|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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|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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|Great Leaders: The Secret That Freud Understood
(c) VILevi www.fotosearch.com
Freud mostly is known for his brilliant insights about subconscious motivations and the individual psyche. My favorite sentence from all of Freud’s writing about various kinds of problems however expresses his wisdom about leadership. Groups, Freud wrote, take on the personality of the leader. Great leaders therefore need to be great people.
Hmm. I work with family groups. Sure enough, when the dad, if he is the strongest personality in the family, is kindly and warm, all the family tends to act in a manner that is warm and kindly. If dad is mean-spirited or depressed, the likelihood is that the tone of the family as a whole will be mean-spirited or depressed. Same with Mom. If Mom is insecure or sometimes nasty, the family group will feel overall insecure or nasty. If Mom is caring and loving, all the family will tend to be caring and loving toward each other.
Sports teams tend to show similar patterns. Show me an upbeat, confident and positive quarterback and I’ll show you an upbeat, confident and positive-spirited team.
Companies, churches, and countries all do the same. Here’s an example.
Topex (name changed for confidentiality) was a startup company that had been launched by an enthusiastic young fellow, Jim, and seemed to be growing rapidly. When Jim developed health problems and took a leave of absence, Patrick took over in his place.
Patrick tended to be critical of others. When one of the lower level managers launched a new initiative to upgrade their initial product, Patrick kept pointing out what might not work. Others in the group began similarly to focus on what was wrong with ideas that other colleagues suggested. Before long, back-stabbing and demoralization had totally replaced the initial enthusiasm that had reigned when Jim had been running the show.
The company fizzled and almost died…until along came Neil. Neil took over as the CEO. Neil was decisive, upbeat and appreciative of everyone. Within a week, the tone of the whole organization changed. Employees who had begun looking for jobs elsewhere turned back to Topex and reinvested their creativity in the company. The company launched several new products within the year. Topex was back in business, thriving again.
What is the moral of the story? Groups take on the personality of the leader. If you want a group to thrive, pick a leader with a positive personality.
What’s a positive personality?
Positive people listen for what is right in what others say rather than to point out what they disagree with. Positive people generate affection by showing affection to others. Positive people express appreciation, and rarely or never complain, criticize or put others down. They give feedback, not criticism. When something goes wrong, a positive person looks at what he himself could do differently or at how to fix the problem in the system rather than looking to point fingers of blame, criticism or accusation.
Want to be a great leader?
Become a great person, that is, a positive person who radiates warmth, appreciation, encouragement, responsivity, optimism and enthusiasm.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of the book The Power of Two and the interactive website that teaches the skills for marriage success, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.
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|Psychopathy and Mass Movements
The latest video from the Islamic extremist group ISIL takes inhumanity to another level by setting a captured Jordanian pilot (caged and doused with flammable liquids) on fire. Apparently mass shootings and beheadings have grown tiresome for ISIL.
And as always, the question is asked: who would ever do such a thing? How does someone go from being in school, playing sports, or working full-time, to joining a grotesque mass movement that kills with fetish-like frequency and reptilian indifference?
This is not just a rhetorical question. As we in the West are finding out, thousands of individuals from the United States, France, England, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere have flocked to join ISIL, which seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate by using the techniques mastered by the Gestapo 70 years ago.
The answer lies in history and the findings of an intellectual giant working as a longshoreman. First, the history. As Alexander the Great learned early on, nothing gets attention like killing and slaughter. Do it with enough ferocity and whole cities and kingdoms will yield even before you arrive. In Alexander’s day, it was enough to allow a few survivors to escape and flee to the next city for the propaganda to work. Word of mouth was the Internet of the day. ISIL has perfected the more modern version (their videos are masterfully put together by professional videographers and editors – even with sound tracks). They use videos of their atrocities to terrify—which explains the millions of refugees who have fled Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere—but also to recruit. While most of us understand the former, the idea of recruitment via mass killings and beheadings is hard to fathom.
Here is where the absolute brilliance of Eric Hoffer, the moral and social philosopher and yes stevedore comes in. In 1951, Hoffer published The True Believer, a classic that should be widely read and studied. As an observer of mass movements, Hoffer did well to point out that mass movements attract people because they provide hope. In the case of ISIL, that hope takes the form of the professed intent of ameliorating Muslim grievances against the West and the prospect of establishing a worldwide caliphate to once more rule over Muslim lands and people. As flawed as those goals may seem to us in the West, most people can understand how they might prove influential.
