BDSM is really BD-DS-SM, as it represents three separate but combinable elements of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. It is typically considered taboo, but in recent years has been receiving more attention in the media with such representations as the movie Secretary and the Fifty Shades book trilogy. It is important that people understand BDSM as it gains more mainstream popularity in the United States, whether they practice it, know someone who does, influence public policy, or are involved in therapy/counseling. Some people are of the mind that BDSM is a perfectly healthy form of sexual expression, allowing for well adjusted and balanced interaction, and not indicative of anything sinister. Others see these practices as harmful or pathological, seeing them as sexist, dangerous, or indicative of poor mental health.
BDSM encompasses a wide range of sexual practices, characterized by physical restriction, role-playing, exchange of power, and sometimes administration of pain (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013, p. 1943). People who practice BDSM may have interests in all or only some of these activities; additionally, these practices are for sensory and not just erotic pleasure, and do not stem only from violence as is often posited (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013, p. 1943). The practice of viewing BDSM as pathology began in the 19th century, but even in the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, BDSM is pathologized somewhat, with sexual sadism and masochism being considered paraphilia (sexual perversion or deviation, attraction to atypical objects or practices), and paraphilic disorders if they cause undue distress to self or others (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013, p. 1944).
One of the strongest arguments for BDSM as a healthy practice is from a study published two years ago comparing BDSM and control participants. Large numbers of both filled out online questionnaires containing sections measuring the Big Five personality dimensions, attachment styles, rejection sensitivity, and subjective well-being (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013, p. 1943). While it has often been posited that BDSM practitioners have some type of pathology, the results of this study actually found quite the opposite: BDSM practitioners were “less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rekection sensitive, and had higher subjective well-being” (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013, p. 1943). Authors of the study concluded therefore that BDSM should be thought of as recreation rather than expression of psychopathology (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013, p. 1943).
Another compelling argument for BDSM as a healthy practice is that most problems that people in the BDSM subculture face come not from the practices themselves, but from being forced to hide these practices, or the discrimination they face in society if they do not hide them. When people believe that sadomasochism (SM) is violent or abusive behavior, it often results in harassment and discrimination against those who identify as SM – not just in conservative or religious communities, but also facing opposition from self-identified feminists (Wright, 2006, p. 217). Even the National Organization for Women (NOW), which supports equality of the sexes and advocates for lesbian and women’s rights, explicitly rejected sadomasochism in a 1980 conference resolution, as it violated feminist principles (Wright, 2006, p. 219). Their and other feminist’s ideas that SM was abusive and violent were not built upon research, but quoting specific people who had encountered abuse (Wright, 2006, p. 222). SM has been shown to be consensual and desired, however, involving discussions of limits and levels of comfort, rather than unpredictability and escalation that are associated with abusive behavior (Wright, 2006, p. 222). Having garnered enough support by 1996, in 1999 SM practitioners were able to have the anti-SM stance of NOW removed, but the group is still not openly supportive of these practices, and therefore safe SM techniques and discussions for awareness will likely not take place in the group (Wright, 2006, p. 224). There has been a lasting pattern of discrimination against SM practitioners, and they face harassment and violence, and there are cases of people losing their jobs or the custody of their children during divorce and family court proceedings (seen as “unfit”) as a result of their practices coming to light or never being hidden in the first place (Wright, 2006, p. 226). There has also been resistance to SM conferences, which have been cancelled and banned by venues because they are controversial; this makes it more difficult to hold meetings for SM education and support (Wright, 2006, p. 227). Additionally, many states still have statues in place that forbid “consent as a defense to assault” which is used to penalize SM behaviors considered by prosecutors to be too extreme (Wright, 2006, p. 229).
