Category Archives: Science and research
Research: A history of BDSM literature
This is the first of a longish series, based on my Eroticon 2019 presentation.
It is a history of BDSM literature, taking in nearly 50,000 years of human art and history. One of my key points is that BDSM didn’t come down with Sade (who I don’t rate highly), and nor did it arrive with 50 Shades of Grey.
BDSM has been a part of human culture across an enormous time span, and our traces can be found amongst other strands, in an enormous range of cultures.
These posts are going to be coming on Fridays, so stay tuned!
Research finds that spanking children as punishment is a bad, bad practice
New international research by Michigan University used data collected by UNICEF in 62 countries—representing nearly one-third of the world’s countries—and demonstrated that caregivers’ reports of spanking were related to lower social development among 215,885 3- and 4-year-old children.
They found that children who had been physically disciplined within the last month were:
- less likely to get on well with other children
- more likely to hit, kick or bite others and
- more likely to get distracted easily
A child’s social development suffered in both cases in which he or she was spanked or during times when a sibling had been spanked, the study showed.
Garrett Pace, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student of social work and sociology, said, “It appears that in this sample … spanking may do more harm than good.” Apparently he already has a doctorate in understatement.
Pace also noted that “reductions in corporal punishment might do a great deal to reduce the burden of children’s mental health and improve child development outcomes globally.”
He called for more effort to create policies that discourage spanking internationally, noting that 54 countries have now banned hitting children.
(Spanking consenting adults, of course, is a whole different thing. But the thing is, in other contexts we know that you should never inflict sexually charged practices on scared, non-consenting children.)
WHO drops BDSM, fetishism, transvestism off the “sick” list! Part 4
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.
WHO drops “diseases” BDSM, fetishism and transvestism off the sick list! Part 3
The World Health Organisation (WHO) produces an International Classification of Diseases and Associated Health Problems (ICD). This is a diagnostic manual for the medical profession, internationally, and it also has a lot of impact on people making laws and social policy in countries around the world.
Recently, a new version of the ICD was released, that, for the first time, dropped bdsm, fetishism and transvestism from its list of “paraphilic disorders”. The word “paraphilic” essentially means “it’s sexual but they’re doing it wrong.”
Why the change? There’s been pressure on WHO from assorted advocacy groups representing LGBTQ people, and bdsm activists, to get their ICD changed, so it doesn’t enable and encourage legal discrimination against people in any of those categories. So WHO knew they should take a look at the issue.
But what made the change possible, or inevitable, was the research. Most of the “bdsm, fetishism and transvestism is bad” came from religious and other prejudice against people who are different, and that side of it had no intellectual content at all.
A lot of the “theory” that supported the view that bdsm, in particular, but also fetishism and transvestism, were bad came from the Freudian tradition, for reasons I explained in my previous post.
It’s not that the Freudians of today are especially likely to be bigots, or that people who aren’t Freudians now take Freudian writing very seriously. However, for historical reasons the vast bulk of academic writing on bdsm, at least until around 2004, was Freudian and hostile to bdsm in particular.
Naturally, a committee reviewing that literature may not take any one essay seriously, but they have to note that the majority academic stance has been one of hostility to sexual “deviance”.
The Australian nation-wide studies
But more recent research was starting to contradict that view. There are studies showing that men who took part in bdsm were less likely to accept “rape myths” than men who weren’t into bdsm, for example.
But the single most important piece of research was from Australia: The Australian Study of Sexual Health and Attitudes. That’s because they didn’t do qualitative research, or get your sample from a small bdsm community.
That kind of research is valuable if your goal is to increase understanding, but it doesn’t have much political impact.
The Australian surveys in 2002 and 2014 were nation-wide random sampling surveys, each with a sample size of 20,000 people. There was simply no room for making any suggestion of selection bias. The surveys found that about 5% of the population, or 1 in 20 people, had taken part in bdsm, or bdsm-lite bedroom games like “teacher and naughty schoolgirl”, in the last year.
When the survey result were analysed to compare the people who said they’d taken part in bdsm with the people who hadn’t, every single prediction based on the Freudian “explanation” of bdsm went crashing down in flames.
