Category Archives: Science

On Trigger Warnings

triggerwarningsI’ve felt a bit apprehensive criticising trigger warnings. The thing is, I believe the requests for trigger warnings come from a genuine desire to make the world a safer, more welcoming place for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I don’t believe for a second that those in favour of trigger warnings want to be protected from negative feelings or wish to censor what we can freely discuss, as some writers have argued. I don’t agree that it’s just a way of avoiding discomfort. Instead, I think it’s genuine kindness and a commitment to changing our world to be more inclusive to everyone that’s motivating trigger warning requests. I think trigger warnings are a bad idea, and I’ll explain why later, but I don’t believe they come from anything other than kind, helpful intentions. I’d recommend reading the above articles if you think trigger warnings are just content indications for the sensitive, or all about avoiding feeling the feels. I will not be arguing against that straw man.

The reasoning behind trigger warnings is that people who have experienced certain types of trauma (specifically assault and sexual violence, although trigger warnings for racism and sexism are becoming more common) can be ‘triggered‘ by mentions of that violence. When a person is triggered they can experience flashbacks, intrusive memories, severe anxiety and self-destructive behaviour. So it follows that person would benefit from a warning about the content of a text, movie, etc. if it includes discussions of violence. This makes it easier for the person with that trauma to navigate what they want to be confronted with, for example by not reading a text that discusses rape. Trigger warnings can even be understood as a way of navigating consent, I let that person know beforehand what I intend to do (discuss rape) so they can make an informed decision whether they want to read my text or not.

As a therapist who has worked with people suffering from PTSD I really understand where this is coming from. Being confronted with a ‘trigger’ can send a sufferer into flashbacks, which can disrupt their life for hours, days, sometimes weeks. In severe cases, being triggered can cause the person with PTSD to harm themselves or become suicidal. It’s heartbreaking and honestly I completely understand why, as a society and inside our communities, we want to do what we can to support people who are going through this. A trigger warning, in that context, just seems like such a small and effortless thing to do, right? A small bit of kindness that can prevent so much misery.

And I am so in favour of changing our world to become more inclusive and welcoming, and sometimes it’s seemingly small or effortless things that can make all the difference. For example, I make a conscious effort to use inclusive language when it comes to gender. Not everyone identifies as male or female, not everyone has gender-norms confirming bodies, and reflecting that in our language costs us literally nothing. It has no negative effects at all, while at the same time making the world a kinder place for everyone. I think we should do more things like this, and I think trigger warnings come from a desire to do exactly that: a small, harmless thing that makes the world a bit kinder.

The thing is though, I don’t believe trigger warnings are harmless. Let me start with a related example. Some people with an eating disorder become deeply triggered when they are confronted with a situation that includes public eating. They report panic and self-harming behaviour, not unlike what some sufferers of PTSD report when they are confronted with triggers. Still, it would be a truly bad idea to give a ‘content warning’ for each event that would include public eating. Yes, it would prevent a lot of pain for those few people with eating disorders who are triggered by public eating. But it reinforces an unhealthy idea that eating is a dangerous thing. If we start giving content warnings when an event will include a meal, if we start behaving in an eating disordered manner as a society, unhealthy attitudes towards food will only flourish.

Now I want to stress that if someone is suffering from a mental illness, they should do what they have to do to get through whatever they are going through. I don’t believe in policing how people deal with what life has handed them, and good or healthy coping with psychological problems is an individual thing. If you’re dealing with an eating disorder and you need to avoid public eating, then you go and do that. It is completely fine to ask people around you to give you a warning so you can avoid things that trigger you, so you can take care of yourself. But it would not be a good idea for all of us, as a habit, to start warning each other when we intend to eat food.

One of the more common triggers is, actually, depictions of ‘normal’ sex. Because sexual violence so often doesn’t ‘look violent’, watching a scene where two people have tender sex can be the worst trigger in the world. Still, I think we all intuitively feel that ‘trigger warning: vanilla sex between two consenting adults’ would not be a good idea. And that’s not because we don’t take people who are triggered by depictions of sex seriously, of course we do. And it’s not because nobody it triggered by regular sex: many people are, and it might even be a more common trigger than depictions of rape. So why is nobody arguing for trigger warnings for ‘normal’ sex? I think it’s because we all feel that sex is not dangerous. But it’s gotten in our heads that depictions of violence are.

