Research Recap: Does BDSM Lead to Better Sex and Relationships?

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Two men smiling while wearing fetish masks

The answer to this question might seem obvious to those of us in happy, BDSM relationships. But what does science say? A new study explores whether BDSM helps or hurts sexual and relationship satisfaction as well as relationship closeness. Here’s what you need to know. 

What was the study?

Academics in the fields of public health and psychology in Norway conducted a study to answer three questions related to BDSM: 

  1. How prevalent are BDSM and role-play?
  2. What are the demographics of people who partake in BDSM?
  3. How are BDSM and role-play associated with sexual and relationship satisfaction and relationship closeness?

How was the research conducted? 

In 2020, the study authors invited 11,685 people in Norway to take an online survey. These people were chosen at random from a much larger pool of people who were part of a country-wide Gallup Panel. Of those invited, 4,148 people responded. As compared to the general population, respondents were more educated, more of them were men, and more of them were 30–44 years old. 

What are the study’s shortcomings?

The survey questions left a lot of room for interpretation by the respondents, which makes it hard to mine any definitive insights from the study. For example, relationship satisfaction was assessed with one question (“All things considered, how satisfied are you with your current relationship?”) with a simple 7-point response scale ranging from “not at all satisfied” to “completely satisfied.” No specific examples of what relationship satisfaction entails were provided. Sexual satisfaction was determined with the same type of question and a 5-point response scale. The study found no link between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction, which contradicts the scientific consensus and reveals the study’s limitations.

The survey’s kink-related questions and responses were equally weak. It asked the following (verbatim):

  • Could you see yourself being sexually stimulated by ritual games connected to dominance and submission?
  • Could you see yourself being sexually stimulated by using consensual dominance/submission pain?
  • What have you tried, or want to try, during sex: Role-play?
  • What have you tried, or want to try, during sex: BDSM (sadomasochism, bondage, dominance, and submission)?

These questions are flawed for multiple reasons. First, “ritual games” is not defined, so it’s unclear what respondents thought this involved. Second, it’s not clear how the first two questions are different. It seems plausible that ritual D/s games could involve pain. Similarly, the last two questions overlap, as role-play falls under the BDSM umbrella. Finally, the last two questions are double-barreled, meaning they ask two questions in one—what have you actually done and what do you want to do? Questions like this are typically a no-no in survey design because they can yield different answers. Due to the poorly written questions, it’s safe to assume that respondents were confused by them. It seems likely that the study lost out on the opinion of a large number of sexually adventurous participants as a result.

What were the findings?

There aren’t many interesting facts to glean from this study. Approximately one-third of respondents (34 percent) expressed interest or had experience in one or more of the BDSM behaviors the study asked about. The 11 percent of respondents who had  “role-play” experience and the nearly 10 percent with “BDSM” experience reported greater sexual satisfaction than the ones who didn’t have these experiences. Participants who expressed an interest in role-play but had not experienced it were more likely to report lower sexual satisfaction. As we noted above, none of these BDSM variables affected relationship satisfaction in a statistically significant way. 

Regarding demographics, the study corroborated some well-known basics that LGBT and younger populations are more often into BDSM. The study did not find a gender difference in BDSM interest. This contrasts with other studies that have shown that men are more likely to be into BDSM.

What’s the main takeaway?

More than one in three survey respondents expressed interest in BDSM—another reminder that kinksters are far from rare. There also seemed to be strong evidence of a positive link between acting out one’s fantasies and being sexually satisfied. 

However, the strange survey phrasing and the study’s unique finding that sexual and relationship satisfaction are uncorrelated suggest that we should take some of the data with a grain of salt. Though it’s great to see more research about BDSM, the study missed out on deeper insights. 

Interested in learning more about BDSM research? Check out our other Research Recaps!

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