The 50 Shades phenomenon has been and gone. But are there underlying principles used within the fetish community that could benefit our romantic relationships?
Sex. It’s not something we talk about, is it? As a nation, we tend to leave what happens between the sheets well and truly behind closed doors. But why is that, when studies have shown the physical and psychological benefits sex and loving relationships can have on our wellbeing?
According to research, arousal can have the same benefits as light exercise, a good hug can help lower blood pressure and release tension, while hormones released during orgasm help us achieve a better night’s sleep.
Research also suggests that sex can benefit our mental health. Reducing our overall levels of stress and anxiety whilst boosting happiness, we feel more satisfied and are better able to identify emotions when we regularly have sex with our partners.
With so many benefits, shouldn’t we be shouting it from the rooftops? Yet, despite the many benefits, our romantic relationships may not be as rosy as they first appear. Relationship charity Relate revealed that over half of us try to make our relationship appear happier than it really is. 42% of us use social media to give the impression of a ‘perfect relationship’ - even though a staggering 33% of Brits are in a relationship that has experienced infidelity.
It’s time we started looking at what can really help us have a more fulfilling, long-lasting relationship. Could the fetish community already have the answers?
RACK, SSC and wellbeing within the kink community
Communication is key. It’s a simple concept, yet research suggests an overwhelming 91% of us feel we would benefit from being more open about our relationship issues.
If you’ve ever ventured beyond the fluffy handcuffs and copies of 50 Shades of Grey at your local Ann Summers, and into the welcoming arms of your local or online communities, you’ve likely encountered the terms SSC and RACK. These two main principles underpin many of the interactions within the kink community.
Standing for Safe, Sane and Consensual (SSC) and Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK), each acts as a basic structure for negotiating relationships, scenes, and interactions (both sexual and non-sexual).
SSC, often considered the more introductory, reminds participants to keep their safety and wellbeing at the forefront of any new or existing relationship dynamic. The emphasis on consent not only reminds individuals of its importance, but that open, honest conversations about what each of you is open to and excited about trying is key.
RACK, considered more advanced, tends to be used by those wishing to push boundaries, try more experimental exploration, or who have more complex dynamics. Emphasising the importance of awareness of risks as well as consent, there is some debate over which offers a safer framework, however, both have one key area in common: a focus on the importance of continued communication and boundary definition.
While we may know the benefits of open, honest communication, many of us have trouble practising what we preach. Recent research from mental health charity Mind revealed that 82% of British adults believe meaningful conversations are beneficial to our mental wellbeing, yet 46% of us keep our worries to ourselves.
Are kinky couples happier?
Are those within fetish communities better communicators? According to researchers in The Netherlands, those who practice BDSM may not only be better communicators than couples who don’t, but also have a higher sense of wellbeing. It was found that men involved with BDSM are “significantly less likely to report psychological distress”.
Researchers from the Department of Clinical Psychology at Tilburg University revealed that BDSM participants are less neurotic, more open to new experiences, and less sensitive to rejection than their vanilla counterparts. Women particularly were more confident in their relationships, expressed less need for approval, and were less anxiously attached.
As many fetish-related activities require explicit consent around what will happen, for how long and how intensely, those who take part individually or as part of a couple must be able to communicate what they want, desire, and need. Talking about potential triggers, negative past experiences, fears, and soft limits are all important parts of the negotiation progress. As relationships develop, so too must these conversations continue to develop, keeping an open, honest and frank dialogue going for the safety and wellbeing of all involved.
Communication and safewords
If the success and ongoing happiness within our relationships really are down to us being more open with each other, why do so many of us struggle with communication? Counselling Directory member and counsellor, Alex Sanderson-Shortt, explains what we can learn from kink relationships.
“Working as a relationship therapist, the word I use more than any other is ‘communication’. Whatever is going within a relationship, if they are unable to communicate, they will not be able to tell each other what’s wrong, how they feel, or what they want to do about it.
“Good communication is needed for all parties to be able to express their feelings and tell the other what is and isn’t OK. This means conversations taking place that are open, frank and continuing.
“Thoughts and feelings are articulated clearly between all parties, whether it’s at the start of a one-off session or a long-term relationship. The ability to pause and re-evaluate these feelings and thoughts is also explicitly built into the relationship, so that any of those involved can ensure their and their partner's physical and emotional safety is always put ahead of any need for instant gratification.
“Safe words, which stop any action immediately, are a hallmark of kink relationships. And these are an idea I use with non-kink couples to help them manage arguments. Each must agree and respect the word, and know exactly what it means when it is used (time out, physical distance, mediation). What happens after it has been used to encourage constructive discussion rather than destructive anger.
“Sometimes people find it hard to state their needs and desires, seeing it as somehow ‘selfish’, or that their needs are less important than the other’s, or the relationship itself. Kink teaches us that all parties are valid and their needs should be respected. Where there are conflicts, these need to be clearly expressed and evaluated, rather than being seen as a struggle to see who wins, which is often what we see in therapy.
“Being able to talk about activities, feelings and ideas that may be embarrassing or stigmatising is a hallmark of kink relationships - and should be part of any relationship. Having ‘hard limits’, being open to re-negotiation, trusting the other(s) to hold your emotional self as well as being ready to hold theirs - these are all hallmarks of good relationships where the individuals within the relationship are authentic, autonomous selves joined in a solid whole.
“All relationships should be based on mutual respect, not necessarily agreement. This can only be achieved if each person is able to articulate their thoughts and have them heard, not just once but as things change, the rules of the relationship need to be adjusted.”
What can I do to improve my relationship?
If you are worried communication within your relationship may have broken down, it’s important to start reopening those lines of dialogue and allowing for more honest communication. The less we talk, the more strain we put on not only our relationships, but on ourselves. We cannot shoulder all of the stress and responsibilities within a relationship on just one person. If you’re unsure where to start, Relate share 80 tips for long-lasting, fulfilling relationships.
If you are concerned you may be experiencing relationship problems, it’s important to remember that you aren’t alone. Disagreements are common in any relationship (no matter what picture we may try to paint on social media), however, if you’re worried that your communication may be failing, or there may be more serious underlying problems, it may be worth speaking with a relationship counsellor.
Couples therapy isn’t just for married couples, and can help you explore a wide range of difficulties that may crop up within your relationship.
Originally published: 14 November 2019
Updated: 08 September 2022