Unique—Like Everybody Else

Personality, intelligence, and the differences that matter

BDSM, Personality and Mental Health

BDSM practitioners prefer roles that fit their personalities

A recent study on the psychological profile of BDSM (bondage and discipline, sadism-masochism) practitioners has attracted a great deal of media attention, with headlines proclaiming that “S&M practitioners are healthier and less neurotic than those with a tamer sex life.”  Although BDSM has often in the past been thought to be associated with psychopathology, the authors of the study argued that practitioners are generally psychologically healthy, if not more so in some respects, compared to the general population. However, it should be noted that most of the apparent psychological benefits of being a practitioner applied to those in the dominant rather than the submissive role. Additionally, the study findings need to be treated with some caution because it is not clear that the comparison group is a good representation of the general population.

It takes a rare woman to be a dominatrix
It takes a rare woman to be a dominatrix
http://www.flickr.com/photos/mbneave/8580201875/sizes/m/in/photostream/

BDSM involves a diverse range of practices usually involving role-playing games in which one person assumes a dominant role and another person assumes a submissive role. These activities often involve physical restraint, power plays, humiliation, and sometimes but not always, pain. The person playing the dominant role (or ‘dom’) controls the action, while the person in the submissive role (or ‘sub’) gives up control. Many people have a preferred role they play most of the time, although some people enjoy switching between roles (‘switches’).  

Is BDSM normal?

The practice of BDSM carries with it a certain amount of social stigma (Bezreh, Weinberg, & Edgar, 2012), although the recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey[1]might be a sign of increased mainstream acceptance. Health professions have long had a tendency to view the practice as pathological and even perverted. Common assumptions about people who participate in BDSM are that they psychologically anxious and maladjusted; that they are acting out a past history of sexual abuse; and that they are attempting to compensate for sexual difficulties. However, the small amount of research evidence available suggests that these assumptions are probably not true. For example, a telephone survey conducted in Australia found that people who had participated in BDSM in the previous year were not more distressed than others; were not more likely than others to have ever been sexually coerced; and did not report more sexual difficulties (Richters, De Visser, Rissel, Grulich, & Smith, 2008). However, to be fair to the mental health profession, the current edition of DSM only considers sadism and masochism as mental disorders if they cause the person clinically significant distress or a non-consenting person has been involved. So BDSM practiced between consenting persons who are happy with what they are doing is not officially considered pathological.

What are BDSM practitioners like? 

There has not been a great deal of research examining the psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners, so the aim of a recent study (Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013) was to compare BDSM practitioners with people from the “normal” population on a range of personality traits. A good description and critique of the study can be found here. BDSM practitioners were recruited from a Dutch BDSM web forum. Comparison participants were recruited through notices concerning “online secrecy research.” These were obtained through a variety of sources including a popular Dutch women’s magazine and a website that allows visitors to post their secrets. I have some concerns about whether the comparison group is a good representation of the general population, which I will return to in due course.

The study compared the BDSM practitioners and the control group on the Big Five personality traits – neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness – as well as on rejection sensitivity, relationship attachment styles, and subjective well-being (happiness) in the past two weeks. People in the BDSM group were also broken down into ‘doms’, ‘subs’, and ‘switches’, based on their respective preferences, to allow further comparisons. There were noticeable gender differences in how people assorted into these roles, which are illustrated in the pie charts below. Among females, over three-quarters were subs, switches were a distant second in popularity, while doms were very much in the minority. Roles were a little more evenly spread among the males, although doms were most popular (who made up nearly half), followed by subs (just over a third) and then switches. This suggests that female BDSM practitioners are more likely than males to prefer gender-typical roles.  


Created on my computer

Comparing the BDSM group as a whole with the controls gives a rather favourable impression of practitioners. The BDSM group as a whole were on average more extraverted, open to experience and conscientious, and less neurotic, as well as less sensitive to rejection, more securely attached, and higher in subjective well-being than the comparison group. On the less favourable side though, the BDSM group was less agreeable. High extraversion and low neuroticism tend to be associated with greater overall happiness, so it is not surprising that people with these traits appear psychologically secure and to have high subjective well-being. However, an overall comparison between practitioners and non-practitioners is actually misleading to some extent because when doms, subs, and switches were compared to the control group, and with each other, the results were more uneven. A more detailed examination of these differences shows some interesting patterns.

Openness to experimentation

Each of the three BDSM groups scored higher than the controls on openness to experience, so it is fair to say that practitioners generally tend to be more open-minded. This is not surprising, as openness to experience is associated with willingness to experiment with unusual and unconventional behaviours. Openness to experience is also associated with a trait called sexual sensation-seeking which relates to a desire to be sexually uninhibited and to explore novel sexual experiences (Gaither & Sellbom, 2003). I find it interesting in this regard, that the Australian survey mentioned earlier found that people who participated in BDSM had experienced a wider range of sexual practices, and had a greater number of lifetime sexual partners compared to non-participants. In fact, BDSM participants were significantly more likely to claim to have had 50 or more sex partners in their lives, and to have participated in group sex. This would indicate that people into BDSM tend to be very open to sexual experimentation generally (or perhaps that they are prone to wild exaggeration!).

