New research has uncovered several psychological factors related to interest in BDSM (bondage, discipline, submission and sadomasochism). The findings, which have been published in the scientific journals Sexuality Research and Social Policy and Archives of Sexual Behavior, indicate that such practices are not pathological in general.
Though it has slowly become more and more mainstream, little is known about the psychological and biological factors driving BDSM preferences. Researcher Alana Schuerwegen and her colleagues at the Collaborative Antwerp Psychiatric Research Institute were particularly interested in examining how interest in BDSM was related to past trauma, relationship attachment styles, sensation seeking, and coping styles.
“The past five years BDSM gained a significant amount of attention and popularity in the general population, partly due to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Yet despite this increasing popularity, there still seem to exist several misconceptions about BDSM and BDSM-practitioners in the general population (i.e., people who don’t practice BDSM on a regular basis),” explained Schuerwegen, who is also a psychological counselor at Antwerp University Hospital.
“Nevertheless, only very little empirical research existed about BDSM and it’s possible driving psychological mechanisms. Therefore, our research group conducted a survey study in both the general population and BDSM population in order to obtain more insight in BDSM.”
In one study, the researchers surveyed 771 BDSM practitioners and 518 non-practitioners to examined whether BDSM was a maladaptive coping mechanism in response to traumatic experiences in early life.
“The hypotheses of a link between childhood trauma and BDSM was not supported by the results of our study. Little to no evidence was found for a link between childhood trauma and the onset of BDSM interests,” Schuerwegen told PsyPost.
“Yet several participants reported having experienced physical abuse (e.g., beatings) during adulthood. However, it is unclear whether these physical beatings in adulthood took place within the context of BDSM play, which could then explain this difference between BDSM practitioners and participants of the general population.”
“The main conclusion is that BDSM practices cannot simply be framed as a possible coping strategy for experienced trauma,” Schuerwegen said.
That study also examined four relationship attachment styles: secure attachment, anxious-preoccupied attachment, avoidant attachment, and anxious-avoidant (disorganized) attachment. Previous studies have indicated that these attachment styles are related to various sexual attitudes and behaviors.
“Our research showed that BDSM practitioners have a more secure attachment style than people from the general population. This result is in line with certain theories which rather view BDSM practices as a recreational leisure than as a pathological practice,” Schuerwegen explained.
In other words, BDSM practitioners were more likely than non-practitioners to report that it was easy for them to become emotionally close to others and that they were comfortable being in an interdependent relationship.
“Another possible explanation for these findings is the fact that mutual trust is an essential part of BDSM play and that the exchange of trust is generally easier for securely attached individuals,” Schuerwegen noted.
In another study, which compared 256 BDSM practitioners to 300 non-practitioners, the researchers examined the role of thrill-seeking behavior, impulsivity, and the desire for novelty. The study also examined coping styles — the various strategies people use to deal with stressful experiences.
“In general, higher levels of sensation seeking were found in BDSM practitioners. They reported higher levels of both thrill- and novelty-seeking than participants from the general population. BDSM practitioners who identified themselves as being bisexually orientated reported the highest levels of thrill-seeking,” Schuerwegen told PsyPost.
Higher levels of impulsivity were also found among BDSM practitioners who identified as submissives and switches, but not those who identified as dominates.
“These results may support previous findings which state that people who are interested in BDSM-related activities also tend to be more open towards new experiences,” Schuerwegen said. “Nonetheless, future longitudinal studies should investigate how BDSM interests tend to evolve, comparing people who occasionally practice BDSM with those who perceive BDSM as (part of) a lifestyle.”
The researchers also found that BDSM practitioners were more likely than non-practitioners to report using active coping skills and to seek distraction in leisure activities.
“Some participants of the BDSM population reported the use of BDSM-related activities to cope with stress,” Schuerwegen noted. “The question remains, however, whether these participants prefer this coping strategy in absence of alternative coping strategies or whether they prefer the use of sex in general as a way to cope with stress.”
But the studies — like all research — include some limitations. BDSM practitioners were recruited from the general population, as well as from the website FetLife, online BDSM forums, and local BDSM organizations. The researchers acknowledge that it “is possible that there was a tendency within the BDSM population to portray themselves differently with the aim of changing the fixed beliefs about people who practice BDSM.” The studies also only examined Dutch-speaking individuals.
Nevertheless, the new findings help to shed light on factors related to BDSM interests, which can be further investigated in future research.
“There are still several persistent misconceptions about BDSM and BDSM practitioners in the general population, partly due to the lack of empirical research and the dissemination of inaccurate information on the subject in mainstream media,” Schuerwegen said. “These misconceptions often lead to stigmatizing attitudes and discrimination towards BDSM practitioners. Therefore, more empirical research on this topic and its underlying psychological mechanisms is essential in order to limit further stigmatization of this group.”
The study, “The Psychology of Kink: A Cross-Sectional Survey Study Investigating the Roles of Sensation Seeking and Coping Style in BDSM-Related Interests“, was authored by Alana Schuerwegen, Wim Huys, Violette Coppens, Nele De Neef, Josée Henckens, Kris Goethals, and Manuel Morrens.
The study, “The Psychology of Kink: a Survey Study into the Relationships of Trauma and Attachment Style with BDSM Interests“, was authored by Stephan Ten Brink, Violette Coppens, Wim Huys, and Manuel Morrens