene, we are only continuing the abuses of the past, reinforcing depression, and prolonging a frustrated search for love.

Here are some books that can help shed more light on recovering from child abuse: Victims No More by Mike Lew; Harper and Row, 1988, 1990. This book is a good place to start. It focuses on abused males specifically. Read slowly, and take this one in very small bites. The Courage to Heal Workbook by Laura Davis; Harper & Row, 1990. This is a very practical, step-by-step approach to healing. Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw; Bantam Books, 1990. A good book to finish up with.

Excerpt from Ties That Bind, by Guy Baldwin.

Guy Baldwin is a well known psychotherapist whose clients include many men and women who engage in SM/leather/fetish erotic play.Although in frequent demand as a speaker and teacher, he is known chiefly for his numerous essays on the Leather/SM erotic lifestyle, some of which have been collected in his 1993 book, Ties That Bind.

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