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

frieke_janssens_32The author of numerous landmark sex books, including Different Loving and Different Loving Too, Come Hither, and The Truth About Sex: A Sex Primer For The 21st Century, Dr Brame is a clinical sexologist and sex therapist.  She is internationally renowned for her pioneering work in removing the stigma from BDSM, fetishes, masturbation and other formerly taboo subjects.  Her original research into human sexuality have made her one of the most frequently cited sex experts in the world. Brame holds an M.A. in English Literature (Columbia University, 1978) and a PhD. in Human Sexuality (Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, 2000) Find her on or @drgloriabrame on Twitter


NP:  Your work in the area of BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, Masochism) has had a significant influence in the understanding of alternative relationships, consensual BDSM, sexual fetishism and sexual dysfunction. How would you describe for those unfamiliar with your works, some of the challenges people have in understanding what is meant by BDSM?

Brame: There is still a popular perception that BDSM is emotionally unhealthy or the expression of problems that should be solved in a therapist’s office. As the subject has been more intensively studied, scholars have been surprised to discover that self-identified BDSMers tend to show higher levels of erotic satisfaction, lower levels of stress, and more functional relationships than so-called vanilla couples.

Similarly, people always assumed that BDSM relationships are, by nature, shady and unstable. In our follow-up to Different Loving (Different Loving Too), we demonstrated that this too was a myth. The majority of kinky people we interviewed in 1991 and again in 2015 were still married to the same people. We BDSMers are not as surprised by that as scholars are: many of us find greater stability in BDSM relationships than we ever saw in our non-kinky relationships. I’m one example of that, very delightfully married 27 years to my equally kinky husband and sometimes book collaborator, Will Brame.

Still, in spite of the positive data, the media will always promote negative ideas about BDSM (including the idea that 50 Shades represents the BDSM life).  So in spite of its growing mainstream popularity, there is still significant pushback against the normalization of BDSM and its acceptance as a legitimate expression of adult eroticism.

NP:  As a sexual fetish can be any part of the body or article of clothing do you see a similarity in our religious rituals, use of garments, communion and the military with its rituals, etc.?

Brame: Genetic research may eventually reveal if there are markers for fetishism. My own surmise of data/science on submission, dominance, fetishism and other so-called kinky orientations is that we are all born with these impulses but how those impulses express themselves take many different forms. Sexuality is one of them. Religion and military service — with the rituals, rules, disciplines, concepts of service and submission to a higher power, and clothing and accouterments (whether chalices or guns) — is another, typically asexual, expression of these universal human drives. But then so is “team spirit,” including wearing team colors and chanting team cheers.

There is a near-universal automatic emotional response to rituals, clothing, power relationships and symbols. But their hold on us is very particularized and individualistic so what becomes a fetish for one person may never attract another on a sexual level. Does every woman with a collection of 100 pairs of high heels have a shoe fetish? No. Totally socially acceptable. On the other hand, if a man has a collection of 100 pairs of high heels, we see it differently and start judging.

One of my favorite examples to illustrate how we isolate and demonize sexual fetishism:  People lose their minds over men who collect and sniff shoes to get off. They don’t care when their moms go to swap meets every weekend to get Barbie’s or fridge magnets. Because mom presumably, doesn’t get an orgasm.

It’s the orgasm that makes people squick — because they think sex is dirty.  To me, the compulsive collectors are no different and possibly less stable than a guy who can find happiness in jerking off into a shoe every Saturday.

NP:  There are a variety of sources on BDSM including volumes written about people such as the Marquis DeSade. Yet BDSM between consensual adults would appear to be compassionate and caring. Your thoughts?

Brame:  I was given the opportunity to write the biography on DeSade for the The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality (John Wiley & Sons, 2015), and seized the chance to correct the misconception that the Marquis represented BDSM or in any way influenced the BDSM community’s ethos on sex or relationships. Nineteenth century psychiatrists coined the term sadomasochism, giving birth to over a hundred years of confusion on this front.

We use sadist these days to mean psychopaths who are aroused by harming other people. However a BDSM sadist uses pain to give other people pleasure, not harm. However it may appear on the surface, it is the emotional reality that makes sex either erotic (as in BDSM) or abusive (as in DeSade).

While the philosophy of hedonism has been widely embraced by libertines since he first penned his feverish fantasies, the actual scenarios violated all the values BDSMers hold dear, most importantly “safe, sane, consensual” and “risk-aware consent,” along with negotiation, safe words, and other original tools that modern BDSMers created to ensure that BOTH partners have a great time.

Coincidentally, I asked interviewees in Different Loving Too what they thought about DeSade. The overall response was that DeSade was a curiosity piece but of near zero relevance to their practices or relationships. For most BDSMers,  DeSade was mainly a violent rapist.

NP:  Do you see any trends and or greater acceptance of sexual fetishes and BDSM? Is western culture adapting and becoming more open in its acceptance of the positive effects of BDSM beyond what is sensationalized for the sake of money?

Brame: Yes and no.

Yes, in that more people feel free today than ever before to fly their freak flag, wear their leather in public and admit they are kinky.  Yes, because the Internet gives BDSMers the ability to network and make new friends as never before — and to get really deep into their individual kinks as well because there are so many kinky communities to join and so much kinky content to browse. This certainly was not true when I was first coming out (ca. 1985). And yes, at moments it feels like a whole new world, with a mushrooming population of people who are openly, publicly experimenting with things we once considered secret and taboo.

No, in that the social infrastructure in the US at least is still very anti-BDSM.  There are a lot of old sex laws on the books, and newer laws governing domestic violence that make BDSM illegal in many places (on the grounds that no one can consent to “assaults” including spankings or erotic whippings). As long as the legal system can still exploit such laws to prosecute at whim, the threat exists for a political change that could terminate sexual freedoms for BDSMers overnight.

And no, because physicians, psychiatrists, nurses and other helping professionals may have zero training in sexuality and not be equipped to help people who are kinky or fetishistic. I’ve seen numerous patients in my private practice who have received terrible, judgmental and plain wrong advice from psychiatrists on their sexuality when it strayed from what the doctor’s book claimed was the norm.

Which brings me to that book, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of the APA).  It was never a truly scientific document when it came to the diagnoses of sex-related problems and today trails the science by years, largely for political reasons.  For every trained sexologist who can tell you, based on data and studies, that you can’t “cure” a fetish, there’s probably a psychiatrist out there still using “aversion therapy” and other treatment protocols that are not only ineffective but are actually inhumane.

As I see it, we can’t see real acceptance of BDSM until we see a change in sex laws, sex education, and a greater acceptance of sex science as a better authority on sexual normality than public opinion.