I pull up a headless mirror pic of my body dotted in perfect circular bruises from my thighs to my neck. “But look at how purple this bruise is,” I type and hit SEND.
Taking care of my disabled body doesn’t always spark joy. It involves juggling the exhausting tasks of physical strengthening, care coordination, and medication scheduling. But snapping a pic to show off any progress, like surviving an intense cupping session, for an impact play–obsessed hook-up across the country is one way that kink keeps me connected to my desires.
Kink and BDSM existed on the fringes of my life before 2019, when I developed chronic pain as a symptom of my disabilities. I’ve been a switch and a sub near and far. Being publicly flogged at your local Eagle is part of my vacation to-do list. And admittedly I’ve always been the kind of bratty exhibitionist to send a salacious pic or two. Thanks to an enthusiastic physical therapist and the support of other kinky, disabled loved ones, I have found that these and many other aspects of my kink practice are critical parts of my pain management and mental wellness as I’ve transitioned into disability.
After interviewing a handful of disabled people who practice kink this past week, I found myself in good company.
As daily chronic pain took over my life for the last year, my typically ferocious sex drive tanked. It felt like living with chronic pain meant making a choice between using my scarce energy to manage that pain through medical interventions or not manage it at all but have potentially unenjoyable sex instead.
However, an overwhelming consensus among the people I interviewed destroyed my binary thinking by affirming that kink allows disabled people to control pain and feel good in our bodies, something that might not typically happen in our daily lives. Intense pain, unpredictable symptoms, and confronting constant ableism may dominate a disabled person’s life. But kink spaces and practices can serve as a container with accessibility and adaptation in mind.
Limited peer-reviewed research has documented why some disabled people with chronic pain may gravitate towards BDSM. Emma Sheppard, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of London, conducted a series of interviews of people with chronic pain. These testimonies clarified that participants opted for chosen pain in BDSM-like spanking in order to take a break from their experience of involuntary chronic pain. Acute, chosen pain is seen as predictable and controllable while involuntary, chronic pain is anything but.
For more on the neuroscience behind pain, pleasure, and disability, I spoke to Caz Killjoy, activist, educator, and cofounder of the Disability and Sexuality Access Network. Through their lived experience and research, Killjoy’s biopsychosocial approach can help explain how acute, temporary pain can provide relief for people living with chronic pain.
The experience of pain in the body has biological components. “Our nervous systems are covered in nerve endings which detect temperature, mechanical stimuli, or pain,” Killjoy explained. Through a process called nociception, the nervous system—including the brain—detect and encode acute pain. If acute pain is present, the brain orders the release of endorphins to help block the pain. However, “Chronic pain disrupts the body’s nervous system response to acute pain,” Killjoy asserted.
But the pleasure and relief some disabled people derive from pain operates at a psychological and social level as well. The desire to control one’s own pain or give others pain can be a tool to change a disabled person’s understanding of pain in a controlled setting. “I call it the power exchange for those who often feel disempowered,” said Killjoy in our interview. They asserted that because disabled people often are subject to violations of their consent (through medicalization, othering, etc.), the control-centered expectations of kink can help disabled people ground within their bodies.
Grounding and establishing a safe space to explore what you want was a central perk of kink that came up in an interview with Dante Olivas, a kinkster living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Olivas noted that a typical kink norm, like a “red, yellow, green” light approach to consent and marking clear boundaries, enables him to participate in the scene. “I can find routines and patterned behavior that makes me comfortable around someone,” Olivas explained, when asked about how kink functions differently from other sexual spaces. “[Partners] know what to expect of me, I know what to expect of them, and trust can be built on both sides.”
Building trust and setting boundaries is especially important for disabled people, who experience higher rates of sexual violence than nondisabled people. In 2018, NPR released data from an unpublished Justice Department report on sex crimes, finding that assault against people with intellectual disabilities is more than seven times higher than the rates for nondisabled people. For cisgender women with intellectual disabilities, the rate increases to 12 times versus nondisabled people.
Many people I interviewed—as well as myself—discussed being a survivor of sexual or intimate partner violence. Those same people said that kink allowed them to work through the trauma inflicted upon them, enabling them to reclaim agency in their body.
“Sex and kink can be used in a healing way, but only if you feel safe with the person you’re doing it with,” offered Faith Ferber, a survivor activist and social worker. Similarly, Killjoy affirmed that survivors of trauma may benefit from role-playing to “reclaim the event” or “recontextualize” the traumatic experience.
