Expressions of sexuality that are often referred to as “kinky” are currently highly visible in popular media forms such as TV, radio, music videos, and newspapers. The term kinky refers to unconventional sexual practices or fantasies as opposed to more conventional, “mainstream,” “straight,” or “vanilla” sexual practices (Kleinplatz & Diamond, 2014; Newmahr, 2010). One example of what may be defined as kinky sex is sexual role play, which may comprise activities such as dressing up as a nurse or a school teacher. But the definition may also include activity connected to dominance and submission as in BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, sadism, masochism). In February 2010, the Norwegian Directorate of Health removed sadomasochism from the diagnosis registry ICD after a year-long battle by sexual minority groups and organizations. Given the popularity of kinky sex in the popular media, it seems these kinds of sexual expressions have undergone a transformation from a stigmatized to a mainstream phenomenon, and perhaps particularly so in the younger segments of the population. The strong interest in activities that only a few years ago were stigmatized and classified as a mental disorder is interesting and raises several questions. One key question is, for example, what kinds of attitudes do young men and women in Norway have toward kinky sexual activities including BDSM. Another such question is how widespread are kinky sexual practices in this population?
BDSM activities involve inflicting and/or receiving pain as well as, for instance, teasing or humiliation (Wismeijer & Assen, 2013). BDSM activities range from mild deviance from standard sexual behaviors to more extreme procedures of sexual stimulation, and they vary to which extent participants take part in the activities. Studies on the prevalence of different BDSM activities are surprisingly rare. An Australian population study from the middle of the 2000s estimated that 1.8% of the sexually active population (2.2% of men and 1.3% of women) aged 16–59 years had been involved in BDSM activities during the past 12 months (Richters, de Visser, Rissel, Grulich, & Smith, 2008).
BDSM participants take on different roles where some are dominant and others are submissive, or they switch (Kleinplatz & Diamond, 2014). There is a gender difference in which roles the individual usually takes on, and it is more common for women to be submissive and for more men to be dominant (Kleinplatz & Diamond, 2014; Koenig & Eagly, 2014; Silva, 2015). It is known from previous studies that sexual fantasies vary between the genders (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Submission fantasies are more common in women than in men, and domination fantasies are more usual for men than for women. However, the power exchange in BDSM may also challenge these traditional sexual gender patterns (Lammers & Imhoff, 2015; Prior, 2013). This may be one reason consensually performed BDSM activity has the potential to increase relationship intimacy between the involved partners (Sagarin, Cutler, Cutler, Lawler-Sagarin, & Matuszewich, 2009).
It seems many of the women who have participated in studies on BDSM are single, which makes relationships the status of importance when studying BDSM practices (Pascoal, Cardoso, & Henriques, 2015; Weinberg, 2006). Another common characteristic of BDSM samples is a high level of education (Pascoal et al., 2015; Silva, 2015; Weinberg, 2006). Many persons with higher levels of education are likely to be high achievers, and for some of them, BDSM may function as a relief from everyday demands and responsibilities. Baumeister (1997) claims that a central aspect of BDSM activities is the escape from the constraints of the individual’s ordinary and controlled identity. This points to the idea that personality may also need be taken into account (Hébert & Weaver, 2014; Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013). Wismeijer and van Assen (2013) found that BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, and had a higher subjective well-being, yet they were less agreeable than people in a control group. To which extent this tendency also applies to people practicing kinky sex in general is not known.
BDSM practitioners often become aware of their fantasies and feelings in the latter half of their teens (Bezreh, Weinberg, & Edgar, 2012; Weinberg, 2006). A recent study concluded that BDSM practitioners become interested in such activities in their early twenties, but it is only in their late twenties that they start to act them out (Pascoal, Cardoso, & Henriques, 2015). This propensity could be an indication of sexuality being of great importance in the life of BDSM practitioners. However, if sexuality is perceived as very important and has a central position in an individual’s life, then the individual could accumulate more types of (both non-mainstream and mainstream) sexual activities than non-BDSM practitioners (Weinberg, 2006). Also, it should come as no surprise that non-BDSM practitioners have positive attitudes toward mainstream sexual activities, and BDSM practitioners have positive attitudes toward BDSM expressions of sexuality (Stockwell, Walker, & Eshleman, 2010).
The purpose of the present study was to examine traces of kinky sex and BDSM activities in younger men and women in Norway. Are younger adults of both genders positive toward carrying out kinky activities, which experiences do they have of kinky sex themselves, and to what extent do they want to participate in kinky sexual activities today?
What is the relationship between social background factors, attitudes, and previous sexual experience and kinky sexual activity? The conceptual model underlying this study is depicted in Figure 1.
