Claudia wasn’t sure if it was nerves or the night before that had given her the confidence to ask her boss for a raise. Either way, negotiating her salary was easier than expected. She’d been practicing, after all… just on something a little less G-Rated.
The 36-year-old mother-of-two, who asked me not to use her last name, had spent the past few days negotiating with her husband about how she could flex her longtime fantasy of dominating him in a way they’d both enjoy. Afterward, she told me, the experience had made her feel confident, valued, secure and pleased at their ability to compromise—feelings which she was surprised to find lasted into the the following day. When she arrived at work, still swimming in the satisfaction of a fantasy realized, she decided this was it. Raise day.
The way Claudia was able to benefit from her erotic encounter is a common theme among people with knacks for kink. Many successful visionaries throughout history, from artists to scientists and even politicians, have had well-documented kinks and fetishes that affected how they operated in their daily lives. I was curious: Could it be that whips and blindfolds are the unseen force behind their artistry, leadership and innovation?
A wave of recent research has confirmed this: If it’s something you desire in the first place, kinky sex can benefit you not just in the bedroom, but outside of it as well. “Unconventional” sexual practices and fantasies, such as BDSM, group sex, or role play, have been shown to reduce psychological stress, improve mental health and can help with satisfying and communicative relationships. Kinky people have also been found to have higher self-worth than those who are too afraid or ashamed to pursue their fantasies; all positive effects, which Los Angeles-based sex therapist, Jamila Dawson, LMFT, says can help optimize your goals, mood and overall well-being even after kinky play ends.
“A healthy relationship to kink can absolutely be the underlying cause of some people’s success,” explains Dawson, who specializes in kink and polyamory. “I see this all the time in my practice.”
No wonder Claudia felt so motivated.
So, how is it that kink is able to give the people who practice it such an edge? Why would getting lost in the fantasy of floggers, blindfolds and safe-words matter in everyday moments like asking for a raise?
The answer is multifaceted, but the primary way kinky sex gives people a life boost is the fascinating way in which it can affect the brain.
Activities like BDSM can actually alter the pattern of blood flow within the brain, creating a number of favorable mental states with positive effects similar to that of mindfulness and meditation, according to recent findings by Dr. Brad J. Sagarin, Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University and founder of the BDSM Research Team. These mental states are highly distinctive, altered states of consciousness which can improve mood, enhance cognition and heighten our capacity to form original ideas and novel connections, adds Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and author of the blog Sex & Psychology. In the context of kinky sex, these distinct head spaces are called “flow.”
Flow is most often described as a transcendent state of heightened sensory awareness, focus, presence and euphoria. It can be intense—it’s not uncommon for people to feel high, floaty, melty, tingly, or detached from both time and their body. Most commonly, it’s brought on by the endorphins released during a physically intensive experience (flogging or spanking, for example; similar to a runner’s high), but the same feeling can be brought on by passionate mental or emotional stimulation.
Interestingly, the quality of these altered states can differ according to the type of kinky play someone’s involved in. In particular, Dr. Sagarin’s research found that dominance and submission activates two unique types of flow that enhance creative and emotional conditions.
More specifically, Dr. Sagarin found that the participants who played the submissive role in their experiment achieved greater transient hypofrontality, which refers to a feeling of peacefulness and happy detachment, where time has slowed down. Runner’s high, meditation and even some drug highs produce a similar effect. Meanwhile, dominant participants experienced slightly different altered state. As opposed to a dreamlike detachment, those in the dominant role felt a greater sense of control, a loss of self-consciousness, clearer goals and heightened concentration—less of a “high” in their case; more of a laser focus.
When you’re in one of these flow states, Dr. Lehmiller continues, you’re operating with much lower levels of self-awareness. You’re focused; you’re in the zone. It’s like playing an instrument—when you think too hard about what you’re doing and how each note is supposed to sound, you psych yourself out and make mistakes as your body tries to catch up to your brain’s over-analysis. But when you detach from that hyper-awareness of yourself and let things, well, flow, they come out naturally. They sound better.
Outside of the bedroom (or dungeon, or… wherever), feelings of flow can stay with a person anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, during which time Dawson, the sex therapist, says many of her clients and kinky acquaintances harness their power for a variety of uses. One acquaintance in particular, she tells me, was able to overcome a severe case of writer’s block the morning after her partner finally obliged her rope bondage fantasy. The catharsis of a fantasy realized—and the freedom to inhabit her desires in a safe and trusting space—put her in a creative mood.
