Can we heal our pandemic trauma with kink?

Hard yes. Here's why.

Sexual Healing
BySara Youngblood Gregory

“I use kink as my hope for the future,” says Jade Sky, a 25-year-old living in New York. Between a cross-country move, changing jobs, and tenuous survival, the pandemic hit Sky hard — and kept hitting — as the exhaustion of isolation dragged on. A self-described “passionate sadist and curious masochist,” Sky turned inward during the pandemic and took what they call a Sadist’s Sabbatical of deep study, solo BDSM workshopping, and kinky research. For Sky, kink became an anchor in a time of deep uncertainty.

In her new docu-series, sex educator and erotic film director Madison Young puts Sky’s personal theory to the test: Can kink really heal our pandemic trauma?

The resounding answer? Absolutely.

Young released her new docu-series, Submission Possible in June of 2020. The pilot, shot nine months prior, aired just as the pandemic started in the U.S., halting production for the rest of the season. After consulting with COVID compliance officers, changing travel plans to stick to the West Coast, cutting back to a three-person skeleton crew and getting vaccinated in April 2021, Young felt safe enough to resume Submission Possible. Amid extra precautions, “there was just this extra tender desire to share our stories and connect after all the isolation we were coming out of,” Young says.

There’s a marked difference in the show’s tone after the pandemic sets in. Young, wearing a vulva-patterned COVID face mask, talks to passers-by on the streets of Seattle. Watching people open up about deeply personal, intimate subjects like safety and sex, while still masked, is a bit of a mindfuck. It feels normal to not see people’s faces anymore.

Submission Possible doesn’t shy away from challenging subjects — the pandemic is front and center, and so is systemic racism, social unrest, and hierarchy internal to queer and sex positive communities. For Sky, Submission Impossible is so exciting because of its complexity — and refusal to play into the toxic BDSM stereotypes they see in shows like Netflix's Bonding. “I am so excited to see a show like this coming out. I’ve been looking for something that covers lots of ground, brings in voices that deserve to be heard, and really represents kinks and the people that practice them.”

As the show evolved, Young realized that the complex, messy stories she was exploring were offering more than just a pulse on the landscape of sex positivity. These stories could be used more widely to heal pandemic trauma. Kink itself is a sort of travel, an uneven roadmap full of not just precautions, ethics, and responsibility, but also joy and care.

Kink is a term that describes a variety of erotic practices, the most common of which fall under the BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and sadism-masochism) umbrella. Kink, like queerness, is often resistant to any one, stable definition. But at its core, kink is consensual, erotic behavior that engages power in some way.

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Kink, as a practice, has deep ties to LGBTQ+ communities, and like homosexuality, was pathologized as “sexual deviancy” in the DSM (the primary clinical manual of mental illness diagnoses). But kink’s capacity for healing has long been noted by not just community members and practitioners, but also by scholars and researchers. One 2013 study found that BDSM practitioners “were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, [and] had higher subjective well-being” than the control group. Other practitioners use kink to process self harm, abuse, or sexual assault. Unlike traumatizing experiences where people aren’t able to control what happens to their bodies and mind, kink is all about creating a space where choice matters.

According to The Gender and Sexuality Therapy Center, the process of creating and experiencing consensual scenes and care allows the body to rewire the brain’s response to certain stimuli. Basically, this means that kink builds new, positive experiences “to heal and, in a sense, “overwrite” past traumatic ones.” This reclamation of both body and power can be an important opportunity for self-actualization and transformation.

Young identifies three key aspects of kink that can help people deal with pandemic trauma: negotiation, a forthcoming attitude about health status, and a sense of play. Negotiation is about identifying what is nourishing for your own body and communicating that to others, while holding that same space and regard for your potential play partners. It’s essentially an in-depth check in and a space to ask questions of yourself and others. Negotiation is also a part of informed consent, and pre-pandemic, it was used mostly to identify safe words, agree on safer sex practices, express hard boundaries, likes, and dislikes, and find mutually satisfying aftercare strategies.

An essential aspect of negotiation, Young says, is noting how the body reacts and feels to different hypothetical scenarios. Do you feel comfortable going to a play party where there will be 50 people inside? Do you feel comfortable renting a private dungeon with a partner? Do you feel comfortable attending an outdoor socially distanced porn screening where folks are masked and required to show their vax cards?

“With each of these we check in with ourselves and see in our bodies how each of these scenarios feel, and acquire the information and data we need to analyze our risk and make a decision,” says Young.

Likewise, the practice of sharing one’s status refers to the communal norm in kink spaces to disclose STI status and sometimes disability status in the interest of the safest sex possible. Kinksters are in general more used to not only asking tender questions, but also getting regular STI (and now Covid) tests. Of course, getting tested for COVID is scary — but realizing other communities have found ways to deal with, and manage, risks can be reassuring in uncertain times.

Unlike traumatizing experiences where people aren’t able to control what happens to their bodies and mind, kink is all about creating a space where choice matters.

Finally, Young talks about the art of play, “Whether it is a puppy or Mistress, Nurse, librarian, pony, or leather Daddy — stepping into a role and surrendering to a sense of play can be liberating, joyful and absolutely healing.” Play is something humans are born doing. Children emphasize play and learn to socialize through games and play-acting. Along the way— often somewhere between puberty and adulthood—the demands of capitalism get in the way and we stop playing. Kink is a chance for people like Sky to find joy again. “Kink encourages me to keep learning and hoping even when it feels like hope isn’t in easy supply,” says Sky. It was in that “erotic hope” that Sky found the “wonderful medicine” for their own healing.

Young’s strategies aren’t about sex, but about flexibility, risk management, and compassion. It’s not a coincidence that negotiation, disclosure, and play are easily adapted to pandemic times — these three strategies were developed by kink communities to protect one another and to extend basic compassion and respect to others. That’s exactly why shows like Submission Possible don’t just matter when we need individual healing — they also matter when we need to find a new normal together.