‘Blue Velvet’ Shows Kink As a Form of Healing From Trauma

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  • Watching “Blue Velvet” for the first time as a teen left the writer feeling queasy and repulsed.
  • The movie, known for its controversial, kinky scenes, stars Isabella Rossellini and Kyle MacLachlan.
  • But the writer reconsiders the film’s depiction of kink now that she’s participated in kink herself.

I have a distinct memory of watching “Blue Velvet” for the first time. 

Having been born the year before David Lynch‘s 1986 film hit theaters, I obviously couldn’t see it upon its release. So I did the next best thing: rented a VHS copy of it from Blockbuster years later, when I was a teenager.

I was always the “weird,” artsy kid, and my dad had been a big fan of Lynch’s work, so it wasn’t a particularly odd choice for me at the video store. But when my 14-year-old self watched the now-infamous first scene between Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth and Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens for the first time, I began to feel panic rising from my stomach and spreading throughout my limbs.

I felt nauseous. I felt dirty. I felt queasy. I felt terrified and repulsed.

As a survivor of childhood trauma, I definitely wasn’t ready for what I was watching, and I turned it off shortly thereafter. But watching it again more recently, having now participated in kink myself, my feelings about the movie have changed radically and for the better.

Italian actress Isabella Rossellini on the set of "Blue Velvet"

Rossellini in “Blue Velvet.”

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)


‘Blue Velvet’ is a controversial classic that famously depicts kink and BDSM

With “Blue Velvet” celebrating its 35th anniversary in September and the recent death of Dean Stockwell, who starred as Frank’s criminal associate, Ben, the movie has been on my mind once again.

At the time it was released, critics’ reviews were mixed, with some calling it a cinematic masterpiece and others a goose egg. Starring Rossellini, Hopper, and Stockwell, along with Kyle MacLachlan (Jeffrey Beaumont) and Laura Dern (Sandy Williams) in other lead roles, the film is classic Lynch. It’s surreal, disorienting, and open to be interpreted various ways and on multiple levels.

But in a nutshell, “Blue Velvet” follows MacLachlan’s Jeffrey, a young man who’s just come back home from college when he comes across a severed ear in an empty field. From here, a typical Lynchian rabbit hole of oddness commences as the movie begins to take on a dream-like state.

Though the film never mentions the word “kink,” which internationally-acclaimed sexuality coach and sex educator Midori defines as “childhood joyous play with adult sexual privilege and cool toys,” most people retrospectively think of it in those terms.

“Blue Velvet” is most known for that initial scene between Frank and Dorothy that struck me so much when I first watched it as a teenager. In the scene, Frank calls Dorothy “mommy” and takes huffs from a tank of amyl nitrite while Dorothy spreads her legs. He then puts Dorothy’s blue velvet robe, the namesake of the film, in his mouth.

The presence of age play, breath play, poppers/amyl nitrite and, of course, blue velvet, was, to many film watchers, something they had never seen before in a sexual context.

American actor Dennis Hopper and Italian actress Isabella Rossellini on the set of "Blue Velvet"

Dennis Hopper and Rossellini in “Blue Velvet.”

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images


When I was a teen and a survivor of childhood sexual trauma, watching ‘Blue Velvet’ made me feel uncomfortable

Watching “Blue Velvet” as a teenager spurred a complicated blend of emotions due, in part, to the nature of Dorothy’s relationship with Frank (viewers, along with Jeffrey, soon learn that Frank has kidnapped Dorothy’s son and husband and is extorting her in exchange for sex).

But seeing Dorothy giving herself so (seemingly) willingly in a scenario that many would consider rape was extremely disturbing and alarming to me, at the time. I now realize that it’s because Dorothy’s apparent willingness in the sexual encounter brought up uncomfortable feelings about what victims of sexual assault can do in order to survive what they’re experiencing.

That Dorothy wasn’t fighting back — that she was actually portrayed as being an eager participant — raised important but terrifying questions about how as rape survivors, we often have no choice but to comply with our rapist. The “fighting back” trope is often just that. This also raises uncomfortable questions of consent: How can consent exist with someone as violent as Frank?

After the first scene with Dorothy and Frank, Dorothy begs Jeffrey, who has been hiding in her closet during Frank’s visit and has seen the whole thing, to hit her. This scenario repeats several times during their ongoing liaisons, and Jeffrey eventually chips her tooth after Dorothy keeps asking to be smacked in the face. Hit me, hit me, she says.

What I missed as a teenager was that the kink scene between Frank and Dorothy could be called sexual assault, even though no penetrative sex took place (or at least none that Lynch shows us on-screen). Instead, there were forced acts that were sexual and “kinky” in nature. But Dorothy eventually applies another form of kink in her relationship with Jeffrey — one that, while unusual, is far healthier than the abusive situation she experiences with Frank.

“Blue Velvet” shows that BDSM can be the cause of trauma, of course. It can be used for harm, and it can be criminal. But it can also be used for a kind of healing, as we see with Dorothy and Jeffrey.

In the film, Dorothy is in a kind of hopeless, desperate emotional state. Although the so-called “kink” with Frank is causing her harm, it appears to inadvertently also help excavate something much more primal and meaningful for her in the process, as we see play out in the sex she has with Jeffrey.

American actor Kyle MacLachlan and Italian actress Isabella Rossellini on the set of "Blue Velvet"

MacLachlan and Rossellini in “Blue Velvet.”

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images


For me, kink was a key part of healing sexual trauma. I now feel more positively about ‘Blue Velvet’ viewing it in that context

Some people wonder if those of us who are sexually traumatized can even consent to doing the same things that may have played a role in our trauma to begin with. While I can’t speak for all survivors, I say yes, it can and it has.

My first kink experience did this for me. When I went to my first kink party, I was excited but also a little afraid for my safety. I didn’t know that much about kink or the kink community, or really what a kink party even looked like or meant. Yes, people were doing your run-of-the-mill penetrative sex there, but mostly it was things other than traditional sex that were happening.

I laid down on a table while a woman dragged the tip of a knife across my whole body with differing amounts of pressure; giving me big cuts here and little cuts there. I relished the sensation and the intimacy within the act itself and the connection I felt to this person while we shared a very special experience. It is not simply sex or orgasms or getting off. It’s not necessarily about an end result at all, but a process. The process of integrating, the process of connecting, the process of healing.

And much like Dorothy getting her tooth chipped by Jeffrey, I found healing — I found healing from violence in kink.



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