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You know that you make psychologists crazy, right?

Rating: 3 votes, 2.67 average.
Researchers often start with the conceit “my prejudices brilliantly describe reality” and design research projects to celebrate their insights. The best of them, when confronted by evidence that they’re wrong, publicly announce the fact. The rest of them hide the confounding evidence away in a locked file cabinet.

And so it is with studies of the BDSM community. There’s a near universal prejudice among academics that members of this community are defective: the products of broken homes, with little ability to form stable attachments and a psychopath’s predilection toward violence as the answer to all questions. “Traditional discourses on sexuality have framed BDSM participation as reflecting immorality or an underlying psychopathology. Rubin (1993) observed that BDSM has long been located in the “outer limits” (bad, abnormal, unnatural, damned), which she contrasted with the “charmed circle” (good, normal, natural, blessed) of the sexual hierarchy.”

A funny thing happened on the way to publishing their scathing criticism: they discovered that they were wrong, wrong, wrong. Among the highlights of the serious academic studies:

• The size of the community is determined by what questions researchers ask; as little as 2% of the population and as higher as 26%, have reportedly been involved in BDSM.
• Over 40% of folks interested in BDSM knew it by age 18; half of that group knew it by the onset of puberty.
• Research over the past three decades has shown that BDSM participants are generally decent, psychologically and socially well-adjusted people.
• Males who participated in BDSM scored significantly lower than other men on psychological distress.
• In general, we’re neither anti-woman (that is, misogynist) nor anti-feminist.

Indeed, the search has now begun to recognize the evidence that DS relationships might be fundamentally healthy. That is, not just “not bad” but “good to great!” That occurs, in part, when researchers figured out that the lifestyle was a lot more than just an expression of a set of sexual practices. Some are that BDSM seems to be better understood as a form of “serious leisure experience,” which requires perseverance and effort to acquire specific knowledge and skills, has a unique culture and rules, and brings durable benefits and rewards. Indeed, your growth in the community has been described as “career-like.”

What benefits and rewards? I’d start with the obvious fact that we talk a lot more in and about our relationships than the folks in Vanilla Land do. We tend to be more narcissistic, though if the universe really does revolve around me, I'm not sure that it's narcissistic to notice. They tend to drift more, as many of us have discovered, into passionless politeness and decades-long ruts.

And, on whole, we’re healthier and happier:

The results mostly suggest favorable psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners compared with the control group; BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, had higher subjective well-being, yet were less agreeable.

(I wonder which half of us qualified as the “less agreeable”?)

Of particular significance: two sets of studies found that women have faster, more frequent and more intense orgasms when they have dominant male partners. One researcher, interested in the genetics of it all, described us as “high-quality males.” (That’s on my business card now.)

(Another researcher described your intense pleasure at our presence as consistent with a genetic adaptation for “differential sperm insuck” – a term that I stared at for a long while.)

There are idiots, thugs and frauds in our community. The combination of a deeply submissive partner with an abusive cretin who exploits the situation can lead to tragic results. That said, many younger, newer members of the community are haunted by the suspicion that they’re “sick” or “weird” or “wrong.” They need to know, and we need to be confident in telling them, that they’re not. They might be padawans in need of paddlings (padalings?), but there’s nothing wrong with that.

You are who you are, and that's good. Pursue your passions. Embrace the opportunities for intense experience. Don't let your past limit your future. If you need to be bound, at least don't let it be by your fears.




  1. just_ine's Avatar
    I enjoyed reading something that I believe, but have only been able to substantiate through what BDSM and especially D/s has done for me.
    Of course I am privileged in having 'high-quality Males' in my life.

    I often look at the people around me and think they are the strange ones, and those who are true to themselves and express that freedom in whatever way they choose, they are the 'normal' ones.

    Balance, I believe is at the heart of it all. Pursuing the counterpoint is a lofty goal and one to be encouraged and applauded.

    Thank you for sharing, Solis.
  2. Solis's Avatar
    I am struck by the number of people in the community who view their "normal" neighbors with great sadness. I'm struck by a sense of pity for the lack of any emotional intensity, indeed of any intense experiences at all, in their lives.

