As a graduate student in philosophy, I had to do a lot of reading. Most of it was pretty dry -Heidegger, Kant, Aristotle, etc. Then I took a seminar on Michel Foucault and things started to get interesting. Suddenly, I was reading about sex and power and discourse. It was fantastic! Plus, I had the perfect excuse to write a paper about S/M. So I did. What I learned was more than even I anticipated.

As a relative "newbie" in the world of BDSM, I knew that I would need some solid material to draw from. I found a great primer, Screw the Roses, Send me Thorns. It covered everything from the general tenets of BDSM interaction to specific techniques and a map of the best spots for flogging. I was all set on the kink side. Now I had to do some opposition research. My goal? To prove that the psychological community's condemnation of sadism and masochism was harmful and inherently flawed. (No problemo, right?)

In case you don't know, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM) is the penultimate resource in the field of psychology. The problem is, sexual sadism and sexual masochism are listed as "paraphilias" in the DSM. Although the latest DSM doesn't classify a paraphilia as a disorder in itself unless it "causes stress or impairment to the individual or harm to others," this still has enormous implications for BDSM practitioners and the BDSM community as a whole. After all, putting them in a mental health manual implies that there's something wrong with what they enjoy. In doing so, they're creating a bias not only among fellow practitioners, but in society.

So does a desire for a good spanking mean you're sick? I don't think so. Here's why.

PS: I use spanking as my go-to example here because it is the most common association when the average person thinks of BDSM. However, spanking is only a tiny facet of the world of BDSM play.

Safe, Sane, and Consensual: Would you like to be spanked?

Let’s begin with BDSM's most important tenet: Safe, sane, and consensual. These may seem like mere words, but much like the DSM for psychologists, they are sacrosanct in the BDSM community. A "scene" is what occurs between two or more adults who intend to engage in this type of erotic play. BDSM isn't just one person smacking another around; interactions typically begin with negotiation, where limits and preferences are discussed. Transgressing a partner’s limits without consent is not OK in the BDSM community. (Learn more in So, You Wanna Be a Dominant?)

Because BDSM often explores intense erotic interactions, it is necessary to ensure that all participants are of legal age to participate, that all limits are set in advance, and that there is an agreed-upon "safeword" in case the play becomes too intense. If either participant utters that word, all play stops immediately. There are even safe signals in the event that the partner wishing to stop is unable to vocalize the safeword, perhaps due to a gag.

Sounds pretty safe and sane, doesn't it? My point exactly. (For a more thorough overview of BDSM, I recommend An (Abridged) History of Kink.)

BDSM Biases: Wanting to be spanked? Why, that's just crazy!

Myths and biases about the BDSM community are pervasive throughout the mainstream mental health community and society at large. Such misconceptions have led much of the psychoanalytic community to pathologize BDSM. After all, it's easy to assume that a person who relishes a good spanking in a scene might not object to being smacked around in the supermarket. In reality, those who enjoy BDSM enjoy it within a specific context, like during a scene. These folks are not pain addicts. They are not insane. They do not need therapy or a cure. And, in most cases, they are not victims of abuse.

Sexologist Carol Queen wrote a fantastic article in the Journal of Women and Therapy offering a helpful critique of the DSM:

"While recently changed slightly, the DSM has historically viewed S/M as a pathological form of erotic behavior and has not differentiated issues of consent or community affiliation. It has not taken into account that the experience of being labeled pathological by a powerful establishment can itself be damaging to a client’s emotional well-being."

Psychoanalysis implements a type of social control by pathologizing BDSM. In other words, it subtly changes the way we perceive what is normal and abnormal. It also makes "normal" behavior something to strive for and "abnormal" behavior something to avoid - and even attempt to cure.

Does it really say that spanking makes me crazy?

Well, yes and no. In the DSM-IV-TR (which is the fourth edition of the DSM), sexual sadism and sexual masochism were listed as paraphilias. The DSM defines paraphilias as "recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or sexual behaviors … that occur over a period of at least six months…" Sound pretty vague? It is. Now admittedly, some of these concerns were addressed in the most recent publication, the DSM-V. The American Psychiatric Association website posted updates to the paraphilic disorders and actually said that "most people with atypical sexual interests do not have a mental disorder."

That's a start, but I still have a problem with that sentence: It uses the word "atypical." Although concessions were made in the DSM-V regarding BDSM, it still creates a context where BDSM is portrayed not as part of the grand spectrum of sexuality, but as behavior that's a little off, even abnormal.

Power Exchange: I Spank Tonight, You Spank Tomorrow

In her book Between the Body and the Flesh Lynda Hart writes that one way to look at practicing BDSM is as "doing sex" rather than "having sex." While those who do not practice BDSM typically do not give much thought to what they expect to occur in a given sexual encounter, BDSM scenarios are planned and negotiated before play begins. While the psychoanalytic community contends that these behaviors are problematic, I find them empowering for the participants.

Some critics of BDSM, like feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, claim that the power structures in BDSM relations are an oppressive manifestation of male domination and heteronormativity. What I think they fail to realize is that by performing sexuality rather than simply experiencing it, traditional power structures can be explored, reversed and changed within any given scene. Suddenly, I have the freedom to explore power dynamics as a giver or receiver of sensation. The best part is that it doesn't have to be forever - I can spank my partner, and later on in the scene, or the next play time, he or she can spank me.

Spanks for Everyone! (But Only If You Want 'Em)

So if BDSM is really safe, sane and consensual sex, shouldn't everyone be doing it? Not really. I don't think everyone should avoid it, but it isn't for everyone. Not because it's weird or abnormal, but for the same reason that pegging isn't for everyone, and sex toys aren't for everyone: Because really nothing in the world of sex is for everyone. These things can be awesome, they can add to our sexual experiences, but different people like different things, and that has to be OK.

When there's no consent or someone becomes so consumed by their chosen kink that they stop participating in daily life, they've crossed the line. That isn't just a BDSM problem - that could happen with anything, including straight up, plain vanilla sex. While the DSM-V has taken steps to reduce bias, I think there's still room for improvement. So let's not let the DSM be the last word on BDSM.

Oh, and if, after reading all of this, you've decided that you might just want to give this spanking thing a try, I recommend starting at the same place I did: Fetlife. There are groups on every conceivable kink and innumerable discussions ranging from how-tos for newbies to discussions about the philosophy and psychology of kink. Lots of valuable information to review. If you're more of a hands-on learner, find a partner who is willing to experiment with you and have a good long chat about things you want to try. Start slowly; there's always time to add more sensation or depth of experience. In fact, you can be as kinky as you want to be. Just remember, be safe and have fun!