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|The Science of BDSM
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 then, hallowed papers such as the New York Times have published articles on bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, 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 of Grey” movie soon to be gracing 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?
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. On the other side, 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 fantasize about or engage in BDSM (Moser & Levitt, 1987).
2) Are they sick?
For Sigmund Freud, the answer was a clear yes. Anyone interested in S&M was in need of treatment (treatment that, by fine coincidence, Freud and his contemporaries were qualified to provide).
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But recent research tells a different story. Pamela Connolly (2006) compared BDSM practitioners to published norms on 10 psychological disorders. Compared to 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-BDSM practitioners, BDSM practitioners exhibited higher levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and subjective well-being. BDSM practitioners also showed lower levels of neuroticism and rejection sensitivity. The one negative trait that emerged was agreeableness: 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” (the 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 (including bondage, handcuffs, chains, etc.), administration of pain (including spanking, caning, putting clothespins on the skin, etc.), humiliation (including gags, verbal humiliation, etc.) 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 whether BDSM activities cause altered states of consciousness, 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 an altered state called “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.
5) Ok, you’ve got me curious. Where can I get more information?
If you’re curious about research on BDSM, check out:
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 (ok, I admit I’m plugging my own site)
If you’re curious about the practice of BDSM, check out:
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, if you’re feeling brave, you could google “BDSM” and see what comes up. (I wouldn’t try this 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.
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.
How many people are into it—and why?
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‘Fifty Shades’ piqued your curiosity? Answers to five kinky questions.
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|What Does Your Avatar Say About You?
A lot of websites give you the chance to represent yourself with an avatar rather than a picture of yourself. Avatars are often cartoon-y pictures with facial features, clothing, and accessories that allow you to personalize your picture. For example, this website allows you to create an avatar to use before entering a chat room.
The avatar you select can influence the way people interact with you. It is interesting to know whether people generally try to select avatars that represent themselves accurately, or whether they aim to display themselves differently to the electronic world than they appear in real life. It is also interesting to know the conclusions that viewers draw when seeing someone’s avatar.
This question was addressed in a study by Katrina Fong and Raymond Mar published in the February 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The researchers asked a group of about 100 people to choose avatars for themselves using the website weeworld.com. Half of the participants were asked to create an avatar, and the other half were specifically asked to create an avatar that would represent their personality accurately. There were no significant differences in the avatars created by these groups, suggesting that most people naturally try to represent themselves accurately. These participants filled out a personality inventory that measures the Big Five personality traits after creating their avatar. (The Big Five traits are Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism.)
A second group of about 2,000 participants were shown a subset of the avatars and rated their perception of the personality characteristics of the individuals who created those avatars. They also rated how much they would like to interact with the person who created that avatar.
One question that the researchers asked up front was whether being able to categorize the participant by gender influenced judgments of personality. The avatars were all either recognizably male or female. Overall, people tended to think that the males were slightly less conscientious and open to new experiences than the females. But, this categorization tended to decrease accuracy of judgments overall, because the sample of male participants was not actually lower in conscientiousness or openness than the sample of female participants.
The researchers compared people’s ratings of their own personality characteristics to those of other people who rated their personality after seeing the avatars they constructed. The ratings of the avatars showed that people could assess another person’s extraversion and agreeableness to some degree, and could not do a particularly good job of rating the other characteristics.
The researchers also examined the aspects of the avatars that were most correlated with people’s personality ratings. For example, people high in agreeableness tended to select avatars with open eyes more often than those low in agreeableness. One reason why raters were good at assessing an individual’s agreeableness from their avatar was that they generally rated people as higher in agreeableness (and extraversion) if the avatar had open eyes.
In general, though, the aspects of avatars that raters thought were most important for judging a person’s personality were not that diagnostic of the personality characteristic. For example, people tended to rate avatars with short hair as more conscientious than those with long hair. In fact, this characteristic was more strongly associated with the neuroticism of the person who created the avatar than the conscientiousness of that individual. People higher in neuroticism tended to have avatars with long hair.
One final data point of interest, the characteristics of avatars did influence whether people were interested in befriending the person. In particular, people were most interested in being friends with people who had avatars with open eyes, smiles, and an oval face and were least interested in being friends with people who had a facial expression that was not a smile.
So, what does all of this mean?
There has been a lot of work recently on what we can learn about the personality characteristics of others from the things they create, including personal spaces, Facebook pages, writing. Overall, when people create an avatar, it is hard to get to know much about them. You can get a little information about extraversion and agreeableness, but the correlations are not large.
One thing that is interesting, though, is that people do draw inferences about personality characteristics from avatars. However, the aspects of the avatars that they use to make judgments about someone’s personality are not generally that highly correlated with that individual’s actual personality. Thus, people may overestimate their ability to learn something about others from their avatars.
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Can people judge your personality from an avatar you create?
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A lot of websites give you the chance to represent yourself with an avatar rather than a picture of yourself. Avatars are often cartoon-y pictures with facial features, clothing, and accessories that allow you to personalize your picture. The avatar you select can influence the way people interact with you.
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