by Sensuous Sadie
C. Hayden, CSW, Author & Psychotherapist
Dorothy Hayden, CSW, is a Manhattan-based psychotherapist specializing in the scene, fetishes and sexual addiction. Ms. Hayden is a prominent lecturer on the psychology of erotic masochism in both the therapeutic and the New York S&M communities. She writes an ongoing column called “The Black Leather Couch” for Prometheus Magazine and for “Dom/Sub Lifestyles." She has been interviewed by 20/20 and The New York Post on the psychology of sex addiction and has appeared on numerous television shows such as “Jenny Jones," “Ricky Lake," and “Lifetime Live.”
Ms. Hayden received her M.S.W. from New York University and her psychoanalytic training from the Post Graduate Center for Mental Health. She is currently enrolled in an advanced analytic training program at the Object Relations Institute in New York.
DOROTHY: "What comprises successful treatment for people in the scene is, to a large extent, what comprises successful treatment for everyone. Good therapy facilitates the achievement of a more vital, whole, cohesive sense of self and makes you use your abilities and talents. It helps you find ways to connect meaningfully with people and to exercise intelligence in productive/creative activities. With that as a psychological foundation, interest in the scene can be pursued in a balanced, playful and non self-destructive way.
"Of course, issues of dominance, submission and power-exchange are elements of all human relationships. Some level of S&M is present in all sexual activity. Longings for passionate attachments, for feeling deeply understood and responded to, of being cared for and having our pain and loneliness lessened by an idealized other, or wanting to be admired by an appreciating other are ever-present in human affairs.
"People who identify themselves as being in the scene, however, are somewhat different. They tend to be those who are always looking for ways to expand the confines of everyday, moralistic, culture-sanctioned reality. They go against the grain of the status quo. This, of course, is what the great creative discoveries in the arts, sciences and humanities are also about. If a 'pervert' is someone who 'perverts' the status quo, well, I guess you’d have to say some of the greatest minds and talents of our times have been perverted."
SS: What are your views about the relationship between the therapeutic community and the BDSM community? Why do you think so many people in the scene are wary about psychotherapists?
D: "Therapists are often in denial about their own deepest erotic longings. These split-off and unacknowledged fantasies are defended against and result in therapists often viewing scene activities as misbehaviors that represent weakness or childish indulgences that are subject to moral condemnation. Seeing non-normative sexuality as 'deviant,' the therapist often contributes to the psychological symptoms of the patient who already lives with shame and guilt as a daily companion. Furthermore, if a therapist tries to remove the BDSM activity, it may remove an important outlet for relieving fear, depression, shame and isolation and create more psychological distress than it cures.
"Mental health professionals in the West criticize Chinese and Soviet therapists for pathologizing people who hold political beliefs that are not normative. Western clinicians, however, make a similar mistake when they pathologize people who have unconventional sexual predilections and interests."
SS: Submissives sometimes speak of a quality of liberation and freedom they experience during a scene. How do you account for this?
D: "Yes, people often feel that they’re truly alive, or truly themselves. They often feel a sense of expansion in the acute vulnerability they experience in their scene.
"A famous psychoanalyst once wrote that one way children stay connected to emotionally fragile parents is to develop a 'false self,' or a self that embodies the qualities they think their parents need them to have. I believe that good scenes allow a person to yield this false self. A scene can sometimes allow for years of defensive barriers that support the false self to be broken through. The longing for the scene is a longing for the experience of the true self. Deep down we all long to give up, to 'come clean,' as part of a general longing to be known or recognized. Being known by an idealizable dom is part of the sense of relief or even ecstasy that many people experience.
"Scenes can also, for doms and subs, give expression to peoples’ need for play. People take delight in fantasy production. Disneyland isn’t just for the kids. Scenes have tremendous potential for expressing fantasy. Costumes, rituals, scenarios, sex props and elaborate sets can reveal the richness of the creative inner life and speak to the very real human need for fantasy play. These fantasies are carriers of a full spectrum of human feelings: to control, to be controlled, to tease, to be teased, to play, to please and to achieve solace from the confines of the mundane ness of everyday life. They represent the suspension of normal reality that is an occasional necessity for all healthy people.
