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Could BDSM be the antidote to our pandemic-fueled loss of control?

This past year has been a harsh mistress, indeed. It’s near impossible to feel any sense of control when it seems like some world-altering thing could happen at any moment. At the beginning of the pandemic, some people found a sense of agency by organizing their lives around Netflix or redecorating their kitchens, but at this point, it’s hard not to feel helpless when the only thing it feels like you can control is your remote. Well, not to be too forward, but have you considered whips and chains? Because BDSM could be the antidote to your pandemic-fueled loss of control.

First things first, yes, trying new subflavors of vanilla sex will help, too — if you’re into that sort of thing. “There’s something to be said for trying new things,” says Justin Lehmiller, a sex scholar, research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, author of the blog Sex and Psychology and two books on human sexuality. “Novelty has a way of creating an immersive experience that makes you forget about other things,” Lehmiller says. Yes. Even if you’re not sexually adventuresome, you have to admit that it is kind of hard to remember who the president is when you’re in the throes of climax.

Lehmiller has been conducting a study on what people are up to in the bedroom since the beginning of the pandemic. He and his team have found that about 20% of people in quarantine have tried new things in bed and — wait for it — those people tend to be happier than people who don’t. Trying new sex things, Lehmiller points out, can mean anything from using a new toy to watching alien porn to sending nudes to full-on flogging. The point is that the combination of novelty and sexiness can make you feel happier.

When the most structured and seemingly secure lives feel precarious and even the most baller amongst us is flailing, BDSM practices could offer a way to regain a sense of control. Like even before anything sexy happens. The consent dialogues that are a necessary component in BDSM — in which you get to say what you do and do not want to happen to your body — give you a sense of agency. Or, as I like to say: you can’t give up power if you don’t have it. And talking about who’s gonna be in charge in bed makes it clear that everyone involved does, in fact, have power.

Plus, some of the skills you learn in BDSM scene negotiations easily crossover into daily life. Being able to advocate for your desires and set personal boundaries with comfort is a crucial skill all the time, but especially in this “who has to wear a mask” moment. After years of learning to be specific about what feels good and bad to me, I am completely unafraid to tell someone how I want to interact with them in terms of COVID safety. All these benefits and no one’s even been spanked yet.

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Once the spanking does begin, there are even more psychological bonuses. “The specific acts of BDSM create heightened focus and take you out of your head,” says Lehmiller. Stavroula Toska, an NYC-based pro domme turned screenwriter whose life is the basis for the BDSM-centric series Switch, agrees. When you are in a BDSM scenario — called a scene— she says, you empty your mind of all the garbage that’s been put in it. “Being fully present in the here and now, being in touch with your emotions and vulnerability, existing in a space that is safe enough to accept and honor whatever is released, and starting to make peace with all that you are can be a life-changing gift.” Amen. Hail Satan. Whatever you’re into.

These borderline woo descriptions may seem far fetched to anyone who hasn’t had a revelatory BDSM experience, but they are, in fact, a psychologically sound phenomenon. “Some people describe sub space as out of body spiritual experiences," says Lehmiller. For the uninitiated, sub space is what kinksters call the state of mind you get in when you’re in the role of the submissive and the person dominating you is doing it right. Sub space, Lehmiller says, might be appealing for people who take on dominant roles in their everyday lives — aka bosses.

Top space is what dom/mmes experience, and Lehmillers says that it’s characterized by enhanced focus. This can be attractive to people who feel like they don’t have enough control in their everyday experience, which is basically most of us right now. But, it should be noted, that some people are switches — like me — and tend to oscillate between these poles and also, y’all this is sex and power play we’re talking about, not math, so there are no actual equations for figuring out what you like and want or how it will or will not line up with your daily life.

Regardless of which role you take on in a given moment, enacting them can help even out what we experience in our everyday lives. “Maybe BDSM is a way of creating a sense of balance in an otherwise otherwise unpredictable world,” says Lehmiller. So. Much. This. On election day, I was in such a fluster that I asked my sweetie to tie me up. It didn’t make the electoral college disappear, but for a few precious moments, I forgot about everything except the experience.

There’s also a physiological component at play when you’re experimenting with bondage or impact play. And importantly in this viral moment, you don’t have to have sex with someone — or even touch them — to do BDSM. “The release of endorphins that one gets when engaged in any kind of sexual activity can also be obtained when practicing non-sexual bondage or impact play,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist. In other words, you don't have to fuck to get the same physiological rewards as sex. If you build a good scene, the endorphins will come.

Bondage holds a dear place in my heart because, honestly, sometimes when the world is falling apart, it’s only Shibari rope holding me together. That could be partially a product of me loving sub space, but it also has something to do with the unique bodily rewards of bondage. “Bondage play, such as with ropes or tools like body sacks, can feel like a comforting swaddle — imagine a baby wrapped up tight — to the person being bound,” says Goerlich. Yeah, sure, you can judge my kinks, but Goerlich says the sensation of constant pressure is not unlike what others receive through the use of weighted blankets, and has similar stress relieving and comforting effects. Plus, I look good tied up. Insert manicure emoji.

Despite cultural portrayals of kink, it’s not all sex and bruises. “When we people engage in BDSM, there’s some amount of aftercare that happens following the act,” Lehmiller points out. Aftercare sounds clinical, but it’s really this sweet moment in which the person who just destroyed you in bed cuddles and coos to you. Swoon. Lehmiller says these aftercare moments can be especially healing right now. “Aftercare encourages intimacy and communication in a moment in which people are feeling a lack of intimacy,” he says. “It’s an important and underlooked at aspect of BDSM.”

If you’re stuck in solo quarantine and all this sex talk is giving you FOMO, don’t stress. A good dom/mme can make you feel powerless in a line of text from the other side of the planet, and there are plenty to be found online. If you want to experiment with bondage, self-tying is a really great option. You don’t even have to see or touch a single other human to go to an online rope jam if you’re shy or currently contagious. And, honestly, kinky people are the kindest, most accepting people I know, so get ready for some love that will greet your desires — no matter how weird or taboo — with care and curiosity.

If you’re not into playing with power or bondage, that’s okay. You’re wrong, but it’s okay. Jk. This is a no kink shaming zone and that includes not shaming people for being vanilla. “We should want people to find their appropriate outlets for sexual release,” Lehmiller says. Especially in this moment. I am just asking you to consider the possibility that BDSM could be the one stone that kills many of your psycho-spiritual vultures.

“Practicing BDSM, you learn to make friends with uncertainty and all the stress that comes with it,’ says Toska, sounding straight Buddhist. “We live in a world where things can turn upside down in a minute.” Sometimes dealing with uncertainty means making friends with it, giving up control, and letting go. Giving up control in the bedroom is a fun — and safe — place to start if you take the time to negotiate boundaries and plan out scenes. Or, as Toska says, “Uncertainty is just a word and what we attach to it is what will become a reality for each one of us. So, attach nothing to it. Use it as a tool that serves you instead of stressing you out.” Like a riding crop or a real tight harness.

Oh, that’s maybe just me again.