BDSM aficionados better-adjusted than those who enjoy plain old vanilla sex, says science


Photo by Boing Boing reader Captain Tim, shared in the BB Flickr Pool.

A provocative article from the Netherlands published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine says people who like to participate in bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and sado-masochism erotic play are "characterized by a set of balanced, autonomous, and beneficial personality characteristics.”

Practitioners of BDSM report “a higher level of subjective well-being” when compared to people who tend to have more boring forms of sex.

These sexual practices have long been "associated with psychopathology," the paper says. "However, several more recent studies suggest a relative good psychological health of BDSM practitioners."

The results mostly suggest favorable psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners compared with the control group; BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, had higher subjective well-being, yet were less agreeable.

The conclusion: BDSM is "recreational leisure," not pathology.

"Plain old vanilla sex," by the way, is what Hustler's Larry Flynt once told me he was into, during an interview I did for NPR. True story.

More: PSMAG, and here's the study. (via @vaughanbell)

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  1. Am I correct to assume this isn’t about BDSM per se, but rather sexual self-fulfillment? After all, it’s not so much that *Vanillas* tend to be more miserable, but rather those who falsely self-identify as vanilla due to whatever form of repression.

    I’d guess that a study comparing gay and straight couples would have similar results (at least when controlling for societal discrimination), simply because “straight” also includes “closet cases”.

    1. I would imagine that people who express themselves are generally less messed up than those who repress themselves.

      “But he always seemed like such a nice, quiet young man.”

      1. I dunno I have known some really repressed headcases involved in the kink community. A minority yes, but enough to notice.

        1. I wonder to what extent that differs between self-identified members of a kink community, vs. people who enjoy kinky sex with their partners but don’t center their social lives around it.

          1. 100% this. I’ve found that people who clearly make kink a large portion of their outward social identity are poorly adjusted for non-sexual sociality, particularly emotional relationships. But then, I haven’t met many people who are into kink but don’t make a deal about telling you as their defining characteristic, because, well, reporting bias. 

            I suppose in the end, if you’ve found an accepting community of people just like you, you shed a lot of the loneliness and alienation that most people experience. But to say that just because someone likes bondage that they’re naturally better adjusted just seems like apophenic and apologetic pseudoscience.

    2. I would hazard a guess that you are catching a correlation between being not being an uptight person and happiness.  If you are into BDSM and can indulge in it, you are a lot less likely to be an uptight prick who sends every day and night worrying about how other people feel about you.  If you can give the finger to normal social expectations and simply enjoy life, you will enjoy life more.

      When I look at the most unhappy people in my world, they are people who constantly worry about the opinions of people who truly do not matter.  They feel social pressure and try desperately to conform to it.  Folks into BDSM are more inclined to worry less about social pressure and form their own community.  If you live in a community of choice that reflects your values and merrily put everyone else outside of that community into the “other” category, you can find a lot of peace.

      I am not advocating being a dick to your fellow humans.  There is a difference between not worrying what a helicopter mom thinks and being mean to such a person.  I am advocating picking and choosing whose judgement you are going care about.  If you can lounge out on the subway in full drag on your way to a kink night, the amount of fucks you are giving to society around you is probably close to zero.  This is really liberating.

      1. “Folks into BDSM are more inclined to worry less about social pressure and form their own community.”

        The kink community has its own forms of social pressure. No subculture is idyllic.

        1. True, it has its own social forces and whatnot.  It isn’t an escape from social pressure that I am advocating.  We are humans.  A little social pressure is probably healthy.  The real issue is what that social pressure pushes you towards.  If the place where you feel social pressure is generic American consumerism, you are going to be a not-so-happy person.  If your social pressure comes from some crazy kinksters, while it isn’t all flowers and puppies, it beats the piss out of a lot alternatives.

        2. agreed, people form and police idiotic structures in every situation. it’s what we do, sadly.

    3.  My guess would be that it is anyone who has a degree of mindfulness about sex.  BDSM requires, you know, communication, & introspection; you have to know what YOU want, find someone who knows what THEY want & then converse about what you BOTH want & how to GET it…before doing it.  That sounds like a good schema for life in general, not just sex.

    4. I think this is more like it. I don’t indulge in kinkier stuff because I simply have no interest in it , not because I restrict myself,

    5. Yeah, it requires a bit more commitment and/or self-awareness to embrace a non-normative identity or lifestyle (“normative” in terms of demographics, or societal expectations, I’m not saying straightness or vanilla-ness is more natural, inherent, normal, or ‘right,’ if course), and the normative can often just be the “default” setting for folks who haven’t thought a part of their identity through very much yet.