"Finally, the submissive achieves a sense of balance from a good scene. The experience of receptivity and sensitivity counters the Western imperative to be strong, rational, unfeeling and constrained. Strength can be a terrible burden. People want to let down and let go."
SS: What elements of the scene, if any, can be psychologically problematic?
D: "In certain individuals, psychological processes such as impairment in reality testing and a split in the integrity of the personality can occur."
SS: What in the world does that mean?
D: "Enslavement to a fantasy script that is repetitively re-enacted is a subversion of truth. The individual can begin to have a lessened ability to function optimally in the real world. An appreciation and acceptance of sensible limits can be eroded. Denial of the truth of the fact that problems and conflicts need to be resolved within the self, not through the infusion of someone else’s magical power or through having control over someone else’s behavior, can be deleterious to a person’s ability to make good choices.
"We see this kind of reality-sense impairment all the time in the scene. A female submissive divorces her husband and takes her children across the country to move in with a man she meets on the net. He holds out the hope of being a benign master who will intuit and satisfy her deepest submissive wants and needs. However, the stronger the need, the more potential for distortions exist. Six months later, she returns home, alone and dejected, because her hope for the perfect master resulted in psychological and, perhaps, physical abuse.
"A male submissive gives his credit card to his mistress who racks up frivolous charges on American Express then sends the bill to his wife, and he’s in for a kind of punishment for which he had not bargained.
"This enslavement to an unreal vision can rend the personality in two – the part that believes what’s real (present) and the part that believes what’s unreal (past). This 'split' results in a failure to achieve a unitary vision of the self. The person harbors opposing and mutually exclusive goals, judgments, feelings and thoughts in different sectors of the personality. The mind of a woman who is a high-powered executive during the day and a meek submissive at night, if not housed in an integrated self, can begin to be exhibit paralyzing indecision and self-defeating compromises. Energy available for creative/productive endeavors is siphoned off, resulting in relationships without depth and in the participation in activities without zest. A sense of having an integrated sense of self is particularly critical for people who walk the line between the scene and vanilla worlds.
"In addition, if an individual is involved in a frantic search for aliveness through scenes, it’s possible that he/she is seeking to hide from feelings of inner deadness. If a sense of aliveness is achieved exclusively through scenes, the issues that give rise to this sense of inner emptiness can go unresolved and the rest of the person’s life can be negatively affected. Oddly enough, sometimes a person experiencing depression in the course of psychotherapy can be a positive development because it can mean he/she’s beginning to experience the inner emptiness they’ve been running away from."
SS: You have written, “Ritualized suffering seems to be a way of giving meaning and value to human infirmities.” I assume you mean the suffering a bottom feels in a scene. Can you say more about this?
D: "There seems to be no dearth of suffering in life. The pain of helplessness, disappointment, loss, powerlessness and limitation is a part of the human condition. It is my hunch that there is something like a universal need, wish or longing for surrender to the totality of life, including its more unpleasant aspects, common in the human psyche. Submission, losing oneself to the power of the other, becoming enslaved to the master, is the ever-available lookalike to surrender to the inevitabilities of living.
"The writer who has most influenced my thinking about the need to embrace the suffering of life is Carl Jung. Submissiveness can be imagined as cultivation of what Jung called the 'shadow' – the darker, mostly unconscious part of the psyche – which he regarded not as a sickness, but as an essential part of the human experience. The shadow is the tunnel, channel or connection through which one reaches the deepest, most elemental layers of psyche. Going through the tunnel, or breaking down the ego defenses, one feels reduced and degraded. Embracing the shadow provides a fuller sense of self-knowledge, self-acceptance and a fuller sense of being alive. The experience of the shadow is humiliating and frightening, but is a reduction to the fullness of life: to essential life, which includes suffering, pain, powerlessness and humiliation."
SS: What is a “sex addict” and what do you think that BDSM practitioners are “addicts” or are “sick?"
D: "I don’t presume that I have any kind of inside track on what’s 'perverse,' 'sick,' or 'addictive.' My approach does not include a unilateral diagnosis of what’s 'got to go' in a person’s behavioral repertoire and then ferreting out the causes and reasons of the behavior with the aim of eliminating these 'unwanted' sexual practices. The question of whether or not a sexual activity or behavior is an 'addiction' or 'sick' can’t easily be answered. 'Addiction' or 'sickness' is very much determined by the individual’s own inner subjective experience. The only thing that matters is whether the client experiences himself as sick and in need of help.