The central dependent variables in the project are the three kinky sexual activities “sexual role play,” “bondage,” and “sex involving consensual dominance and submission.” The latter two activities can be classified as clear BDSM activities whereas “sexual role play” may also imply other kinky sexual activities. In relation to these outcomes, social background factors (gender, level of education, relationship status, the position of sexuality in life), attitudes toward different expressions of sexuality, and previous sexual experience and experimentation are included based on prior research on the sexuality of BDSM practitioners.
The poll organization Ipsos MMI sent an online questionnaire survey was sent to a representative national web sample of 2,090 persons aged 18–29 years. Of those polled, 27.2% responded (n = 568). The study was partly conducted among IPSOS MMI’s web panel (respondents in the age range of 20 to 29) and partly as an ad hoc web survey among 18- and 19-year-olds recruited to participate by phone. The respondents received one reminder. The study was conducted during the period spanning March 15 to April 24, 2013. The material from this study has also been presented elsewhere (Træen, Markovic, & Kvalem, 2016; Træen, Samuelsen, & Roen, 2016).
The questionnaire contained 138 questions about sociodemographic background, attitudes toward different expressions of sexuality, sexual activity and experiences, sexual satisfaction, body image, friends with benefit relationships, and use of and beliefs about pornography. Most of the questions had been used and validated in previous studies. The total sample was made up of 42.9% men and 57.1% women. The mean age of the respondents was 23.8 years (SD = 3.6) and there was no gender difference. The majority of the participants (91.3%) reported being heterosexual while 8.6% reported being homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, or “other.”
Lifetime experience with kinky sexual activities: The questions were introduced by the following text: Have you ever been involved in any of the following sexual activities? Please tick for all sexual activities you have been involved in, even if it was only once. The items studied in this paper were “sexual role play,” “sex involving tying up,” and “sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain.”
Current desire for kinky sexual activities: The questions were introduced by the following text: Which of the sexual activities listed below would you want to participate in today? Please tick all sexual activities you would want to be involved in. The selected items for this paper were “sexual role play,” “sex involving tying up,” and “sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain.”
Attitudes toward kinky sexual activity: Eight items were presented to the respondents under the following introduction text: “Expressions of sexuality are shown to vary, and people become sexually stimulated by different things. Below are some descriptions of certain things one may become sexually aroused by. We want to know what you think about each of these things. Is each of these something you may want to do yourself, something you do not want to do yourself but can accept that others do—for instance your partner—or something you think is absolutely unacceptable?” Each of the eight items is listed in Tables 3 and 5. Three of the items were particularly selected for analysis in the present study: “to be sexually stimulated through ritual games involving dominance and submission,” “to be sexually stimulated using violence,” and “to be sexually stimulated using consensual dominance / submission / pain.” Except for the latter item, which was constructed specially for this study, the other items were adopted from the Swedish sexual behavior study (Lewin et al., 2000) and also tested out in a study from Oslo (Træen, 1998). The response categories for the items were: “would want to do it myself,” “would not want to do it myself but would accept it if my partner wanted to,” “would not want to do it myself and cannot accept my partner doing it, but I accept that others function this way,” and “unacceptable.”
Gender: This was coded 1 = male and 2 = female.
Level of Education: The question put forward to the respondent was: “What level of education do you have (both ongoing and completed)?” The response alternatives for ongoing/completed questionnaires were 1 = Elementary school, 2 = High school, 3 = University/College, and 4 = Other education (open ended). For each alternative the respondents ticked either 1 = ongoing or 2 = completed. By combining the responses to the questions, a new ordinal variable was computed (range 1–8).
Relationship status: This benchmark was measured by the question “What is your current status with regards to relationships?” The response categories were 1 = “Single and have never been in a steady relationship,” 2 = “Single, but have been in a steady relationship,” 3 = “In a permanent relationship but do not live together,” and 4 = “Lives with a partner (cohabiting / married).”
The position of sexuality in life: This standard was measured by the question “People have different opinions about how important sexuality is. How important is sexuality in your life?” The response categories were 1 = “Not at all important,” 2 = “Quite unimportant,” 3 = “Neither nor,” 4 = “Quite important,” and 5 = “Very important.”
Sexual behavior: This benchmark was tapped by means of the following selected sets of questions:
- Parallel relationships: “Have you ever, when in a committed relationship, been sexually intimate with another person?” The response alternatives were 1 = No, 2 = Yes, had sex without partner’s consent, and 3 = Yes, had sex with partner’s consent.