Love of discipline? 

Both doms and subs, but not switches for some reason, scored higher than controls on conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is a broad trait related to self-discipline and has two major aspects related to orderliness and achievement striving respectively. The study did not examine whether either of these aspects were more prominent in BDSM practitioners. However, I would suspect that people who are attracted to BDSM probably have a high need for orderliness, and have a fond appreciation of rules and boundaries. Whether they have a high need for achievement or not remains to be seen. Going further, perhaps subs are the sort of people who prefer to have discipline and order provided for them, while doms are the sort who like imposing rules and structure on others. This difference in preference for controlling or being controlled may well relate to differences in agreeableness between these two groups.

Disagreeable dominants, sweet submissives

Agreeableness is related to overall pleasantness and consideration for the comfort of other people. Subs and switches actually did not differ from the control group in agreeableness. However, doms were lower than both the controls and the subs in agreeableness. People who are low in agreeableness tend to be tough rather than tender minded, are willing to make hard decisions, and tend to be bossy and demanding in the way they relate to others. Thus it would seem that people who are into BDSM generally prefer the role that fits their own level of agreeableness. Tough, domineering people would seem to prefer the dominant role, while those who are more tender and willing to please naturally fit into the submissive role. I found this particularly interesting because it suggests that doms have found a way to express their disagreeableness in a way that is actually welcomed and appreciated by their submissive partners. This is in contrast to more ordinary disagreeableness in everyday life which is usually seen as annoying and rude.

Nasty or nice? Could it be both?
http://www.flickr.com/photos/dekaritae/2526014908/sizes/m/in/photostream/

I have elsewhere come across the idea that people into BDSM like to explore roles that are the opposite of their day-to-day roles, e.g. those who are accustomed to ordering people around are attracted to the submissive role (see here and here for example). The thinking behind this is that such people like to have a way of compensating for the pressure of command and experiencing a sense of relief from the burden of being responsible for others. However, the findings in this study would seem to suggest that the majority of practitioners are drawn to roles that reflect rather than compensate for their normal personalities. Perhaps, there is a minority subgroup of people who go against this trend, but further more detailed studies would be needed to test if this is true.

Regarding extraversion, the only significant difference was that subs were more extraverted than the control group. Extraversion is related to both sociability and assertiveness. I therefore found it surprising that the doms were not higher on extraversion (due to the assertiveness component) than other groups. Why subs were higher on extraversion is not totally clear. Perhaps they have a particularly friendly outgoing nature. Extraversion is also related to excitement seeking, so perhaps subs find the attention they receive and the unpredictability of participating in role-playing satisfies this need for excitement. More detailed surveys would make this clearer.

Calm and in control 

The Big Five personality trait that has been most strongly linked to mental health versus pathology is neuroticism (Malouff, Thorsteinsson, & Schutte, 2005). As an illustration, in the BDSM study, neuroticism had large positive correlations with anxious attachment, need for approval, and sensitivity to rejection, and a large negative correlation with subjective well-being. Perhaps the most striking finding of this study is that the doms were significantly lower in neuroticism than all the other groups, and this was the statistically largest difference between groups. Doms also scored lower in rejection sensitivity and need for approval compared to subs and the control group, while the latter two groups did not differ from each other in either of these measures. Furthermore, the doms scored higher in subjective well-being than all the other groups as well. Subs and switches did not differ from the control group in neuroticism or subjective well-being. Rejection sensitivity and need for approval, like neuroticism, are negatively correlated with subjective well-being, so the fact that doms scored low on these measures may well account for their high levels of subjective well-being. 

High neuroticism is associated with self-conscious emotions, such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment, as well as a host of other negative emotions.  People who are low in neuroticism therefore tend to be relatively untroubled by these feelings. Perhaps people who prefer the dom role tend to be those who are relatively shameless, self-confident, not easily embarrassed, and who do not feel guilty or shy about inflicting punishments during their role-plays. Additionally, they do not seem to be overly concerned about seeking other people’s approval, but instead may expect other people to gain their approval instead. This would seem to fit well with the role they play in BDSM where they demand obedience from the sub.

What about honesty-humility?

The desire to obey and be subjugated leads to consideration of a personality trait not discussed by Wismeijer and van Assen’s study. Some researchers have proposed that there is a sixth factor of personality, known as honesty-humility, that is separate and distinct from the more well-known Big Five factors (Bourdage, Lee, Ashton, & Perry, 2007). One intriguing possibility is that subs might score particularly high on this factor. Subs seek self-abasement and humiliation in their role-playing. Although humiliation and humility are not the same thing, it seems intuitively plausible that they are related. Furthermore, doms might be the opposite, possessing a desire to feel superior to others. Research could confirm whether subs are higher than average, or indeed whether doms are lower than average in this important trait.

