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Birds & Bees

Can an Unconventional Tie Really Bind Couples?


In the opening scene of the recently released film "Secretary," the heroine, Lee Holloway (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a mental institution. For reasons that are unclear, she seeks relief from life's stresses and disappointments by cutting herself. As part of her rehabilitation, she attends a secretarial school after which she lands a job with a lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader). He is verbally abusive, puts her in a yoke to carry out her secretarial duties, tells her precisely what to eat for lunch and spanks her over secretarial errors. Though their erotic roles fit like a lock and key, Mr. Grey, in particular, experiences self-loathing after his sadistic forays.

Over the course of the movie, the protagonists experience a profound transformation. By revealing themselves to one another as troubled people with destructive, unconventional sexual fixations, the film implies, Lee and Mr. Grey find happiness and are able to overcome their self-destructive impulses.

The movie raises an interesting question: Is it possible to have a sadomasochistic relationship that is healthy, perhaps even therapeutic? No psychologists or mental health professionals interviewed for this story thought that two people with self-destructive erotic fixations could "heal" one another and transcend their sexual impulses by falling in love. Judy Kuriansky, a New York psychologist who saw the film, said she found the subject so difficult for a general audience that there "ought to be a seminar after to explain it."

A lot of sadomasochism is like a sexual drama where partners invert their public and private roles, so that, for instance, a high-powered professional who has to be in control at work all the time gives up control to a partner, said Paul Abramson, a professor of psychology at UCLA and co-author with psychologist Steven D. Pinkerton of "With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality" (Oxford University Press, 2002). "The roles are clearly defined and the focus or intent is to provide additional erotic stimulus," said Abramson. "What the masochist gets is giving up control in a world where he or she often always has to be in control. The sadist is often someone who always wants to be in control but is not in control in real life, which is why there is often a gender reversal, with women playing the sadist."

"For perversion to be erotically exciting, the person has to feel like he or she is committing a sin," Diane Ackerman writes in her 1995 book, "A Natural History of Love." "Some moral code has to be transgressed, someone has to be hurt or humiliated, physically abused or degraded, or reduced to an inanimate object." A crucial ingredient that produces excitement is risk, or pretending to be at risk, writes Ackerman, quoting the work of psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, who studied unconventional sexual behavior.

This is part of what makes playing at sadomasochism exciting for couples who are otherwise quite conventional. Lonnie Barbach, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist, said she sees couples in her practice who engage in non-abusive sadomasochism because it is fun and playful but also because it requires emotional risk-taking, which builds intimacy. "Most S&M relationships can only happen where two people feel vulnerable and safe," said Barbach. "No one is going to criticize or judge you. The trust is a really important aspect of it. To be really vulnerable, you have to know your lover will stop on a dime. Often, it is the masochist who is really in control. The sadist can only go as far as the masochist will go."

Sadomasochism can be part of a loving relationship, said Beverly Palmer, a professor of psychology at Cal State Dominguez Hills, as long as there is mutual respect for each others' bodies and desires and the behavior is "a fleeting variation of one's sexual script" rather than a compulsion.

"The two people have to relate to each other as people, not objects," said Palmer, who has a private practice in Torrance. "If people are engaging in S&M in the service of distorted needs, a need to hurt or be hurt, or a need to be shamed or to shame, it generally is not part of a loving relationship."

Kuriansky, a clinical psychologist for 30 years, said that in cases where conventional couples have battles over control, she sometimes assigns what she calls " 'Who's the Boss' homework." "One night she gets to order him around and he gets to do her bidding, and then it is his turn," said Kuriansky, author of "The Complete Idiots Guide to a Healthy Relationship," (Alpha Books; 2001). "We always ask that they be polite. A therapist has to be very, very precise because the homework can be misinterpreted and get out of control."

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