This website uses cookies. By continuing to browse you are agreeing to our use of cookies, which you can read more about here.


Welcome to, an award-winning website published by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy.

The site contains a searchable archive of over 500 articles published in Therapy Today since September 2005. Some articles are freely available, whereas others can be bought via the online purchasing system (log in to access more articles). To subscribe, click here.

Related articles

Kink awareness

"How fantastic to see such a wide range of letters in the September issue of Therapy Today commenting on Su Connan’s excellent article ‘A kink in the process’ (Therapy Today, July 2010). The editor must have felt vindicated in her courageous decision to publish this article, as it is clearly ‘on target’ as a hot topic for therapists to arouse such passion in the readership, and I wanted to share my own reflections on a couple of the letters."

Tolerant and grown-up about sexuality

"I am so grateful to Su Connan for her thoughtful article on kink and also grateful to Therapy Today for making it the cover story."

Insight and personal experience

"Su Connan, I take my hat off to you. I’m a Chartered Clinical Psychologist (AFBPsS, etc), involved as a therapist for decades, less so in recent years as my work has developed into psychological services to organisations as a whole"

Human sexual diversity

"Thanks for your kink article in Therapy Today. I hope it will lead more therapists to think about what they know and what they don’t about human sexual diversity."

A kink in the process

"Sadomasochistic sex is arguably one of the least understood and most demonised forms of consensual sexuality. How able are we to offer ethical therapy to kinky clients when there is so little awareness of the kink experience?"

Volume 21
Issue 7
September 2010

  • Category: Letters

In her article on masochistic sex, Su Connan argues that ‘kinky’ sex should not be ‘pathologised’ but accepted, and that because it occurs widely it is therefore perfectly ‘normal’.

  • Where do we draw the line?

  • by
  • Biddy Harling
  • In her article on masochistic sex, Su Connan argues that ‘kinky’ sex should not be ‘pathologised’ but accepted, and that because it occurs widely it is therefore perfectly ‘normal’. She argues in favour of ‘risk aware consensual kink’ and maintains that we should not as therapists attempt to ‘cure’ or change this any more than we would homosexuality, which consenting adults legitimately engage in – so why not regard BDSM sexuality in a similar way?

    On one level this argument seems perfectly sound – after all, it doesn’t hurt anyone so why should people not be allowed to indulge in it by mutual consent if they so wish? Absolutely – in a safe context – but surely this is to miss the point. It is in exploring the meanings of such fantasies that feelings hitherto ‘locked into’ these fantasies can be released and experienced.

    Su notes that there is an even higher incidence of BDSM fantasy and that we need to explore the meanings behind these diverse experiences. Su describes how adopting temporarily dominant or submissive roles in play enables participants to reach a state of ‘transcendence’ and open the psyche to experiences beyond the normal. I would agree with this insofar as exploring the meaning of the fantasies, accepting and entering into them in imagination, without necessarily translating them into action or the physical sphere, can release ‘transcendental’ feelings locked into these fantasies and extend the range and intensity of sexual experience.

    Freud courageously attempted to explore the diverse nature of sexuality in his work on perversions (in Freud’s 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality) but was hampered by an unfortunate vocabulary. What is ‘normal’ – is it just what the majority practise? The term ‘perversions’ carries perjorative connotations but taken in its true sense simply means turning aside or diverting from the straight and narrow or orthodox way. Freud’s famous statement that the child is ‘polymorphously perverse’ is only a way of describing how every part of the body is capable of physical/sexual feeling and that the imagination given true rein can ‘sexualise’ all sorts of possibilities. If we visualise the flow of sexual energy as like a river with tributaries and side channels, this gives a picture of how the libido operates. Moreover the libido takes as its object anything to which feelings can attach; if it is ‘forbidden’ this is no matter. Thus if a child is told that sex is ‘disgusting’ or ‘degrading’ the child will then imagine sex as ‘degrading’ and invest energy in such fantasies – while the superego, identified with parental judgements and not willing to accept ‘degradation’ inhibits the impulse and represses awareness. Thus excitation becomes ‘locked up’ in this fantasy or way of viewing sex. As the child cannot abandon their sexual feelings, the conflict persists.

    So one way of releasing excitation might be not to just rehearse but enact these fantasies if they become conscious; however pleasure may still be blocked by the superego. A similar process occurs with other diverse fantasies – it is instructive to explore the possible meanings of these fantasies. For example, bondage may symbolise that the person wishes the superego, which prevents the full expression of sexuality, to be disarmed. Power and submission games may mean that the person wishes to give into their feelings and hopes their sexual partner will overcome their inhibitions. The stronger the inhibitions and unconscious aggressive impulses, the more force will be needed to overcome them; so aggression denied in the self may be projected onto the sexual partner. Pain may symbolise the intensity of sexual pangs, and aggression used as a way of ‘breaking through’ to the strong sexual feelings below the surface. Cannibalistic oral fantasies also have a role here in penetrating the body armour and overcoming resistance. Punishment may be linked to sexual feelings being ‘bad’ and therefore giving oneself permission to experience them involves being punished’; or punishment may simply be associated with contact with a loved parent for whom the child has feelings, and thus become sexualised.

    Freud’s idea is that we all have these ‘perverse’ fantasies where sex in fantasy diverges from the ‘norm’ but that if accepted these can be incorporated into full adult sexuality and thus enrich and increase the range of sexual practices. So what is ‘normal’ – is it only how great a proportion of people indulge in certain practices? The problem with this argument is that it could be used to justify all sorts of ‘deviant’ sexual practices and again it is interesting to explore where our cultural sensibilities make this allowable – and where they do not. Where do we ‘draw the line’? If the argument is only ‘consent’ and ‘no harm’ where does that lead us? Is bestiality (intercourse with animals) acceptable? It could be argued that it hurts no-one and that if the animal displays physical excitement it must be consenting! Most of us would find the idea ‘disgusting’ but the symbolic meaning may only be wishing to give in to animal feelings and see sex as ‘animal’ and completely free from inhibitions.

    On the other end of the scale who nowadays does not regard ‘fellatio’ and ‘cunilingus’ as a ‘normal’ method of stimulation and simply an extension of oral feelings – as indeed is kissing. Where do we stand on anal stimulation or anal sex? But would any of us regard other fantasies connected with faeces (eg smearing someone all over with faeces or peeing on them) as normal? But who does it hurt?

    Unfortunately in the underworld of commercialised sexual perversion someone often does become a ‘victim’ by coercion or persuasion, so there may well be harm; this may be one reason why we prefer to keep these fantasies ‘outside the norm’ and forbidden – plus our own repression or shame. The danger in keeping sexual kinkiness illegal is that it will flourish anyway; repression works no better on a societal scale than in the individual psyche; it is better to have an open discussion.

    It is interesting to look at the role of fantasy or imagination as a precursor to sexual action – but it doesn’t always mean it has to be translated literally into action – rather I would argue that it is what the fantasy symbolises which is the key to accessing repressed feelings and liberating our sexuality.

  • Biddy Harling
    MBACP (Accred)

<< Previous article | Back to top ^ |