A Revealing Look At BDSM Sex And The People Who Practice It

As discussed before on this site, Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t offer the most accurate or realistic depiction of BDSM sex. Other popular media portrayals of it aren’t necessarily any better either. So what is BDSM sex really like and what do we know about the people who practice it? A new study just published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine offers a revealing look.

In this study, researchers recruited 68 people (22 women and 46 men) in Portugal who identified as non-exclusive BDSM practitioners. All participants were recruited from a gathering party for persons interested in BDSM. Most participants had at least some college education, lived in urban areas, and were married. In addition, most of the men were heterosexual, while most of the women were bisexual.

Most participants reported becoming aware of their BDSM interests as adults (age 22 on average). This suggests that BDSM interests often develop well after one’s first sexual experience. Participants did not necessarily act upon these interests right away either. In fact, on average, participants waited six years before their interest in BDSM translated to an actual sexual encounter. Why the delay? There may be different reasons for different people, but some possibilities include being unsure of how to do it, fear or shame associated with having an unconventional sexual interest, or difficulty in finding partners who share the same desires.

Consistent with past research, participants reported practicing a wide range of BDSM activities. The six most commonly reported activities included: bondage (14.7%), domination (8.8%), spanking (8.8%), submission (7.4%), boot/shoe worship/foot fetish (5.9%), and humiliation (5.9%). These six activities were also reported to be participants’ six favorite BDSM activities (although the order wasn’t identical when looking at favorites, which suggests that people’s most desired BDSM activities aren’t necessarily the ones they practice most often).

Most participants reported that their BDSM activities took place at home (83.8%); relatively few reported practicing them in a BDSM club (4.4%) or in other settings.

In addition, most participants reported that all of their sexual activities (BDSM and non-BDSM) were practiced in the context of a monogamous relationship; however, a significant percentage of men (48%) and women (21%) reported that they had separate partners for BDSM and non-BDSM practices. The researchers speculate that some people might therefore manage an interest in BDSM through some form of non-monogamy.

Because all participants reported that they were non-exclusive BDSM practitioners, it means that they had both BDSM and non-BDSM sex. Interestingly, sexual satisfaction was about equally high for both BDSM and non-BDSM sex, a finding that held for both men and women. So, it did not seem to be the case that these individuals viewed one type of sex as inherently better or more satisfying than the other.

However, the researchers did find that, for men, sexual distress and difficulties were less common during BDSM sex than during non-BDSM sex. This is consistent with research and theory suggesting that one of the appeals of some BDSM practices is that they provide a form of psychological escape from distress, anxiety, and other distractions that often interfere with sexual functioning.

While these findings are indeed fascinating, they must be considered in light of their limitations, including the fact that we’re dealing with a small convenience sample of participants here. In addition, the researchers only recruited non-exclusive BDSM practitioners; thus, these findings do not speak at all to individuals who practice BDSM sex exclusively. That said, these results do at least offer a revealing (but quite preliminary) look into a sexual practice that tends to be widely misunderstood.

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To learn more about this research, see: Monteiro Pascoal, P., Cardoso, D., & Henriques, R. (in press). Sexual satisfaction and distress in sexual functioning in a sample of the BDSM community: A comparison study between BDSM and non‐BDSM contexts. The Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Image Source: iStockphoto.com

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