The article Sex & Psychedelics: Altering Our States of Consciousness was originally published on Microdose.
BDSM, not unlike psychedelics, can facilitate an altered state of consciousness
Philosopher Alan Watts wrote: ‘Ego is a social institution with no physical reality. The ego is simply your symbol of yourself. Just as the word “water” is a noise that symbolizes a certain liquid without being it, so too the idea of ego symbolizes the role you play, who you are, but it is not the same as your living organism.’
Of all the effects of psychedelics, none is more sought after than ‘ego dissolution’ or more dramatically ‘ego death’ – a glimpse, perhaps, at the living organism outside of the role and as part of the whole. Dr. Carl Jung speaks of the life process as being “the relocation of the center of gravity of the personality from the ego to the Self.” It can be destabilizing to realize that one is no longer the center of the universe (ego), and rather, part of the universe; and that our life serves what a Christian might call God or one of the many other words we use to indicate that we have come in contact with something greater than “I.”
Another way of putting it, written by Chris Letheby and Philip Gerrans in ‘Self unbound: ego dissolution in psychedelic experience,’ published in Neuroscience of Consciousness is that “users of psychedelic drugs often report that their sense of being ‘I’, distinct from the rest of the world ‘out there,’ is weakened, altered, or abolished,”
They go on to say that even when the ego is “not felt to dissolve altogether, the contents of consciousness are less filtered through considerations of self-relevance than is usual. Ego dissolution experiences are on a continuum with, and susceptible to the same kind of explanation as, less dramatic experiences which may not be described as ‘ego dissolution.’”
One “less dramatic” way that some people experience an altered state of consciousness — “subjective alterations of ordinary mental functioning — is engaging in bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM), including extreme rituals such as body-piercing and fire-walking. “The role you play, who you are,” as Watts said, is temporarily suspended through these activities.
In a study of 14 randomly assigned and experienced BDSM practitioners to the bottom role (the person who is bound, receiving stimulation, or following orders) or the top role (the person providing stimulation, orders, or structure), researchers found that topping was associated with an altered state aligned with Csikszentmihalyi’s (1991) flow (measured with the Flow State Scale), and bottoming was associated with an altered state aligned with Dietrich’s (2003) transient hypofrontality (measured with a Stroop test).
In other words: BDSM facilitates role-specific altered states of consciousness. The Dom(me) enters a state of flow conducive to optimal experiences achieved through mental focus; the submissive (“sub”), experiences flow expressed as time-distortion, floating, and decreased awareness of pain.
Additional results from the preliminary study suggest that in addition to BDSM activities increasing sexual arousal, it was used as serious leisure, as a method of increasing eroticism (Ortmann & Sprott, 2013), and as a common interest around which meaningful communities develop.
Consistent with this, interviewees in a 2015 study of BDSM, practitioners identified psychological release as one of the benefits of BDSM. It became a method of temporarily escaping the burdens of selfhood.
If you thought, “well clearly these kinky people are mentally ill,” up until 2010, by definition you’d be right. Your accusation could have legal repercussions, such as their children being removed from their custody, or personal calamities like getting fired or being publicly branded a deviant — all because they chose to engage in (consensual) sexual behaviors outside the mainstream. Homosexuality, let’s not forget, was considered a mental illness — a “sociopathic personality disturbance”— until 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) changed the language.
Psychedelic research, too — which came to a grinding halt after “the hippie counterculture led to socio-political controversy, culminating in the virtual cessation of human psychedelic research for some decades” — is being reintroduced into the public sphere, a renaissance led by scientists, entrepreneurs, and C-suites alike.
When the APA changed its diagnostic codes for BDSM, the new guidelines marked a distinction between “people expressing a healthy range of human sexuality (for example, a couple that likes to experiment, consensually, with whips, chains, and dungeons) and people who seek to genuinely cause harm (for example, tying and whipping someone in a basement without their consent).”
BDSM is not supposed to psychologically harm someone, nor is it a catch-all lifestyle for people with a history of abuse or trauma, as is often assumed.
“If someone has trauma and would like to consciously explore healing through a kink/BDSM experience, they must have a contract and agreements with the other party/parties,” says Dr. Denise Renye, writing for The Chacruna Institute of Psychedelic Plant Medicines.“When there is trust, the space they enter into becomes sacred and, in sacred space, a plethora of healing opportunities abound.”
In much the same way that people choose to explore psychedelics for different reasons, they might also choose to go deep or dabble in BDSM as a somatic experience. Set and setting, intention, a trusted guide, and aftercare are key components of integrating a BDSM scene or psychedelic trip — or both simultaneously — in a way that is conducive to personal growth and psychological safety. (That is not to say that there won’t be challenges, but there must be safety). When the body knows it’s safe, it can reveal a truth with striking clarity.
Renye goes on to say that BDSM activities can feel psychedelic without incorporating psychedelics: “Kink/BDSM doesn’t necessarily involve a mind-altering substance, but it too can have a transcendent edge to explore and go beyond if the frame/container of the kink/BDSM play is well-established and maintained. The play itself and the connection between or among the partners is the medicine. Both offer the possibility of an alternative state of consciousness and should be deeply honored.”
As recently discussed on Dr. Mike Hart’s podcast between Dr. Tatiana Zdyb and myself, bondage, being gagged, or other forms of diminished personal power can encourage an opportunity to go inward. Should someone’s body remember a traumatic event, they have ultimate control to stop “the scene” or play it out differently. Repetitive pain (without permanent harm or damage) can bring awareness to the body in new and surprising ways. Submission, unlike the general assumption that it’s a state of powerlessness, is actually about acknowledging the power you do have and willingly choosing to give it to the one in the dominant state. Psychologically, “subspace” or “Domspace” allow both people to experience an altered state of consciousness by relinquishing their hold on who they are and stepping into a role where they are unencumbered by the ego.
“Ego dissolution experiences often occur when the ordinary sense of self is replaced by a sense of union with an ultimate reality underlying all of manifest existence—the famous ‘cosmic consciousness’ experience,” writes Letheby and Gerrans. BDMS, much like psychedelics, can offer the benefit of momentarily “losing yourself” to find Self, in the Jungian sense.
Sources without links:
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Ortmann, D. M., & Sprott, R. A. (2013). Sexual outsiders: Understanding BDSM sexualities and communities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.