Some people who oppose trigger warnings argue that trigger warnings discourage exposure, and therefore are bad for people with PTSD. This is nonsense. Simple exposure to triggers does not do anyone any good, and it shows a great misunderstanding of exposure therapy to think unwanted exposure to things that scare or deeply upset us has anything to do with effective exposure in PTSD-treatment. It’s belittling and incorrect to think refusing the use of trigger warnings would be better for their mental health, that we’re just triggering them ‘for their own good’. This is not how exposure therapy works.

People who oppose trigger warnings have argued that people just want to avoid negative feelings, that we’re becoming too sensitive, that we can’t even handle being confronted with views different from our own. I could not disagree more. If anything, we should become more sensitive. Sensitive of our own emotions, our own needs. We should become more accommodating, more empathic, more willing to change. Our society needs changing. We need to become more aware of the ways we can make our spaces more safe and welcoming to people of colour, people with non-normative gender identities, people with disabilities, women. I’m constantly figuring out how to stop the subtle ways we hinder and harm each other, the ways we make each other invisible, and finding opportunities to make this world a kinder place. Opposing trigger warnings might be one way to do that.

In an individual’s case, trigger warnings may simply be a way of coping. I don’t care if it reinforces or violates dysfunctional associations, the world is not a therapy setting. People need to do what they need to do to kind of deal with everything, and I think we should be supporting each other instead of policing how each of us copes.

So I do not claim that people who suffer from certain experiences do not know best what they need in order to manage that. I’d actually argue the complete opposite: people know best, we should not police how people cope, we are not each other’s therapists, we should not demand ‘perfect’ coping, we need to be each other’s support and respect people’s own insights into what works for them. Avoiding certain triggers and asking people around you to give you a trigger warning for things that are particularly triggering to you is fine.

But I have big reservations about using trigger warnings in a general sense, not because it’s bad for individual people with PTSD, but because of the modelling effect it has. For example, if my mom is afraid of spiders and I see her become afraid, this models the fearful expectancy and increases my chances of becoming phobic myself.

Say trigger warnings become customary. Before scenes including sexual violence on Netflix they show a trigger warning. Before discussing sexual violence in class there’s a trigger warning. When there’s a rape scene in a book, they put a trigger warning on the back. A sort of cultural understanding develops that depictions of sexual violence is not the sort of thing that a person should be exposed to without a warning. Because those depictions can be so triggering to a person who has experienced trauma that it becomes harmful.

This models an expectancy that depictions of violence could trigger to such an extent that it should be avoided.

And say I then got raped.

The groundwork for the dysfunctional expectancy has been planted, there’s this sort of half-truth that people who have experienced rape will often be triggered by depictions of violence (even though that wasn’t really the case, it’s usually other stuff). Will this increase my chances of experiencing that dysfunctional expectancy myself? Have my chances of being triggered by such depictions increased? Have we modeled a harmful association?

We don’t know. But considering how anxiety disorders work, we are sure environmental factors have effects. And we know anxiety symptoms and disorders feed of modelling, quite strongly.

So if you use trigger warnings, I don’t think you’re an over-sensitive PC-policing free-speech hater. I really don’t. I think you’re wrong, and I think we should be having a conversation about this, but I thank you for being kind.

Some comments to further clarify my point:

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Consent Violations in BDSM scene

In Dutch, "geel" means yellow and "geil" means horny. Which means "yellow" as a safeword can be a bit confusing :P.

In Dutch, “geel” means yellow and “geil” means horny. Which means “yellow” as a safeword can be a bit confusing :P.

Although all kinksters agree BDSM should only be practised with consenting adults, consent violations still happen. In 2013 the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom published a worrying statistic, showing that almost one in three SM-ers had a pre-negotiated limit violated, and 15% even experienced their safeword being ignored. There has been a growing focus on and development of consent culture within the BDSM scene, which has included a tense but fruitful discussion of different types of consent violations. In most simple terms bdsm without consent is simply abuse, but the reality is often more complex and nuanced. Are all consent violations bad?

Reading about the NCSF study I found myself looking back on my own experiences with consent violations. I remember a scene where I gagged my partner and then hurt him. We had the type of relationship where I felt comfortable pushing the boundaries a little, so I went a bit further than I usually did. And then I crossed his boundaries but he couldn’t safeword and I had no idea, because I’d gagged him and forgotten to give him a non-verbal safeword. He was emotional afterwards but not upset with me at all. And I think this exemplary of how consent violations in the scene often happen. I’ve had my own consent violated more than once, but I never considered it a ‘bad consent violation’. Just an honest mistake.

