BDSM elicits positive stress response in practitioners

Antwerp scientists break new ground with biological research into BDSM mechanisms

People who engage in BDSM experience positive stress responses which can be compared to what’s known as the 'runner's high'. These and other findings were revealed in groundbreaking research carried out by Dr Elise Wuyts and Prof. Manuel Morrens (UAntwerp).

The acronym BDSM refers to a broad range of concepts including bondage and discipline (BD), dominance and submission (DS), and sadism and masochism (SM). Thanks in part to the Fifty Shades of Grey books and films, BDSM has become somewhat more mainstream and less of a taboo in recent years. In 2017, a UAntwerp survey among 1028 Flemish respondents revealed that almost half (46.8%) of them had engaged in a BDSM activity at least once.

"BDSM is a very broad concept and can be interpreted in many different ways, but it usually revolves around power dynamics and elements of pain," says Prof. Manuel Morrens. "It is often linked to sex, though this is not necessarily the case in practice. Despite its strong association with pain, BDSM is typically regarded by practitioners as a pleasurable or exciting activity. However, for a long time, engaging in BDSM was classified as a sexual deviation, and even a disorder. In fact, the psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM-5) still describes BDSM as a 'diagnosis', which means practitioners often still face prejudice."

BDSM

Collaboration with BDSM club
To date, very little scientific research has explored the realms of BDSM. This is something Prof. Morrens and Dr Elise Wuyts, both researchers at the University of Antwerp, aimed to change. Together, they set out to examine the biological mechanisms behind BDSM. Morrens: "This really is the first study of its kind in the world. For our research, we worked closely with Club 78, a BDSM association in Ham in the province of Limburg."

The results of this research will soon be published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. "The aim of this study is to break the taboo even further," Morrens says.

During the study the researchers divided the participants into two test groups: submissive BDSM practitioners and their dominant counterparts. Both groups were screened for stress and pleasure hormones in their blood both before and after play. The results clearly showed that, despite its strong link with pain, BDSM is actually experienced as a pleasurable or exciting activity.

Still considered a 'diagnosis'
"In the submissive participants, we measured a significant increase in both stress and pleasure hormones in the bloodstream," explains Wuyts. "In fact, the pleasure response was clearly linked to the stress response. This confirms our hypothesis that BDSM can elicit a positive stress response which leads to the sensation of pleasure reported by practitioners. We might compare it to the high that long-distance runners feel."

In the dominant test group, the pleasure response was mainly linked to power play, which revolves around a power imbalance, and less so to pain play, in which pain is inflicted on the submissive participant.