Baffled by BDSM? Science Uncovers Its Hidden Health Benefits

Studies explain the seemingly counterintuitive nature of kinky sex.

BDSM: it’s either you get it or you don’t.

And it appears those who do get it are increasing in numbers, at least in the United States.

A 2015 survey on the prevalence of BDSM practices in different countries reveals that 70% of Americans are into some form of BDSM, the highest in the world.

BDSM, which stands for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, and sadomasochism, is a broad category of erotic practices typically considered outside the conventions of vanilla sex. Most commonly, but not exclusively, it involves domination and submission roleplay between consenting adults.

However, despite this percentage and the fact that BDSM—once a sexual taboo—has penetrated the mainstream (Secretary, and that one trilogy that shall not be named), the practice continues to be vilified.

One big reason could be a long-persisting perception of BDSM as somehow a result of mental, emotional, or childhood issues, a myth that dates back from Freud and also comes from a bastardized interpretation of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) and its entries on sexual sadism and masochism.

Why study BDSM? And how?

Because inaccurate and downright harmful information about BDSM continues to spread, some professionals have dedicated their entire academic careers to studying it. Psychologists have been studying the practice for years, and neuroscientists are also beginning to enter the fray.

So far, thanks to science, their efforts to provide a better understanding of BDSM have been fruitful.

There’s one thing to understand about BDSM research, however: akin to broad categories such as “books” or “sports,” BDSM is an encompassing term embracing many different types of kinky sexual behavior.

That is why scientists don’t usually set out studying BDSM as a whole, but rather its many specific subtypes, from the most popular ones like dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, and bondage, to some of the most obscure niche kinks.

Science uncovers hidden benefits

A convincing answer to why some people are into BDSM is the complex cognitive reaction that kinksters gain from it, particularly the tranquil, serene feeling that some report to experience after a session, which has been compared to a runner’s high.

One study on BDSM investigated exactly that.

James Amber of Northern Illinois University enlisted 14 BDSM-practicing participants in a small study and randomly divided the group into two: one that administered pain and one that received pain.

In addition to their roles within the study, both groups were also tasked to answer a cognitive test to examine their mental functioning. With this research, the researcher aimed to discover how blood moved into the brain after experiencing erotic pain, and how this affected a person’s immediate mental state after engaging in BDSM activities.

What Amber found was that people who are into “receiving pain” reached a meditative state due to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) of their brains performing at sub-optimal level. The DLPFC is the part of the brain that’s responsible for working memory, directed attention, and temporal integration.

When these brain functions are temporarily compromised, it could lead to “less abstract thinking, access to memory, self-reflective conscious, and cognitive function,” which in turn leads to an “altered state of consciousness,” according to Medical Daily. This state is achieved because of the lack of blood flow to the area of the brain responsible for these functions.

There’s also another advantage to BDSM that might be surprising to those still baffled by its appeal, and this goes beyond its sensory benefits.

According to a 2009 study, people who engaged in mutually satisfying BDSM sessions “showed reductions in physiological stress (cortisol) and increases in relationship closeness.” This means that successful BDSM sessions–those that are mentally and sexually fulfilling for both parties—benefited its participants physically and interpersonally.

BDSM and personality

Lastly, here is something for the naysayers who continue to believe harmful untruths about the BDSM community.

A study in 2006 by Pamela Connolly revealed that those who regularly engaged in BDSM were found to be less psychologically sadistic and psychologically masochistic than their vanilla counterparts.

Another study, conducted in 2013, concluded that BDSM practitioners showed higher levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experiences, and subjective well-being. These and many other studies prove that BDSM practitioners are just as psychologically healthy—and possibly even more—than those who don’t engage in it.