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Six Myths about BDSM Debunked by Science

50 Shades of Grey may have brought kinky sex into the mainstream, but that doesn’t mean it dismantled the many myths and stereotypes around BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism) that populate our collective Western consciousness. (In fact, critics would argue, the hugely popular book and movie solidified many of them.) Until recently, it was difficult to argue against these stereotypes with anything more than personal anecdotes.

Fortunately, a growing number of research studies published over the last decade is firmly debunking many of the myths surrounding BDSM and the people who engage in it, here are six such myths.

Six Myths about BDSM Debunked by Science

1.Only a Small Minority are into Kink

Indeed, a nationally representative sample of Australians, only about 2% of sexually active people in 2001 said they had “been involved in BDSM” in the past year. However, many people may be engaging in sexual behaviors that would qualify as unusual or kinky without realizing it (and therefore failing to report it as such on a survey); moreover, many may desire kinky things but not dare or have the opportunity to engage in them. A more recent study of 1,000 adult Quebecois surveyed in 2014, for example, found that half of the sample expressed interest in at least one fantasy that is typically considered kinky, or “paraphilic,” such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, fetishism, masochism, sadism, transvestism, or frotteurism (rubbing your genitals against unsuspecting strangers in public, like crowded buses or trains). Anywhere between 5% and 50% of men and between 3% and 21% of women reported engaging in these behaviors at least once in their life. In other words, kinky desires and behaviors may not be the norm, but they’re far from uncommon.

2.You’re Either Kinky or Vanilla

There is often a belief that kinky people don’t get off on “regular,” “vanilla” sex, that they need whatever kinky thing they’re into in order to get aroused, orgasm, or feel truly satisfied. While this may be true for some kinky people, a recent study suggested they may be a small minority. When listening to erotic stories while hooked up to devices that measured their actual genital arousal (penile erection and vaginal blood flow), self-identified masochistic men and women got just as aroused—both according to their self-report and to their genitals—to masochistic erotic stories as they did to vanilla sex stories. As you might expect, the nonmasochistic men and women were a lot more turned on by the vanilla sex stories than the masochistic ones.

3.People Who Are Kinky Were Abused as Children or Adults

This is a frequent assumption people make for why someone would be into kink, an assumption proved wrong by two large studies. Both the Australian and the Quebecois study mentioned earlier found that men and women who engaged in BDSM in the past year or who had expressed interest in paraphilic fantasies were no more (or less) likely to report having been sexually coerced as children or adults compared to the people without kinky behaviors or fantasies. (The sole exception was freutterism―the non-consensual rubbing of one’s self against others―which was linked to higher likelihood of child-adult sexual contact before age 12).

4.People Who Are into BDSM Have More Mental Health Issues

This is yet another myth busted by three large recent studies; in fact, some subgroups of kinky people may actually have fewer mental health issues and more satisfying lives. The Australian study found lower levels of psychological distress (things like depression and anxiety) among male BDSM practitioners compared to the vanilla men, and no differences either way for the women. The Quebecois study found that people who were into fetishism, masochism, and exhibitionism believed their sexual lives were more exciting than did those without these interests; the other paraphilic interests were not related—positively or negatively—to sexual life satisfaction.

Finally, a third study with almost 1,000 Dutch BDSM practitioners found that, on the whole, they were less neurotic (a trait associated with greater depression and anxiety), less sensitive to rejection, more securely attached to their romantic partners, and higher in subjective wellbeing compared to a general population control group. When the researchers looked at Dominants, submissives, and switches separately, it seemed like many of these elevated levels of wellbeing were typical of the Doms, whereas the subs and the switches didn’t differ much from the general population.

5.Men Are Dominant, Women Are Submissive

While it is true that, overall, more women are into sexual submission than men, and more men are into sexual domination than women, there is a substantial percentage of men who are into submission/masochism and of women who are into Domination/sadism. For example, in a separate 2011 sample of over 1,500 Quebec residents, dominating someone sexually was a fantasy reported by 60% of men and 47% of women, while 65% of women and 53% of men fantasized about being sexually dominated.

Other submissive fantasies, including being tied up, being spanked or whipped, and being forced to have sex were reported by 30-50% of women as well as men. What’s more, submissive/masochistic and Dominant/sadistic fantasies were significantly correlated, meaning that those who fantasized of being tied up or spanked also typically fantasized of doing the tying up/spanking. In fact, the people who had any submissive fantasies had more sexual fantasies of any kind, period, than the people who didn’t fantasize about being dominated. In other words, fantasizing of sexual submission means fantasizing about sexuality in general.

6.BDSM Practitioners (Especially Men) Are Abusive, Sexist, Aggressive People

It turns out, the opposite may be true. In a 2016 study, for example, people recruited from the BDSM community reported lower levels of benevolent sexism (beliefs that women are dainty little creatures in need of special protections by men), rape myth acceptance, and victim blaming than did college undergrads and a general population adults. There were no differences between the three groups on measures of hostile sexism (i.e., over prejudice against women), expectations of sexual aggression, or acceptance of sexual aggression.

Another study from 2014 found that people who engaged in BDSM practices or fantasies report extremely low past engagement or future intention to engage in coercive sexual behaviors, at levels similar to those of people without kinky fantasies or actions. The, luckily small, group of people who reported nonconsensual intentions and past behaviors, on the other hand, had fewer BDSM-related fantasies and past experiences than the BDSM practitioners and those with kinky fantasies. These self-report-based findings are corroborated by measures of objective penile arousal (using a device called a penile plethysmograph) while men listened to various types of erotic stories. Unsurprisingly, self-identified sadistic men’s penises responded significantly more to stories with cues of violence or injury than nonsadists. However, the sadists did not get more aroused to cues of non-consent or genuine resistance than the nonsadists.

 

What other BDSM myths would you like to see debunked by science? Let us know in the comments below!

 

About Dr. Zhana

Zhana Vrangalova, PhD, is a NYC-based sex researcher who studies casual sex, nonmonogamy, and sexual orientation. She holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Cornell University, teaches Human Sexuality at New York University, shares new sex research on social media, and runs the Casual Sex Project, a place for people to share their true hookup stories. She provides daily sex education using the live video streaming app Periscope, and is currently writing a book about the science of healthy hookups.

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