Are People Who Practice BDSM Psychologically Disturbed?

Bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) sex toys

There is a common perception that people who practice bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) have major psychological issues. As some evidence of this, just take a look at how people who practice BDSM are portrayed in the popular media. For instance, consider the following excerpt from the bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey:

“Why don’t you like to be touched?” I whisper, staring up into soft gray eyes. “Because I’m fifty shades of f*cked up, Anastasia.” (page 369)

The title character, Christian Grey, is depicted as carrying a lot of emotional baggage.  Not only did he have an abusive childhood, but he was introduced to sex at a relatively young age by one of his mother’s female friends. The book implies that these experiences helped shape Grey’s dominant persona and interest in BDSM. So is this an accurate reflection of reality? Do people who are into BDSM really have more issues? A new study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests not.

In this study, a sample of 902 men and women who practice BDSM were recruited from the largest BDSM website in The Netherlands. They were compared to a sample of 434 people recruited from other sources who had never experienced BDSM before. All participants filled out the same set of questionnaires that inquired about several aspects of their personality, their level of attachment insecurity, and their overall level of personal well-being.

In terms of personality, the BDSM group was more extraverted (i.e., they were more self-confident and sociable) and less neurotic (i.e., they had more emotional stability), but less agreeable (i.e., they were less friendly and less compassionate) relative to the non-BDSM group. With respect to attachment, BDSM practitioners reported lower levels of attachment insecurity (i.e., they were more trusting of their relationship partners and less concerned about being abandoned) compared to those with no BDSM experience—however, this finding only held for female participants. Finally, the BDSM group reported higher levels of personal well-being than the non-BDSM group. Thus, with the exception of being less agreeable, participants who had experience with BDSM actually appeared to be in slightly better psychological health than the control group.

In addition to looking at the outcomes for the BDSM group overall, the researchers examined participants who had dominant and submissive roles separately.  Those who adopted dominant sexual roles reported lower levels of neuroticism and attachment anxiety compared to submissives, while submissives reported higher levels of agreeableness. Also, when compared to the control group, both the dominant and submissive subgroups reported equivalent to slightly better outcomes in most cases, which suggests that neither role is inherently pathological.

However, there are some important caveats to this research. For one thing, the differences observed were quite small. Thus, it is not as though the BDSM group had vastly better scores. The differences were small enough that they might not even be practically meaningful in most cases. Also, everyone in the BDSM group came from one website based in The Netherlands. Thus, it is unlikely that this sample is representative of the broader BDSM community. In addition, I’m not convinced that the control group represented the best possible comparison group. On average, the control group was about six years younger, less educated, and more likely to be female than the BDSM group. The researchers statistically controlled for these differences in their analyses; however, it is possible that there are other demographic differences that were not accounted for that could have influenced the results.

Nonetheless, these findings are consistent with a growing body of research suggesting that people who practice BDSM are not exactly “fifty shades of f*cked up.” Instead, it seems that people who are into sexual dominance and submission are just as psychologically healthy as everyone else in most ways.

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[1] Wismeijer, A. A., & Assen, M. A. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine.

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