Both Ferber and I share a longtime friendship as well as common symptoms of our chronic illnesses. Our conversations often center pain management out of necessity. “When you have chronic pain or any kind of disability or illness, you have so many thoughts and feelings, like your body isn’t good enough,” Ferber began over our recent phone call. Like so many of the other disabled people I spoke with, she saw the power in disabled bodies, especially when given a wider breadth of sexuality and intimacy in which to play.
At the beginning of Ferber’s chronic pain, she hosted a cam show to see how many spanks she could take. “I ended up getting spanked 2,000 times,” she rushed. “I felt positively towards my body. I took this amount of pain, and I took it like a champ.” Ferber glowed as she described the scene. “I don’t think I realized at the time how significant it would be. But now I can’t imagine my sex life without some amount of pain.”
I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty morose news from my health care providers as they described my body as “weak,” “too sensitive,” and “having a low pain tolerance.” This isn’t the case for me and many of the other people dealing with chronic pain I spoke to.
A recent email exchange with Louis, a switch and sadomasochist, pointed to how one’s experiences of managing disability can lead to specialization in the kink world. Louis uses deep-tissue massage and activating pressure points as part of his chronic pain management and now incorporates it into his kink practice. “Using that knowledge to consensually hurt others in sadistic massage has become my biggest fetish,” he writes. “It’s about as close and intimate an experience I can think of, the closest I will ever get to having someone live inside my own body and feel my pain.”
Disabled norms around creating safe and comfortable spaces in our daily lives could benefit kink spaces. Picture this: a spreadsheet full of roles and responsibilities to ensure people have a safe place to explore, decompress, and access aftercare. Disabled people do the work of making sure everyone can be included through accessibility measures in our daily lives, a necessity that many kink and queer spaces overall often overlook. Disabled queer people often defend our right to access against the ableist assumptions that such access is considered unnecessary by nondisabled event organizers and attendees.
Owning being disabled has pushed me to reframe what sex looks like for me. The ableist assumption that disabled people cannot be and are not sexual is pervasive, as sex educator Robin Wilson-Beattie pointed out in an interview with VICE. “People just assume that people with disabilities aren’t interested in having sex,” Wilson-Beattie said, describing how health care providers spent weeks teaching her bladder and bowel function after a surgery removed an aneurysm in her spine. They only spent 45 minutes talking about sex.
Being disabled necessitates expanding your definition of sex, especially decentralizing genital-centric acts. As a sex educator, Wilson-Beattie gives workshops on BDSM and disability, affirming that disabled people “have agency over our own bodies. We have the right to make our decisions about the things we want to do and the things we don’t want to do.”
Alex Locust didn’t intend for Glamputee, a “Sasha Fierce”–style alter ego, to become a platform to center the voices of queer and transgender disabled people of color. I’ve followed Glamputee for a while, and found that his platform provided a queer as hell, informed, and tongue-in-cheek look at queer disabled life that resonated with me.
“The fun, flamboyant gaudiness is a Trojan horse,” Locust said. “[I’ve found] if you want to talk about the painful parts of disability, you have to start with the fun, sexy stuff.” By centering pleasure first, you can pivot to talking about systemic issues that disabled people face, like not having affordable, accessible health care. “Maybe kink is the best way they can find pain management,” he offered.
Locust recently hosted Disabili-Tease: Kink and Disability, a queer, transgender, Black, indigenous, and people of color (QTBIPOC) panel discussing access needs and how queer and transgender disabled people of color can find pleasure in kink settings. As part of the event, panelists noted that kink spaces can create a container to practice asserting your needs. This can enable disabled people a practice opportunity that they can take to their workplace when asking for accommodations.
Panelists specifically described pushing against white supremacy in the kink world, alongside ableism. While racism and the overwhelming whiteness of the kink world are not new, Buzzfeed reported in October that users of FetLife, a social network for people involved in kink and BDSM, saw “an uptick in the amount and severity of hate-based vitriol since the protests following the killing of George Floyd.”
While kink is about subverting a norm, Disabili-Tease panelists agreed that privileged, nondisabled people tend to replicate the power dynamics seen in the world. Meanwhile, disabled QTBIPOC dream up new scenarios based on their experience in the world.
Locust affirmed this in saying, “When disabled QTBIPOC are centered, true visioning and dreaming can happen.”