Your Brain on BDSM: The Psychology Behind the Scenes

 

Does the thought of BDSM turn you on? If you answered yes to that question, why does it turn you on? Understanding your body and how it works can and most definitely will lead to amazing sex! Your brain is the largest erogenous zone.  While your brain can evoke images of bondage and submission, practitioners of BDSM conclude that the delightful discipline and pain attributed to their fetish is more pleasurable, albeit addicting, because of the rush of endorphins one will experience [1]. 

What is BDSM?

BDSM can break into categories, and these categories can serve as an overall umbrella housing a full range of kinks. It can be as many elements as a person is comfortable with or just one aspect; there is no judgment in BDSM.

  • Bondage: Ropes, handcuffs, and restraints! Restricting a partner’s movement increases sexual pleasure for some.

  • Discipline: Kinkly.com provides that “discipline refers to the practice of training a submissive to obey a dominant and follow certain rules” [2].

  • Dominance/ submission (D/s):  A Dominant (Dom) is an individual who exerts power and control within negotiated limits over their submissive (sub). Meg-John Barker explains in her book “Rewriting the Rules” that D/s is different from SM due to the power exchange between the participants instead of physical sensation; however, confusingly, these terms can and will be used interchangeably throughout your journey [3].

  • Sadism and Masochism: Often referred to as Sadomasochism. Sadism involves deriving enjoyment or pleasure from inflicting pain on others, and masochism involves deriving sexual satisfaction from receiving pain or humiliation from others.

While this list is the basic list for BDSM, there are members of the community who identify as: dominant, master/mistress, top, sadist, submissive, bottom, masochist, and switch [4]. The beauty about sexuality is that it is evolving, and new terms and ideas are coming to fruition daily, so don’t limit yourself, be free to explore.

Endorphins & Subspace

Your brain is a powerful drug store packed with neurotransmitters, also known as endorphins, that can make one feel euphoric, protect you from further injury and make you feel “floaty.” Let’s explore the science behind what happens inside your brain when you participate in BDSM. Full disclosure, every individual will respond differently to BDSM; this is a general understanding of what the brain does during a mild scene. Also, there isn’t as much neurological research as there needs to be for practitioners of BDSM due to a variety of factors, but mainly the equipment isn’t sexy and wouldn’t go well in a dungeon. Researchers do know what happens in your brain during a pain and pleasure sequence, so we will apply the same concept to a mild BDSM scene.

Your incredibly sexy partner, or your Dom (who could also be just as yummy), ties you, the sub, up in some form or fashion, possibly being a bit rough and inducing a touch of pain as they bind your hands and feet. Your body is feeling the rush of excitement due to the anticipation of what is to come. This rush or a sudden surge of energy you are experiencing stems from the adrenaline released into your body. The “adrenaline rush” is characterized as feeling the need to fight or flight; therefore, the sub might need to struggle or become a bit feistier [4].

As the scene moves forward, you might find yourself unable to move as freely as before, not precisely because of the restraints but because your body seems to be in a frozen state. Your brain has now introduced a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline into play, which replaced the adrenaline you felt previously. As your Dom spanks you or participates in a pain-inflicting activity, you no longer want to fight it; you are in a state of relaxation and euphoria. This is also known as subspace or an “altered state of consciousness that people who are receiving sensations can experience” [5].

While there still needs to be more research conducted, subspace could directly result from your brain releasing dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter that tends to increase euphoria. Practically speaking, serotonin encourages people to put themselves in situations, such as a BDSM scene that will increase their confidence and self-esteem. Hermes Solenzol [6], a neuroscientist who researches pain physiology, stated that “how serotonin and dopamine in the spinal cord contribute to the mental stated during a scene is anybody’s guess.” Understanding that more research is needed to understand subspace fully has been described as feeling dissociated, deep relaxation, and even feeling high [7].

In short, BDSM can make you feel like nothing you have ever experienced before while being sober due to producing chemicals that can mimic the effects of cocaine and morphine. If you want to share a form of BDSM with your partner for the first time, start small, start simple and see if you enjoy the array of neurotransmitters that might overtake your body. As always, communicate with your partner before, during, and after to maximize your experience with this delightful form of sexual gratification.

Written by: Sex Therapist Stephanie Sigler, MS, NCC, LPC | January 2021

References

[1] Neef,N.D., Coppens, V., Huys, W., & Morrens, M. (2019). Bondage-Discipline, Dominance Submission and Sadomasochism (BDSM) From an Integrative Biopsychosocial Perspective: A Systematic Review, Sexual Medicine, Volume 7, Issue 2, Pages 129-144, ISSN 2050-1161, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esxm.2019.02.002.

[2] Kinkly.com. (2013, May 09). What is Discipline? - Definition from Kinkly. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.kinkly.com/definition/648/discipline

[3] Barker, M. (2018). Rewriting the rules an anti self-help guide to love, sex and relationships. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

[4] Martinez, K. (2018). BDSM role fluidity: A mixed-methods approach to investigating switches within dominant/submissive binaries. Journal of homosexuality, 65(10), 1299-1324.

[5] Bergland, C. (2012, November 29). The Neurochemicals of Happiness. Retrieved December 02, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201211/the-neurochemicals-happiness

[6] Solenzol, Hermes (2017, August 16). Ask a Neuroscientist: The Physiology of BDSM (Part 2/2) - How The Brain Reduces Pain. Retrieved December 02, 2020, from https://www.devianceanddesire.com/2017/09/ask-a-neuroscientist-the-physiology-of-bdsm-part-2-how-the-brain-reduces-pain/

[7] May, G. (2017, February 16). Your Brain on BDSM: Why Getting Spanked and Tied Up Makes You Feel High. Retrieved December 02, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/j5e833/your-brain-on-bdsm-why-getting-spanked-and-tied-up-makes-you-feel-high