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The Science of Power Play
Freud described BDSM as “the most significant of all perversions,” and for a long time the psychological community agreed. However, there has been recent research into BDSM that shows a different story, and since then power play is becoming more normalized. From 50 Shades of Grey, to Madonna’s song “erotica” where she takes on the dominant role there are numerous examples of BDSM becoming part of our popular culture. BDSM involves power play, and can include anything from spanking, to nipple twisting, to candle waxing to wrapping yourself in a carpet and getting stepped on.
How popular is BDSM?
Hugely! Christian Joyal and colleagues surveyed 1500 people and found that 65% of women and 53% of men had fantasies about sexual submission and 47% of women and 60% of men had fantasies about sexual domination. Although not all of these individuals acted on their desires, this shows that it is VERY common to fantasize about having or releasing sexual power. The gender difference isn’t huge, where men are slightly more likely to be dominant and women are slightly more likely to be submissive, but many folks are into both (otherwise known as a switch).
Research shows that people that are into BDSM use it as an outlet to deal with our crazy world, and most are psychologically healthy. For example, it was found that those that engage in BDSM experience less depression, anxiety, PTSD and paranoia than those that don’t engage in BDSM. In terms of personality, those in the scene are more extraverted and open to new experiences, but are less agreeable than those that aren’t into BDSM. This may mean that a lot of people fantasize about BDSM, but those that are more open and able to communicate about what they want are able to build a community and find a space to experiment.
Ok so why does power play turn us on?
There was an interesting study looking at people’s arousal patterns when watching different types of porn. It was found that those that reported being into BDSM experienced arousal when watching pornography that included spanking and power play and were less aroused by vanilla porn, whereas those that reported not being into BDSM were less aroused by power play porn and more into vanilla porn. This seems kind of obvious, but it shows that for the most part we know what turns us on, and engage in the type of sex we are into.
Those that are participating in a BDSM scene experience a different state of consciousness. In BDSM there are tops, who enjoy being dominant and having the power, and bottoms who enjoy giving up their power to be dominated by tops. Tops reported feeling very focused during an act, with an increase in attention and decrease in self-consciousness. Bottoms reported entering a state where they experienced reductions in pain, a lack of time awareness, feelings of floating and inner peace. Also, the Bottoms did poorly on cognitive tests post play, which aligns with the way one’s brain would feel after getting out of a trance. Both Tops and Bottoms reported experiencing a decrease in stress after a scene, although they had heightened cortisol levels, which is often associated with higher stress.
Interestingly, the parts of your brain that are activated when you are aroused and when you are scared or disgusted are similar. These overlapping pathways can help explain why some people experience arousal through pain or degradation, however it is still a mystery why some people are more into BDSM than others.
What about the whole ra pe fantasy thing?
One way that couples play with BDSM can be with experimenting with consensual “ra pe” scenes. Upon first glance this may seem problematic, because in actual fact ra pe can be the worst most painful and traumatic experience of one's life. However, often for survivors of ra pe, allowing them to relive the experience where they actually have power and control is very helpful in their healing (Hammers, 2014). “Ra pe” fantasy and actual sexual assault could not be more different, as one is consensual and fun, whereas another is a criminal violation and ab use of power and control.
What are the ingredients for healthy BDSM experiences?
Healthy communication between partners throughout the whole scene. Most couples use safe word or signal when they need to slow down or stop the scene. Some partners also have other ways to show if they want more or less stimulation throughout a scene, such as saying what number they are from 1-10 in terms of stimulation.
Take it slow, for newbies and have multiple check ins throughout the scene.
Have the sub layout exactly what they are comfortable with before the scene, understanding that they are really the one in power and the Dom is helping them facilitate their fantasy.
Help the sub feel cared for after a scene in whichever way works for them. Often discussing what their aftercare is before a scene can be helpful. Ice cream? Cuddles? A moment alone?
BDSM can be a great way to connect with a partner, and if done safely and consensually can be really sexy and fun; but if BDSM really isn't your thing- don't fret.. there is always tacos.