Sexual Health

New research sheds light on the complicated relationship between sex and BDSM

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New research provides evidence that the BDSM subculture isn’t all about sex — especially for those with deeper involvement in the community. The findings, which have been published in the journal Sexualities, suggest that the norms of the public BDSM “scene” help to shape BDSM practitioners’ attitudes and behaviors.

“When I first watched the famous kinky romantic comedy ‘Secretary,’ the climactic scene has Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character seated at a desk exhausted and unmoving because her would-be dominant told her to. She challenges her ex-fiancé, ‘Does this look sexual to you?!’ And even though her character clearly thinks the answer is ‘no,’ my response as a viewer was, ‘Yeah, I think so — at least a little bit,'” said study author Julie Fennell, an associate professor of sociology at Gallaudet University.

“Ever since I watched that scene, years before I became involved in the public BDSM subculture, I’ve wondered how other people respond to it. The general public assumes that BDSM is inherently sexual; but there has been a lively academic debate among BDSM researchers about whether BDSM is sexual, and people in the public BDSM community (kinksters) debate and argue about it as well.”

Fennell said she first became involved in the BDSM community in 2010 and has frequently observed arguments about whether sex should be allowed at events. Though things have shifted in favor of allowing it, many events still don’t permit sexual intercourse. However, those events also “get very creative about what counts” as having “sex,” Fennell explained, and might allow for various types of penetration.

“I teach and write a lot within the community, and one of the biggest things I find myself doing is defending sexual BDSM to other kinksters. I end up saying a lot, ‘it’s okay to do this for sex,’ which I find sociologically surreal, since everyone outside the BDSM subculture thinks that’s what we’re all doing in the first place!” Fennell said.

Drawing on her own experiences, Fennell constructed a battery of questionnaires to better understand the role that sex plays in the BDSM subculture. More than 1,600 members of the BDSM community provided responses to the relevant questions.

She found that as involvement in the public BDSM scene increased, the emphasis on sex tended to decrease.

Those with a high involvement in the public BDSM scene were less likely to report that they engaged in BDSM for “sexual pleasure and arousal” compared to those with less involvement. Those with a high involvement were also more likely to report that BDSM is “mostly non-sexual” for them and were less likely to agree with the statement “I prefer for my BDSM play to involve sex.”

The findings suggest that “BDSM might or might not be sexual, but that the BDSM subculture profoundly shapes how kinky people learn to experience and understand BDSM,” Fennell told PsyPost.

“Most people outside the scene assume that ‘kinksters’ and ‘swingers’ are basically one big happy family, when in reality the two subcultures have a perpetual not-very-amiable war going on. Most BDSM events are big sexy parties, but they are relatively rarely big sex-filled parties,” she said.

In addition, “I hope the average person in the BDSM scene takes away from it the fact that my statistics show how deeply increasing scene involvement is associated with less sexual BDSM — both in terms of what people want, and in terms of what they do,” she continued.

Fennell’s study also analyzed the percentage of people who had sex with their most recent partner based on where they met.

“If you meet your date anywhere other than a BDSM event (even one that allows sex), you’re more likely to have sex with them, regardless of your personal preferences. This relationship is so extreme that it actually wasn’t statistically worthwhile to separate BDSM events that allow sex from ones that don’t. Scene norms are deeply anti-sexual, and a lot of kinksters genuinely don’t seem to realize that,” Fennell told PsyPost.

The study also uncovered a strong relationship between age and viewing BDSM as a more sexual activity.

“The weirdest finding that I can’t explain in my research is that older people consistently preferred and engaged in more sexual BDSM than younger people. I ran those numbers so many different ways (including length of time in the scene), but the underlying result was always the same,” Fennell explained.

“This is such a paradox! Most pansexual BDSM events only began allowing sex at all in the early 2000s, and most young people arrived on the scene after 2010 when a lot of places took sex positive (that’s the term in the community for events that allow sex) for granted, so logically older people should have been less interested in sexual BDSM.”

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations. “The biggest question this paper doesn’t answer is the degree to which the pansexual BDSM scene sorts for people who are less interested in sexual BDSM, or teaches them to view BDSM less sexually. I’ve answered that question in a book that’s currently under review for publication called Please Scream Quietly: The Story of Kink, but I think there’s still room left to explore,” Fennell explained.

There are several subcultures within the BDSM community itself — and these findings might not generalize to them. “My research only applies to the ‘pansexual’ BDSM scene, which is separate from, but adjacent to, the gay men’s BDSM (Leather) subculture and a dyke+trans BDSM subculture. Knowing more about what sexuality looks like in those subcultures would be interesting,” she told PsyPost.

“I think there’s also still a lot of room to talk about the gendering of sexual BDSM. It’s always impossible to talk about ‘gender’ in the BDSM scene without also talking about ‘BDSM role’ (dominant, switch, submissive), but that is extra true when talking about the sexuality of BDSM. If someone gave me a lengthy book chapter to dissect it all, I might be able to do it justice!”

“I briefly discuss the intense desexualization of the FemDom (feminine dominants, typically with masculine submissives) subculture in this paper, but I talk about that a lot more in a chapter coming out in an anthology called Binding and Unbinding Kink next year,” Fennell said.

The study, “It’s complicated: Sex and the BDSM subculture“, was published October 6, 2020.

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