BDSM: What do we know?

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s a longer one on BDSM following the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and your past research into BDSM practices?

I’m a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and I’ve been studying BDSM and other sexualities for around ten years now. In 2007 Darren Langdridge and I published a book called Safe, Sane and Consensual (Palgrave, 2007) which brought together many of the main people researching BDSM at the time.

What drew you to study this subject?

I’m generally interested in sexualities and relationships that fall outside the mainstream and what people in general might be able to learn from those who do things differently.

I also work as a sex and relationship therapist and we often find that people with sexual difficulties find it difficult to communicate about what they like sexually. People in the BDSM world have come up with lots of ways of communicating about what they do which can be helpful for everyone (for example, ‘yes, no, maybe’ lists of what they’d like to do; ways of negotiating sexual consent, and safewords for when they want to stop).

Can you tell me overall what kind of conclusions you drew from your research into this area? What were the main findings?

I’ve studied several aspects of BDSM. Perhaps my main finding was about diversity. People who are unfamiliar with BDSM often assume that it involves a small range of things and that everyone does it for the same reason. For example there is a common stereotype of high-powered businessmen going to a leather-clad dominatrix to be whipped in order to relieve the pressure of their job. I found that BDSM includes many different practices and that people do it for many different reasons.

For example, BDSM can include: physical sensations (from feathers to candlewax to floggers), bondage (from handcuffs to rope to intricate ribbons), domination and submission (somebody waiting on somebody else, somebody ordering another person around), discipline (spanking, telling off, etc.), dressing up, and role-play (cops, pirates, medical, school, etc.). All these things can happen separately or in combination.

For some BDSM can be a way of giving up control and letting go, for others it is a fun, playful activity. It can mean taking on a different role and being somebody else for a while, it can be a form of relaxation, or it can be a way of showing strength and how much you are capable of enduring. It can help some to explore something that scares them (pain or bullying), it can be a way of building intimacy with another person, or it can provide a reason for being looked after and cared for afterwards. It could means many of these things even for the same person, or on different occasions.

From what you’ve seen, do you think the BDSM community around the world (and the number of people interested in BDSM and practicising it) has grown in the last five years or so?

Definitely.

If so, why do you think more people are becoming interested in BDSM?

I think that the 50 Shade of Grey phenomenon has been vital in this. It has brought BDSM into the mainstream and enabled a lot more people to be open about their interest and to bring these kinds of practices into their sex lives. I don’t think it is so much that more people are interested who weren’t before. Surveys have always found high numbers of people to have fantasies about being tied up, spanked etc. (often over 50% of people for these common activities). It is more that people now feel more able to be open about it.

How is BDSM perceived by the public do you think, and has this perception changed recently? If so, due to what?

In the past it has been very stigmatised. I think the perception has changed somewhat due to things like 50 Shades, and the increasing popularity of BDSM equipment in mainstream sex shops, etc. Lots of people now feel that they should include some ‘spicy sex’ in their sex life. However they still often draw a line between what they do (e.g. fluffy handcuffs and a little role-play) and ‘real’ BDSM which can still be ridiculed and distrusted. This is a shame as I think there’s actually a lot to learn from people and communities who have been practicing BDSM for years.

How would you explain the benefits (both sexual and psychological) of BDSM to an outsider? What is it about BDSM that attracts people, and how does it differ from other sexual practices?

Like I said before there are many different reasons that people do BDSM. Some simply find it fun or a turn-on. For other it has deeper benefits. For example, some people talk about the trust and intimacy involved with BDSM partners, or how it helps them reach a spiritual state. Some feel that it helps them relax, or that it enables them to get over difficult times in their life.

I think the main sexual benefit is that it can get people talking about what they enjoy sexually. With mainstream sex people often assume that they know what each other wants automatically and that causes many problems. With BDSM the assumption is that you need to negotiate it first.

Does BDSM have to be about sex, or is it more about connection? Is sex usually involved, or only sometimes?

Only sometimes. For some people BDSM is about sex and there are orgasms involved. For other people there might be a different kind of climax (of sensation or emotion, for example), or no climax at all. For some, BDSM is actually something more like a leisure activity, a sport, an art form, or a spiritual practice, than what we usually think of as sex.

What are some popular misconceptions about people who participate in BDSM?

There is still often a view that people who are into BDSM might be dangerous or psychologically disturbed in some way. The evidence actually shows that there is no basis to this stereotype and that people into BDSM are no more likely than anybody else to be criminal or abusive or to suffer from mental illness.

What about this idea that you have to be damaged in some way to like it: do you think that’s true?

50 Shades of Grey included the common myth that people who are into BDSM have been abused as children. Again there is no evidence that this is an more common than in the general population.

The book also, perhaps, suggested that men are more likely to be dominant and women submissive. Actually the evidence is that people of all genders can be dominant, submissive or switches (enjoying dominating and submitting).

From a psychological point of view, how does BDSM affect people? Are there dangers?

As with everything there can be risks so it is important that people know what they are doing both physically and psychologically. My main worry is that, if BDSM continues to be stigmatised, people will still find it difficult to be open about it and then they are more likely to do it without education or the support of more experienced people. That is when things are more likely to go wrong. I’d recommend that people read some of the books on the topic (by people like Dossie Easton and Tristan Taormino) so that they know what the potential risks are.

What is it about a person’s psychology that allows them to feel pleasure or excitement from physical pain? Is a certain amount of danger in life a need of human beings?

Well first of all, as I said before, there isn’t always physical pain involved. Lots of BDSM involves other things than sensation, and even sensation play isn’t always painful. Research suggests that much of the pain we experience is down to the anxiety about the pain. Remove the anxiety and the pain is much lower (that is why anti-anxiety drugs can be used to operate on people if anesthetics are not available). So for people who are sexually excited about pain the sensations are likely to feel very different than for people who are scared by it.

I think that good analogies are to long-distance runners, rock-climbers, or other sports people. They also take part in activities which can be very painful, but because they are excited by what they are doing or committed to enduring it, the experience is very different. I’m not a neuroscientist, so can’t comment on exactly how this works on a brain level, but I imagine that we might see similar chemicals (such as endorphins) involved in BDSM as we do in sporting activities.

Is it dangerous to test these boundaries?

Not if people know what they are doing. And, again, it is important to remember that a lot of BDSM play is not about testing boundaries at all. For those who do like to test their boundaries of endurance through BDSM it can be a fulfilling experience, as it can be for sportspeople.

What about the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? Is it good that more people know about BDSM through that, or does it paint a very misguided view of BDSM by perpetuating that only those who are damaged in some way will enjoy it?

As I’ve said here I think that 50 Shades has been both a positive and a negative thing. It has opened up the possibility of BDSM for lots of people who hadn’t felt able to consider it before, and has got people talking about BDSM and sex more broadly. At the same time it does perpetuate some problematic stereotypes, so I would like to see a more diverse range of books about BDSM (including different practices, gender combinations, and scenarios) so that people can get a sense of the wide range of activities and motivations involved.


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  1. onmybike365

    21 July

    Someone close to me recently described BDSM as ‘f*cked up people doing f*cked up things to each other’. Thank you for dispelling that notion.

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