Collective Sex Environments Without the Sex? Insights from the BDSM Community
As researchers who study BDSM (an umbrella term encompassing a wide range of activities related to bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism), we were excited to read Frank’s (2018) examination of research on collective sex environments. We concur with Frank that models that attempt to universalize such environments are inaccurate and potentially counterproductive to the effort to develop interventions to serve participants in these environments. We also agree with Frank that ignoring commonalities can be equally counterproductive, as the strategies used by participants in one collective sex environment to navigate risk might profitably be adopted by participants in other environments.
In this Commentary, we argue for expanding the definition of collective sex environments to fully embrace BDSM. As we describe below, BDSM practitioners share many characteristics with participants in other collective sex environments, and BDSM parties, events, and conventions have many characteristics that fit the definition of collective sex environments. Such expansion would challenge the label “collective sex environments,” as many BDSM scenes do not include activities typically thought of as sex and many BDSM practitioners conceptualize their activities as not constituting sex (Simula, 2017). Nevertheless, we believe that accommodating BDSM would not require a fundamental change to the construct but, rather, an expansion of the definitions of sexual partners and sexual activities and a consideration of a broader range of motivations for such activities. This expansion would yield several benefits. First, the theories and methods that have been used to study other collective sex environments could deepen our understanding of the collective environments in which BDSM takes place. Second, the ways that BDSM organizations have contended with HIV/STI risk could inform interventions aimed at other collective sex environments.
How BDSM Fits the Definition of Collective Sex Environments
BDSM practitioners share many characteristics with participants in other collective sex environments, including ambiguity regarding who is considered a member of the population under study, the prevalence of the various behaviors in question, stigma and discrimination stemming from BDSM identity or practice, challenges regarding the negotiation of health risks, and collective environments in which to pursue chosen activities.
Prevalence and Identification
Identifying the population of participants in any type of collective sex environment is a challenge. Frank (2018) illustrates this challenge with the example of swingers, citing a range of definitions from those based on social or sexual behavior (e.g., attendance at clubs, participation on web sites, choice of sex partners) to those based on self-identity. Identifying the population of BDSM practitioners is equally difficult because definitions of what “counts” as BDSM vary and surveys sometimes leave room for subjective interpretation of the questions. From the literature we have encountered, estimates of the prevalence of BDSM range from a low of 1.5% to a high of 68.8%. The low estimate comes from a representative sample of 19,307 Australians (Richters, de Visser, Rissel, Grulich, & Smith, 2008), 1.5% of whom answered yes to the question, “In the last 12 months have you been involved in B&D or S&M? That’s bondage and discipline, sadomasochism, or dominance and submission” (p. 1668). The high estimate comes from a representative sample of 1027 Belgians (Holvoet et al., 2017), 68.8% of whom had either performed or fantasized about a BDSM-related activity. It seems almost certain that the subpopulation of BDSM practitioners who participate in the organized BDSM community differs in important ways from the larger population of individuals who engage in BDSM activities (even if they might not label their activities “BDSM”). Pragmatically, however, an interest in collective sex environments focuses attention on the subset of BDSM practitioners who are part of the public BDSM community, alleviating the need to define and access the population of individuals who take part in BDSM solely in private.
Stigma and Discrimination
As with participants in other collective sex environments, BDSM practitioners face stigma and discrimination as well as economic, legal, and physical threats. Summarizing the results of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s 1998 Violence & Discrimination Survey, Wright (2006) explains, “Of the 1017 SM-identified individuals surveyed, thirty-six percent had suffered some kind of violence or harassment because of their SM practices, while thirty percent had been victims of job discrimination” (p. 226). Wright also describes difficulties faced by BDSM practitioners in child custody and divorce cases and attempts by conservative groups to pressure hotels to cancel BDSM conferences. Our own research has shown that BDSM practitioners are aware of the negative stereotypes that people hold of them, particularly of practitioners whose preferred BDSM roles run counter to societal gender norms (e.g., female tops, male bottoms; Lee, Klement, Sagarin, & Finkelstein, 2017).
Negotiating Health Risks
BDSM practitioners face a number of challenges negotiating health risks, including risks related to HIV/STI transmission. HIV/STI transmission could occur through the exchange of bodily fluids from conventional sexual activity when such activity is part of a BDSM scene, but transmission could also occur through BDSM-specific activities such as temporary piercings. In addition, BDSM-specific activities, such as rope bondage and breath play, introduce additional health risks, including loss of blood flow to the extremities and cardiac arrest, respectively (Wiseman, 1998).
