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Perks, problems, and the people who play: a qualitative exploration of dominant and submissive BDSM roles.

Many bondage-discipline, domination-submission, sadomasochism (BDSM) practitioners identify as primarily dominant or primarily submissive. In the current study, BDSM practitioners with self-identified preferences for dominance or for submission described the traits that they feel make them well suited for their preferred BDSM role, their perceptions of benefits and challenges of BDSM generally, and the benefits and challenges of their preferred role. Semi-structured interviews were completed with 9 dominants and 12 submissives and explored using thematic analysis. Participants described dominants as empathic and nurturing, desiring and able to take control, and attentive and responsible, while submissives were characterized as willing to give up control and having a desire to please. Interviewees described ways in which their BDSM role fit with their overall personality, as well as incongruities between their role in BDSM play and their day-to-day personas. The general benefits of BDSM mentioned by the participants for both roles were pleasure from pleasuring others, physical pleasure and arousal, fun, variety, and going beyond vanilla, personal growth, improved romantic relationships, community, psychological release, freedom from day-to-day roles, and being yourself. Participants also discussed the dominant-specific benefits of control or power, rewards, and confidence, and the submissive-specific benefit of giving up control. In addition to the shared challenges and risks of stigma, relationship problems, and accepting desires reported, dominant-specific issues of more work and responsibility and possessive submissives, and submissive-specific issues of vulnerability, bad dominants, and following orders and accepting decisions were addressed by participants. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.

keywords: BDSM, sadomasochism, dominant, submissive, qualitative research


The acronym BDSM encompasses three subtypes of sexual variation. B/D stands for bondage and discipline, which refers to the act of using restraints, both physical and psychological. D/S signifies domination and submission and describes one person taking control while another gives over control. Finally, S/M includes two complementary categories: sadism, deriving pleasure from the pain or humiliation of others, and masochism, deriving pleasure from one's own pain or humiliation. Together these components create BDSM, a tremendously varied and often misunderstood form of consensual sexual/relational expression. BDSM can be seen as anything from simply an occasional sexual practice to a sexual identity or orientation to a lifestyle (Kolmes, Stock, & Moser, 2006). Although BDSM is often associated with sexual activity in popular culture, some BDSM activities involve no sexual contact whatsoever (Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1984). In Connolly's (2006) questionnaire-based study of BDSM practitioners, 32% reported that BDSM made up less than half of their sexual activity and only 11.2% engaged exclusively in BDSM during sexual situations. Still others engage in 24/7 relationships, that is, relationships in which the members are constantly in role (Brame, 2000; Moser, 1988).

According to a large telephone study conducted by Richters, de Visser, Rissel, Grulich, and Smith (2008) on a representative sample of 19,307 Australians, 2.2% of sexually active men and 1.3% of sexually active women had engaged in BDSM activities in the previous year. When one considers a broader conceptualization of behaviours that could be considered consistent with BDSM, a majority of university students (65%) report fantasizing about being tied up or about tying up someone else (62%; Renaud & Byers, 1999).

Previous research examining BDSM has tended to consider BDSM practitioners as a group, without delineating preferred role in BDSM activities. Existing research tends to lump dominants and submissives together and has not considered the ways in which dominants and submissives are each unique. Although submission and domination are certainly complementary, those who partake in either role may do so for different reasons and experience different benefits and challenges. Also, there appear to be two, seemingly opposing, stereotypes associated with the congruence between a person's preferred BDSM role and his or her personality outside of the BDSM context. One stereotype is that a person's BDSM role is the same as one's personality; thus, submissives are submissive at all times and dominants are always dominant (Easton & Hardy, 2003). The other stereotype is that there is a mismatch, such as the stereotype of a powerful CEO of a large company who wants to be dominated by his wife after work. However, without empirical research it is difficult to determine whether there is any basis for these beliefs. Further research is needed to explore the differences, and similarities, between BDSM roles (Cross & Matheson, 2006). Two recent studies, Hebert and Weaver (2014) and Wismeijer and van Assen (2013), examined personality characteristics across two groups of BDSM practitioners: those who identify as dominant and those who identify as submissive. The results suggested that there are some personality characteristics that differ between these two groups of BDSM practitioners. However, as both of these studies were questionnaire-based and quantitative, it was desirable to provide the "voice" of BDSM practitioners within the current study by means of qualitative examination and the rich data that this methodology could produce to accompany the quantitative research. Therefore, the first goal of the current study was to examine the aspects of personality that BDSM practitioners feel relate to their preference for one role more than the other.

Although books written by and for BDSM practitioners routinely describe the positives of these practices, it is only relatively recently that researchers have begun to explore the possible advantages. Nichols (2006), based on her extensive background of more than 20 years providing therapy for kinky clients, proposed numerous advantages of BDSM, such as personal empowerment, improved communication between partners, excitement because of the diversity and taboo nature, and spiritual benefits. It has also been argued to be cathartic, allowing for both physical and mental release; indeed, some professional dominatrices consider their role to be similar to that of a therapist (Lindemann, 2011). Moreover, Kleinplatz (2006) and colleagues (2009) suggests that 'vanilla' couples can learn a great deal from BDSM practitioners, from the importance of communication to the potential for optimal sexual experiences. Thus, some potential benefits of BDSM have been suggested in popular literature and, in a few cases, within empirical research. However, more research on the positive aspects of BDSM is needed, especially because previous research has not explored the positive aspects of the dominant and submissive roles specifically. Therefore, a second major goal of the current study was to explore perceived benefits and challenges associated with BDSM generally, and the benefits and challenges specific to the dominant or submissive role.

The Current Study

The current study was designed to explore the characteristics of BDSM practitioners with self-identified preferences for either the dominant or the submissive role and the perceived benefits and challenges of BDSM as a whole and of participants' preferred BDSM role. The study was intended to complement recent quantitative studies exploring personality characteristics associated with preferences for dominance or submission (e.g., Hebert & Weaver, 2014). The qualitative study was intended to give BDSM practitioners a voice in this exploration. Our expectations about the development of participants' identities as BDSM practitioners, as well as their perceptions of benefits and challenges of BDSM, were guided by social constructionism (for an application of social constructionism to a sexuality identity development--specifically gay SM identity--see Chaline, 2010). Specifically, Simon and Gagnon's Sexual Script theory proposes that sexual behaviour is shaped by, and must be understood in terms of, sociocultural factors (Gagnon & Simon, 1973; Simon & Gagnon, 1986). They further proposed that three levels of scripts shape an individual's own sexual script: cultural scripts (e.g., social norms); interpersonal scripts (e.g., learned in specific cultural contexts); and intrapsychic (e.g., an individual's own goals, desires). Thus, we assumed that our participants would gradually have formed scripts for BDSM, and for their particular preferred BDSM roles, based on multiple sources of information at these three levels (e.g., media representations of BDSM, connections to the BDSM community, exploring personal motivation) and that these scripts would be complex and evolving. Although themes related specifically to identity development are beyond the scope of the current manuscript, we expected that participants would report diverse stories about their identity development as BDSM practitioners. Indeed, participants theorized about intrinsic interests as well as interests gradually shaped later in life (e.g., due to a partner initiating BDSM exploration), similar to the recent results of Yost and Hunter (2012).



