Monday, August 12, 2013

BDSMers Mentally Healthier Than "Vanillas"?

Do people who are into BDSM have a tendency towards violence? Or are they themselves perhaps the victims of past abuses, which they are now re-enacting as part of their sex lives? If your experience of yourself and of our Scene is anything like mine, your answer to both questions will be a resounding no. Indeed, no scientific study has ever found evidence that kinky people are more likely to suffer from psychological problems or to commit violent or criminal acts than the general population. But prejudices to this effect still persist, and are repeated ad nauseam by the tabloids, the prudes and scare-mongers.

So I felt a considerable amount of "Told you so!" mirth when I heard about a recent study, titled Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners, which suggests that practitioners of BDSM might actually be psychologically healthier than the norm. The study was conducted by researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands and has an interesting genesis. Andreas Wismeijer, the lead researcher, does not usually study sadism or masochism, but the psychology of secrets. A chance encounter with the founder of the largest BDSM forum in the Netherlands convinced him that this scene might make an intriguing study group. So, Wismeijer asked people from the forum to fill out a series of online psychological questionnaires, and compared their answers to those from a control group of people who are not into BDSM. The participants did not know what the studies were about, exactly, only that they were "on human behaviour". In the end, Wismeijer and his fellow researchers had filled-out questionnaires from 902 BDSM practitioners and 434 people from the non-kinky control group.

It turns out that the BDSM practitioners scored higher on a series of measurements of psychological well-being. As summed up in this article on LiveScience:

The new results reveal that on a basic level, BDSM practitioners don't appear to be more troubled than the general population. They were more extroverted, more open to new experiences and more conscientious than vanilla participants; they were also less neurotic, a personality trait marked by anxiety. BDSM aficionados also scored lower than the general public on rejection sensitivity, a measure of how paranoid people are about others disliking them.

People in the BDSM scene reported higher levels of well-being in the past two weeks than people outside it, and they reported more secure feelings of attachment in their relationships, the researchers found.

I also found the following figures interesting:

Of the BDSM practitioners, 33 percent of the men reported being submissive, 48 percent dominant and 18 percent "switch," or willing to switch between submissive and dominant roles in bed. About 75 percent of the female BDSM respondents were submissive, 8 percent dominant and 16 percent switch.

These roles showed some links to psychological health, such that dominants tended to score highest in all quarters, submissives lowest and switches in the middle. However, submissives never scored lower than vanilla participants on mental health, and frequently scored higher, Wismeijer told LiveScience.

So, doms are supposedly healthier than switches, and both are supposedly healthier than subs? Well, I don't know! Kaelah and I both feel very happy and healthy as switches. In any case, it seems that there is a pretty clear division of preference between the genders even among kinksters from the progressive, liberal Netherlands: half the men are tops, and fully three quarters of the women are bottoms. Purely dominant women are the smallest of the groups, even rarer than female switches. Are the ratios similar in other kinky communities in Germany, Britain and the US? From my personal experience, I would guess that, yes, they are probably similar. Will they change as we progress towards a more and more gender-egalitarian society? Maybe so. It's an intriguing question for sure.

One caveat about the results, and the overall conclusions from the lead researcher:

The study is somewhat limited by a self-selecting response pool and by the fact that BDSM practitioners could have been answering in ways to make themselves look better and avoid stigma, Wismeijer said — though the fact that the participants didn't know the reasons for the study ameliorates that concern somewhat. The findings are reason for mental health professionals to take an accepting approach to BDSM practitioners, Wismeijer said.

"We did not have any findings suggesting that people who practice BDSM have a damaged psychological profile or have some sort of psychopathology or personality disorder," he said.

Wismeijer isn't exactly sure why BDSM practitioners might be psychologically healthier than the general public. They tend to be more aware of their sexual needs and desires than vanilla people, he said, which could translate to less frustration in bed and in relationships. Coming to terms with their unusual sexual predilections and choosing to live the BDSM lifestyle may also take hard psychological work that translates to positive mental health, he said.

I think Wismeijer is probably spot-on about that last point. It may be a nice thought that people with an inclination for BDSM are happier than the general population, period, but I am skeptical about this. I assume that kinky people who are "in the closet", and don't have anyone to talk to about their fantasies or any opportunity to live them out, or who are feeling guilt or shame because of the stigma and the negative prejudices associated with BDSM, are usually very unhappy. On the other hand, people who have embraced their kink as something that is healthy, positive and exciting, and who are "out" in the Scene and talking and playing with others like them, will undoubtedly take great satisfaction and happiness from that. Hence, I believe, the results of the study.

So, at the end of the day, perhaps it is not so much about BDSM versus "vanilla", but about whether or not people are able to be themselves and live out their sexual fantasies with a loved one or like-minded friends.


Simon (not currently happy or unhappy) said...

"Lies, damned lies and statistics" (possibly Disraeli). These days we are bombarded with statistics often from dubious sources or taken out of context. A frequent problem is the small size of the sample group or the fact that the group has been chosen incorrectly. I@m not sure about this survey, it's not that I doubt the accuracy of the results I'm just not sure how useful it is. I would imagine if you included a large group of followers of any out of the usual hobby the results would be broadly similar. For instance if I specifically targeted say trainspotters and I asked them about happiness and mental balance a similar result could be obtained. I'm not suggesting that practitioners of BDSM are any less happier and well balanced than any one else just that this survey doesn't actually prove the opposite. I'm happy when being punished but like most people I can be unhappy and sometimes downright miserable at other times.

Ludwig said...

@ Simon: I agree that studies like this should, obviously, be critically examined: how large was the sample group, what were the statistical methods used, what can be reasonably concluded from the results and what can't be reasonably concluded from them, what other factors in addition to the ones cited could explain the results...? And so forth. And of course, one study of one (albeit large) forum in the Netherlands is not representative of BDSM practitioners around the world.

Still, I would not dismiss the findings of this study out of hand. The setup and methodology look okay to me. It was published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. And the results are entirely plausible from my point of view: it is plausible that people who have taken the step to engage in BDSM and live out their erotic fantasies are more extroverted and open to new experiences than the norm, that people who more or less openly engage in a lifestyle against which significant prejudices exist are less rejection sensitive than the norm, or that people who are able to "be themselves" sexually report high levels of well-being.

I agree that you might also find "happier than normal" people among followers of any unusual hobby, like trainspotting or perhaps mountain climbing. But that would not invalidate the results of the BDSM survey. Neither does the fact that you or I or any other BDSMer are of course capable of being unhappy or downright miserable at times contradict the possibility that, as a group and over time, BDSMers might be happier than the general population.

Lea said...

That's very interesting. Makes sense to me. BDSM and the relationships that come with it do sort of force one to think and communicate much more about wants and needs. I think I probably have spent much more time contemplating on a deeper level what I want in life than some of my vanilla friends.

Kaelah said...

A very good post, Ludwig! Of course I am also cautious with scientific (or so-called scientific) studies and their results. But I think the connection between the ability to be open and honest about one's intimate needs and desires, especially when they are different from the statistical norm, and the ability to lead a healthy and therefore more happy life is a valid one.