Stefani Goerlich on Becoming a Kink-Affirming Therapist

Stefani Goerlich on Becoming a Kink-Affirming Therapist

by Lawrence Rubin
Becoming a kink-affirming therapist is critical to practicing in a diverse clinical arena.

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Defining Our Terms

Lawrence Rubin: Hi, Stefani. Thank you for joining me today. I’m just going to get right into it and ask you—especially for those readers who may not be fully aware—what is kink?
Stefani Goerlich:
kink is nonnormative sexual and relational expression
Kink is a very broad term, but at its most basic, simply means any sort of sexual or relational expression that falls outside of the social norm or mainstream for the people who are engaging in it. What is normal, obviously, varies from culture to culture. But kink is nonnormative sexual and relational expression.
LR: Are there certain standards for normative sexual behavior across cultures that make a place for kink?
SG: When it comes to relational models, polyamory versus monogamy here in the States for example, polyamory is considered a form of kink expression. They’re often sort of rolled in together. But if you go into parts of Europe or the Middle East, polyamory is a cultural norm. On the other hand, things like sadomasochism and sensory exchange tend to be considered somewhat atypical across the board. So there are some things that lend themselves more towards universal kinks and others that are much more culturally contextualized.
LR: For some of our readers unfamiliar with these terms, what are “sadomasochism” and “sensory exchange?”
SG: Within kink, most of what people talk about is BDSM, which actually encompasses several different, smaller sorts of acronyms. It’s a multipurpose concept that includes bondage and discipline, which is an exchange of control. Usually this means control of movement, control of behavior. Then, there’s DS—dominance and submission—which I explain as an exchange of authority between the partners. This may or may not include control of behavior. But often, authority involves decision making sort of power. S&M is sadism and masochism, which we as clinicians think about as pain, giving and receiving pain.

But pain is a very subjective term and varies widely based on the individual. When I’m training other professionals, I talk about sadism and masochism as the exchange of intense sensation. So, within kink relationships, we’ll have one or more of those three—an exchange of control, an exchange of authority, or an exchange of sensation.
LR: So, that exchange of sensation does not necessarily include sexual sensation—direct stimulation of the genitals, which is only one subset of sensory exchange or pain?
SG:
We tend to assume that kink is sexual. But kink, in its most basic, is relational
Absolutely. That’s actually true for all three. We tend to assume that kink is sexual. But kink, in its most basic, is relational. Kink can sometimes be sexual in how it’s expressed. But ultimately, it is a relational form. So you’re right that the exchange of sensation might never involve sexual contact. It could be temperature. It could be impact. It could be electrostimulation. There’s a wide variety of sensations that can be exchanged that never involve removing one’s clothing.

50 Shades of Confusion

LR: How has American pop culture impacted consumers’ (therapists included) understanding of BDSM?
SG:
I think that pop culture has definitely sexualized BDSM
I think that pop culture has definitely sexualized BDSM, but I also think that is true historically. I’m working on a new conference talk and potentially a new journal article that looks at 500 years of how BDSM practices have been portrayed in popular media. And they’ve often been conflated with deviant sexual behavior regardless of whether the people engaging in kink view it as sexual. So that lends itself to this perpetuation of kink stigma. We typically see BDSM signals or cues, like leather or somebody wearing a collar, and immediately sexualize those in a way that they perhaps might not mean for themselves and their relationship.
LR: I go immediately to my only pop culture experience with BDSM, 50 Shades of Grey. Given that therapists are certainly part of the consuming public, did the movie and book help or undermine our understanding of BDSM?
SG:
Unfortunately, the actual relationship the 50 Shades books portray is incredibly abusive
I’m deeply conflicted. I have a conference talk that I offer—or, now, in COVID times, a webinar—called “Kink Affirming Practice: What Your Clients Wish You Knew but Are Afraid You’ll Ask.” And I noticed that my rooms started becoming much fuller after the 50 Shades book and then the movie came out.

On one hand, E. L. James did a great job of bringing kink dynamics into the mainstream, where soccer moms, housewives, and school teachers were reading about this kind of relationship. It was no longer the secreted experience of buying the pulp novel from behind the counter at the adult bookstore. So from that perspective, it was fabulous.

