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Is BDSM healthy or pathological?

The BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and sadism-masochism) community has faced great controversy in the past, stemming from conflicting representations in the media and even conflicting data presented by researchers and psychologists. The research into the BDSM lifestyle is extensive due to unclear ideas of whether BDSM relationships are healthy or harmful and the goals of many researches to uncover the true motivations and dynamics in the BDSM community.

Research has been done into the possible negative effects of “dominant” and “submissive” roles in the BDSM relationship. Dr. Will Damon of the University of Illinois did a study of the views of heterosexual males in the BDSM community on women, and possible sexist or misogynistic attitudes (Damon, 2002).  “(Heterosexual) male doms (dominants) engage in domination and submission, whereas subs (submissives) engage in worship and submission. Given the nature of the behaviors, it seems reasonable to inquire as to what attitudes toward women accompany them” (Damon, 2002). The study included 342 men who self-reported liking S&M activities, and their levels of sexism and self-esteem were assessed using the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory and a 10 point self-esteem assessment survey (Damon, 2002). The study found that submissive partners were higher in sexism, both benevolent and hostile, than were the dominants (Damon, 2002). This study negated the idea that men who act as a dominant over a woman in a BDSM relationship are trying to combat feelings of inadequacy (Damon, 2002). That men are trying to control women out of a lack of control in another part of their life is a common misconception of BDSM relationships.

Other research has linked BDSM and sadomasochism with a need to exert control to overcome past abuse and trauma (Connolly, 2006). Association with the BDSM community can also lead to legal troubles, according to an article by Dr. Bruce Gross in Forensic Examiner (Gross, 2006). Clubs that provide “dominatrix services” can be charged with prostitution or pimping, and even if two participants give consent, criminal charges of assault and battery can be pursued (Gross, 2006). If someone is engaging in a BDSM relationship, that can also be held against them in child custody cases (Gross, 2006). All of these issues relate to the stigmatization and misunderstanding of the BDSM community as a whole.

On the other side of the debate, BDSM is seen as a healthy form of sexual expression, with various ages, genders, sexual orientations, and ethnic groups participating. There are also many different levels and ways people participate in the BDSM lifestyle. “BDSM is often misconceived to be all about pain, whereas it is more about games and play characterized by power, and humiliation” (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013). Dr. Andreas Wismeijer and Dr. Marcel van Assen of Tilburg University studied how BDSM practitioners compare to control groups in terms of psychological characteristics, specifically the “Big five” personality characteristics; neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, openness and contentiousness (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013). They found that members of the BDSM group scored higher in extraversion, openness to new experiences, contentiousness, and lower in neuroticism than those in the control group, not associated with the BDSM community (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013). Participants who identified as participating in BDSM activities did score lower on agreeableness than did the control group (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013). In response to claims that childhood abuse leads to involvement in BDSM, the study found that, “if differences in attachment were found, the control group had the lowest attachment scores, whereas the doms scored highest” (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013). This study shows that many negative personality traits that have been associated with BDSM are not only uncommon, but they are more common in non-BDSM participants.

Another study, performed by Dr. Danielle Lindemann from Columbia University, looked at the “therapeutic benefits” provided by dominants (specifically female dominatrices) to their submissives (Lindemann, 2011). The researcher interviewed 66 professional female dominatrices who are paid to “physically and verbally dominate male clients,” which is a different participant pool than previous studies cited in this discussion (Lindemann, 2011). These women were giving information about their practices and views of their profession for a separate article when the researcher found a large number of the women refereeing to themselves as “therapists” and calling the work they do “therapeutic”, which led the researcher to focus on these statements and include the topic in future interviews with dominatrices (Lindemann, 2011). The four ways the “sessions” were described as therapeutic were, “healthful alternatives to sexual repression, as atonement rituals, as mechanisms for gaining control over prior trauma, and (in the case of ‘humiliation sessions’) as processes through which clients experience psychological revitalization through shame” (Lindemann, 2011). Another interesting aspect of this article is that some of the women interviewed had ideas of their clients as being pathological and suffering from past trauma, similar to what Connolly (2006) and Gross (2006) described (Lindemann 2011).  While BDSM is not seen as traditional form of therapy, nor are the dominatrices licensed medical professionals, I think the ideas expressed in this article attest to the fact that in a sexual relationship where there is trust and communication, issues can be worked out in a healthy manner.

It is my opinion that belonging to the BDSM community and participation in consensual sado-masochistic acts are not unhealthy decisions. It has been the view of past researchers that BDSM is related to trauma, abuse, lack of control, or even stunted development, but these theories have since been disproven. Today there is more research showing a lack of correlation between psychological issues and BDSM in healthy relationships and actual benefits to being open to exploring different forms of sexual expression (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013). People in the BDSM community have bene shown to have higher self-esteem, high levels of education, higher openness to experiences, and many other valuable qualities (Damon, 2002, Wismeijer & Assen, 2013). The many demographics that have been studied in the BDSM community show that it is generally not a hobby for sexual predators or abuse survivors or controlling sexists, but a valid form of sexual and emotional release for all kinds of people.

Works Cited

Connolly, P. (2006). Psychological Functioning of Bondage/Domination/Sado-Masochism (BDSM) Practitioners. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, Vol 18(1). The Hawthorne Press Inc.

Damon, W. (2002) Dominance, Sexism, and Inadequacy: Testing a Compensatory Conceptualization in a Sample of Heterosexual Men Involved in SM. The Hawthorne Press Inc.

Gross, B. (2006). The Pleasure of PAIN. Forensic Examiner, 15(1), 56-61.

Lindemann, D. (2011) BDSM as Therapy?. Sexualities. 14(2), 151-172.

Wismeijer, A. A., & Assen, M. A. (2013). Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(8), 1943-1952

Ruby

One Comment

  1. Two research articles included for Side A 5/5 pts

    Two research articles included for Side B 5/5 pts

    Summary of Side A and Side B 20/20 pts

    Who you agree with and why? 12/15 pts
    (Include strengths and weaknesses)
    Make sure you address specific strengths and weaknesses of the research and how that contributed to your decision.

    APA Formatting/ Grammar/ Length 5/5 pts

    Great job!
    Total 47/50 total

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