The participants were 21 adults who self-identified as BDSM practitioners; 9 identified as dominant and 12 as submissive. More specifically, there were three female dominants, six male dominants, eight female submissives, and four male submissives. Participants were not required to indicate their current age, but of those who did (n = 14) the average age was 30.4, with a range of 20 to 61 years. Participants described diverse relationship statuses (e.g., single, open relationships, monogamous marriages). Most participants were involved in their local BDSM communities, although some reported practicing BDSM only privately.

In describing the participants' BDSM interests, one complication must be discussed: many of the participants stressed the importance of using the correct terminology, especially when it came to their BDSM roles. Previous research appears to have treated dominant, top, and sadist as roughly synonymous and submissive, bottom, and masochist as equivalent (e.g., Yost, 2010). Some participants preferred and identified with specific terms, which were not only dominant or submissive or even only dominant, submissive, top, bottom, sadist, or masochist. A host of different terms were used to describe their preferred roles, each of which means something specific and complex in the BDSM community and/or to the individual. As such, the premise that this study looked at dominants as compared to submissives is an oversimplification. In reality, the study sample represented a diverse range of BDSM roles, which have been split into those at the top of the power dynamic (e.g., dominant, gentle dominant, sadist) and those at the bottom (e.g., slave, pet, service-oriented submissive). These categories will continue to be referred to as dominants and submissives (the most commonly used terms) throughout the study for clarity and anonymity, but it is important to note that such descriptors do not fully capture the diversity within the spectrum of interests, roles, and practices.


Following research ethics board approval, participants were recruited via a combination of Reddit (a social news website with several forums focused on BDSM and sexuality where information about the study was posted), word-of-mouth, and snowball sampling wherein participants were asked if they could recommend the study to other BDSM practitioners. Potential participants who responded to the posts were emailed an invitation to participate indicating that choosing to schedule and complete an interview implied consent, and an interview time was then arranged.

Semi-structured phone or Skype interviews were conducted and recorded for later transcription. All efforts were taken to ensure that the participants felt safe and comfortable and every interview was overseen by the second author, a registered clinical psychologist. The interviews covered a broad range of topics, such as history with BDSM, personality and its connection to role, and motivations for, and behaviours during, BDSM play. The average interview length was 50 minutes (range 25-77 minutes). Participants were offered the chance to enter a lottery to receive a choice of either a $50 gift certificate to or a $50 donation to a charity that supports healthy sexuality.


Thematic analysis, following the guidelines of Braun and Clarke (2006) and Guest, MacQueen, and Namey (2012) was used to explore the data. Thematic analysis is a widely used and flexible technique for exploring patterns in qualitative data. It is particularly well suited for examining similarities and differences and summarizing the most important findings of an extensive data set, which this study aimed to do. Each interview was transcribed verbatim and then these transcripts were read repeatedly to ensure familiarity with the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). During this stage, preliminary notes were taken on coding ideas to be used in the subsequent analysis. Next, the first author coded each interview, initially in great detail, and then with an increasing emphasis on larger themes. This author then began constructing a codebook in which the meaning of the transcripts was organized into categories based on relationships between different expressed ideas (Guest et al., 2012). These codes were then sorted and combined into potential themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Once the data had been sorted into potential themes, these themes were reviewed to confirm that they were coherent and well supported. Transcripts were re-read once again at this point to ensure that these themes accurately reflected the data and that all relevant data had been included in the themes (Guest et al., 2012). Using the codebook, the second author coded a five-page selection from three randomly selected interviews. Then the authors met to compare coding with the goal of consensus. Any differences between coders were resolved through discussion and/or through revisions to the themes themselves (e.g., collapsing across themes if there was overlap) or by refining the coding manual (e.g., adding greater detail to codes as new text relating to these themes was encountered in subsequent interviews). This was a recursive process in which the initial codebook categories or themes were identified and defined early on to guide subsequent coding, but were constantly revised as each transcript was coded and new connections were discovered between codes (Guest et al., 2012). NVivo software, a program commonly used for qualitative data analysis, was used to store and organize the transcription data.


Several themes were identified within each broad topic (personality characteristics, benefits, and challenges) and these themes are described in the following sections and are listed in Table 1. Note that the study resulted in additional themes that are beyond the scope and purpose of the current manuscript. For each theme, it is noted whether each theme was shared (relevant to both roles) or dominant- or submissive-specific.

Personality Characteristics

The following characteristics were mentioned by participants as being either ones that they possessed, ones that people they knew possessed, and even ones that individuals in each role should possess. Participants named a variety of their own personality characteristics, as well as characteristics of their partners and friends who identify with the opposite role.

Within this topic, it is important to consider the relationship between an individual's everyday personality and his or her BDSM role. There are stereotypes regarding this link, but almost all participants named personality characteristics that were congruent with their roles, as well as traits that were incongruent. Furthermore, for several participants, BDSM simply provides a different framework to express his or her everyday personality. One dominant in a 24/7 relationship stated,
   I thoroughly enjoy having a submissive ... I love making decisions
   and sometimes it is a burden and I get tired and I say, "You pick
   where we go eat," but mostly I do, you know, it fits in with my
   personality and what I like and D/s has sort of allowed us to take
   our personalities to, you know, you give it a language and take it
   a different level.

Another dominant said, "Who I am as a person inside my soul is the same way that I am in my scenes, most of my scenes." Similarly, another dominant said,
   I feel that my dominatrix character, so to speak, in the scene, is
   very much an extension of myself and who I am, while at the same
   time being an exaggeration of traits that might be really obnoxious
   or off-putting in the right situation.... I don't feel like I ever
   step into a different person.... I have natural leadership
   tendencies where submissives naturally flock to me and when I'm put
   into groups, people quite often look to me to kind of direct the

For several of these participants, their BDSM roles were so much in line with their personalities that even their careers were a reflection of it. For example, one submissive described thriving on her work in a service position, "I don't mind doing it, like I know a lot of people that work in service positions don't really enjoy it. I actually enjoy making people happy and doing things for them, which I think reflects really well in my work." A dominant explained,
   You may be classified as a dominant in one aspect of your life or
   could be a dominant in pretty much all. Like myself, I classify as
   a dominant personality. I'm also an incredibly laid back kind of
   fella, so it's kinda hard to put your finger on it.

A male submissive stated,
   My submissiveness is part of who I am ... I've always heard, people
   heard talk about ... having the collar put on and turning on the
   switch and getting into submissive mode. To me, it never turns off.
   I'm always in that mode. I'm always in service mode, trying to

On the other hand, there were participants who did feel that their roles were distinct from their everyday personalities. One female submissive explained, "Usually I'm a very competitive person. I dislike orders from anyone. I've always been told that I'm bossy and I've always got high scores in being a leader ... it's a break free from your real world." Interestingly, however, she later described her BDSM role as a more authentic version of herself. She stated, "I don't really see BDSM as much of role-playing as much as letting go and just being who you are." A submissive woman described the relief of exploring a different aspect of self during a scene,
   During my day-to-day life I'm used to being the one in control. In
   fact, I don't think anyone would know that our relationship was the
   way it was behind closed doors just from the way we act. I tend to
   be very in charge and I don't hesitate to take control... At the
   end of the day it's so much fun to go home and, and shrug that off
   and just to be able to let someone else tell you what to do for a
   while, even if you may not necessarily like what they're telling
   you to do. Like, you know, maybe you don't like cooking dinner but
   It's fun to play at not having the power because you know you have
   to go back the next day and take up that mantle all over again.

