Letting desire flow

A new study (picked up by BoingBoing) makes the case that BDSM practitioners are actually better adjusted psychologically than the population at large. The reasons given are speculative, but the researcher argues that “BDSM play requires the explicit consent of the players regarding the type of actions to be performed, their duration and intensity, and therefore involves careful scrutiny and communication of one’s own sexual desires and needs.”

It’s one study, and these studies should always be taken with a grain of salt. Still, what stands out here is that there’s some scientific evidence that exploring desire — in thought and in action — can lead to greater happiness.

We often look at desire as something to move beyond. Shouldn’t we be helping society or focusing on our families or working harder? Isn’t craving the source of our suffering, as the Buddhists might say?

Mark Epstein, a psychologist and Buddhist writer, argues in his book Open to Desire that we can’t simply turn off desire. Desire is part of who we are, and exploring our deep and sometimes frightening desires can be a path to self-knowledge.

In so many other contexts, we’re ready to encourage the intimacy of close communication and the adventure of pushing our own limits, even to the point of intense physical pain. Skydiving? Sure! Running a marathon? Hey, awesome! Taking a long weekend to spend some time with your partner? Sounds wonderful!

If we step back from the cultural shaming and pathologizing, is BDSM really any different? It’s likely to hurt less than running a marathon (and is actually kind of less likely to make your nipples bleed), it’s not nearly as risky as backpacking across Latin America, and it will probably create more intimacy and openness in a relationship than going to see The Great Gatsby together (a different opportunity to hang out together in a dark room while wearing ridiculous outfits).

The main point is to stay open to who you really are and what you really desire. If there’s something inside your own mind that scares you, instead of shutting it away, you might want to try walking toward it and making friends.

Update: While we’re on the topic …