Q: I saw one of my friends wearing what looked like a dog collar and when I asked her about it she told me it was a slave collar. I couldn’t believe it. Does she need to see a shrink? Why on earth would she wear a collar? - Leah, Pueblo, Colorado
A: Dear Leah,
The reason your friend was wearing a slave collar is because she is probably involved in the BDSM lifestyle (bondage, discipline, submission, and domination, or sadomasochism). I won’t delve into the particulars of the lifestyle because A) I can’t do it justice here, and 2) there’s a whole World Wide Web that just can’t wait to educate you. Instead, let’s look at the meaning behind the collar.
Most people involved in the BDSM lifestyle will tell you that the collar your friend was wearing is much more than a decoration. “Collaring” is viewed as a solemn commitment in the BDSM community. In a committed slave/Master relationship the slave promises, of his or her own free will, to obey the Master or Mistress in matters ranging from the physical to the spiritual, depending on what the two (or more) have negotiated.
The Master or Mistress, in turn, offers physical and emotional security, and he or she promises not to become sadistic. Wait. Scratch that. The Master promises that he or she will become sadistic, but in a loving way. Hang on. Let me rephrase. The Master promises to be sadistic, but in an agreed upon manner and only to the extent that the slave is willing to tolerate, which as you can see, is not sadism entirely but more of a mutually agreed upon discomfiture, which is difficult to consider maltreatment in the truest sense of the word.
Oy. You can see the difficulty these folks have in explaining themselves.
For a little help on the subject I turned to Tom Davis, the owner of Daycollar.com. An expert on the BDSM lifestyle, Tom says, “the collar is really a symbol of devotion to one whom you have agreed to partner with. The exchange of power between a Dominant and submissive is a mutually agreed upon unbalancing of control. It is a akin to the traditional wedding ring in non-BDSM or ‘vanilla’ relationships, except a lot sexier.” Easy there, cowboy. Sexy is subjective.
Tom is well aware that not everyone is on board with the lifestyle – particularly those in the psychology industry. One scholarly article warns that “this development [of BDSM] into an established subculture and community has the potential to become dangerous, not only because it normalizes the behaviors that the sadomasochistic community participates in but it also has the potential to devalue life, women, sex, and the human body” (Paclebar, Furtado, & McDonald-Witt, 2006).
Bully for you if you can figure out what that means. Paclebar and Company don’t offer much evidence to support their sweeping assertions. However, they are not alone in their estimation of the BDSM lifestyle. In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, sadism and masochism are still considered to be mental disorders right up there with pedophilia, exhibitionism, and frotteurism (rubbing against unconsenting others for sexual gratification).*
There are some important differences between BDSM and the other behaviors it’s lumped in with – not the least of which is consent. In activities such as pedophilia, exhibitionism, and frotteurims there is no consent. That’s what makes them criminal acts. In the BDSM community, however, the most common mantra you will hear is, “Safe, Sane, and Consensual.” I’m not the first to point out that many of my colleagues ignore the distinction. Kolms (2003) noted that psychologists tend to treat BDSMers as a “stigmatized sexual minority” and she has the data to back it up. She suggests that us shrinks could use some education on the subject before we go a’judgin’ folks.
Who are these masked man-handlers?
So who are these deviants, these sickos, these ne’er-do-wells who devalue all that is valuable?
The data aren’t exactly pouring in, but we do have a bit to work with. In an extensive query of Finnish BDSM devotees (hey, we gotta start somewhere), two related studies noted the following:
- Forty-three percent of the respondents reported being mainly heterosexual, 5.4% bisexual, and 51.6% mainly homosexual.
- 27% identified themselves as mainly sadistic (Masters or Dominants), 22.7 % as both sadistic and masochistic, and 50.2% as mainly masochistic (slaves or submissives).
- Their level of social functioning (ability to maintain jobs, friends, etc.) is no more impaired than any other segment of the population.
- They tend to make more money and be more highly educated than the general population.
- More women in the lifestyle were abused as children than in the general population.
- Of the women who were abused as children, most tended toward masochism; of the men who were abused as children, most tended toward sadism. (Nordling, Sandnabba, & Santtila. 2000; Sandnabba, Santtila, Alison, & Nordling, 2002)
As to why people are drawn to the lifestyle, the reasons are as individual as any other life choice. If you are looking for a common theme, Baumeister’s (1997) thoughts serve as well as any other: “Masochism fosters an escape from the stressful awareness of one’s ordinary identity. The special and stressful nature of modern Western selfhood is burdensome, and masochistic sex play is one way people seek to relieve that stress by accomplishing a temporary escape from their normal identity.” Indeed, it is not uncommon in BDSM circles to hear of a man or woman who is a powerful decision maker by day and a submissive servant by night. Sort of a superhero in reverse.
Other theories suggest that masochistic tendencies (in women) and sadistic tendencies (in men) are related to childhood sexual trauma. The thinking is that women end up reliving the abusive relationships forced upon them as children. Men, on the other hand, seek to place themselves in a position of sexual power so that they never experience powerlessness again. These are probably useful explanations for some people, but even in the BDSM lifestyle those who experienced childhood sexual abuse are a small minority.
Let’s talk about power, baby
Before you get too concerned about your friend’s sanity, Leah, consider this. You don’t have to look far to find a couple in which one partner dominates over the other with an iron fist, even though the two have not overtly negotiated the balance of power in their relationship. What they are usually left with is an endless power struggle in which one tries to enforce unspoken rules and the other tries to circumvent them.
Contrast that against a Dominant/submissive relationship in which one partner wears the collar proudly and voluntarily while the other carries the burden of responsibility. In this relationship, the rules have been negotiated and agreed upon. By definition, and by mutual consent, there are no power struggles. All other things being equal, which is the healthier arrangement?
* Professionals who support the classification of sadism and masochism as mental disorders will want to proudly notify me that “the diagnosis is made if the person has acted on these urges with a nonconsenting person or the urges, sexual fantasies, or behaviors cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty” (APA, p. 566). To this I respond: do not antagonize the Iron Shrink. If the act is carried out on a nonconsenting person then it is a crime, not a mental disorder. And if “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty” are the criteria for a mental disorder then overeating should figure prominently in the DSM. (It’s barely mentioned.) Let’s be forthright. The reason these activities are said to stem from mental disorders is because enough people in our profession find them to be distasteful. For a group of professionals who preach incessantly about tolerance and diversity, we psychologists are awfully particular about who we choose to tolerate.
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Baumeister, R. F. (1997). The enigmatic appeal of sexual masochism: Why people desire pain, bondage, and humiliation in sex. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 16(2), 133-150.
Kolmes, K. L. (2003). BDSM consumers of mental health services: The need for culturally sensitive care. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences & Engineering, 64(5-B), 2392.
Nordling, N., Sandnabba, N. K., & Santtila, P. (2000). The prevalence and effects of self-reported childhood sexual abuse among sadomasochistically oriented males and females. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(1), 53-63.
Paclebar, A. M., Furtado, C., & McDonald-Witt, M. (2006). Sadomasochism: practices, behaviors, and culture in American society. In H. W. Hickey (Ed.), Sex Crimes and Paraphilia (pp. 215-227). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Sandnabba, N. K., Santtila, P., Alison, L., & Nordling, N. (2002). Demographics, sexual behaviour, family background and abuse experiences of practitioners of sadomasochistic sex: A review of recent research. Sexual and Relationships Therapy, 17(1), 39-55.