Whips, rope and handcuffs aren't exactly what come to mind when most of us think of a stress-free day. But research indicates that BDSM practice, typically thought to be all about pain, dominance and physical stress, has health advantages beyond sexual satisfaction — including reducing stress.
As The Science of Us recently reported, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests that BDSM practitioners may have less anxiety and enjoy more security in their relationships than their vanilla counterparts. Researchers surveyed 902 BDSM practitioners and 434 non-participants, and found that those who enjoyed BDSM-related activities had shared certain psychological characteristics, like being "less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious and less rejection-sensitive" than the control (or vanilla) group. In short, BDSM practitioners' sex lives made them a whole lot less stressed.
What's so relaxing? There's evidence that BDSM practices might affect a person's mental state before and after their scenes. A commonly reported "relaxing" experience for submissive practitioners is that of "subspace," an altered state of consciousness accompanied by feelings of peacefulness and time distortion, comparable to a runner's high. Similarly, dominants reported a "topspace," an endorphin-filled exhilaration accompanied by heightened feelings of control and accomplishment.
A study conducted last year by Northern Illinois University recruited 14 "switches," or regular BDSM practitioners who enjoy both submissive and dominant roles. After participating in a BDSM scene, the subjects were tested for mental acuity and memory function. The results? Subs experienced a significant reduction in their cognitive scores, suggesting a mental dimming or "altered state" that accompanies BDSM play, particularly when blood rushes away from certain areas of the brain.
"Topspace for me is the ultimate stress-buster — I experience it as a strange combination of total tranquility, incredible focus, and a brain rush of power because it's that one place in the real world where I am completely in control," Gloria Brame, a sex therapist specializing in BDSM and author of Sex for Grown-Ups, told Mic.
That foggy, relaxing feeling is likely due to hormonal changes. A 2008 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior took saliva samples from participants engaging in BDSM play to measure their stress levels before, during and after play. Both subs and doms had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after scenes than before. The most surprising finding was that even during a particularly physically stressful BDSM scene, subs still reported low psychological stress.
"All of these effects — reductions in stress, increases in intimacy and the facilitation of pleasurable altered states of consciousness — point to the positive impact that BDSM activities can have on relationships," wrote Brad Sagarin, lead researcher of the study, in the Guardian Monday. "What makes this arrangement work is sexual gift-giving, the willingness of each person to provide for their partner the acts that turn their partner on."
More and more people are feeling the benefit. Importantly, if you're not already kink-inclined in the bedroom, chances are BDSM scenes won't have that same relaxing effect on you (so don't skip the yoga mat and head for the ropes just yet). BDSM activities themselves aren't the source of calm and stress relief; rather it's the personalities of individuals who are drawn to BDSM communities. As Brame explained to Mic, BDSM practitioners are "wired this way."
But more people are wired that way than we think. With the upcoming release of the 50 Shades of Grey film and the imminent arrival of Valentine's Day (definitely not a coincidence), the mainstream cultural conversation surrounding kinky sex has reached an all-time high. For good reason: Past studies have shown that more than half of all men and women (64.6% female and 53.3% male) has fantasized about being dominated sexually.
Additionally, researchers at the Kinsey Institute have estimated that 5% to 10% of the U.S. population has engaged in some form of sadomasochism for sexual pleasure on at least one occasion. What was once categorized as a "psychopathological" behavior in the science world and seen as taboo by society at large is actually a commonplace sexual activity that has many healthy and happy participants.
It's all about creating a safe space. It's no wonder that some practitioners report feeling relaxed both after scenes and within their romantic relationships — it's a community that has lived by the three main tenets of being "safe, sane and consensual" for years. The foundations of the BDSM community, such as safewords, aftercare and constant communication, lend themselves to secure, mutually satisfying experiences that often bring couples closer together.
"Because doing BDSM means communicating with your partner, usually at an intense level because you are negotiating guidelines and discussing fantasies in depth, it gives you a greater sense of trust in your partner, and that leads to a greater sense of intimacy with them, and that, ultimately, is very psychologically balancing," Brame told Mic.
To truly comprehend these extra psychological benefits is to understand that BDSM is something positive for those who practice it. It's not merely a sexual act; according to fetish sex expert and therapist Galen Fous, for some percentage of the population, BDSM practice "is a lifelong, inherent, innate sexual identity, on the same level that straight, bi, gay or lesbian is an authentic sexual identity," he told Mic. In other words, it's a behavior and identity that brings meaning and fulfillment for those who practice it.
What's healthier than that?