This is a guest post featuring my collaborators, Markie Twist and Dulcinea Pitagora.

First, a caveat: We are not advocates of the ill-informed works of either Sigmund Freud or E. L. James (author of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy), nor do we consider either to be authorities on sex and sexuality. However, it would be foolish to deny the impact they have had on society. Freud, although his theories and therapy were rooted in misogyny and opinion, did something no other psychological professional in the Western world had done before him: He openly talked about sex and sexual identity development. This laid the groundwork for our current sexual world and profession, one in which we can now talk about sex, and in which we have space to assist clients working through sexuality-related concerns.

James has done something similar for the world of Bondage and Domination/Dominance and Submission/Sadism and Masochism/Sadomasochism (BDSM), or kink: She has opened up a larger discussion around these practices and erotic orientation. This is arguably the one positive outcome of James’ books and the related movie series. These questions and conversations around BDSM are much needed and long overdue. So for this outcome, much like that of Freud’s enabling talking about sexuality in general, we are thankful.

Fifty Shades, labeled for reuse, Vimeo
Source: Fifty Shades, labeled for reuse, Vimeo

To the point of our caveat: Freud did not base his ideas on research-informed knowledge, leading to harm and misunderstanding by many consumers of his works, and neither did E. L. James, leading many of her readers to have grave misunderstandings of what BDSM is and is not.

While misconceptions about BDSM are not new, some of the most frequently asked questions include: What kinds of personality types engage in BDSM? Do people who engage in BDSM come from abusive families? Why would someone want to engage in BDSM play? Is BDSM abuse? Are BDSM relationships cold, distant, controlling, or abusive? What kind of feelings do people who engage in BDSM experience before, during, and after intense sensation play?

To help elevate understanding and provide answers to these questions, we conducted an ethics board-approved study involving more than 200 participants who engage in BDSM. We recruited subjects via online networks and professional listservs. Information was obtained from respondents via an online survey, consisting of roughly 12 qualitative questions about the individual's motivations and experiences engaging in BDSM, as well as three psychological instruments—the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale-Short Form (ECR-S), which measures attachment style; the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale (ACE), which measures level of childhood trauma; and The Big Five Inventory (BFI), which measures personality traits. Using these measures, we were able to answer many of the above questions. Our preliminary findings are below. We are currently writing up these findings and will be sending them to appropriate journals for publication.

Why would someone want to engage in BDSM play? What kind of feelings do people who engage in BDSM experience before, during, and after their intense sensation play?

The qualitative section asked about the individual's motivation, as well as subjective experiences before, during, and after engaging in BDSM sensation play. In response to these kinds of questions, many BDSM participants stated that they felt excitement and anticipation ahead of time, a sense of excitement and pleasure during the encounter, and a wave of deep connection to their partner afterward, as well as a stronger sense of self-empowerment and authenticity.

Do people who engage in BDSM come from abusive childhoods or unhealthy families?

Regarding the ACE assessment, we found no significant difference between people who engage in BDSM and those who don't in traumatic childhood experiences such as feeling neglected, having divorced or separated parents, witnessing the abuse of a parent, or living with substance or alcohol abusers.

What kind of personality types engage in BDSM?

Regarding the BFI measure, we found that people who engage in BDSM had significantly higher scores on the BFI Openness to New Experiences subscale. Otherwise, this group was considered "typical" in terms of the standard/normal sample on which the BFI was developed.

Are BDSM relationships cold, distant, controlling, or abusive?

Finally, regarding the ECR-S measure, we found that there was no significant difference between people who engage in BDSM and people who don’t in Anxious or Avoidant attachment styles. This means that BDSM participants are not more likely than others to be uncomfortable with closeness in relationships, nor are they more likely to be the needy stalker type from Fatal Attraction.

In short, those who practice BDSM do not have more pathological personality traits or insecure attachment styles, or substantially more adverse childhood experiences; nor are most of them experiencing negative feelings or being driven by harmful motivations in their engagement of intense sensation play. Our findings counter much of what is presented in the Fifty Shades trilogy. In addition, our results match much of the previous research around BDSM/kink practices and practitioners, in that our findings mirror recent research showing no connection between BDSM and pathology.

The Fifty Shades trilogy may be good entertainment for some, but by portraying Christian Grey as an enigmatic, avoidant figure, incapable of intimacy outside of sadomasochism due to childhood abuse, the author does a disservice to the BDSM community by portraying its participants in a stigmatizing and pathologizing light. Our research indicates that individuals who practice the intense sensation play of BDSM are just as securely attached as community samples and are no more likely to have suffered childhood abuse. Further, the only significant personality trait that they hold is more openness to new experiences, making them more open-minded and adventurous. Instead of causing pain and distress, BDSM participants report feeling pleasure, excitement, self-empowerment, authenticity, and deep connection to their partners within their experiences. 

As the authors of this research, we believe that Fifty Shades has provided some benefit by bringing greater awareness about BDSM to a mainstream audience, but our research shows it's time to put all the myths, misconceptions, and inaccurate portrayals of BDSM participants finally to bed.

Note: The authors would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of University of Wisconsin-Stout, Marriage and Family Therapy Program and Graduate Certificate in Sex Therapy student Serenity Curtis for her assistance with our research study of the focus on this blog.

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