Thursday, June 15, 2017

Can body-based rituals cause altered states of consciousness?

The Science of BDSM research team is collaborating on a new study with Primal Edgewalkers, a group that practices body-based rituals such as hook pulls, hook suspensions, firewalks, sweat lodges, and more.  I have recently returned from my second Edgewalkers event.  Before attending my first event, I asked the organizers what the primary reason for people attending was.  I was surprised at the answer I received—community and bonding. But it didn’t take me long to realize that this was indeed the case.  Over both weekends, I observed catharsis, rejuvenation, and a purging of pent up emotions. Throughout all of this, I saw strong bonds created with those who were new to the community and strong bonds reaffirmed with those who have attended before. 

In past studies, our research team found evidence of altered states of consciousness, such as flow and transient hypofrontality, during BDSM scenes and hook pulls (you can read the published articles here and here).  Our new study is designed to test whether the same types of altered states of consciousness can be found across various body-based rituals.  To this end, we plan to measure a range of physiological and psychological variables on ritual participants, those who are there in a supportive role, observers, and event leaders.  The first round of data collection will take place in Vancouver, British Colombia, this summer.  We are excited about the opportunity to expand current knowledge about altered states of consciousness and body-based rituals, and we can’t wait to begin our work with Edgewalkers! - Jen

A note from the head of the Science of BDSM Research Team: Funding for research on alternative sexuality and alternative spiritual practices is difficult to obtain through the usual funding channels such as federal granting agencies, and we are very grateful to the organizations and individuals whose generous contributions have made this research possible. For the current study, travel to the field site was made possible by a grant from Butchmanns, Inc.

People often ask us how they can contribute to our research.  We are currently seeking sponsors who would like to help fund another aspect of the Edgewalkers study: our analysis of the hormones cortisol and oxytocin.

Cortisol, a hormone associated with physiological stress, provided our first clues regarding altered states of consciousness in our studies of BDSM scenes and hook pulls. Starting with this study, we will also analyze changes in oxytocin.  Colloquially known as the love hormone, oxytocin helps to facilitate bonding and feelings of closeness. We want to see if changes in oxytocin levels are associated with the increases in bonding sometimes produced by these rituals. Cortisol and oxytocin analyses for the Vancouver Edgewalkers study will cost approximately $2500 (with the exact cost based on the number of participants).

If you would like to help sponsor this study, please visit our donate page for information on how to give a tax-free donation. - Brad

Monday, February 13, 2017

Are There Shades of Good in the "50 Shades" Trilogy?

I have read the original 50 Shades trilogy by E.L. James, and I recently watched the first 50 Shades of Grey movie (I tweeted my adventure watching the movie, which you can read about here).  
A sneak peek of my riveting commentary
Now that the second installment has hit theatres just in time for Valentine’s Day, it’s a good time to explore whether there are good things about these movies and books to balance their more problematic elements.

But first, a quick discussion of those problematic elements.

Problem #1: Christian isn’t a very good dominant.

Christian tells Ana relatively early in the story that he enjoys being in control.  When he shows her his “red room of pain,” Ana asks Christian if he is a sadist, to which he replies, horrified, “No, I’m a dominant.”  In my experience with BDSM practitioners, I’ve found them to be pretty self-aware, and willing to engage in introspection to figure out what motivates them and where their boundaries are.  Christian’s rejection of a sadist identity is at odds with his obvious desire and enjoyment around making Ana hurt, both emotionally and physically.
Christian introduces Ana to the Red Room of Pain

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Wait Wait!

I got a call from my sister this morning. She was listening to “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on NPR when they asked a question about a study out of Northern Illinois University. Turns out that study was ours! The question referred to our recent paper on altered states of consciousness in BDSM practitioners. We ran the study at the Arizona Power Exchange in 2013 with financial support from CLAW Corp. and CARAS. Our goal was to look for evidence of the altered states of consciousness that BDSM practitioners refer to as “subspace” and “topspace”. Here’s the summary from the paper:

Researchers studying consensual bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM) have theorized that individuals pursue BDSM activities, in part, due to the pleasant altered states of consciousness these activities produce. However, to date, no research has tested whether BDSM activities actually facilitate altered states. To this end, we randomly assigned 14 experienced BDSM practitioners to the bottom role (the person who is bound, receiving stimulation, or following orders) or the top role (the person providing stimulation, orders, or structure) for a BDSM scene. Results suggest that topping was associated with an altered state aligned with Csikszentmihalyi’s (1991) flow (measured with the Flow State Scale), and bottoming was associated with an altered state aligned with Dietrich’s (2003) transient hypofrontality (measured with a Stroop test) as well as some facets of flow. Additional results suggest that BDSM activities were associated with reductions in psychological stress and negative affect, and increases in sexual arousal.

