Hormonal Changes and Couple Bonding in Consensual Sadomasochistic Activity

Abstract

In two studies, 58 sadomasochistic (SM) practitioners provided physiological measures of salivary cortisol and testosterone (hormones associated with stress and dominance, respectively) and psychological measures of relationship closeness before and after participating in SM activities. Observed activities included bondage, sensory deprivation, a variety of painful and pleasurable stimulation, verbal and non-verbal communication, and expressions of caring and affection. During the scenes, cortisol rose significantly for participants who were bound, receiving stimulation, and following orders, but not for participants who were providing stimulation, orders, or structure. Female participants who were bound, receiving stimulation, and following orders also showed increases in testosterone during the scenes. Thereafter, participants who reported that their SM activities went well showed reductions in physiological stress (cortisol) and increases in relationship closeness. Among participants who reported that their SM activities went poorly, some showed decreases in relationship closeness whereas others showed increases. The increases in relationship closeness combined with the displays of caring and affection observed as part of the SM activities offer support for the modern view that SM, when performed consensually, has the potential to increase intimacy between participants.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Time was analyzed as a series of two-level factors (baseline vs. during-scene, during-scene vs. post-scene) instead of a three-level factor (baseline, during-scene, and post-scene) due to missing data. Treating time as a three-level factor would require either a method of imputation or the use of listwise deletion. Imputation seemed unwarranted, as standard imputation methods such as mean imputation lead to biased results and more sophisticated imputation methods such as Multiple Imputation require much larger sample sizes (West & Sagarin, 2000). Listwise deletion, on the other hand, would have reduced the sample size for some statistical tests.

  2. 2.

    One of the 12 women who performed the bottom role had indicated on her pre-scene questionnaire that she would be performing the top role. On her post-scene questionnaire, she explained that she had, “planned on topping & wrote that on 1st form. [But] ended up meeting two friends and bottoming to them.” This participant was included as a top in the analyses of baseline data and included as a bottom in the analyses of during-scene and post-scene data. Alternative analyses that (a) include this participant exclusively as a top, (b) include this participant exclusively as a bottom, and (c) exclude this participant, do not substantively change the results.

  3. 3.

    A series of additional analyses were run to examine the effects of relationship duration on relationship closeness. These analyses revealed a main effect of relationship duration (prior relationships were associated with significantly greater degrees of relationship closeness), but relationship duration did not moderate the effects of SM activities on relationship closeness. Instead, across all levels of relationship duration, participants reported increases in relationship closeness from before to after their scenes.

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Acknowledgements

Some of the findings reported here were presented at the May 2002 meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association in Chicago, Illinois and the February 2003 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Los Angeles, California. We thank the Board of Directors and Membership of the Arizona Power Exchange, and the Director, Staff, and Attendees of Thunder in the Mountains for their invaluable help in running the studies. We also thank the Board of Directors and Membership of the Leather Rose and the Membership of Kinky by Association for providing comments and feedback on the studies and pilot samples for the assay procedure used in Study 2. Finally, we thank Doug Granger and Jeremy Trexel for their advice regarding the physiological measures, and Evelyn Comber, Rich Dockter, and Doug Henderson for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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Correspondence to Brad J. Sagarin.

Appendix

Appendix

Pre-scene questionnaire:

  1. (1)

    Gender (choices: female, male, other).

  2. (2)

    Age.

  3. (3)

    What prescription or over-the-counter drugs have you taken in the last 24 h?

  4. (4)

    Typical BDSM roles (choices: top, bottom, switch, dominant, submissive, sadist, masochist).

  5. (5)

    What role will you be playing in the upcoming scene?

  6. (6)

    What is your relationship to the other person or people in the scene?

  7. (7)

    How much have you played with this person or people before tonight?

  8. (8)

    How much are you anticipating tonight’s scene? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “not at all” and 7 indicating “very much”.)

  9. (9)

    How comfortable do you feel about the upcoming scene? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “very uncomfortable” and 7 indicating “very comfortable”.)

  10. (10)

    To what extent would you use the word “we” to describe your relationship with the other person or people in the scene? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “I definitely would not use the word ‘we’ to describe my relationship” and 7 indicating “I definitely would use the word ‘we’ to describe my relationship”.)

  11. (11)

    Which of the following pairs of circles best represents your relationship with the other person or people in the scene? (from a choice of five increasingly overlapping pairs.)

Post-scene questionnaire:

  1. (1)

    Please describe your activities during the scene.

  2. (2)

    How do you feel about the scene? Did it go well? Did it go poorly?

  3. (3)

    How comfortable did you feel about the scene? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “very uncomfortable” and 7 indicating “very comfortable”.)

  4. (4)

    How sexually aroused were you during tonight’s scene? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “no arousal” and 7 indicating “orgasm”.)

  5. (5)

    Do you anticipate having sex tonight? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “definitely not” and 7 indicating “definitely”.)

  6. (6)

    What activity was most sexually arousing for you?

  7. (7)

    How intense was tonight’s scene? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “not at all intense” and 7 indicating “very intense”.)

  8. (8)

    What activity was most intense for you?

  9. (9)

    How much of an afterglow buzz do you currently feel? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “none” and 7 indicating “lots”.)

  10. (10)

    Now that the scene is over, to what extent would you use the word “we” to describe your relationship with the other person or people in the scene? (on a 1–7 scale, with 1 indicating “I definitely would not use the word ‘we’ to describe my relationship” and 7 indicating “I definitely would use the word ‘we’ to describe my relationship”.)

  11. (11)

    Which of the following pairs of circles best represents your relationship with the other person or people in the scene? (from a choice of five increasingly overlapping pairs.)

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Sagarin, B.J., Cutler, B., Cutler, N. et al. Hormonal Changes and Couple Bonding in Consensual Sadomasochistic Activity. Arch Sex Behav 38, 186–200 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-008-9374-5

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Keywords

  • Sadomasochism
  • Cortisol
  • Testosterone
  • Sexuality