- Debut ages: “How old were you the first time you experienced any of the following (if you do not have the experience please write 99): ‘Anal sex where another person penetrated you with fingers, penis, or an object,’ ‘Anal sex where you penetrated another with fingers, penis, or an object,’ and ‘Other forms of sexual interaction with another person.’”
Number of sex partners in life: This standard was measured as a continuous variable with the question “In your lifetime, how many persons have you had vaginal, oral, or anal sex with, even if it was only once?”
All statistical analyses were performed using SPSS/PC version 20. To predict experience with, or future desire to experience, BDSM activities, a number of hierarchical linear regression analyses were performed.
Table 1 shows the relationship between attitudes toward BDSM activities, gender, and level of education. The activity that most respondents would like to try themselves was to be sexually stimulated by ritual games involving dominance and submission (34.2%), and the most unacceptable activity was to be sexually stimulated using violence (78.1%).
Significantly more women (38.6%) than men (28.4%) claimed they themselves would like to be sexually stimulated by ritual games involving dominance and submission. Twelve percent of men and 5.3% of the women found this activity unacceptable (p < 0.001). More respondents with a lower (13.3%) than a higher level of education (4.8%) found the activity unacceptable, and more with high (38.1%) than lower (30.8%) levels of education claimed it was acceptable to others outside their own sphere (p < 0.01).
Trivariate analysis revealed that in men, significantly more with low (19.8%) than with high (5.6%) levels of education, found it unacceptable, and more with a high amount of education (34.5%) versus a low amount (26.7%) accepted it in others or in their partner (32.4% versus 23.8%, respectively). Equally, many with a low (29.7%) and a high (27.5%) educational level claimed they would like to try it themselves (χ2 = 13.053, 3 d.f., p = 0.005). There were no differences between the two levels of education in women (χ2 = 2.291, 3 d.f., p = 0.514).
Among those with a low level of education, 19.8% of the men and 7.3% of the women found ritual games unacceptable, 26.7% of the men and 34.9% of the women said it is acceptable in others, 23.8% of the men and 16.5% of the women accepted it in their partner, and 29.7% of the men and 41.3% of the women would like to try it themselves (χ2 = 10.572, 3 d.f., p = 0.014). In the group of respondents with a high level of education, the corresponding figures were “Unacceptable” (5.6% of men, 4.2% of women), “Acceptable in others” (34.5% of men, 40.6% of women), “Acceptable in the partner” (32.4% of men, 17.9% of women), and “Would like to try it themselves” (27.5% of the men and 37.3% of the women (χ2 = 11.114, 3 d.f., p = 0.011)).
Men’s and women’s reporting on the item about being sexually stimulated by using consensual dominance, submission, and/or pain was also somewhat different. More women (50.2%) than men (42.3%) claimed they would not want to do it themselves and could not accept their partner doing it, but they accepted that others sexually function in this way. More respondents with a high level of education (51.7%) than a low educational level (38.4%) expressed the same trend (p < 0.001). In men with lower levels of education, 33.0% said they found it unacceptable, 34.0% accepted it in others, 19.0% accepted it in their partner, and 14.0% would like to do it themselves. The corresponding percentages in men with a higher level of education were 13.5%, 48.2%, 22.7%, and 15.6%, respectively (χ2 = 13.613, 3 d.f., p = 0.003). The differences in women were smaller (χ2 = 7.840, 3 d.f., p = 0.049), but the pattern was the same as for men. Among women with lower levels of education, 26.4% said it was unacceptable, 42.7% accepted it in others, 13.6% accepted it in their partner, and 17.3% would try it themselves. The corresponding percentages in women with a high amount of education were 14.4%, 54.1%, 12.0%, and 19.6%.
Regarding attitudes toward being sexually stimulated by the use of violence, no differences existed in the reporting according to gender and level of education, neither bivariately nor trivariately.
Lifetime kinky sexual experiences
The questionnaire contained three questions about lifetime experiences with three selected kinky sex activities. Of the total sample, 62.3% reported no kinky sexual experience, 20.8% had experience with one such activity, 10.4% had been involved in two such activities, and 6.4% had participated in all three activities.
Table 2 shows the bivariate reporting of lifetime experience with selected kinky sexual activities. The most commonly reported activity was sex involving tying up, subsequently called bondage (27.5%). That was followed by sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain (18.1%) and sexual role play (15.5%). Furthermore, a higher percentage of women than men reported experience with all the activities, particularly bondage (32.4% versus 21.0%). There were no differences in the reporting of experiences according to level of education.