People who’d taken part in bdsm in the last year (from here on I’m going to call them “bdsm people”, or “us”) were no more likely to have spent any time in prison. Their education and income level was simply normal, no better or worse than average. Their reported enjoyment of sex was slightly higher than average. (They were probably reporting that enjoyment accurately, because they did tend to have sex slightly more often than average.)
In other news, bdsm people were no more likely than the rest of the population to have been sexually coerced, either in the last year, or ever in their life, including when under-age. (There goes the “bdsm is caused by childhood sexual abuse” theory.)
So bdsm people were as healthy, as sane, as optimistic, and so on, as the rest of the population. We’re upstanding citizens. We don’t commit crimes, or wind up in hospital, any more than the rest of the population.
Only two differences emerged: we tended to skew slightly younger than the population who hadn’t done bdsm in the last year, and we were noticeably randier.
(The 2013 survey came up with essentially the same result.)
So there is simply no factual basis, or social interest, in treating bdsm as a disease or disorder.
It simply wasn’t a sustainable position, intellectually, economically or politically. Once there was political pressure on it, and research, it had to change.
There hasn’t been a similar study that’s asked about fetishism or transvestism. But that Australian research project shifted the WHO committee more than anything else.
It had been demonstrated that virtually the entire academic literature on sexual “problems” was essentially bullshit, utterly discredited by empirical research, and based largely on ideas that Freud had (excuse the slightly Freudian expression) pulled out of his arse.
So the WHO committee had both the political will and the intellectual weaponry to make the change and stand by it.
I have a contact who’s in contact with the people reviewing the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases and Associated Health Problems (ICD).
This account is drawn from what that person told me, with some other sources.
There’s one more post about this to come.
WHO drops “diseases” BDSM, fetishism and transvestism off the sick list! Part 2
The previous post is here.
The World Health Organisation has declared that bdsm, fetishism and transvestism are not “diseases” or disorders. Its latest issue of the publication “International Classification of Diseases”, or ICD-11, has dropped these categories from its list of “paraphilic disorders”. This represents an end to years of struggle by bdsm advocates, LGBTIQ activists, also academics who pay attention to actual evidence.
This post looks at what those sexual tastes and orientations were doing there in the first place.
The Freudian hangover
They were in the ICD in the first place for two entirely spurious reasons. The first is simply bigotry and social disapproval, often but not always religiously based. The second was non-empirical theorising by pre-scientific writers on sex and psychology.
Freud is perhaps the most important culprit, because he managed to found a cult around himself and his musings, so that his influence lingered far longer than, really, it should have.
Also, Freud’s ideas about bdsm were so alarming, to those who took them seriously, that his followers had to give the “problem” of bdsm close attention.
The consequence was that from 1930 to 2000, most academic writing on bdsm was by Freudians. (I’ve used academic databases, and counted.) To most psychologists, bdsm was simply a sexual taste, that some people have and some people don’t, and they didn’t look much further than that. But if the head of a cult declared it was a threat to all life, cult followers need to spend a lot of time writing about it. To a man and woman, what they wrote was evidence-free word-spinning.
Freud believed a lot of fairly odd things about bdsm, but one of the most dangerous things he wrote was that “masochists” seek to avoid pleasure, and since all life seeks pleasure, then “masochists” must be in the service of some sort of death force. This death force is fundamentally opposed to the life force.
It seems likely that the only “masochist” Freud ever actually talked to (though he claimed otherwise) was his own daughter, Anna, who he used to spank over his knee when she was a little girl. Later, she went into analysis with her father, and they talked about the erotic feelings he’d aroused in his own daughter, in a “therapist/client relationship”.
Any modern therapist belonging to a professional association who did something as unethical (for multiple reasons) as that would get struck off so fast it’d make their ears spin.
Anyway, the one piece of evidence Freud had was that spankings can bring out an erotic, pleasured response. Ignoring that one piece of evidence, he built up an apocalyptic theory that “masochists”, as haters of pleasure and life, are trying to bring about the end of all life. Later, he decided that “sadists” are also part of the death force, as well as being the cause of Nazism. So bdsm is of tremendous importance, and it is disastrous.