The decisions BDSM practitioners make with respect to partner selection, acceptable versus off-limit activities, public versus private play, etc. can increase or decrease these health risks. These decisions could also be impacted by factors such as the altered states of consciousness that BDSM activities sometimes elicit (Ambler et al., 2017) and the impact of sexual arousal on decision-making (Ariely & Loewenstein, 2006).
Of greatest direct relevance to the issues raised by Frank (2018) are the collective environments in which BDSM activities take place. These include parties hosted by BDSM organizations, but they could also include demonstrations conducted at BDSM conventions and activities at BDSM-themed events such as the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. The parties vary along a number of dimensions, including (1) the gender of attendees (e.g., all men, all women, pansexual—with some BDSM conventions hosting simultaneous parties of all three types), (2) the acceptability of alcohol, (3) the BDSM activities permitted or prohibited by party rules, (4) the normative BDSM activities that typically take place (a subset of the permitted activities), (5) the norms and rules regarding sexual behavior (e.g., penetrative sex occurs regularly at some parties, is allowed but rare at other parties, and is prohibited at others), and (6) the presence or absence of private spaces out of sight of other partygoers. Most public parties share certain characteristics, however, including (1) the presence of dungeon monitors who are tasked with observing scenes to ensure adherence to the rules (Williams, 2006), (2) a prohibition on illegal drugs, and (3) a norm of individuals looking out for each other (e.g., if a participant yells “red,” a widely recognized safeword that indicates that the scene must end immediately [Pitagora, 2013] nearby attendees at the party will turn their attention to the scene to ensure that the participant’s safeword is respected).
All that said, the collective environments within which BDSM takes place should be subject to the same types of analyses that have been applied to other collective sex environments. It is not yet known, for example, the extent to which collective BDSM environments vary in terms of lighting, music, privacy, availability of safe sex supplies, norms, rules, etc., and how these characteristics relate to the activities people perform within these environments and the risks they take.
How BDSM Does Not Fit the Definition of Collective Sex Environments
Perhaps the most important way in which BDSM does not fit the definition of a collective sex environment is that BDSM practitioners seldom have sex in these environments. As Simula (2017) explains, “The majority of participants across both interview and discussion-board data strongly distinguished between sexual BDSM and ‘vanilla’ sex, explaining that while BDSM is often ‘sexual,’ it is nonetheless distinctly not ‘sex’” (p. 8). Indeed, an examination of both academic (Alison, Santtila, Sandnabba, & Nordling, 2001) and community (Wiseman, 1998) taxonomies of BDSM behaviors reveals few activities that would fit conventional definitions of sex.
The knowing use of psychological dominance and submission, and/or physical bondage, and/or pain, and/or related practices in a safe, legal, consensual manner in order for the participants to experience erotic arousal and/or personal growth. (p. 10)
Researchers have, likewise, identified a variety of non-sexual motivations for BDSM, including escaping the self (Baumeister, 1988), building community (Graham, Butler, McGraw, Cannes, & Smith, 2015), and attaining the benefits of serious leisure (Newmahr, 2010) or recreational leisure (Williams, Prior, Alvarado, Thomas, & Christensen, 2016).
Finally, BDSM practitioners’ choice of scene partners provides additional evidence of the distinction between BDSM and sex as it is typically conceived: “Many participants described experiences engaging in what they defined as ‘sexual BDSM’ with partners of any gender, despite selecting monosexual orientations (e.g., heterosexual, gay), in the demographic portion of the interview” (Simula, 2017, p. 7).
How BDSM Practitioners and Organizations Manage Risk
The BDSM community has developed a number of mechanisms to help its members navigate the physical and psychological risks inherent in BDSM activities (including, but not limited to, risks related to HIV/STI transmission). Before individuals take part in a BDSM scene (particularly with a new partner), they typically engage in an explicit process of negotiation during which each participant defines activities they are interested in, activities they are willing to perform, and activities that are off-limits. Negotiations also involve disclosure of health-related issues, including HIV/STI status, so that all participants can make informed decisions regarding what will take place (Faccio, Casini, & Cipolletta, 2014; see also Miller & Devon, 1995; Wiseman, 1998, for sample negotiation forms). Negotiations often involve defining safewords, code words that participants can use to indicate that the activities need to slow down or change or that the scene needs to end immediately (Pitagora, 2013). In addition, participants often check in with each other during the scene (Sagarin, Cutler, Cutler, Lawler-Sagarin, & Matuszewich, 2009) and during aftercare (Frank, 2018; Sagarin et al., 2009).