A group of Dutch kinksters decided to find out. They set up a big survey, which over 350 BDSM-ers finished. Their data was analysed by someone who knows what she was doing, so if you’re into statistics go download the paper because it’s good.

A quick look at the characteristics of kinksters
Over half of all subjects were female. This is interesting because there’s still this prevailing myth that perverts are usually men. Over half were submissive, a quarter dominant and another quarter switch (which means they like both roles). As usual they found that men prefer the dominant role and women are more often sub. The age group 18 to 30 was the largest in this sample, though there were kinksters older than 61 as well. People generally had one to ten years of experience, about 10% of people had more than 20 years experience.

Consent violations
Almost 65% of kinky people have experienced some consent violation, often more than once. In this study they asked about pre-negotiated limits being violated, safewords being ignored and scenes that went too far, and all of those things seem to happen regularly. All numbers were higher than in the NCSF study, for example over 20% of Dutch kinksters have had their safeword ignored (compared to 15% in NCSF).

But how bad is it?
One of the great aspects of this study is the nuanced picture it shows of the seriousness of consent violations. They asked respondents about their experiences, how bad they felt it was on a scale from 1 (not bad) to 10 (bad) and their answers were so diverse. There were peaks around 1 to 4, even for the occasions they describe as the worst consent violations. There was another peak at 8 to 10, which shows really horrible consent violations happen.

When asked if they considered the consent violation a form of abuse, the majority of people said they did not. About 15% of all kinky people have ever experienced a ‘bad’ consent violation, and about 20% have had at least one experience they consider abuse. These numbers are, sadly, similar to what we find outside of the BDSM scene. So it seems kinksters are, yet again, not different from non-kinksters.

Kinksters and the police
People how have experienced abuse in a BDSM setting usually do not file charges, even if they did consider doing so. When asked why they did not file charges against their abuser, fear of not being taken seriously by authorities was recurring theme.

Consent at parties
Consent violations usually happened inside someone’s home. Under 10% of consent violations happen at a party. The relationship between severity of the violation and location was not investigated, so we don’t know if consent violations at a party are usually mild or bad.

Around 30% of kinksters have at least once doubted the consent of a scene they saw. Doms report having these doubts most often, subs least often of all. When doubting the consent of a scene nearly all consider intervening, and nearly all do. Most people who worry about a scene notify a DM, which is arguably the best way of intervening since you don’t want people butting in on each others’ scenes the whole time. Many people also talk to the players they’re worried about afterwards. Only 8.7% do absolutely nothing and simply walk away, so there’s no evidence of a massive bystander effect in the scene.

About 60% believe a Party Safeword can help prevent consent violations. Almost nobody has ever needed one, but we believe it might help others. About 44% believe a Party Safeword is very important, and about 28% believe it’s not important at all, so people are quite opinionated about this :).

The study is packed with more facts and figures, so go read it if you’re interested.

Getting your polyamory needs met!

Mitchell, M.E., Bartholomew, K., Cobb, R.J. (2013): Need Fulfillment in Polyamorous Relationships. Journal of Sex Research (10).

SplitShire_IMG_5279Polyamory is interesting because it violates very strong norms in Western culture that romantic relationships should be exclusive. There’s a (probably unrealistic) expectation that our one romantic partner should fulfill all of our interpersonal needs, from companionship to intellectual involvement to sex. When people decide to become ethically non-monogamous, or even when a partner cheat, some assume it’s because something is lacking in the relationship. “Isn’t your partner enough for you? What do you miss that you need to look outside of your relationship?”.

But this overreliance on partners to fulfill all our needs can actually cause relationship problems, because a lot of partners can’t live up to those high ideals. Some poly people argue that polyamory solves that problem, because that way we can get our needs met by different people.

And it’s true that it wasn’t untill the 1920’s that marriage became so strongly linked to romantic love. For most of our history marriage was a business transaction between two men: the one selling a daughter, the other buying a wife. But marriage quite recently became redefined as a romantic bond, and women became redefined as you know, actual people who make their own decisions instead of men’s possessions. So that was good. But it came with certain ideals around love, that you just need one person, and if you really love them you won’t want anyone else. Polyamory violates those ideals, and polyamorous people report they experience prejudice against polyamory. Those antipolyamory attitudes might have an effect on social policies and laws. So it’s important we get a better understanding of polyamory.

