BDSM – What We Know

The following is a summary of what we know about BDSM from research in the social sciences. It is a snippet of the Kinky Science lecture I present in The Netherlands. If you’re interested in hearing me talk, feel free to contact me.

“Sadomasochists are the type of people who eat baby corpses” a psychiatrist once told my kinky friend. A teacher at my university informed me that “sadomasochists are not very nice people”. Historically, BDSM has been viewed as evidence of underlying psychopathology, and even today many people believe sadomasochistic feelings and behaviours are the result of childhood trauma, personality deficits, sexual dysfunction and an underdeveloped sense of morality. It’s easy (and lazy) to simply fabricate theories on why people behave differently from what is considered the norm, since actual research requires an investment in time, resources and money. Thankfully, in recent years, proper research has been conducted and we’ve come to find out a whole lot about sadomasochism.

In this text I will use the terms SM, BDSM and kink/SMer, sadomasochist and kinkster interchangeably.

For the tl;dr folk: Nothing wrong with kinksters. Yay!

The average kinkster.
It is estimated that about 10% of the general population is involved in SM, although this is very hard to research and estimates vary greatly. The BDSM population consists of about as many women as men. About 65% of women prefer the submissive role, and 30% identify as dominant. Men on the other hand are usually dominant (60%) and 30% call themselves submissive. An interesting finding is that in 50% of the cases, people enjoy the other role as well, although they seem to usually have a preference for either the submissive or dominant role.

Kinksters generally become aware of their sadomasochistic interests in their teens and early twenties. For some people this discovery comes as a great shock, and they try to suppress their desires and live without acting on these feelings. However, on average, people are in their late twenties when they start engaging in BDSM-activities. They’re usually quite happy with their kinky preference and consider it a great addition to their life.Picture from SeriousImages.com

Sadomasochists seem to function well socially. Some research has shown significantly higher levels of education and income than in the general population, in the case of both submissive and dominant kinksters. Well over half of SMers are found to be involved in community service, kinksters seem to be quite the active bunch. It has to be noted though that much of this research has been done in BDSM organisations. We know from research outside of the scene that people involved in volunteer organisations and other social groups are significantly higher educated and are usually involved in volunteer work and other forms of community service. So it might be the case that kinksters just aren’t different in that respect.

Another interesting finding is that SMers hold more feminist views than the general population, contrary to the ideas some feminist theorists that BDSM might be the result of internalised misogyny. There is more awareness and sensitivity to issues of gender and orientation in the BDSM scene, and some people actually use BDSM to explore and challenge stereotypical gender roles.

About 70% of SMers are in a committed relationship, 30% of kinksters are non-monogamous and 30% of kinksters are not exclusively heterosexual.

What sadomasochists do.
It seems BDSM is usually (although not always) about power exchange. Earlier theories assumed sadomasochism was all about giving and receiving pain, but recent research has shown that BDSM in fact consists of a wide range of activities, feelings, relationships and identities. People might engage in bondage, sensory play, humiliation, roleplay (including Master/slave), painplay and many other activities. Note the use of the word ‘play’ – for many SMers, BDSM is precisely that, a form of play.

BDSM preference is not correlated with personality. Outside of BDSM, dominants are not more dominating, cruel or bossy than non-dominants. Outside of BDSM, submissives are not more passive or submissive than non-submissives.

Kink and disorder.
Although early researchers assumed something had to be wrong with these kinky people, research has shown just the opposite. It appears to be impossible to distinguish kinksters from non-kinksters, except for the fact that kinksters are kinky. SM is not correlated with physical abuse, sexual abuse, childhood trauma, symptoms of PTSS, personality disorder, sexual disorder, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, or, well, anything really. We’re as healthy (or ill) as the rest of the population.

However, there’s thing that sets kinksters apart: they usually love sex. SMers have more sex-partners, masturbate more frequently, own more sex toys and participate in activities such as group sex than non-kinksters. Fewer than 5% of kinksters no longer engage in non-SM sex, although a good portion of kinksters do feel they need SM in their lives to feel fulfilled.

The BDSM community
In every subculture, there are norms that serve to define members’ expectations and to control their interaction. In the BDSM subculture, these norms consist of safety, trust and consent. There are discussions on what these norms entail, there are workshops on how to engage in BDSM activities safely and community members who do not abide the norms risk rejection from the community. Many kinksters use safe words to ensure nothing non-consensual will take place, and those who do not use safe words find other ways of making sure their partner is happy with the interaction.

There are multiple subcultures within the BDSM community. For instance, there are heterosexual, gay and lesbian subcultures. There are specialised subcultures devoted to bondage, Master/slave relationships, body modification and age-play.

People get involved in the BDSM scene for various reasons. Around 70% of kinksters indicate they find social support in the BDSM scene, 85% find friendships, 43% find partners and 85% are in the scene to get educated. BDSM organisations function as a place for kinksters to meet, feel accepted, understood and have fun. Often, information is provided on BDSM in the form of websites, lectures, workshops and discussion night. Some BDSM organisations provide support to people who run into problems because of their orientation.

Problems kinksters run into.
SM participants lose custody of children, security clearances, inheritances, jobs, are disowned, assaulted and are victims of persecution and prosecutions. The degree to which kinksters are victims to these things varies from country to country, but it seems to be present to some degree in all western countries. GLBT groups and other organisations have sometimes refused to work with kink organisations because of the stigma and prejudice associated with BDSM. Sadomasochism is still considered a disorder in both the DSM and ICD-10.

Conclusion
Kinksters are generally emotionally and psychologically well-balanced, comfortable with their orientation and socially well-functioning. However, they face discrimination. This could be considered a human rights issue.

“Many individuals want others to be mind-readers so as to evade responsibility for their own desires. [..] [BDSM] is choosing to reveal one’s inner self so openly, without pretense or guile, that here is no going back. This means a willingness to go beyond truthfulness or even honesty to authenticity and transparency, to allowing oneself to be so vulnerable and naked [..], to allow one’s deepest desires, fears, hopes and sources of joy to be touched, explored in the trust that they will be handled with care.” – Peggy Kleinplatz, 2007

References:
Cross PA, Matheson K. (2006) Understanding sadomasochism: an empirical examination of four perspectives. J Homosex. 2006;50(2-3):133-66.
Kleinplatz PJ. (2006) Learning from extraordinary lovers: lessons from the edge. J Homosex. 2006;50(2-3):325-48.
Moser C, Kleinplatz PJ. (2006) Introduction: the state of our knowledge on SM. J Homosex. 2006;50(2-3):1-15.
Richters J, de Visser RO, Rissel CE, Grulich AE, Smith AM. (2008) Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, “sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): data from a national survey. J Sex Med. 2008 Jul;5(7):1660-8.
Weinberg TS. (2006) Sadomasochism and the social sciences: a review of the sociological and social psychological literature. J Homosex. 2006;50(2-3):17-40. Review.

One thought on “BDSM – What We Know

  1. Wilma

    Which of the references does this info come from?

    “BDSM preference is not correlated with personality. Outside of BDSM, dominants are not more dominating, cruel or bossy than non-dominants. Outside of BDSM, submissives are not more passive or submissive than non-submissives.”

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