Who does BDSM? Two researches and an interview

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Science has been occasionally researching the BDSM phenomenon and the people playing erotic domination games since the 1920s, when it was still conflated with pathological sadomasochism. The results varied according to the different definitions of what was surveyed, but the general consensus was that this kind of activities were much more common and safe than they were generally depicted in popular media.
Kinksters actually turned out to be pretty cool people, according to these findings:

  • They are more resilient when submitted to stress tests – Richters, 2008
  • They cultivate deep trust and body awareness – Powell, 2011
  • They are generally happier than the average person – Wismejer, 2013
  • They are less sexist – Simula, 2013

Then of course 50 shades of Grey happened, establishing itself as one of the ten best-selling books of all times, and the scholars got just as excited as regular folks about kink. Therefore, more research than ever has come up lately, but two works struck me as especially interesting.

The first was conducted in Portugal on a somewhat small sample of people and reported, among other findings, that while kinksters of any gender enjoy BDSM just as much as “vanilla” sex, sexual distress and difficulties are rarer during kinky play. In other words, this is a confirmation that the more you repress your erotic fantasies, the less you enjoy your sex.
This is especially curious when you also learn that interviewees waited an average of six years before moving from fantasy to actual play (but this may be heavily influenced by their median age of 22), and that when they did… they didn’t necessarily enacted their strongest desires, but some other similar practice. In most cases the reason is simply not finding an interested partner, and shame of revealing one’s preferences on a lesser extent. The below table shows what the best-loved BDSM games are:

Portugal

Italy

Bondage

14.7%

Bondage

26.4%

Domination

8.8%

Whipping

24%

Spanking

8.8%

Spanking

22.8%

Submission

7.7%

Psychological domination

8.4%

Foot/shoe fetish

5.9%

Discipline and submission

7.2%

Humiliation

5.9%

Torture

7.2%

Humiliation

6%

Role play

6%

Fetish

6%

The columns on the right, marked ‘Italy’ show a similar research conducted in my home country by Alessandro Calderoni and Ludovica Gonzaga on 120 subjects between 19 and 65, who were first interviewed at various BDSM events, then compiled a follow-up online test. As always, different percentages depend on differences in describing the various categories as much as in the different population surveyed.

The latter, by the way, was composed as follows:

  • 70% heterosexual, 29% bisexual, 1% gay
  • 40% submissive, 32% dominant, 28 switch
  • 4% prefers vanilla sex to BDSM, 46% equally enjoys them, 44% prefers BDSM, 6% is BDSM-only

The most striking part of the Italian results were however in the psychological profiling. This is what the researcher found about kinksters compared to the national average:

  • They strongly avoid proximity (+26%), especially the dominants
  • They are more open-minded, yet less friendly – females in particular
  • Dominants are more emotionally stable
  • They show less ‘masochist behavior’ (technically defined as deferential, uptight, whiny) than the regular population!
  • Their anxiety and sadness scores are way below average
  • 49% of them were more narcissist – and 71% of this group would require proper exams

These results were too juicy to be left unexplained, so I got in touch with Dr. Calderoni to better discuss them and the BDSM people in general. Here’s the interview:

A – The DSM’s guidelines for diagnosing a paraphilic disorder sharply distinguish between pathologic sadomasochism and BDSM play, but a certain circumspection still aligns among the very players toward institutions. My impression is that many people are afraid of facing discrimination or to be considered sick by an uneducated society still thinking in Nineteenth century terms. Are they just paranoids, or is their attitude justified?

C – I truly believe that the descriptive nosography of the DSM found strategic and necessary to incline towards the prevalent social perception of sexual play, limiting the pathology threshold more and more. As sexual consumerism grows stronger boredom grows too, and with its growth the attempts of inventing appealing variations flourish. Moreover, moral is always getting more individual and less collective, so everyone becomes his own model and limit. All in all, this means that you either hypothesize a deviant society, or you raise the acceptance towards the uncommon.
Therefore, while it is right and due to adapt the observation and cataloguing of sexuality to the zeitgeist, it is also important to realize that there is no ‘healthy/sick’ switch to flick and unquestionably discern a symptomatic behavior from a mere hobby. More specific indications may probably come from the exclusivity and cogence levels, or the inner symbology of the person living it.

