The BDSM Closet: When is the Right Time to Open Up?

‘Shaman Express’ by Beretta Rousseau is a literary collaboration by Omar Beretta and Bénédicte Rousseau. The book is a humorous and provocative novel, partly based on real events, about the dangers of pursuing cheap or intense enlightenment, be it at sex, with drugs or even in the search for spirituality.

The book is available now in both physical and eBook formats and can be ordered here.

Co-author Omar Beretta shares with us his thoughts on the world of BDSM and finds out from those who are actively involved in BDSM practice about whether they feel they can come out about their interests to others.

I was recently in Perú interviewing trans and non-binary people for a piece about LGTBQ+ diversity. In doing so, I realized how much trans and non-binary people know about themselves, compared to the standard cisgender gay male. One of them presented themselves as a “trans guy, pansexual and atheist, non-binary, anarcha-feminist and BDSM dominant.” The BDSM reference got me thinking: When is it the right time to open up to those around us about BDSM practices?

It was not until 2013 that the American Psychiatric Association depathologized kinky sex, including BDSM. Anyone familiar with the BDSM world knows about the stigma. This is one powerful reason to keep one’s BDSM inclinations to oneself, and only live the life within its endogamic and often suffocating world. For some, this creates anxiety and shame. Coming out of the closet as an LGTBIQ+ person can already be challenging, coming out of the BDSM closet presents more complex considerations. I have asked people from various backgrounds that have a sane, safe and consensual BDSM practice, how much they share about it outside of their circle.

 

Making it work without sharing the lifestyle

A successful model could be that of Andy, 53, the manager of a store in the Netherlands. Andy is out of the BDSM closet to his husband, family, friends, and work colleagues. The word “honesty” comes again and again as we talk. His husband is not into BDSM, but they have agreed that Andy can have one BDSM lover, to whom Andy is faithful. Occasionally, the three socialise together. In turn, Andy’s lover has a husband that agrees to this arrangement. Recently, Andy’s lover expressed that he would like to explore certain BDSM practices of which Andy is not interested, so the four of them have agreed that Andy’s lover will find a new lover willing to integrate these practices, while keeping the rest informed. Andy has been married for ten years, and Andy’s lover has been married for four years.

Salvatore, 50, a high school teacher, lives in Southern Italy. He is single and has a few BDSM lovers. Although there is a solid BDSM community in his country, Salvatore tells that as much as half of the men he meets in this community are straight or gay cis men, that are not out of the closet to their wives, partners, or anyone else. Although there are growing BDSM events in Italy, many flock to events in Berlin or London, that provide a certain anonymity. Salvatore is out to close friends only. He pleads that his sexual preferences are private and that neither family nor work colleagues should be informed about his doings. We had a chat about his reasons for not coming out, and we agreed that those were the same arguments for which, over a decade ago, many gays and lesbians would not come out of the closet.

Alex, 45, a University teacher from Argentina, is also out to a few close friends only, based on the same reasons as Salvatore. None of his (few) partners shared the BDSM life, and he concludes that it played a role in the breakups. Pablo, 52, an author and advocate of BDSM in Argentina, is out to everyone. When I ask him if the BDSM life has ever made him anxious or unhappy, he replies never, apart from the anxiety or unhappiness that may derive from love.

 

More and more younger people are becoming attracted to the scene

Although the BDSM practice has traditionally attracted older players, there is a steady increase of younger men and women in the scene. The new generations bring more liberal ideas. Hova, 24, a University student from Argentina, is a heavy metal enthusiast. He compares the stigma around BDSM to that associated with heavy metal music, and concludes that the misconceptions derive from lack of information. He is open to his closest friends, some of which showed interest in experimenting with BDSM.

Iván, 33, a designer from Argentina, finds that BDSM empowers him to connect with others outside the social canon, thus enriching his life. David, 30, a journalist from Argentina, says that he is “not yet” out of the BDSM closet because he has just started this road of discovery, but is willing to be open about it in the future.

Arturo, 24, a human rights activist from Perú, is angry about the moral sanctions imposed by church and State on all forms of dissident sexuality. He would be more open about his lifestyle if it did not entail undesirable consequences. Niqo, 27, a producer from Paraguay, explains that the narrow views on any form of sexual dissidence are so ingrained in the Paraguayan society, that coming out of the BDSM closet would be met with contempt. Fer, 27, an LGBTQ+ activist from Paraguay, finds that worrying about coming out of the BDSM closet is a privilege of the upper classes, to which I agree.

 

“People become more real and more honest when you open up”

Erik, 63, from the Netherlands, and his wife Madieanne, have known each other for over 20 years and they both live the BDSM life openly. However, they feel that there is less freedom nowadays. Madieanne protests that in the past she could be in the street anywhere in town in full fetish gear, but that is not the case anymore. They meet people from all ages and countries interested in BDSM, though many are reluctant to give their real names or phone numbers because they live in circles that would criticize them, shun them, and even ruin their lives. Madieanne and Erik participate actively in BDSM parties and events to generate awareness about the lifestyle, and help make it a more relaxed and free environment.

In a recent interview for Wings Magazine, Evert Leerson, 48, the first Mr. Leather Netherlands, explained that he used to be closed off about his private life, but he realised that “people become more real and more honest when you open up” and that “It’s important to be visible because otherwise … tolerance will become less and less.”

Disclosure seems to be integral to dating. Most people I talked to acknowledged that not being honest with their partners about the BDSM life jeopardised the connection with them, and had a role in the subsequent breakups. The possibility of coming out to family, friends and at work varies enormously, depending on how rights on gender issues have evolved and are integrated in the social fabric. Diego, 30, a psychologist from Uruguay, reminds me that while BDSM sex provides a plethora of possibilities beyond genital intercourse, contemporary society still considers sex beyond coitus as taboo.

 

Is hetero (and homo) normativity blinding us?

What is at stake here is not just a personal decision, but rather a radical transformation of the way in which freedom is exercised. As the normative/capitalist social relations erode all forms of sexual dissidence in order to reproduce itself, the BDSM closet will remain crowded.

David reminds me that it is only a thin line that divides my fetishes from my identity. “It’s a lot like life, and that’s what’s appealing,” Depeche Mode sing in Master and Servant. But you know that one, don’t you?

‘Shaman Express’ by Beretta Rousseau is available now, and can be ordered here.

Feature image by René Zuiderveld
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