One female dominant captures the nuanced nature of the comparison between a real world persona and a BDSM role when she stated,
   I know a lot of slaves that, outside of their D/s relationship are
   very dominant, are attorneys, are leaders in the community. So,
   just because someone's a submissive slave doesn't mean they're
   mousy. It doesn't mean they're always like, with their heads bowed,
   looking for direction. I know some people that are slaves that are
   very much out there. Loud, you know. The centre of the party ...
   attorneys, high-profile office managers ... Other slaves are what
   you would imagine, very passive and obedient and follow orders.

As many of the personality characteristics discussed centre around the division of power, it is important to consider the participants' thoughts on the relative power associated with either role. Within BDSM it may seem like the dominant has all the power; however, all but one participant disagreed with this idea. Most argued that the power was equal, but that power is exchanged during the scene. As one female submissive explained,
   ... we use the term 'power exchange' and so what I tell people is
   that you can't exchange something that you don't have, right? So,
   if I have no power, how can I possibly give that or exchange that
   with someone else? I can't do it. So, I actually think that, for
   the most part, we actually have a lot of power, both in our
   personal life, in our professional life, our spirits.

Most importantly, this is a temporary power exchange and many participants agreed that the submissive could get this power back. One female submissive said, "Well, it's kind of, I mean, a power exchange, right? So I would give up momentary power, but I have the power to get it back." Nonetheless, dominants and submissives do have different roles and different types of influence. One male submissive stated, "In general, I kinda like the quote, 'subs have the power, dom(me)s have the control'" and several other participants echoed this, using a similar or even identical phrasing.

Interestingly, when participants did suggest that one role has more power, submissives were more often seen as holding greater power. Several dominants and submissives stated that subs have most or all of the power because they are typically the ones who set the boundaries. One dominant stated, "Um, well, they set the boundaries. They put themselves at your mercy and under your power, but they set the boundaries. You do not do something to them that they don't want done to them." Another dominant said, "The subs are the one telling the dom(me)s their hard limits, their soft limits, what they can and cannot do, what they want, what they don't want. You think the dom(me)s get to do that? No."

Ultimately participants acknowledged that the illusion of the dominant having all the power was necessary and desirable. As one male dominant elucidated, "I could assume I have all the power and control, that's part of the illusion to me, that's what I'm after, and that's what I get off on, that's what my benefit is." A submissive conceded that submissives had power, but added, "I like to tell myself that the dominant has the power because that's the way I like it."

Willingness to give up control (submissives). As one might expect, submissives reported a strong willingness and desire to give their control to someone else at least some of the time. Several participants suggested that this was due to a lack of ability or desire to make their own decisions. One submissive emphasized the difficulty he has making decisions,
   I don't like to make decisions for myself, uh, making decisions I
   always get too much, too much in my head and trying to figure out
   whether I'm making the right decision and I'm too doubtful of
   whether I'm making the right decision and that's just definitely
   not her.

Thus, he preferred having his much more decisive dominant choose for him. One female submissive indicated, "fve kind of always been a pushover and I've kind of always been a stickler for the rules," while another explained that she is very conflict-averse.
   I'm sort of conflict-averse, I would rather compromise and, you
   know, take a little bit of unfair compromise than, you know, engage
   in a fight with someone. I'm not gonna bend on something that's
   very important, but being a very flexible and conflict-averse
   person is part of it.

These two women demonstrate the preference to follow the will of a trusted partner rather than insist upon having their way. Similarly, the dominants expressed that "willingness to follow orders" or "obedience" was an essential part of being submissive.

Desire to please (submissives). The submissive participants described themselves as people-pleasers who tended to put others first. One male submissive stated, "I bend over backwards for people I care about." A female submissive explained,
   I don't know, I've just never been very much about myself, you
   know, for better or worse ... You know, from my upbringing everyone
   has always come first, and I think this is almost a way to put
   myself first through, you know, on the other hand, someone else
   coming first.

Empathic and nurturing (dominants). Most participants, including both dominants and submissives, indicated that dominants should be, and usually are, empathic and understanding. Both roles stressed that dominants need to be caring and sensitive to how the submissive is feeling. One submissive stated, "Personally, I enjoy a more dominant person, but at the same time they do need to have more caring sides, so none of those kind of crazy people that want the elusive 'true submissive,' then they just sound a little creepy." As one male dominant stated,
   In my case, in order to keep my conscience clear, I have to
   understand more deeply, why, and just that they are enjoying it. So
   I try to put myself in the place of the person who is being
   submissive or masochistic just so that I can, because I feel like
   if I'm not sort of present and I don't know where they're coming
   from then I have a hard time figuring out if I have a partner
   really or a victim. Because I really do not want the latter.

One submissive described his ideal dominant as having "more of like, you know, almost like a motherly kind of instinct" and one dominant described wanting the best for her submissive partner,
   I'm very much interested in not only [submissive partner's name]
   serving me, but also her being the best person she can be, so part
   of my mastery is in helping her to be the best she can be. So it's
   a mentorship and a responsibility of helping her to fulfil her
   goals and be all that.

Another participant insisted that a good dominant is "kind and gentle, but sometimes not necessarily in a soft way." Another dominant expressed this balance: "I'm very empathetic, without always being sympathetic." Participants expressed the belief that this empathy was founded on a deep connection that helps dominants to intuit when something goes wrong during a scene and teaches dominants to be nurturing and encouraging, with several dominants emphasizing the importance of praise and positive reinforcement. Participants agreed that while dominants who did not embody these characteristics might exist, submissives likely would not stay with them. Several participants suggested that dominants could enhance or reinforce their empathy for a submissive partner by switching roles from time to time to learn what it feels like to be the submissive partner.

Desire and ability to take control (dominants). According to individuals of both roles, dominants want to have the control. Dominant participants vocalized their desire to be in control in a variety of ways, including, "I've always enjoyed things being done my way," "I love making decisions," and "I'm very Type A." Both submissives and dominants also indicated that confidence, decisiveness, and assertiveness were important aspects of their dominants' personalities because dominants needed to not only wish for power within a scene, but also reach out and grab it. As one submissive insisted, dominants "... have to be able to take a hold of their role as a firm, strict, and demanding dominant person." Several participants mentioned that they had natural leadership tendencies such that people were likely to follow their directives. One male dominant stated, "People always just have responded to me in that manner, I guess. I have a personality that when I walk into a room, people tend to pay attention." Finally, another male dominant summarized, "I would say that one of the other qualifiers for me being a dom would be the desire to want to exercise this command or control over another person."

