Better Sex  Sex & Sex Education  Sex, Media & Culture  Mental Health 

BDSM: Attachment Style, Psychopathology, Stigma, & Trauma

Graham Holloway  |  Apr 28

BDSM: Attachment Style, Psychopathology, Stigma, & Trauma


BDSM is an often heavily stigmatized alternative lifestyle as some practices involved do not fit into what society considers sexually "normal"; this stigma often manifests itself as myths. Two of the most common myths regarding BDSM is that people who engage in these activities are either mentally ill (Ritchie & Barker, 2005; Taylor & Ussher, 2001) or have been abused as children (Kort, 2015). What does the research show? Studies have shown that those who engage in BDSM display healthy psychological well-being (Gosselin & Wilson, 1980; Moser, 2008; Moser & Levitt, 1987; Richters et al., 2008). While there is a myth that people who engage in BDSM do so as a coping strategy for childhood sexual abuse, research by Brink et al. (2020) was unable to find any evidence to suggest that BDSM is used as a maladaptive coping strategy in response to early life traumas such as physical or sexual abuse. Some research also suggests that mild physical pain can be just as effective at alleviating psychological distress as other forms of emotional regulation (Doukas et al., 2019). However, it should be stressed that the researchers are not suggesting that self-injury be used as the go-to method of coping with emotional or psychological distress. Stigma does not always come from laypeople either. In a survey of 766 therapists, Kelsey et al. (2013) reported that one-third of therapists were unsure if people who engaged in BDSM could maintain a functional and healthy relationship. However, in a study consisting of 163 participants using the Dyadic Adjustment scale (a scale for distinguishing between distressed and non-distressed couples to assess relationship quality), Rogak & Connor (2018) found that BDSM practitioners reported an average score that put them in the non-distressed category.

Furthermore, male and female participants' scores did not differ, nor did those who identified as having a dominant/top versus submissive/bottom role. The researchers also explored the subscales of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. They found that BDSM practitioners scored closer to the non-distressed range than the distressed range for both relationship satisfaction (how satisfied people are with their relationships) and relationship cohesion (the degree to which couple members participate in activities together). These findings help to dispel the common stereotype that BDSM is not beneficial to a healthy relationship. Consensual BDSM does not necessarily impair relationship functioning or undermine relationship happiness.

In-depth analysis of personality traits and attachment Style

Using a questionnaire and the Big Five Personality scale, research by Wismeijer and Marcel (2013) suggested that people who engaged in BDSM were, on average, equal to or more well-adjusted to the control group of non-BDSM participants. The BDSM group reported higher scores of extraversion, lower scores of neuroticism, and lower scores of agreeableness. Concerning attachment styles, BDSM participants reported lower levels of insecure attachment styles than those with no BDSM experience (although this only held for female participants). The research also found that those engaged in BDSM appeared to have had slightly better mental health than the control group.  The researchers also examined attachment styles between Dominants and submissives. Those who identified as Dominants reported having lower neuroticism levels and lower levels of attachment anxiety. In comparison, those who identified as submissive had higher agreeableness levels and higher levels of attachment anxiety. 

However, there are certain aspects to keep in mind when discussing this study. The BDSM group did not have significantly better scores than the control group; everyone in the BDSM group was selected from one website based in the Netherlands, so it is doubtful that this sample represents the BDSM community as a whole. This study only focused on select roles (Doms, switches, & subs), even though other distinctive roles could have been discussed.  Questionnaires can also be problematic due to self-reporting, possible inability to interpret the question(s) being asked, and the social desirability bias where people will give socially acceptable answers to appear more favorable to the group. Finally, as Brown et al. (2019) note, these studies (e.g., Connolly, 2006; Richters, 2008; Wismeijer & Marcel, 2013) reported no substantial discrepancies in attachment styles between BDSM sub-groups and the controls used; thus, the authors conclude that the attachment hypotheses for BDSM are relatively weak.  


References

Brink, S. T., Coppens, V., Huys, W., & Morrens, M. (2020). The Psychology of Kink: A Survey Study into the Relationships of Trauma and Attachment Style with BDSM Interests. Sexuality Research and Social Policy. 10.1007/s13178-020-00438-w  

Brown, A., Barker, E. D., & Rahman, Q. (2019). A Systematic Scoping Review of the Prevalence, Etiological, Psychological, and Interpersonal Factors Associated with BDSM. The Journal of Sex Research, 57(6), 781–811. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2019.1665619 

Connolly, P. H. (2006). Psychological Functioning of Bondage/Domination/Sado-Masochism (BDSM) Practitioners. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 18(1), 79–120. https://doi.org/10.1300/j056v18n01_05 

Doukas, A. M., D'Andrea, W. M., Gregory, W. E., Joachim, B., Lee, K. A., Robinson, G., Freed, S. J., Khedari-DePierro, V., Pfeffer, K. A., Todman, M., & Siegle, G. J. (2019). Hurts so good: Pain as an emotion regulation strategy. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000656

Gosselin, C., & Wilson, G. D. (1980). Sexual Variations: Fetishism, Sadomasochism, and Transvestism. New York: Simon & Schuster.  

Kelsey, K., Stiles, B. L., Spiller, L., & Diekhoff, G. M. (2013). Assessment of therapists' attitudes towards BDSM. Psychology & Sexuality, 4, 255–267.

Kort, J. (2015). Shades of Play: Trauma Reenactment Versus Trauma Play. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/understanding-the-erotic-code/201502/shades-play-trauma-reenactment-versus-trauma-play 

Moser, C. (2008). When Is an Unusual Sexual Interest a Mental Disorder? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(3), 323–325. 10.1007/s10508-008-9436-8 

Moser, C., & Levitt, E. E. (1987). An exploratory‐descriptive study of a sadomasochistically oriented sample. Journal of Sex Research, 23(3), 322–337. 10.1080/00224498709551370 

Richters, J., Visser, R. O. D., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. (2008). Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in Bondage and Discipline, "Sadomasochism" or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5(7), 1660–1668. 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00795.x

Ritchie, A., & Barker, M. (2005). Explorations in feminist participant-led research: Conducting focus group discussion with polyamorous women. Psychology of Women Section Review, 7(2) pp. 47–57. 

Rogak, H. M., & Connor, J. J. (2018). Practice of consensual BDSM and relationship satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy.

Taylor, G. W., & Ussher, J. M. (2001). Making Sense of S&M: A Discourse Analytic Account. Sexualities, 4(3), 293–314. 10.1177/136346001004003002

Wismeijer, A. A., & Assen, M. A. V. (2013). Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(8), 1943–1952. 10.1111/jsm.12192

Cover photo by Pixabay


Liked this article? Share


You might also like

Based on what others are reading


Explore