facebook twitter RSS
HOT TOPICS: Alcoholism  Addiction  AA  Cocaine  Heroin

Kinky, Sober and Free: BDSM in Recovery

Being abstinent from drugs and alcohol doesn't mean forsaking fun. A thriving community testifies that kink and sobriety go together like a fist in a leather glove.

Image: 

Adult drinks are optional. Art: Tony Millionaire

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

04/17/13

| Share

What's the link between BDSM—the catchall term for bondage, discipline, domination/ submission, sadism and masochism—and sobriety?

Can you be clean and sober and still engage kinkily? For those who identify as clean and kink-friendly, the answer is a resounding "Yes, please (may I have another?)." The connection is being borne out as supportive communities of like-minded people are springing up around the country.

The issue goes beyond physical safety; as one woman told me, "who wants to be flogged by a drunk guy?" While a number of interviewees reported they have attended play parties—often in private homes—where alcohol and drugs abound, most organized play parties frown on, or explicitly forbid, such substances and often turn away players who show up intoxicated. (This is also a common complaint of professional dominatrices, who often have to turn away drunks.)

Mollena Williams—a BDSM educator and the co-author of the guidebook Playing Well with Othersfounded San Francisco's Safeword, which offers a "12-Step modeled approach to recovery for kink-identified people." She began the group in 2007 in response to her lukewarm reception at traditional AA meetings. She recalled that her tastes were considered to be incompatible with her sobriety: "People are often ready to attribute your desires to do kink or BDSM as part of your addiction." She added that many 12-steppers "equated that high you experience within a scene as a result of a dry drunk. I was accused of substituting one drink for another. They didn't see that for me Kink and Leather were the last bastions of my sobriety!"

I do not choose to be in an enclosed space where an intoxicated individual is swinging a six-foot bullwhip.

The majority of interviewees emphasized the positive effect BDSM has had on their sobriety, going far beyond the realm of the dungeon or kinky world. Theener, a 35-year-old New Yorker who's been kinky since she got a birthday spanking in 2004, feels like she had to "learn how to be kinky all over again" after getting sober in 2008.

"You have to learn how to have fun without alcohol and drugs being the center of your fun," she said. "When I wasn't sober, I wasn't interested in spaces like [S&M club] Paddles and [support and information group] Lesbian Sex Mafia meetings because there wasn't booze. I had to appreciate later that those places were alcohol free."

Theener makes an explicit link between how BDSM and sobriety work together in her life. "I describe myself as having a dopamine problem; one of the things that's been integral with me in sobriety is figuring out healthy ways to experience adrenaline creating activities," she said. "BDSM is a way that I can get all the chemicals in my brain revving and it keeps me busy and learning. It's somewhat risky but because it's surrounded on all sides by boundaries and negotiations, it's a safe way of engaging in some risky behavior that's helpful in my sobriety."

Jonathan, 35, of Brooklyn, got into kink after sobering up. He found that exploring BDSM "dovetailed nicely" with a 12-step program. "The thing that surprised me and made me really happy when I started to explore this world is how healthy and sane the people are," he said. "From the outside you'd think BDSM freaks would be damaged misfit toys—and there are those people—but there's also a community of people who are very aware of who they are, very aware of the boundaries and of the consequences of their actions."

Similarly, Jackson, 36, of San Francisco, sought out the kink scene specifically as a way of coping with sobriety. "Part of my motivation for exploring play parties is because after I lost my favorite means for medicating my social anxiety, it became much more difficult to navigate daily, run of the mill interactions," he said. "I figured the one place where everyone would be both open minded and accepting of awkwardness would be a pansexual play party space. It offers a respite from shame, guilt and judgment. The party I frequent, Mission Control, is not a sober space, but I'm comfortable around alcohol at bars so it isn't a problem."


As BDSM has become more and more mainstream over the years, the resources for sober kink have also increased. The kink-centric networking site FetLife has a "clean and sober pervs discussion group" where posters can seek local sponsors, list sobriety dates and, of course, hook up. Recovery in the Lifestyle is a fellowship of BDSM lifestyle people who are in recovery—or would like to be—and serves as a hub for those looking to find meetings or start them. Kink Aware Professionals List, put out by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, is a directory that can provide you with a kink friendly therapist. Even Princeton University's newly formed BDSM/kink support group PINS (Princeton in the Nation's Service) has a strict no alcohol policy. And if you are put off by the style of Fifty Shades of GreyKinked Sober is a terrific—and free—Story of O-type e-book with a sober twist, by the very anonymous sounding Lauren L. 

Practitioners still have to be wary, however. "The flip side," warned Jonathan, "is that a lot of people in recovery have also had problems with sex addiction. Any substance or behavior can be abused. If you want to explore your desires, how do you do it in a way that is healthy and doesn't start to tip into compulsive behavior?"