"One common definition of addiction is 'continued (compulsive) use despite adverse consequences.' Only the individual can determine what constitutes adverse consequences and whether or not one’s chosen erotic expression is rigid and compulsive.
"If I’m 'against' anything, I guess it would be compulsion – of any kind, really, even if it were only eating raw carrots. My own personal value system includes the belief that it is only the ability to choose that separates us from animals. Freedom is an important value to me, and I suppose I can’t help but pass that particular value system on to my patients. The importance of relatedness to others is another part of my personal value system that influences my work. Closeness to others is, to my view, part of the sweet fruit of living.
"That being said, I see a healthy sexuality as emanating from a healthy mind. A person who’s relatively free from compulsion and who’s open to identifying and empathizing with the needs and wants of others can’t help but have healthy, non-perverse sex.
SS: How would you define a sexual “compulsion” and how can a person get free of one?
D: "When a fantasy relocates a person into the world of his childhood for the purpose of mastering an historical conflict or traumatic relationship, the quality of his/her scenes will probably be rigid, fixed, imperative and not related to the wants/needs of present-day partners.
"If a person is unconsciously seeking reparation of a childhood relationship by looking for an idealized, omnipotent parent to replace the one who failed, or is seeking to control a person who couldn’t be controlled in his/her childhood, his/her scene serves symbolic, historical, and unconscious needs rather than real, present-day, conscious ones. These scenes often fail to satisfy; they merely trigger the recurrence of a need. The script, while it affords a temporary feeling of strength and self-esteem, has to be repeated again and again with rigid compulsivity because it doesn’t resolve problems within the self. While a 24/7 'Daddy/Little Girl' script may provide enormous satisfaction through meeting certain mutual needs, a 45-year-old woman isn’t really a four-year-old girl and must, ultimately, take care of herself in real life. The satisfactions that a real four-year-old girl gets from having a daddy who loves, nourishes and cares for her are similar but not the same as those that a 45-year old woman receives from her scene 'daddy.' If certain needs weren’t met back when, they’re gone forever and need to be mourned before the person is free to love the person’s who’s in front of her (rather than the historic one who’s behind her). People need to distinguish between role-play and reality.
"When the unconscious goal of sex is something unattainable (to get historical daddy to give her what she didn’t get), compulsion sets in and begins to take its toll. With its misery and desperation, its insatiable craving for that which can never be satisfied, the scene represents a goal that cannot be attained yet cannot be relinquished. The inevitable result of the failure to attain impossible goals is depression. The scene never quite satisfies.
"Such an individual may paradoxically have an impoverished sex/fantasy life. His erotic freedom is inhibited, limited by his mandatory, rigid script. Sex can only be imagined from one perspective.
"What’s needed is for the individual to be willing to undergo the hard work of personal healing. Emotional blockages and perceptual distortions need to be resolved, understood or transcended. As he learns to lessen unwanted self-states through psychological processes, rather than through resorting to compulsive behaviors, his scenes become less driven and less anxiety-ridden. With healing, the person can begin to re-invest energies into real relationships with real people, rather than continuing to populate his world with ghosts."
SS: How would you characterize your personal involvement in the scene?
"My relationships are a series of playful power-exchanges.
As for the 'role' I play, I try to pick up my cue from the dynamics
of the individual relationship. If I’m hot to spend time with someone
and that person wants to be a passenger, well, I have a license
and know how to drive. If someone is eager to be in the driver’s
seat, I’m happy to go along for the ride. As long as the quality
of the relating is good, the roles can be interchangeable at different
times and with different people."
Sensuous Sadie is a BDSM columnist and edits SCENEsubmissions, a free e-newsletter for the New England area and beyond. She is the founder and leader (1999 - 2001) of Rose & Thorn, Vermont's first BDSM group. Comments, compliments and complaints, as well as requests for reprinting can be addressed to her at SensuousSadie@aol.com or visit her website at www.sensuoussadie.com. Sadie believes that the universe is abundant, and that sharing information freely is part of this abundance, so she allows reprints of her writing in most venues.