When it comes to ministry, there is no “one size fits all” model. Both the minister and the parishioner bring their own identities, experiences and expectations into the space they share. An awareness of this is as essential to pastoral ministry as any formal training in theology or counseling.
This guide is written and provided by those of us who self-identify as kinksters – people with a desire for and interest in alternative sexual expression, most notably BDSM, and the community which has evolved around this sexual orientation. Some of us have received exemplary care and guidance from Unitarian Universalist ministers; others have had experiences which were frustrating or even heart-breaking.
We offer this not as a critique of UU ministry in general, or any particular style of ministry, nor do we presume to train our religious professionals. This is also not a detailed exposition of the forms of sexual expression in which the members of our community engage. Our intention is to bring awareness of the major issues so many of us have faced, with the hope that it will lead to the quality of care that we – and all people – desire and deserve.
What is BDSM?
The acronym “BDSM” is an amalgam of three acronyms:
- B/D for bondage and discipline: the use of bondage and other practices to produce or enhance erotic arousal.
- D/s for dominance and submission: the consensual empowerment of one person by another to enhance or produce erotic arousal.
- S/M for sadomasochism: the practice of deriving sexual pleasure from inflicting and/or receiving pain or other intense stimuli.
It is also known simply as S/M, or by other terms such as “leathersex” and “consensual kink.” In online chats and discussion groups, some people also use WIITWD (“what it is that we do”).
BDSM can best be defined as a continuum of erotic practice and expression involving the consensual use of restraint, intense sensory stimulation, and fantasy role-play.
Is BDSM abusive and/or exploitative?
BDSM is many things, but it is not abuse or exploitation.
- Abuse and exploitation are inherently coercive; BDSM is inherently consensual.
- Abuse and exploitation are about rage, contempt and mistrust; BDSM is about caring, respect, trust and communication.
- Abuse and exploitation are about one person having power and control over another for its own sake; BDSM is about one person entrusting another with power and control for the sake of fulfilling each other’s desires.
The key factor separating BDSM from abuse and exploitation is that we place ethical limits on our own behavior. You may hear this ethic summarized in one of two ways:
- Safe, Sane and Consensual (SSC) is the most common ethical maxim in the BDSM community
- Safe – done in a way to minimize risk of unintentional harm
- Sane – able to distinguish fantasy from reality, and to use sound judgment
- Consensual – mutually understood and agreed to by all concerned
- Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK) is a more recent ethical maxim used in the community. This was chosen because many believe the terms “safe” and “sane” are too easily misinterpreted to describe the process by which kinksters determine what limits to set for themselves. Some believe that RACK allows more room for “edgy” forms of play. Others believe that SSC and RACK are merely different descriptions for very similar processes of ethical discernment.That being said, abuse and exploitation can and do occur in some BDSM relationships, just as they do in some non-kink (“vanilla”) relationships. The key factor is whether any party feels their consent or safety is being violated.
Identity versus behavior
When dealing with a kinkster in a pastoral context, it’s important to distinguish between their identity as a kink-oriented person, and the behavior or forms of sexual expression regarded as kinky. A person may have strong desires to engage in BDSM expression without having any opportunity to do so, just as a person may experiment with bondage or dominant/submissive role-play without necessarily identifying as a kinkster. A kink-oriented person may know little to nothing of the terminology and symbols of the BDSM community, while a vanilla person might know a great deal and even appropriate elements of kink community culture.
Don’t assume – clarify
Language is ambiguous to begin with. The terms we kinksters utilize are likewise mere approximations to describe our experiences and desires. Many people, for example, will assume that sadomasochism involves a particular level of severity, when in fact different people establish a wide range of limits to the level of sensation they find enjoyable (both giving and receiving).
When engaging a kinky parishioner, be careful not to assume the precise meaning of any given word in the context of their relationship and reality. Some further examples:
- Some people may use “top/bottom” and “Dominant/submissive” interchangeably, while others will distinguish the former as referring to giving/receiving sensation, and the latter to psychological and/or spiritual states of being.
- While people may identify primarily as a top, bottom, Dominant or submissive, it is not necessarily the case that this describes their identity and/or behavior exclusively. Like the Kinsey scales, such roles and modes of expression fall along a continuum; also, many tops and Dominants will temporarily take on the complimentary role as part of the process of learning the skills they will need.
- When an individual refers to “punishment” in the context of a Dominant/submissive relationship, this can mean a broad range of activities, from being obliged to perform a specific task, to receiving verbal chastisement or impact play; the key concern is that such activity is given and received as part of a mutually negotiated and consensual relationship agreement.
We suggest that ministers ask clarifying questions in the course of pastoral engagement, so as to better understand our terminology in both specific relational contexts and greater breadth.
Establishing trust and welcome
Given how many religious leaders and organizations have denounced and even taken action against “unconventional” sexuality, it is understandable that even the most deeply spiritual kinkster will be wary of seeking help from a member of the clergy. Establishing and maintaining trust will therefore take extra effort and care on the part of UU ministers, as well as the staff and lay leadership with whom they work. Drawing on experience dealing with, or being part of, another marginalized community is one way of building empathy and rapport with a kinky or kink-oriented parishioner.
A specific concern for kinksters is being outed. Many of us have lost or been denied jobs, faced eviction from our homes, experienced isolation from friends and family, and subjected to harassment and violence, all with no legal recourse. Ministers must be especially mindful of the need for confidentiality, even when conferring with colleagues. We are aware, for example, that in transition from one minister to another, an outgoing pastor may share pertinent details with the incoming pastor. While we would support letting an incoming minister know of the presence of kinksters within a congregation, we strongly urge that ministers not identify specific individuals as such, even in strict confidence.
Like anyone else, some kinksters may require medical, psychological and/or legal help that ministers are not qualified to give. Unfortunately, not all practitioners in these fields fully understand and accept us. Before referring a practitioner to any professional, make sure that the person to whom you refer them is reasonably educated and equipped to deal with their particular concerns. Specific to mental health referrals, assure the kinky parishioner that their sexuality is not the reason you are making this recommendation. If you cannot find a kink-positive or kink-aware professional in your area, talk over the options available with your parishioner, including whether you or another person may be able to advocate for them in the event they encounter kink-negative attitudes.
For further information:
Leather & Grace has devoted a significant portion of this website to “BDSM Basics for UUs” We encourage all UU ministers, educators, staff and lay leaders to take advantage of this resource, and to ask any questions in confidence.
The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing has created an online course for clergy on sexuality issues, including pastoral care. We endorse this excellent resource, and encourage UU ministers to enroll and participate.
Also, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom provides a listing of “Kink-Aware Professionals” – including spiritual advisors and wedding officiators. We encourage UU ministers to use this in their ministry, both for making referrals and as a means of outreach to the BDSM community.
Easton, Dossie and Catherine A. Liszt. When Someone You Love is Kinky. Greenery Press, Emeryville CA, 2000.
Kimball, Richard S. Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education for Adults. Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston MA, 2000.
Moser, Charles. Health Care Without Shame: A Handbook for the Sexually Diverse and Their Caregivers. Greenery Press, Emeryville CA, 1999.
Moser, Charles and JJ Madeson. Bound to be Free: The SM Experience. The Continuum Publishing Company, New York NY 2002.
Tino, Michael J., Laura Anne Stuart and Sarah Gibb Millspaugh. Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education for Young Adults, Ages 18-35. Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston MA, 2008.
Wiseman, Jay. SM101: A Realistic Introduction. Greenery Press, Emeryville CA, 1996.