BDSM: Who and What?

With the launching of the most recent cinematic installation of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, more and more people are asking what BDSM is and who engages in such practices? Currently, I am part of a group of researchers, including Dr. Michael Aaron, Dulcinea Pitagora and graduate research assistant Serenity Curtis, who are exploring BDSM practices, and we are answering these kinds of questions.

First, what is BDSM? BDSM means bondage and domination/dominance and submission/sadism and masochism/sadomasochism. But, BDSM is more than this – BDSM crosses cultures, time, and geography. BDSM can be sexual or non-sexual activities, and a combination of both. BDSM involves playing with power and trust. For some, BDSM is categorized as a form of sexual expression or a leisure activity, for others it is a sexual identity or an erotic orientation. BDSM is consensual; if it is not consensual it is NOT BDSM! Ultimately, BDSM practitioners see the mind as the most powerful sex organ.

The next question is; who engages in BDSM? Research from various scholars and sources has had a hard time establishing the prevalence of engagement in BDSM. For instance, in 1953 Kinsey and his research team found that 55% of women and 50% of men enjoyed being bitten. More recently, a 1999 study found that 65% of students in universities in the United States report fantasizing about being bound or tied up. The truth is that we are not sure how many people partake in BDSM practices.

Our research team is clearer on the individuals themselves who do so. We have found that personality-wise, BDSM participants are open to new experiences, and otherwise, are considered “typical” in terms of the standard/normal sample on our personality measure. Attachment-wise, participants are secure in relationships; not insecure (anxious or avoidant attachment styles). Moreover, BDSM practitioners are not significantly different than normal samples in terms of trauma in childhood such as being neglected, having divorced parents, witnessing abuse of a parent, or living with substance abusers. „Many BDSM participants state that they felt excitement and anticipation ahead of BDSM play, a sense of excitement and pleasure during the encounter, and a wave of deep connection to their partner afterward, as well as a stronger sense of self-empowerment and authenticity. „We have also learned that BDSM practitioners are also not typically people who engage in non-suicidal self-injury.

One of the ultimate goals of our research is to help dispel myths and stereotypes about BDSM and BDSM practitioners, particularly in light of the mythos that is portrayed in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Our hope in so doing this is to reduce stigmatization, pathologization, and the need to manage disclosure and visibility of BDSM practices and participants. We have been fortunate to have had spaces to share our findings, and relatedly work on this goal. To learn more check out these podcasts:

Purposeful Pain: A Comparison of BDSM Participants and Individuals who Engage in Non-Suicidal Self-Injury,” an episode of Stereo-Typed with AuntieSocial a TPOK Radio in Toronto, Ontario

Psychologists find people who like BDSM are just like everyone else,” by KinkCraft

Also check out my most recent invited talk, “What is/is not BDSM?”

In closing, if you are going to go see the most recent cinematic installation of Fifty Shades, I hope you go in with more knowledge after checking out this blog and related resources so that you are able to discern that what is represented is NOT BDSM!

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