  2. I’ve been involved in the kink community for two decades, and this doesn’t really surprise me.

    However, I’m appalled by the derogatory language that you’re using about vanilla sex.  Vanilla is not a “more boring” form of sex… it’s just a different one.  Both vanilla and kink sex can have the same intensity, the same intimacy, the same connection.

    1. Two thumbs up! I take umbrage with the false choice fallacy presented in the headline. Most kinksters *also* enjoy vanilla sex, it just happens to form a smaller subset of bands of their sexual rainbow. All that said, I’m sure Xeni actually realizes this, and the headline was perhaps just hastily written.

    2. I don’t like the term “vanilla” to describe sex, period. It’s part of the pattern that I see with some practitioners of alternative lifestyles who want to believe that their choices are not only acceptable, but superior. It’s one of the reasons why I’m reflexively skeptical about this study.

      1. On the one hand I have the same problems you have with “vanilla” as a term, but on the other hand I realize the problem is connotation. “Vanilla” has come to mean “bland” in spite of the fact that it’s a lovely, complex flavor that’s primarily derived from the seed pods of a beautiful orchid through an elaborate process. Yes, it’s wordy, and it would take quite a bit of work to alter the “bland” connotation in peoples’ minds, but I think those who are genuinely “vanilla” should wear the term with pride.

        1. Yeah, but anytime the phrase “vanilla sex” is thrown around, it’s in opposition to “exciting kinky sex”. There’s really no way to read it otherwise. All subcultures need to continuously remarginalize themselves in a opposition to normativity in order to maintain status as “awesome alternative lifestyle”.  So you gotta be generous to people looking down on the vanilla practitioners.

          Editor’s note: I really like vanilla ice cream, but ropes bore me.

        2. You’ve pretty well described why I loathe vanilla; it’s like eating bubble bath.

        1. I remember the 1980s, when straight people en masse discovered BDSM.  And wanted to talk about it.  All the time.

    3. I propose a new term: French Vanilla sex, for stuff that seems mundane but is really quite tasty. :)

  3. Hmm, to be fair – they got their non-BDSM respondees by advertising in a Women’s magazine. Seems like that, by itself, is asking for a less-than-satisfied-with-life group of people.

    1. heh, i immediately wondered how a proper “control group” for a BDSM study was selected.

    2. Holy crap, that’s their idea of a control group?

      Your point about this demographic being uptight is too obviously valid… authors with an axe to grind?

  4. I’m not surprised to hear they were more extroverted, but am a little said to see that in the same basket as being conscentious or not being neurotic.

    1. Apparently being introverted is now considered a psychological disadvantage. Countdown before it migrates into the “disability” category.

  5. Ummm the study might be solid but to get published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine sounds a bit suspect. Kind of like an study saying McDonalds food is healthy and fun published in the Journal of Burger Deliciousness.

      1. I think this industry journal is only available to alumni of Hamburger University(tm).

    1. Being familiar with scientific journals and seeing nothing strange about the title, I was confused for a minute, then realized how you were reading it (in a deep voice with a groovy beat rising up behind you).

      I looked up the journal and based on its contents, it could also be named Journal of Sexual Health, which more clearly reflects the subject matter. 

      Presumably the reason they chose “medicine” is that there was already an International Journal of Sexual Health, so they changed it and didn’t realize Sexual Medicine could be read in a humorous way :)

      1. I looked and looked, but there doesn’t even seem to be a Journal of Sexual Healing. :(

  6. You mean people who allow themselves to enjoy what they like and be themselves are better off than people who restrict themselves as a result of society’s expectations of them?

    Who knew.

  7. You are appalled at someone calling vanilla sex “boring”? Thats a pretty intense feeling to have from one word in a blog on the internet.

    Know what else is boring? Vanilla ice cream.

          1. I’ll take it, then, that you haven’t searched for “panda” on Kink.com…

    1. thats way more offensive than calling vanilla sex boring. Vanilla ice cream is the best ice cream.

      1. You haven’t had the Bienenstich kuchen frozen custard at Kopps in Milwaukee, have you?

        1.  OMG! I didn’t even know this existed but now want it bad enough to drive to Milwaukee!

        2. Oh great. Like I didn’t have enough reasons to want to visit Milwaukee. And I say that in all seriousness, because in addition to its cool history I understand Milwaukee has an awesome botanical garden, and I’d love to see a Brewer’s game.

          Based on those things alone I think that beer that calls itself “Milwaukee’s Best” should be sued for false advertising.

