The rise of any phenomenon in popular culture is generally followed by a rise in research about it. For a few years now — in part thanks to the popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey books and movies — BDSM has become much more openly discussed, less taboo and certainly a popular genre of erotic fiction. Despite the well-known weaknesses of best-selling kinky erotica, it has done a lot of work toward destigmatizing so-called “alternative” sexualities.
As a subject of psychological research, BDSM has often been relegated to psychopathology: the study of what’s wrong with people. Until 2013, practicing BDSM was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. But even though scientists now agree that BDSM is generally healthy, there are still lots of misinformed beliefs and myths about practicing kinksters. Thankfully, research has gone a long way toward dispelling those myths and actually showing us people who do kink have a few things to teach those who don’t.
A survey by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom from 2012 shows a distinct picture of consent in a BDSM context. Over 95 percent of respondents believe consent can be revoked at any time; over 93 percent also believe consent cannot be coerced.
In situations in which harm is possible (and actually desirable in some way), ongoing negotiated consent matters. In other words, kinksters practice affirmative consent: the approach to consent that considers “yes means yes” as its only valid form.
Affirmative consent has made great headway in the vanilla world, but too many people still believe not saying no directly or sending “mixed signals” means consent according to a 2016 survey by Planned Parenthood. In a BDSM context, however, neither of these things fly. Receiving affirmative consent is a way to protect both yourself and your partner, and given how risky BDSM can be, that’s a good thing.
Non-kinky people should be just as concerned as those in the BDSM world about consent. It’s not perfect (nothing ever is), but the BDSM model avoids some common vanilla pitfalls.
The kink context is not free from rape and assault. Sadly, rape culture still affects every community, even those built on affirmative consent. But, according to recent research by Kathryn R. Klement and colleagues, there is an association between participating in an affirmative consent culture and having fewer rape-supporting beliefs.
On three of the six measures in this study, the BDSM sample showed lower acceptance of rape-related beliefs. These measures were benevolent sexism (the belief that women are “special” and should be protected from the rough world of men), rape myth acceptance (a test that measures how much you believe in rape myths such as “If a girl goes to a room alone with a guy at a party, it is her own fault if she is raped”) and victim-blaming.
In other words, respondents to this study who were part of the BDSM community were less sexist, believed less in rape myths and were less likely to blame the victim than a general population sample and a college student sample. Although this particular study was correlational (there is no clear cause and effect), it still demonstrates something about being part of the BDSM community makes you less likely to be sexist and to blame victims for sexual assault.
One of the biggest myths that still plague kinky people is how kink is an expression of pathology. In other words, that kinksters are somehow mentally ill. But study after study dedicated to understanding the mental health of kinksters has debunked this myth. In fact, this research has shown that BDSM samples actually do better on many measures compared to general population samples.
For example, a 2013 personality study by Andreas A.J. Wismeijer and Marcel A.L.M. van Assen uncovered that BDSM practitioners “were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, [and] had higher subjective well-being” than the general population control group. Their study showed no sign that kink was a symptom of mental illness.
That openness to experience has many benefits: among them a more satisfying sex life. An Australian survey conducted in 2001 and 2002 showed people who identified as BDSM practitioners were more likely to have tried a variety of sexual activities such as watching pornography, using sex toys, having group sex or sex with people other than their main partner and to have tried anal activities. Participating in kink apparently made you happier and less likely to be anxious, especially if you were a man.
Lessons from personality traits are a bit more elusive, but these studies show that there is something beneficial about being open to new experiences. Whether it’s more happiness from being true to oneself or a better understanding of the benefits of a good sex life, kinksters must be doing something right here too.
There’s nothing wrong with not being interested in kink. The positive effects of being kinky — like a better understanding of consent, less sexism and better overall mental health and well-being — don’t have to come with participating in kinky activities. Understanding that yes is the only thing that means yes, being less sexist and being more open to new experiences can benefit everyone, no matter what they like in bed.
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