By Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., guest contributor

 “A pervert is anybody kinkier than you are.” (Wiseman, 1996, p. 23).

The novel Fifty Shades of Grey introduced BDSM into polite public discourse. Since its publication, hallowed papers such as the New York Times have published articles on bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Harvard University now hosts a student group for undergraduates interested in consensual S&M. And Cosmo’s sex tips have taken a distinctly kinky turn.

With the Fifty Shades movie now coming to theaters, it seems like a good time to take stock of what we know, scientifically, about BDSM: Who does this stuff? What do they do? And what effects do these activities have on the people who do them?

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1. How many people are into S&M?

According to researchers, the number likely falls somewhere between 2 percent and 62 percent. That’s right: Somewhere between 2 percent and 62 percent. A pollster who published numbers like that would be looking for a new job. But when you’re asking people about their sex habits, the wording of the question makes all the difference.

On the low end, Juliet Richters and colleagues (2008) asked a large sample of Australians whether they had “been involved in B&D or S&M” in the past 12 months. Only 1.3 percent of women and 2.2 percent of men said yes.

On the high end, Christian Joyal and colleagues (2015) asked over 1,500 women and men about their sexual fantasies. 64.6 percent of women and 53.3 percent of men reported fantasies about being dominated sexually—and 46.7 percent of women and 59.6 percent of men reported fantasies about dominating someone sexually. Overall, we can probably conclude that a substantial minority of women and men do fantasize about or engage in BDSM (Moser & Levitt, 1987).

2. Are they sick?

For Freud, the answer was a clear yes: Anyone interested in S&M was in need of treatment—treatment that, by fine coincidence, he and his contemporaries were qualified to provide.

But recent research tells a different story.

Pamela Connolly (2006) compared BDSM practitioners to published norms on 10 psychological disorders. Compared to the normative samples, BDSM practitioners had lower levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychological sadism, psychological masochism, borderline pathology, and paranoia. (They showed equal levels of obsessive-compulsive disorder and higher levels of dissociation and narcissism.)

Similarly, Andreas Wismeijer and Marcel van Assen (2013) compared BDSM practitioners to non-BDSM-practitioners on major personality traits. Their results showed that in comparison to non-practitioners, BDSM practitioners exhibited higher levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and subjective well-being. Practitioners also showed lower levels of neuroticism and rejection sensitivity. The one negative trait that emerged? BDSM practitioners showed lower levels of agreeableness than non-practitioners.

This is not to say that everyone into sadism or masochism is doing so for psychologically healthy reasons. The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) still includes Sexual Sadism Disorder and Sexual Masochism Disorder as potential diagnoses. But a diagnosis now requires the interest or activities to cause “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (or to be done with a non-consenting partner). BDSM between consenting adults that does not cause the participants distress no longer qualifies.

3. What do they do?

Both researchers (Alison, Santtila, Sandnabba, & Nordling, 2001) and practitioners (Wiseman, 1996) have developed categories of BDSM activities. For example, Alison and colleagues have categories for physical restriction (bondage, handcuffs, chains); administration of pain (spanking, caning, putting clothespins on the skin); humiliation (gags, verbal humiliation); and a category related to sexual behavior.

4. What effect does BDSM have on the people who do it?

This is one of the central questions my research team has been investigating. In a BDSM scene, the person who is bound, receiving stimulation and/or following orders is called the bottom. The person providing the stimulation, orders or structure is called the top. We measured a range of physiological and psychological variables in bottoms and tops before and after their scenes.

Both bottoms and tops reported increases in relationship closeness and decreases in psychological stress from before to after their scenes (Ambler et al., under review; Sagarin, Cutler, Cutler, Lawler-Sagarin, & Matuszewich, 2009), but bottoms also showed increases in physiological stress as measured by the hormone cortisol (Sagarin et al., 2009). We found this disconnect between psychological stress and physiological stress to be very interesting, and we wondered whether it might indicate that bottoms have entered an altered state of consciousness.

To test this theory, we ran a study in which we randomly assigned switches (BDSM practitioners who sometimes take on the top role and sometimes take on the bottom role) to be the top or the bottom in a scene (Ambler et al., under review). The results revealed that both bottoms and tops entered altered states of consciousness, but they entered different altered states. Bottoms entered an altered state called “transient hypofrontality” (Dietrich, 2003), which is associated with reductions in pain, feelings of floating, feelings of peacefulness, feelings of living in the here and now and time distortions. Tops, in contrast, entered the altered state known as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991), which is associated with focused attention, a loss of self-consciousness and optimal performance of a task. We believe that these pleasurable altered states of consciousness might be one of the motivations that people have for engaging in BDSM activities.

Resources

  • Human sexuality journals such as Archives of Sexual Behavior and the Journal of Sex Research
  • Organizations such as the Kinsey Institute, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) and the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexuality (CARAS)
  • Web sites such as www.scienceofbdsm.com (my own site)
  • Advocacy organizations such as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF)
  • Community organizations such as the Society of Janus and the Arizona Power Exchange
  • Books such as Jay Wiseman’s SM 101: A Realistic Introduction
  • ... or you could simply Google “BDSM” and see what comes up, but I wouldn’t try it at work.

Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. He teaches courses on evolutionary psychology, attitude change and statistics. His research interests include social influence, resistance to persuasion, deception, jealousy, and infidelity, human sexuality and research methods.

References                                                                                           

  • Alison, L., Santtila, P., Sandnabba, N. K., & Nordling, N. (2001). Sadomasochistically-oriented behavior: Diversity in practice and meaning. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 30, 1–12.
  • Ambler, J. K., Lee, E. M., Klement, K., R., Loewald, T., Comber, E., Hanson, S. A., Cutler, B., Cutler, N. & Sagarin, B. J. (under review). Sadomasochism as a path to altered states of consciousness.
  • Connolly, P. H. (2006). Psychological functioning of bondage/domination/sado-masochism (BDSM) practitioners. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 18, 79-120.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 12, 231-256.
  • Joyal, C. C., Cossette, A., & Lapierre, V. (2015). What exactly is an unusual sexual fantasy? Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12, 328-340.
  • Moser, C., & Levitt, E. E. (1987). An exploratory-descriptive study of a sadomasochistically oriented sample. Journal of Sex Research, 23, 322–337.
  • Richters, J., de Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. A. (2008). Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660-1668.
  • Sagarin, B. J., Cutler, B., Cutler, N., Lawler-Sagarin, K. A., & Matuszewich, L. (2009). Hormonal changes and couple bonding in consensual sadomasochistic activity. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 186-200.
  • Wiseman, J. (1996). SM 101: A realistic introduction. San Francisco: Greenery Press.
  • Wismeijer, A. A. J. & van Assen, M. A. L. M. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10, 1943-1952.

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