Research Recap: Is BDSM a Sexual Orientation?

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Is BDSM an innate orientation or a hobby? This is a common question in the kink community, and now a recent study attempts to explore both sides of the controversy. Here’s what you need to know.

What was the study?

Two professors examined and summarized recent academic work related to BDSM as a sexual orientation and as a type of leisure to help health care practitioners understand both perspectives. The results were published in the June 2019 issue of Current Sexual Health Reports.

What is leisure? 

Believe it or not, there is a branch of science devoted to studying leisure, and over the past several decades, one scientist in particular has attempted to classify types of leisure activities on a spectrum ranging from casual to serious. Casual leisure is likely what comes to mind when most people think of leisure: recreational hobbies that are fun, but not all consuming. Serious leisure is, well, serious. It involves investing a significant amount of time and energy to gain knowledge of and experience with an activity and hone skills related to it.

What is sexual orientation?

The most widely accepted definition of sexual orientation is the gender one is sexually attracted to. However, some recent scholarship has attempted to broaden this definition to include other “lifelong patterns of sexual attraction and arousal” that are similarly fixed, often from a young age, and cause mental distress if they’re unable to be fulfilled.

Which category does BDSM fall under?

The short answer is we don’t know. Some studies indicate that BDSM shares many of the same characteristics as leisure, such as pleasure, self-expression, personal freedom, stress release, escape, etc. Unsurprisingly, BDSM tends to fall on the serious end of the leisure spectrum, especially for people on the left side of the slash. Other studies show that the majority of people who practice BDSM recognize their interest in it before the age of 25, which supports the idea that it’s a sexual orientation, as more typical aspects of sexual orientation develop before this age as well.

Of course, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Some people engage in BDSM occasionally, and for them, it might be classified as casual leisure. Others live and breathe the lifestyle and may consider BDSM to be a sexual orientation or, at the very least, serious leisure. There’s also a strong case to be made for BDSM being both leisure and a sexual orientation. Both are informed by myriad factors, such as biology, psychology, politics, economics, culture, and religion, to name a few, and sometimes serious leisure can overlap heavily with identity making it difficult to tease the two apart. The serious leisure category also accommodates people who don’t gain sexual satisfaction from BDSM.  

How does stigma play into this?

The study authors note that regardless of how BDSM is categorized, it’s still stigmatized, even by health care providers. One danger of classifying BDSM as leisure is that people are perhaps more likely to dismiss it as an insignificant part of someone’s life than if it’s classified as an orientation. On the other hand, calling BDSM a sexual orientation implies that it cannot be changed or controlled, which becomes politically complicated. Arguments against discrimination that are based on the idea that one’s orientation is fixed are at odds with recent studies showing that sexual orientation is at least somewhat fluid for many people. In the end, more research is needed to reach any definitive conclusions about how to classify BDSM, but for now, understanding both leisure and orientation perspectives can help health care providers better understand kinky clients.

What’s our take on BDSM?

After reading and contemplating this study, Mimsy landed pretty much where she’s always landed on this question: for her, BDSM is serious leisure. She spends a lot of time on it, it’s a fulfilling escape, and it makes her happy. However, it does not feel as innate as other aspects of her sexual orientation, and it wasn’t something she fully realized she was interested in until well into her 30s. She often refers to BDSM as a strong preference, meaning if push came to shove, she could have vanilla sex and get off on it, but it would be boring and unfulfilling compared to BDSM.

Though Vagabond views his own relationship to BDSM as serious leisure, he’s convinced that it’s better defined as a sexual orientation for some kinksters. Some of Vagabond’s acquaintances, especially fetishists like spankos, have kinks that are so central to their sexuality that they supersede the gender they’re attracted to. Additionally, given that as many as one-third of BDSM practitioners face discrimination due to their kinks, Vagabond thinks there may be social and political benefits to framing our interests as more than leisure.

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