We’re not sure how need fulfillment with two partners is related to relationship satisfaction an commitment to both partners, and this study aimed to examine three different theories on that. The additive model predicts that need fulfillment ‘adds up’, so more fulfillment in the one relationship would enhance satisfaction with the other partner. The contrast model predicts that need fulfillment in the one relationship makes the other relationship look bleaker, resulting in less relationship satisfaction. And the compensation model predicts that need fulfillment in one relationship may compensate for the lack of need fulfillment in the other relationship, leading to more relationship satisfaction.

To study these theories they got a big group of poly people to fill out questionnaires for them. Some interesting findings about the characteristics of these poly people:

  • sample of 1093 (which is a very big group – awesome!)
  • 57% identified as female, 37.7% identified as male, 5.3% identified as something else (genderqueer, transgender, other, no gender)
  • 94.5% completed some college
  • 90% identified as caucasian
  • 44% had kids
  • of women, 67.6% identified as bisexual or pansexual
  • of men, 61.4% identified as heterosexual
  • 65.4% identified one of their partners as primary

So on to the measures! They used the Need Fulfillment in Relationship Scale to measure need fulfillment, which is still a bit of a new test. For relationship satisfaction they used the reliable and valid Relationship Assessment Scale. To measure commitment they used four items of the Commitment/Dedication scale. And they wanted to correct the findings for neurotisism, because that’s linked to outcomes about relationships, so they used the neuroticism subscale of the Big Five Inventory.

Some descriptives:
Most subjects lived with their Significant Other (SO), but about one in six lived with their Other Significant Other (OSO). When subjects had kids their SO usually took on a parenting role, and one in four reported their OSO took on a parenting role. Most women had two male partners or identified their male partner as SO and female partner as OSO, but 8% had a female SO and male OSO, and 4% had two female partners. The large majority of men had two female partners, 4.6% had two male partners and 1.2% had a male SO and female OSO.

THE RESULTS!

Need fulfillment was consistently high with both partners across all needs studied. They didn’t find any strong evidence for any of the theories, I mean there were some very small statistically significant differences on some measures that maybe predicted a percentage of the variance but in all honesty, it was all so small it’s not really interesting.

“It is unlikely that need fulfillment with one partner has a meaningful effect on satisfaction with another partner”
“Need fulfillment with one partner was unrelated to commitment to another partner”

There were some findings that suggest that happy relationships enhance each other, so if you’re happy with your husband and then your boyfriend meets your needs as well you’re even happier with your husband. And some findings suggest that unhappy relationships are hurt by happy other relationships, if you’re unhappy with your husband and then your boyfriends meets some of your needs you feel even more unhappy with your husband. But, as the researchers say “these effects are too small to be of practical significance”. The effects were so tiny they were barely even there.

“Overall, these results suggest that polyamorous individuals’ relationships with one partner tend to operate relatively independantly of their relationship with another partner. Thus, having multiple partners in itself does not appear to have a strong positive or negative effect on dyadic relationships”

The findings show that people can have good, committed relationships with multiple partners. It also shows that people do not become poly because of low need fulfillment in their relationship. Instead, people actually scored highest for their SO, although truly their need fulfillment was remarkably high for both partners.

The researchers also mention these findings should have an effect on the clinical treatment of poly people, because some therapists want to treat the poly as the problem when a poly relationship is in trouble. The researchers recommend focussing on the problematic interactions within that relationship and only including other partners in the treatment if their specific problem asks for that.

“This study confirms that individuals can have simultaneous fulfilling, committed attachments to multiple romantic partners”.

Aww <3.

Weitzer and Prostitution Research

Ronald-WeitzerWeitzer, R. (2005) New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law and Social Change, 43, 211-235.

Ronald Weitzer is one of the biggest names in sex work research, and his article ‘New directions in research on prostitution‘ from 2005 is one that is very often cited in sex work debates. He’s published quite an impressive collection of books, studies and articles actually. Really cool. Oh and he works as a professor at George Washington University. Imagine having him as a teacher, how awesome would that be.

Anyway, a little information on scientific publications. Some articles report on a specific study done by that researcher. For example, last week I discussed the article by Wismeijer where the research team itself had contacted research subjects, administered tests and interpreted the data, and the article intends to present those findings to the world. But that’s not the only type of article that gets published in scientific journals. Another type of article is the review article, which does not cover original research but instead tries to make sense of a whole collection of already published articles. This is good for a variety of reasons:

  • It gives you a good summary of a lot of what we know about that topic at that time. Say, for example, I want to know the latest developments in the research on panic disorders. By reading a review article I get a good sense of what’s been found, and because scientists cite their sources I can look up the details if I want to.
  • It helps figure out of certain aspects of a topic are under-represented in research. By looking at lots of studies done on a topic and putting it all together it’s easier to see what knowledge we’re still missing.
  • It helps build a more coherent theory on that topic. It’s great when a single study finds that of the 20 sex workers interviewed in that study 18 like their job, but combine that with all the other studies and we might get a more holistic and nuanced idea of the realities of sex work.