Unfortunately, the actual relationship the 50 Shades books portray is incredibly abusive. It is not a healthy model of kink. And in fact, the only time I mention it in my intro talk is as a case example where I walk people through a case study and offer a few different scenarios. I then ask the participants to tell me if the various scenarios represent consensual kink or domestic violence. At the end, I ask them if they recognize my case study, which is 50 Shades. So, it’s done wonders for normalizing conversations about and knowledge of BDSM. But I think it’s done a lot of harm in terms of how people understand BDSM relationships to actually be.
LR: So 50 Shades sort of limited our understanding of BDSM by grabbing our focus and making it sexual and, as a result, the line that separates BDSM from intimate partner violence was blurred.
SG: And its normalized dominance as a form of coercion, as opposed to dominance as a gift that the submissive gives to their partner.
LR: This may seem like a weird analogy, but when the movie 101 Dalmatians first came out, the breeders were going wild breeding dalmatians. And around Halloween, black cats are oversold and many later abandoned or abused. Did 50 Shades of Gray drive people to the therapists’ office, partners wanting to experiment and their partners not being open to it? Did it increase your practice?
SG: I saw an increase in my conversations with members of the BDSM community who expressed frustration with an influx of people who had read these books and had decided that they wanted to explore kink, but who were coming into it with this unhealthy understanding of what kink should look like. And so a lot of my already kinky clients were very, very frustrated and upset with the sort of change in the zeitgeist of the community, and the way new dominants were expecting submissives to respond or were expecting behaviors to be okay that are not. And newly-identified people who wanted to explore their submissive side seeking out really unhealthy dynamics because they weren’t clear on what healthy kink looks like. So what I saw in my practice was long-time kinksters being very frustrated with the sort of new people that 50 Shades brought into that world.
LR: And I wonder if it also resulted in an influx of clients with already very disturbed patterns of relationships who now wanted to incorporate kink without having a sound, healthy relational foundation. I’d imagine that there needs to be a reasonably healthy pattern of communication and awareness of power dynamics before adding in kink.
SG:
the problem is when people who have never identified as kinky before start to take on a BDSM identity as a way to rationalize or contextualize their already problematic behavior
Absolutely! I think that in general, there is a lot that the BDSM community can teach the vanilla world about negotiation, about consent, about communication, about after-care. But the problem is when people who have never identified as kinky before start to take on a BDSM identity as a way to rationalize or contextualize their already problematic behavior.

When somebody who has struggled to form relationships because they have abusive patterns now decides, “Well, I’m a dominant and so the way I have a relationship with a partner who won’t leave me is to find a partner who likes being mistreated.” That sort of mindset misunderstands what it means to be submissive and also misunderstands what it means to be dominant.
LR: So this kind of person might say, “All these years, the people I’ve dated have called me abusive, but I’m really not. I’m just a dominant. And they’re not understanding. So, I need to find just the right submissive.”
SG: Exactly.

Kink-Affirming Practice

LR: Shifting gears a bit here, Stefani, what exactly is kink-affirming clinical practice?
SG:
Kink-affirming practice understands that kink is its own distinct subculture, with strengths and resources and things that we can use in clinical work with our clients
Kink-affirming practice is the understanding that kink is not just something that we need to know about. Most clinicians that I encounter will say that they are kink-aware. They know what BDSM stands for. They have a general understanding of the idea of kink. But that’s about where their knowledge ends. Kink-affirming practice understands that kink is its own distinct subculture, with strengths and resources and things that we can use in clinical work with our clients, and that we can leverage their kink identities in our treatment planning, in our intervention strategies, and really work with that in the same way that we would use any other aspect of our clients’ identities. So it’s taking it beyond “I understand this” and moving it into “This is a key part of your identity. And we are going to weave this into our work.”
LR: Just as a clinician working with any client is interested in tapping into their resources, you’re saying that a kink-aware therapist uses the person’s kink identity as potential for resources. Can you give me an example of what kind of resources for healthy relationships kink clients bring to you as a therapist?
SG: Sure, but I want to clarify—that’s what I mean when I say, “kink-affirming.” Kink aware therapists understand what kink is, but they might not necessarily have a structure for using that in their work with their clients. They just know enough about it to not cause harm or to stigmatize their clients for being kinky.

