I'm a Pervert! You're a Pervert! We're All Perverts!
People are really hung up on what ‘healthy’ (read: normal) expressions of sexuality look like. Psychologists produce lots of studies to answer whether kinky folx are just like everyone else or if there is something pathological about BDSM desires. To the credit of contemporary academics, they are often claiming the former. But it begs the question, why are we so preoccupied with this binary in the first place? Why is the Question Always ‘Is BDSM Healthy’?
To answer that, we need to talk a little about the history of sexology.
Let’s Talk About Sex (History), Baby.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, a field of medical-psychiatric study developed to establish the empirical ‘facts’ of sexual disorder and normalcy.
A prominent researcher named Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis and established the base definitions of sadism as the “association of active cruelty and violence with lust,” and masochism as the “association of passively endured cruelty and violence with lust. . . controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex.”
You know the adage that you don’t necessarily have to be right, but be first?
Well, Krafft-Ebing and his inspired contemporaries Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud firmly established in medical and popular imaginations that sadism and masochism are deeply linked to gender and the naturalization of sexuality. There were ‘natural’ ways men and women ought to enact sexuality based on biological impetus for active domination and passive submission. Sadism and masochism only presented as clinically pathological when these roles were accompanied by feelings of exaggeration or violence, or if they were inverted, where men acted as submissive and women as dominant.
Natural is healthy. Unnatural is pathological.
Why Does (Fucking) History Matter?
Surely some want-to-be motherfucking doctors who jacked off to Venus in Furs and The 120 Days of Sodom too many times couldn’t have tampered with understandings of sexuality a century later, right?
Unfortunately, these early writings on sadomasochism had a lasting impact on medical-psychiatric assertions of the disordered and perverted nature of BDSM practices. Modern diagnostic classification systems were also developed based on understanding BDSM as psychopathology.
It wasn’t until 2013 with the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that the American Psychiatric Association started to differentiate nonpathological paraphilic interest in sadomasochism and paraphilic disorder that either involves non-consent or causes stress or social impairment.
And whether we like it or not, this influences the way BDSM is researched in academia and represented in mainstream culture.
You like BDSM? Well, à la Christian Grey, go out to find a mother doppelgänger sub to live out childhood trauma. Get murdered at a fetish club in a procedural crime drama. Be a prodomme that has no actual interest in kink other than sex work’s financial necessity. Get an STI from an unsafe and sexually promiscuous population of leather daddies and their harnessed twinks.
These types of portrayals base themselves on early sexology, bastardized modern psychology, and perpetuate homophobia, misogyny, and sex work stigma. They are also often the first mainstream points of contact folx have with BDSM. So, it’s not so surprising that many new kinksters feel like they must grapple with understanding their own desires and answer to a framework of psychopathology.
The point is that BDSM is no more inherently healthy or unhealthy than any other type of sexual expression. And the idea of health is socially constructed, historically constituted, and perpetuated by power.
Does BDSM have risks? Yes. Should you inform yourself about practices that are new to you and your partners? Also, yes.
Like all your other activities, make your kink consensual and risk aware.
But know that BDSM is not inherently unhealthy or pathological. Historical hangovers are hard to break when they are rooted in upholding cisheteronormative and patriarchal systems of oppression and privilege. It seems unironic to me that to pervert something is to alter its stability, distort its original state or corrupt its first intentions. If disrupting these normative systems means I’m a pervert, then abso-fucking-lutely.
 Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, with Special Reference to Contrary Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Legal Study, 7th ed., trans. Charles Gilbert Chaddock, (London: The F.A. Davis Co., Publishers, 1892), 57.
 von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, 89.