          1. Don’t forget to check out the lake front, especially if you’re there while the summer concerts are going on.  

            Great.  Now I want raspberry kringle from Racine, a few miles south of Milwaukee.

    2. The only people who think vanilla is boring are the people who have never had good vanilla.   Good vanilla is sublime.

      Just because exotic ice cream is easier to make exciting doesn’t mean it’s better.  Your average triple chocolate banana cream pie flavored ice cream may just be using extravagance and novelty to  mask the shortcuts being taken.  A bad base will be revealed as the flavor gets stripped down to its essential components.

      Damnit, now I have an erection.

      1. Stuffing three chocolate bananas into a little box of pink passion fruit and adding hint of cream pie

        ISWYDT

  8. I doubt there’s anything wrong with the study itself, more likely the problem lies in the way that it’s being reported – polarized and sensationalized. 

    By focusing only on the two extremes, “vanilla sex” and BDSM, what’s lost is the majority of the population, who fall somewhere in between. Most everyone has some fetish or other, but it’s most likely not extreme BDSM stuff. They can have all of the positive qualities that BDSM folks reported in the study by fulfilling their less-extreme fetishes (the willingness to explore their fetishes and openness to new ideas as described is of course important in attaining this fulfillment, and is the reason a lot of middle-of-the-road types don’t attain it).

    For some people, the full extent of their fulfillment might come from “vanilla sex”, and that’s fine. And that’s the issue – by polarizing the two extremes it seems like maybe repressed vanilla sex housewives should start forming Real BDSM Housewives clubs. Some (perhaps many) would end up enjoying it and feeling liberated, but most will probably be extremely uncomfortable and would never try anything new again.

    A study comparing two extremes is useful within its field, and will hopefully lead to further study of the middle ground, and ultimately this stuff is used as a tool to fight cultural repression of healthy sexuality. It’s not so useful as a widely-reported narrative at this stage because it doesn’t represent the whole picture (as is almost always the case with scientific studies, by design), though enlightened boingboing types will mostly understand the message.

    1. It kind of makes me wonder if any of the researchers were BDSM aficionados themselves. There are many people in that scene (not a majority, but many) who seem very locked-in to strict dichotomies. Witness the common (again, common, but not universal) contempt for the “switch”, one who enjoys playing both dominant and submissive roles. For me, variety is the spice of life, and it boggles the mind that those whose tastes take them so far from the mainstream would want to constrain themselves like that.

  9. Or, to turn cause and effect the other way, better-adjusted people find it easier to express their sexual needs.

    1. BDSM has never really excited me, but I must say, your photography is amazing. I thought that it was just the Snow White ensemble capturing my attention, but I really like a whole lot of what you have done on flikr.  You’re very talented! Bravo!

      1. Thanks. I’m lucky enough to have a bunch of random burlesque friends to put up with me. I don’t know much on the technical side, I just like fiddling.

        1. Since I have exactly zero burlesque friends I am suspecting it isn’t all luck that got you there.

  10. Although there’s some crossover, there’s a difference between people who are into B&D and S&M. A sadist might appear well adjusted if one is just measuring their levels self-doubt, anxiety and neurosis as does this study, but so would a psychopath. It doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to hang around with one.  

    1. There is way more than “some” crossover. I know pretty much no practitioners of bondage and discipline that do not engage in some form of sensation play, which almost always includes a degree of pain. I also know lots of self-described sadists very well, and have casually associated with dozens more. Not one of those people is remotely psychopathic. The difference between sadomasochistic play and abuse is very clear.   

    2. I’d be much more concerned about hanging around with people who can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, or between consent and nonconsent…which describes about 95% of all anti-S&M activists I’ve ever come across.

      Disclaimer: not personally into BDSM of any stripe, but I am accepting of other people.

    3. And this is based on what exactly? Because judging by an admittedly small sample (i.e. me) I can tell you at least some sexual sadists are empathetic, compassionate and not at all immune to anxiety and self-doubt.
      Funny story: I recently spent forty minutes brutally abusing a woman of my acquaintance with enthusiastic glee and to the enjoyment of all involved. Shortly afterward I was mortified and apologetic when I inadvertantly scratched her with an untrimmed hangnail.

  11. I applaud the result of this research and I applaud its existence as  I have never seen as enticing a post title image on BB, ever.

    1. What about all those “Look at the (innuendo) on the (innuendo) with the (innuendo) banana” with the description below: “Just look at it!”

  12. I think the most salient detail here is that folks into BDSM are pretty much all open to new experiences, which is likely to be a bigger predictor of mental health than the degree of sexual repression because the latter is a subset of the former.

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