In kink-affirming practice, we would look at the use of protocols and rituals to enhance the work that we’re doing with clients perhaps with a trauma history or with a rejection dysphoria. Working daily protocols with their partner into their treatment planning can be really positive for them. If we’re working with somebody with disordered eating, for example, working with their partner—their dominant partner—to help establish rules around that so that they have accountability in their relationship in a way that doesn’t feel focused on their eating but becomes an act of service to complete a meal, can be a really healthy reframing for them.

Another great example for a dominant partner would be—I had a client who struggled with their own med management, blood pressure medication in this case. But they were very busy, and because it wasn’t a huge priority for them, their health was compromised. So we actually worked together to make it an act of service for their partner to remind them of their meds. It became, “Sir, it’s 6:00. It’s time for you to take your medication.” In another context, or one that was not kink-affirming, this reminder could have felt bossy or nagging, controlling. But we played to the strengths of their dynamic and made it something that felt like service to them. Both of these examples reflect a DS context.
LR: These two scenarios are perfect examples of how kink and BDSM are not necessarily about sexual gratification, sexual stimulation, or sexual experiences. It’s about a relational process. One aspect of which might be sexual. You brought up trauma, which is a whole other area. But it made me wonder if it might be a dog whistle to a kink-unaware or non-kink-affirming therapists to search for trauma in the history of these folks who bring their kink identities or practices into therapy?
SG:
One of the biggest misconceptions and biases is that people who identify as kinky are kinky because they have a trauma history
One of the biggest misconceptions and biases is that people who identify as kinky are kinky because they have a trauma history. Actually, when you look at the research and the data, it’s fascinating because people who identify as kinky do not have—they don’t report a trauma history any more than the general population. So trauma within the kink community is on par with trauma in the general community. Where we see a difference is that people within the kink community tend to report higher rates of PTSD than vanilla people. And what that tells me is that you don’t necessarily have more traumatized people who identify as kinky. But what you have is a group of people who have found an outlet and a cathartic modality that works for them who are then coming to kink as a way to further their own healing. So, I can understand why on the surface if you’re working with a heavy population of PTSD, you might make that corollary that, oh, kink is more prevalent in people with trauma. That’s statistically not true. But more likely, people with PTSD may be using kink as an outlet to process those feelings.
LR: What do you mean in your book when you say that consensual BDSM for trauma survivors can be an effective way of processing trauma memories?
SG:
Kink is not, in and of itself, therapy
I want to be really clear. We don’t have enough evidence to say that BDSM play is an intervention. We have some people who are doing that research. But we’re not there yet. Kink is not, in and of itself, therapy. But my background is with sexual assault and trauma survivors, and for a lot of people who have had their control taken away, who have been in situations where they have lost agency, lost autonomy, literally lost physical control over their bodies and their voices, kink can be very powerful. Being able to put themselves in a situation where they can say, “These are my limits. This is what I want. This is what I don’t,” to know with absolute certainty that if they say stop, things will stop. It can be very, very healing to put themselves in situations that offer similar sensory experiences to their trauma in a controlled, safe setting. So it works almost similarly to exposure therapy with a phobia. But it’s self-directed and self-controlled.
LR: When you talk about the healing potential of kink, I think about people who have had chronic health conditions or who have had to undergo medical procedures that have involved involuntary intense pain or submission to painful procedures.
SG:
illness and medical trauma can often be supported and processed through the use of intentional sensory experiences like BDSM
Emma Sheppard is doing some phenomenal work around using kink as an outlet for chronic pain treatment and using intentional chosen pain to offset and to recontextualize pain that perhaps we don’t choose. I know Lee Phillips, in Virginia, does a lot of work around chronic illness and BDSM. So there is a growing sort of small but strong number of voices working on exactly that—on recognizing that illness and medical trauma can often be supported and processed through the use of intentional sensory experiences like BDSM.
LR: If there’s anything I want the readers to take from this interview, it is the importance of that simple finding from research and practice that BDSM and kink in general are not necessarily about sexual gratification, which was the misconception you mentioned earlier. Are there other kink-related myths and misconceptions?
SG: I think there are a number. One of the big ones that I encounter is the idea that people who identify as sadists are intentionally or are diagnostically problematic and that we need to be vigilant around these sadistic clients because they are more likely to be offenders who are sublimating this violent urge into their relationships. Which, on one hand, if that is true for a given client, I would argue that’s exactly what we want them to be doing.

