Research Recap: How Racist Is the BDSM Community?

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A photo depicting a dejected Black man sitting at a table by himself while a group of people laugh in the background.

If you’ve ever been to a kink event, you probably know that the BDSM community isn’t winning any medals for BIPOC representation. A 2021 study attempts to explore some of the issues at the intersection of race and kink, particularly racial discrimination, fetishization, and inclusivity in the BDSM community. Here’s what you need to know. 

What was the study?

Academics in the fields of psychology and sociology at Northern Illinois University conducted a study to test for differences in racial and ethnic discrimination between people who do and do not identify as people of color (POC) in the BDSM community. They had three hypotheses:

  1. POC would report that their race and ethnicity were more important to their BDSM role than non-POC.
  2. POC would report higher rates of discrimination and fetishization.
  3. POC would rate BDSM events as being less inclusive. 

How was the research conducted? 

In 2018 and 2019, the study authors recruited 148 online participants via the Science of BDSM website and 250 BDSM conference goers from six conferences across the U.S. Participants completed a 16-item survey, which included demographic questions as well as the following questions (verbatim):

  • How important to you is race/ethnicity as part of your BDSM role identification?
  • How inclusive do you believe BDSM clubs to be for all races/ethnicities?
  • Have you ever felt discriminated against at BDSM events (e.g., clubs or conferences) because of your race/ethnicity?
  • Have you ever felt fetishized at BDSM events (e.g., clubs or conferences) because of your race/ethnicity?
  • What, if anything, promotes racial/ethnic inclusivity within the BDSM community?
  • What, if anything, inhibits racial/ethnic inclusivity within the BDSM community?

What were the findings?

The majority of respondents (78 percent) did not identify as POC, while about 20 percent did. Unsurprisingly, POC reported that their race or ethnicity was more integral to their BDSM role than non-POC. POC also found BDSM spaces to be less inclusive, with nearly 46 percent of POC respondents experiencing discrimination and 63 percent experiencing fetishization at a BDSM event due to their race or ethnicity. Overall, POC were 16 times more likely than non-POC to experience discrimination in the BDSM community and 17 times more likely to feel fetishized.

Qualitative survey responses from POC revealed that more than 27 percent felt ignored or excluded within the BDSM community. While only 2.5 percent experienced overt racism, such as being called a racial slur, nearly 19 percent experienced hostility within the scene in the form of microaggressions, racial jokes, and the like. About 11 percent of POC respondents felt fetishized by people looking for race play, and more than 18 percent felt fetishized by other players’ race-specific fantasies. Over 12 percent of POC experienced fetishization due to racial stereotypes (e.g., Black people are naturally dominant).

Regarding inclusivity at BDSM events, more than 26 percent of POC respondents noted lack of diversity as a problem, and nearly 20 percent cited lack of recognition and awareness as an issue. Relatedly, over 17 percent of POC respondents called out non-inclusive thinking. Additional problems respondents mentioned included racism and hostility; segregation of racial groups at events; problematic leadership, policies, and procedures; and lack of welcoming atmosphere and attitudes. 

When it came to promoting inclusivity at BDSM events, nearly 38 percent of POC respondents noted that greater representation of POC in community leadership would help as would visual diversity in marketing materials. About 26 percent of respondents commented that recognition and awareness of the problems POC face in the community would foster inclusivity. Nearly 14 percent of POC respondents felt that POC affinity groups and other POC-specific spaces at BDSM events would be beneficial. Other respondents mentioned having inclusive policies and procedures at events and cultivating a welcoming atmosphere.

What are the study’s shortcomings?

The main limitation with this study is that all of the researchers involved in it are White, which they acknowledge may have prevented some POC at conferences from participating. Also, because the researchers were present while people took the survey at conferences, some participants may have felt that their anonymity was jeopardized despite reassurances to the contrary. To help get more POC respondents in future efforts, the researchers noted that oversampling POC might be beneficial. A larger POC sample size would also enable researchers to disaggregate results by race and ethnicity to a greater extent. 

What’s the main takeaway?

For anyone who’s attended pansexual kink events, which tend to be overwhelmingly White, the findings from this study won’t come as a surprise. But that doesn’t make the results any less meaningful. The BDSM community can and should make a better effort to be inclusive and welcoming to POC at local events and national conferences. The information in this study, particularly the ideas about how to address discrimination and fetishization, should be taken seriously by existing and aspiring leaders in the BDSM community. Kinksters have no problem embracing diversity when it comes to gender and sexuality; there’s no excuse not to welcome and strive toward racial and ethnic diversity as well.

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

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