(However bdsm people shouldn’t feel singled out. Freud also claimed that the Eqyptian king Akhenaten escaped his death, scrambled across the desert, converted to Judaism and became Moses. The fall-back position was that Moses was a priest of Akhenaten. Either position has to ignore the 500 year gap between Akhenaten and the rise of Judaic monotheism.
Have I digressed yet? And, Freud wrote, the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare.)
However, if Freud was right about bdsm, then you can make some empirical predictions. For example:
- people who practice bdsm are more likely to have spent time in jail, because of their anti-life, antisocial sexuality and their propensity for death and violence;
- people who practice bdsm should be earning less money, because their anti-life, anti-social sexuality would stop them from holding down a good job;
- people who practice bdsm should have less education, because their anti-life and anti-social tendencies would stop them from staying in school, let alone going on to higher education;
- people who practice bdsm should enjoy sex less than most people, since all the masochists are seeking to avoid sexual pleasure.
These and other predictions were eventually tested. Not, it goes without saying, by Freudians.
For the results, tune in the same time and place next week.
WHO drops “diseases” BDSM, fetishism and transvestism off the sick list! (Part 1)
On 18 June 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a new version of its International Classification of Diseases and Associated Health Problems (ICD). The new version, ICD-11, included a substantially re-worked version of its section on “paraphilic disorders”.
“Paraphilia” is an interesting word, by the way. It seems to have gained currency fairly recently. (I’ve got a 1983 Oxford Concise Dictionary lying about, and it’s not in it.) It was an attempt to provide a more “neutral” word than “perversion” for non-standard sexual tastes.
But “para” as a prefix means “beside” or “beyond”; so there’s still a buried assumption that the paraphilic person has “missed” the proper target in developing their “philia”, that is, the objects of their sexual desires.
So prejudice sneaked back in, even when the people using the word were presumably trying to avoid it. Never mind. They tried, anyway.
In all the editions of the ICD up to the 11th, the paraphilic disorders section included sexual sadism, sexual masochism, fetishism and transvestism.
This year, they’ve all been removed. Sexual sadism on non-consenting victims is still included, as of course it should be.
I’m going to give a history of how and why this change happened this time next week. (My next three posts are going to be sexy rather than analytical, so I won’t have time to get back to this topic till then.)
Oh, all right, here’s the quick version:
In the meantime, the short-short version is that three factors in particular fed into this change:
1 A similar change in the ICD’s sister publication, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) in its most recent version, the DSM-V;
2 Activism by bdsm and fetishist communitiers and spokespeople, particularly in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and in the United States;
3 Research showing that people who take part in bdsm are otherwise indistinguishable from everyone else. Except for being younger and hornier than the population as a whole.
The most powerful evidence came from the Australian Study of Sexual Health and Attitudes, 2003 and 2014.
Which I was involved in. Hence the gratuitous selfie on our left of the learned Doktor Mortimer taking a bow.
(Not a real doctor; just a real actual worm.)
The next post on this topic is here.
Fiery, faerie sex 1
There is a word for having a fetish for fire: pyrophilia. It involves setting, or watching, fires for sexual arousal and gratification.
It’s supposed to be different from pyromania, which is compulsively setting fires for other, non-sexual, reasons.
Me, I’ve been a psychiatric nurse, and I’ve studied psychology as part of an undergraduate degree. So although I’ve seen how the diagnostic system works in practice, I’m not any sort of expert at all.
Still, I know there’s evidence that for various reasons (academic publishing pressures, the fact that getting conditions into the DSM makes it easier for patients to claim financial support for treatment, among others) psychiatrists are – perversely – rewarded for finding new diagnoses. So behaviour that has a range of motivations may get labelled as if the motives can be separated into, for example, sexual and non-sexual.
Still, a very small number of people have had their genitalia hooked up to various devices measuring sexual arousal, and responded more strongly to images of fire than to images of an attractive person of their preferred gender. The fire is hotter than the hottie.
