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Research Recap: Do Kinky College Students Value Consent?

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Woman holding sign that says "Let's talk about sex consent baby..." with "sex" crossed out indicating an emphasis on consent-seeking behavior

It’s an understatement to say that consent is a big deal among people in the BDSM community. Whether online, at a big event, or in a class at the local BDSM dungeon, teachers and event leaders never go near the sexy stuff until they’ve covered consent and risk awareness. There have been lots of studies demonstrating that BDSM community members have good consent practices relative to the general population, but what about all the kinksters who haven’t yet entered the scene? How common is kink in the general public, and do they behave like BDSM community members with respect to consent-seeking behavior and safety? Caroline C. Boyd-Rogers and her fellow researchers conducted a study called “BDSM Proclivity Among College Students” to find out. The results were published in Springer Nature in 2022.

What was the study?

The research team from the University of Iowa’s Psychological Brain Sciences department administered a survey to 544 college students that included a survey measure called the “BDSM Proclivity Scale.” The questions in this scale avoided BDSM jargon and instead focused on measuring respondents’ interest in and experience with power exchange, which was framed as “taking control” and being “sexually dominant”—or having a trusted partner do so—with an emphasis on consent. The survey also included other measures that asked about sexual beliefs and practices, such as consent-seeking behaviors. Notably, a rape myth questionnaire was included that measures “rape-supportive” beliefs, such as the idea that a drunk woman is partially responsible for her rape. The researchers compared all the data to look for trends, e.g., was someone who scored high in the “BDSM interest” question more or less likely to score high on another measure. Data about the following items were collected and correlated:

  • Demographic info including age, race, ethnicity, and gender
  • The Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance – Short Form (IRMA-SF)
  • A sociosexual attitude measure, which asks about preferences related to casual sex and non-monogamy
  • The BDSM Proclivity Scale
  • Number of sexual partners
  • A consent-seeking behavior assessment

What were the findings?

In line with other research, this survey found that BDSM proclivities among college students are very common, with over 72.4 percent of respondents showing significant interest in and 44.5 percent having BDSM experience. Women slightly outweighed men in both categories. Unsurprisingly, having a larger number of sexual partners and sociosexual attitudes both correlated with BDSM interest and experience.

The most dramatic findings were a small correlation between BDSM experiences (not attitudes) and rape-supportive attitudes and no significant correlation between BDSM experience and reported consent-seeking behavior. In other words, the students who are into riskier sex are not more likely to seek consent and are possibly more likely to believe sexist rape myths. Other studies demonstrate the strong emphasis on consent among BDSM community members, so this study suggests that consent might be something people learn to value more once they’re part of the community. In conjunction with recent studies highlighting the prevalence of “rough sex” among college students, this finding raises questions about what kind of sexual activities students are engaging in and where their education about them comes from.

What WERE the study’s shortcomings?

As scientists and science fans almost always do, we hope this study can be replicated on a much wider scale. Doing so would make it possible to compare different demographics, compare students to older adults, and compare people in the BDSM community directly with people who do not identify with the BDSM world but score high on the BDSM Proclivity Scale.

Additionally, the survey specifically asked questions about D/s (dominance and submission), which doesn’t cover the entire BDSM community. Because the questions focused on power exchange, they left out kinksters who enjoy other aspects of BDSM that don’t involve D/s, such as role-play, sadomasochism, and certain fetishes.

What’s the main takeaway?

This innovative study begins to explore the question, “are BDSM practitioners drawn toward consent culture, or does the BDSM community effectively teach consent culture?” The connection between BDSM experiences among college students and attitudes more apologetic of rape is disappointing, to say the least. That said, this does track with our observation of ostensibly vanilla online spaces such as Reddit’s “r/sex.” The internet is continuously flooded with apparent sex ed dropouts with bad attitudes and safety practices. While no panacea, it seems extremely likely that the BDSM community does its best to transmit some healthier attitudes about sex onto its members.

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

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Bound Together
One couple’s insights into BDSM