A word or three from Psychology Today
A recent study on the psychological profile of BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, sadism-masochism) practitioners has attracted a great deal of media attention, with headlines proclaiming that “S&M practitioners are healthier and less neurotic than those with a tamer sex life.” Although BDSM has often in the past been thought to be associated with psychopathology, the authors of the study argued that practitioners are generally psychologically healthy, if not more so in some respects, compared to the general population. However, it should be noted that most of the apparent psychological benefits of being a practitioner applied to those in the dominant rather than the submissive role. Additionally, the study findings need to be treated with some caution because it is not clear that the comparison group is a good representation of the general population.
BDSM involves a diverse range of practices usually involving role-playing games in which one person assumes a dominant role and another person assumes a submissive role. These activities often involve physical restraint, power plays, humiliation, and sometimes but not always, pain. The person playing the dominant role (or ‘dom’) controls the action, while the person in the submissive role (or ‘sub’) gives up control. Many people have a preferred role they play most of the time, although some people enjoy switching between roles (‘switches’).
Is BDSM normal?
The practice of BDSM carries with it a certain amount of social stigma (Bezreh, Weinberg, & Edgar, 2012), although the recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey1 might be a sign of increased mainstream acceptance. Health professions have long had a tendency to view the practice as pathological and even perverted. Common assumptions about people who participate in BDSM are that they are psychologically anxious and maladjusted; that they are acting out a past history of sexual abuse; and that they are attempting to compensate for sexual difficulties. However, the small amount of research evidence available suggests that these assumptions are probably not true. For example, a telephone survey conducted in Australia found that people who had participated in BDSM in the previous year were not more distressed than others; were not more likely than others to have ever been sexually coerced; and did not report more sexual difficulties (Richters, De Visser, Rissel, Grulich, & Smith, 2008). However, BDSM practiced between consenting persons who are happy with what they are doing is not officially considered pathological.
What are BDSM practitioners like?
There has not been a great deal of research examining the psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners, so the aim of a recent study (Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013) was to compare BDSM practitioners with people from the “normal” population on a range of personality traits. A good description and critique of the study can be found here. BDSM practitioners were recruited from a Dutch BDSM web forum. Comparison participants were recruited through notices concerning “online secrecy research.” These were obtained through a variety of sources including a popular Dutch women’s magazine and a website that allows visitors to post their secrets. I have some concerns about whether the comparison group is a good representation of the general population, which I will return to in due course.
The study compared the BDSM practitioners and the control group on the Big Five personality traits – neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness – as well as on rejection sensitivity, relationship attachment styles, and subjective well-being (happiness) in the past two weeks. People in the BDSM group were also broken down into ‘doms’, ‘subs’, and ‘switches’, based on their respective preferences, to allow further comparisons. There were noticeable gender differences in how people assorted into these roles, which are illustrated in the pie charts below. Among females, over three-quarters were subs, switches were a distant second in popularity, while doms were very much in the minority. Roles were a little more evenly spread among the males, although doms were most popular (who made up nearly half), followed by subs (just over a third) and then switches. This suggests that female BDSM practitioners are more likely than males to prefer gender-typical roles.
Comparing the BDSM group as a whole with the controls gives a rather favorable impression of practitioners. The BDSM group as a whole were on average more extraverted, open to experience and conscientious, and less neurotic, as well as less sensitive to rejection, more securely attached, and higher in subjective well-being than the comparison group. On the less favorable side though, the BDSM group was less agreeable. High extraversion and low neuroticism tend to be associated with greater overall happiness, so it is not surprising that people with these traits appear psychologically secure and to have high subjective well-being. However, an overall comparison between practitioners and non-practitioners is actually misleading to some extent because when doms, subs, and switches were compared to the control group, and with each other, the results were more uneven. A more detailed examination of these differences shows some interesting patterns.
Openness to experimentation
Each of the three BDSM groups scored higher than the controls on openness to experience, so it is fair to say that practitioners generally tend to be more open-minded. This is not surprising, as openness to experience is associated with a willingness to experiment with unusual and unconventional behaviors. Openness to experience is also associated with a trait called sexual sensation-seeking which relates to a desire to be sexually uninhibited and to explore novel sexual experiences (Gaither & Sellbom, 2003). I find it interesting in this regard, that the Australian survey mentioned earlier found that people who participated in BDSM had experienced a wider range of sexual practices, and had a greater number of lifetime sexual partners compared to non-participants. In fact, BDSM participants were significantly more likely to claim to have had 50 or more sex partners in their lives and to have participated in group sex. This would indicate that people into BDSM tend to be very open to sexual experimentation generally (or perhaps that they are prone to wild exaggeration!).
Love of discipline?
Both doms and subs, but not switches for some reason, scored higher than controls on conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is a broad trait related to self-discipline and has two major aspects related to orderliness and achievement striving respectively. The study did not examine whether either of these aspects was more prominent in BDSM practitioners. However, I would suspect that people who are attracted to BDSM probably have a high need for orderliness, and have a fond appreciation of rules and boundaries. Whether they have a high need for achievement or not remains to be seen. Going further, perhaps subs are the sort of people who prefer to have discipline and order provided for them, while doms are the sort who like imposing rules and structure on others. This difference in preference for controlling or being controlled may well relate to differences in agreeableness between these two groups.
Disagreeable dominants, sweet submissives
Agreeableness is related to overall pleasantness and consideration for the comfort of other people. Subs and switches actually did not differ from the control group in agreeableness. However, doms were lower than both the controls and the subs in agreeableness. People who are low in agreeableness tend to be tough rather than tender-minded, are willing to make hard decisions, and tend to be bossy and demanding in the way they relate to others. Thus it would seem that people who are into BDSM generally prefer the role that fits their own level of agreeableness. Tough, domineering people would seem to prefer the dominant role, while those who are more tender and willing to please naturally fit into the submissive role. I found this particularly interesting because it suggests that doms have found a way to express their disagreeableness in a way that is actually welcomed and appreciated by their submissive partners. This is in contrast to more ordinary disagreeableness in everyday life which is usually seen as annoying and rude.
PSYCHOLOGY TODAY – BDSM,Personality and Mental Health (2013)