SCIENCE

The Science Of BDSM: Why Your Brain Loves Pain

DARK NET: Scientists have only just scratched the surface of the neuroscience and psychology behind BDSM and kinky sex

SCIENCE
(Illustration: Diana Quach/Vocativ)
Jan 11, 2016 at 4:37 PM ET

When it comes to BDSM — that’s bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism — there’s a lot of mystique, a lot of taboo and lot of porn. But there’s not a whole lot of science. And that’s a shame, because even by conservative estimates roughly 2 percent of the population is involved in BDSM. That’s about the same as the sexually active gay population.

BDSM often involves kinky sex with ropes, whips and other devices that could, if misused, cause serious damage. One partner usually assumes the dominant “top” role while the other takes up the submissive “bottom” role. By all accounts, humans have been incorporating bondage, pain and power exchange into their sexual practices for thousands of years. But scientists historically dismissed BDSM as a psychological condition, rather than a sexual preference. Freud decried it as abnormal (along with most sex), and in 1987 “the lifestyle,” a slang term sometimes used to describe BDSM practice, even received its own official psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM III.

Only now scientists are beginning to rethink BDSM. There’s even a Science of BDSM Research Team at Northern Illinois University dedicated to studying how our bodies and minds respond to unconventional stimuli. This comes as BDSM communities are finding new ways to connect and sexually interact using deep web forums, Internet of Things sensors, social media and messaging apps as revealed in DARK NET. The new eight-part docuseries — developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 11 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.

Rihanna once sang “the pain is my pleasure, cause nothing could measure.” Some scientists decided to see how true that is, and began to measure lots of things in BDSM adherentsfrom brain activity to cortisol levels. Here’s the current science behind BDSM:

The Non-Sexual Aspects Of BDSM

The first surprise when scientists finally sat down to study BDSM was the discovery that it can be non-sexual. That’s not to say BDSM doesn’t usually involve sex, but that the desire for pain play—and, indeed, submission and domination—is not necessarily all about getting off. In fact, one 2014 study found that BDSM enthusiasts were often interested in “the lifestyle” for the same reasons that other people eat chili peppers, ride roller coasters or climb mountains.

“The question of why someone comes to prefer masochism over mountain climbing may be comparable to the question of why someone comes to prefer skydiving over mountain climbing,” Roy Baumeister, PhD, of Case Western University wrote back in 1988. “Accidents of habit, opportunity and association may play key causal roles.”

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A recent study by the Science of BDSM Research Team compared the psychology and physiology of BDSM enthusiasts with participants in painful, non-sexual rituals like walking on fire or extreme body piercing. They found marked similarities. “Our data suggest that BDSM scenes and extreme rituals might represent multiple routes to achieving the same altered states of consciousness in essence, different paths to the same place,” they note.

For their study, researchers interviewed subjects engaged in extreme rituals and BDSM, and they took samples of cortisol (a stress hormone) from their saliva. The results suggest that both tops and bottoms experience altered states of consciousness. While they each reported lower levels of stress, participants often experienced increases in their cortisol levels (which should indicate more stress, not less). And in cognitive tests after the fact, bottoms performed quite poorly, suggesting that their altered mental states during extreme rituals are especially pronounced.

A lot of this fits nicely with what BDSM adherents describe as “subspace”—a sort of trance that bottoms experience while engaged in painful or degrading activities. Beyond that, it suggests that some BDSM enthusiasts engage in the practice for meditative or escapist purposes, much as those who engage in extreme rituals often do so with the express goal of entering a trance.

Love, Cortisol and Testosterone

Speaking of cortisol, prior studies have shown that increases in cortisol levels are not only associated with stress, but also observed, “in situations with high ego-involvement, low predictability, low controllability and novelty“—in other words, consensual BDSM.

Playing off of that observation, scientists recently observed a large BDSM party, and then conducted interviews with 58 participants and measured their cortisol and testosterone levels. They wanted to figure out whether BDSM increased intimacy between partners, while also mapping out how some of the most significant hormones in our bodies respond to unconventional, kinky sex.

They found that bottoms had higher cortisol levels during their scenes, while tops did not. That’s somewhat expected—bottoms are usually experiencing pain, which should, accordingly, stress out their bodies and increase their levels of stress hormone. And after a mutually enjoyable encounter, both tops and bottoms showed decreased cortisol levels.

The surprise came when scientists looked as testosterone—the hormone they theorized was involved in dominance. Bottoms, not tops, had the highest testosterone levels. There are a few reasons why this may be the case. First of all, some anecdotal reports suggest people who are dominant in the rest of their lives prefer to bottom in BDSM, which would explain why dominant, testosterone-fueled people might end up on the receiving end of a BDSM relationship. Another possible explanation is that bottoms are effectively in control of any encounter. Beforehand, the bottom negotiates the rules of the encounter and, during, every bottom knows that he or she can use a “safeword” to stop the fun. That’s a bit of a power trip, and it may influence their testosterone levels. Because in the fantasy, they’re submissive but, in reality, the bottom is in fact dominant.

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In any case, the researchers concluded that BDSM causes at least some unexpected hormone chemistry in the human body—as well as some unexpected feelings. Participants whose BDSM scenes went well both reported higher levels of relationships closeness after the fact.

Whether or not that has to do with the hormones, it has interesting implications for the sexual and psychological health of people who bind and whip each other to get off. “The increases in relationship closeness combined with the displays of caring and affection observed as part of the SM activities offer support for the modern view that SM, when performed consensually, has the potential to increase intimacy between participants,” the paper concludes.

This Is Your Brain On BDSM

And then there’s the human brain—the black box of BDSM. While there are dozens of psychology studies out there on BDSM, barely any neurological research has been conducted on people engaged in kinky sex (and it’s not hard to imagine why—they don’t have MRIs in most dungeons).

One of the only studies to directly address the neuroscience behind BDSM was published nearly a decade ago in the journal Biological Psychology. The researchers used fMRI, a technique that highlights active portions of the brain by tracking blood oxygen levels, and asked subjects who were into BDSM (as well as a group of more vanilla subjects) to look at erotic and disgust-inducing pictures. Among both groups of participants, several brain structures (the occipital cortex, hippocampus, thalamus and amygdala) all appeared to be involved in processing both disgust-inducing and erotic photographs.

The implication is clear: There may be a common neurologic pathway between the things that make us feel afraid or disgusted and the things that make us feel sexually aroused.

“Many limbic and extralimbic structures are similarly activated during sexual pleasure and disgust,” the researchers write. “This review of the neuroimaging literature reveals that the processing of pleasant and unpleasant emotions shares several of the involved brain structures.”

Beyond that, it’s entirely unclear why chains and whips turn some people on, yet they simply frighten other people. For now at least, the Christian Grey’s of the world still stump scientists.

“Different people respond differently to BDSM,” says Brad Sagarin, a professor of psychology with the Science of BDSM Research Team. “But this kind of study can’t say for sure why people are into BDSM. There are differences in terms of brain activation, but it’s not 100 percent clear what that is.”

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