Attentive and responsible (dominants). Dominants were described as being committed to paying attention, looking out for a submissive's safety and happiness, and subsequently taking responsibility for the submissive's needs. Dominants emphasized the importance of their submissives knowing that they could come to the dominants with their needs and that these needs would be taken into account. They pointed out that even though they are the ones who make the decisions, they want to represent the best interests of their partners. One dominant said, "It's important for me to please [submissive partner's name], you know, so even though I'm the one making the decisions, a lot of the decisions I make are what's in her best interest, what would make her happy." As one submissive in a 24/7 relationship explained, "Part of the 24/7 aspect for me is not just that I serve 24/7, it's that I'm also taken care of 24/7." Finally, many dominants reported paying close attention and checking in with their submissives a lot, especially during scenes. One dominant mentioned, "I pay a lot of attention. Generally I try not to let them know that I am, but I keep an eye on them and if I feel like maybe it's getting a little too much, you know, I'll ask." The idea of not wanting to make their attention too obvious during a scene to maintain the illusion of control was a sentiment echoed by a few of the dominants, although always accompanied by a description of their concern and caring for their submissive partners.


Participants were able to identify various benefits to engaging in BDSM that they, their partners, or their friends had experienced; all interviewees stated that BDSM had improved their lives in some ways. Interestingly, although the current study set out to look at the benefits that might be particular to each end of the BDSM role spectrum, most of the benefits described by participants were mentioned by dominants and submissives alike.

Pleasure from pleasuring others (both). Most of the participants suggested that one of the best parts of BDSM play was that it gives them an opportunity to please their partners in some way. This was a very exciting prospect to many of the participants, as epitomized by a female submissive who stated, "God, I jump at the opportunity to do anything he wants um [laughs] just 'cause it's so satisfying." Although it could be expected that this would be primarily submissives focusing on pleasing their dominants, this was not the case. This was surprising to some of the submissives themselves, as indicated by one submissive who said,
   When I came into this lifestyle I was always just, my head was
   always, like, "Man, I really want to make my master or my mistress
   happy" and then all of a sudden I realized: they want to make sure
   I'm happy too! They like to spoil me.

This sentiment was echoed not only by other submissives, but also many dominants. One described his emotions with his girlfriend as "a feeling of elation that this control is pleasing the one that I love." One male dominant said, "It's just an added benefit that we can get what we want from giving the submissive what it is they want." Indeed, participants of both roles suggested that in many relationships "the dom(me)'s doing all the work and topping the bottom and giving them all the good stuff." As one male dominant explained, "It's icing on the cake whether I orgasm. Whether they orgasm is absolutely vital." Despite this, many insisted that "the fantasy is that the dom(me) is basically the only one being pleased," to the point that if the submissive got the impression that the dominant was "doing it just to please [them], that sort of just kills it," even though the reality was quite different. Participants gave the impression that both partners' pleasure was valued and roughly equal numbers of participants stressed the importance of their partner's pleasure, often over their own pleasure. As one submissive asserted, "I sort of find it almost more satisfying when he comes than [when] I do." Overall, it was implied that the beauty of BDSM may be that the roles are naturally complementary such that
   ... a sub is being dominated and the dom(me) is dominating the
   submissive, you know, they are both doing exactly what they wanted
   to be doing right then. And just by carrying on, doing what they're
   doing, they're satisfying each other's needs.

Pleasure and arousal (both). The majority of participants described BDSM as physically pleasurable and often specified that this pleasure was sexual in nature. Some mentioned that orgasm was considered unnecessary but was often experienced during play. Several participants suggested that their main motivation for engaging in BDSM play was simply "sex drive." Some felt that this was so obvious that it should not even have to be explicitly stated. For instance, one male submissive declared, "Well I mean obviously, you know, it's a sexual experience," and a male dominant asserted, "there's obviously the sexual." However, several of the submissive participants focused more on the physical pleasure they felt from pain, especially the accompanying endorphin rush. A male submissive described getting "high off the pain" and a female submissive indicated that burning was her favourite type of play because "it just feels like pleasure concentrated so strongly that it hurts, um, but it feels just so good." One dominant female described sexual pleasure as a common motive, but also described this shift from an initial emphasis on the sexual aspects of BDSM to the recognition of broader benefits.
   I think for a lot of people the sex is the primary mover, you know,
   the mover and shaker, because it's by breaking the boundaries and
   exploring this sexually, um, you know, when you fly and you're out
   exploring and there's so much to explore and try, so much newness,
   I think a lot of the fun and excitement has to do with the play ...
   I see a lot of the new couples that are already a couple, they
   started out as a vanilla couple, they're exploring ... and then now
   they're exploring BDSM and they're exploring some play, and now
   they're exploring kink and the dominance outside the bedroom.

Participants described how sexually exciting BDSM play is, asserting that it is "hot" and "a turn on." One dominant suggested that "the fear is part of what the turn on is" and a submissive explained that, "I can be receiving pain from someone I'm not attracted to at all and have no plans to have sex with and still get physically aroused just from the pain."

Fun, variety, and going beyond vanilla (both). One of the most commonly mentioned benefits was simply that BDSM play is fun. As one male dominant summed up, "We're all doing it for fun." Another stated, "Well, it's exciting! It turns me on ... I mean, when it really, really works, it's tons of fun." Participants often said that they simply enjoyed doing it without specifying what exactly made it so enjoyable. Several suggested that BDSM play made them feel "happier in general," "euphoric," and "just awesome," adding "enthusiasm" and "playfulness" to their lives. Many participants mentioned the incredible diversity of BDSM play and BDSM practitioners as a benefit. One dominant said, "So there's this freedom to explore anything that you want and so when you do that it becomes easier to identify what you're comfortable with or what's more fun or what's exciting." Another stated, "I think it just adds a spice to life [laughs], I really do. I think, um, vanilla sex is boring." One dominant female asserted that there are "so many things you can do in the S&M world ... it's impossible to get bored of S&M." In addition to describing benefits of BDSM itself, participants contrasted those benefits with what was possible with vanilla sex and relationships. One submissive recalled being in "two vanilla relationships that were so vanilla it was just, ugh, like, they were wonderful women, beautiful, amazing, talented, incredible women and I just couldn't stand having sex with them 'cause it was so boring." This idea that vanilla is boring was also colourfully captured by a male dominant: "I'd get on, I'd ride for a while, and I'd be done." Similarly, a male submissive said, "My last relationship was a vanilla relationship and... the sex was great at the beginning, but it kind of tapered off towards the end because it was just kind of becoming stagnant." Other participants did not detail why they felt vanilla would be so wrong for them, but expressed that they could not imagine ever going back to a vanilla relationship. One male dominant described this:
   It's given us tools to show affection to one another that we never
   could have shown each other before. I mean there's only so much
   that a kiss, roses, chocolates, are going to get over the course of
   15, 20, 30, 40 years, but giving yourself completely to this other
   person, and I really feel that the submissive gives themselves
   completely to the dom(me) and the dom(me) gives themselves
   completely to the submissive, it gives a new kind of depth to that
   love and affection you show each other.

