BDSM and Culture

Written by Westland Researcher Deema Abu-Hannoud

Understanding the experience of BDSM participants and breaking down the myth about them is important for practitioners to be able to provide the best care for their clients. However, it is also important to note that there may be cultural differences within BDSM participants. How does BDSM differ around the world, what cultural factors play into whether BDSM is enjoyed or engaged in at all. This literature review will look at this topic to better understand BDSM and culture through studies that researched the experiences of members in this community in Italy, India, Belgium, Israel, USA, and Spain.

Based on my own research, it is important to note that the available research was limited as not many studies looked into the BDSM experience and how different cultures effect it. One particular study looked at knowledge of sexuality and attitudes toward sexuality amongst counsellors and found that those two factors were positively linked with the comfort in engaging with issues of sexuality with clients in India (Gupta, 2019). It is important to note that there is no formalized comprehensive sexuality training curriculum or training for counsellors and therapists in India (Gupta, 2019). This article provided a unique insight to the experiences of counsellors from a different culture with regards to clients who would like to discuss BDSM. In one study it was shown that only 48.39% of the counsellors studied (of which the majority were women) reported being comfortable upon encountering a couple that wanted to engage in BDSM activities (Gupta, 2019). This discomfort is regarded as feelings of embarrassment along with other factors such as a lack of knowledge, and training. In particular, this study was conducted with marriage therapists to determine how comfortable they were with discussing sexual issues as a whole, not only the more taboo subject of BDSM. This goes to show how rare and difficult it is to simply talk about sex in certain cultures.  

The vast majority of studies on BDSM is focused on communities and participants in the United States, Canada, and Europe with the largest bodies being in the United States and the U.K (Simula, 2018). There are studies done in the countries mentioned, but there is very little comparative research from what I have seen and there is not enough information about the activities and identities in communities across cultures. An analysis of the “whiteness” of BDSM communities in the United States and Europe sheds light on the kind samples in present studies of BDSM (Simula, 2018). The experiences of BDSM participants of colour needs a lot more research. The likely reason this insight is relatively rare is because previous research on BDSM has focused on public BDSM communities and organizations, which tend to be predominately white, whereas people of colour or minority groups are likely to partake in private settings (Simula, 2018). 

One study found that countries such as Belgium had nearly 70% of the population express being interested in or fantasizing about BDSM (Holvoet, 2017). Similarly, a study in Spain attempted to gather some quantitative data about the BDSM Spanish community, and although not vast in the information, the study found that 51% of their sample stated bondage as the most common practice of BDSM (Rodas, 2017). Overall, of the studies that I did find, it is apparent that fantasizing or thinking about BDSM is present, however there is not enough research on their experience partaking or whether there are any active members of the BDSM community. 

Additionally, qualitative research was conducted on the experience of active Israeli BDSM members and the considerations they take into account prior to reporting sexual offences and victimization to police. There are a couple of factors that influence whether or not they report the offences including: fear of being blamed, the desire to be discreet about their interest in BDSM, shame about particular practices, and difficult explaining BDSM (Haviv, 2016). Because of the stigmatization that is heavily prevalent in this culture, individuals will not report sexual offences based on the labelling of their practices as “deviant.” Particularly, in this culture, groups that are considered different by the mainstream society are usually silenced and become invisible. When coming forward they are often attacked and labelled, therefore making them “overly visible,” and this paper acknowledged that for the Israeli BDSM community this experience is magnified (Haviv, 2016). For the Israeli community it is apparent that the stigmatization and the common misunderstanding about BDSM still exists. 

Another factor that is lacking in research that I found was an extensive look into how racism and privilege influence the experience of participants of colour in these communities and whether it influences how they engage in these communities. The following article by Cruz (2015) gives the slightest glimpse into this realm. 

Finding research that was conducted outside of western society was particularly difficult, however this paper looked into the experience of African American women who partake in BDSM play and the influence of the history of violence and slavery of women in their culture (Cruz, 2015). This paper opened the dialogue about the diversity of African American women’s sexuality and acknowledged that there is stigmatization for black female women who engage in BDSM with white tops, meaning white male tops. This stigmatization is a result of the history of violence between black and white individuals, specifically black women’s sexual domination by white men (Cruz, 2015). African American women in the BDSM community expressed being made to feel guilty for their behaviour given the domination, that they should not be enjoying, let alone wanting this. It is important for practitioners to acknowledge that for some, there is a conflict in the circumstances that bring them sexual pleasure, and the history of their marginalized community. Members of this community argued that it is the consent that is not only possible, but pleasurable for them. For some, BDSM is a critical way for which they can rethink and reclaim the history of black female sexuality and violence (Cruz, 2015). 

Finally, cultural and gender differences are also noted as a factor into the experience of BDSM community members. For example, a study of the Italian BDSM community found that the presence of women in the BDSM scene can be better understood by considering the different cultural, social and economic roles assigned to genders (Zambelli, 2017). For example, in the 1970s, women were confined to the private realm of the house and excluded from the labour force—including the fact that their roles increased following the Second World War. Men however occupied the public space, and this gave them more freedom to discuss and enact their sexuality and eroticism more freely and openly than women did (Zambelli, 2017). This could possibly explain the trends in other countries if found that there is cultural and gender difference. 

Although these studies give a slight glimpse into the experience of individuals in the BDSM community in different cultures, as well as the experience of counsellors working with BDSM clients, more research is needed for further understanding. Often the research on different cultural groups are conducted in western societies, and that provides a glimpse. However, insight into the experiences from within these countries and communities could provide an informative outlook for future counsellors and practitioners. I definitely believe that future research is needed to properly understand the experience of different cultural groups in the world of BDSM and whether their experiences differ from the predominantly white/western experience researched today. 

References: 

Ariane Cruz. (2015). Beyond black and blue: BDSM, internet pornography, and black female sexuality. Feminist Studies, 41(2), 409-436. doi:10.15767/feministstudies.41.2.409

Gupta, S. (2019). Indian counselors’ comfort and interventions with sexuality-related concerns. SAGE Open, 9(1), 215824401882176. doi:10.1177/2158244018821760

Haviv, N. (2016). Reporting sexual assaults to the police: The israeli BDSM community. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 13(3), 276-287. doi:10.1007/s13178-016-0222-4

Holvoet, L., Huys, W., Coppens, V., Seeuws, J., Goethals, K., & Morrens, M. (2017). Fifty shades of belgian gray: The prevalence of BDSM-related fantasies and activities in the general population. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 14(9), 1152-1159. doi:10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.07.003

Puig Rodas, I. (2017). A quantitative study of the spanish BDSM community, preliminary results. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 14(5), e325. doi:10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.04.546

Simula, B. L. (2019). Pleasure, power, and pain: A review of the literature on the experiences of BDSM participants. Sociology Compass, 13(3), n/a. doi:10.1111/soc4.12668

Zambelli, L. (2017). Subcultures, narratives and identification: An empirical study of BDSM (bondage, domination and submission, discipline, sadism and masochism) practices in italy. Sexuality & Culture, 21(2), 471-492. doi:10.1007/s12119-016-9400-z