So Ronald Weitzer begins by explaining why the dominant theory on sex work, radical feminism, is inadequate. Radical feminism starts with an obvious anti-prostitution agenda, which defines all forms of sex work as sexual violence. You can’t really investigate if sex work is violence if you consider all sex work violence because then obviously you’re going to find sexual violence because that’s how you define sex work and you’re not exactly investigating anything now are you. Other problems with this theory is that it is blind to any variation in prostitution experiences, it’s completely a-historic and makes generalising, essentialist claims that are not at all supported by evidence. It denies any agency of sex workers except when they leave the sex industry and uses a language that does not seem to be fitting. For example, radical feminists use the term ‘prostituted woman’ when prostitutes almost unanimously prefer ‘sex worker’. We need a more sophisticated, comprehensive model of prostitution.

Variation in prostitution

Almost all research is done on the least prevalent form of prostitution: street prostitution. These findings are then often generalised to all forms of sex work and that’s a bit of a problem, because it seems the prostitution market is very segmented between indoor and outdoor workers.

Of indoor workers:

  • 1% were beaten. Yes. One percent.
  • 2% were raped (compare that to the average population..)
  • 30% of call girls received a non-sexual massage from their most recent customer
  • indoor workers had the same physical health, self-esteem, mental health, and quality of their social networks as non-sex worker women
  • 97% report an increase in self-esteem since starting sex work
  • 75% feel their lives have improved after beginning sex work

And the list of wonderful happy findings goes on and on. But street-based sex workers, especially when they have drug-related problems, aren’t doing as well. And that’s an important finding, because that means that we have to figure out what’s going on with street workers. It’s obviously not the sex work itself that’s doing the harm, so how can we understand these findings in a broader context?

Male and transgender prostitution

Almost all research is done on female prostitutes, while male and transgender sex workers are often overlooked. What research so far suggests:

  • men are often involved in prostitution in a more sporadic and transitory way
  • men seem to be less likely to be coerced or forced into prostitution than women
  • male workers can view their work as another form of recreational sex, and seem to experience more sexual gratification from their work
  • male workers are less likely to be harassed or arrested by police than female workers, partly because of police homophobia which tends to discourage contact with male workers
  • transgender workers face greater difficulties than cis-male or even cis-female workers
  • transgender workers do not differ from cis-male and cis-female workers in their level of satisfaction with the work
  • prostitution often gives transgender workers “a sense of personal worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem”

Customers

Customers are by far the largest group in the sex work industry, but are rarely studied. Research so far has suggested:

  • customers wish to buy a sexual service.
  • they look for providers who are friendly, conversational, kiss and cuddle, with elements of romance and intimacy. Not just mechanical sex.
  • arrested customers often feel that visiting prostitutes has caused them troubles and report that they didn’t enjoy sex with prostitutes. Arrested customers, yes.
  • a majority of customers hold the same sort of beliefs the general public holds about prostitution: that prostitutes have pimps, don’t like men and don’t like their work
  • 8% would approve of their daughter becoming a prostitute
  • we know seriously next to nothing about female customers. As in, shockingly little. But we do know they exist.

Managers

Not all prostitution is organised by third parties, for example independent escorts and street workers often work by themselves. But a lot of sex workers do have someone who has some control over their work and extracts some of their earnings, they have some form of management. People familiar with the sex industry will probably think of (often female) managers of brothels, but there’s hardly any research on these managers and the little we have is usually done on (often incarcerated) street-level management, a.k.a. pimps.

This is not covered in the article, but it’s important to note that the term ‘pimp’ is an extremely stereotypical and racist term. We all ‘know’ what a pimp is: a black man with lots of bling bling who beats his ‘bitches’ when they don’t make enough money. Research mirrors this.

Studies so far suggest that street-level management (pimps) are often abusive towards workers. They offer very little protection, but become violent when one of their workers talk to another pimp. On the other hand, findings suggest that indoor workers are often very happy with their management. There is very little known about sex trafficking, partly because trafficking and voluntary migration to do sex work are so often lumped together.