Personal growth (both). Not only did participants state that BDSM enriched their lives, many also insisted that they were becoming better people. Submissives and dominants alike commented on the role that dominants could play in motivating their submissives. The submissives greatly valued having their dominants encourage them and care about all the little things. One said, "... maybe it's the interest, maybe it's the fact that all the little detailed things like me eating three meals a day and what color my nails are matter to him." This type of attention made them feel nurtured by, and accountable to, another person, which encouraged them to thrive and "become a better person." Some of the submissive participants even learned very specific new skills due to either the teaching or motivation that their dominants provided for them. One male submissive described how he learned to play the guitar, something he had wanted to do for years but never did until he was encouraged by his dominant. However, these personal growth benefits were not limited to submissives; individuals with each role preference recounted their journeys of introspection that led them to new discoveries about themselves. One submissive described being very happy and satisfied with who she had become. Although the changes and her personal growth transcended her BDSM play into all aspects of her life, she attributed much of her growth to her exploration of BDSM with her partner and her connections with the community. Similarly, one male dominant described the increase in awareness that occurred throughout his life because of his exploration of his BDSM role,
   I have noticed that since we have been in this relationship, my
   attention to how I portray myself to others is a lot more keen. I
   never realized how authoritative I can be with other people until I
   entered into this.

Improved romantic relationships (both). The majority of participants described ways in which incorporating BDSM improved their romantic relationships. One male dominant stated,
   Every day you wake up, you look at this person and you know good
   and well that their lives are one of the most important things in
   the world to you, not just because they're your wife or your
   husband, but because they've given everything, their whole life is
   yours and yours theirs. It's a different connection.

Some of these participants were in relationships that had not always included aspects of BDSM play and they recounted the ways in which adding that dynamic helped them. A female submissive stated, "It's enhanced my relationship. We were on, you know, on the rocks, so to speak, and this has helped. Brought us closer. I really wasn't expecting that either." A male dominant recalled that he and his wife often "got into these little head butts." He described the effects of their exploration of BDSM, "It's kind of a natural cure to the issues that we were running into ... it gave us new tools to resolve conflicts." Other participants stated that the level of connection, intimacy, trust, and communication that BDSM play fosters was greater than that which was typically achieved in a more conventional relationship, perhaps partly out of necessity. In addition, BDSM dynamics offered participants new ways to express these feelings with their romantic partners. One male submissive describes the emotional connection that he felt BDSM helped him achieve,
   I feel like all of the BDSM couples that I've met are very open
   communicating because, you know, that's very important to begin
   when, just to make sure that everyone's needs are taken care and no
   one's getting hurt, but, you know, the level of communication I
   feel like is always higher. People become closer a lot quicker and
   I feel like people would be surprised by how strong of a connection
   is created by BDSM relationships. Whereas I think a lot of people
   view it as maybe that it's, you know, just a sex thing that, you
   know, they're people are just doing it for fun kind of thing, where
   it's also very emotional, it's a very emotional, uh, emotional
   extremes for both partners.

Community (both). Although not all participants reported active involvement within the BDSM community, many of those that did described it as being very rewarding in a variety of ways. The community was described as so open and friendly that one submissive stated, "I've never been more welcome anywhere at all, period, in my life" and "I mean just from the first day, I knew that it's where I belonged." Participants enjoyed meeting new friends and getting out more. One dominant said, "Part of the motivation is having the group acceptance or group validation." One male submissive reflected on the effects of this community support, "I'm getting out more, I'm being more active, I'm happier in general." Participants were excited to be able to express themselves and not "be made fun of or be told I'm a freak or something like that." One female dominant found this benefit to be very powerful:
   What I found in the dungeon very quickly was, um, kind of
   self-acceptance really. Before that, anybody I dated seriously had
   told me that what turned me on was wrong and, I mean, explicitly
   told me that what turned me on was wrong. And so I was filled with
   a lot of self-loathing towards my sexuality. I didn't date very
   frequently or, if I did, I was very guarded and then I found the
   dungeon and people said, "Oh, you're not weird, you're a sadist,
   you're a dominant female. That's okay and I can respect that, and
   we can show you how to do that safely" ... So, literally within a
   month of setting foot into a dungeon, a whole lifetime of
   self-loathing almost completely vanished.

Psychological Release. Many participants explained that they used BDSM play to handle daily life stresses and frustrations. Playing offered an emotional release for both dominants and submissives, so much so that one dominant pronounced it "therapeutic." One woman described how this worked from the perspective of a submissive,
   I think subs, you know, agree to sign over their control and power
   and I think that is very healing for a lot of us. You feel the
   burden of decision-making and choices and leading all just lifted
   off of you and it makes you feel a lot lighter.

A female dominant illustrated BDSM's ability to facilitate calm or release by recounting,
   Sometimes if my partner is having a hard time, there are things
   that we'll do if she gets on her knees, you know, at my feet, that
   helps her. It sort of calms her. So there are things that we do or
   you know, my putting a collar on her that, that has a calming or
   settling effect, that, that somebody else might have from drinking
   a glass of wine.

One submissive confessed that she will sometimes disobey so that she will get punished,
   I really like the punishment, especially if it has a mental
   breakdown. Because, um, it allows me to express my emotions a
   little bit. I'm kind of a person who bottles up a lot of emotions
   and when I actually break down from a punishment it's like an
   emotional release.

Another participant told the story of a day he finished a stressful day at work,
   I went to my Sir's apartment after work and he saw that I was all
   uptight and, you know, nervous and crap, and he lined me up against
   the wall and gave me a good flogging. And it flogged the stress
   right out of me.

The dominants who mentioned this benefit tended to emphasize the relaxation that comes from having exerted oneself and the accompanying rush. One female submissive described the release she experiences after a scene,
   When I can take a really hard beating, like a super heavy whip
   scene, the next day I feel like I have been in the deepest most
   intense meditation. I am so connected to my body ... I didn't
   realize that I was not connected to my body. I walked around for
   years thinking I was totally connected to myself. And then I had
   this experience. I started having these experiences and they were
   very regular and the next day I wake up and I feel so connected to
   my body. Literally, I can feel my toes and my heels and my ankles
   and like places like, even like the little webbing between your
   feet, it's like, who knew? I was like, "Oh my gosh!" You know, I
   just felt so really connected to myself and, physically and
   mentally and emotionally and, and it was amazing. And I understand
   why people meditate now. I just choose not to meditate, I get beat
   up instead [laughs]! And it works almost like, it seems to me from
   what I've read, it seems to work in the same way. The connectedness
   is very different and I had no idea that would happen.

Freedom from day-to-day roles (both). Many of the participants stated that one of the motivating factors for engaging in BDSM was that it allowed them to take a break from their everyday life. As one submissive succinctly declared, "It's a break free from your real world, you know. It's like giving yourself a freaking break." This benefit was often, but not exclusively, reported by participants who felt that their BDSM role was distinct from their role in everyday life. A submissive male explained,
   Ninety per cent of the day time ... I'm expected to be headstrong
   and deciding things for myself. And ... that 10% of the time that
   I, you know, I really yearn for ... I want to be out of control and
   want to be, urn, dominated, basically.

For others, however, it was less about taking a break from their personality and more about an escape in the context of stressful life circumstances. One dominant who was experiencing the break-up of a romantic relationship at the time of his interview explained that for him, "Dominance is not so much a craving for superiority, it's so much a craving for control and having it reciprocated." Another male dominant stated, "I have always felt that my preference for dominance really does come from a sense of helplessness in daily life." A female submissive explained, "I can draw on a more animalistic side of myself where I don't have the pressures of feeling human all the time."

