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Sadomasochism without Sex? Exploring the Parallels between BDSM and Extreme Rituals

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32
Journal of Positive Sexuality, Vol. 1, November 2015
© 2015 Journal of Positive Sexuality-Center for Positive Sexuality
Sadomasochism without Sex?
Exploring the Parallels between
BDSM and Extreme Rituals1
Brad J. Sagarin, Ellen M. Lee, and Kathryn
R. Klement
Northern Illinois University
Introduction
BDSM (Bondage & Discipline, Dominance
& Submission, Sadism & Masochism) is
often defined solely as kinky sex. BDSM
practitioners recognize, however, that
BDSM can encompass more than just
sexuality. In SM 101, for example, Jay
of BDSM
includes both sexual and non-sexual
motivations:
The knowing use of psychological
dominance and submission, and/or
physical bondage, and/or pain,
and/or related practices in a safe,
legal, consensual manner in order for
the participants to experience erotic
arousal and/or personal growth. (p.
10)
Researchers have also begun recognizing
non-sexual aspects of BDSM, with
Newmahr (2010) conceptualizing BDSM as
1 We thank the leadership and members of
the Arizona Power Exchange and the
leadership and attendees of the Southwest
Leather Conference, the Leather Levi
Weekend, and Thunder in the Mountains for
making these studies possible. These studies
were generously supported by grants from
Butchmanns, Inc., CLAW Corp., the
Community-Academic Consortium for
Research on Alternative Sexualities
(CARAS), and the Society for the Scientific
Study of Sexuality (SSSS).
serious leisure (akin to mountain climbing
and other activities that require investment,
skill, and dedication to perform), Baumeister
(1997) theorizing that masochism provides a
method of temporarily escaping the burdens
of selfhood, and Pitagora and Ophelian (in
press) identifying therapeutic benefits of
BDSM. Likewise, Hutson (2014) reviewed
research on why we pursue unpleasant
experiences, drawing parallels between the
motivations for masochism and the
motivations for a number of non-sexual
activities such as eating chili peppers and
riding roller coasters (Rozin et al., 2013),
and climbing mountains (Loewenstein,
1999). Hutson also notes that sometimes we
choose unpleasant activities over pleasant
alternatives (e.g., an ice hotel versus a
Marriot) in order to build our experiential
CV (Keinan & Kivetz, 2011). We should
note that many of these ideas, although
compelling, still need empirical validation.
These non-sexual conceptualizations of
BDSM suggest parallels with another type
of intense physical activity: extreme rituals.
Extreme rituals (e.g., body piercing,
firewalking) have been documented
historically (Catlin, 1867) and are widely
practiced today (Fischer et al., 2014). As
with BDSM, extreme rituals require skill
and dedication to perform safely. Also as
with BDSM, extreme rituals likely facilitate
escape from the self, given the trances that
some rituals are reported to produce (Pfaff
& Simons, 1973; Xygalatas, 2014). Finally,
it seems likely that some people participate
in extreme rituals such as firewalking for the
social and psychological benefits they get
from being able to tell others (and
themselves) that they have done so. Thus,
people appear to pursue BDSM and extreme
rituals, in part, for similar reasons, and they
appear to anticipate similar benefits from
both.
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Journal of Positive Sexuality, Vol. 1, November 2015
© 2015 Journal of Positive Sexuality-Center for Positive Sexuality
Parallels between BDSM and Extreme
Rituals
Over the past several years, our research
team has investigated the physiological and
psychological effects of consensual BDSM
activities and extreme rituals (see Table 1).
Across these studies, certain patterns have
begun to emerge. These patterns suggest that
the parallels between BDSM and extreme
rituals extend beyond the motivations and
anticipated benefits of the activities to the
role-specific effects of the activities. In this
paper, we explore these parallels. Of
necessity, we only briefly summarize the
specifics of each study. Readers interested in
the details are referred to the papers cited in
Appendix 1.
The first parallel involves stress, particularly
the disconnect between physiological and
psychological stress observed in BDSM
bottoms and in pierced ritual participants.
We measured physiological stress using the
hormone cortisol (assessed via saliva
sample). Not surprisingly, given the physical
pain and lack of control often involved, both
BDSM bottoms and pierced ritual
participants showed increases in cortisol
from before to during the activities. At the
same time, however, BDSM bottoms and
pierced ritual participants reported decreases
in the psychological experience of stress.
We suspect this disconnect between the
physiological and the psychological might
be indicative of an altered state of
consciousness achieved by BDSM bottoms
and pierced ritual participants (see
Xygalatas et al., 2013, for a similar
disconnect regarding measured and
experienced heart rate among firewalkers).
BDSM tops and non-pierced ritual
participants (ritual leaders, drummers,
piercers, observers, etc.), in contrast,
typically showed no change in cortisol and
reported decreases in psychological stress.
This reduction in psychological stress in
BDSM tops and non-pierced ritual
participants suggests that it may not be
necessary for all participants to experience
the same level of pain or intensity as
bottoms or pierced individuals to
psychologically benefit from the activity.