Role-playing games are popular activities in BDSM
Role-playing games are popular activities
Lorelei7 at the English language Wikipedia

But did the control group provide a fair comparison?

To summarise briefly, the findings of the BDSM study suggest that practitioners in general are open-minded about having unusual experiences, and tend to be self-disciplined people. However, most of the psychological benefits claimed to be associated with BDSM, such as low neuroticism, more secure attachment and higher subjective well-being belong to doms rather than subs or switches. However, subs were more extraverted than the other groups. On the other hand, doms appear to be more disagreeable than other people, which seems to suit them in their preferred role. This seems all well and good, however I am concerned that the control group might or might not be a good representation of the general population. The control group was largely drawn from a website recruiting people for research into secret keeping. There are all sorts of reasons that people keep secrets, and generally speaking it is normal to do so occasionally. However, some people have particularly secretive personalities where they feel that there are parts of themselves that they would prefer not to reveal to other people due to shame or fear of rejection. The trait of being secretive in this way, known as self-concealment, is associated with high neuroticism and low subjective well-being (Wismeijer & van Assen, 2008). It is possible that people who feel drawn to use websites where they can post secrets anonymously or who are willing to participate in secrecy research might have elevated levels of self-concealment. If this was the case, it is possible that the control group in the BDSM study might have had higher than average levels of neuroticism and associated traits such as rejection sensitivity. If so, this would imply that the BDSM groups who did not differ from the control group, especially the subs might also have high levels of neuroticism, rejection sensitivity and so on. This would imply that the doms were not especially unusual in their personality traits, because they were being compared to a group with high averages. Currently we do not know if any of these concerns apply to the control group or not so the study findings need to be treated with a degree of caution.

Future research should aim to confirm the findings of the BDSM study with a more representative control group, along with a broader range of measures of mental health (e.g. screening for drug use and abuse) to explore to what extent people into BDSM really do enjoy better mental health than other people. Researchers could also investigate how well adjusted practitioners are in their lives and relationships in general. For example, are doms, being low in agreeableness, particularly antagonistic in their relationships in general, outside of BDSM? Additionally, considering the sexual promiscuity of BDSM practitioners revealed in a previous survey, it would be important to examine their attitudes towards risky sexual practices and whether they are at higher than usual risk of sexually transmitted diseases. BDSM encompasses a wide range of practices in a variety of contexts, e.g. in committed relationships, as well as more casual settings. Future research might consider more specific aspects of how people participate in BDSM to provide a richer understanding of the psychology of this intriguing area of human life.  

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

Image credits

Dominatrix III - mb.neave courtesy of Flickr 

Pie charts created by myself

Bondage -  Dekaritae courtesy of Flickr

Suspension - Lorelei7 at the English language Wikipedia

Other posts about sex and psychology

Porn Stars and Evolutionary Psychology

The Personalities of Porn Stars

Are Sex and Religion Natural Enemies?

Does Oral Sex have an Evolutionary Purpose?

Infidelity Detection and Women’s Interest in Oral Sex

The Pseudoscience of Race Differences in Penis Size

Semen an Antidepressant? Think Again

References

Bezreh, T., Weinberg, T. S., & Edgar, T. (2012). BDSM Disclosure and Stigma Management: Identifying Opportunities for Sex Education. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 7(1), 37-61. doi: 10.1080/15546128.2012.650984

Bourdage, J. S., Lee, K., Ashton, M. C., & Perry, A. (2007). Big Five and HEXACO model personality correlates of sexuality. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(6), 1506-1516. doi: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886907001584

Gaither, G. A., & Sellbom, M. (2003). The Sexual Sensation Seeking Scale: Reliablity and Validity Within a Heterosexual College Student Sample. Journal of Personality Assessment, 81(2), 157-167. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa8102_07

Malouff, J. M., Thorsteinsson, E. B., & Schutte, N. S. (2005). The Relationship Between the Five-Factor Model of Personality and Symptoms of Clinical Disorders: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 27(2), 101-114.

Richters, J., De Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. A. (2008). Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in Bondage and Discipline, “Sadomasochism” or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5(7), 1660-1668. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00795.x

Wismeijer, A., & van Assen, M. (2008). Do neuroticism and extraversion explain the negative association between self-concealment and subjective well-being? Personality and Individual Differences, 45(5), 345-349. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.05.002

Wismeijer, A. A. J., & van Assen, M. A. L. M. (2013). Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1111/jsm.12192


Note

[1] I have not read this novel, and do not intend to imply that it is a particularly good guide to BDSM anymore than romance novels are a good guide to adult relationships. 

Scott McGreal is a psychology researcher with a particular interest in individual differences, especially in personality and intelligence.

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