Kink awareness exercise

Yesterday I ran my training session on kink/BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism) to a group of sex and relationship therapists and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to blog about the exercise I use in these sessions. Here it is so that you can have a go, yourself, if you like.

Would you be concerned or not if a friend [or a client if you are a practitioner] revealed taking part in this activity? Which are most concerning and why?

An individual gets a rush out of being put in terrifying situations which makes him scream and cry out in fear. He engages other people to put him in a special device which will result in these effects. When his time in the device is up, his face is white and he has tears in his eyes, but he begs them to let him go through it again.

A woman asks strangers to cause her extreme pain to her genital area. She does this regularly, as she feels more attractive following the painful session. Sometimes, she’ll even do it to herself. If it’s done right, no permanent harm results.

A small group of people arrange to meet in a private space in order to watch others role-playing being raped, humiliated and tortured. They find this an enjoyable way of spending their evening.

Two people arrange to take part in a public scene. They spend a great deal of time preparing separately in advance. On the night they dress for the occasion in clothes made of satin. Watched by a gathered group of people they strike each other. The scene is considered successful if one of them briefly loses consciousness. The beatings are so severe they can result in permanent damage.

A woman spends several hours preparing her appearance. She chooses from items of clothing on which she has spent several thousand pounds, all of which painfully restrict parts of her body, forcing it into an unnatural shape and making it impossible for her to function normally. Over an extended period of time she knows this will damage her permanently. However, she experiences great pleasure despite the pain.

As part of a group ritual a man consents to an event which he knows will be gruelling, although he doesn’t know exactly what will take place. During the event, among other things, he is put in an altered state of consciousness, stripped and left alone in public.

An individual gives his life over to his master. He won’t do anything that is disapproved of under to code of rules his master has set. He won’t allow himself to experience sexual satisfaction until he has undergone the procedures his master sets out as necessary, although he often finds himself in a state of arousal and wishes he could. He mostly spends time with other people who have also pledged themselves to the same master, although none of them has ever met him in person.


In training this exercise leads into a useful discussion about the kinds of lines we draw to delineate concerning from non-concerning, and acceptable from non-acceptable, sexual practices.

For example, when reflecting on the activities people found most concerning yesterday, some said that it was about whether it caused damage and whether that damage was permanent or temporary. Others delineated between harm caused to oneself or to another person. Some said that it made a difference how rare or common an activity was, or how extreme it seemed to be. For some the number of people involved played a part in their feelings on the activity, as did whether it was in the context of an existing relationship or with a stranger. People spoke about lines around illegal activities, and also around fantasy and reality. Others mentioned whether activities caused distress, and we got into a discussion about whether distress could be pleasurable or not.

Throughout the conversation people frequently mentioned whether activities were consented to by the people involved, and whether this was informed consent (for example, the group ritual caused concern because the participant didn’t know what he was consenting to and members of the public may not have consented).

Of course you may well have realised that there is another element to this exercise along with being a useful way into considering the lines we draw around sexual activities.

All of the activities listed are actually commonplace practices in mainstream culture. We have: a fairground ride, a bikini wax, watching a horror movie like Hostel or Saw (Basic Instinct was what I had in mind back when I wrote this), a boxing match, wearing high heeled shoes or a corset, a stag do/bachelor party, and the practices of many religious people.

Participants in the exercise often report that this revelation is very useful to them, because they have to re-evaluate what it was that they initially found concerning. It reveals that another line we often use – whether consciously or not – is whether an activity is sexual or not, and we can question why that is regarded as so vital.

The exercise also highlights how much more difficulty people tend to have with activities that are culturally non-normative or stigmatised than those that are culturally accepted. Participants start to ask themselves whether they were really so concerned about damage, distress or consent if they suddenly find that their concern disappears when they realise what the activities really are.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that many of the activities mentioned are far more risky and non-consensual than the many of the most common kink activities (spanking and bondage, for example). In the training session we go on to explore the evidence against various common myths about kink being inherently dangerous, pathological and abusive.

I wrote this exercise around a decade ago and it seems to remain helpful to the people I train on these issues. Please feel free to take it and use it yourself if you work in this area.

Further resources:

There’s much more on this topic in my book The Psychology of Sex.

There’s a whole up-to-date chapter on BDSM for therapists and other practitioners in this book:

Richards, C. & Barker. M. (2013). Gender and sexuality for mental health professionals: A practical guide. London: Sage.

There’s a great paper on this topic available online here:

Connan, S. (2010). A kink in the process. Therapy Today, 6 (21). 

This is a really good book on kink more broadly:

Taormino, T. (Ed.) (2012). The ultimate guide to kink: BDSM, role play and the erotic edge. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press.

Useful online links and resources are available here:


Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).