Kinky Sex Might Get You High: BDSM Makes For Altered States, Study Says

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BDSM_1Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Could a little bit of bondage and sadomasochism do the body good?

Despite the fact that BDSM was until recently considered a mental disorder by the psychiatric establishment, some evidence suggests that the kinky kind is, on the whole, a little more psychologically balanced than everyone else. A 2013 study found that BDSM practitioners were "less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, [and] had higher subjective well-being," than the control group. An Australian study from 2008 interviewed over 19,000 people and found more or less the same: Men who had engaged in BDSM scored much lower on psychological distress tests than other men.

It's easy enough to understand what the tops get out of it. (One of the dominatrices in Nick Broomfield's 1996 documentary Fetishes put it simply: "It's kind of nice to be able to beat somebody every once in a while.") But, what's the appeal for bottoms?

Two recent studies from a Northern Illinois University research lab helmed by psychology professor and BDSM researcher Brad Sagarin have explored the appeal of kinky sex. For the first, Sagarin's team recruited 14 "switches," or regular practitioners of BDSM who were willing to be randomly assigned the role of top or bottom for a day. All were Caucasian with an average experience of a little less than seven years in the BDSM scene.

Before and after their sex experiences, the participants were given a cognitive assessment called a Stroop test, had saliva samples taken to measure their hormone levels, and completed a survey of their perceptions of flow, or feeling of focus and involvement, during the act. Unsurprisingly, both tops and bottoms said their "scenes" went very well. Where they differed, however, was in the cognitive test. Tops kept their faculties much more than the pain-receiving bottoms, who showed evidence of being in altered states of consciousness during their post-session Stroop tests.

One of the graduate researchers, James Ambler, told LiveScience that pain from BDSM sex might affect the blood flow to part of the brain that regulates memory, decision-making, and other high-level cognitive functions, which could give such sex its extra appeal.

The other study, however, found that sex doesn't necessarily need to be part of the equation. The researchers recruited participants at the Southwest Leather Conference to engage in a ritual called "Dance of Souls," in which they were given surface piercings with hooks attached to ropes that were pulled as music played. (If you saw The Cell, that gives you an idea.)

As with the other study, the participants were given cognitive tests and surveys about their emotional state, as well as having saliva samples taken. While their levels of the stress hormone known as cortisol went up during the ritual, they reported lower feelings of stress.

It probably helps that the study participants were a self-selecting group who were already engaged with the kink scene — that is, it's probably unwise to dive straight into suspension if you're a newbie flirting with BDSM. Try a paddle first. (LiveScience)