BDSM Culture Can Make Women More Assertive In Work, Relationships

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Jul 28, 2019

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“I don’t know how to explain it … but I have more clarity the morning after. It’s come to a point where my partner and I ensure we engage in a play scene before any big meetings I have. It really gives me the boost I need.”

R.P. is a 32-year-old consultant living in Mumbai. When she joined a high-powered consulting firm seven years ago, she found herself struggling to keep up with the pace and make herself heard.

“Around the same time, I got into a relationship with a man who was into BDSM [bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; sadism and masochism] and kink play. He introduced me to it and I instantly took a liking to it,” R.P. says. “Surprisingly, I found myself gravitating towards the role of the Dominant. Within the confines of a loving and safe space with a partner I trusted, I was able to assert myself in ways I couldn’t outside my bedroom. Slowly, I began to notice that especially on days after we had engaged in a play scene, I would feel more focussed, composed and clear-headed. It was almost as if the satisfied feeling I felt in bed, in that position of power, flowed over the next day. I feel like I know more about myself — my mind and my body.”

According to recent research by Dr. Brad Sagarin, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, kinks such as BDSM alter the blood flow pattern in the brain, creating altered states of consciousness. For those who assume the dominant position in BDSM, these mental states are called “flow” — the term popularized by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It’s a state of hyperawareness, laser focus, and euphoria, which resonates with R.P.’s experience. “I just feel more brave, if that makes sense,” she says. Sagarin’s research confirms just that. The study found that people who regularly experience flow as an effect of dominant BDSM roles report improved concentration, clarity about goals, decision-making skills, and listening and intuitive skills. They also demonstrate lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, less self-consciousness and less aversion to risk.


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The study also found those taking on submissive roles in BDSM play experience “transient hypofrontality,” a peaceful, dreamlike state, often compared to a runner’s high or described as being “in the zone.” Creativity and productivity peak in this state of decreased self-awareness.

R.P. explains how her female friends from the BDSM community have discussed this before: “Sometimes when we share — and we’re all doms — our experiences with each other, we all agree that we are in a great mood throughout the next day and feel more energized and creative. It’s like a strange high, knowing what we did the previous night.”

People who experience either of these altered mental states report higher levels of happiness, creativity, and productivity for up to three days after, according to research by Harvard University professor Teresa Amabile. They also report transferring the focus, confidence, concentration, and decision-making skills of BDSM into everyday life. It is no wonder, then, that people who engage in BDSM are less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less sensitive to rejection, and have higher subjective well-being outside the bedroom, according to a 2016 study on the psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners.

“It’s like learning how to negotiate with another person.”

R.P., 32

Additionally, partners who engage in sadomasochism are more connected and more intimate than those who do not engage in it, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. The honest expression of one’s fantasies and desires, and consensually, respectfully and safely executing that as a BDSM scene, requires a high level of communication and trust between partners — a feature regularly absent from non-kinky or “vanilla” sex, as the BDSM community calls it.

“My boyfriend and I have definitely become much closer since we started exploring this space together. We don’t lie to each other in our relationship — white lies not included, and even those we mostly confess — because the trust between us is the same, inside and outside the bedroom,” says R.P. “There’s very little drama and if we ever fight, we usually resolve it by talking to each other. But it almost never reaches that point because every day, in a way, we tell each other about what it is that we want from the other person and what we don’t. It’s like learning how to negotiate with another person.”

Women have traditionally been discouraged from developing such open and clear communication skills. In 2018, former dominatrix, Kasia Urbaniak started The Academy, a school to teach women the “foundations of power and influence” via month-long female empowerment sessions in New York. Speaking to The Guardian, she says: “It’s about the communications that women carry that either make them go speechless, or afraid of coming across as too bossy or too needy.” Urbaniak explains that by being in the dominant role of BDSM, women learn to project their strength and attention outward. It’s a skill they can then use to flip the power dynamic in the outside world, where women are forced to turn their attention inward, with self-doubt and over-analysis.

A barrage of recent research hints at the effects of empowerment via BDSM: people with sexual kinks or fetishes, such as BDSM, group sex, or role-play, have better mental health, less psychological stress, higher self-worth, and more satisfying relationships.

Not everyone is convinced of BDSM’s benefits, however. The feminist sex wars over BDSM’s potential for women’s empowerment rage on, with one side seeing BDSM as a way to explore and enable female sexuality, and the other side seeing it as yet another manifestation of the hyper-masculine, patriarchal order’s violent idea of sex. But, as black lesbian poet and feminist writer Audrey Lorde puts it in a personal essay, embracing the erotic fosters a deep and irreplaceable “self-connection and fearless underlining of [one’s] capacity for joy.” Released of social context, when examined in individual’s lives and homes, BDSM seems to allow, well, release. And that kind of release writes Lorde, “flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”

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Written By Pallavi Prasad

Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle’s Features Editor. When she isn’t fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.

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