If they have a consenting partner who enjoys receiving the kind of aggressive sensation they want to be giving out, then, yay, we all win, and nobody’s consent is being violated. But we also need to recognize that there is such a thing as prosocial sadism—people who enjoy evoking these reactions in willing people who, in turn, enjoy receiving these sensations. We need to be mindful as clinicians to not assume deeper social or psychological implications here simply because our clients enjoy giving or receiving these intense sensations.
LR: I know that as a clinician, you’re also a certified sex therapist, so would assume that some clients seek you out for sex-therapy related issues, and others do not. What are some of the main concerns that clients bring to you?
SG:
people that perhaps are kink-unaware or kink-uninformed rush to assume that you’re kinky because you’re depressed, or you’re depressed because you’re kinky
I would say that even within my general mental health clients, a sizable number of them come to me because they know that they are kinky and depressed or and anxious or considering divorce. They want to work with somebody who is not going to tie threads that don’t need to be tied. So often—and this comes back to the question you asked about myths—people that perhaps are kink-unaware or kink-uninformed rush to assume that you’re kinky because you’re depressed, or you’re depressed because you’re kinky, or you’re anxious because you’re kinky, or you want to get divorced. Sometimes my clients just need a clinician who understands the way they like to have relationships or the way that they like to have sex, and that this is not necessarily connected with their mental health issues.

Another good chunk of my practice is people who are experiencing desire discrepancy between themselves and their partners, mismatched fetish interests, mismatched kink dynamic interests. I’m starting to look at those sorts of cases more as a mixed-orientation marriage than as a libido issue, because when we look at things as a desire-libido issue, we’re operating from the assumption that one person’s libido needs to be adjusted. When instead we look at it as a mixed-orientation relationship, neither person is wrong. Neither person needs to be fixed or corrected or medicated. We simply need to find the Venn-connection between their common erotic maps. So helping these couples through a mixed-orientation framework has become a big part of my practice.