The segment on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” (which you can hear at 1:47 into “Panel Round Two” on the November 12th episode) described the research as showing that BDSM can make people more creative. This is a bit of a leap from what we found. We found evidence that tops entered into the state of “flow.” As an academic, I don’t usually quote Wikipedia, but I like their definition of flow:

In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

So, tops were in a state of flow, and we suspect the flow enhanced their effectiveness as tops. It’s an interesting question whether this also made them more creative, but more research would be needed to figure this out.

For more information:
  • Here’s our paper on altered states of consciousness in BDSM practitioners.
  • Here’s another paper on altered states of consciousness. This one examines altered states in participants of an extreme ritual called the Dance of Souls.
  • Here’s a third paper that compares the physiological and psychological reactions of BDSM practitioners and extreme ritual participants.
#npr #waitwait #bdsm #scienceofbdsm

Monday, August 22, 2016

Do We Support Teaching BDSM in Schools? Not Quite, But…

Our paper on the differences in rape-supportive beliefs among BDSM practitioners, online adults, and college students has started to pick up traction in the media. We are really excited about the coverage of our research, and we hope that it will add something substantive to the conversation about sexuality and sexual education.

Our paper covered by The Young Turks.

That said, a lot of talk around our research is that in it, we advocate for teaching BDSM to kids in sex ed.  We’d like to clarify that while sex ed is incredibly important, the lessons we’d like to see added to it are regarding affirmative consent.  We think that teaching kids age-appropriate concepts throughout their school years will have positive effects.        

For example, teaching kids in kindergarten that no one should be able to touch their bodies without their permission will help them to establish boundaries and learn about bodily autonomy.  Teaching kids in middle school about what healthy relationships look like, and how to spot the signs of emotional and other kinds of subtle abuse will help them to make better choices for themselves and for their friends.  Teaching kids in high school that they should ask their partner(s) before engaging in sexual activity would then build on the lessons they learned earlier in life.

Establishing norms of affirmative consent when it comes to sexual behavior has the potential to do a lot of good.  In our study, we found that BDSM practitioners reported the lowest levels of rape myth acceptance, victim blaming, and benevolent sexism.  If affirmative consent and negotiation about sexual activity was normative in the general population, it’s possible that we could see a global reduction of problematic rape-supportive beliefs. 

Head over to our website to check out the media coverage, and to read our new research:

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Meeting BDSM Community Members Closer to Home

On February 13th, members from the Science of BDSM Research Team headed to downtown Chicago to present "The Science of BDSM" at the Galleria Domain 2.  As much as we love traveling elsewhere to present our work, we thought it was time to get to know the BDSM community in our own backyard.
The presentation began with what Sigmund Freud and other early psychiatrists believed about sadism and masochism (***Spoiler Alert*** Sadistic and Masochistic activities were considered solely pathological).  From there more recent research into the BDSM community was discussed. This newer research didn’t depict BDSM activities as pathological. Instead, it focused on the demographics and personality traits of BDSM practitioners.  From here, the presentation discussed the roots of our research team.
            What began as a conversation discussing how hormones respond differently to sex and sports turned into a series of studies looking into the physiological and psychological effects of consensual BDSM.  Among other things, these studies found that bottoms had a rise in physiological stress during their scenes, but at the same time they reported reductions in psychological stress.  We thought that this disconnect between what the body is experiencing and what the mind is experiencing might be evidence of an altered state of consciousness. One of our most recent studies found further evidence of altered states of consciousness that BDSM scenes sometimes produce, with tops entering an altered state known as flow and bottoms entering an altered state known as transient hypofrontality. 
            We would like to thank Jerith and Wilson from Galleria Domain 2 for giving us the opportunity to present. We were thrilled with the community’s positive response and sheer excitement to help with research (with many people asking what they could do immediately to help).  If you would like more information about our research, please visit us at, and if you would like to participate in one of our studies, please visit our Participate page at

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Road Trip to Indiana

Last month the BDSM research team hosted a visit from our colleagues in Phoenix, Bert and Nadine Cutler (a.k.a., Master Bert and slave nadine). Bert expressed a desire to take a road trip to Indiana to visit the Kinsey Institute and the Carter/Johnson Leather Library.  He also thought it would good for the research team to make some connections with other sex researchers at Indiana University, and so we piled into a couple of cars and away we went.

