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What Polyamorists and BDSM Participants Have in Common

Part I of a series exploring the intersections between polyamory and BDSM.

Key points

  • Kinky and polyamorous research respondents tend to be white and middle-class, but they may be the only ones who feel safe to join a study.
  • Both polyamorists and BDSM practitioners tend to be better at relationship communication than their monogamous counterparts.
  • Research shows that kinksters and polyamorous folks are less likely to express sexist attitudes and share a vulnerability to social stigma.
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

During my initial study of polyamory, when I had only been interviewing poly folks for a few months, one of my participants mentioned that they participated in BDSM as well as polyamory. Having heard of BDSM before only in passing, I asked for more information about it during the interview so I could more fully understand the point they were making.

A similar pattern emerged in later interviews, with over half of the adults involved in the study mentioning that they were also involved in BDSM to some degree. Because BDSM featured as such an important theme in my dissertation research, I studied it as well once I became an assistant professor at a university. What emerged was a clear parallel between the folks involved in kink and CNM, and an especially strong overlap between polyamory and BDSM.

This post first defines and explains BDSM, and then summarizes the similarities among the kinds of people who engage in kinky sex and/or multiple partner relationships.

What Is BDSM?

BDSM is the consensual exchange of personal power and intense sensation in pursuit of pleasure that is often (but not always) sexual. The acronym stands for Bondage and Discipline (people tie each other up and spank/whip/flog each other); Dominance and Submission (one person tells the other person what kind of control they are allowed to exert); and Sadism and Masochism (the glee of inflicting pain, and the joy of receiving that pain).

BDSM is different from abuse or intimate partner violence (IPV) because people negotiate consent beforehand, say a safeword when they want to stop because they are not having a good time, and check in after to make sure everything went OK. IPV, in contrast, is not negotiated, can not be stopped by a safeword, and aftercare is usually either "so so sorry, I will never do it again" or "this is your own fault, you deserved this" — neither of which is characteristic of consensual kinky relationships.

Kinky sex is an umbrella category that encompasses BDSM and describes a wide range of diverse sexual practices, loosely united by their difference from conventional sexual interactions which kinksters (people who have kinky sex) label as vanilla. Such a diverse community and practice that it is hard to briefly summarize, kinksters tend to favor role-play, costuming, personal power hierarchies, intense sensations, and the joy of playing (negotiated interactions usually aimed at sexual pleasure) with each other using a wide range of toys (floggers, clamps, insertables, etc).

While many kinky people are in monogamous relationships and lots of poly folks are vanilla, there is still a large overlap between kinksters and polyamorists for a few reasons. The first in a series, this post explores the ways in which poly and kinky folks are similar kinds of people with comparable social attitudes whose social circles tend to intersect. Later posts detail kinksters’ and polys’ shared attitudes towards relationships, the importance of consent, and how they use consent to negotiate unconventional sex lives. But first, who is it that has these relationships?

Types of People Who Practice BDSM or Polyamory

The bulk of what we know about polyamorous and kinky people comes from those small portions of each group that have volunteered to participate in research, which provides a partial picture of the people who have kinky sex and/or multiple partner relationships. Studies show that these folks tend to share educational, racial, personal, social, and community attributes.

Education and Race

Kinky and polyamorous research respondents in Australia, Canada, Europe, and the US tend to be white, well-educated, and middle-class. Most of the respondents in my own research are white, in part because I began in 1996 and polyamorous communities were rarer, smaller, and whiter then, and in part because of research reasons that I detail in the Privilege of Perversities.

This over-representation of educated white people doesn’t mean that they are the only ones who have kinky sex or consensually nonmonogamous relationships, only that they are a lot more likely to feel safe enough to participate in research. Facing racism, sexual stereotypes, economic discrimination, and higher levels of institutional surveillance, BIPOC folks might well hesitate to volunteer to discuss their multiple partner relationships with anyone outside their trusted circle, much less with white researchers. New studies coming out by researchers of color are beginning to address some of these gaps in knowledge, and there is research ongoing now if BIPOC folks want to volunteer.

Research shows that both polyamorists and BDSM practitioners are more open to new experiences, more extraverted, and better at relationship communication when compared to their monogamous, vanilla counterparts. Kinksters are also documented as having less sexist attitudes than non-kinksters, and my own research indicates the same may be true of polyamorous folks as well. Please note this does not mean all poly and kinky people express all of the characteristics listed above. Rather, it means that these groups are more likely to express them than the comparison groups.

Community Characteristics

Kinky and polyamorous communities also share many similarities, such as a propensity to practice pagan religions and mutual concern for how to deal with community members who violate others’ consent. Both people in polyamorous and BDSM relationships may face a mismatch with a partner who has a vanilla and/or monogamous orientation. Polys and kinksters also share a similar vulnerability to social stigma, such as facing therapeutic bias if they attempt to seek mental health care, accusations of immorality or damaging their children, and threats to take away custody of their children.

As the first in a series, this post summarized the shared attributes of the kinds of people who engage in polyamorous and kinky relationships. Stay tuned for the second part of this series on the intersections between polyamory and BDSM that will focus on kinksters’ and polys’ attitudes towards relationships and the importance they place on negotiation, honesty, and self-knowledge.

Facebook image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

References

Sheff, E. (2013). The polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. Rowman & Littlefield.

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Richters, J., de Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. (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 1355 Medicine, 5, 1660–1668.

Connolly, P. H. (2006). Psychological functioning of bondage/domination/sado-masochism (BDSM) practitioners. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 18, 79–120. doi:10.1300/J056v18n01_05

Klement, K. R., Lee, E. M., Ambler, J. K., Hanson, S. A., Comber, E., 1280 Wietting, D., … Cutler, N. (2017a). Extreme rituals in a BDSM context: The physiological and psychological effects of the ‘Dance of Souls’. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 19, 453–469. doi:10.1080/ 13691058.2016.1234648

Hébert, A., & Weaver, A. (2014). An examination of personality characteristics associated with BDSM orientations. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 23, 106–115. doi:10.3138/cjhs.2467

Lodi-Smith, J., Shepard, K., & Wagner, S. (2014). Personality and sexually deviant behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 1300 70, 39–44. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.06.012

Wismeijer, A. A., & Van Assen, M. A. (2013). Psychological character- 1455 istics of BDSM practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(8), 1943–1952. doi:10.1111/jsm.12192

Rogak, H. M., & Connor, J. J. (2017). Practice of consensual BDSM and relationship satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 33, 454–469. doi:10.1080/14681994.2017.1419560

Kimberly, C., Williams, A. L., & Creel, S. (2018). Women’s introduction to alternative sexual behaviors through erotica and its association with sexual and relationship satisfaction. Sex Roles, 78, 119–129. 1275 doi:10.1007/s11199-017-0771-x

Sheff, E., & Hammers, C. (2011). The privilege of perversities: Race, class and education among polyamorists and kinksters. Psychology & Sexuality, 2(3), 198-223.

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