Whips, chains, collars, gags, blindfolds, handcuffs, knives… My eyes roam the soundproof room in which we are enclosed. The subject of our conversation is BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism), a discipline that includes a wide variety of consensual power-exchange activities suggested by the various implements on display.

“Whether they are soldiers or victims,” Leslie Rogers explains, “there is nothing that binds people together better than war. What I'm re-creating in BDSM is like war—but in re-creating war, I'm ending it. I'm going to a place with you where I shouldn't go, and we’ll meet there, and in the end we’ll realize that we are still capable of being loved.”

I am talking with Rogers in a dungeon beneath a cabin in Salinas, California. The burly 36-year-old has one hand on the bar of a jail cell. The other clutches the nape of his partner’s neck, 33-year-old Tani Thole.

“We come across as really straight and vanilla,” Thole noted with a grin. “I have this soccer-mom vibe, and Leslie has a businessman vibe. People are very surprised when they find out who we really are.”

The American Psychiatric Association has its own definition. Rogers, a self-identified dominant, enthusiastically endorses having “recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the physical or psychological suffering of another person.” In her desire to be the object of that suffering, Thole, a self-identified submissive, is his mirror image and ideal mate. Respectively, they meet all primary criteria for Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism Disorders.

However, rather than experiencing “significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,” the pair credits their lifestyle with producing dramatic improvements in mental health. While conventional psychotherapists still debate the ethics of hugging their patients, Rogers and Thole have pioneered a form of intensive therapy that incorporates consensual BDSM activities into their sessions with clients. The objective is to activate repressed emotions in order to process them in a safe and supportive environment.

In order to better understand their technique, which they call Light/Dark Therapy, the couple invited me to participate in an immersion with them. For the next 48 hours, we will not leave this cabin.

* * *

While psychology has historically defined sadomasochism as strictly pathological, there is some research that supports Rogers and Thole’s perspective.

A study from the Netherlands found a greater prevalence of positive psychological traits in BDSM practitioners than in the general public. The practitioners were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, and had higher subjective well-being.

A subsequent U.S. study of BDSM-identified couples found reductions in self-reported stress and negative affect, as well as increases in intimacy following BDSM play.

According to Brad Sagarin, the effects can be even more profound. The psychologist’s latest paper investigates the potential for sadomasochistic activities to induce altered states of consciousness.

“Dominants show evidence of flow,” Sagarin explained, “a very pleasurable state that occurs when people are in optimum performance and tune out the rest of the world. The submissive seems to enter a different altered state of consciousness that the BDSM community refers to as sub-space—a pleasurable and timeless, almost floating feeling.”

Sagarin attributes the changes in a submissive’s consciousness to a temporary reduction in prefrontal-cortex activity, which is thought to be integral to the euphoric and dissociative experience of endurance runners, meditators, and individuals under hypnosis.

“One of the things that resides in the prefrontal cortex is our sense of self,” Sagarin elaborated. “When that area of the brain gets down-regulated, we can lose the distinction between ourselves and the universe.”

The feeling of expansive unity that Sagarin describes is regarded as the signature trait of a mystical experience. Fellow BDSM researcher Bert Cutler noted the prominent role of physically-induced mystical states in spiritual and healing rituals across cultures and throughout history. Cutler cited Native American body suspension, ecstatic Sufi dance, and acts of extreme skin piercing practiced by certain Hindu and Buddhist sects. “These so-called primitive societies,” he added, “have discovered a lot of things that we are only just beginning to understand.”

Back in Salinas, in the dungeon, Rogers recalled his own process of discovery. “I grew up in the Baha'i religion which was once heavily persecuted in Persia. As a kid we learned all these stories about the martyrs of our faith who were killed in horrible ways—burned or skinned alive. And, all the stories are about the ecstasy that they experienced in that process of joining God. I was always fascinated by that, even though I couldn’t comprehend it.”

Thole’s tendencies were evident even earlier. “I was definitely an exhibitionist as a young kid,” she noted. “Later, in second grade, I remember very clearly a drawing I made of this evil-looking queen going down a staircase. The stairs led to a dungeon where a naked woman was strapped to a table with a tray of torture implements beside her. I was so turned on by it.”

Fantasies like these are commonplace. As a recent study reveals, over sixty percent of men and women have desires to dominate or be dominated. Homicidal ideation and other antisocial fantasies are also exceedingly normal. Given free reign, our aggressive drives have produced a human history of spectacular violence. Yet, as Rogers insists, the drives themselves are neither good nor bad. If conscientiously directed with the consent of others, even our darkest impulses can be profoundly meaningful. Unacknowledged however, they are often a constant source of shame, anxiety, and sublimation.

