Good news for kinksters! Research into BDSM is still in its infancy, but scientists are starting to ask questions. Not that long ago, BDSM was still thought of as a psychopathological disease. And sure, the public could still learn a lot more and lower the taboo around the subject, but at least this pathological view is changing. Scientists are investigating psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners, and not surprisingly, BSDM practitioners are quite psychologically healthy!
Let us start with research focusing on general aspects of BDSM. In an Australian national survey in 2001-2002, a representative sample of 19,307 respondents aged 16-59 was interviewed by telephone . Of these respondents, 2.2 % and 1.3 % of sexually active men and women, respectively, reported engagement in BDSM activities in the previous year. These percentages could be an underestimation of the prevalence of BDSM interests as people who did not engage in BDSM activities in the past year were excluded, and there is a possibility that some people are less honest in telephone interviews compared to (online) questionnaires. The results showed no evidence for a relationship between BDSM involvement and sexual coercion ever or before the age of 16 years. This is contrary to the believe that BDSM interests are associated or even caused by sexual abuse. Likewise, the researchers did not find a relationship between BDSM practitioners and the experience of sexual difficulties. Furthermore, people involved in BDSM are not more likely to experience psychological distress. On the contrary, men engaged in BDSM activities showed higher levels of well-being. Interestingly, although not surprising, they found involvement in BDSM to be associated with a larger number of sexual practices (including the use of sex toys and anal sex), more sexual partners and more nonexclusive relationships, which suggests greater sexual activity.
Moving on to personality and BDSM. Scientists have administered questionnaires to practitioners of BDSM and control participants. They were interested in the psychological characteristics, more specifically, attachment styles and personality traits. Simply put, attachment style is developed by the interaction you have with your parents and significant others when you grow up (so during infancy and childhood). This determines the attachment you have with others later in life. People can be securely or insecurely attached. Personality traits according to the five-factor (Big five) model are Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.
Well, what did these researchers find? Interestingly, they found that BDSM practitioners had more favorable psychological characteristics compared to control participants! More specifically, regarding personality traits, they found that people participating in BDSM are less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, and only less agreeable . Furthermore, after investigating different attachment styles, the researchers found that female BDSM practitioners had more confidence in their relationships, a lower need for approval, and were less anxiously attached compared to control participants. They also looked at rejection sensitivity and found that BDSM practitioners were less sensitive to rejection compared to the control group. Lastly, practitioners of BDSM scored higher on a measure of well-being. In this study, they also divided the BDSM group in three subgroups, according to their preferred role in BDSM practice (mostly dominant, submissive or switch). Consequently, this resulted in a Dom, Switch and Sub group. These groups were compared and various differences were found. Psychological characteristics were generally more favorably for the Dom group than the Sub group, with the Switch group somewhere in between. But even though the dominant role had higher scores than the submissive role, the submissive role still scored higher than control participants.
Another study investigated whether BDSM practitioners displayed higher levels of psychopathology than the general population . The sample population was recruited from BDSM clubs, and they used psychometric measures, including scales of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsion, psychological sadism and masochism, PTSD and personality. There was no control group, instead, the scores were compared to test norms and to estimates of the general population according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This sample of BDSM practitioners consisted of highly educated people, and they varied in their relationship status and relating behaviour. BDSM orientation ranged from “Exclusively submissive” to “Exclusively dominant” on a 7-point scale, with 22.6 % of people identifying themselves as exclusively submissive and 29.0% as exclusively dominant, and all others falling somewhere in between. There were more men classifying themselves as dominant and more women classifying themselves as submissive. Different psychometric tests were used for most variables (e.g. depression, anxiety), so these different tests were also examined simultaneously to result in an overall score.
The main results showed that this sample of BDSM practitioners scored lower in measures of depression and anxiety overall, and similar in obsessive-compulsion than the normative comparison samples. Furthermore, PTSD scores were lower in comparison to the general population. However, this sample had higher levels of dissociation, although not in a clinical significant way (no unusual high rate of Dissociative Identity Disorder). The personality scales used in this study also computed a psychological sadism and psychological masochism scale. To avoid confusion, psychological sadism and masochism are diagnoses in the DSM which consists of two main criteria. One is sexual fantasies, urges or behaviours associated with sadism and masochism, and the other describes that the behaviours cause clinically significant distress, or are executed with nonconsenting persons. So, everyone who participates in BDSM activities while being safe, sane and consensual does not fall into this category! As expected, analyses suggested that overall, the current sample scored lower on both the psychological sadism and psychological masochism scale than the normative comparison sample. For personality pathology, there was no evidence that the sample of BDSM practitioners scored significantly higher than the normative samples on measures of borderline and paranoia, although there were relatively high scores on one paranoia measure and for histrionic features (theatrical or dramatic behaviour to attract attention). Also, roughly one-third of the BDSM sample scored high on a measure of narcissism. Scores on narcissism and histrionic personality were higher for persons identifying as dominant compared to submissive.
The most important conclusion from this study is that this sample of BDSM practitioners did not differ from comparison samples for most clinical disorders and personality pathology. There were higher than average levels of dissociation and narcissism. It does not state that all BDSM-practitioners are more narcissistic or have a disorder, it only shows a possibility that some persons show more narcissistic features which are possibly clinically significant. However, some researchers argue that modest levels of narcissism and histrionic behaviour can include normal to adaptive traits . Despite that levels of narcissism are relatively high in this sample, there is no indication of pathological narcissism in BDSM practitioners. Lastly, something to think about, this research raises questions about the DSM terminology and classification of sexual sadism and masochism. Should we change anything about the diagnostic criteria for these disorders?
To conclude, research found favorable psychological characteristics for practitioners of BDSM, including favorable personality traits, better attachment styles (for females), less rejection sensitivity, and higher well-being. These characteristics were more profound in the dominant role. Only higher levels of narcissism have been found. Still, there are many people that believe BDSM is the result of sexual abuse or trauma in childhood. These studies contrast this believe as they show no association of BDSM with sexual abuse or insecure attachment styles. Nor do BDSM practitioners show any signs of psychopathological diseases. Even though people engage in BDSM activities for erotic pleasure, BDSM practitioners often explain that they also participate in BDSM practices for sensory pleasure (stimulating the senses in different ways, not just sexual). BDSM is often perceived as a serious leisure, in other words, a recreational activity . Perhaps that is why BDSM practitioners have such good psychological health!
Thanks to Mindstyles for peer-reviewing
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