Being yourself (both). In seemingly direct opposition to the previous described benefit, many participants mentioned how nice it is that BDSM play allows them to be themselves completely. As one dominant expressed, "There's a real freedom to, you know, to, to be your way, you know, do it your way and that's nice." One submissive woman said, "I get to be myself. I get to do everything that I cannot do in my life," a freedom that she described as particularly significant to her given the male-dominated culture in which she was residing. A male dominant asserted, "A lot of people go through their whole lives hiding from who and what they are, but when it's you and your sub and there's no one else around, you can be you." Another male dominant stated,
   It's liberating because you're expressing yourself in a way that
   is, you know, true ... There's no substitute for the feeling you
   get when you're able to be yourself like that and the search for
   that feeling is entirely worth maybe being a little embarrassed
   about how you go about it.

Several participants proposed that it might be even be a healthier way to explore personality traits, such as being indecisive, that might be more challenging to express in other situations.

One of the more general, but commonly reported, benefits was a feeling of 'rightness.' A dominant described the first time she walked into a dungeon when "everything just kind of clicked and made sense." Another participant simply stated, "it was something that, that just felt normal, it felt right." Others spoke of how well the BDSM dynamic works in their lives and how it is essentially just the perfect fit for them.

Control or power (dominants). The majority of participants agreed that the main benefit that is specific to domination is a sense of control or power. Dominants expressed a desire to have things done their way and make all the decisions. As one dominant simply stated, "There's a big thrill to being in charge of a situation." A submissive participant postulated that for her master, "Having some part of the world that is so totally under his control just makes him feel calmer about life." A dominant male stated, "... the reaction to me is more based in [pause] raw primal need to control my environment and being able to, to make this scene an extension of that. And it's very empowering." Participants also explained that being dominant made them feel like causal agents, not only having the power to physically control their partners, but also "just being able to observe reactions and knowing that you caused them." Finally, they enjoyed the amount of trust their partner put in them: as one dominant affirmed, "Oh my gosh--this person is like entrusting me with their entire being."

Rewards (dominants). Several of the dominants experienced satisfaction at having things done for them, particularly household chores. As one dominant in a 24/7 relationship described, "It's wonderful to have someone that's willing and dedicated their life to pleasing me and meeting my needs." The dominants mentioned several duties that their submissives consistently did for them, such as giving them foot rubs, opening doors, making the coffee, making dinner, and even giving them presents. Another dominant in a 24/7 relationship described, "Because he's a service-oriented submissive, certain acts of service like chores and things that are specifically his, like I haven't washed a dish in three years." A few dominants also emphasized the sexual rewards, like "sexual favours" and "sex on demand."

Confidence (dominants). Some of the dominants explained that BDSM offers "a heck of a confidence boost." Participants reported that this confidence allowed them to do everything from being able to use their sex toys better, to better job performance, to feeling safer walking alone in big cities. One dominant explained, "When you come fresh from a scene or a weekend where you were with your sub and jump back into the work week, um, you know, you're pretty much untouchable." Another dominant stated,
   There's that confidence, you know. Once you tie someone up, and
   beat them, and take them into that subspace, and bring them out,
   and cuddle with them, and have them crawl all over you because, you
   know, that's a great confidence builder.

Another described the thrill they got from knowing they were having a strong effect on their submissive partner, "It's an ego boost ... just being able to observe reactions and knowing that you caused them is a huge part of what fuels the desire for dominance."

Giving up control (submissives). In direct opposition to the main benefit for dominants, the sole benefit consistently expressed as specific to submission was giving up control. Submissives reveled in "giving power to someone else to just let them make the decisions for a couple minutes." One male dominant described, "Every sub I've ever talked to has had the same thing to say in that they feel absolute freedom in relinquishing control to their dom(me)," which is what draws them to being subs in the first place. They want to give up that control to someone they can trust and they want to have fun doing it." Being submissive allowed them to let go; "Well, another part of why I like submission is, you know, having to make sorts of decisions in life is stressful for me and being submissive allows me to just let it all go and enjoy the moment." As one submissive explained, "There's no room in your head at that point for any other worries," which is important because, "The idea behind topping someone is to make them not think."


Despite the numerous benefits identified for BDSM play, participants also identified some challenges and even potential dangers. Once again, some of these were shared, while others were specific to submissives or to dominants. As a female submissive summarized, "It's hard for both parties and everyone has to work really hard and, you know, communicate very clearly to make things, make sure things don't go sour." Participants advised that "You have to practice caution and safety regardless of what your title is." Another commonly expressed sentiment was that the relative difficulty of either role depended upon whether or not it was the role one felt most comfortable assuming. Thus, one submissive explained that being dominant would be very difficult for her "because that's such a foreign concept to me. Like how to be bossy and in control. I could never do that for long periods of time." However, a few participants did somewhat hesitantly suggest that one role, more often the dominant role, was more difficult, while the submissive role might be riskier.

Stigma (both). A prominent challenge for many of the participants was discrimination, even if the participant had reached a point where they reported fully accepting their own desires. One submissive expressed anguish at the unkind words of an acquaintance who mocked BDSM practitioners to her face without knowing that she shared such proclivities. One man simply stated, "I've been told that I'm going to Hell." Fear of being mocked, persecuted, or even "witch-hunted" led participants to feel that they had to hide their sexual preferences and even had the power to influence their judgments of "whether it's overall worthwhile" despite the benefits. In some cases, the consequences of the stigma surrounding BDSM were even greater, including the loss of jobs and an avoidance of doctors who were perceived as judgmental. One female submissive described an upsetting doctor's appointment where she was told, "You can't possibly have a healthy sexual relationship with pain and I think you need to bring this up with your therapist." A female dominant indicated, "I've seen people lose their jobs, I've seen people's marriages fall apart, I've seen people's kids stop talking to them." One male dominant indicated, "I've lost jobs because people found out I was in BDSM and they just didn't want me around." One participant speculated about why people would have issues with submission, her preferred role,
   I feel like society's a little bit conditioned to say that you need
   to have these freedoms and you need to have this control over
   things and when you say that you want to give those up, it makes
   people very uncomfortable sometimes.

Relationship problems (both). Although many participants reported that BDSM improved relationships, several also stated that it was associated with relationship challenges. A couple of participants explained that while they thoroughly enjoyed their BDSM play, they would not want to be romantically involved with their play partners. A submissive described a master as "... someone who is having all the control and all of the respect. It's not someone that you're just gonna snuggle and just love and kiss." Several expressed other concerns regarding the boundaries of the relationship, such as making sure you do not let BDSM "override your initial relationship dynamic." In addition, several participants claimed that finding partners with similar tastes could be very challenging. One participant clarified, "It's hard finding someone that I actually get along with that's also sexually compatible with me."