In Thole’s case, her tendencies attracted her to a series of abusive partners. Once she became conscious of her needs however, she was finally able to fulfill them inside the structure of a healthy relationship.

“Clients come in with desires that they don't even know how to articulate,” Rogers explained. “The repression runs so deep. What we’re really doing here is teaching adults how to play again. You know that thing you always wanted to do as a kid, but you never could? Now you can do it.”

In the words of Plato, “One can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” With a large body of supporting research, the modern psychological modality of play therapy is based on that idea. Play therapy has traditionally focused on children, but it can be just as effective in older populations. Its promotion of spontaneity provides a unique means of bypassing sophisticated adult defense mechanisms.

“I can analyze things forever,” Rogers acknowledged. “I can make a hundred things true, or a hundred things not true. But, underneath all that logic is sensation, and that's the only way I can really track who I am. I am most myself when I don't know what I'm about to say next—when I surprise myself. When I know what I'm going to say, it's because I rehearsed it, and some part of me is probably hiding something.”

Prior to our session, Rogers and Thole had conducted a series of phone interviews with me, exploring my history and the personal issues I wanted to address. Though the pair are not clinical psychologists, their intake process is similar to those of mainstream therapists.

One notable departure was an invitation to look for sadomasochistic themes in my own life. The couple believe that all human interactions occur within the framework of a dominance hierarchy. With this in mind, I recognized a definite sadistic pleasure in passing other joggers and refusing to be passed whenever I’ve gone running. I also have a tendency to be reflexively confrontational when faced with disrespect. In other ways, I can be an abject masochist—mentally punishing myself for miscalculations or missed opportunities.

In preparation for my own encounter with Light/Dark Therapy, I wanted to see how the kink community is already using high-intensity play for healing. Naturally, I headed to the epicenter of the BDSM world, the San Francisco Armory.

Dominating an entire city block, the century-old concrete fortress is the current headquarters of Kink.com, the internet’s largest producer of BDSM-themed pornography. I was met at the gate by Stefanos Tiziano, the company ringmaster. When asked about the therapeutic benefits of BDSM, the military veteran spoke of a friend—a female victim of sexual assault who found closure reenacting similar scenarios with her consent. According to Tiziano, the practice is common. “At first,” he confided, “I wasn’t sure it was such a great idea, but the woman is all the better for it, and her therapist thinks so too.” In these so-called catharsis scenes, the body, once the medium of trauma, becomes the medium of healing. The feeling of agency that arises from deciding to confront a frightening situation was cited by many practitioners as the source of their catharsis.

Tiziano and I spoke in a lush Victorian-style parlor that soon filled with elegantly dressed men and women. They were here as spectators for a shoot, but many were eager to talk about the role that BDSM had played in their own lives.

Luxuriating on a velvet couch, Natalie, a physician’s assistant, spoke of using BDSM to control a once-crippling anxiety disorder. In a scenario reminiscent of exposure therapy, she would place herself in controlled scenes designed to trigger her panic attacks so that she could confront them. The petite brunette reminisced about being tied up, slapped in the face, and crammed into a small box. “Ever since I started doing that, I've been having attacks less and less frequently,” she insisted. “Now, I can allow thoughts to come in and out without getting emotionally wrapped up in them. It helped me realize that I am not my thoughts.”

Similarly, Rogers and Thole’s therapeutic objective strives to take the serious emotionally laden material of life, and turn it into low-stakes play.

As Rogers admits, his first patient was himself. “There’s a part of me that is constantly self-pitying. One day, I got so tired of it, I told my community, ‘Today, I'm going to be out with my pity, just totally honest about how I feel.’ So, for that day, everything I said was some variation of ‘poor me.’ Well, there was just so much laughter. I kept thinking, ‘How can I keep upping the pity?’ At the end of that day, I was a different person. That part of me that I was always so ashamed of turned out to be a really funny thing about me. I learned that people will still love me, and now I have that visceral experience as proof.”

Rogers described another case in which he and Thole were able to transform the psychological into the visceral. “We had an Australian client recently,” he began, “an osteopath in a dysfunctional relationship. She put me in a gimp mask and made me crawl across the floor. She transformed me into a manifestation of her sadness and frustration over her relationship. She made me into the guy that she had been having problems with. She asked, ‘Why won't you call me back?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t care less.’ In the end, she had me chained to the bed, caning every inch of my body and making me apologize for not meeting her standards. It was a catharsis that allowed her to move beyond her passivity in that relationship.”