BDSM practitioners and organizations have codified the principles underlying appropriate BDSM into several phrases, perhaps the most popular of which was “safe, sane, and consensual.” Although each component of the phrase was open to interpretation (e.g., does “consensual” allow for renegotiation during a scene?), “safe” was often interpreted as implying safe sex. Consistent with this, some BDSM organizations required the use of barriers during activities that could lead to the exchange of bodily fluids at parties they hosted, even between participants who exchanged bodily fluids in other contexts. In recent years, however, many practitioners and organizations have replaced “safe, sane, and consensual” with “risk-aware consensual kink” or “personal responsibility, informed consensual kink” (see also Williams, Thomas, Prior, & Christensen’s, 2014, “Caring, Communication, Consent, and Caution [4Cs] framework,” Background and Introduction section, para. 3). “Risk-aware consensual kink” and “personal responsibility, informed consensual kink” are less proscriptive than “safe, sane, and consensual,” specifying instead that participants be aware of the risks they choose to take and take personal responsibility for their choices and actions. This has, in some cases, led to less restrictive rules at parties, although activities that pose a particular danger to participants (e.g., breath play) or other attendees (e.g., activities that produce airborne blood) are often still prohibited.
These mechanisms, rules, norms, and principles are not perfect. Consent violations occur (Wright, Stambaugh, & Cox, 2015) and sometimes lead to retaliatory behavior such as ostracizing or physically attacking an offender (Holt, 2016). Nevertheless, the mechanisms, rules, norms, and principles provide structures to help manage and, presumably, mitigate potential risks (empirical work to test this would be of value).
The mechanisms, norms, rules, and principles used by the BDSM community were developed by the BDSM community itself. As a result, they have likely faced less resistance than rules imposed by outside authorities. To the extent that the participants in a collective sex environment can be partners in developing interventions, these interventions might be perceived as less paternalistic and might also face less resistance. Furthermore, the interventions would benefit from the contribution of subject matter experts who have a personal understanding of the specifics of their collective sex environment and a personal connection to the individuals that the intervention is attempting to help.
The principles of “risk-aware consensual kink” and “personal responsibility, informed consensual kink” recognize that, in the end, it is the BDSM practitioner who must weigh the trade-offs of the potential decisions she or he makes. The practitioner understands the value of a potentially risky activity in a way that an outside authority might not appreciate. A participant in a different collective sex environment must likewise weigh the trade-offs of potential decisions. Clearly, there is value in interventions that equip individuals with the information they need to make informed decisions, but the designers of these interventions should recognize that it is each individual who makes the final decision regarding the level of risk she or he chooses to take (and that there are likely persuasive reasons weighing in favor of the riskier decision). Interventions designed with this limitation in mind would, we hope, empower individuals to make the best decisions for themselves.
Relationships with a community take time and effort to develop. When our research team first approached the organizers of the annual Southwest Leather Conference, for example, we offered to attend the conference and give a presentation. We assured the organizers that we would not be collecting any data, and we explained how the principle of informed consent ensured that no one would be part of one of our studies without their full knowledge and consent. We understood and respected the skepticism that many in the BDSM community held toward researchers, and we realized that it was our responsibility to demonstrate that we were deserving of trust.
In 2011, we attended the Southwest Leather Conference and presented “The Science of SM” (a phrase that would eventually inspire our team name: “The Science of BDSM Research Team”). The presentation was well attended and well received and, throughout the weekend, we had the opportunity to talk with several attendees one-on-one. In 2012, we were invited back to present and to collect data at the Dance of Souls, a 150-to-180-person piercing/drumming ritual that takes place on the last day of the conference (Klement et al., 2017). We have since been back nearly every year, collecting data at the 2014 Dance of Souls (Lee et al., 2016) and for many other studies (e.g., Klement, Sagarin, & Lee, 2017), and sharing the results of the research with the community that made the research possible. Bringing the research full circle has been both gratifying and illuminating, as members of the community express their excitement and support for the research and share their insights and perspective on the data. Our relationship with the Master/slave Conference followed a similar trajectory beginning in 2014, and as we have become more widely known within the community, we have begun to receive invitations to present and to collect data during our first year with a conference.
Collaborative relationships require substantial investment, but in our experience, they are well worth the effort. The work we do would be impossible without these relationships. They inform and inspire our research, and they engender the mutual trust that has allowed us to conduct field studies on intimate behavior in intimate settings.
We believe these types of relationships could be equally important for researchers and medical professionals developing interventions for collective sex environments, and we hope that our example can provide a useful roadmap for how these relationships can be developed. In addition, we hope that the BDSM community’s long-standing practices of explicit negotiation and affirmative consent, which we believe are instrumental in helping BDSM practitioners manage risk, might be beneficial to risk management in other settings.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest
The authors have no conflicts of interest regarding the material in this Commentary.
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