And the last group is couples and individuals who are newly aware of or newly willing to discuss their interest in kink or polyamory. They’re coming to me for guidance and for a place to talk through and process these new ideas and new experiences as they start to enter into those initial sort of explorations and community engagements.
LR: So a kink-unaware therapist or a therapist who might be conflicted around their own sexuality or relational dynamics might be predisposed to see a red light flashing over the head of a client when kink comes into the room, rather than sort of hold it as just one of the other elements of the person’s identity.
SG: Exactly. There’s also just the resource knowledge. If we have a client who’s struggling with a substance use issue, if we have somebody that’s perhaps overusing alcohol, we can—most of us—have a conversation around several different treatment options for them. We can talk about AA versus Smart Recovery versus Dharma Recovery. We can talk about intensive outpatient versus going to rehab. But if you’re not kink aware or kink affirming, and a client comes to you and says, “I really want to explore this side of me and I don’t know where to start,” most of us are totally unprepared to talk about what conferences are best for somebody who’s curious about pet play versus age play versus BDSM, where somebody can go for educational content without an expectation that there’s going to be any sort of public play component versus somebody who’s interested in polyamory but maybe not swinging. Those are resources our kinky clients need to have access to. And as clinicians, we need to be able to have those conversations with them in the same way we would about any other community resource.
LR: Might there be a profile of the clinician who might be more susceptible to countertransferential responses to a kink client—a kink-practicing client?
SG:
The clinician who is more philosophically conservative and wedded to the sex addiction model is more likely to struggle when working with kinky clients and to pathologize BDSM and kink
I don’t know if I could say there’s an evidence-based profile. I can tell you anecdotally what I’ve encountered. The clinician who is more philosophically conservative and wedded to the sex addiction model is more likely they are to struggle when working with kinky clients and to pathologize BDSM and kink. I have several local colleagues who have told me, verbatim, that I’m the one they send the weird sex stuff to, which is fascinating because the weird sex stuff they send me tends to be masturbation.
LR: Oh, my! Blindness next, right?
SG: I mean I have a lot of conversations with referrals who are sent to me because they’re told they have very problematic sexual behavior. In their intakes, I’m like, “You are well within the margins of normal. Nothing you are telling me is at all concerning to me.” And I’m not saying that as a kink-affirming clinician. I am saying that just as a sex therapist.
LR: One of the things our readers will not be able to appreciate unless they look you up is that you have pink hair, you’re sitting in a pink chair with a statue of Wonder Woman next to you, and that behind you is a beautifully colored floral wreath. I don’t know if it’s macramé.
SG: Embroidered lace I brought back from Romania as we were fleeing Europe ahead of COVID.
LR: So I wonder if a therapist who is not as comfortable in displaying themselves as freely as you or who is struggling in their own relationships is going to have much more difficulty accepting kink clients.
SG:
I try very hard to be very cheerful, very colorful, very approachable, so that I don’t look like what people picture when they picture a kink specialist therapist
It’s interesting that you bring up sort of the color palette of things. Because one of the things I very intentionally try to do in my practice is to be very approachable to avoid that sort of black metal, sleek chrome look—I don’t want my office to look like a dungeon space. I want to look friendly and cheerful and approachable, partly because it’s so important to me to normalize these relationships for my clients, for my colleagues. And a huge part of that is looking normal in the work that I do. I mean the pink hair, I suppose, is maybe a little bit atypical. But I try very hard to be very cheerful, very colorful, very approachable, so that I don’t look like what people picture when they picture a kink specialist therapist.
LR: I wonder if clients who are on the verge of experimenting with or beginning to wonder what kink is, and who approach a therapist who is not particularly approachable—if the relationship will not work.
SG: I will say that every single year, I ask my accountant if I can write my hair dye off as a marketing expense because I hear from so many people that I look friendly and like somebody they could talk to because I had pink hair.
LR: Stefani, I’m going to be presumptuous here and say that I think you need to explore the power dynamics with your accountant. Perhaps you should be telling your accountant what is to be written off and push your accountant into a submissive position when it comes to that. A practice-what-you-preach sort of thing. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.
SG: I’ll let her know you said so.
LR: Is the therapist who has not practiced kink at any level capable of working with a client who either is kink practicing or contemplating kink practice or experimentation?
SG:
I don’t think it’s fair to ask our clients to pay us to use their therapeutic hour to teach us what we need to know to do the work with them
I think so. I think that, in the same way that I don’t necessarily have to be gay to work with a gay male couple, I simply need to be willing to educate myself and empathize with them and respect them, that other people can work with kinky clients if they’re willing to do that same work. I actually think it can sometimes be easier because when I’m doing case consultation with peers who themselves are kink-identified, that’s where I see countertransference. That’s where I see, well, the way that their relationship is set up or the way that they’re doing kink isn’t the way I think that kink should be done. And so we have to have conversations around your kinks, not their kink. But that doesn’t make their kink wrong. At times, it might actually be easier to have somebody who is very affirming, but not necessarily kinky themselves, doing that work.

I think that one caveat I would add is we need to be willing to let clients teach us about their dynamic and the way that they do kink. I do not think we should be looking to our clients to educate us about kink in general. We need to be pursuing continuing education. We need to be reading books or watching documentaries or attending conferences written by members of the kink community. We need to be educating ourselves, and then asking our clients, “What does this look like for you?” I don’t think it’s fair to ask our clients to pay us to use their therapeutic hour to teach us what we need to know to do the work with them.

