The Surprising Psychology of BDSM Players

What the books and movies get right, and what they get very wrong.

Posted Apr 01, 2015

VGstockstudio/Shutterstock
Source: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

Both the book and movie versions of Fifty Shades of Grey got a good deal right about erotic bondage-discipline-sado-masochism (BDSM). But Fifty Shades also got one thing horribly wrong: It depicts the dominant (dom, top) Christian Grey as the product of horrendous child abuse and implies that it propelled him into BDSM. In other words, Fifty Shades plays into the widely held belief that those involved in BDSM are psychologically damaged if not pathological.

However, the research shows that people into BDSM are psychologically healthy and no more likely to have suffered child abuse or sexual trauma than anyone else. In fact, a recent Dutch study shows that compared with the general population, in some ways BDSMers just might be psychologically healthier.

What the Books Got Right

  • Communication. Before Grey lays a hand on his sub, Anastasia Steele, they discuss in great detail how they want to play. This is quite typical—and a foundation of BDSM. Dom/sub play opens a huge realm of possibilities, and doms and subs discuss them at length, revealing their fantasies and hearing the other person’s. In fact, some BDSMers consider these discussions the most intimate element of their play.
  • Negotiation of limits. Grey presses Steele on her personal limits, the hard boundaries she can’t conceive of crossing, and the soft ones that she might cross under the right circumstances. Both players declare their limits, and pledge to respect the other’s. As a result, BDSM is play, not abuse.
  • Safe words. Grey tells Steele that if she feels at all uncomfortable at any time, she is always free to invoke their safe word (for example “red light"). Upon hearing it, doms pledge to cease all play immediately and re-negotiate the scene. Safe words mean that, ironically, the person ultimately in control of BDSM scenes is the sub.
  • Contracts. Grey hands Steele a proposed contract governing their play and they discuss it point by point. Steele agrees to some clauses, modifies others, and nixes a few. Not all BDSM players codify their negotiations in written contracts, but many do.
  • Intimacy. Steele is surprised by how intimate BDSM play feels, and how emotionally close it brings her to her lover. Aficionados say they believe that BDSM produces a depth of intimacy beyond what’s possible in ordinary (“vanilla”) sex.

Author E.L. James captures these aspects of BDSM activity quite well. Unfortunately, she’s poorly informed about its psychology.

BDSM Players Are Psychologically Healthy

For their recent survey, Dutch researchers solicited participants via the Netherlands’ largest BDSM web forum, and 902 people answered all questions (51 percent men, 49 percent women). For a control group, the researchers used Dutch women’s magazines and news media to recruit participants, and 434 people answered all questions (30 percent men, 70 percent women).

The questions probed many aspects of personalityagreeableness, attachment, conscientiousness, anxiety, introversion/extroversion, neuroticism, need for approval, comfort with interpersonal closeness, openness to new experiences, and subjective well-being. In general, doms and subs scored about the same as members of the control group, indicating that there’s nothing fundamentally unusual about those into this type of play. But BDSMers were actually somewhat less neurotic than others. They were also slightly more conscientiousness, more extroverted, and (not surprisingly) more open to new experiences. For overall well-being, doms scored higher than either subs or controls.

The researchers concluded:

“BDSM practitioners are not psychologically maladapted, but rather characterized by psychological strength and autonomy. Our data do not support the persistent assumption that BDSM is associated with inadequate developmental attachment processes because of a history of trauma or for other reasons. BDSM should be considered a form of recreation rather than the expression of psychopathological processes.”

Corroborating Evidence

The Dutch study is not the only one showing that those who enjoy BDSM are psychologically normal and healthy:

  • Australian researchers surveyed 19,370 individuals in that country and found that the 2.2 percent of men and 1.3 percent of women who participated in BDSM were psychologically healthy, and no more likely than anyone else to have been victims of childhood trauma or sexual abuse or coercion.
  • Scientists at the University of Illinois took saliva samples from 58 people before BDSM play, measuring cortisol, a key stress hormone. After a BDSM session, the researchers took new saliva samples, and found decreased cortisol levels, showing that BDSM reduced players’ emotional stress. The researchers concluded that far from being abusive, BDSM made participants feel more comfortable and “increased intimacy.”

If you’re into romance fiction, enjoy Fifty Shades of Grey—and if you find its BDSM titillating, that's fine, too. But don’t generalize Christian Grey’s history of child abuse to BDSM practitioners in general. BDSM is neither abusive nor about violence or pain. It’s just another way for consenting adults to play, and those who do are not perverted, but rather a snapshot of the general population.

References

Richters, J. et al “Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in Bondage and Discipline, Sadomasochism, or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2008) 5:1660.

Sagarin, B.J. et al. “Hormonal Changes and Couple Bonding in Consensual Sado-Masochistic Activity,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2009) 38:186.

Wismeijer,  A.A.J., and M.A.L.M. Van Assen. “Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2013) 10:1943.

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