Jun 082015

A Thought BubbleBelieve it or not, psychological science has limited understanding of what “normal” sexuality is. Even “common” sexuality is not well understood. Most statistics are woefully incomplete, asking about penetration styles and little else (example). We need to know more! Why? Well how else are we going to develop acceptance and understanding of the diversity of human sexuality? And the definition and use of the term “paraphilia” likely would need to be changed with greater understanding.

Today’s study looked at the sexual fantasies of roughly 1500 Canadian (Quebec) people (1516, 52.7% female). Ages ranged from 18-77, though most were between 19 and 40 (mean 29.6 +/- 10.8). 85% of the participants identified as straight. 3.6% identified as gay, and 11.4% identified as bisexual. As far as I can tell, no questions were asked about transgender status and no one reported themselves to be trans.

The participants were recruited through advertisements interviews, word of mouth, and presentations. They then filled out a survey online. The survey was a modified version of a known sex fantasy and behavior survey. The sexual behavior questions of the survey were removed. Additional sexual fantasy questions were added based on the most frequently visited pornographic sites. A write-in “other” option was also included.

The researchers then separated the fantasies out into rare, unusual, common, and typical categories. A rare fantasy was one that less than 2.3% of the participants had. Unusual was below 15.9%. Common was 50% of the participants or more, and typical was over 85%. The authors did not give a group name for fantasies that 16-49% of the participants had — so I’m going to call that “uncommon.”

What did they find?

The only typical (>85%) fantasy for both men and women was having romantic feelings during sex.

Common (50-85%) fantasies include themes of oral sex, masturbation and having sex with multiple people of the opposite sex. Sex in unusual, public, and romantic places was also common. Some choices of partner were also common: having sex with a famous star, or with a person other than one’s spouse. Lastly, fantasies of being sexually dominated was also common to both men (53.5%) and women (64.6%).

Men generally had more common fantasies than women did. These included sexual acts with strangers or acquaintances, watching a stranger undress, and having a much younger partner or a female partner with very large or very small breasts. Men were also more interested in dominating a partner (59.6%) than women were (46.7). In contrast, women were more interested in being tied up than men were (52.1% vs 46.2%).

Uncommon (16-49%) fantasies for both sexes include tying another person up, spanking or whipping someone, being spanked or whipped, being forced to have sex, and having gay sex. Men also uncommonly had fantasies of forcing others to have sex and having sex with prostitutes. Those fantasies were unusual for women.

Unusual (2.4-15.9%) fantasies included cross-dressing, urinating on a partner, and being urinated on. Fantasizing about having sex with animals and pre-pubescent children fell into the rare (less than 2.5%) category.

Here are some of the interesting statistics I pulled from this study that I’ll be using in the future:

  • About 3% of the group identified as gay, and 11% as bisexual. However, one in three women and one in five men fantasize about gay sex.
  • Men have more specific features to their fantasies, such as the breast size of their female partners. They’re also more likely to fantasize about having sex with strangers or acquaintances (around 2/3 of the group).
  • Men are more interested in anal sex than women (64% vs 32.5%)
  • Half to 2/3 of the group fantasized about public sex.
  • Half to 2/3 of women and men fantasize about being sexually dominated. Slightly fewer fantasize about doing the dominating (47% of women, 60% of men). Fewer fantasize about actually being forced into sex (a little less than 30%) or forcing others into sex (10-20%)
  • Roughly half the group fantasized about being tied up.
  • 1/4 to 1/3 of the group fantasized about spanking or whipping.
  • Cross dressing and urination fantasies are rare (<10%)

As always, this study has its limitations. The people who chose to participate may be a only a small group of the larger population. They may be more open-minded than the population at large.

But what does it all mean??

I think one of the big messages here is this: Fantasies of varying natures are not at all rare. They appear to be part of the normal spectrum of human sexuality. As the study authors put it, “there are very few statistically
unusual sexual fantasies.”

Many of the features of these fantasies are things that have been called pathological. Sadism, masochism, voyeurism, exhibitionism…all were present in fantasies in at least one in five in the survey. But all are considered a “paraphilia” for which there is treatment. They are also rather neglected aspects of human sexuality. They’re not typically addressed in sexual education, nor are medical or psychological professionals often given information on them.

I hope the authors will do more analysis with their data and make a few more publications. I’d love to see if fantasies varied by sexual orientation, for example. I would also have liked to see data on sexual satisfaction and whether the participants did the things they fantasized about. From a health perspective, I’d also like to know if the participants were at higher health risk from things like substance use or STIs. But that’s why we have science — someone else will ask that question!

All in all, I’m really happy with this study. It’s an area that sorely needs more data. The study was thoughtful and allowed participants to detail their own experiences in an “other” box.

Interested in reading the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

Aug 152013

Rope (often used in BDSM ) smiley face - CC BY 3.0 Rose Lovell

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.

Results included:

  • 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.

The study was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The abstract is publicly available.

* 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.