BDSM Communities Are Less Rapey Than the General Population

According to new research from Northern Illinois University, participants in "cultures of consent" like BDSM engage in less rape myth acceptance, benevolent sexism, and victim blaming.

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May 10 2016, 5:00pm

A new study suggests our nation's children would be better off learning about consensual sex from dungeon masters than their awkward gym teachers.

After measuring rates of "hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, victim blaming, expectation of sexual aggression, and acceptance of sexual aggression" in three groups, researchers at Northern Illinois University found that BDSM communities with "cultures of consent" held significantly lower rape-supportive beliefs compared to college undergraduates and the general public.

"BDSM culture is built around affirmative consent norms, including talking about and negotiating a scene way beforehand," Kathryn Klement, one of the study's authors, told Broadly. "It's about not just seeing sexual consent as an on-off switch—yes or no—but as a continuous process."

Another poll backs this up. According to a large survey of BDSM practitioners conducted by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) in 2012, at least 85 percent of respondents endorsed statements like "a person can revoke consent at any time," "consent should be an ongoing discussion in a relationship," and "clear, overt consent must be given before a scene." Over 93 percent of respondents endorsed the statement "consent is not valid when coerced."

To test whether individuals in the sadomasochist world held fewer rape-supportive beliefs, the researchers at Northern Illinois asked them whether they agreed with a number of victim-blaming statements, like "if a girl goes to a room alone with a guy at a party, it is her fault if she is raped" and "rape happens when a guy's sex drive goes out of control." They also measured how respondents felt about sexual aggression being used in various scenarios, like if a man was stoned, drunk, or so turned on that he "couldn't stop."

The results showed that the kink community had significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism (using sexist stereotypes to give women backhanded compliments, for example), rape myth acceptance, and victim blaming compared to members of the general public recruited online, as well as to college students who took the survey for class credit.

Read More: Does Withholding Sex Make Your Partner Want You More?

The study seems to contradict recent reports from victims who were shamed by the BDSM scene when they came forward with allegations of abuse, though it shouldn't. Klement acknowledges that a perceived culture of consent can inoculate the community against allegations of sexual violence, giving violators plausible deniability. But despite the presence of serial predators—which exist in every scene—another poll by the NCSF found that a majority of those in the BDSM community saw the subculture as "safer for them than mainstream society."

Might the general public have something to learn from the way kinksters talk to each other before, during, and after a flogging sesh? Those who study BDSM believe the same rules of engagement could easily be applied to vanilla encounters.

"Affirmative consent is kind of like foreplay," Susan Wright, member of the NCSF board of directors, told Broadly. "Talking about what you want to get into is such a sexy, vulnerable thing to do. It really heightens the intensity."

This way of thinking about sex could also be useful for teaching consent to the young and horny. Last year, California became the first state to require high schools to promote affirmative consent in sex ed classes. The so-called "yes means yes" policy doesn't focus on sketching out scenes beforehand, but it's worth contemplating what might happen if sex educators took a page out of the dom's playbook.

For her part, Klement wants to follow up her research with more qualitative analysis on rape myths and BDSM (she told me investigating rape myths is her greatest academic passion). Her research lab at the university—called the "Science of BDSM" and founded by Northern Illinois University psychology professor Brad Sagarin—is also studying the relationship between BDSM and altered states of consciousness like "subspace," or the meditative flow that submissives can achieve when they fully relinquish control.

Other research indicates that practitioners of BDSM have more secure relationships and lower anxiety. "Our lab was the first in academia to look at 'aftercare' [the attention given to a partner at the end of a scene]," Klement said. "Brad looked at cortisol differences and the relationship closeness it can create. Academics were like, 'Woah. We never thought that people who liked to beat the shit out of each other would actually care about each other afterwards.'"