Accepting desires (both). Another reported challenge that is often associated with stigma was some degree of difficulty accepting one's own desires. As one submissive stated, "I was too negative to actually see anything good of it and too ashamed actually to look at it." Several suggested that the shame and guilt could be particularly strong for submissive women in heterosexual relationships because they often felt like they were being anti-feminist. One woman in such a situation asked, "How do you reconcile being a feminist with being a female submissive?" She ultimately found comfort in the knowledge that as a woman she had the right to choose,
   And it's my right to choose, you know, if I'm this way I can choose
   to act on it or not, I can choose how important it is to me, and
   then, once I've made those choices, well it's my choice to have the
   kind of sex life I wanna have.

Most of these participants reported that they had been able to gradually overcome challenges of this nature. One female submissive stated, "I thought maybe there was something wrong with me for being this way. It took me a long while to actually realize it's okay to be like this."

More work and responsibility (dominants). Just because dominants desire to take charge does not mean that overseeing many details of the scene is not a lot of work. The majority of both dominants and submissives suggested that so much work can be "a burden." Furthermore, dominants must constantly come up with new scenes, new punishments, new rewards, etc. One dominant acknowledged: "It can be hard to stay innovative, I guess, and make it interesting and not fall into the same patterns." On top of all of this, dominants must maintain the illusion that BDSM play is all for their pleasure and not for that of their submissives, a task that one submissive referred to as a very delicate balance. As one female submissive stated,
   It must be incredibly difficult to walk that line where you are
   pleasing your sub, but you also can somehow cast it as being
   selfish. I think there's, like, a sort of delicate balance there
   that is, requires sort of a lot of artfulness to do right.

Ultimately this caused a few submissives to agree that "The dom(me) is probably doing more of the work and the sub is probably getting more enjoyment out of it." One female submissive reflected on the dynamic with her dominant partner,
   My job is to kind of show up and get my rocks off (laughs) and
   really that's kind of the bottom line. I mean, I always make sure
   that she has pleasure and that she's happy and stuff, but really if
   you kind of boil it down: she does all the work and I get all the
   results (laughs).

Possessive submissives (dominants). Several of the participants mentioned that the biggest danger for dominants was possessive submissives who become overly invested in the relationship. One female dominant stated, "Submissives can get really possessive and crazy. And I've had stalkers and I've had somebody give me a 'marry me or else' ultimatum." Participants suggested that, on a rare occasion, submissives may be somewhat mentally unstable and end up stalking or blackmailing dominants with whom they became involved. According to one submissive "an unsafe sub is just as dangerous, if not more so" than an unsafe dominant. However, it is important to note that such people are relatively rare and, as one participant explained, "They need like more professional help than domination, but they're looking for domination anyway."

Vulnerability (submissive). The majority of both dominant and submissive participants believed that the vulnerability of the submissive position could open submissives up to physical and emotional harm. One submissive described it as giving "my willpower and my physical well-being over to this one person for them to do with as they please." Another submissive expressed concern, "I do think that submissives tend to get, um, tend to put themselves in positions where they could be used and harmed." Submissives were seen as particularly vulnerable in contexts were restraints were involved. One submissive stated, "It's not so figuratively your ass on the line." A female submissive explained, "When you're first meeting them, you have to be really careful 'cause you have no idea what they're going to do. For all you know, you could end up locked in their basement for a couple months." Given these vulnerabilities, both submissive and dominant participants emphasized the need for submissives to take care to protect themselves, particularly with new or less familiar partners.

Bad dominants (submissives). While participants stated that most dominants can be trusted to not take advantage of even the most vulnerable submissive, they also stated that some cannot. These dangerous dominants were described in two distinct ways: those that simply lacked the experience or knowledge to know what they were doing and those lacking empathy who seek to harm others. Most of these are what one participant called "self-styled dom(me)s," "There are, you know, a fair number of people out there not that are actively dangerous, but who are just sort of self-styled dom(me)s who don't really know what they're doing." However, there are some so-called dominants who take their partner's submission "as an invitation to do whatever they want." Participants noted that such dominants were rare and that they were not actually practicing BDSM, but sexual assault and/or psychological abuse. As one dominant expressed with disgust, "If you betray the trust that [submissives] give you in that situation, then you're not being a dom(me), you're just being a bastard." One male dominant described this risk,
   But there are some people who are thrilled by the notion of
   control. They're thrilled by the notion of inflicting minor harm or
   major harm on another individual, but, um, without that empathy,
   without that awareness of the wants and the dangers posed to the
   submissive individual.

Following orders and accepting decisions (submissives). The main challenge for submissives specifically was also accepting the consequences of their chosen roles. Submissives mentioned that although they want to give up their power, it can be difficult to have to do what their dominants command. As one submissive explained, "It takes a lot of strength, I think, to be able to do completely what another person asks of you." Participants also reported that it could be really hard to drop whatever they are doing to attend to their dominants' wishes. One submissive revealed that, "There's also times like where I'm tired or I don't want to do something or [laughs], but, you know, it's kind of not within the terms of the relationship I'm gonna say no to things" and this sentiment was echoed by other submissives. Finally, although the submissives often did not like making decisions, they still struggled to accept some of the decisions made for them. These challenges were also recognized by dominants, who realized that putting someone else's needs first can be difficult, "I think it's harder to be a submissive, you know. You have to take care of your own needs, but you're putting someone else's need first."

In summary, all of the interviewees identified multiple benefits and challenges of BDSM generally, or specific to their preferred role. However, several emphasized that, despite very real challenges, the benefits as described above and the sense of being authentic to one's true desires outweighed the challenges. Several participants actively counterpoised benefits and challenges in their interviews. For instance, although stigma was readily identified by several participants as a negative of BDSM, several participants weighed this against the strong sense of community and acceptance they experienced from the other members of the BDSM community and felt that this outweighed this drawback. Others, as they discussed negative aspects, concluded that the benefits outweighed costs for them primarily because pursuing their BDSM desires meant that they were being true to themselves. A female submissive stated, "Well there are challenges, but it's worth it and I'll tell you what, it makes me a better person all around just to try to meet them and change the challenges." One participant linked all of these together in the following statement:
   But I knew that if I didn't at least figure what this thing was
   that I was never gonna be happy again, alright. So, um, the stigmas
   are important, but you can't go to bed with that. They don't lick
   my skin, so I gotta do what's right for me.


The current exploratory study attempted to elucidate some of the benefits and challenges of BDSM from the words of participants with the seemingly opposite, but complementary, role preferences of dominance and submission. Participants described a variety of benefits and challenges, as well as personality traits that were common to their role. Participants listed aspects of their personality that were congruent and those that were incongruent with their role, suggesting, in some cases, that BDSM play allowed them to be more themselves and to explore novel aspects of themselves that do not see expression in their day-to-day lives. In addition, even those who did feel their personality was primarily congruent or incongruent with their BDSM role tended to also mention that they knew BDSM practitioners who fit the opposite stereotype. Thus, it would appear that the reality is much more textured and complex, with participants identifying aspects of both of these views in their assessment of themselves and other BDSM practitioners, a finding that highlights the diversity and complexity of BDSM practitioners and the risks inherent to oversimplifying or dichotomizing.

