Sunday, March 2, 2014

Losing Control of the Story: Our BDSM Research Goes Viral

Welcome to The Science of BDSM, the blog for the Northern Illinois University BDSM Research Team! We hope to use this blog to share the latest research findings on consensual BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadomasochism) and related topics. You can also find us at and on Twitter at @scienceofbdsm.

For our first post, I want to share some thoughts on the publicity our research has been getting over the past couple of weeks after being featured in an article in LiveScience. The LiveScience article, “The New Yoga? Sadomasochism Leads to Altered States, Study Finds” was picked up by the Huffington Post (“Consensual Sadomasochism May Actually Lead To Altered States Of Consciousness”), the Daily Mail (“S&M is GOOD for you: Researchers say sadomasochism can lead to an 'altered state of consciousness' similar to meditation”), and a variety of other outlets. I’ve never had a story “go viral” before, and the experience has been both exciting and disconcerting. But first a bit of background:

Last month, James Ambler and I presented a pair of posters at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. James’s poster described an experiment designed to test whether BDSM activities cause altered states of consciousness in tops and bottoms. My poster described our research on hook/energy-pulls.

This is pretty edgy stuff for a psychology conference, and it attracted the interest of a reporter from LiveScience, Stephanie Pappas. Shortly after the conference, James and I spoke with Stephanie for about 15 minutes about the research. We threw a lot of information at her during those 15 minutes, and I thought she did a great job of distilling that information into an article that got the essence of the studies and findings almost exactly right. But distilling two complicated lines of research into a 900-word article means that some of the details were inevitably left out.


Going through the article with a fine-toothed-comb, here’s what I found:

1) The acronym “BDSM” includes “dominance and submission” in addition to “bondage and discipline” and “sadomasochism”.

2) The Stroop test that we used presented participants with two types of trials: mismatched trials in which a color word appears in a different color of text (“red” in green text, for example), and matched trials in which a color word appears in the same color of text (“red” in red text) or “xxxx” appears in any color of text. Participants are instructed to ignore what the word says and instead to press a button at the bottom of the screen corresponding to the color of text (the buttons are labeled “red” “green” “blue” and “yellow” in black type). The mismatched trials are difficult because our automatic response is to read the word rather than look at the color of text. The Stroop score is calculated as the average time it takes to answer the mismatched trials minus the average time it takes to answer the matched trials, with higher Stroop scores indicating poorer performance on the task.

3) Although the article describes altered states of consciousness as the appeal of SM, we believe that these altered states represent part of the appeal of SM, not all of the appeal.

4) The article refers to the participants’ BDSM activities as “sexual ‘scenes’”, but the scenes varied in the extent to which they were sexual.

5) The studies discussed under “Spiritual, not sexual” examined a ritual often called a hook-pull or an energy-pull. We’ve collected data at three hook-pulls: The “Dance of Souls” at the 2012 Southwest Leather Conference in Phoenix, AZ, a hook-pull at the 2013 Leather Levi Weekend in Northern California, and the “Dance of Souls” at the 2014 Southwest Leather Conference in Phoenix, AZ. The hook-pull in which we surveyed 22 participants was the event at the 2013 Leather Levi Weekend. The cortisol results came from the 2012 Dance of Souls. We also collected saliva samples at the Leather Levi Weekend and the 2014 Dance of Souls, but we have not yet analyzed the samples for cortisol levels.

As the story propagated, more errors were introduced. For example, at some point, the “Stroop” task became the “Strook” task. That was the point I realized we had totally lost control of the story.

Losing Control of the Story

For me, one of the more unnerving things about the past couple of weeks was the realization that we were no longer in control of the presentation of our research. Academic publishing is slow (sometimes glacially slow). It prioritizes precision over speed because journal articles represent a permanent repository of scientific knowledge. As a result, when I publish an academic article, I have nearly 100% control over what appears in that article.

Peer-reviewed journal articles also provide a lot more space to include things that don’t fit in an article in the popular press. For the altered states research, for example, our journal article will include:

1) The foundation of prior research that our work is based on (Baumeister’s theory of Masochism as Escape from Self, Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, Dietrich’s Transient Hypofrontality Hypothesis).

2) Acknowledgements of all the people who made this research possible. Here’s how this reads in the altered states paper: “This study was generously supported by a grant from CLAW ( and CARAS (, a donation of space by APEX (, and travel funds from Northern Illinois University’s Presidential Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. We thank Archer, Tess, Mick, and South for their help with the logistics of the study, Leslie Matuszewich for analyzing the saliva samples, and especially our participants for sharing their time, their scenes, and themselves with us.”

3) A full list of research collaborators.

4) Plus a lot more detail about everything.

Likewise, for the study on the 2012 Dance of Souls, our journal articles will include the foundation of prior research, acknowledgements, research collaborators, as well as a special section describing the history of the Dance of Souls including its roots in the Plains Native American Sundance and the Hindu Thaipusam festival, the central role of Fakir Musafar in introducing hook pulls and ball dances to the sadomasochistic and body modification communities, and the introduction of ball dances and hook pulls to the Arizona Power Exchange and the Southwest Leather Conference by Fakir Musafar and Cleo Dubois.

Future articles that describe the Leather Levi Weekend hook-pull, the 2014 Dance of Souls, etc. will include all these elements as well.

Do I wish all this stuff could have made it into the LiveScience article? Absolutely. But the LiveScience article was about 900 words, and there simply isn’t room in a 900-word article to describe everything that will appear in multiple full-length academic papers.

Lastly, although many of our findings will seem obvious to those in the BDSM community, they are not necessarily obvious to those outside the community. For example, in our 2009 paper “Hormonal Changes and Couple Bonding in Consensual Sadomasochistic Activity”, we documented caring behaviors that occurred between scene partners during and after their scenes. Of course, the concept of “aftercare” will come as no shock to anyone from the BDSM community, but it has been an eye-opener for many in the scientific community who were unaware of the positive relationship context in which BDSM activities typically occur. We believe that documenting things like aftercare and the pleasant altered states of consciousness that BDSM activities can produce will help counteract the negative stereotypes of BDSM that still pervade our society.