Is BDSM Always About Sex?

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Kink and BDSM. Holding a flogger and dressed in leather.

Most of the time that you see BDSM discussed or mentioned in the popular media, it is referenced as a sexual activity. In other words, it’s largely seen as something that people do for sexual arousal or pleasure. But is BDSM always sexual? Not necessarily.

As I’ve discussed on the blog in the past, people sometimes engage in BDSM activities for non-sexual fulfillment. One example would be ‘pup play,’ a form of roleplay in which an adult human adopts the appearance and characteristics of a dog. This often involves a dominant-submissive dynamic, such that the ‘pup’ plays a submissive role to a dominant ‘owner’ or ‘master.’ Research on people who engage in this activity finds that, while it often leads to sexual gratification, it can also be a form of play, leisure, and relaxation in and of itself.

But what proportion of the time is BDSM in general sexual versus non-sexual? That question was the subject of a recent paper published in the journal Sexualities. This study involved a survey of 1,642 pansexual BDSM practitioners (a group that often refers to themselves as ‘kinksters’) who were asked about the relationship they see between BDSM and sex in their own lives.

I should mention that there was a lot that went into this study (including specific BDSM roles, the intersection of BDSM and consensual non-monogamy, etc.) and it’s well worth a read in its entirety; however, for purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the portion that looks at the connection between sex and BDSM.

Participants were asked about their reasons for engaging in BDSM, including whether they do it at least sometimes for purposes of sexual arousal and pleasure. Overall, 92% reported the sex was one of their motivations for engaging in this activity; however, those who were the least involved in the BDSM scene were a little more likely to report this motive than those who were the most involved (94% vs. 88%, respectively).

Participants were also asked about the amount of time that BDSM activities are sexual vs. non-sexual for them. Again, the answer depended on how involved they were in the BDSM scene: 

· For those with low involvement, 83% said that BDSM is mostly sexual, 15% said it was mostly non-sexual, and 2% said it’s equally sexual and non-sexual. 

· For those with moderate involvement, 73% said that BDSM is mostly sexual, 24% said it was mostly non-sexual, and 3% said it’s equally sexual and non-sexual.

· For those with high involvement, 61% said that BDSM is mostly sexual, 35% said it was mostly non-sexual, and 4% said it’s equally sexual and non-sexual. 

In other words, while a majority of all participants said that BDSM is sexual more often than not, the more involved people were in the BDSM scene, the more likely they were to practice non-sexual forms of BDSM.

Why is that? The author of this study believes it is because “the scene encourages kinksters to view BDSM as less sexual and to filter for the kinds of people who view BDSM less sexually.” It is important to note that BDSM playspaces often have formal rules and informal norms that de-sexualize them to some degree. 

This may be due, in part, to a desire by some to remove the “dirty” connotations that are associated with sex in general and show that BDSM in and of itself has social value. However, it may also be because, over time, people engaged in BDSM learn to draw other personal meaning from it.  

Of course, there’s also a possible selection effect: maybe those who get most involved in the scene saw BDSM as less sexual to begin with. For example, these individuals may have always drawn more personal meaning from BDSM. It’s also worth mentioning that it is possible to be asexual and into BDSM—and research has shown that some asexual people form non-sexual relationships through BDSM participation.  So if people who are drawn to BDSM for more non-sexual reasons are disproportionately likely to get highly involved in the scene, this could help to explain the effect. 

It is important to reiterate that the findings from this study come specifically from the pansexual BDSM scene, which is not the only BDSM scene that exists. It is therefore important to explore whether the same pattern would emerge, for example, in the gay and lesbian BDSM scenes. 

So while we shouldn’t generalize broadly to all BDSM practitioners from these findings, the key takeaway is really that while BDSM participation seems to have sexual elements more often not, BDSM is a non-sexual experience for at least some individuals. As a result, future research on BDSM would benefit from more consideration of the factors that draw people to it and how this may evolve and change over time. 

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for more from the blog or here to listen to the podcast. Follow Sex and Psychology on Facebook, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

To learn more about this research, see: Fennell, J. (2020). It’s complicated: Sex and the BDSM subculture. Sexualities.

Image Source: 123RF/Oleksandr Lypa

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