World-famous composer Georg Friedrich Haas is a more well-known example of this. In 2016, The New York Times chronicled the unusual union between Haas and his wife, writer and sex educator Mollena Williams—a 24/7 kinky relationship in which Haas, now a 64-year-old music professor at Columbia University, played the role of Master; Williams, his ever-doting Submissive. Reportedly, the two fell in love after Haas told Williams he wanted to “tame” her on OkCupid. (“I find intense fulfillment in being able to serve in this way,” she told The New York Times, describing the situation as feminist because it’s her choice.)
In the article, Haas directly attributes his success as an artist to his kinky (and sexually vibrant) marriage, which he said had “dramatically improved his productivity and reshaped his artistic outlook.” After three divorces and a lifetime of repressing what he’d once considered “devilish desires,” he explained that the freedom to not only explore, but live in his dominant fantasies had “roughly doubled” his artistic productivity.
This delights, but does not surprise Dawson.
“In general, I’ve found that people who engage in forms of expansive sexuality such as kink are more creative or imaginative in their jobs or recreational life,” she says. “The culture of kink supports their creative drives. It gives them a space to play with the limits and boundaries of their bodies and minds, and with mental states such as surrender, fear, playfulness and surprise. In that sense, kink’s not so different from art, design or any creative venture. It’s a totally valid form of self-expression.”
Of course, not everything kinky immediately leads to a revelation, artistic inspiration or a sudden solution to a long-suffering problem, but, as Dawson points out, getting into a headspace where it’s more likely to happen definitely doesn’t hurt.
In fact, while many people still hold the belief that fantasizing in a relationship means you’re unhappy with your partner (a faulty theory devised by Freud in 1908 which has since been debunked), it has been reported that people who incorporate fantasy into their sex lives reap a surprising number of benefits. Frequent fantasizers have sex more often, engage in a wider variety of erotic activities, have more partners, masturbate more and orgasm more reliably than people who fantasize infrequently, or don’t fantasize at all.
And just having sex can also make you more productive at work. A 2017 study from Oregon State University found that having sex before work—either the night before or the morning of—made people more engaged and efficient on the job.
Fantasy-based sex can also decrease stress and anxiety much like meditation and exercise, only rather than through silence or sweat, the reward comes through say, the satisfying swish of a paddle, or the worshipping of a lovely foot. Kinky sex has also been linked to the sorts of changes in cortisol levels which can reduce psychological and physical stress; correlated with better physical and mental health, increased life span, better coping skills, and improved mood. Show us a job, relationship, creative project or personal goal that can’t be helped by those things.
Expressing a fantasy, a particularly intimate form of connection, can even increase intimacy and connectedness in relationships. One 2009 study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found people who practice sadomasochism (consensually exploring the pleasure of pain) show an increase in relationship closeness. This, researchers theorized, is because safely executing that kind of play takes a great deal of trust, acceptance and communication.
Speaking of communication, kinky people seem to be particularly good at it. Because it’s necessary to be honest about desires and boundaries in discussions about kink and fantasy in order to keep all parties safe and satisfied, people who engage in less-than-vanilla sex often find it easier to be as transparent and direct in their everyday communication. This is especially true when it comes to asserting their needs or speaking up when something doesn’t feel right, says Dawson. In vanilla territory, it is common for people to have sex without any communication, negotiation, trust or consent.
Ideally, that knowledge can help mitigate any shame or embarrassment the prospect of sharing and negotiating your kinky fantasies may bring, but if you’re not ready to communicate your kinky interests—or simply don’t harbor them at all—there are other ways to go about reaping the rewards.
A small, but significant tool she recommends is to start noticing and logging each occasion you don’t speak what you really want, or you minimize your wants in comparison to another’s. These are areas to apply the communication, negotiation, self-awareness and creative thought kink affords. Changing these habits isn’t easy, she says, but they address a lifetime of putting your own needs aside. In kink, when there’s consent, it’s okay to put yourself first.
Dawson offers some of her own advice inspired by safe BDSM practices to help you reach flow during any kind of sex, be it vanilla or covered in more leather than an industrial tannery.
“Setting the scene, taking the time to breathe and slowing sex down to a pace that’s much slower than you’re accustomed to are all things kinky people do to get the most out of their scenes and interactions,” she says. Enhanced pleasure and erotic creativity, Dawson reminds us, can be achieved when you’re not focused on a particular outcome—rather, simply immerse yourself in the experience, concentrate fully, and remain open to what arises in the moment. You can get into the same sort of flow states that latex-clad dominatrix’s can, sans the craving for control.
The experience of living one’s fantasy in a safe, consensual space that’s free of judgment and expectation, it seems, far outweighs the perceived benefits of keeping kinky desires under wraps. If you have them, try bringing them to light. At the very least, you might get a raise out of it.