Williams proclaimed that kinky and sober people are "fortunate" in another respect. Alcohol and drugs are "pretty much a non issue in the majority of BDSM spaces, in contrast to the time when bars were the primary meeting place for the leather community. Kink space is, more often than not, sober space." Given that sensory play offers its own high, she insists, alcohol and drugs become less relevant. She added that many of the kink, leather and BDSM conferences "even have their own recovery meetings slated into the event schedule, and if they don't, will usually give up free space for such gatherings."

Theener found one such meeting on the agenda at South Plains Leatherfest, an annual Dallas weekend event, and calls it one of the best meetings she's ever attended. "I had no idea there was going to be sober support there at all, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a 12 step meeting on the agenda," she said. She had been planning to seek out an outside meeting, so this space was especially welcoming.

Others have had differing experiences. Paola, 35, of New York, who's been openly kinky since 2005 and sober since 2006, is partnered with another sober kinky person, but hasn't found the scene as welcoming. "I wouldn't say the BDSM world is not supportive to sober kinksters. I just think that the BDSM world doesn't go out of its way to think of events for us or to keep us in mind when planning. Most of the sober kink events are boring and unimaginative. It seems like in the kinky world a sober space/event is synonymous with 'not any fun.'"

For Paola, this lack of fun was not about danger so much as the lack of action. "Workshops!" she declared. "I love learning, but after a while you want to get together to play." She cited events and spaces such as Paddles in New York. "I love that this space is available," she said, "but it has to be one of the cheesiest and most boring BDSM venues in the city. The price is just not worth going there to play. The fun events there tend to be private ones that do have alcohol." Ouch.

For those thinking of exploring BDSM, before jumping headfirst into play parties, Theener recommends attending casual, non-sexual gatherings called "munches," where "you can meet up with people in their normal clothes at a diner and everybody can get to know each other. It's a low pressure environment and reminds me of fellowship after an AA meeting." Look up your city and "BDSM munch" to find one near you.

If you decide you are ready to negotiate some play, "Justine," an anonymous 28-year-old San Franciscan who's been sober since 2006 and involved in BDSM since 2008, offers some hard won advice: "If you are negotiating play with someone, be sure to specifically bring up intoxicant use. While it is generally frowned upon in the wider kink scene to engage in SM while totally inebriated, many people do participate in various forms of kink while using, and one cannot assume anything about a potential partner’s habits."

Paola's advice for newbies? "Ask a lot of questions! You may think a potential play partner is sober but they may have a different definition. I've experienced folks who are 'sober' but still smoke pot or do ecstasy. Be very clear about any parties you go to and what drugs/alcohol will be there. A lot of people assume you will be fine playing with inebriated folks. Stand up for yourself and be clear that is not what you are looking for."

Williams warned, "Be aware that there are some places where alcohol is a central feature to the play. Some fetish nights are so booze fueled, it can feel risky to be there—not in terms of your sobriety being at risk, but in terms of your actual physical safety being compromised. I do not choose to be in an enclosed space where an intoxicated individual is swinging a six-foot bullwhip, or a drunk bottom is flailing around the dungeon wearing stainless steel manacles. Be who you are! Be proud to be sober, and don’t compromise your sobriety or integrity for anyone. Ever."

Rachel Kramer Bussel, a Fix regular, has edited over 40 anthologies, including Cheeky Spanking Stories; Spanked; Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission; and the Best Bondage Erotica and Best Sex Writing series. She writes about sex, dating and culture and blogs at Lusty Lady and Cupcakes Take the Cake. She most recently wrote about Glennon Doyle Melton for The Fix.

Home page photo via Shutterstock.

Rehabilitation Directories

Most Popular
The Rehab Review
Cliffside Malibu
 
 
 
 

The “beach-house-relaxed” Cliffside Malibu claims to provide an oasis for recovering addicts and alcoholics. And that’s just what you'll get—if you’ve got the cash.

Morningside Recovery
 
 
 
 

For a “rehab near the beach” experience that isn’t quite as costly as similar SoCal competitors, head to this Newport Beach treatment facility.

AToN Center
 
 
 
 

Whether you’re interested in the 12 Steps, SMART Recovery, or holistic treatments, this luxurious, appealing and commendable 4.5 star (our system doesn't yet show the 1/2 star) San Diego rehab has a program for you. 

Reflections
 
 
 
 

This exclusive Northern California rehab is all about client choice—as well as golf outings, Buddhist field trips and keeping up with the office.

Capo By The Sea
 
 
 
 

Capo By The Sea offers an executive rehab program complete with medical detox and a focus on dual-diagnosis issues, as well as an outpatient option in an environment that exudes the kind of beach house optimism one would expect from an Orange County recovery outfit.

Journey Malibu
 
 
 
 

Want many of the luxury amenities A-listers have come to expect—including an enormous backyard with a pool and patio, an herb garden, a volleyball net and a spectacular vista of the Santa Monica mountains—with a recovery program to match?

The Ultimate Guide to Rehab
 
 
 
 
 

What you need to know when choosing an addiction treatment center.

the fix tv