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Book cover?

So I may not have been making much progress with writing lately, but I have optimistically drawn and designed myself a book cover! Feedback welcome. Not quite sure about the font/word placement, or whether pencil drawn words would be more in keeping...

The un-worded image:

Why do people like BDSM?

#BDSM #Psychology #psychiatry #science #whybdsm #SnM #S&M #kink #kinky

I guess it's about time I addressed the elephant in the room.

Why do weirdos like me get turned on by BDSM[1]?

The simple answer is, “Because it’s fun!”

However, I can understand that many people could find the idea of getting restrained, hurt, and ordered around to be terrifying and horrific. They could also perhaps perceive the person doing the restraining and hurting as a little sociopathically deranged[2].

I think the critical thing to appreciate is that BDSM is a game, it’s not meant to be ‘real’. It’s possible that the more realistic it seems, the better the game can be. Just like the best films and TV shows are often the ones that are the most believable and realistic. Watching horror films is considered a socially acceptable and mainstream activity but, when watching these films, viewers are bombarded with unpleasant visual and auditory stimuli. Yet millions of us still pay to see them, perhaps because we get to explore these horrific situations while remaining safe in the knowledge that they’re not really happening to us. BDSM on the other hand provides a more immersive experience, with physical sensations thrown in as well.

While I think of BDSM as exploring a fantasy rather than living out a reality, from what I’ve seen on the interwebs it can sometimes be hard to see where the boundary lies. Also, depending on who you play the game with, it could be a lot more dangerous than going to the cinema.

I have heard a number of psychological theories that frame kinky interests as some kind of learned deficit. For example; an interest in bondage might come from not being wrapped tightly enough as a child, or that getting excited by pain and degradation might be a result of childhood sexual abuse, or even that people who explore kink may be compensating for perceived sexual inadequacy. However, most of these theories seem to be based on little more than the tendencies of certain psychiatrists to make up stuff because they think it sounds good[3]. In fact, a recent study suggested that people who practice BDSM in either dominant or submissive role may be more mentally stable than the average member of the general population[4]. Some of the more up to date literature suggests that many psychologists are now ascribing the attraction of dominance and submission to sexual arousal by hierarchical status[5]; the idea being that our evolutionary ancestors evolved to pursue sex with more dominant individuals who could secure the best food, protect them from predators, etc etc. This idea sounds like it has some merit, but it’s an idea that still makes me a tad uncomfortable as a card carrying lefty who thinks social hierarchies are generally a bad thing, even if I’m happy to play sex games based around them.

I also don’t think this hierarchy idea tells the whole story, so as scientist who also like BDSM I am qualifying myself to make up my own bullshit hypotheses on the subject. They run along these lines:

BDSM practices are not ‘learned dysfunctions’ but are instead nuanced expressions of the powerful dichotomy of fear and excitement that lies at the heart of human sexuality.

The sexualisation of specific BDSM practices is perhaps just due to classical Pavlovian conditioning[6], or a case of ‘Monkey see monkey do’. I know my tastes have evolved with exposure to different images and situations, and when I first used to search for bondage porn on the internet, the more sadomasochistic elements often disturbed me[7]. However, as I became desensitised to the ‘grossness’, I also began to get turned on by the more hard-core fantasies as well.

Apparently the seeds of our sexual interests are planted during childhood. The idea that early sexual abuse conditions people to like BDSM is an extreme version of this conditioning hypothesis, and to some extent it makes sense that a victim of abuse could learn to associate feelings of helplessness etc with arousal. However, I personally have no memory of being sexually abused, (despite going to a primary school run by catholic nuns[8]), and out of all the kinky people I’ve talked about this with none of them have described any childhood abuse (several people have clearly stated that they didn’t experience it).

I’ve also met many girls who said that they only recently got interested in BDSM because it sounded like a fun thing to try out, and it wasn’t something they fantasized about at all during adolescence. I suspect that even the most minor childhood experiences of power exchange can sow the seeds of kink that may then sprout later in life. Thinking back to my own childhood, vague memories surface of playing a game when we got hold of some rope and tied some girls to a tree. After we pretended to hold them hostage for a little while they got bored, escaped and did the same to us (we let them, because fair is fair!). I think we then got told off for playing this game by some adult authority figure, which probably only served to heighten the illicit thrill. Perhaps a mildly violent subtext to cute childhood games is all BDSM fantasies need to take root.

However, we find ourselves with a chicken and egg scenario: was I tying girls to a tree because I was excited by it? Or by doing the tying did I learn to associate that activity with proto-sexual excitement? I don’t really know anything about how kids develop sexual thoughts. Some parenting sites tell me it starts surprisingly early… but, to be honest, I don’t want to think about that too much. However, why should tying a girl to a tree cultivate my erotic development while doing something like homework with a girl do nothing? Kids do homework with each other all the time but I feel safe saying that BDSM interests are a lot more prevalent in the adult population than homework fetishes.

