The Science of Submission

The last ten years has seen a significant spike in public interest in domination, submission, and BDSM. Most of our favorite TV Breakfast shows have featured bondage gear for chrissakes, so it’s safe to say our secret is out.

science of submission

However, while there may be a spike in folks suddenly interested in buying fluffy handcuffs or silk blindfolds, there are others who are much more committed and immersed in the BDSM world. Interestingly, we still don’t really know all that much about those who practice BDSM; particularly those who like to be dominated and consider themselves sexually submissive.

By now, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know how much I love a scientific study. For a new study just published in The Journal of Sex Research, your new favourite bedtime reading, researchers were interested in understanding both the personal origins stories of how practitioners became interested in masochism and submission, as well as their reasons or motives for continuing to practice masochism and submission. 

The researchers used two methods to collect their data: 1) first-person narratives that were obtained from on-line discussion forums for BDSM practitioners between 2009 and 2018, and 2) on-line survey questionnaires that were administered among BDSM communities.

The study consisted of 227 people who identify as sexually submissive. Because the first method of data collection did not always allow researchers to identify demographics (such as gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity) specific information about the participants was not reported. 

The researchers used content analysis to create themes to capture two primary origins of being interested in practicing masochism/submission and three main motivations for doing so. They note that many participants described experiences that fell into more than one category so the percentages often exceed 100.

Origins of Masochism and Submission

1. Intrinsic Origins

The significant majority of participants (78%) described having an intrinsic interest in masochism/submission.

Most of these participants described their interest in BDSM starting at a young age, without necessarily having a sexualized component. For example, some participants described liking to be tied up or blindfolded during various make-believe games, such as “cops and robbers.” These participants often said they were “born” liking BDSM or that they were “wired” that way.

About 7% of participants indicated that they had an “a-ha” moment later in life, realizing that they had always been interested in BDSM but perhaps hadn’t put the pieces together and identified as masochistic or submissive until adulthood, when they learned there were others like them.

The authors note that despite some social stigma around BDSM being a sign of psychological distress, only a small number of participants (10%) indicated that they engaged in masochistic play to help cope with inner psychological distress or suffering (e.g., one participant said they used BDSM to “heal” themselves from their “issues”).

2. Extrinsic Origins

The other 22% of participants described extrinsic origins for engaging in BDSM. That is, they said that they became interested in practicing masochism and submission as a result of someone else introducing them to the concepts, either directly or indirectly.

Within this group, 11% reported it being connected to a history of childhood sexual abuse, 9% due to parental discipline (e.g., spanking with an object). Another 9% introduced it through play as a child (i.e., the “cops and robbers” example given above, except that it was a friend who introduced the idea of restraints) and 9% reported being introduced to BDSM as an adult by a recent sexual partner. 

Why Practice Sexual Masochism and Sadism?

The most frequent reason for engaging in masochism and sadism, given by 46% of participants, was to give or exchange power with another person. This was described as occurring through role play and/or being physically restrained.

It’s critical to note that those who mentioned the appeal of playing power described the critical importance of trusting the person they were allowing to have control during the sexual encounter.

The second most common reason for engaging in masochism and sadism (reported by 37% of respondents) was to receive physical pain. These practitioners were clear that there was a difference between good pain and bad pain. Stubbing one’s toe, for example, was described as bad pain. So the context of pain being wanted and arousing was critical to it being considered enjoyable. 

Finally, 28% of practitioners in the study described that practicing submission and masochism allowed them to access an altered mental space. These practitioners indicated they could enter into an alternative state of consciousness, that could lead to a somewhat meditative and relaxed state

Written by: Stuart Nugent

With 16 years in the adult industry, including many years at LELO, it's fair to say Stu has been around the sex toy block a few times. As LELO's resident sex geek, he's been featured in the Independent, the Guardian, HuffPost, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and anywhere people talk about sex. Here on Volonte, he turns his spotlight onto the important events affecting sex right now in a regular op-ed. Views are his own.

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