BDSM has recently come to the attention of mainstream America; many have heard of it through the popular novel “Fifty Shades of Grey”, written by E.L. James. The book’s content is very “risque” and includes aspects of human sexuality that have not been popularized or even decriminalized until now; the BDSM community have been pathologized in therapeutic settings for many years now, especially in the United States where currently it is legal too invoke electroshock therapy for people who are fetishists or considered a sexual minority. However, abroad in France specifically, there is a history of literature that endorses flagellation and other subsets of erotic activity deemed “too provocative” for American media and its people to see. In contrast to the mainstream culture’s attitude towards BDSM there are a great deal of empirical data that supports the notion of BDSM practices being a healthy avenue in which an individual can explore his or her sexuality.
This brings about the question of whether or not BDSM is a healthy erotic practice for people to use.
In America we have a history of prudence that is often endorsed through the media, arguably the largest rhetorical platform that exists, especially for the generations with higher exposure to televisions, video games, and the internet. This is what contributed to the negative or shocked expressions that people had when they first heard of a book called “Fifty Shades of Grey” about the D/S relationship between a wealthy businessman named “Christian Grey” and a 22 year old undergraduate student named “Anastasia Steele”. Although both the book and the movie (of the same name) were a mainstream success, the BDSM community has problems with the book as it does not accurately capture the spirit of how they view BDSM: a healthy avenue in which an individual can explore his or her sexuality (Smash).
BDSM is an acronym for Bondage and dominance, and Sadomasochism or Sadism and Masochism (Psychology Today). These acronyms are compounded in order to denote an array of erotic activities that can be done within the context of interpersonal relationships. B/D stands for Bondage and Dominance. D/S stands for Dominance and Submission. S/M stands for either “sadomasochism” or “sadism and masochism”.
“Unhealthy” Aspects of BDSM
One could argue that BDSM is a way to push the agenda of the patriarchy within the confines of interpersonal relationships; since male domination is so prominent and maintained through laws and institutions in the United States, it is no surprise that this sense of male superiority would bleed through to more intimate parts of a BDSM practitioner’s life. For instance, in BDSM there is a ‘dominant’ and a ‘submissive’, or a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’. These roles imply two things: (1) that BDSM endorses what are considered to be characteristics of a masculine society, such as competition, achievement or success (2) That there is a constant power dynamic between the two people who are interacting. The United States ranks highly in masculinity and individualism, (62 and 91, respectively) meaning that they place high priority on masculine traits such as success, achievement and competition, as well as looking out for oneself (The Hofstede Centre). The masculinity of the culture is in direct competition with other cultures that consider themselves ‘feminine’ and ‘collectivist’ which champion companionship and working in groups while looking out for others (The Hofstede Centre). Radical feminists would argue that sadism and masochism is a mode of sexual expression that makes woman feel as if they are free women when in reality they are only perpetuating the influence of male domination within intimate settings, or patriarchal sadism. As Dee Graham suggests in “Loving to Survive”, sexual submission can be likened to Stockholm Syndrome, in which females form their sexual identity around the notion of submissiveness in order to survive and accommodate male sexuality, which is associated with dominance. She likens the development of female sexuality to the development of Stockholm Syndrome, which is formed amongst those who are dependent on their captors (Graham). The parallels are clearly drawn out, from how women are to be dependent on men in US society, and how women’s magazines are a lot like the survival manuals given to women who are victims of Stockholm Syndrome, both in which result in resonating with the male gaze and winning them over for what the book or literature will advertise as ”in the interest of the woman” . Because of this women (especially submissives) come to eroticize their own fear (Graham). And this phenomenon, according to Sheila Jeffreys, contributes to the eroticization and glamorization of male dominance in the form of sexuality. She implies that subordination is equivocal to sexual terrorism because a great deal of women that have been abused attempt to lose themselves in scenarios where sadomasochism is involved (Jeffreys).