Still, in most cases it seems that there’s a range of motives when someone starts a fire, especially one that places lives and homes at risk.
One motivation is hostility to the people who are likely to suffer from the fire’s impact. Even if they’re unknown, the arsonist may think of them as “rich bastards”, or “adults”, or whatever. They may also be a hated racial minority.
As well, there’s anger, especially in young men, that they’re not getting the things – female company, money, fame, respect, etc – they think they’re entitled to. There are other motives.
At the same time, fire is warmth, it’s energy, it’s wild, unpredictable and free. Though it can be tamed. Those are sexy qualities.
If I’m with a girl on a beach, and I pile up some driftwood and make a fire, and we sit together staring at it, the chances that we’ll have sex are as close to 100% as makes no difference.
Setting a safe fire, and enjoying it together, is one of the basic human sexual scripts.
And from hotties to flames of passion, burning love and fires of desire, so much of our sexual language uses fire images and metaphors. We’re just… drawn to fire.
I’ve got a bdsm-flavoured fire story of my own to tell, I mean a true one. I’ll write it in the next couple of weeks.
The politics of people who take part in bdsm
I was at a munch a while back. I got into an argument with a guy who was a strong Liberal Party supporter (the right-wing party here, currently in government) about economics. He supported tax cuts to the rich, eliminating government involvement in the economy, and so forth. He said these were classic Adam Smith ideas.
I’ve read essays about Adam Smith, which said he wasn’t simply a neo-liberal monetarist, but envisaged something a lot closer to the welfare state that his followers are busy dismantling.
So I argued that those aren’t actually a set of policies that Adam Smith would support. Our argument got a bit obscure. I’d say I lost, actually. I haven’t read Adam Smith directly, and he’d read The Wealth of Nations, so I couldn’t cite chapter and verse. I’d have been better off arguing that that tax cuts to the rich, and so forth, are terrible for the economy, because they make most people too poor to buy the extra things that keep the economy going above subsistence level. But though that’s true, the munch was a social occasion, and people tend to get angry when you get on to topics like that. So I picked the more academic issue.
Anyway, most of the other people at the munch disliked the government, but mainly because it’s been pandering to the Christian right on gays and lesbians, funding to Christian schools and paying for Christian activists in non-Christian schools. That sort of thing. So our economics argument was boring, and they politely ignored it.
From my point of view politics is mostly about economics: you need to tax those who can afford it so you can provide government services that make life better for everyone, especially health, education, welfare, public housing, and necessary infrastructure. Businesses do better where there’s a decent level of social infrastructure in place.
Other issues, even including things that I have passionate feelings about (for marriage equality, and against censorship, for example), are important, but less important than whether people can get jobs that pay them enough to live on, and get wage increases.
So that’s my politics. I’m largely socialist on economic issue, and pretty much anarchist on social and sexual issues. Anything sane adult humans want to do with other sane, consenting adult humans is ok with me. People having the right to say or write or hear or read what they want: that’s ok with me too.
(Racist, sexist, nasty, and generally horrible speech should be countered and mocked, not suppressed. Happy to argue that, in some other post, if people want.)
As a bdsm pervert, I sometimes get annoyed by writers, especially those involved in pseudoscientific schools like psychoanalysis, making grand statements about the politics of people who take part in bdsm, or want to. The gist of those sweeping claims is that we’re all Nazis. We like leather boots and dressing in black: so did the SS! Case closed!
That gets old, and it was irritatingly silly and insulting the first time.
As far as I can see, we people who involve ourselves in bdsm, or dream of it, cluster to the centrist left. There’s never been a research project on how people who do bdsm vote. So I can only base my claim on anecdotal evidence like my munch, and some logic.
First, as I’ve argued before, turning power into a toy of erotic play is inherently subversive. It undermines power, and refuses to take it “seriously”. Power in bdsm doesn’t go to the man, or to the richest person. It doesn’t go to the person with the most impressive job or title. Power goes where cocks and cunts want it to go. and only stays there while the people involved are sexually pleased by that arrangement. Power in bdsm is sexual, it’s voluntarily given or assumed, and even if the play raises welts or draws blood it’s playful.
