A new psychological study of BDSM practitioners has just been published. This is the first such research to specifically examine the “Big Five” personality characteristics.
For those of you not interested in the nitty-gritty, here’s the digest: As a group, people who practice BDSM report a better sense of well-being and are more open to new experiences, extraverted, conscientious, and less sensitive to rejection than people who don’t practice BDSM. As with all correlations, this does not mean that BDSM activities caused these differences. Rather, people with these characteristics may be more likely to investigate BDSM.
Are you interested in the details? Cool! Let’s break this study down then.
First, some basics on BDSM. As some readers may remember, BDSM is an acronym standing for: Bondage, Dominance/Submission, SadoMasochism… and probably a few others besides. BDSM is considered an “alternative” sexuality and is highly stigmatized here in the United States. BDSM is often misrepresented as a purely sexual practice focused on pain. In truth, it’s often more sensual than sexual or painful. Many forms of BDSM “play” involve no sex or pain at all. Specific practices vary a lot depending on the people involved**.
Within BDSM, a person is typically in one of three roles: dominant (dom/domme), submissive (sub), or switch. The terms are fairly self explanatory. Dominant “has” control, submissive “gives” control, a switch is someone who switches roles*. Sometimes being a dom/sub/switch is referred to as an orientation, sometimes it’s a role for a particular activity (“scene”)***.
What about these personality characteristics? In personality psychology, there’s the concept of the “big five” personality characteristics, OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Personality characteristics are thought to be innate. You’re born with a certain personality, and it’s relatively unchangeable. Each of the “big five” can be thought of as a line, and each person falls somewhere along that line. To wit….
- Openness: How open to new experiences are you? Open vs cautious
- Conscientiousness: How tidy, thorough and responsible are you? Organized vs careless
- Extraversion: How much do you enjoy being around other people? Extravert vs introvert
- Agreeableness: How trusting and cooperative are you? Friendly vs cold
- Neuroticism: How easily do things tip you emotionally off balance? Easily upset vs steady
Some of these traits are associated with greater happiness and resiliency (e.g., Openness, Agreeableness and Extraversion) whereas others are associated with mental instability or illness (e.g., Neuroticism). There are nuances, overlaps, and arguments over these concepts that I won’t address here, but I hope that gives you a good starting place for understanding the study results. Let me know in the comments if it doesn’t and I’ll gladly expand. This study looked at more than just the “big five”. It also included measures of rejection sensitivity, attachment style, and subjective well being.
So why look at the “big five” and all those others in the context of BDSM? The arguments of the researchers make some sense. While BDSM and the “big five” have not been directly compared before, there is some evidence that the “big five” is associated with certain sexual attitudes. The more open you are, the more permissive your attitudes around sex. The more neurotic you are, the less stable your relationships, thus impacting your sexual life. And so on. Similarly, people with secure attachment styles are more likely to have a wide variety of sexual behaviors and better trust with partner(s) than people with insecure attachment styles.
So we have our variables: the “big five”, rejection sensitivity, attachment style, subjective well-being. What about our participants?
BDSM participants were 902 Dutch people, 464 male and 438 female (no mention of trans or genderqueer folks), recruited from one Dutch BDSM forum. Control participants were 434 Dutch people screened for BDSM behavior, 129 male and 305 female, recruited from magazine ads or websites having to do with “secrets”. Men in the study were older than women. I’m really not sure this control is an adequate control for this study because of the recruitment methods… but I’m not sure it’s not either. Differences between the groups? There certainly were some other than the practice of BDSM. There were significantly more women in the control group than the BDSM group. The control group was younger and less well educated than the BDSM group, although both were more well educated than the average Dutch citizen. Whether these differences affected the study results is unknown, but a possibility.
The researchers also note a gender difference between roles in the BDSM group. Men were 33.4% submissive, 18.3% switch, and 48.3% dominant identified. Women, on the other hand, were 75.6% submissive, 16.4% switch, and 8% dominant. This is certainly reflected in the stereotypes associated with BDSM activities.
- People who practice BDSM were more Open, Extraverted, and Conscientious than the control participants.
- People who practice BDSM were less Neurotic and Agreeable than the control participants
- People who practice BDSM were less sensitive to rejection than people who didn’t practice BDSM. Within the BDSM participants, submissives were more sensitive to rejection than dominants
- People who practice BDSM had a greater sense of well-being than control participants. Dominants scored the highest on well-being.
- Relatively few differences between BDSM participants and control participants was found when attachment styles were examined. When there was a difference, BDSM participants had a more secure attachment than control participants.
Effect sizes were small to medium. That is about average for a psychological study.
The OCEAN results make sense within the context of BDSM. In order to even try BDSM activities, you’d need to be open to new experiences. Conscientiousness is also valued, in order to be safe. Extraversion is helpful within a community setting. The rejection sensitivity results also make sense to me – a timid person may not continue to explore BDSM after one or two rejections. But this is all after-the-fact reasoning, and not particularly predictive or scientific.
The authors note that these results contradict the long-standing assumption that women who participate in BDSM so do because they were abused as children. But they didn’t ask directly about childhood sexual abuse. Rather, they draw this conclusion from the established relationship between attachment styles and abuse history. Childhood abuse is associated with insecure attachment. But in this study, BDSM folk were more likely to have a secure attachment than the control group. I think this logic is fairly sound, though a definitive answer will need to wait for a study where childhood abuse is specifically asked about.
The most obvious limitations to this study are the participants. The BDSM and control participants were not necessarily comparable, and there were significant known differences between the groups. Those differences could have affected the study’s results. Also, as usual, this study’s results may not be generalizable to BDSM communities in other countries (e.g., the United States).
Despite the limitations, these results are a delightful breath of fresh air, when so much of the literature treats BDSM as psychopathology. People who practice BDSM has long argued that there is nothing inherently “wrong”, “sick” or “dangerous” about their sexuality. These results absolutely support their assertion. The study authors state “We therefore conclude that these results favor the view […] that BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes.” Yes, yes and yes.
* This is a highly simplified description. Power, and the exchange of power, is complex.
** It’s important to note, though, that for many people who participate in BDSM pain is very important, if not the central experience.
*** In addition to Dom/Sub/Switch, there’s also the idea of “topping” and “bottoming”. Topping and bottoming are much more transitory than Dom/Sub/Switch. In any particular activity, the Top is the “do-er” and the Bottom is the “do-ee”. But being Top or Bottom is activity specific and not as much of an orientation as Dom/Sub/Switch.