Comorbidity is a fancy sounding term, but it’s also important phenomenon. Researchers and clinicians historically noticed that some diseases and disorders tend to occur together. A person with one is likely to have the other. The disorders “clump”. That’s comorbidity. Depression and anxiety “clump” together, so they’re considered “co-morbid”. But the disorders or diseases don’t cause each other. They just tend to occur together, for whatever reason. This week’s article looked at two psychological disorders to see if they were potentially co-morbid: borderline personality disorder and sexual masochism disorder.
What is borderline personality disorder (BPD)?
BPD is a personality disorder. Personality disorders are specific group of disorders in psychology. They are life long patterns of interaction that cause dysfunction in everyday life. There is no treatment for most personality disorders. Personality disorders include narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder.
BPD specifically is defined in the DSM 5 as a “pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity”. People with BPD rarely have relationships that last for long. Their opinions of people may change drastically from moment to moment. Their opinion of themselves changes too. They fear abandonment. Resorting to suicide attempts or self injury to get others to stay is not uncommon. Their mood can also be very unstable. A constant feeling of hollowness inside is also common.
Most people with BPD are women. It’s one of the few personality disorders that does have a treatment. Dialectical behavior therapy, a modification of cognitive behavior therapy, is helpful.
What is sexual masochism disorder? How does it differ from masochism?
Sexual masochism disorder is not the same thing as masochism!
Masochism is the sexual or emotional enjoyment of receiving pain. Sadism is the opposite. It’s the enjoyment of giving pain. Many people safely practice sadism/masochism as part of their sexual life. Masochism and sadism by themselves are not psychiatric diagnoses. They are normal, healthy parts of human sexuality.
In contact, sexual masochism disorder (SMD) is masochism that causes distress, dysfunction, or nonconsensual harm. For example, deliberately putting yourself in a situation where you could be raped. Or asphyxiating yourself when you’re alone (because it can, and does, kill). Because those are likely to cause serious harm, they might be considered SMD rather than masochism.
The specifics of what counts as SMD vs masochism is, frankly, a hot topic. But key in that difference is whether the individual is distressed or having difficulties because of their interests…and whether they seek treatment. Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for SMD.
All of which brings us to today’s study…
Frías et al tried to answer several questions, including: Are BPD women more likely to have SMD than women without BPD?
So they interviewed and surveyed 120 women. These women were referred to them by a local adult outpatient mental health center. All had personality disorders. 60 had BPD. 60 had other personality disorders. Frías et al verified those diagnoses and interviewed the participants. They diagnosed SMD based on those interviews.
The surveys asked about:
- childhood traumas
- attachment styles
- self esteem
- sensation (adventure) seeking
- sexual fantasies
- sexual satisfaction
And as always, there was a demographic questionnaire.
What did they find?
SMD was 10 times more likely in BPD women than in women without BPD. Which sounds impressive. 6 out of 60 women with BPD had SMD. That means 54 out of 60 women with BPD did not have SMD. None of the 60 control women had SMD.
BPD women with SMD, compared with BPD women without SMD, were more likely to…
- Have experienced childhood sexual abuse
- Be sensation seekers
- Have a dismissing or hostile attachment style
There were no differences in…
- Non-sexual childhood trauma
- Sexual satisfaction
Interesting comments came out of the interviews as well. Some of the SMD women reported that they had previously injured themselves for masochistic reasons. Others intentionally put themselves in places where they were nearly injured or raped. They didn’t tend to involve others in their SMD needs. Instead they preferred to masturbate, self-injure, or asphyxiate themselves. None were involved in the local BDSM community.
What are the limitations of this study?
As I’ve said many times before, no study is perfect. This study in particular ended up being very small. Only 6 women in the BPD group had SMD. It’s very difficult to make generalizations based on 6 people. A bigger study would help clarify the potential relationships. And can you really make a conclusion based on such a small sample size? I would take the conclusions here with a small grain of salt until they’re repeated with a larger sample size.
I also have my doubts about comparing women with BPD to women with other personality disorders. Research needs a “control” group. The control group is usually a group without the disorder. In fact, they’re usually completely healthy. The researchers then have a comparison group.
Comparing women with BPD to women with other personality disorders doesn’t seem like a clear control group to me. What bias was introduced? It’s difficult to say. I’d like to see a study like this done with a control group without psychiatric diagnoses.
Lastly, this study has the usual limitations. It’s not an experimental study. So the results are correlation, not causation. Since they asked participants to remember historical events, there’s a recall bias. As always, their results may not apply to other populations.
What do the results mean?
I find it interesting that none of the women with SMD were active in their local BDSM group. This is evidence that SMD and masochism are not the same thing. Definitely one of the tidbits from this study that we need to share.
The association between childhood sexual abuse, BPD, and SMD is interesting. There have been theories that sexual abuse and BPD may be related. Even theories that abuse may cause BPD. I would hesitate to go quite that far. However, it’d be worth doing more research to find out.
In summary — this is interesting investigational work, but certainly not the last word.
Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.
Citation: Frías, Á., González, L., Palma, C., & Farriols, N. (2016). Is There a Relationship Between Borderline Personality Disorder and Sexual Masochism in Women?. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1-8.