Our first stop was the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by Pat Lacy, the administrative secretary who had organized our tour times and meetings with the staff members. Liana Zhou, the Director of Archives, then took us on a tour of the Institute’s library stacks. We stood in amazement of the sheer volume of work that the institution has collected, both academic and non-academic. Liana graciously pulled out some very interesting things to show us, including some “Tijuana-bibles”, also known as “eight-pagers”- palm sized erotic comic books that were produced from the 1920’s to the 1960’s.
In the Kinsey stacks. 
(Top row from left to right: Brad Sagarin, Kathryn Klement, Jennifer Erickson, Michael Wagner, Bert Cutler, Paul Sarun;
Bottom row from left to right: Ellen Lee, Nadine Cutler )

We then visited with Catherine Johnson-Roehr, the Institute’s Curator of Art, Artifacts, and Photographs, who had spent time pulling out BDSM artwork from their collection just for us—so many incredible photographs and drawings! She also walked us through the halls explaining their exhibits and even let us tour one of the lab rooms used to study sexual arousal (complete with vaginal photolethysmographs and penile cuffs). We also met Dr. Tierney Lorenz, a visiting research scientist, who graciously lent us a set of heart rate monitors for one of our research projects.

The staff members at the Kinsey Institute were incredibly generous with their time. They were also very supportive of our work, which we found invigorating and validating. We got to hear about some of the challenges various researchers at Kinsey have experienced over the years, including problems securing funding and dealing with negative or faulty perceptions of sex research—things our team could relate to. This visit helped us to feel in touch with a community of scholars, a greater connection with others dedicated to sex research. It was amazing to visit such an historic place. We were so appreciative of their hospitality.

Across from the Kinsey Institute stands Ballantine Hall, home of the sociology department and where faculty member Martin S. Weinberg has taught since 1968 (he also served as a Senior Research Sociologist at the Kinsey Institute for 13 years). Immediately after our Kinsey visit, our large group squeezed into Dr. Weinberg’s office to have a chat about some of the challenges of being a sex researcher (and educator) and the future of the field. He talked about receiving death threats because of his work, and again we were humbled by the challenges that previous generations of researchers have faced. We appreciated his taking the time to talk with us; it was an honor meeting someone who has spent their career studying sexuality and forwarding the rights of sexual minorities. 

 Visiting with Dr. Weinberg. 
(From left to right: Bert Cutler, Brad Sagarin, Martin Weinberg, Michael Wagner, Nadine Cutler, Paul Sarun)

We then drove two hours south to visit with Vi Johnson and see the Carter/Johnson Leather Library, primarily located in Vi’s home. The library is a non-profit organization that collects all kinds of materials from the BDSM community, including books, magazines, posters, art, club and event pins, newspapers, event programs, and fetish clothing. She has also recently been collecting dissertations, theses, and academic journal articles on BDSM.

One of the first things Mama Vi (or Grandma Vi, she clarified, depending on your age) said to us was, “Welcome home”. And we indeed felt as if we were. We were treated to a delicious dinner and wonderful conversation with Vi, Gene, Robi, and Pulse. Vi has a great philosophy of “touch everything” in the library (even a book from 1701!); she believes this helps people connect and engage with the community’s history. And so each of us spent time browsing the shelves, pulling out various items, and marveling at the extent of this remarkable collection.

At the Carter/Johnson Leather Library. 
(Lower left to top left: Jennifer Erickson, Paul Sarun, Michael Wagner, Vi Johnson; top center: Brad Sagarin, middle center: Bert Cutler, lower center: Nadine Cutler, top right to left: Kathryn Klement, Robi, Pulse; lower right left: Ellen Lee, Gene)

The next morning before we left, Robi and Pulse took us to a 10’x20’ storage unit to see the rest of the library that doesn’t fit in Vi’s house. Among the things they showed us was a really cool exhibit called “We didn’t invent this”, which offers an historical look at the existence of BDSM across the ages, even dating back to ancient Roman culture.

We really enjoyed our visit to Vi’s home and the library, and we thank Robi, Pulse, and Gene for helping us have such a great time. In this short blog we cannot do justice to Vi’s personal story, her incredible knowledge, and the work she and her colleagues are doing to document and preserve the BDSM community’s history. We can, however, encourage you to visit the library anytime you are in Indiana or attending a BDSM conference hosting the library.

Our road trip to Indiana was both fun and educational. Again we would like to thank the staff at the Kinsey Institute, Dr. Weinberg, and Vi and her family for helping to make our trip so memorable.