What I Learned About BDSM at a Sex Research Conference

Earlier this month, the fourth annual Sexuality Pre-Conference was held just prior to the meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). Together with a few of my colleagues, I have been helping to co-organize this pre-conference for the last four years with the goal of making sure that sexuality research is consistently well represented at SPSP.

I truly believe that this year’s program was our best yet and wanted to take a few moments to share some of the key insights and takeaways from this event in case you missed it (and also to entice you to attend next year!). Specifically, I want to tell you a bit about our very first presentation of the day, which focused on the science of BDSM. (Do we know how to get people’s attention at 8:00 AM or what?)

This was a lot a tag-team presentation delivered by the BDSM Research Team at Northern Illinois University, consisting of Kathryn Klement, Brad Sagarin, and Ellen Lee. They covered a lot of ground in their talk (and, as you can see in the photo above, they handed out some awesome “science of BDSM” buttons, too!), but their presentation began by addressing their latest research, which focuses on the brain changes that take place during participation in extreme rituals and BDSM scenes. It has long been thought that BDSM leads to altered mental states, but no one ever really tested this idea scientifically…until now.

Basically, what they did was recruit a small group of people who were willing to participate in a BDSM scene for research purposes in which they would need to complete surveys and Stroop tests both before and after the scene. Their results (which you can learn more about here here) suggest that “tops” in BDSM scenes (that is, those who take on a more dominant role by providing stimulation or giving orders) enter a psychological state they termed flow, which basically involves enhanced mental focus. By contrast, “bottoms” (that is, those who take on a more submissive role by receiving stimulation or taking orders) enter a state they referred to as transient hypofrontality, which involves decreases in executive function (e.g., reductions in logic and decision-making activity) and increased feelings of being in the here and now. 

They argue that these altered mental states may be one of the things that draws people to BDSM in the first place—these forms of consciousness may be pleasant in the sense that they offer a form of mental escape.

In addition to this research, they also presented a study looking at common stereotypes of BDSM practitioners, giving attention to differences in how tops and bottoms of different genders are evaluated.

For the most part, they found that anyone who is into BDSM is stereotyped negatively. Male and female bottoms were stereotyped fairly similarly, with both seen as feminine, weak, abnormal, and mentally unstable. By contrast, male and female tops were seen quite differently—for instance, male tops were stereotyped as misogynistic, whereas female tops were stereotyped as being "evil" and overly sexual. In light of these negative stereotypes, it is perhaps not surprising that most BDSM practitioners are not “out” and that many report experiences with discrimination (they presented results from other surveys that support these conclusions).

Lastly, the team also offered insight into what it’s like to be a BDSM researcher and discussed some of the challenges involved in conducting research in this area (e.g., obtaining trust from skeptical research participants about one’s true motives, the near impossibility of obtaining research funding for studies on this topic, etc.).

I know some of you will comment that these results and insights aren't surprising, but—as I’ve said before—science doesn’t have to be surprising in order to be important. BDSM is a heavily stigmatized sexual practice and one that is poorly understood by the general public. As such, we very much need research that addresses things like people’s motives for practicing BDSM because, among other things, this information can help dispel some of the numerous harmful myths and misconceptions about this sexual interest.

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