What is BDSM?

BDSM can be defined as “the knowing use of psychological dominance and submission and/or physical bondage, and/or pain, and/or related practices in a safe, legal, consensual manner in order for the participants to experience erotic arousal and/or personal growth”-Jay Wiseman.

BDSM covers a wide variety of interests and can vary from person to person.  BDSM can be used as an umbrella term to cover many non-normative sexual practices that involve power play or pain in some way.

BDSM also plays different roles in participants’ lives.  For some, it is only a fantasy, or an online activity.  Some engage in BDSM with their long-term monogamous partner, some are part of a large community and ‘play’ with several people.

It is important to listen to clients when they tell you their interests and not to assume anything about their interests.




National Coalition for Sexual Freedom

Kink-Aware Professionals Directory

BDSM 101

The Center for Sex and Culture.


Fetlife.com: a kinky Facebook


SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman

The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play, and The Erotic Edge by Tristan Taormino

50 Shades of Kink: An Introduction to BDSM by Tristan Taormino

Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures by Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser

Playing Well with Others: Your Field Guide to Discovering, Exploring and Navigating the Kink, Leather and BDSM Communities by Lee Harrington and Mollena Williams



Counseling BDSM Clients

Counseling BDSM clients poses a unique set of challenges.  BDSM practices were pathologized until the release of the DSM-V in 2013, and are still considered to be taboo by many.  Consensual BDSM can be a healthy part of a client’s life and it is important to, at the very least, be accepting and open about this.

As with any sexual minority, a client who practices BDSM may have anxiety about ‘coming out’ about their interests, particularly in a therapeutic context.  Although, for many, BDSM is not what brings them into counseling, fear of rejection or judgment may bar them from sharing the details of their personal relationships and cause them to be guarded in counseling, which can interfere with the therapeutic process.  It is the job of the counselor to create a safe space for their clients regardless of their personal opinions.

Countertransference is the most common issue when dealing with the BDSM population in counseling.  It is vital for counselors to acknowledge their feelings and commit to processing them outside of therapy–it is not the client’s job to participate in your processing.  It is necessary to consider your negative feelings about BDSM and the assumptions that you may have before engaging with a BDSM client.

For example:

Consensual BDSM is not, by default, abuse, you must be able to tell the difference between BDSM activities and abusive behaviors.

There is not a link between BDSM practices and mental health disorders.  If a BDSM client presents with a mental health disorder, do not assume that there is a cause/effect relationship.

An interest in BDSM does not signify a history of abuse.  Just like people in any population, there are members of the BDSM community who have this history.

BDSM practices are not inherently wrong in any way, you may just not be interested in them.

It is important for counselors to educate themselves about BDSM through reading, workshops, and supervision by an experienced counselor.  Through education, you can understand more about the community and the vast interests of its members.