One of the main academic and moral oppositions to the practices of BDSM comes from psychoanalytical writers, who view the practices as a “symptom of underlying psychopathology” (Connolly, 2006, p. 80). Posited reasons for people to practice BDSM include unresolved childhood conflict, developmental failures, and early traumatic experiences (Connolly, 2006, p. 80). Freud characterized sexual masochists as formerly abused children, trying to regain control by replicating events (Connolly, 2006, p. 80). Sexual sadism and sexual masochism have been recently connected with posttraumatic stress disorder and related symptoms such as dissociation, and they have also been associated with mood disorders like depression and anxiety (Connolly, 2006, p. 80). A demographic questionnaire of 132 self-identified BDSM practicing individuals found that although clinical disorders are not evidenced to be more prevalent among BDSM individuals, there was a presence of nonspecific dissociative symptoms and narcissistic personality traits among them (Connolly, 2006, p. 117).
Others are concerned with potential problems arising with BDSM outside of ideal communication/consenting situations. People who have suffered prior abuse may have difficulty expressing limits/safewords and protecting themselves (Jozifkova, 2013). This group may suffer more injuries in SM activities, and people may not realize that it is not just physical discomfort to keep in mind with a safeword, but psychological distress as well (Jozifkova, 2013). Some people trying to practice BDSM may not be mindful enough of their own sexual interests, or may not be aware of safe BDSM practices, which could lead to accidents (Jozifkova, 2013). Further, some of these sexual interactions may begin consensually, but proceed into abuse or violence over time if communication is poor or safewords are ignored (Jozifkova, 2013). Severely dominant or abusive partners may want sexual encounters without a condom, and if submissive partners do not ask, this can lead to higher numbers of BDSM individuals who are HIV-positive (for example leathermen, who practice dominance and submission and have a 61% higher likelihood for HIV compared to non-leathermen) (Jozifkova, 2013). A lack of communication and skills stemming from communicating only with a partner or subgroup one is involved in can lead to unhealthy practices and abuse, especially if the person believes it will be difficult to find another BDSM partner (Jozifkova, 2013). These problems come from decisions that are made by one person out of fear more than free will, and the less experienced or more submissive person may in turn be manipulated (Jozifkova, 2013).
I was honestly unable to find empirical, current evidence that BDSM is an unhealthy sexual practice. Even the arguments I have explained that are against or suspicious of BDSM are from larger articles/studies, which used the arguments to explain BDSM’s history and delineate BDSM from abuse. The psychoanalytic theories for the reasons to practice BDSM have not been supported by any of the recent studies I have seen, with most of the data showing instead that BDSM is not an indicator of pathology, but rather just a sexual preference. The feminist arguments against BDSM are paradoxical – to fight for sexual freedom and equality, but at the same time condemn a consensual practice based on the idea that it is degrading does not make sense.As a consensual (read: with mutual permissions) sexual practice, BDSM should not be grounds for job or legal/custody discrimination, which can turn a bedroom leisure activity into a practice that ruins the life of someone who never conducted harmful or nonconsensual activities. The idea that BDSM practitioners are maladjusted is also unfounded based on all of the large-scale studies involving trusted methodologies (tested questionnaires, interviews, et cetera) that I read. BDSM may in fact be a benefit to couples who want to live out fantasies, change roles, or release strong emotions in a positive and loving way. It is vital to be educated and communicative regarding BDSM if you plan on practicing it, of course, to avoid abuse or harm to anyone involved. But as long as BDSM is attached to such stigma coming from preconceived ideas (even in psychology, thanks to people like Freud), it will be an obstacle to be overcome by individuals, who should not have to worry about what other people think about their kinky bedroom activities.
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Jozifkova, E. (2013). Consensual sadomasochistic sex (BDSM): the roots, the
risks, and the distinctions between BDSM and violence. Current Psychiatry Reports, 15(9),
Wismeijer, A., & Assen, M. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM
practitioners. Journal Of Sexual Medicine, 10(8), 1943-1952.
Wright, S. (2006). Discrimination of SM-identified individuals. Journal Of
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