How BDSM Might Benefit Your Health and Improve Your Relationship

A woman in handcuffs practicing BDSM

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The term BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism) is a catch-all phrase for a range of concepts and practices centered upon a power exchange within the context of sexual intimacy. Other activities in BDSM may include controlled voyeurism, exhibitionism, and role-playing.

This article explores BDSM and how its practice can be used to cultivate healthy romantic relationships.

The Perception of BDSM

The practices involved in BDSM have been around for centuries in many cultures, however, some still see these kinds of sexual/relationship dynamics as taboo.

According to Kim Anami, a holistic sex and relationship coach, BDSM "to an outsider, many of these ideas may seem extreme, but for centuries various cultures have used these techniques as deeper ways to explore consciousness, power, and control, as well as the dynamics of masculine and feminine energies in relationships."

For example, in addition to media sometimes portraying fetishists in a negative light, the mental health industry condemned aspects of BDSM for many years.

A Shift in the Perception of BDSM

Although there are many people who view BDSM as taboo, society has seen a notable shift in attitude toward greater acceptance and understanding of BDSM. This is partly because of the mental health industry’s adjusted stance, and also because of BDSM’s increasing popularity in pop culture.

For example, even though the bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey pointed the finger at Christian Grey’s childhood abuse for his desire to participate in “kinky sex,” the book has certainly helped make the topic less shocking.

Further, recent studies devoted to understanding BDSM and its effects on the body have shown surprising results. Not only are researchers failing to find evidence of harm BDSM may cause, but they are also discovering ways in which it might positively impact our mental and physical health or even deepen our relationships.

The Benefits of BDSM

More people, including researchers, are acknowledging the benefits of BDSM. For example, it helps to reduce stress and even build trust in relationships.

Reduced Stress Levels

Some research has shown that engaging in BDSM practices can trigger biological effects—similar to the zen you might experience during or after a fulfilling yoga session, or to the “runner’s high” you get from intense cardio. These activities can actually reduce how much cortisol (referred to as the stress hormone) is coursing through your body.

In a series of studies from Northern Illinois University, researchers took saliva samples from submissive and dominant participants during sadomasochistic scenes and the dominant partners showed a decreased level of cortisol after the session concluded.

Not only can a reduction in cortisol make us feel better mentally, but it can also positively impact our physical health. Lower cortisol levels protect us from a wide range of health ailments, including high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, and insulin resistance. 

Better Communication Skills

While some might assume the opposite would be true, exploring aspects of BDSM with your partner can actually improve your sexual relationship and ultimately bring you closer together.

Lisa Hochberger, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in sex therapy, says “Experienced BDSM practitioners usually exhibit high levels of sex education and communication skills. People plan out ‘scenes’ using many forms of safety precautions that involve a strong sense of assertiveness and negotiation as well as vulnerability."

She goes on to say, “These are the foundations of a successful relationship. It's important to know that sex is play and it is OK to be submissive or powerful in a consensual way. Also, it’s important to note that sex play roles are not equivalent to emotional relationship dynamics nor do they equal relationship power roles outside of sex play.”

At the end of the day, improved communication skills are key ingredients in the recipe for any satisfying, healthy relationship—romantic or otherwise.

Deepens Trust

In addition to strengthening your communication skills across the board, those who practice BDSM with their long-term partners can often experience a deeper sense of trust.

Kim Anami notes that, “When done consciously, practicing BDSM can be a very powerful experience for a couple, ultimately bringing them closer together."

Furthermore, she says that “All good BDSM journeys begin with an honest conversation about what both people are interested in exploring. For example, what do they fantasize about? Are they secretly more turned on by being utterly submissive or by having total control? From there, they can start to map out scenarios that fit within those parameters. Also, most people create ‘safe words’ to help them navigate the edges of those boundaries without going over.”

It takes a great deal of trust to talk about these things, let alone figure out ways to put them into action and then move forward into actual role-playing. Being sexual with anyone requires a great deal of trust, but the intricacies of BDSM require participants to really double down on being vulnerable with each other. 

Improves Mental Health

Research from the International Society for Sexual Medicine conducted a study to specifically measure the mental well-being of people who enjoy participating in BDSM, and they did so by examining key personality traits of each person.

Those traits included their attachment styles in relationships, general well-being, and how sensitive they were to rejection compared to those in a control group.

Not only did researchers find that BDSM practitioners weren’t “psychologically damaged” as previously assumed, but they were actually more well-adjusted on certain measures compared to non-BDSM practitioners. 

The participants in the BDSM group felt more secure in their relationships, had an increased sense of well-being, were more conscientious toward others, and more open to trying new experiences. They also had decreased anxiety and were less sensitive to others' perceptions.

All of these characteristics may be indicators that BDSM may be positively correlated with some benefits.

A Word From Verywell

Though BDSM is often misunderstood, activities that fall under its umbrella have been part of the human experience across the ages. Research has demonstrated several ways in which it is positively associated with participants' mental and physical health and the ways in which it can deepen romantic relationships. If you're curious about exploring BDSM with your partner, we recommend having a candid, open discussion with each other.

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