Bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM) is one of the most popular sexual fantasies and a significant number of people report having engaged in BDSM acts before.
So why is it such a popular sexual interest? What draws people to BDSM in the first place?
A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research explored how people who practice BDSM activities say they got into it . In this study, 227 adults (age 18+) who reported having engaged in real-life BDSM activities for a minimum of six months were asked to describe, in their own words, the origins of their BDSM attractions.
What they found was that there were two broad categories of responses—intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations—with several specific sub-categories in each.
Intrinsic motivations are “deeply rooted in the personal history of the individual.” These reasons tend to characterize BDSM as a trait, disposition, orientation, or identity—something that comes from within.
On the other hand, extrinsic motivations are “developed through an environmental process”—they originate outside of the person. These reasons tend to characterize BDSM as something that is learned, or as a response to some life experience.
The intrinsic and extrinsic motives were further divided into eight subcategories.
On the intrinsic side, the subcategories included:
1.) A feeling that one had always been into BDSM and couldn’t explain why. For these folks, interest in BDSM appeared at a very young age, but it’s not something that become sexual until later on. Examples included “When I was a kid I tied myself up and blindfolded myself- I just don’t know the reasons” and “Being tied up, blindfolded, whipped are sexual fantasies I have entertained long before being interested in sex itself.” These people felt that they were simply “born” or “wired” to be into BDSM, and this is how the majority of participants characterized things.
2.) A later-in-life realization that one was into BDSM, but a recognition that it was an innate aspect. These folks tended to feel like this was something they were always into, but either hid or denied it until some point in adulthood. An example of this included “I was in denial for a long time, and basically hid my sexuality for years.” Few participants reported this compared to the other reasons.
3.) Using BDSM to seek balance or to deal with psychological distress. For people in this group, their personal history drove them to BDSM as a form of self-healing or therapy. Examples included: “I dealt with my ‘issues’ and healed myself” and “The endorphins from sustained pain play help with the bipolarity, in a similar way to exercise.” Put another way, these individuals felt that they were predisposed to BDSM because of their psychology.
On the extrinsic side, the subcategories included:
1.) A response to sexual abuse suffered during childhood. For example, “I was sexually abused as a child. I was used a lot and it gave me a submissive mentality.”
2.) A response to disciplinary treatment from one’s parents. Most commonly, this involved receiving spankings that involved use of some object, such as a belt or paddle. For example, “I was spanked a lot by both of my parents with the belt and I grew up craving and needing punishment.”
3.) A positively reinforced behavior early in life. What we’re talking about here are principles of operant conditioning in action: when one engages in a behavior that is pleasurable or rewarding, it increases the odds of wanting to do it over and over. For example, “I always asked my neighbor to tie me up while playing cowboy, which was very exciting.”
4.) An activity introduced by a partner later in life. In other words, these folks only got into BDSM as a result of a sexual experience in adulthood. For instance, “I just recently met someone who is a sadist and he introduced me to BDSM.”
5.) Using BDSM to cope with a painful chronic illness. For example, “I didn’t get into BDSM until after I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.” Just two participants in total reported this motivation, making it the rarest of all that we discussed.
Of course, we must be mindful of the limitations of this research, including the fact that this wasn’t a representative sample of BDSM practitioners. Also, people don’t always consciously recognize or understand where their own sexual interests (in BDSM or otherwise) might come from.
Even so, this research still tells us a few important things about the psychology behind BDSM. First, a very diverse set of factors appears to draw people to this sexual interest. For some, it seems to be more of a lifelong orientation, whereas for others, it emerges much later in life in response to some experience.
Second, these findings challenge the popular stereotype that BDSM is inherently rooted in some personal trauma, a narrative perpetuated in many popular media depictions of BDSM, such as Fifty Shades of Grey. Certainly, it seems that trauma, chronic illness, and psychological distress can play a role in developing BDSM interests, but these factors do not appear to be necessary or sufficient causes—and they don’t appear to be the most common either.
This study also explored why people said they were engaging in BDSM. In other words, beyond where their interest came from, what are they getting out of it or seeking? Stay tuned—I’ll be exploring that in one of next week’s posts.
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 Labrecque, F., Potz, A., Larouche, É., & Joyal, C. C. (2020). What Is So Appealing About Being Spanked, Flogged, Dominated, or Restrained? Answers from Practitioners of Sexual Masochism/Submission. The Journal of Sex Research.
Image Source: 123RF/lightfieldstudios
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