BDSM Might Signify Mental Health - Ah-ha! Week


By Brian Fencil

Photo by Alexi Kostibas.

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The avoidance of pain is a reflex, an action our bodies may execute without conscious provocation. For the most part, humans make an effort to evade situations that are physically hurtful. As such, the pursuit of pain, in bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism (BDSM), was long deemed as unhealthy ever since Sigmund Freud claimed that giving or receiving pain during sex was “the most common and important of all perversions.”

Since his assessment, pursuing these types of activities was assumed to be unnatural, connoting symptoms of trauma, maladjustment, or compensation for sexual difficulties.

However, in the last few decades, several studies determined that people who enjoy BDSM are not maladjusted. As a matter of fact, when psychologist and sex-offender evaluator David Mirich conducted a study about people who practiced BDSM, he found that they usually had high IQs. A separate study in Australia concluded that, compared to people who engaged in more “vanilla” sex, the kinky ones exhibited lower scores on a scale of psychological distress.

More recently, Tilburg University published a detailed study which went beyond disproving that people who enjoy painful sex are unhealthy, but found a correlation between BDSM and happiness, among several other measures of well-being. Its researchers recruited participants from a BDSM website and readers of a women’s magazine and asked them to fill out a variety of questionnaires. The data showed that people who enjoyed kinky sex scored higher in a variety of attributes: extroversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and subjective well-being. Also, they were found to have secure attachment styles in relationships and were less sensitive to rejection. All of these characteristics together make a confident, happy person.

Andreas Wismeijer, the study’s lead researcher, suggested another explanation: people who practice BDSM all had to do some “hard psychological work” to accept their sexual desires, which fall outside of mainstream norms. Perhaps such personal psychological work is the variable that makes people happier.

However, Wismeijer’s conclusion seems to be influenced by the negative stigmas, and misinformation many people have about BDSM.

Many dismiss the possibility that BDSM is “normal” because pain and restraint are not seen as loving. However, PsychCentral reminds us that “even the most basic affectionate embrace, a hug, involves mutual holding, restraining and then letting go.”

All of us appreciate a little bit of restraint. BDSM is just further down the spectrum.

Another common misconception about BDSM is that it isn’t (entirely) mutual. The only exposure that many people have to the practice is from what they see in pornographic media. Often, the scene starts in medias res, where a leather-clad person dominates and bosses another. Such a stereotypical depiction makes BDSM relationships seem unbalanced, and not mutual.

However, off the screen, in a consensual real-life BDSM relationship, the power is divided evenly, and roles are defined before sex–or leather suiting–ever starts. Limits are set collectively. Couples discuss what they are comfortable with, and establish cautionary safe words to announce if lines of comfort are crossed. BDSM is not about one person stealing power from another, but rather a “mutual process of self-exploration,” where “respect for your partner is absolutely paramount.”

There is also a common belief regarding subs (subservient parties) that only weak people would allow their doms (dominant parties) to control them. However, very many subs are confident and strong-willed individuals. Dismissive (or vanilla) outsiders should consider that submission can show “a sign of strength. It’s being secure enough in who you are to allow others to take control of you.”

Photo by secretlondon123.

Subs do not see themselves as weak, but comfortable with themselves and trusting enough with their partners to allow their control.

By reassessing societal norms established by Freud’s statements to dramatized pornographic footage, when we strip off some of the social misconceptions regarding BDSM, the link between painful sexual practices and happiness becomes less surprising. To enjoy BDSM, you have to be confident, open, and trusting–the same qualities of a happy person.

There is, of course, a major disclaimer. Obviously whips, chains, masks, pins, needles, and other paraphernalia are powerful tools that must be used with caution. Dispelling myths that painful sex is inherently perverted is not meant to discount any accidents or serious incidents.

Even the healthiest, smartest, most confident, and stable individual who practices consensual BDSM is subject to err on the side of caution, play safe, and adhere to the safe word.