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Wednesday
Jun052013

Bring Out the Gimp: Personality & BDSM

Let’s play a quick word association game – read each word or phrase below and say the first thing that comes to mind. Here we go…

Doctor: ?

Tree: ?

Pulp: ?

The Glass is Half: ?

Bondage-Discipline, Dominance-Submission, Sadism-Masochism: ?

Okay, so that last one was a bit tricky. Commonly referred to as BDSM or simply S&M (because apparently BDDSSM doesn’t quite roll off the tongue), bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, sadism-masochism refers to any number of sexual practices and behaviors including, but not limited to, being physically and/or emotionally dominated (or being the dominator), administration or receipt of pain, role playing, and so on. If you were playing along, and are like most people, you probably think of something like “pain” or “sex” when hearing the term/phrase BDSM.

In reality, BDSM has less to do with sex than it does pleasure more broadly, and pain is but one of many qualities that can characterize BDSM sexual practices. But, given common portrayals of BDSM, such as those from the classic film Pulp Fiction, people generally view those who practice BDSM as being at least just a bit “messed up” in one way or another. It turns out that presumption has also guided much of the past research on the topic, and engaging in BDSM has a long history of being treated like a psychological disorder.1 But, the limited empirical work on the topic suggests otherwise: a number of studies provide compelling evidence that practicing BDSM is a perfectly healthy form of sexual expression.2,3 There’s little justification for automatically assuming that those that like to be tied up (or tie other people up) are anything but adventurous in the bedroom (or dungeon).

A recent study builds on the argument that those who practice BDSM are psychologically healthy.1 Researchers in the Netherlands recruited two groups of participants and asked them to complete an anonymous online survey. One group of participants was comprised of “BDSM respondents” and was recruited from an online BDSM forum for a study “mapping the psychology of the practice of BDSM.” Just over 1500 individuals began the survey, but the researchers “dropped” the data of those who did not complete all measures (leaving about 900 people for analyses).

The second group of participants was recruited via Dutch magazines, researcher websites, and newspaper interviews for a “study about human behavior.” Just over 2700 individuals began the survey, but the researchers dropped a large majority of them because they either skipped one or more items or reported having BDSM experience – leaving 448 people for analyses. We’ll call this 448 people the “control” group (pun intended).

The primary objective of the study was to explore whether the BDSM group differed from the control group on a host of “common” psychological variables. Specifically, all participants completed the same general measures, including attachment, personality, rejection sensitivity (a measure of how much people worry about being rejected by others), and subjective well-being (a simple measure of mental and physical health). The researchers then compared the BDSM and control group participants on these measures.

In contrast to stereotypes, the BDSM group did not report being psychologically “worse” than the control group on any of the variables. In fact, the BDSM group reported lower levels of anxious attachment and rejection sensitivity than did the control group. And, in terms of personality, the BDSM group was more extraverted (no shock there), more open to experience (or there), more conscientious, and less neurotic and agreeable than were those in the control group. Consistent with these findings, the BDSM group reported greater well-being than did those in the control group.

Now, before drafting the plans for that dungeon in your basement, or oiling up that whip so you can start living a more normal and healthy life, it’s important to note that these results do come with a few significant caveats. First, recall that the two groups of participants were recruited differently. One potential issue is that the BDSM group of participants knew the study was about “mapping the psychology of the practice of BDSM.” In other words, the participants were aware that the researchers were trying to get a feel for what individuals who practice BDSM are like. It’s not a stretch to think that, as a result, individuals in the BDSM group may have had a vested interest in painting themselves in a particularly positive light (to, perhaps, offer a contrast to the “bring out the gimp” stereotypes). Second, the researchers threw away A LOT of data – almost 70% of everyone who began their surveys, with a disproportionately larger amount of control group data being discarded. Exactly why they took this approach (vs. less extreme analytical approaches for dealing with missing data) is unclear, but it’s not hard to argue that there might be something unique about those people who fill out every single item on a survey vs. those that don’t. That said, the results are consistent with some past work on the topic, so these limitations don’t undermine the study’s conclusions, but they do argue that more research is needed (a point the authors make).

Ultimately, somebody has to be very comfortable in their own skin to role play, submit, or engage in other BDSM behaviors, so the conclusion that “BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes” certainly makes sense. Or, to borrow a quotation from Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), not only is “Zed dead, baby,” but perhaps stereotypes about BDSM should be left for dead as well.

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1Wismeijer, A. A. J., & van Assen, M. A. L. M. (in press). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. Journal of Sexual Medicine.

2Richters, J., De Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, “sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660-1688.

3Newmahr, S. (2010). Rethinking kink: Sadomasochism as serious leisure. Qualitative Sociology, 33, 313-331.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He's a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

image source: leslirichardson.blogspot.com  Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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