The Health Benefits of BDSM

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BDSM is Not a New Sexual Practice

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Mainstream culture often represents BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism) as reckless, dangerous, and unhealthy. Take Fifty Shades of Grey for instance, Christian Grey’s reasons for enjoying kink stem from his childhood abuse. Television crime dramas often portray fetishists as seedy, unethical lawbreakers. It isn't just the media that frames BDSM this way. Prior to the release of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013, participation in fetishism and sadomasochism was actually considered a mental disorder by health professionals.

In recent years, attitudes about kinky sex have shifted. Due to the popularity of stories like Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM has received widespread attention. Pop culture didn’t make kink the latest fad, however. Humans have always had a penchant for adventurous sex. A 2005 Durex Global Sex Survey found 36% of adults admitted to using some form of bondage during lovemaking. Even back in 1956 a Kinsey Institute Study revealed 50% of men and 55% of women enjoyed erotic biting. We may not be having kinky sex much more than we always have, but we’re certainly talking about it more.

Recent studies devoted to understanding BDSM and its effects on the body have shown surprising results. Not only are researchers failing to find evidence of harm BDSM causes, they are discovering it actually has quite a few health benefits.

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Improved Mental Health

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In 2013, the International Society for Sexual Medicine published a study on the Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners. The aim was to measure the mental well-being of kinksters by examining key personality traits such as their attachment styles in relationships, general well-being, and how sensitive they were to rejection compared to those in a control group. Researchers not only discovered the kinksters weren't psychologically damaged but were on average more well adjusted than their vanilla counterparts.

Overall, the BDSM sample felt more secure in their relationships and had an increased sense of well-being. They were more conscientious toward others, more extraverted, more open to trying new experiences, had decreased anxiety, and were less sensitive to others perception. Interestingly, they were also more aware of their own sexual needs but less agreeable. These characteristics go hand-in-hand with one’s ability to effectively express boundaries and desires.

All of these characteristics may be indicators of extensive psychological work done by BDSM lifestylers that positively affects their mental health. This work coupled with their high level of self-awareness enhances personal relationships both inside and outside of the bedroom leading to increased overall happiness.

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Less Stress

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Research has shown BDSM participants enter an altered level of consciousness similar to the meditative state yoga practitioners experience or the marathoner’s “runner's high.” It is commonly known these activities can benefit health by helping lower our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This protects us from a wide range of health ailments including high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, and insulin resistance. Participation in BDSM may have the same effects.

A series of studies from Northern Illinois University showed evidence of this altered state of consciousness associated with BDSM. In one study saliva samples were taken from submissives and dominants during sadomasochistic scenes. The dominant partners showed a decreased level of cortisol after the session concluded.

Cognitive function after painful BDSM sessions were the focus of the second study. Partners receiving pain showed reduced functions in the limbic and prefrontal areas of the brain. These areas are associated with working memory and executive control. Researchers concluded that blood flow to these areas was reduced, resulting in an altered state of consciousness. Many in the BDSM community call this state of being “subspace” for submissive partners and ”topspace” or “flow” for dominants. It is not only enjoyable for the participants, but is often regarded as a spiritual experience.

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Improved Relationships

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In Northern Illinois University’s study on hormonal changes and couple bonding in BDSM, researchers also determined that participating in successful sadomasochistic scenes increases the feeling of connectedness and intimacy with partners.

We also know that doing novel things with romantic partners, rather than the same routine activities, increases intimacy. Brain scans of 53 middle aged married couples revealed sharing novel activities triggers the brain's reward system and floods it with dopamine and other feel-good chemicals. This is similar to what happens in the brain during the beginning stages of a relationship. These are the same chemicals that keep the smile on our faces and butterflies in our tummies when we experience new love.

While this study didn’t specifically include BDSM practices among its exciting and adventurous test activities, they certainly qualify. Just as you can alter your brain chemistry for the better by visiting an amusement park, taking a pottery class, or playing a thrilling new game with a lover, you can also invoke the same chemical changes with BDSM. Roleplaying or adding other adventurous, novel stimulus to your bedroom activities can also bring about an increased feeling of connectedness and overall happiness within a relationship. Research has repeatedly shown happily married couples have better physical and mental health than their less happy counterparts.

Sunny Megatron is the host and executive producer of Sex with Sunny Megatron on Showtime. She is also a lifestyle BDSM practitioner, internationally recognized sexuality and kink educator, and sex/relationship writer.

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