Thole offered a further example of a computer programmer who had always felt undeserving of love. “We put him in a cage, and asked if he wanted to get out. He said ‘No, I'm comfortable.’ So, Leslie went and got a bag of ice and dumped it on him until he asked to get out. Leslie dropped the keys just out of arms reach and said, ‘Go ahead, get out of the cage.’ The client had to tell us to give him the keys in a way that wasn’t coming from self-pity. He had to believe that he deserved it. He tried several times, but he just couldn’t do it. Finally, Leslie started throwing ice at him. All of a sudden this total badass came out. He said, ‘Leslie, pick up the key and open this cage right now!’ He came out of that cage a new man. It wasn’t a new lesson though. He had been in therapy before, and had had a similar revelation about his deservingness, but it only really connected when he was able to feel it in his body.”

The power of the visceral experience in psychology has primarily been studied in a negative sense—as in conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is growing evidence however, for the reverse as well. In the growing field of psychedelic therapy for example, scientists from around the world are inducing mystical states and intense visceral experiences capable of producing lasting cures for conditions as diverse as anxiety, depression, and PTSD itself.

Back in the cabin, before our first session began, I sat with Rogers and Thole to set intentions and boundaries. As always, there was to be no sexual contact. We discussed potential health issues and physical limitations. I signed a legal waiver. The couple brought up the concept of safewords. The word “red” spoken by anyone would immediately bring the proceedings to a halt.

“In the dungeon,” Rogers announced, “we become whatever the client needs to experience.” Over the next two days, the three of us became many different things. We participated in a series of scenes, comprising every imaginable combination of power dynamics. I beat the two of them. They beat me. We hurled abuse and crushed bananas at one another in turn. In between every scene, we sat as our civilized selves again and discussed what it had all meant.

Rogers has two main dominant personas. The one with the bulging eyes was The Demon—pure psychotic rage. That first night however, I was being stared down by the slit-eyed one, the one Rogers later called his Clint Eastwood.

“You’re pathetic,” he growled in an attempt to rouse my anger. “You’re broken. What’s wrong with you?”

I crossed my arms and attempted to glare back. “I can’t get mad at you, Leslie, when I know this is all an act.”

That’s when he shoved me—hard. I shoved him back, cursing. Furniture crashed to the ground as we grappled for control. Thole started screaming. It wasn’t an act anymore.

Later, when Thole led me to the St. Andrews Cross, I went willingly, but with a feeling of utter resignation. I lifted my arms so that she could strap me in as Rogers gently played the leather tendrils of the flogger over my back. Then suddenly, the first blow—expelling the breath out of me. When he struck me, I saw light. The harder he hit, the brighter the light. As the lashes fell, I felt like an obstinate child. At the same time though, I took a kind of wicked delight in the punishment of my body—as if it no longer belonged to me, as if I were free of it.

“You’ve gone far away,” Thole whispered as though she had read my mind. “You’ve left the room.”

“He’s left the planet,” Rogers announced.

With that thought, my resentment transformed instantly into a profound sorrow. I have always had an ambivalence about life—the poignant pity of being a slowly dying human body in a temporary world. I had never fully accepted it.

“What's broken in there?” Rogers demanded between strokes. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I can't be here,” I answered finally.

“Well,” he retorted, “that seems to be working very well for you. That gives you a lot of control. You're controlling us with it right now. You can appear and disappear whenever it suits you.”

“It’s not something I chose.”

They took me down from the cross and led me to the bed. Thole gestured for me to lay with my head on her lap. She stroked my hair as she smiled down upon my upturned face. “Hello,” she chirped. I laughed. “Hello,” she repeated. Whenever my attention drifted, she would say it again. In that way, she kept me present there with the two of them for a long time. “Welcome to earth,” she whispered finally, smiling like a mother.

When I left the cabin and drove back to San Francisco two days later, I was filled with a lightheartedness that lasted for days. I thought about the conversation we had that morning over breakfast. I had asked Rogers again about the Baha’i saints that had captivated him as a child. Did their ecstasy make any more sense to him now?

“It does,” he replied, “When you’re hit and you say no, that's pain. When you’re hit, and you say yes though, that’s sensation—and sensation is whatever you want it to be.”