Much more research is needed on the dynamics of recruitment, socialization, surveillance, exploitation, coercion, and trafficking. Such findings will help to provide a more elaborate model of varying power relations in prostitution, ranging from those types where workers experience extreme domination by managers to those where workers experience little exploitation and no coercion. (page 229)

Conclusion

Almost all research has been done on female street workers, arguably one of the absolute smallest groups in the sex industry. This has resulted in a distorted and unbalanced picture. We need more research on indoor workers, male and transgender workers, customers and managers.

Additional research in these areas will also have important theoretical implications, allowing for the development of more sophisticated theories that avoid the pitfalls of one-dimensional perspectives like radical feminism.

Weitzer, R. (2005) New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law and Social Change, 43, 211-235.

Why kinky people are so happy

Wismeijer, A. A. J., & Van Assen, M. A. L. M. (2013). Psychological Characteristics of BDSM practitioners. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10, 1943-1952.

I first met Andreas Wismeijer when we were both invited to speak at an event in Rotterdam, and again when we were both speakers at the 2015 European Society for Sexual Medicine Conference in Copenhagen. I’d heard of his research before that though – everyone in the Dutch BDSM scene had. Because Andreas Wismeijer had researched Dutch kinksters, and turns out we’re one healthy bunch of people!

It wasn’t his original plan to research the psychological well-being of BDSM’ers. Andreas Wismeijer is interested in secrets and its effect on subjective well-being. Kind of funny really – he gets invited to talk about kinky sex all the time now! He’s a good attitude about it though, sharing with a grin how he was just looking for a population with secrets and now he’s an expert on pervs ;). Still, it’s a positive thing when research is done without an agenda, the researcher himself disengaged and results judged in a dispassionate manner. Andreas Wismeijer wasn’t looking to prove anything – he just reports what his research has shown.

So what they did was place a request to fill out their questionnaires on a Dutch BDSM website (and for the control group on a Dutch women’s magazine forum). An overwhelming 1571 kinky people responded – if you’re not a researcher you might not know this but that’s a crazy big sample. Especially when you’re researching a marginalised group. So that was awesome.

The following questionnaires were filled in by the respondents:

  • Attachment Style Questionnaire. Attachment describes the dynamics of people’s relationships. So you can have a secure attachment, which basically means that you trust yourself in your relationships and you trust others. Or you can have a more unhealthy attachment style, like anxious or avoiding attachment styles. Attachment correlates with personality, disorders, trauma and other things related to mental health. Secure attachment is the thing you want :).
  • Personality was measured with the NEO Five Factor Inventory. It’s a measure for the Big Five personality traits, one of the more respected ways of measuring personality in psychology. Lots of research has been done to support it. Anyway, the 5 are: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.
  • The Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire measured anxious expectations of rejection.
  • Subjective well-being was measured with World Health Organization-Five Well-being Index (WHO-5)

So all together, with all these people who filled out the questionnaires and all those questionnaires they collected an amazing amount of data. Extra statistical tests were done to see how reliable the measures were, and that was all good, so what they found in these measures is very probably a good indicator of what kinky people are really like. I’m going to skip over the data analysis and results a bit, because it’s unreadable for people who don’t know too much about statistics (you can read them in the article though) and jump straight to what those finding actually mean.

  • Kinky people show favourable personality characteristics! They’re less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences and more conscientious. They’re less agreeable though, which means the have less general concern for social harmony. This has been found to be an indicator of good self-esteem, but it can also indicate they place self-interest above getting along with others.
  • BDSM’ers show lower sensitivity for rejection, which is a very healthy thing. Female BDSM participants had more confidence in their relationships, had a lower need for approval, and were less anxiously attached than non-kinky women.
  • Subjective well-being of kinky people is higher than non-kinky people.
  • Researchers conclude: “these findings suggest that BDSM practitioners are characterized by greater psychological and interpersonal strength and autonomy”.

Although the findings were significant (which means that we’re pretty sure it wasn’t just a random finding, but rather shows actual differences between the groups), the effect sizes were small. In plain English: there’s hardly any difference between kinky people and non-kinky people, difference is super small, but we’re quite sure that super small difference really exists.

We showed that the psychological profile of BDSM participants is characterized by a set of balanced, autonomous, and beneficial personality characteristics and a higher level of subjective well-being compared with non-BDSM participants.

So yeah, I love this study. If you ever have a chance to see Andreas Wismeijer talk about his research go do it, ’cause he’s a good speaker and will tell you so much more about everything they found. His other research is super interesting too!

Wismeijer, A. A. J., & Van Assen, M. A. L. M. (2013). Psychological Characteristics of BDSM practitioners. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10, 1943-1952.

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.