Sex

Breaking BDSM stereotypes: It’s more common than you think

Until quite recently, it was a pretty commonly held belief that anyone who is into BDSM must be psychologically damaged. The most popular erotic-fiction series of our time capitalized on this trope, featuring a hero who gets off on dominating and beating women because he is “50 shades of fucked up.”

People who practice BDSM in real life have been fighting this stereotype for decades. They argue that there are far more of them than the general public might think, and they are no more “fucked up” than anyone else—and research is finally starting to back them up.

Last month, the Journal of Sex Research published the results of a survey of Quebecers regarding their experience with paraphilias. A paraphilia is attraction to or love of something unusual or different. The newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which defines and categorizes mental health disorders, defines eight specific sexual activities as paraphilias and includes things like fetishism, masochism, sadism and exhibitionism.

The respondents to the survey were asked if they had ever thought about or done any of these things. Forty-four-point-five percent said they were interested in fetishism—sexual arousal for an inanimate object (for example, shoes); 22.8 percent said they practice fetishism sometimes or often; 23.8 percent said they were interested in masochism—being dominated, humiliated or having pain inflicted on them, and 13.7 percent said they participated in masochistic activities sometimes or often.

In their conclusion, the study’s authors question the appropriateness and usefulness of classifying these behaviours as “anomalous” when a significant percentage of people are doing them—and an even greater percentage is interested in trying them.

The researchers also wanted to test the assumption that a desire to participate in paraphilias results from a history of childhood sexual abuse. They asked respondents if they had had any sexual contact with an adult before they were 12. Only 7.9 percent said yes. This is actually lower than most estimates of child sexual abuse in the general population. They concluded that “this study also provides further support … for rejecting the popular view that paraphilic interests, especially sadomasochism, are associated with childhood sexual abuse or trauma.”

Survey respondents were asked to rate their sex lives on a scale that ranged from exciting to depressing. Only 11.5 percent reported exciting sex lives, with the majority—50.6 percent—reporting satisfying sex lives. The people who practiced fetishism, however, were much more likely to report having exciting sex lives than those who didn’t.

The findings in this survey seem to back up what was found in a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2013. This study assessed the personality traits and mental health of a group of 800 self-identified kinky people and compared it to a group of 400 non-kinky folk. It concluded that “BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes.”

The Quebec study has its limitations—as do all studies—but it adds weight to what kinky people themselves have been saying for decades: interest in, fantasies about and practice of BDSM is not rare—and not unhealthy. In fact, it may be just the opposite.V

Brenda Kerber is a sexual health educator who has worked with local not-for-profits since 1995. She is the owner of the Edmonton-based, sex-positive adult toy boutique the Traveling Tickle Trunk.

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