This brings me to my core idea; where the roots of BDSM interests tap into the molten core of what makes our sexuality function. Sex is kind of scary, especially when you’ve not done it before! Even without all of the complex social stigma and bizarre rules that various human cultures have invented to confuse the situation and generally discourage sex as a practice, it can still be fucking scary. Both parties are exposing themselves to another conscious entity over whom they have no real control[9]. Also, for coordination purposes, it often falls to one party to lead. This makes trust and power exchange a key part of consensual sex, even if the sex is gentle and tender, and you don’t bite their nipples even once.

When first thinking about exploring sex with another individual, nervous fear and erotic excitement are intertwined, perhaps along with more complex ideas of surrender or taking control. It seems quite natural that we can learn to associate arousal with these abstractions, and when the idea of sex in of itself becomes more mundane, BDSM may help reconnect to this sense or erotic trepidation.

It also wouldn’t surprise me if the human neuronal wiring for sexual arousal is intertwined with our ‘fight or flight’ circuitry. Social behaviour in mammals is far from universal but sex has to be. Otherwise that particular species of mammal won’t be around for long. Back when our solitary hairy ancestor encountered our other solitary hairy ancestor in a dark forest, its brain’s first two thoughts were probably; ‘Do I run away from it?’ or ‘Do I fight it?’... Thankfully for us, this creature then thought; ‘I don’t think I need to run away from it... or fight it... perhaps I should have sex with it?’ Our DNA has been through millions of generations of these nervous animal encounters. It might make sense for the ‘Fight?/Flight?/Sex?’ decision processes to be linked on a biochemical level. Those animals that thought “Fight?-no, Flight?-no… meh whatever,” missed a lot of opportunities to make offspring, and the horny critters that kept considering “Sex? Sex? Sex?” in the absence of a fight or flight stimulus might have wasted a lot of time humping inanimate objects. (Until that is they got eaten by a bigger critter who thought: “Fight?-Yes! Nom.”)

It would be unsurprising to me then if the childhood games that most feed our sexual development often involve a careful balance of fear, aggression and excitement[10]. More complex fantasies might then evolve out of these games, no doubt fed by all the crude and bizarre sexualisation we encounter in advertising and elsewhere, and thus we end up with one kinky adult.

Also if you’re aggressively told as a kid that doing certain things is really bad, or you find your sexual feelings stigmatised, that probably feeds into it as well. However, I’m not really sure how to fit this idea into the rest of my vague theories, so I’m just going to tack it on the end here and leave you with a conclusion! (You can tell it’s a conclusion because I’m underlining ‘conclusion’ at the top, like we do in real science sometimes.)


BDSM is a fun game. At least it is fun for many people who have learnt to find it fun somehow. There may be a lot of non-traumatic ways one can learn to find it fun. I’ve even put forward some muddled reasoning as to how the simplistic blueprints may be in our very DNA. DNA may also have nothing to do with it, but this wouldn’t change the fact that BDSM is fun[11]. Maybe you should try it sometime! (Or don’t. That’s fine too.)


[1]And from my highly biased sample of the New York dating population there seems to be quite a lot of weirdos like me.
[2] For me personally, the enjoyment I get from dominating someone does not come from inflicting pain in of itself, but from being given both the power and the trust to inflict that pain.
[3] Someone let Freud get away with it once, and look what happened.
[4] Of course there are always going to be significant selection biases to contend with when surveying people about stigmatized sexual behaviour. I don’t claim that this study is correct, just that it exists. Reference is: Wismeijer & Van Assen, “Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners” - The Journal of Sexual Medicine (2013) Volume 10, Issue 8, pages 1943–1952
[5] Jozifkova, E. “Consensual Sadomasochistic Sex (BDSM): The Roots, the Risks, and the Distinctions Between BDSM and Violence” Current Psychiatry Reports (2013) 15:392
[6] In case you're unfamiliar with Pavlov’s work, in his most famous experiment he would ring a bell every time he gave a dog food and eventually the dog would reflexively salivate at the sound of the bell even when there was no food around.
[7] To begin with, I would fantasise more about being tied up myself. I just preferred looking at attractive girls getting tied up and dominated by other girls (and so keep weird looking male genitalia out of it!).
[8] I’ve noticed a lot of kinky Catholics out there though. Just sayin!
[9] I don’t really want to discuss gender differences here, but it’s not hard to see why the gender that tends to be smaller and generally more exposed to harm during sex might have an increased likelihood of associating submission and arousal.
[10] Maybe the upfront kids who just play ‘Doctor’s and Nurses’ (i.e. poking bits of each other’s anatomy to see what happens) go on to develop vanilla tastes, while the more shy kids who disguise their interests behind power games and tying other kids to trees turn into kinksters.
[11] Regardless of this many people may find the very idea of BDSM offensive for potentially legitimate reasons, but if you are one of those people maybe you shouldn’t be on this page...