Regarding sexual role play, the trivariate contingency analyses revealed no differences between the level of education groups in men and in women and no gender differences in any of the levels of education. On the other hand, more men with high (25.4%) than with low (14.9%) levels of education had experience with bondage (χ2 = 3.924, 1 d.f., p = 0.048). Likewise, among respondents with low levels of education, more women (34.8%) than men (14.9%) had tried bondage (χ2 = 11.191, 1 d.f., p = 0.001). The trend was the same among respondents with a high amount of education, but the gender difference was not statistically significant (χ2 = 1.385, 1 d.f., p = 0.239). In the group of respondents with lower levels of education, more women (24.1%) than men (12.9%) reported experience with sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain (χ2 = 4.396, 1 d.f., p = 0.036). There were no gender differences in the reporting among respondents with a high level of education, and no difference existed according to levels of education in either men or women.
Hierarchical regression analyses were carried out to study the relationship between lifetime experience with kinky sexual activities and social background factors, attitudes toward different expressions of sexuality, and previous sexual experience. The predictor variables were entered in blocks: first, social background factors; second, attitudes; and third, previous sexual experiences. The results for lifetime experience with sexual role play, bondage, and sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain are presented in Table 3.
The best predictors of having experienced sexual role play were positive attitudes toward being sexually stimulated by ritual games, which included dominance and submission (β = 0.207); having had parallel sexual experience (β = 0.166); having earlier active anal sex (with fingers, penis, or an object); early debut age (β = –0.161); being female (β = 0.158); and possessing positive attitudes toward being sexually stimulated through the use of violence (β = 0.151).
The best predictors of bondage experience were positive attitudes toward being sexually stimulated by ritual games, which included dominance and submission (β = 0.195); engaging in consensual dominance/submission/pain (β = 0.183) or violence (β = 0.150); being female (β = 0.134), early active anal sex debut age (β = –0.129), or early debut age with other forms of sexual activity (β = –0.121).
Experience with sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain was best predicted by 1) positive attitudes toward being sexually stimulated through consensual dominance/submission/pain (β = 0.376) or violence (β = 0.143) and 2) a higher number of sex partners in life (β = 0.100).
Overall, social background variables explained a small percentage of the variance in all three dependent variables. In step 2, attitudes contributed significantly to the prediction of all three dependent variables after controlling for social background. This tendency explains an additional 15.1% of sexual role play experience, 22.1% of bondage experience, and 27.9% of experience with sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain. Previous sexual behavior (step 3) added significantly to the percentage of explained variance for all three dependent variables. Summarized, the included predictors explained 22.5% of the variance in experience with sexual role play, 30.2% of bondage experience, and 35.5% of the variance in sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain.
The desire for future kinky sexual experiences
The desire to participate in kinky sexual activities in the future was also tapped in the questionnaire, using the same questions as for lifetime experiences. A total of 41.9% of the sample expressed no desire for kinky sexual experience, 19.2% expressed the desire for one such activity, 22.2% expressed the desire for two such activities, and 16.7% expressed the desire for all three activities.
Table 4 shows the reporting of the current desire to participate in three selected kinky sexual activities. There were no statistically significant gender differences or differences according to level of education in the bivariate reporting. The activity most respondents would like to participate in was bondage (46.7%), followed by sexual role play (43.0%), and sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain (24.1%). For all three activities, the trivariate contingency analyses revealed no differences between the level of education groups in men and in women. Additionally, no gender difference was seen in the level of either education group.
The results from the hierarchic multiple regression analyses on the desire to participate in the aforementioned kinky sexual activities in the future are shown in Table 5.
The only statistically significant predictor of the desire to participate in sexual role play activity was a positive attitude toward being sexually stimulated by ritual games, which include dominance and submission (β = 0.292).
The best predictors of desire to participate in bondage experiences were positive attitudes toward being sexually stimulated by ritual games, which include dominance and submission (β = 0.422), and having had passive anal sex (with fingers, penis, or an object) debut at an earlier age (β = –0.133).
Wanting to participate in sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain was best predicted by positive attitudes toward being sexually stimulated through consensual dominance/submission/pain (β = 0.303) or violence (β = 0.234), an early passive anal sex (with fingers, penis, or an object) debut age (β = –0.128), and debut for other forms of sexual activity at an earlier age (β = -0.097).
As for lifetime experience with kinky sexual activity, the social background variables explained a small to moderate percentage of the variance in the three dependent variables. In step 2, attitudes contributed significantly to the prediction of all three dependent variables after controlling for social background. This inclination explains an additional 13.1% of sexual role play experience, 28.2% of bondage experience, and 31.3% of experience with sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain. In the third and final step of the analysis, previous sexual behavior added significantly to the percentage of explained variance for two of the dependent variables. Summarized, the included predictors explained 16.8% of the variance in the desire to participate in sexual role play, 35.2% in bondage activity, and 37.4% in sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain.