Bdsm culture emphasises informed consent. I think that emphasis is the reason why people who practice bdsm are, research studies have found, notably more sex-positive, more aware of consent and less sexist than the general population.
We are more likely to be in the sex-positive feminist or feminist-supporting faction.
BDSM eroticises voluntary power differences, but it also eroticises consent. There is nothing hotter, to me, than a submissive’s bowed head and “yes, Sir”.
Still, apart from general social and sexual liberalism, I’d guess that people who do bdsm aren’t, in general, far to the left or right of the rest of the population. Thpough we’re more likely to be in the anti-authoritarian faction of the left or right. But bdsm doesn’t force people into any political box.
Feminist women in bdsm may reasonably feel irritated when other feminists insist that their politics must be anti-feminist because of their sexual needs and choices.
So bdsm people are more likely to be liberal than authoritarian about sex, because authoritarian sexual attitudes are likely to do us harm. There may be a general lean to the centrist left on other issues, too.
Otherwise there’s no clear intrinsic political bias to bdsm, whose practitioners may be radical, conservative or entirely apolitical. People practice their bdsm, and their politics, as they do other things, according to their beliefs and the kind of people they are.
Defending the politics of bdsm 2: Bdsm and the state
The puritan feminist argument against bdsm includes the claim that bdsm works as part of the support for patriarchy, or male control of institutions and, of course, women.
The puritan case is partly based on the claim that bdsm is men dominating women. To make this claim you have to ignore the existence of lesbians and gays, and women dominants and male submissives. You also have to ignore the fact that we now know that the majority of both men and women involved in bdsm are switches, and will take either the dominant or submissive role according to mood and desire.
Some in the puritanical faction are aware of this, and try to wish it away by waving a sort of verbal wand at it: any “eroticising of power differences” supports patriarchy because, well, because.
One way of testing this is to look at what actually happens in most Western states.
We see that the institutions that do most to promote patriarchy and the subordination of women get encouragement from the state in every English-language-speaking country in the world, as well as most of the non-English-speaking Western states.
The Catholic and Baptist churches in particular, with their long-standing and still current opposition to having women in leadership roles, and opposition to women having control of their own bodies, particularly in relation to reproduction, get extensive funding from the state. That funding comes in the form of direct grants, in the form of tax-free status, in the form of (usually historical) gifts of land, and in the form of favored status when it comes to bidding to provide Government services.
Something that’s not understood by most people is that when Catholic spokespeople talk about providing hospitals the Catholic Church doesn’t provide those services with its own money. Those institutions are 100% funded from government health spending, even though they don’t offer all the services (eg abortion, and contraceptive information) that a publicly funded hospital should be offering.
In many countries the churches have special dispensation overriding laws relating to discriminating against people based on their religious belief or sexual orientation, particularly in employment.
The point is that this is an example of how governments in the West endorse and support organisations that promote patriarchal power. That’s nothing like how governments treat bdsm, and people who take part in bdsm.
Bdsm erotica, the stories we tell and the media we tell them in, is banned in many jurisdictions. Bdsm clubs and premises are frequently raided. Consenting bdsm is still a crime in many countries, most notoriously the UK. People have gone to jail for practising consensual bdsm, and others have lost custody of their children.
A bdsm master or mistress’s authority is never backed by the power of the state. I’m not arguing that it should be (of course it shouldn’t); I’m making the point that governments support and endorse institutions that help uphold male power and control, and they don’t support bdsm that way.
If bdsm really were a part of the ideological support for patriarchy, it’s puzzling that institutions upholding patriarchy, like police services and other law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, the mainstream media, the churches and so on, all seem to be unaware of the fact.
Instead bdsm practitioners, media and organisations (eg clubs) come under surveillance, police harassment, mainstream media shaming, and direct legal bans.
Bdsm does not promote male dominance (generally, though a few Goreans and domestic-discipline Christians may), and it is certainly not an ally of patriarchy. We like our dominance consensual and our dominants to be sexy.