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Two Cheers for the New BDSM Study, with a Dash of Caution about Hierarchies of Sexuality


Cinching_Corset_in_BDSMI am in sympathy with any attempt to vindicate the perception of people who are into unorthodox sexual practices. The enforcement of bourgeois standards of “normalcy” in sexuality is a good example of cultural bio-power, characteristic of the kind of social control exercised in both democratic and totalitarian societies. The fact that even the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists “paraphilia,” or unusual sexual fixation, as a disorder, is problematic, since there is obviously no objective standard with which to differentiate fixation on breasts or vaginas, and fixation on trees or fire hoses.

So the recent study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, which suggests that BDSM practitioners are more mentally healthy than their vanilla counterparts, is promising in dismantling the mainstream perception that “kinky” is the same as “abnormal.”

Reuters Health characterizes the study’s significance in this way:

The results “seem contradictory to what the general public and professionals believe,” said Andreas Wismeijer of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who published the study along with Marcel van Assen.
Previous studies had suggested that BDSM activities were linked to mental disorders and vulnerability to abuse, according to the researchers, who published their results in The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
But in the new study, researchers found people who like BDSM, which stands for bondage-discipline, dominance-submission and sadism-masochism, were well adjusted and reported slightly better wellbeing than people who don’t take part in those activities.

We should be careful, however, in declaring that any consensual sexual preference is “more healthy” than any other. The answer to oppressive hierarchies is not inversion of those hierarchies, but deconstruction and dismantling of them. As much as it may satisfy BDSM practitioners to be called more healthy than non-BDSM folks, my suspicion is that this would be both a hasty conclusion from limited research, and a perpetuation of a flawed practice of mental-cultural hierarchy.

True sexual mental health consists in being comfortable with one’s desires, no matter what they are, provided such desires account for the desires and limits of others. This ideal of mental health –self-comfort and autonomy, along with empathy for others– applies to those “obsessed” with missionary, oral, anal, spanking, bondage, whipped cream, or clown fetishism.

The most important implication of the recent study is that the DSM still needs a lot of re-examination. The psychiatric profession, for all the good it does, is often the epitome of the expression “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

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About Thad McGregor

Pseudonym for a writer who has been around the global block, leaving a pile of lovers, political victories, and empty beer bottles in his wake.