BDSM Practitioners’ Understandings of Their Initial Attraction to BDSM Sexuality: Essentialist and Constructionist Narratives

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Psychology and Sexuality


The purpose of this research was to explore essentialist and constructionist accounts within BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism) practitioners' stories about their first attraction to this sexuality. Whereas prior research has examined the ‘coming out stories’ of other sexual minorities (lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) individuals and polyamorous individuals), little scholarly attention has been paid to narratives of initial interest in BDSM. A total of 144 women and 128 men who self-identified as being involved in BDSM responded to a questionnaire that included the open-ended item ‘What first attracted you to BDSM? Please describe the reasons why you first became interested in BDSM as a sexual practice or orientation’. Using thematic analysis, we identified two mutually exclusive explanations for initial BDSM interests: (1) BDSM interests are an intrinsic part of the self and (2) BDSM interests developed because of external influences. Analyses revealed very few differences in the endorsement of these themes by either gender or BDSM role. The only gender differences found were among submissive participants: a greater proportion of men than women cited ‘intrinsic self’, whereas a greater proportion of women than men cited ‘external influences’. Additionally, a small number of participants (primarily women and primarily submissives) described a ‘socialised essentialism’, in which external influences initially brought them to BDSM, but these interests were then experienced as an essential part of themselves. We discuss these findings in relation to prior research on the meanings of BDSM practice for participants, in terms of current theorising about the role of stories in the development of one's sexual self, and in relation to essentialist, constructionist and dynamical theories of sexual identity development.


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