by Keely Kolmes, PsyD, Founder and President of Open Minds
People are often curious about how Bay Area Open Minds came to be. To begin with, our group was formed in the fall of 2009. In the past few years, we have gained momentum and developed our lovely website (thanks to webmaster, Nick Venegoni, MFT), and our logo and brochures, thanks to the talented and dedicated member Myles Downes, MFT. We also created our name due to a small workgroup which included Myles Downes, MFT, Faith Freed, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, and me.
What was the impetus for starting the group?
In 2009, a psychology graduate student was referred by her Intercultural Awareness professors to me for mentoring. She had come out as kinky and poly in class, and the school had no support in place to mentor her (unlike other students of various ethnicities, cultures, or sexual orientations in which there are frequently well established groups and mentors to assist in professional development).
During our meeting, and after hearing some of the challenges the student was experiencing, I was struck by how much they mirrored the challenges I experienced as a graduate student at the same school eleven years earlier. I had been doing a dissertation on BDSM bias in mental health services to the kink community. But many of my professors thought I was referring to domestic violence, or at the very least, the relationships and behaviors I was describing were anti-feminist (regardless of the fact that many of my participants were in same-sex relationships).
It was stressful and isolating to complete my dissertation when researching a topic that was so at odds with people’s current understanding about sexual diversity. There has also been a long history of kink behavior being pathologized by the mental health community, including its inclusion in the DSM as a mental disorder. Doing my research felt dangerous, especially as an unlicensed student trying to educate my professors and supervisors. I believe it took me longer than average to complete my studies since it was such a stressful and politically controversial topic in our field.
Speaking with this student, she and I realized how helpful it would be to have a support, networking, and advocacy group for students and licensed clinicians who either self-identified with these communities, identified as allies, and/or provided services to sexually diverse clients beyond the LGBT umbrella. My goal was to help students and clinicians to feel less isolated, to have people to refer to and consult with, and to help us find one another.
Do you see the issues affecting kinky and poly clients different from those affecting vanilla and monogamous clients?
Not at all. Most of the clients, in my practice, at least, are bringing in the same kinds of issues as my heterosexual, vanilla, and monogamous clients. They simply don’t want to spend multiple sessions defending their BDSM play or explaining that their consensual polyamorous relationship is not cheating. The bulk of my practice is focused on anxiety, depression, career and relationship issues.
One thing I do see coming up that may be unique to these communities is the challenge when one person is kinky and their partner is not kinky; or when one partner is monogamous and the other identifies as polyamorous. That said, in many ways, I think we see these same issues in the non-altsex partners who enter our offices: One partner wants a certain type of sexual experience that another finds distasteful or otherwise difficult to enact, or has a fantasy they are afraid to share. Such intimacy issues are not the sole domain of altsex clients. So for the most part, the problems my altsex patients bring in are not necessarily related to their altsex identity. They are having regular, human problems. Of course, this can be different if someone is struggling with coming out to self or others about who they are and what they want. But this, again, is very similar to working with someone who is coming out about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender or genderqueer.
Some clinicians worry that some sexual practices, including BDSM can be dangerous if they are re-traumatizing patients or reenacting past abuse. What are your thoughts about this?
My thoughts are that such concerns often fail to acknowledge the numerous safety mechanisms that are in place in BDSM relationships. Thus far there is only one known study (Nordling, Sandnabba, & Santilla, 2000) which in any way supports that BDSM individuals may have had more exposure to past abuse than non-BDSM individuals. In this study of 186 participants, 7.9% of males and 22.7% of females reported past abuse. However, Richters et al, (2008) completed a study in Australia of a nationally representative sample and found no correlation between sexual abuse or past sexual coercion prior to the age of 16 and later BDSM interests.
Regardless, I would offer the following: many individuals who are not into kink have experienced sexual abuse or attachment injuries in their past. Simple romantic or sexual intimacy can be experienced as triggering or re-tramatizing to these people, even without BDSM, power dynamics, or pain/sensation play. I cannot imagine any clinician who would tell such a client that they should simply give up on love, relationships, and sexual intimacy because it will re-traumatize them. Instead, we would typically work with the client on exploring healthy boundaries, processing issues that come up, avoiding dissociation, recognizing when they are disconnecting or not experiencing pleasure, helping them to self-soothe and communicate better with their partners, and stop activity when necessary. We would work on helping them have relationships that feel safe, nurturing, and connected.
The suggestion that kink alone should be avoided because it will re-enact abuse is asking people to segregate their sexual selves when further exploration may actually be a healthy and integral part of their sexual identity and experience. It may even help move a person towards healing and wholeness, even if trauma is a part of that person’s past.
Do you have future goals for Open Minds?
It’s encouraging to see that in four years, we have a membership of just about 70 clinicians in the Bay Area. We have a listserv on which we can ask questions, seek referrals, or find people to consult with. Sometimes, we can identify a need and ask if someone is able to offer such a service in their practice (such as recently needing an interpersonally focused therapy group that is open to queer, kinky, and poly clients). It is clear that this organization is filling a need.
My hope is that we can help other cities and communities to develop similar groups to help connect students with experienced clinicians and it would be wonderful if we could enlist the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (which houses an international resource for finding Kink-Aware Professionals) to help coordinate this effort.
We also offer a speaker’s bureau so that we can go into educational institutions and help future mental health professionals to learn more about the spectrum of sexual and gender diversity. And we have a Find a Therapist section of our site to help people who are seeking a clinician to find one.
My dream is that now that we have found a community of clinicians who have Open Minds and who can help the mental health concerns of altsex clients, that we can do more to open the minds of colleagues who simply need more information and education than they currently receive on sexual and gender diversity. Their practices and their patients will benefit from learning more.
Nordling, N., Sandnabba, N. K., & Santtila, P. (2000). The Prevalence and Effects of Self-Reported Childhood Sexual Abuse Among Sadomasochistically Oriented Males and Females. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(1), 53–63.
Richters, J., de Visser, R, Rissel, C, Grulich, A, Smith, A. M. A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, “sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660-1668.