The Psychology of Kink: A Cross-Sectional Survey Study Investigating the Roles of Sensation Seeking and Coping Style in BDSM-Related Interests

Abstract

Despite the gaining popularity in mainstream media of the phenomenon that is BDSM, empirical research on the motives and underlying psychological mechanisms driving BDSM practitioners is scarce. The current study focused on the potential driving roles of sensation seeking and coping styles in BDSM-related interests and behavior. A cross-sectional survey questionnaire was completed by 256 Dutch-speaking BDSM practitioners (110 men, 135 women, 7 gender fluid, 2 genderless, 1 other not specified), 1 missing (this participant did not answer the question regarding gender, but did answer all other survey items) and a matched control group lacking any BDSM interest recruited from the general Belgian population (N = 300; 135 men, 158 women, 4 gender fluid, 3 genderless). The questionnaire consisted of several items surveying different BDSM identities and interest levels of BDSM-related activities, an adapted version of the Dutch Sensation Seeking Scale, and items querying seven coping styles. Compared to controls, BDSM practitioners reported significantly higher levels of sensation seeking for all dimensions (experience seeking, thrill seeking, and distraction seeking), as well as the use of more active coping skills such as problem solving and taking action. Gender differentiated which specific coping skills were being used with women seeking out more emotional support and comfort and reaching out more for help and advice in both the BDSM and control group, and men taking more action and seeking distraction in leisure. About 40% of the practitioners reported using BDSM itself as a coping strategy. Further research is needed to explore the link between coping and sexuality in general, and to other psychological processes that drive BDSM interests in order to destigmatize and normalize consensual BDSM-related activities within the general population.

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Correspondence to Alana Schuerwegen.

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Conflicts of interest

Violette Coppens and Manuel Morrens have received funding for scientific research unrelated to the current project from Johnson & Johnson, Belgium.

Ethical Approval

The study was approved by the ethical committee board of UZA/UA (University Hospital of Antwerp).

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All participants had given informed consent before entering the study.

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Appendices

Appendix 1

Adapted Version of the Dutch Sensation Seeking Scale (Blankers, 2006)

Here are a number of statements that people might use to describe themselves. Read through them carefully. If you agree with a statement or if you think it fits you, click “true.” If you do not agree with a statement or if you think it does not fit you, click “untrue.” It is important to answer all questions. There are no right or wrong answers.

  True Untrue
I tend to start new things without planning ahead   
I like new and exciting experiences, even when they’re scary   
Before I start something new, I always plan it carefully   
I prefer to travel without planning the route beforehand   
I like to do things impulsively   
I like to wind up in new and unpredictable situations   
I like doing things purely because they are exciting   
My interests change regularly   
I like doing things because they are a little scary   
I usually think about what I’m going to do, before I do it   
I’ll try anything once   
I’d like to live the kind of life where I’m constantly moving and travelling, with a lot of change and excitement   
I rarely make time to plan things   
I like to do crazy things sometimes, just for fun   
I like exploring a strange city or neighbourhood by myself, even if I could get lost   
I prefer to have friends who are exciting and unpredictable   
I tend to get so carried away by new and exciting things or ideas that I often don’t think about possible consequence   
I’m an impulsive person   
I like wild and uninhibited parties   

Appendix 2

Queried Coping Styles

The next few questions concern how people deal with problems in their lives. Please indicate if you use these tactics or not. This is not about their efficiency. We only want to know if you use them and how often. (1: I don’t do this; 2: I sometimes do this; 3: I regularly do this; 4: I always do this).

  1 2 3 4
I focus my attention on work or other activities to distract myself from the problem     
I try to come up with possible solutions to change my problematic situation     
I try to find emotional support with others     
I take action to improve my problematic situation     
I do things to distract myself such as going to the cinema, watching TV, reading, daydreaming, sleeping or shopping     
I ask for advice on how to handle the situation     
I try to find comfort and understanding with others     

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Schuerwegen, A., Huys, W., Coppens, V. et al. The Psychology of Kink: A Cross-Sectional Survey Study Investigating the Roles of Sensation Seeking and Coping Style in BDSM-Related Interests. Arch Sex Behav 50, 1197–1206 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01807-7

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Keywords

  • BDSM
  • Psychological mechanisms
  • Sensation seeking
  • Coping
  • Bondage and discipline
  • Sadism and masochism
  • Kink