Hard Places and Soft Spots

LR: When should a therapist consider referring a client who may be reconsidering their relationship style and/or sexual practices to include kink practices?
SG: I think, if it’s not something that you’re willing to—if it’s outside your scope of practice and you’re not willing to do the work of learning, then you need to refer. And it’s okay to be uncomfortable with something. I’ve worked with clients whose individual practices or particular fetishes made me uncomfortable. I’ve referred a couple of people out whom I simply know I can’t provide unconditional positive regard to. Not because there’s anything wrong with them. But because I just know where I’m at. So if you are encountering a client you are unprepared to work with and unwilling to educate yourself to do the work with, you have an ethical obligation to them to connect them with somebody who can and who will.
LR: You said that you will refer some clients and you talked about fetishes. Are there some fetishistic behaviors that go beyond your level of moral acceptance? I mean, when would a person’s fetish be such that you would need to refer them, since I’m sure you have seen and heard it all.
SG:
Moral is tricky because my clients, both kinky and non-kinky, engage in all sorts of behavior that I have moral issues with
Moral is tricky because my clients, both kinky and non-kinky, engage in all sorts of behavior that I have moral issues with. If somebody’s stealing from their employer, I have a moral issue with that. I think that we tend to ascribe socially greater moral weight to sexual things than to nonsexual things. But that doesn’t make it any more or less moral. So I don’t know that I want to define it as a moral thing.

But for me, in terms of comfort, really diving into the details of somebody’s experience, where I’m able to sit and hold space for a given narrative, people who are zoophiles—that’s something that I personally struggle with.

Thankfully, I have colleagues I can refer out to. And I do. And again, I’m not necessarily putting a moral weight on that. It’s just I can’t be what they need. I work with people who struggle with pedophilic urges. And I’m comfortable doing that. I’m a member of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. I’m comfortable working with non-offending pedophiles. I don’t work with actively offending pedophiles. But for the most part, those are the two big ones for me. I have people that engage in a lot of niche fetishes that some of my peers struggle with, like coprophilia. So, most things I am fully capable of holding space with. For me, really, just in terms of being able to sit and hear the stories and process and be present for, those are the two that I refer out for, personally.
LR: So, like any competent clinician, you have your boundaries. What kinds of concerns around BDSM do you hear from parents who have concerns for their children and teens?
SG:
I have such a soft spot for kinky adolescents because they are completely adrift
I have such a soft spot for kinky adolescents because they are completely adrift. There are very few ethical resources available to young people who identify as kinky. And it’s tricky because when we interview kinky adults, most of them say that they first recognized an interest in kink starting around age 10, if not a little bit earlier. So, most people who are kinky knew they were kinky early.