Hoffer took his analysis a step further by recognizing that the marginalized, the desperate, the unemployed, the socially wounded, or the traumatized are naturally attracted to mass movements because the collective affiliation brings meaning into their lives, along with the prospect of hope. This, too, can be understood, even though it is a course most of us would not follow.
But perhaps most disquieting, Hoffer found another kind of individual who is attracted to mass movements—in fact, whose participation is often necessary for such movements to thrive. He referred to these individuals as “The Sinners.” We have to excuse Hoffer’s language here with the understanding that he was not schooled in psychology, but his terminology detracts in no way from his accuracy in deciphering mass movements. What Eric Hoffer found, and what has often been overlooked by many sociologists and certainly by the general public, is that mass movements attract what we now call the psychopathic personality – in essence predators: individuals who are content in causing great harm, who perhaps are even sadistic, and yet aren’t bothered in the least by what they do.
Hoffer’s observation should not come as a great shock; after all, the Nazis had psychopaths in droves. Under the Swastika banner and while wearing brown shirts, they did horrible crimes without any regret—remember Kristallnacht?
Mass movements that utilize violence as part of their solution attract and even need psychopaths. After all, someone has to carry out the violent acts, the beheadings, the mass shootings, and the setting of humans on fire, even as these individuals plead for their lives. They need people who are callous, who can hurt others effortlessly because they have no conscience. They need people who are immune to the pleas of a grieving mother and who view a crying child as an inconvenience that also must die.
Psychopaths are not like you and me. While you and I might look for love and success in life, the psychopath looks for exploitable weakness and opportunity. For psychopaths, a mass movement, especially one cloaked in religion, provides the opportunity to do anything they wish, uninhibited by morality, laws, or the police. For them, an especially violent mass movement, whatever the philosophy being espoused, is like being at a diabolical theme park where stealing, raping, killing, shooting, or decapitating humans is purposeful as well as recreational.
In violent mass movements, moreover, the more violent and virulent a member is, the more respect is garnered from fellow true believers and those likely to be recruited. This is exactly what transpired with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It wasn’t enough to join al-Qaeda and be involved in bombings. As grotesque and unconscionable as the videotaped beheadings of Nick Berg and Eugene Armstrong were, al-Zarqawi’s reputation and stature increased with each—and so did al-Qaeda’s recruitments. Unbridled psychopathy creates unbridled infamy. That is why we remember Stalin, Pol Pot, the Boston Strangler, and Ted Bundy.
All of this is disturbing on many levels—including the fact that little of it is new. We have known for a long time who joins mass movements and why—yet governments, politicians, and even intelligence agencies seem surprised when current events confirm it time after time.
The more recent manifestations are cause for additional concern because unlike 70 years ago when most of the Nazis came from one general population from a particular geographical area and their recruitment was based on word of mouth, mass rallies, or newspaper accounts, the internet now casts a global net. That net, filled with rage, hatred, violence, and well-produced theatrical brutality, is attracting thousands. They are not all psychopaths, to be sure, but enough are. Their cruelty will rub off on others, and unfortunately no government or mother pleading for her child to be released will prevail, because psychopaths have no conscience. They have no remorse, as Robert Hare, the worlds leading expert on psychopathy has so often warned us. You can plead for a snake not to bite you, but reptiles do as they please – so do psychopaths.
Since World War II, we have had to live with the infamy of the Khmer Rouge, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Rwanda, among many others. All serve to remind us that mass movements attract the criminally facile, the remorseless, the unfeeling, the anti-social personality—what Eric Hoffer called “The Sinners,” we know them today for what they are: psychopaths.
* * * * * * * * *
Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through Psychology Today or at www.jnforensics.com – Joe can be found on Twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. His latest book Dangerous Personalities (Rodale) is available on Amazon. My gratitude and thanks to Thryth Hillary Navarro and Toni Sciarra Poynter for their much appreciated assistance in editing this article which is based on the Predator chapter in Dangerous Personalities.
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