According to Freud, people who were into BDSM clearly needed treatment, and conveniently enough he and his team were qualified to provide it. Psychology and psychiatry have come a long way since Freud’s time, and the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) no longer includes participants who practice consensual BDSM that does not lead to distress to either party that’s involved. What happened between Freud’s observations and today’s arguments that people who practice BDSM are far from sick psychologically was simply research into the subject. No matter what kind of dating people are into, be it transgender dating, sleeping with college seniors or divorced middle-aged fathers of three, research unambiguously shows that plenty of people who’re into BDSM exhibit healthier psychological traits than the general population.

Psychological Research Since the Turn of the Century

In 2006, Pamela Connolly compared BDSM practitioners to a normative sample on 10 psychological disorders and found surprising results. She found that people who were into BDSM had lower levels of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological sadism, psychological masochism, borderline pathology, and paranoia. Participants in her study showed equal levels of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and higher levels of dissociation and narcissism.

In 2013, Andreas Wismeijer and Marcel van Assen compared BDSM practitioners to non-BDSM practitioners on major personality traits, and again found interesting results. Compared to non-BDSM practitioners, people into BDSM showed higher levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and subjective well-being. BDSM practitioners also exhibited lower levels of neuroticism and sensitivity to rejection. On the other hand, they showed lower levels of agreeableness than people who were not into BDSM.

Reported Psychological Effects of BDSM

Research by Ambler et al.; Sagarin, Cutler, Cutler, Lawler-Sagarin, & Matuszewich, 2009, showed that both bottoms and tops reported higher levels of relationship closeness, and lower levels of psychological stress from before to after their BDSM scenes. On the other hand, bottoms exhibited increased levels of cortisol, which indicated physiological stress, which is contradictory to their reported results.

To further explore this contradiction, researchers studied switches, or people who sometimes take the top role, and sometimes take the bottom role. The results revealed that both tops and bottoms entered into altered states of consciousness, but those states were different. Tops entered into a state of consciousness called ‘flow’, which is associated with focused attention, decreased levels of self-consciousness, and optimal performance of a task. On the other hand, bottoms entered a state called ‘transient hypofrontality’ characterized by reductions in pain, feelings of floating, peacefulness, feelings of living in the here and now, and time distortions.

Psychologists strongly believe that it is these altered states of consciousness that attract so many people into the BDSM world. BDSM clearly brings them closer together, and it can lead to more stable lives psychologically. Practitioners are clearly more sociable and assertive, and open to new experiences in life both sexually and in other spheres. Needless to say, not everyone who practices BDSM is going to be a psychologically healthy person, but one thing is for sure – Freud was quite wrong!