A – Drawing on your personal observations, how do you evaluate the demographic profile of the subjects you interviewed? Does it correspond to a standard sample of the Italian society, or does it show any significant anomaly?

C – Empirically I can roughly say that those over 35 seem to have higher cultural and professional levels, while those below 35 are more attracted to the esthetics and sensation seeking aspect of BDSM. Speaking more scientifically, the differences are in the personality profiles.

A – Your results showed a 6% of people practicing BDSM exclusively. How do you interpret this number as a psychologist?

C – Whenever you find an exclusive choice you can generally reflect on the reasons binding the subject to that behavior. It means that for a minor part of the BDSM population sexuality is not free to express in various directions, but it is strictly focused on that context. We could probably find that each of those subjects has specific reasons or difficulties ranging from pure preference to actual distress.

A – I was baffled by how the BDSM sample turned out to be ‘less friendly’ than the average. Could you explain the definition of ‘friendliness’ and its concrete implications?

C – Personology theories founded on the so-called Big Five define the dimension of friendliness as two sub-dimensions: cooperation/empathy and cordiality/friendly behavior. Among BDSM subjects these dimensions score lower than the Italian general population. It means that they are less expansive and collaborative, potentially more egoistic, less affable and kind, more folded onto themselves.

A – Continuing on this topic, the reason I was so surprised is that – especially during social events like parties, munches, etc. – a frequent complaint is actually about the excessive familiarity of the participants, which rather kills the eroticism of the situation. What am I missing here?

C – A “community effect” is normal and foreseeable in those social situations where people sharing a comon interest gather to discuss. It is a sort of self-ghettoization that keeps the rest of the world out according to an us-vs-them logic, as it happens with political parties, soccer supporters, etc. The behavior towards those sharing the same “secret” surely is different from how the same persons relate with the “others”.

A – That 71% of potentially pathologically narcissistic people is rather scary. So it is inevitable to ask whether we should be actually afraid and, in case, how an inexperienced person can spot those who might pose a danger to her.

C – Pathology doesn’t equate with danger, but with distress. The narcissistic personality disorder is a grave, pervasive and chronic distress characterized by lack of empathy, egoism, self-aggrandizing and falsity caused by a serious inner wound that sucks the identity and self-esteem away and exchanges them with a continuous, strenuous effort to patch ancient holes in the sense of self. This trait becomes a social danger only rarely. A real narcissist is deeply egoistic, only talks about himself, loves tall tales, believes he has special rights and feels to be worthy of admiration and envy. These people feel fake to outsiders. There are infinite shades between this and those who just see themselves as “special” by some right.

A – By the way, are BDSM and narcissism connected by nature, or is there something about BDSM to attract all these borderline-sociopathic people?

C – That trait is probably in tune with the extreme attention required both by the dominant and the submissive roles (especially in a public setting), with its mise en scene and the general feeling of a stage performance. All of this in addition to the power and pain dimensions, with their symbolic values.

A – An almost paradoxical result saw the interviewees less sadistic and masochistic than the average. Is this a confirmation to the theory by which the BDSM principles of mutual respect actually defuse the pathologic tendencies?

C – We lack the means to confirm this. It may well be that a true sadist and a true masochist cannot be satisfied by a practice founded on safety rules, so they don’t frequent places enforcing those rules. Also, these deep traits do not express themselves just in a sexual context.

A – Your research confirms other studies describing BDSM players as happier  than the norm. What causes this happiness? Do erotic games lead to better living, or are the more serene people attracted to these practices more easily?

C – Technically it is not just about happier people, especially because there is no operational definition of happiness. Also, they don’t all come out as especially serene. What we can say is that they show significantly lesser levels of anxiety and sadness compared to the general population. Our data cannot confirm that this personological portrait is an effect or a cause of any particular sexual lifestyle, as there is not enough statistical evidence.

A – For my last question I’d like you to set your professional role aside and answer just as an explorer in the BDSM world. At the end of the day, what do you think of kinksters?

C – To comment or judge that closed and partially diffident world, who patiently accepted us, would be irrespectful. Any new environment we don’t know is equally curious and alarming in different proportions, for everyone and in every exploration. We could attempt a clinical analysis, but that can only be done on an individual basis and on specific request by the interested person. We don’t have the right to label any group – although they had their fun labelling us, falling in the same trap we are trying to sidestep here.

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