Despite the fact that their sexual preferences are listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as potentially problematic, people who play with whips and chains in the bedroom may actually be more psychologically healthy than those who don't.
A new study finds that practitioners of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, or BDSM, score better on a variety of personality and psychological measures than "vanilla" people who don't engage in unusual sex acts. BDSM is a sexual practice that revolves around those four fetishes.
BDSM is listed in the DSM-5, the newest edition of the definitive psychiatrist's manual, as a paraphilia, or unusual sexual fixation — a label that has caused controversy between kinky communities and psychiatrists, who themselves are mixed on whether sexual predilections belong in the catalog of mental disorders. As written, the DSM-5 does not label BDSM a disorder unless it causes harm to the practitioner or to others. [ Hot Stuff? 10 Unusual Sexual Fixations ]
Nevertheless, some psychiatrists see the inclusion of BDSM and other kinks in the manual as stigmatizing, particularly because studies have failed to show evidence that enjoying sex with a side of pain is linked to psychological problems. The new study, published May 16 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, finds that, in fact, BDSM practitioners may be better off psychologically than the general public.
BDSM practitioners "either did not differ from the general population and if they differed, they always differed in the more favorable direction," said study researcher Andreas Wismeijer, a psychologist at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands who conducted the research while at Tilburg University.
Wismeijer did not set out to study the psychological health of BDSM aficionados. His research typically focuses on the psychology of secrets and secrecy. A chance meeting with the founder of the Netherlands' largest BDSM Web forum convinced him the group might make an interesting study population to look at how secrets are kept and who keeps them.
Wismeijer and his colleagues put out a request on the forum for people in the BDSM "scene" to take a variety of psychological questionnaires online. They also sought participants who didn't do BDSM via a women's magazine website, a personal secret website and a university website.
None of the participants knew what the surveys were about, other than they were on "human behavior." All told, 902 BDSM practitioners and 434 vanilla (non-BDSM) participants filled out questionnaires on personality, sensitivity to rejection, style of attachment in relationships and well-being.
The researchers chose these baseline measures because previous research on those in the BDSM community has focused on dire outcomes — whether they're more likely to have mental disorders or report rape and abuse compared with the general public. (They aren't, studies have found.)
The new results reveal that on a basic level, BDSM practitioners don't appear to be more troubled than the general population. They were more extroverted, more open to new experiences and more conscientious than vanilla participants; they were also less neurotic, a personality trait marked by anxiety. BDSM aficionados also scored lower than the general public on rejection sensitivity, a measure of how paranoid people are about others disliking them.
People in the BDSM scene reported higher levels of well-being in the past two weeks than people outside it, and they reported more secure feelings of attachment in their relationships, the researchers found.
Of the BDSM practitioners, 33 percent of the men reported being submissive, 48 percent dominant and 18 percent "switch," or willing to switch between submissive and dominant roles in bed. About 75 percent of the female BDSM respondents were submissive, 8 percent dominant and 16 percent switch. [ 10 Surprising Sex Statistics ]
These roles showed some links to psychological health, such that dominants tended to score highest in all quarters, submissives lowest and switches in the middle. However, submissives never scored lower than vanilla participants on mental health, and frequently scored higher, Wismeijer told LiveScience.
"Within the BDSM community, [submissives] were always perceived as the most vulnerable, but still, there was not one finding in which the submissives scored less favorable than the controls," he said.
The study is somewhat limited by a self-selecting response pool and by the fact that BDSM practitioners could have been answering in ways to make themselves look better and avoid stigma, Wismeijer said — though the fact that the participants didn't know the reasons for the study ameliorates that concern somewhat. The findings are reason for mental health professionals to take an accepting approach to BDSM practitioners, Wismeijer said.
"We did not have any findings suggesting that people who practice BDSM have a damaged psychological profile or have some sort of psychopathology or personality disorder," he said.
Wismeijer isn't exactly sure why BDSM practitioners might be psychologically healthier than the general public. They tend to be more aware of their sexual needs and desires than vanilla people, he said, which could translate to less frustration in bed and in relationships. Coming to terms with their unusual sexual predilections and choosing to live the BDSM lifestyle may also take hard psychological work that translates to positive mental health, he said.
One study alone shouldn't determine whether a condition is placed in the DSM or not, Wismeijer said, but added that combined with other research, the new findings suggest BDSM is better seen as a lifestyle choice, if a slightly strange one.
"I'm not so convinced that BDSM should be placed within the DSM-5," he said.