To sum up, we found that regarding attitudes toward kinky sexual activities, one of three respondents would like to try for themselves being sexually stimulated by ritual games involving dominance and submission, and more women than men found such practice acceptable. More than three in four respondents said that being sexually stimulated through the use of violence was unacceptable. Generally speaking, more respondents—particularly male respondents—with lower rather than higher levels of education found the various activities unacceptable, whereas more respondents—particularly women—with high rather than low levels of education claimed the activities were acceptable for all others except their partner and themselves. More women than men would engage in kinky sexual activities themselves, and more men than women claimed they would be supportive of their partner’s kinky sex preferences.
It is difficult to compare the results to the findings from other studies, first and foremost because the respondents in this study are younger than in previous studies. Among 18–74 year olds in Sweden in 1996, 34% of men and 37% of women found being sexually stimulated by ritual games involving dominance and submission unacceptable, and 13% of men and 8% of women would like to try this type of sexual activity themselves (Lewin, 2000). In Oslo 1997, 20% of men and 37% of women aged 18–49 years found this type of practice unacceptable, whereas 24% men and 15% women would like to try it themselves (Træen, 1998). Accordingly, it seems a switch in BDSM preferences from male to female has occurred. Regarding acceptance of violence, fewer changes revealed themselves between the different surveys. Even though the age composition of the samples makes comparison difficult, it is reasonable to believe that an actual change in attitudes toward kinky sexual expressions has, in fact, occurred over the past two decades.
Twenty-eight percent of the respondents, including more women than men, had participated in bondage, while less than one in five had tried sex that included consensual roughness and/or pain or sexual role play. Bondage was a more common experience among men with high versus low levels of education. The desire for future kinky sexual experiences was high, particularly for bondage and sexual role play. These findings support the discoveries from recent studies on BDSM (Kleinplatz & Diamond, 2014). One of four would like to try sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain. Even so it should be noted that for all three kinky sexual activities, it was attitudes toward kinky sex activities that had the highest predictive power, with gender and sexual experience and experimentation being less important in this respect. This finding most likely reflects people’s desire to avoid cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1962) and allow attitudes and behavior to correspond.
For people who engage in BDSM, the issue of dominant, submissive, or switch orientation, which relates to consensual power exchange dynamics, is also of import. The participant who is submissive surrenders control to the participant who is dominant, whereas those who switch may take on either role depending on the partner or the situation (Silva, 2015). The gender difference in attitudes and behavior found in the present study may relate to women having been shown to prefer a more submissive role in BDSM activities (Newmahr, 2010) and placing higher emphasis on activities that may strengthen the interpersonal relationship (Baumeister, 1989).
The study’s limitations must be confronted. The sexual activities addressed in the questions were not defined for the respondents. Accordingly, it was up to the respondents themselves to interpret and assign meaning into the concepts. This self-interpretation may have been particularly critical in understanding “sexual role play,” which could imply both BDSM and non-BDSM activities. The lack of specificity in the concept may have resulted in a lower percentage of explained variance in sexual role play compared to the two other dependent variables.
Similarities and differences exist between the items addressing BDSM. The items “ritual games, which includes dominance and submission” and “to be sexually stimulated through the use of violence” were adopted from the 1996 survey in Sweden (Lewin et al., 2000). In these items, it is not clear to the respondent whether or not these activities are consensual or non-consensual. Due to an assumed change in public knowledge about and attitudes toward BDSM from 1996 to 2013, the third item was revised to reflect that change by adding the word “consensual.” This revision was also reflected in the experience question involving “had sex that includes consensual roughness and/or pain.” It is interesting that the attitude variable “ritual games, which includes dominance and submission”—a variable that did not include the word “consensual”—was the best predictor of sexual role play and bondage. Likewise, the attitude variable emphasizing the consensual aspect proved the best predictor of the experience variables emphasizing consensual. It could be that by adding the word “consensual” the respondents made a distinction between more mainstream sexual activities and activities that more specifically have a link to an active BDSM lifestyle. This distinction can be useful for future surveys on the same topic.
One of three respondents would like to try sexual games involving dominance and submission.
On the basis of the results from this study, it can be concluded that kinky sexual activities generally seem both common and accepted in Norwegian young adults. However, to gain more insight into kinky sexual practices and BDSM habits, and the context surrounding them, studies that address this topic in particular are needed. The terms of the sexual expressions addressed in the questions were not defined for the respondents. This lack of definition should be changed in future studies so that respondents can clearly put the same meaning into the concepts. For this study, the lack of specificity in the concepts may have resulted in a lower percentage of explained variance in the dependent variables.
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