Researching the Psychology of BDSM

A Guest Post by Larry Kahn, author of King of Paine

Despite the provocative image on King of Paine‘s cover, I did not set out to write a novel about BDSM. The story remains primarily a whodunit that follows two investigations, the FBI’s pursuit of a stalker committing a series of kinky Internet crimes and a reporter tracking the disappearance of wealthy senior citizens. But as themes about control and its abandonment to faith and chance emerged, the BDSM elements began to predominate. In today’s post, we’ll take a peek inside the minds of practitioners of the art, essential research I used in developing a few of my characters.

BDSM is shorthand for the sexual subcultures of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism–erotic behaviors linked primarily by a consensual imbalance in the power relationship between adults. While some lunatics take the practice to extremes, many mainstream Americans–particularly educated, upper-middle class men and women–experiment with BDSM both in online roleplay and live sessions. My FBI protagonist, Frank Paine, was one of them until a tragic miscalculation cost him the woman he loves. Now, three years later, when a stalker lures him into a case involving a similar debacle, Frank reenters this forbidden world to protect his secrets and reconnect with his soulmate.

The crime that draws Frank’s attention involves a rogue online roleplayer who seduces his partners into live bondage encounters under false pretenses, a scenario loosely based on a case study I read in Psychology Today. The victim’s mindset intrigued me. What would lead a rational woman to meet a stranger she met online–where deception is the norm–and relinquish control over her body?

To find answers, I read everything I could find online about BDSM, from Wikepedia to first person blogs to another series of more general articles in Psychology Today. And, as noted in yesterday’s post on Thoughts In Progress, I even went undercover into the BDSM chat rooms (without contracting any virtual rashes!). These resources helped me understand the psychological attraction to BDSM and how an illusion of safety is created by the complex rules, rituals, roles and dynamics that insulate the experience. Trust and faith in your partner is critical, but an element of risk is essential to generate the thrill–the emotional release–participants crave.

I may be extrapolating from my own misconceptions, but I suspect when outsiders think of BDSM they conjure imagery of sadistic men and women wielding whips and chains, subjecting reluctant partners to abuse and sexual humiliation. In reality, whether the encounter is live or simulated online in a chat session, BDSM is a sort of roleplaying, where normal people in fine mental health act out a fantasy that involves taking or giving up power for a limited time. Sex is often involved, but not always. The reward is in the playing of the game itself, a scenario unlikely to end in disaster when directed by a trustworthy partner prepared to stop upon even a whisper of a prearranged safe word.

According to psychologists, acting the part of the submissive in these roleplay scenarios can be tremendously liberating, particularly for people who aren’t comfortable exploring their sexuality or personal boundaries. They want the fantasy of shedding their own identity, with its autonomy and responsibility, and submitting entirely to the will of another. The essential component is not the pain or bondage itself, but rather the knowledge that one person has complete control over the other. It can be a total emotional release.

In King of Paine, the woman who falls victim to her partner’s trickery lives a double life, a repressed nurse by day who roams cyberspace at night in search of the increasingly daring scenarios her alter ego craves. After roleplaying with a trusted partner online for months, she succumbs to his mantra, “no risk, no thrill,” on a lonely Christmas Day and agrees to a limited contact session in a classy hotel. My findings inspired this moment of reflection by Frank Paine as he’s interviewing the victim after her bondage fantasy went out of control:

After probing the minds of countless submissive women online, he believed that, at some level, they all wanted to release the wild animal caged inside them but feared accountability. Their natural sexual urges were so bottled up by rules made by others—gods, fathers, and politicians—they needed to be liberated by forces beyond their control. Most BDSM scenes included some element of coercion—enslavement, blackmail, trickery, or physical force—to enable the sub to experience her fantasy without choosing to violate social norms. Penny seemed genuinely sad and angry, but he wondered if her indignation served more as a subconscious charade for the benefit of her repressors than heartfelt anguish.

While Penny Johnson may have taken an imprudent risk, the desires that motivated her are quite common–Psychology Today estimates that up to a third of all women have fantasies of being dominated sexually. With our culture placing more demands on the individual, the stress associated with living up to expectations increases, along with the desire to occasionally shed that super-man/woman image. And that is exactly the point of BDSM roleplay–you can, with a little imagination, shed your normal self to a shocking degree. The more control abandoned, the greater the emotional release. No risk, no thrill.

The blog tour takes a long hop to South Africa tomorrow, where All the days of will host a book giveaway and my guest post: “Crafting Intricate Plots: My Writing Process.” And don’t forget to check out the King of Paine Kindle Giveaway Contest–you can enter any time before the end of the tour on December 21st, but early birds can improve their odds of winning a Kindle Touch 3G before Christmas by getting involved.

Thanks for the insight, Larry!

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3 Comments

  1. Larry — What a great description of this often taboo subject that plays out in your novel and what helps KING OF PAINE so unique. Back in the 90s I spent a great deal of time in chat rooms entering into everything from innocent bantering in an 'age group category' chat room (30+ at the time) to engaging in a bit more risky material with talking and role-playing about sex with the opposite sex. Like with everything, it is an opportunity for bad things to happen but it is also an opportunity for good things to happen. Having said that, I met my husband on the Internet 15 years ago! We were able to talk openly about things that persons are very unlikely to talk about in person. Or would not even dare to talk about.When I first got on the net, I learned that there are A LOT (great understatement) of lonely men out there. They are desperate for not only female conversation but also needing something more than their other half could/can give them or if they are just alone altogether. Whenever I logged on and entered my 30+ chat room to have open, innocent fun and conversation dozens of men were ALWAYS trying to engage in "private chat" with me for female companionship or outright cybersex. Ironically, hundreds of men mostly needed the former. The latter was/is just a bonus.In my opinion, the BDSM adventures brought forth in KING OF PAINE were used as a backdrop and necessary to not only boldly go where many other authors do not venture into (bringing a unique quality to KING OF PAINE) while letting readers meet several fascinating characters who have their very own stories regarding releasing their sexual inhibitions and fantasies (which resounds with at least 90% of our population if they are honest with themselves). For so many online kink easily becomes an addiction of which the protagonist in KING OF PAINE (FBI Special Agent "Frank Paine") knows very well from his past. But he was able to pull himself out of that gutter, gain a good reputation and become a man of honor and integrity throughout the novel. Yet he signs that he has to use the kinky online sex skills he possesses while not falling off the wagon which would lead to losing his job with the FBI as well as his all-time love (Jolynn Decker).Frank's skills from his kinky past (and therefore the topic of the BDSM itself) become necessary in this novel to seek out the person or persons who are taking online sexual liberties and perversely costing people their reputations and their very lives. KING OF PAINE certainly does not "dwell" on online kinky sex because there are insurmountable, dangerous undertakings that require the best in each of the characters. And every character that Mr. Khan introduces us to in his remarkable novel has a great deal of integrity and passion to accomplish the almost impossible. If are you are looking for a GREAT book to read this winter and one that stands alone in so many areas — KING OF PAINE is the novel for you! I can't say enough about it and will definitely read it again!Lori in Arizona

    Reply
  2. Laura–thank you for hosting my post today and for that awesome review, especially since suspense novels are usually not your thing! I'm truly grateful for such high praise for my writing.Lori–it's wonderful to have fans like you who truly connect with my story and go the extra mile to help me connect with other readers who might enjoy it.

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  3. WOW! Great review. I am really enjoying the book. Thanks for posting this.

    Reply

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