The second parallel involves altered states of
consciousness. Anecdotally, both BDSM
practitioners and ritual participants report
that the activities sometimes induce altered
states of consciousness (e.g., topspace and
subspace in BDSM tops and bottoms;
trances in ritual participants). We assessed
two altered states: flow (Csikszentmihalyi,
1991) and transient hypofrontality (Dietrich,
2003), which we believed might be the
states described as topspace and subspace,
respectively. Flow is a highly pleasurable
and satisfying mental state involving intense
absorption and optimal performance on an
activity such as sports or music. In our
studies, BDSM tops, ritual piercers, and
those supporting a specific pierced ritual
participant reported the highest levels of
flow, particularly on the optimal
performance facets of flow. Likewise,
BDSM bottoms and non-piercer ritual
participants (pierced participants, ritual
leaders, drummers, observers, etc., but not
piercers) showed decrements in performance
on the cognitive Stroop test (MacLeod,
1991), suggesting temporary impairment of
consistent with subspace/transient
hypofrontality. It is notable that BDSM tops
and ritual piercers showed no evidence of
cognitive impairment, suggesting that they
retained the cognitive capability to perform
the technically precise actions required for
their roles.
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Journal of Positive Sexuality, Vol. 1, November 2015
© 2015 Journal of Positive Sexuality-Center for Positive Sexuality
These results have important implications
for safety within BDSM scenes and extreme
rituals. In particular, the temporary cognitive
impairment shown by BDSM bottoms and
non-piercer ritual participants suggests that
the altered state of consciousness achieved
by these individuals might make recognizing
personal limits more difficult. Fortunately,
evidence from BDSM tops and ritual
piercers suggests that these individuals
retained the concentration and focus
necessary to perform their roles and to
monitor the well-being of their scene
partners and fellow ritual participants.
Furthermore, 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.
Baumeister (1988) explored a similar
question when he linked masochism to other
methods of escaping the self:
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; accidents of habit,
opportunity, and association may
play key causal roles. (p. 54)
The third parallel involves intimacy. We
measured intimacy using the Inclusion of
Other in Self Scale (Aron et al., 1992), in
which respondents indicate their relationship
with another person (their scene partner;
their fellow ritual participants) by selecting
one of seven pairs of increasingly
overlapping circles, one label
and across roles, BDSM practitioners and
ritual participants reported increases in self-
other overlap from before to after their
activities. BDSM scenes and extreme rituals
both appear to foster intimacy between
participants. As with psychological stress,
these findings suggest that experiencing pain
during these activities may not be necessary
to reap personal benefits.
The primary area of distinction we observed
tion of the
activities. After the activities were over, we
asked participants how sexual, how
sadomasochistic, and how spiritual they
found the activities. For BDSM scenes, tops
perceived the scenes as highest in sexuality,
and bottoms perceived the scenes as highest
in sadomasochism. In contrast, ritual
participants perceived the ritual as highest in
spirituality. Future work should investigate
which elements of these activities contribute
to these different conceptualizations.
Conclusion
The topics of BDSM and extreme rituals are
disproportionately understudied within the
scholarly literature and widely
misunderstood by the general public. It is
our hope that this research can help
illuminate the reasons why people choose to
engage in these types of activities and that
this understanding might lead to greater
acceptance. As noted above, people appear
to pursue BDSM and extreme rituals, in
part, for similar reasons, and they appear to
anticipate similar benefits from both. And as
the results of our studies illustrate, BDSM
scenes and extreme rituals appear to have
similar effects on participants. Indeed, even
the primary area of distinction we
observed the conceptualization of the
activities might not represent a universal
difference. As Easton and Hardy (2001)
observe:
Today we are also seeing the
emergence of S/M- often referred to
in this context as "Sex Magic"- as a
spiritual practice. The combination
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Journal of Positive Sexuality, Vol. 1, November 2015
© 2015 Journal of Positive Sexuality-Center for Positive Sexuality
of ritual with S/M, and the use of
strong sensation and sometimes
opening the skin to achieve
transcendent states, have led to a
potent combination of S/M practice
with spiritual seeking. (Easton &
Hardy, 2001, p. 8; see also Easton &
Radical Ecstasy, 2004)
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Appendix 1
Studies of BDSM Scenes and Extreme Rituals
Study Summary Host Measures
Ambler et al.
(under review)
14 BDSM practitioners
randomly assigned to the
top or bottom role for a
scene
Arizona Power
Exchange
Cortisol, testosterone,
IOS, PANAS, self-
reported stress, self-
reported sexual arousal,
Stroop, flow
Klement et al.
(under review)
67 participants in the
-
pull/ball dance ritual
2012 Southwest
Leather Conference
Cortisol, IOS, PANAS,
self-reported stress, self-
reported sexual arousal
Lee et al.
(under review)
83 participants in the
-
pull/ball dance ritual
2014 Southwest
Leather Conference
Cortisol, IOS, PANAS,
self-reported stress, self-
reported sexual arousal,
Stroop, flow
Lee et al.
(2014)
22 participants in a hook-
pull
2013 Leather Levi
Weekend
IOS, PANAS, self-
reported stress, self-
reported sexual arousal,
flow
Sagarin et al.
(2009) Study 1
13 BDSM practitioners
participating in a scene
Arizona Power
Exchange
Cortisol, testosterone,
IOS
Sagarin et al.
(2009) Study 2
45 BDSM practitioners
participating in a scene
2002 Thunder in
the Mountains
Cortisol, testosterone,
IOS
Note. The Arizona Power Exchange is a Phoenix-based BDSM organization. The Southwest Leather Conference is
an annual BDSM/Leather conference held in Phoenix, AZ. The Leather Levi Weekend is an annual weekend event
held in Northern California. Thunder in the Mountains is an annual BDSM/Leather conference held in Denver, CO.
Cortisol and testosterone are hormones measured via saliva sampling. The IOS is the Inclusion of Other in Self
Scale (Aron et al., 1992), a measure of intimacy or relationship closeness. The PANAS is the Positive and Negative
Affect Schedule (Watson et al., 1988), a measure of positive emotions (e.g., interested, alert) and negative emotions
(e.g., distressed, upset).
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