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Study Explores Personality and BDSM Roles

Reviewed by the medical professionals of the ISSM’s Communication Committee

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Personality traits might have some influence on the sexual roles chosen by BDSM practitioners, according to a new Journal of Sexual Medicine study.

However, the relationship between personality and BDSM role might not be that noticeable, the authors noted.

The acronym BDSM stands for bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, sadism-masochism. BDSM is a consensual activity during which people play sexual roles related to power. Activities may involve pain and humiliation, but partners generally negotiate and agree on what is or is not acceptable.

People who practice BDSM generally identify as dominant (having more power) or submissive (having less power). A person in a switch role may be dominant in some circumstances and submissive in others.

In the current study, researchers explored the degree to which dominant or submissive personality traits were linked to BDSM roles. As BSDM participants are often stigmatized because of their practices, understanding these links could help healthcare providers who work with this population.

  • The study included 279 BDSM practitioners. Approximately 25% said they played dominant roles, 38% were submissive, and 37% identified as switch. Almost 60% of the group identified as female, 36% identified as male, and 4% identified as nonbinary. Just over half were heterosexual, 29% were bisexual, and 6% were homosexual. About 1% identified as asexual, and 11% chose “other” for their sexual orientation. Over a quarter of the group was in the 25-34 age group.
  • Researchers use the dominance scale of the Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI) to assess degrees of dominance and submissiveness. Lower scores on this scale indicate a tendency toward submissiveness. More dominant personalities yield higher PAI scores.
  • The researchers also used the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) to assess empathy.
  • The results showed that dominant participants generally scored higher on the PAI dominance scale, followed by switches and submissives. Submissives scored the lowest on this scale.
  • Dominant participants were more likely to fall into a “markedly elevated” range on the PAI. Having markedly elevated scores might suggest that these individuals were more controlling than others in the category. But the designation was still “well below” the level that would suggest problems with relationships, the authors explained.
  • PAI scores for switches and submissives were “solidly” in the average range.
  • IRI scores suggested no differences in empathy among the groups.
  • These results suggest that “the personality and psychopathology of individuals who engage in BDSM are similar to the general population,” the authors wrote.

“Although there are differences in interpersonal dominance, these characteristics are not likely to be prominent in individuals’ everyday interactions,” they added.


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