Although the development of BDSM identity was not discussed in detail, comments from participants would suggest that their preferred BDSM roles were the result of a combination of social norms both within and outside of the community and their own desires, as Sexual Script theory postulates (Gagnon & Simon, 1973; Simon & Gagnon, 1986). As would be expected, the personality characteristics of submissives included a strong willingness to give up control and a powerful desire to please. The most commonly-reported personality characteristic of a good dominant was empathy and nurturance. This was followed by a desire and ability to take control of people and situations. Finally, dominants are very responsible and attentive toward their submissive partners. When discussing the illusion of power, participants appeared to agree with the popular literature on BDSM stating that dominants do not, in fact, hold more power (Easton & Hardy, 2001). Instead, the majority of participants insisted that both roles had their own equal, but different, power. Among the minority who felt the power was not equal, all but one insisted that it is the submissives who hold more power because they set the limits and can stop the scene at any time. Despite this, the illusion of power is necessary for both roles to optimally enjoy the scene.

All participants indicated that their BDSM play improved their lives, with diverse benefits ascribed to both roles. Several of the identified benefits had been previously suggested to be benefits of BDSM by other researchers, clinicians, and authors. The benefits of communication, trust, and intimacy discussed by Nichols' (2006) all made up facets of improved romantic relationships, which also supports Kleinplatz' (2006) recommendation that traditional couples could learn a lot from BDSM practitioners. Participants in the current study also commonly reported that great sex was a benefit (subsumed under pleasure and arousal), which is congruent with Kleinplatz et al.'s (2009) finding that sadomasochism practitioners report that they are in a particularly good position to experience optimal sex due to skills learned from BDSM play. The benefit of psychological release was also found by Lindemann (2011) in her study of professional dominatrices and Moser and Levitt's (1987) finding that a majority of BDSM practitioners enjoy BDSM as much as or more than vanilla sexual activity was supported. What Nichols (2006) called exploration and excitement roughly map onto the benefit of fun, variety, and going beyond vanilla, as well as pleasure and arousal. Similarly, what she called empowerment was mentioned by dominants in the categories of control or power, confidence, and freedom from day-to-day roles, but was not a theme for submissives. However, it is important to note that Nichols (2006) identified benefits of BDSM practice overall, and was not necessarily suggesting that these benefits applied to both roles equally. Moreover, submissives may be empowered by being able to give up control as they are choosing to follow their desire to be dominated. Finally, Baumeister (1997) proposed that people are drawn to sexual masochism partly by means of a desire to escape the stresses and limitations of one's ordinary identity. Our results both support and diverge from this perspective. Although some participants (both submissive and dominant) clearly expressed a benefit of escaping their daily role, interviewees also described being able to be themselves in a different context, to be more of themselves, or to express different aspects of themselves. Some described expressing themselves differently based on their play partners or their needs at the time. Thus, even within the same participant's interview, some BDSM practitioners discussed their roles (e.g., dominance) as being an escape from their typical roles (e.g., at work), but also being more true to their authentic selves. Thus, it may be more accurate to think of BDSM as providing an opportunity or context to freely explore aspects of oneself--whether this means being more dominant if one is dominant in day-to-day life, or exploring aspects of self that are different, but still part of the Gestalt of the entire person. Some participants implied that their BDSM roles were actually more similar to who they really are than their everyday personas are, so perhaps BDSM allows people to explore different dimensions of themselves and, in doing so, enact more complex and authentic selves.

Like any activity, BDSM has its challenges and most participants agreed that there are unique challenges for each role and shared challenges as well. For dominants, the two main challenges reported were that dominance involves more work and responsibility, which can be taxing even if one wants such power, and the possibility of encountering a possessive submissive partner who has difficulty coping with the challenges of BDSM. For submissives, vulnerability and bad dominants were reported as risks, although participants were quick to explain that such bad dominants were not really engaging in BDSM, but abuse. In addition, following orders and accepting decisions was seen as particularly difficult, even though submissives reported a strong desire to do so. There were also shared challenges: stigma, relationship problems, and accepting desires. Often the problems with accepting one's own desires seemed to be caused by the stigma surrounding BDSM play. One of the reported results of this stigma included job loss, which Palandri and Green (2000) found to be a common fear of BDSM practitioners. Connolly (2006) found a little more than half of BDSM practitioners worry about others finding out about their sexual proclivities, which was supported in the current study.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

Given that many participants were recruited through BDSM "subreddits," practitioners who do not use Reddit would be under-represented. Also, those who had more negative experiences might have been less likely to volunteer to be interviewed about their BDSM experiences. Further, given the stigma around BDSM, participants may have been more comfortable emphasizing the positive aspects of their experiences than the negative aspects. Although participants did report considerably more benefits than challenges, they still described numerous negative aspects. Another limitation was that although practitioners with a range of BDSM roles, genders, and sexual orientations were interviewed, men in BDSM relationships with other men may have been underrepresented.

In addition, the current study focused on participants who identified primarily with one role; thus no self-identified switches were able to participate. It was decided that a focus on those with strong preferences for one role in the power exchange would allow an exploration of the potentially unique aspects of these distinct roles. It is not our intention to suggest that research does not need to be inclusive of the full spectrum of diversity of BDSM; rather, given the tendency of previous empirical studies to typically lump all roles together, this unique look at seemingly "opposite" roles was intended to be a good initial exploratory step and means of illuminating shared and distinct messages coming from each group of practitioners. As switches are a very important part of the BDSM community, future research should include them as well. For the purposes of this exploratory study, different forms of dominant roles (dominant, top, sadist) and different forms of submissive roles (submissive, bottom, masochist) were considered together. However, future research could be done on how these, and other roles mentioned during the interviews (master, slave, brat, gentle dominant, etc.) differ. These labels were important to the participants and conveyed different meanings, yet research to date has not been so nuanced.

doi: 10.3138/cjhs.2467


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Ali Hebert (1) and Angela Weaver (1)

(1) Department of Psychology, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, NS

Correspondence concerning concerning this article should be addressed to Angela Weaver, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, St. Francis Xavier University, PO Box 5000, Antigonish, NS, Canada, B2G 2W5. E-mail:
Table 1. Topics and Themes

Topic             Theme

Personality       Willingness to Give up Control (Submissives)

Characteristics   Desire to Please (Submissives)
                  Empathic and Nurturing (Dominants)
                  Desire and Ability to Take Control (Dominants)
                  Attentive and Responsible (Dominants)

Benefits          Pleasure from Pleasuring Others (Both)
                  Physical Pleasure and Arousal (Both)
                  Fun, Variety, and Going Beyond Vanilla (Both)
                  Personal Growth (Both)
                  Improved Romantic Relationships (Both)
                  Community (Both)
                  Psychological Release (Both)
                  Freedom from day-to-day roles (Both)
                  Being Yourself (Both)
                  Control or Power (Dominants)
                  Rewards (Dominants)
                  Confidence (Dominants)
                  Giving up Control (Submissives)

Challenges        Stigma (Both)
                  Relationship Problems (Both)
                  Accepting Desires (Both)
                  More Work and Responsibility (Dominants)
                  Possessive Submissives (Dominants)
                  Vulnerability (Submissives)
                  Bad Dominants (Submissives)
                  Following Orders and Accepting Decisions
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Author:Hebert, Ali; Weaver, Angela
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Article Type:Report
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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