This brings about the topic of consent playing a big part in the BDSM realm; consent plays a huge role in one’s psychological, physiological and physical well being. In BDSM, there are three types of consent: temporary, indefinite/long term, and the most controversial one, consensual non-consent. Consensual non-consent can be defined as a type of consent in which one person gives up the ability to prevent what the other person desires to do with or to the other person; it is a type of consent in which the ability to revoke consent is given up (Dictionary of BDSM terms). According to the The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, BDSM is seen as violent, not as sex, and this is why it is not considered the same thing as rape even though some “rape play” occurs within BDSM. In a BDSM case, the act alone is considered assault, even with consent (National Coalition for Sexual Freedom). In the eyes of the law, consent is a factor that can psychologically impair an individual. Consensual non-consent directly opposes Category B Criteria in the DSM-5 which is a section about concerns about sexual paraphillic disorders.
BDSM is still considered a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (Connolly). Pamela H. Connolly conducted a study in which she questions/surveys 32 self people who self identify as BDSM practitioners and found higher amounts of people who practice Bondage and Dominance rather than Sadomasochism (Connolly). Other findings support that the sadomasochistic aspect of BDSM is the most psychologically harmful because it is linked to violence (Federoff) and homicidal acts. Sadism, sadomasochism, violence and sex by J. Paul Federoff concludes that the sadomasochism is correlated with violence and this heavily opposes the DSM 5 criteria for paraphillic disorders. It focuses on non-sexual aggression (violence) correlates to people who self- identify as masochists.
Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in Bondage and Discipline, Sadomasochism or Dominance and Submission suggests that BDSM is attractive to a sexual minority and conducted a study in which a tota of 4% of men and women self-identified as practitioners. The findings suggest that it is attractive to a minority of the population that participates in sex, and that BDSM was more common amongst people who were bisexual, gay or lesbian. Also, they found that BDSM practitioners had more sexual intercourse, and were more sexually adventurous, with more fistings, and higher rates of both oral and anal sex (Richters). They also express that men were less psychologically distressed in the BDSM community, and overrall more the practitioners were less neurotic, and experienced less sexual coerciveness.
A study called Consent vs. Coercion: BDSM Interactions Highlight a Fine but Immutable Line conducted by Dulcinea Pitagora concluded that consent is integral to non-pathological BDSM interactions and that coercion is a prominent force in pathological sexual assaults (Pitagora). BDSM helps elucidate the role of power for people and forces them to reflect on power dynamics within intimate settings. According to Pitagora, the renegotiation of sexual activities, mutual definitions given to power roles and activities and agreements about redistribution of power all contribute to BDSM being a cathartic and soothing experience for anyone involved (Pitagoria). This article asserts that the historical pathologization of BDSM has contributed to its being seen as a taboo and continues its analysis in comparing BDSM practices to non-BDSM or mainstream ones and then asserting that the fundamental and universal rule of BDSM is consent itself. This allows it to be a healthy practice that invokes self-awareness and meaning-making powers that are caused by acknowledging the emphasis of a power dynamic.
After conducting thorough research that explored both why BDSM is healthy and why it is not, I would have to conclude that it is. There is a great deal of empirical data that explains why BDSM is healthy. Most of the data that I found that says that BDSM is unhealthy are not recent and are mostly based on snap judgments, meaning that they conclude that people in this sexual minority are sexually deviant and pathological because usually they conduct studies that are biased on people who were sexually abused as children. Most recent studies suggest that it is not a pathological interest; most of the studies emphasize that consent is a universal and fundamental requirement in the BDSM community. The three types of consent that are mentioned above (consensual non consent, indefinite/long term and temporary) are all analyzed and known amongst people in the community according to the BDSM dictionary, and the most controversial one is the one in which one of the participants agrees to revoke his or her ability to prevent what the other person wants. The study by Pitagora that describes BDSM as being a practice that endorses self-awareness and meaning making is also a valid source of information that corraborates my viewpoint because it can be likened to religious or spiritual practices, such as meditation, which has been proven to help people live longer lives, contribute to grey matter in the brain, and generally help with lowering stress levels.