Man suggesting wife to play sexual games with cuffs

BDSM players are as sexually and emotionally healthy as the general population. Italian researchers recently surveyed the sexuality of 266 Italian men and women who enjoy bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism (BDSM). The study population ranged in age from 18 to 74 and averaged 41. The researchers also surveyed 200 demographically similar men and women not involved in BDSM. The two groups reported similar feelings about their sexuality, but the BDSM players reported less sexual distress and greater erotic satisfaction. The researchers said they hoped their study would “reduce the stigma associated with BDSM.”

How Popular is BDSM?

In 2015, Indiana University researchers surveyed a representative sample of 2,021 American adults. Many said they’d tried some elements of BDSM: spanking (30 percent), dominant/submissive role-playing (22 percent), restraint (20 percent), and flogging (13 percent).

In 2017, Belgian scientists surveyed a representative sample of 1,027 Belgian adults. Those who admitted experimenting with BDSM—almost half (47 percent). Thirteen percent said they played that way “regularly.” Eight percent said they felt “committed” to BDSM sexuality.

What 50 Shades of Grey Got Right—and Wrong

In fantasy, BDSM is even more popular. In the Belgian study just mentioned,

69 percent of participants admitted having BDSM fantasies, some quite extreme.

In 2011, a unique window into the popularity of BDSM fantasies and play opened with the publications of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by English author E.L. James. The three novels follow Christian Grey, a brash young billionaire dominant (dom, top) and his initially naïve lover, Anastasia Steele, as she becomes his submissive (sub, bottom), at first hesitantly, then willingly, and finally enthusiastically. By 2019, Fifty Shades had sold 150 million copies worldwide in 50 languages, the only book to ever to sell that many copies that quickly. The Fifty Shades film series has grossed more than $1 billion. And when the trilogy hit the best-seller list, hardware stores reported an unusual surge in sales of rope.

Fifty Shades got one aspect of BDSM horribly wrong. It depicts Christian Grey as the product of horrendous child abuse and implies that his years of suffering propelled him into kink. Actually, BDSM players are no more likely than anyone else to have suffered child abuse or sexual trauma.

Otherwise, James depicted BDSM quite realistically:

  • Communication. Before Grey lays a hand on Steele, they discuss their play in great detail.
  • Contracts. Grey hands Steele an extensive contract proposal and they discuss it point by point. Steel agrees to some clauses, modifies others, and nixes a few. Not all BDSM players use written contracts, but many do.
  • Limits. Grey quizzes Steele on the hard boundaries she can’t conceive of crossing and the soft limits she might cross under the right circumstances. Both players declare their limits and pledge to honor the other’s.
  • Safe word. Grey tells Steele she is always free to invoke their safe word, the “stop” signal that immediately suspends play. No matter how anything looks or feels, subs always retain total control over BDSM play. That’s the great irony of BDSM. It looks like the doms control the subs. Actually it’s the other way around.
  • Intimacy. Steele is astonished by the depth of self-revelation involved in BDSM, and how emotionally close it brings her to Grey. Committed BDSM players often say that kinky intimacy goes “way beyond sex.”

Is BDSM Mentally Healthy?

A substantial research literature shows that BDSM players are no more likely than the general population to suffer psychiatric problems, and they have no psychological disorders unique to their kinky proclivities:

  • A Los Angeles investigator administered standard psychological tests to several hundred BDSM aficionados and concluded they were mentally healthy.
  • Australian researchers surveyed 19,370 Aussies age 16 to 59. Among the 2.2 percent of men and 1.3 percent of women who called themselves committed to BDSM, all tested psychologically healthy and reported no disproportionate history of childhood sex abuse or any sexual trauma.
  • University of Illinois scientists took before and after saliva samples from 58 BDSM players, measuring their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. After BDSM scenes, their cortisol levels decreased significantly, showing that their BDSM play had reduced their stress.
  • Dutch researchers gave standard personality tests to 902 BDSM players and 434 controls. The same proportions of both groups tested psychologically healthy, but the kinksters were “less neurotic, more conscientious, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, less sensitive to rejection, and showed greater subjective well-being.” Those who scored most mentally healthy were the doms, followed by the subs, and in last place, the conventionally sexual (vanilla) controls.
  • Finally, researchers at Idaho State University asked 935 kinksters what BDSM meant to them: personal freedom (90 percent), adventure (91 percent), self-expression (91 percent), stress relief (91 percent), positive emotions (97 percent), and above all, pleasure (99 percent).

BDSM players are a cross-section of the population, the people next door, mentally healthy and typical in every respect—except that they find vanilla sex unfulfilling and want something more exciting and intimate.

Officially Mentally Healthy

No one knows when humanity discovered BDSM, but ancient Greek art depicts what looks like it. In 1905, Sigmund Freud declared that “sado-masochism” signaled severe neurosis. For more than a century, mental-health professionals agreed. The first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s bible of mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I, 1952), classified sexual sadism as a “deviation.” DSM- II (1968) pathologized masochism. And DSM-IV (1994) listed BDSM as a psychiatric disorder.

But in 2013, based on hundreds of 21st-century studies, DSM-V removed BDSM from its list of mental illnesses, calling it just another way for psychologically normal, healthy people to play.

What do you think? Is BDSM mentally healthy? Have you ever played that way? And if so, how committed do you feel to kinky sex?

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