Is S&M Dangerous? Let’s Look at the Evidence

Science, technology, and life.
July 10 2013 10:50 AM

Spank You Very Much

Is S&M dangerous? Let’s look at the evidence.

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The Dutch study, which drew hundreds of BDSM respondents from an online forum, found that kinksters were, if anything, healthier than a vanilla control group. “The BDSM group scored higher than the control group on Extraversion, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness, and lower on Neuroticism and Agreeableness,” the authors reported. The BDSM group was also less sensitive to rejection (even submissives scored no higher on this factor than the control group did), and all three BDSM subsets—dominants, submissives, and “switches”—outscored controls on “subjective well-being,” though the difference was significant only for dominants. Measures designed to assess healthy attachment “showed the same pattern; if scores were different, then the control group had the lowest scores, followed by the subs, the switches, and finally the doms with the highest scores.” What stood out most in this study was the difference between dominants and everybody else: They scored higher on subjective well-being and lower on anxious attachment, rejection sensitivity, and need for approval.

All these studies should be taken with a grain of salt. They drew their BDSM samples from a few clubs and online forums that didn’t really match the control groups—the BDSM samples, for instance, were older, more male, and more educated—and might not represent kinksters generally. From the way the papers were written, it’s obvious that the researchers sympathized with BDSM and interpreted their data accordingly. But the Australian study, with its more trustworthy random population sample, backs them up. “Engagement in BDSM was not associated with higher levels of psychological distress (i.e., feeling sad, nervous, hopeless, etc.),” the authors reported. “Indeed, among men who participated in BDSM, the levels were significantly lower. Among women, they were apparently higher but this did not reach statistical significance.” For women in the Australian survey, “engagement in BDSM was significantly related to having been imprisoned within the past 15 years.” But that wasn’t true for men.

5. Is it exploitative? In the Dutch sample, men were primarily tops (48 percent classified themselves as dominant, 33 percent as submissive) while women were primarily bottoms (76 percent submissive, 8 percent dominant). In the California sample, 61 percent of men were exclusively or mainly dominant (26 percent were exclusively or mainly submissive), while 69 percent of women were exclusively or mainly submissive (30 percent were exclusively or mainly dominant). The smaller Canadian sample showed no such difference, and the authors said they “could not find evidence that sadomasochists are anti-feminist.” But the gender gap bears watching. If it shows up in other studies, it will raise hard questions about the subordination of women, either by culture or by nature.

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What does all this research add up to? Here are a few tentative ideas. First, BDSM isn’t a single practice or population. It’s an amalgamation of different people and fetishes. The spankers are different from the branders. Most people who like collars want nothing to do with choking. The populations sampled in the existing studies were largely soft-core—the Canadian sample, for instance, was recruited from sites such as alt.personal.spanking and alt.sex.bondage—and this tilt, while probably representative of BDSM as a whole, makes it difficult to discern whether the heavy stuff is mentally healthy or physically safe.

Second, the soft-core majority of kinksters might be defined less by fetish than by sheer appetite. In the Australian study, “Engagement in BDSM correlated strongly with a large number of sexual practice measures associated with greater sexual activity and interest in sex.” The authors of the Canadian paper agree:

“Sadomasochists in this research reported having had more sex partners and a greater likelihood of having explored non-heterosexual experiences. They were also more likely to be sexually active relative to non-sadomasochists. One might wonder, on the basis of these findings, whether sadomasochists are simply individuals for whom sex and sexuality play a relatively important role. One might wonder whether SM ought to be understood best as a game explored by the sexually sophisticated and adventurous … ”

Third, what makes BDSM safe and mentally healthy for most of its players is a combination of self-awareness, communication, and rules. Subjective well-being, as the Dutch paper points out, is known to benefit from recognition of “one’s own sexual identity and desires” as well as the ability “to adequately and explicitly communicate these to sexual partners. As BDSM play requires the explicit consent of the players regarding the type of actions to be performed, their duration and intensity, and therefore involves careful scrutiny and communication of one’s own sexual desires and needs, this may be one possible explanation for the positive association between BDSM practitioning and subjective well-being.” Community helps, too: According to the Finnish paper, “social well-being appears to be associated with levels of integration in sadomasochistic subcultures.”

In short, BDSM is a lot like other practices and communities. It works when it’s well-governed and when its constituents are well-formed. When they aren’t, and when the rules are unclear, the dangerous ingredients at the core of this culture—domination, exploitation, violence—can inflict serious harm. In the Finnish study, the authors reported that kinksters who had previously been abused “visited a physician more often because of injuries inflicted in sm-sex. This may suggest that they had difficulties in setting appropriate limits.” The researchers concluded that “a small subgroup of sm-practitioners seem to be both psychologically and socially maladjusted.”

For these people, BDSM is a pathology. But for most of its practitioners, it’s just a game. Our job is to keep it that way, by encouraging the community—and allowing it—to police itself.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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