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Book Review: Becoming a Kink Aware Therapist

Title: Becoming a Kink Aware Therapist

Authors: Caroline Shabaz, MA & Peter Chirinos, MA, LPCS, NCC, DCC

Year Published: 2017

Main Topics Covered: Healthy Sexuality, BDSM, Consent, Abuse, Codependence, Spirituality, Research Findings

Written for: Psychotherapists, Counsellors, Psychologists

Recommended for: Psychotherapists, Counsellors, Psychologists

Perspectives taken: De-pathologizing BDSM practices

Type of Resource: Handbook for Effective Therapy

APA Citation: Shabaz, C., & Chrinos, P. (2017). Becoming a Kink Aware Therapist. Routledge Focus: New York.

Book Overview:

Caroline Shabaz and Peter Chirinos’ book is a valuable resource for clinicians working with the growing number of people expressing interest in/opening up about engaging in kink and BDSM-related behaviours. Their purpose is to provide therapists with an introductory understanding of BDSM and kink while preparing them to handle multifaceted therapeutic issues. The book is geared towards therapists with all levels of experience and embraces those who were trained in the pathology model of paraphilias. Shabaz and Chirinos brilliantly combine contemporary research findings with ethnographic narratives from members of the kink community to dispel common myths and misconceptions about the practice and culture of BDSM, de-pathologize kink, and deconstruct kinkphobia. They use a clear, comprehensive, and engaging writing style that invites therapists to explore their personal and professional discomfort around kink issues.

The book begins by guiding the reader through a brief history on how non-normative sexualities came to be pathologized (Hint: it started with Freud), and moves on to offer a definition of healthy sexuality – one defined by individuals subjective assessment of their own well-being. In doing so, Shabaz and Chirinos prepare the reader to take a deeper dive into a thorough definition of BDSM, its practices, and relationship dynamics. They also integrate simple visuals with text to help the audience gain an improved conceptual understanding of the practice and culture of BDSM, appealing to folks who learn visually. For example, how would someone new to BDSM terminology differentiate between Dominance/submissive relationships and Master/slave ones? Because both are characterized by authority and compliance, the authors depict a continuum of activities represented by BDSM, spanning from pure sensation play on one end to total authority exchange on the other. Dominance/submissive relationships are located in the centre of the continuum, whereas Master/slave relationships at the extreme end, illustrating that the key difference between these relationship types is a consensually agreed upon transfer of authority.

Next, Shabaz and Chirinos respond to some of the mainstream questions about BDSM: Is an inclination towards BDSM caused by childhood trauma or a history of abuse? Is BDSM a representation of unhealthy sexuality? The short answer is no – research reveals that BDSM is a viable and healthy outlook to lifestyle and sexuality, with practitioners having higher levels of self-esteem, communication skills, and self-awareness. Becoming a Kink Aware Therapist answers these questions (and more), lists the subtle and overt ways in which therapists manifest kinkphobia towards clients, and encourages clinicians to develop awareness about their own personal biases. The book also includes several reflective prompts, such as “does my acceptance of the client require my approval of his lifestyle?” to help therapists establish a therapeutic container with kinky clients.

As a clinical guideline, Shabaz and Chirinos adopt a careful approach that balances valid therapeutic concerns with an intentional effort to normalize the practice and culture of BDSM. They list exclusionary criteria for BDSM practice (serious and persistent mental illnesses, a poor/weak sense of self) while reminding therapists not to assume that clients’ presenting issues are caused by or even related to alternative sexualities. Nevertheless, they provide a list of possible and common presenting issues among clients who practice BDSM. For couples, these issues may be about mixed-orientation relationships (one partner has the desire to explore an alternative sexual interest, the other does not), mismatched sexual interests or values, infidelity, long-distance relationships, transitions, or polydynamic relationships. On the other hand, individuals seeking psychotherapy may present with internalized kinkphobia, isolation, issues around coming out/being outed, depression/anxiety, expectations and stereotypes, as well as guilt and shame. Practical guidelines for each issue are included.

Additionally, the authors discuss the application of controversial clinical issues to BDSM, answering complex questions such as:

  • What are the differences between domestic violence and BDSM?

  • Where does one draw the line between non-suicidal self-injury and intense BDSM sensation play involving cutting?

  • How can a therapist determine the existence of codependency in BDSM relationships?

  • In what ways is belonging to a BDSM relationship/community transformative?

By incorporating narratives from members of the BDSM community and a sociocultural lens, Shabaz and Chirinos explore the application of healthy sexuality in the context of BDSM as a clinical, spiritual, and cultural phenomenon. Their work provides readers with a more critical eye for psychopathological diagnoses and includes useful appendices to use as a reference for working with kinky clients. The appendix also includes the Shabaz-Chirinos Healthy BDSM Checklist, a tool for helping therapists determine whether their clients are practicing constructive BDSM. Key issues described in the book are included in the checklist, as well as indicators of problematic BDSM behaviour and accompanying therapeutic approaches/interventions.

Overall, Becoming a Kink-Aware Therapist deconstructs mainstream ideas about kink and prepares therapists to work with clients presenting with a breadth of concerns. Although it does not deeply explore each issue, it acts as a springboard for approaching therapeutic work with the growing population of folks engaging in alternative sexual practices in a way that honours healthy sexuality, however, that looks for clients.

About the Authors:

Caroline Shabaz is a Clinical Psychologist who regularly gives workshops to psychotherapists and speaks at conferences across the US and Australia on issues related to BDSM relationships, consensual master-slave dynamics, and kinkphobia as it applies to the practice of psychotherapy.

Peter Chirinos is the president and CEO of Capital Counseling Services, LLC, where he provides psychotherapy services as well as professional coaching, training, and expert consultations in the area of sex, intimacy, and alternative sexualities. He identifies as a bisexual cisgender male, living in a mixed-orientation marriage that is consensually and ethically non-monogamous.


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