And we have a huge population of young people who know that this is a part of how they form relationships, how they give and express affection. And yet they can’t attend kink conferences. They can’t go to BDSM events. And absolutely, we have to be aware of predators and of problematic situations. That’s because, when you’re talking about power exchange in young people, you want to make sure that they’re capable of consent. So, there are really no great answers. I think where I focus with parents is on recognizing that BDSM is a healthy relational expression, on normalizing BDSM as something that can be done in a safe, consensual way, on recontextualizing power exchange as not coercive and grooming behavior, but as a future relationship model their children may aspire to. Even though they’re not adequately able to enter into a dynamic like that now.
LR: Research tells us that children who are victimized by sexual and physical abuse are at higher likelihood of becoming abusers themselves. Is kink interest in children and teens a potential risk factor for them? Especially for trans youth, who are at even higher risk for adverse outcomes?
SG:
providing gender-affirming care to young people is so fraught and contentious that we haven’t even gotten as far as people being able to have a conversation around affirming kink identities
I honestly don’t know that I could speak to that. I don’t know that there’s been enough research. And I think right now, the conversation around simply providing gender-affirming care to young people is so fraught and contentious that we haven’t even gotten as far as people being able to have a conversation around affirming kink identities in gender nonconforming young people. I think that might cause heads to explode in ways that are not fair to young people.
LR: I’m wondering if there’s a hierarchy of kink practice and kink fetish that can be ranked in terms of likelihood of bringing ire to parents and people in general?
SG: SG: I think somebody’s gender identity is such a core aspect of who they are that that has to be supported and affirmed before any sort of relational preference or sexual expression could ever be hoped to act on. They can’t have a happy, healthy, consensual power exchange relationship or engage in a happy, healthy, sensory exchange relationship if they’re not happy and healthy in who they are as a human. And so their ability to engage in any sort of relationship model—kinky, vanilla, or otherwise—is really predicated on our first affirming them and their gender identity to start with.
LR: So healthy kink practice requires healthy personality development first.
SG:
I don’t know that we necessarily need to be rushing to include kinky young people in the broader kink community
Absolutely. As you know, the last part of the brain to develop is the area that controls cause and effect thinking, good and ethical decision making, and being able to anticipate outcomes. And all of those skills are necessary in order to truly negotiate with a potential partner and especially when it comes to BDSM and kink—in order to be able to consent to some of the things that kinky people do. So, I think that supporting young people in their identity formation, in affirming their gender identity, in teaching strong consent culture early and often and bodily autonomy and sex positivity—these are all ways that we can support kinky young people. But I don’t know that we necessarily need to be rushing to include kinky young people in the broader kink community. I think that we need to give them space to be able to have the adult conversations that kinky people have around negotiation of scenes and relationships.
LR: What might be the relationship between the age of the therapist and their capacity to embrace broader elements of identity like kink? Or is it more a matter of the developmental level of the therapist rather than their age?
SG: I don’t know that I would want to speak to that. I feel like it might be far more generational. I think that my son’s generation is so much more inclusive and eager to affirm and accept people with diverse identities and experiences in a way that my parents’ generation really struggles with. And I know that as a Gen-Xer, we try really hard to always get it right. So, I don’t know if it’s an age thing so much as it is a generational thing.

Unanticipated Outcomes

LR: That makes a lot of sense. From your own clinical experience, can you share an unanticipated success story and an unanticipated unsuccess story—I won’t call it “failure”—around working in the kink domain?
SG:
it broke my heart a little bit because they deserved to—whatever their identity was—be affirmed in that
When I first went into private practice after leaving agency settings, I was still in sex therapy supervision. And my very first gender nonconforming client was a person who had lived as a heterosexual man their entire life, who had always struggled with thoughts that perhaps they would be happier as a woman and had come to therapy to explore this. Being me, I was very, very, very excited to help explore this. And we had many wonderful conversations and I offered lots of activities and resources. One day, they came in and said, “I don’t want to do it. It’s too hard, and the payoff isn’t worth it. If I were to announce that I am a woman, I would lose my children, I would lose everything I have. I’ve been doing it this long, I can keep doing it. Sure, it would be nice. But, at the end of the day, the reward isn’t worth the risk and having these conversations is just too painful. So, I’m done.”

There was nothing I could say to that. You have to respect everybody’s process. But it broke my heart a little bit because they deserved to—whatever their identity was—be affirmed in that. Whether that was a heterosexual cis-man that just liked wearing dresses every so often, or whether that was a complete reshaping of their gender identity, I wanted them to be loved and accepted for who they were. And after having so many conversations about what it would be like if they could have that, to have them come in and say, “I just decided it’s not worth trying,” was really—it made me very sad for them.
LR: Perhaps it’s the therapist or supervisor in me that says, maybe it wasn’t really a failure. You created a space for the conversation. And they weighed the pros and cons and did what was best for them, even though you would have hoped that they could have done what was better for them, rather than just best. How about another experience from the—you’re glowing—oh, my God—this was wonderful and…
SG:
I am very much—as you might guess—not a kink-shaming person
I had a client who said that she was in a 24/7 DS relationship, but that it didn’t feel comfortable for her and she wanted to work through her feelings because her dominant was telling her that she wasn’t doing DS right. He wanted her to come to therapy to figure out how she could be a better submissive. And I am very much—as you might guess—not a kink-shaming person. But about two months into this, I paused mid-conversation and said, “I want to print something off, and I want to show it to you.” I went to my laptop and printed off the Duluth Model of Domestic Violence Wheel of Power and Control. I said, “I want you to tell me whether or not anything here looks familiar to you.” And she pointed out—I gave her a highlighter—and she started highlighting a whole bunch of things. And she said, “Well, yeah. But this says, ‘Power and Control.’ This is just what DS is.” And I said, “But how much of this did you agree to?”

