People Who Practice BDSM Seem To Share Some Enviable Traits

Illustrated By Anja Slibar.

It was bound to happen. In the frenzy leading up to both Valentine's Day and the release of the 50 Shades of Grey movie on the 13th, 'tis the season for bondage think pieces, bondage product tie-ins ("50 Shades of Grey Cars" is an actual pitch this author received), bondage guides, bondage everything. Now, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggesting that BDSM practitioners are less neurotic than their vanilla counterparts has entered the fray after New York Magazine reported on it this week. Other outlets have seized onto this study as evidence that maybe you should reach for some rope instead of your yoga mat the next time you need to chill out — an irresponsible, even insulting reading of BDSM's potential to produce positive psychological effects.

In the study, 902 BDSM practitioners and 434 vanilla volunteers took online questionnaires about their personalities, relationship styles, sensitivity to rejection, and well-being. Researchers found that BDSM practitioners were, by their own accounts, "less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection-sensitive," and "had higher subjective well-being" than the volunteers who didn't practice BDSM. (They did, however, report themselves to be "less agreeable.") 

One possibility, of course, is that correlation rather than causation is at play here, and that someone confident in her desires and her ability to realize them — cornerstones of successful BDSM practice — is by nature more open-minded and less neurotic than others. What's more, it may be that BDSM's emphasis on respect, consent, and communication rather than mere participation in its activities helps people cultivate healthy interpersonal relationships. "I think it's important to differentiate the idea that bondage in and of itself can be mentally beneficial from [the idea that] people inclined toward BDSM find practical benefits [from engaging in bondage]," observes Rachel Kramer Bussel, author, blogger, and editor of Best Bondage Erotica 2015.
One experience cited as indication that BDSM is "relaxing" is that of "subspace," the dreamy high that many individuals who act as submissives in BDSM "scenes" report feeling during play. That "subspace," though, isn't a guaranteed end result of grabbing some rope and a person willing to use it on you, and it's crucial not to conflate the power of restraint itself with the effects of BDSM engagement as a whole. "Bondage and submission can be great ways to reduce anxiety and stress," notes Shanna Germain, author of As Kinky As You Wanna Be: Your Guide to Safe, Sane and Smart BDSM. "They increase the secretion of endorphins, those fantastic neurotransmitters that make us feel euphoric. It's akin to the 'runner's high.' But, we all know what happens if you don't run and then you go out and try to run 10 miles without any training or preparation. It's not euphoric. It sucks. It sucks while you're doing it and it sucks the next day and the one after that because your mind and body are not prepared."

The preparation that goes into creating a healthy, safe, sexy BDSM scene — education, communication, negotiation — is deeper and more involved than popping in a yoga DVD. Using bondage in a positive, healthy way also requires "complete and total informed trust in the person (or people) who will be dominating you," Germain says. "You have to be able to let go completely, without worrying about whether someone is tying the ropes too tight or doesn't know where to spank you safely... That's why education and aftercare are so important — having someone you trust to hold you, talk to you, or just be with you as you navigate that space and bring you safely back to the real world is vital."

And, this one might be obvious, but if you're not into kinky sex, kinky sex is more likely to stress you out than relax you. While BDSM can be physically stressful — for both dominants and submissives — it's that very physical stress that many find to trigger a psychological release.

In light of their findings, the researchers behind the study linking BDSM and low neuroticism issued the conclusion that "BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes." The BDSM community — which coined the expression "safe, sane, and consensual" decades ago — already knew that, but thanks anyway for your "permission," guys.
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