Do People Get Involved in BDSM Because They’re Broken?

It’s a commonly held opinion that a lot of people become involved in BDSM or an M/s or D/s lifestyle because they are mentally unstable, broken or are working through childhood trauma. Not just by people outside the community who “don’t know any better”, but by people who are actually involved in BDSM, M/s and D/s.

If you’re in any internet BDSM forum, like FetLife, for long enough, someone will pitch it as a topic, and there will be a surprising number of people who see some truth in it. Quite often they’ll cite “anecdotal evidence”, which in many cases probably means “observations of discussions on the internet”.

That raises questions about whether what people think they observe (what they remember) is really what they have observed (if they immediately forget things that don’t interest them), whether the internet and what is discussed there is a true representation of the larger community and how many potential cognitive biases you could tick off a list like this.

WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?

There’s no need to rely on “anecdotal evidence”. We have science on our side.

A Wismeijer & van Assen (2013) study called Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners found that BDSM participants actually scored more favorably on major personality dimensions than controls (with the exception of agreeableness) and scored higher on scales of general well-being than controls.

Their conclusion was:

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. Comparing the four groups, if differences were observed, BDSM scores were generally more favorably for those with a dominant than a submissive role, with least favorable scores for controls.

This adds further weight (and a US slant) to what is probably the most widely cited research into the mental health of BDSM practitioners, the 2008 (national) Australian study by Richters et al: Demographic and Psychosexual Features of Participants in BDSM. Conclusions from that research were that people involved in BDSM:

…were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity, and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious – indeed, men who had engaged in BDSM scored significantly lower on a scale of psychological distress than other men. Engagement in BDSM was not significantly related to any sexual difficulties. Findings support the idea that BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, and for most participants not a pathological symptom of past abuse or difficulty with ‘normal’ sex.

In 2014, research by Hébert and Weaver titled An Examination of Personality Characteristics Associated with BDSM Orientations found that (surprise, surprise!) Doms and subs had some differences in the personality traits and desires in different areas of their lives, but that both groups scored high levels of satisfaction.

Are there people participating in BDSM who are working through trauma or whose mental health is on shaky ground? Of course there are.

But, there is no evidence to suggest that the proportion is any higher in the BDSM community than it is in the general population. In fact, there is some research that indicates we might be slightly healthier.

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