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Study provides new insights into the biological mechanisms associated with BDSM

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New research published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine — the first of its kind — has shed light on the biological effects of experiencing a BDSM interaction.

The findings provide preliminary evidence that power exchanges between consensual partners result in measurable changes in biomarkers related to reward and stress.

“When starting medicine, I already knew my interests lay in psychiatry and sexuality in particular,” said Elise Wuyts, a psychiatrist in training at the University of Antwerp and the corresponding author of the new study.

“The opportunity to help lessen stigma surrounding BDSM, which is widely-practiced and yet poorly understood, was something I could not turn down. The fact that this kind of study had never been done before made it even more fascinating.”

In the study, 35 BDSM couples recruited through the website FetLife visited a sex club, where they were instructed to “play” with their partner for 30 to 90 minutes. The participants provided blood samples immediately before, immediately after, and 15 minutes after their play session. A separate group of 27 individuals not involved in BDSM visited a sports club and also provided three blood samples.

The blood samples were then analyzed to measure various hormone levels.

The researchers found that levels of cortisol increased in submissive BDSM partners — but not dominant partners — as a result of the play. The findings “confirm our hypothesis that a BDSM interaction seems to elicit a stress response from the body,” the researchers said.

Among dominant partners, engaging in more power play was associated with greater increases in endocannabinoid levels. In submissive partners, however, different levels of power play were not associated with differences in any of the hormones. But the presence of pain play was associated with higher levels the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol in submissive partners.

“It is a clear indication that a BDSM interaction in general, and pain experience within this interaction specifically, elicits a biological pleasure response in the submissive party. Dominants, on the other hand, seem to derive more pleasure from the aspect of power play and the control they have over the submissive person,” the researchers explained.

“Even though the idea of including power imbalances and pain in (sexual) intimacy is something many people struggle with, enjoying these practices has a biological basis and could for instance be compared to the pleasurable high that long-distance runners experience,” Wuyts told PsyPost.

“Because this is a pilot study, it is only scratching the surface of what can be said about the biology of BDSM. This is only one study of one BDSM sample population in Belgium. It would be interesting to see if the results can be reproduced with other cultures or larger sample sizes.”

“The study we’ve conducted on exploring the biology of BDSM still has a lot of data left unexplored, so we’re hopeful more interesting results will come from it,” Wuyts said.

The study, “Between Pleasure and Pain: A Pilot Study on the Biological Mechanisms Associated With BDSM Interactions in Dominants and Submissives“, was authored by Elise Wuyts, Nele De Neef, Violette Coppens, Erik Fransen, Eline Schellens, Maarten Van Der Pol, and Manuel Morrens.

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