    There's an interesting essay (dense but thought provoking) by an American sociologist, T. J. Jackson Lears, who argues that much of the behavior by consumers in the 20th century - and many of the advertising appeals aimed at them - is therapeutic. People want to believe they're "really alive" and advertisers want them to suspect that maybe they're not, the better to sell them things.

    Which is to say, there's a bigger concern that many of our "vanilla" friends might truly be trapped, aware of it but unable to imagine an escape.

    Cheerily, S.
  3. pgaurelius's Avatar
    The conclusions seem a little too flattering.
    Alas, I don't consider myself a high-quality, high-function male. I'm rather flawed and hopeless at many things including vanilla sexual relationships.

    I do believe however that BDSM-types tend to have more creative, inquisitive and open-minded outlooks. That's the upside of being non-vanilla I guess.
  4. Solis's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by pgaurelius
    The conclusions seem a little too flattering.
    Alas, I don't consider myself a high-quality, high-function male. I'm rather flawed and hopeless at many things including vanilla sexual relationships.

    I do believe however that BDSM-types tend to have more creative, inquisitive and open-minded outlooks. That's the upside of being non-vanilla I guess.
    It is pretty cheerful, isn't it? Two things to consider: (1) many of the positive differences are small but pretty consistent; that is, we're not vastly better communicators in our relationships, but most of us, most of the time, are somewhat better communicators than others. And (2) saying that we are, on average, "better" doesn't deny the fact that some of us are disastrously worse, some are luminously superior while most of us are just a bit ahead.

    It turns out that Psychology Today is surprisingly BDSM-friendly. Several articles in recent years have looked through the available research and talked through its implications. If you've interested in looking a bit more closely, you might enjoy "BDSM, Personality and Mental Health" (2013).

    With respect,

  5. Sigyn's Avatar

    I just wanted to pass along my appreciation for the level of discourse on your blog post. Nicely done and a great topic to think about!

    I will admit to being a bit curious about your references (the only one I saw was the Rubin from '93), were there other peer-reviewed articles you surveyed regarding the skewed view? The one's cited in the Psychology Today piece seemed to be largely demographic in scope or focused more on psychometrics.

    Also I had a couple of thoughts on your main point; one of the struggles of research in my experience is that null findings rarely get published. A journal doesn't want to print something that says "it didn't work," "no different from the general population" "no significant findings" even though these findings (in my opinion at least) are just as important. It has gotten slightly better with medical research since failed clinical trails are a rather big deal, but in the social science not so much. There are of course exceptions. Anyhow, with that in mind, I can see why there is little research contradicting some of the long held erroneous biases (considering that some of them from a medical stand point date back to the 19th century), since it would likely fall into that null box.
    Should it change? Hell yeah. Will it? Gosh I hope so.

    Just some thoughts from a (biased) rebel from within the ivory towers.
  6. Solis's Avatar
    I shared a few research citations by private message. I'd be happy to post them here, but I suspect that the desire to page through the Journal of Sexual Medicine is a bit circumscribed.

    You're certainly right about editors' bias against null findings. My recollection is that the original of some of the open online journals was that very factor; scholars felt that "there isn't anything observable here" was a finding that was as important as an "oooo! Look what I found!" The question becomes "what's the direction of the original hypothesis?" If the direction changes, the null changes and so does your prospects for publication. My favorite example is in the struggle to prove that having an active academic research program is good for your teaching (it isn't, particularly); there's a forty year record of scholars trying to find a way of phrasing hypotheses so as to validate their life choices and keep them from appearing to be shams in the classroom. In general, the more carefully you control for exogenous variables, the worst your prospects for validating yourself. As a result, scholars have designed (and editors have published) some awfully shaky studies that simultaneously "prove" they're good teachers and raise the prospect that they're incompetent researchers.

    Sorry. Side rant.

    Très nuanced name, child. Would that be from the the worshipfully speculative Honoring Sigyn end of things or the more ... uhh, visually exuberant Marvel Comics version?

    And "a rebel"? How so? Anyone who has attended more than one faculty meeting recognizes how deeply committed academe is to the practices of S&m (though, admittedly, I have seen more ecstatic expressions on those strapped to a St. Andrew's Cross than on those holding the floor in a full-faculty meeting).

    All the best,



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