I then asked her, “How much of this is okay, because not everything on here can be healthy. And sure, there are things on the Wheel of Power and Control that can be negotiated. Absolutely. Name-calling—absolutely. If that’s your thing, go for it. But there are some things like threatening to harm pets or children that are never a part of—and it seems sort of counterintuitive considering the conversation you and I have had.” Looking back on that powerful interchange, I was able to help somebody understand that they had been gaslighted by their partner into thinking that she was just a terrible submissive, and, if she was just a better submissive, they would have a great relationship. She understood at that moment that this was not kink, that this was a really abusive relationship—and that was very hard.

That was the start of about two years’ worth of work. She ended up moving out. He ended up making some threats to me. I had to have security walk me to and from my car for quite a while. And then she terminated. And I was worried about her. But last summer, out of nowhere, I got a text message saying that she had moved across the country and she had gotten her dream job and she had a new dog that she’d always wanted to have that he would never have let her have. It was a very lengthy text message. And she was just living her best life. And she told me that she would never have thought that she was capable of doing that if she hadn’t had me look at her and say, “This isn’t what kink looks like.”
LR: It is wonderful to have those kinds of memories. I could not possibly end this wonderful conversation, Stefani, without asking you the significance of the Wonder Woman action figure on your desk.
SG:
Wonder Woman originally was intended to represent a new vision of womanhood that was intended to challenge patriarchal norms
I love Wonder Woman. William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, not only invented the first lie detector, but he created the DISC personality profile, which is one of the first attempts to actually use the concepts of dominant and submissive. He tried to sort of codify what those personality types looked like. And Wonder Woman originally was intended to represent a new vision of womanhood that was intended to challenge patriarchal norms and to challenge relationship models and to give young people a new vision for what relationship dynamics could look like.
LR: Does Gal Gadot capture the essence of what Marston envisioned?
SG: As a Jewish woman myself, I love having a Jewish Wonder Woman. She is my favorite.
LR: There was an ad in a magazine in the ‘40s that featured Wonder Woman strapped to a lie detector. I wonder if that was a subtle domination image—not so subtle actually.
SG: Not so subtle. Golden Era Wonder Woman had some pretty overt bondage themes. Marston was in a DS relationship with his partners—a DS poly relationship with his partners.
LR: Well, we’ll leave our readers with that, and I thank you, Stefani.


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Stefani Goerlich Stefani Goerlich, PhD, LMSW-Clinical, CST, is the multi-award winning author of The Leather Couch: Clinical Practice with Kinky Clients, and its forthcoming sequel Kink Affirming Practice: Culturally Competent Therapy from the Leather Chair. Stefani is an expert in working with gender, relationship, and sexuality diversities as well as members of minority faith traditions and folks with religious trauma. Stefani has worked with high-risk young people, commercial sex workers, and survivors of human trafficking and has over 15 years’ experience in supporting survivors of domestic and sexual trauma. Currently, she owns and operates Bound Together Counseling, PLLC. where she offers sex, relationship and mental health therapy to members of the GSRD community, their partners, and their families in Michigan, Ohio, and Arizona. Stefani serves on the editorial review board of the Journal of Counselling Sexology & Sexual Wellness: Research, Practice, and Education
Lawrence Rubin Lawrence 'Larry' Rubin, PhD, LMHC, ABPP, RPT-S is a Florida-based Psychologist, Mental Health Counselor and Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor, who directs the Counseling programs at St. Thomas University and is on the clinical faculty of Capella University. He specializes in the assessment and treatment of children, teens, and their families. Larry is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Play and has published several popular books including Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life: Interventions in Clinical and Medical Settings, Diagnosis and Treatment Planning Skills: A Popular Culture Casebook Approach, and Using Superheroes and Villains in Counseling and Play Therapy: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

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