Researching the Psychology of BDSM

Despite the provocative image on King of Paine’s cover, I did not set out to write a novel about BDSM. The story remains primarily a whodunit that follows two investigations, the FBI’s pursuit of a stalker committing a series of kinky Internet crimes and a reporter tracking the disappearance of wealthy senior citizens. But as themes about control and its abandonment to faith and chance emerged, the BDSM elements began to predominate. In today’s post, we’ll take a peek inside the minds of practitioners of the art, essential research I used in developing a few of my characters.

BDSM is shorthand for the sexual subcultures of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism–erotic behaviors linked primarily by a consensual imbalance in the power relationship between adults. While some lunatics take the practice to extremes, many mainstream Americans–particularly educated, upper-middle class men and women–experiment with BDSM both in online roleplay and live sessions. My FBI protagonist, Frank Paine, was one of them until a tragic miscalculation cost him the woman he loves. Now, three years later, when a stalker lures him into a case involving a similar debacle, Frank reenters this forbidden world to protect his secrets and reconnect with his soulmate.

The crime that draws Frank’s attention involves a rogue online roleplayer who seduces his partners into live bondage encounters under false pretenses, a scenario loosely based on a case study I read in Psychology Today. The victim’s mindset intrigued me. What would lead a rational woman to meet a stranger she met online–where deception is the norm–and relinquish control over her body?

To find answers, I read everything I could find online about BDSM, from Wikepedia to first person blogs to another series of more general articles in Psychology Today. I even went undercover into the BDSM chat rooms (without contracting any virtual rashes!). These resources helped me understand the psychological attraction to BDSM and how an illusion of safety is created by the complex rules, rituals, roles and dynamics that insulate the experience. Trust and faith in your partner is critical, but an element of risk is essential to generate the thrill–the emotional release–participants crave.

I may be extrapolating from my own misconceptions, but I suspect when outsiders think of BDSM they conjure imagery of sadistic men and women wielding whips and chains, subjecting reluctant partners to abuse and sexual humiliation. In reality, whether the encounter is live or simulated online in a chat session, BDSM is a sort of roleplaying, where normal people in fine mental health act out a fantasy that involves taking or giving up power for a limited time. Sex is often involved, but not always. The reward is in the playing of the game itself, a scenario unlikely to end in disaster when directed by a trustworthy partner prepared to stop upon even a whisper of a prearranged safe word.

According to psychologists, acting the part of the submissive in these roleplay scenarios can be tremendously liberating, particularly for people who aren’t comfortable exploring their sexuality or personal boundaries. They want the fantasy of shedding their own identity, with its autonomy and responsibility, and submitting entirely to the will of another. The essential component is not the pain or bondage itself, but rather the knowledge that one person has complete control over the other. It can be a total emotional release.

In King of Paine, the woman who falls victim to her partner’s trickery lives a double life, a repressed nurse by day who roams cyberspace at night in search of the increasingly daring scenarios her alter ego craves. After roleplaying with a trusted partner online for months, she succumbs to his mantra, “no risk, no thrill,” on a lonely Christmas Day and agrees to a limited contact session in a classy hotel. My findings inspired this moment of reflection by Frank Paine as he’s interviewing the victim after her bondage fantasy went out of control:

After probing the minds of countless submissive women online, he believed that, at some level, they all wanted to release the wild animal caged inside them but feared accountability. Their natural sexual urges were so bottled up by rules made by others—gods, fathers, and politicians—they needed to be liberated by forces beyond their control. Most BDSM scenes included some element of coercion—enslavement, blackmail, trickery, or physical force—to enable the sub to experience her fantasy without choosing to violate social norms. Penny seemed genuinely sad and angry, but he wondered if her indignation served more as a subconscious charade for the benefit of her repressors than heartfelt anguish.

While Penny Johnson may have taken an imprudent risk, the desires that motivated her are quite common–Psychology Today estimates that up to a third of all women have fantasies of being dominated sexually. With our culture placing more demands on the individual, the stress associated with living up to expectations increases, along with the desire to occasionally shed that super-man/woman image. And that is exactly the point of BDSM roleplay–you can, with a little imagination, shed your normal self to a shocking degree. The more control abandoned, the greater the emotional release. No risk, no thrill.

 

Comments are closed.