I just want to explain why perverts should be carrying me round in a sedan chair for the rest of my life.
The first Australian Survey on Sexual Health and Attitudes (ASHR) findings were reported in 2003.
At that point I became part of the story. I was struck by the presence of a question about bdsm in a national survey, and by the utter beauty of the huge, randomly selected sample that the Australian researchers had reached. I love data!
However, I learned that the ASHR team had made no analysis of how the responses of people who had participated in bdsm in the last year differed from those who hadn’t.
So I contacted them. I explained that I was fascinated that they had a data set that could for the first time test the claim that bdsm is pathological, using a large-scale sample of the population in general. I met with the Australian team, Anthony Smith, Chris Rissel, Juliet Richters, Andrew Grulich, and Richard de Visser, who were a little amused by my very specific enthusiasm for their bdsm data.
Anyway, I suggested further data analysis to compare the responses of their bdsm and non-bdsm respondents, focusing on indications of mental and social health like the response to questions about education, career and income, whether people were in a relationship, how they reported their sexual happiness, and their self-assessment of their own physical and mental health. The data could also reveal whether bdsm people were more or less likely than non-bdsm people to have been forced into sexual activity when they were children, or as adults.
The team thought this analysis would probably turn up something that they could publish in a scientific journal, even if they weren’t as interested in bdsm as I was. None of us expected that the findings would make anything like the media impact that resulted.
The key finding was that bdsm people showed no sign of being socially or personally dysfunctional, and every sign of being well-adjusted and happy. This made TV news and newspaper headlines across Europe, the Americas, Asia, the Mid-East, Australasia, Africa and so on. Much of the coverage was written in newspaper-ese, with headlines like: “Smack happy”, “You can’t beat bdsm”, “Bound to be happy”, and so on.
There was a lot of that sort of thing. Our news cheered many people who enjoy bdsm, but we made the world’s sub-editors absolutely ecstatic.
From my point of view the results contained their share of disappointments. For example, since bdsm relies on verbal and symbolic communication for much of its power, I’d expected that people attracted to bdsm would be more educated than average. However, there turned out to be no significant differences between bdsm participants and others, in terms of educational attainment.
So my self-flattering expectations were as wrong as those of the people who expected to find us haunting the mental hospitals and the jails.
That’s the beauty of evidence. It’s a piece of piss to make up theories that “justify” bigotry. But evidence is a hard-shelled beast. Watching beautiful theories encountering evidence can be as messy as watching a wagon loaded with pina colada hitting an armadillo.