No More Shades Of Grey: The True Psychology Behind Rough Sex

by Alexia LaFata
Focus Features

In this period, where women want to be treated equally, with everyone being told to "Lean In" and celebrities finally classifying themselves as feminists, it's difficult for some women to admit that, behind closed doors, they really, really just want to be dominated -- to have their hair pulled, to be tied up, to be humiliated, to receive pain.

Similarly, it's difficult for some men to admit that they really, really just want to do these things to women. After all, we're all supposed to be feminists now, so the idea of inflicting purposeful pain upon a woman seems, well, ridiculous.

In this kind of sadomasochistic (S&M) sexual relationship, the man receives pleasure from the physical or psychological pain and suffering of the woman. But these roles are not limited gender-wise: Men, too, can want to be dominated, and women can want to dominate. What gives?

In the world of S&M, which is part of a larger sphere of sexual play called BDSM [bondage and discipline (BD), dominance and submission (DS), and sadism and masochism (SM)], couples call the shots, set their limitations and engage in whatever makes them feel the sexiest, even if it's absurdly politically incorrect.

Regardless of your opinion on "Fifty Shades," the series -- and soon, the film -- catapulted elements of BDSM to the mainstream. It has become less weird to talk about nipple clamps, which, for feminists like me who support choice in all aspects of life, sound like progress.

There are varying degrees of BDSM, ranging everywhere from light spanking to a technique called tamakeri, a Japanese porn fetish of getting kicked in the balls.

BDSM is a huge umbrella term for a variety of sexual activities, Debby Herbenick, sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute, tells the Huffington Post. For some, "kink," as it's sometimes called, can be a simple feather -- for others, it can be a whip. There's no way to generalize.

The pleasure derived from BDSM is in the loss of control that comes with submission as well as in the rush of power that comes with domination. With BDSM, partners can take turns being the powerful and the powerless in the bedroom.

The most important aspect of BDSM is the continued expression of "yes," Em and Lo, popular sex bloggers and co-authors of the book 150 Shades of Play, tell Cosmopolitan.

It's absolutely crucial that each step in a BDSM environment be met with a consensual agreement to proceed. Forceful BDSM sex can be physically and psychologically taxing, so it's important that couples have high levels of trust and compassion before delving into it.

Considering the aggressive nature of BDSM, the psychological roots have long been associated with mental disorders, emotional problems or signs of early life trauma; however, enjoying elements of BDSM is not a sign that something is wrong with you, despite what mass media wants you to believe.

The brooding Mr. Grey has been criticized for his cold-hearted portrayal of BDSM as a symptom of a sickness, of some kind of deep, dark past of a neglectful "crack whore" mother. In her piece for The Guardian, psychotherapist Pamela Stephenson Connolly counters this with the following:

It has been firmly established – through the work of Peggy Kleinplatz, Charles Moser [authors of Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures] and others – that BDSM, played in a safe and consensual manner, is not proof of mental or physical illness, essential badness or emotional damage from trauma or abusive parenting, and that people cannot – and should not – be treated to cure it.

A little over a decade ago, Connolly carried out an extensive psychological study of 132 participants of the BDSM community -- the largest of the time.

Through dozens of face-to-face interviews and a range of psychological tests to determine if there were any justification for this community's sexual preferences, Connolly found that the group was "generally not mentally unhealthy," and, most notably, "instances of early abuse that had long been associated with the adult practice of BDSM were present in just a few."

So, these common notions that BDSM-style sex is indicative of psychological anxiety, a past history of sexual abuse or compensation for emotional inadequacies are false. What, then, does it mean if you like hair pulling, smacking, bondage or, yes, even nipple clamps?

"BDSM is not a pathological symptom, but one of a wide range of normative human erotic interests," asserts Connolly.

Nan Wise, sex therapist and neuroscientist who studies the brain during orgasm, agrees with this idea: "Nature loves diversity and society abhors it. There are many, many ways that people are wired for pleasure. We all have unique erotic fingerprints."

Wise emphasizes that it's "unpredicted stimuli" that fires up our dopamine receptors to give us sexual pleasure.

Exploring new sexual fantasies in the realm of BDSM, for example, allows couples to re-engage their reward centers that may have become too accustomed to doing too much of the same kind of sex. Simply put, BDSM spices things up.

There hasn't been too much research on the personality types of those who enjoy elements of BDSM, but they actually seem, overall, to be mentally healthier than non-BDSM lovers.

2013 Dutch study found that BDSM lovers were more extraverted, more open to experience, more conscientious, less neurotic, less sensitive to rejection, more securely attached and higher in subjective well-being. This study could limited in the fact that it only studied a Dutch community, but it's not too far-fetched to apply these ideas to other BDSM aficionados.

Another study found that couples who engaged in BDSM had increased levels of intimacy, and an Australian phone survey of 19,000 people found that these couples were also happier in their relationships.

Sexuality is extraordinarily variable, so much so that "variable" should probably be considered more of a norm than missionary.

And if there's any good that came from "Fifty Shades" -- that is, besides giving you and your fellow single girlfriends something to look forward to this Valentine's Day -- it's that it's opened up conversations about exploring all aspects of sexuality, even those that might seem unconventional.