Psychology of BDSM

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When we're looking at the psychology of BDSM, we're looking at the mental functions and at the behaviours of those who practise BDSM. We're trying to see a bigger picture and understand the principles, motivations, wants, and needs which are involved. And to get a complete picture, we're trying to do this from three different perspectives:

  1. From the perspective of an individual involved in BDSM,
  2. From the perspective of a couple who make BDSM part of their shared relationship, and
  3. From the perspective of a group whose members all come together to share an interest in BDSM.

By understanding all of these things we place ourselves in a position where we can analyse when BDSM is providing what its participants need; and we can then see when it isn't, work out why, and possibly devise ways to fix it.

Ultimately we do this because we are aiming to ensure the happiness of the people who engage in BDSM. We want their particular style or styles of BDSM to provide the maximum positive benefit with the minimum negative effects, and it is through the understanding and application of psychology that we have the control to do this.

These people I am talking about may be us ourselves.

When we look at the behaviour of someone who does BDSM, one of our first questions needs to be: why do they do BDSM? What want or need does it satisfy? When we see someone eat food, we know that they are hungry and the act of eating satisfies the hunger. When someone looks for a flogging, what want or need is being met by the flogging?

Now, my example of eating food in the previous paragraph was simplistic because people sometimes eat food when they're not hungry, such as in certain social situations as a way of being polite, or because eating---particular sweet food and cakes---can be a psychological mechanism (e.g., "comfort food"), or because their body physiologically recognises a need for something, such as salt, and they develop a craving for that even though they might not be hungry in the more general sense.

In the same way that why we eat is not always simple, why people do BDSM is also often not simple. There may be one or more motivations involved, some of which may not be obvious at all. Many of these motivations are listed in the panel on the right. They can include catharsis, creating an opportunity to bond with a partner through a shared intense experience, a way of expressing artistic creativity, and many others.

This means that part of any effort to understand BDSM necessarily requires a serious attempt to catalogue the range of different reasons why people do BDSM.

When we see someone engage in BDSM activities or in a BDSM relationship with a partner, these play out in terms of what they do, of the things they do with their partner, and of the things which are done to them. However, not every activity associated with BDSM has the potential to satisfy every BDSM motivation. Catharsis, for example, by definition requires an intense experience and activities like wax play or mummification may not provide that intensity. Learning the range of possible activities and how they map to the different wants and needs is also an important part in understanding the psychology of BDSM.

So, after we've catalogued the reasons why people do BDSM, we can then catalogue the ranges of physical activities and psychological activities they engage in and then work out how these activities map to motivations and vice versa.

For example, BDSM sometimes provides an outlet for an urge to be artistic or creative. This can be through:

  1. Decorative bondage, where a partner is not only restrained with rope, but the rope and the knots are laid out in a pleasing or decorative pattern,
  2. Wax play, where molten wax is dripped from a candle onto a partner. When coloured wax is used, patterns can be created where the molten wax runs over the skin, cools, and sets,
  3. Hand crafting implements which will be used in subsequent scenes, such as floggers with decorative handle,
  4. Patterns of lines and marks from caning, flogging, and other forms of impact play,
  5. Decorative scars left from cutting or branding,
  6. And so on.

And, finally, understanding the psychology of BDSM requires us to look for what underlies all of BDSM. It's not sufficient to merely catalogue the entire range of BDSM behaviours and attitudes. We need to look for what it all has in common. What do people who practise intense pain play have in common with people who like suspension bondage or service? What to tops and bottoms have in common with masters and slaves?

We need to find and understand these universal fundamentals such as trust, communication, penetration, and engagement, and we need to see how they are applicable to all BDSM and all BDSM relationships.