Fifty Shades of Belgian Gray: The Prevalence of BDSM-Related Fantasies and Activities in the General Population

J Sex Med. 2017 Sep;14(9):1152-1159. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.07.003. Epub 2017 Aug 7.


Background: Bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism (BDSM) is gaining popularity through the mainstream media. Nevertheless, very little is known about the prevalence of BDSM-related fantasies and activities in the general population.

Aim: To determine the prevalence of BDSM fantasies and behavioral involvement in four different age groups of the general population in Belgium.

Methods: By use of a cross-sectional survey questionnaire, the level of interest in several BDSM-related activities was investigated in a sample representative of the general Belgian population (N = 1,027). The questionnaire evaluated interest in 54 BDSM activities and 14 fetishes. Self-identification as BDSM practitioner, situational context of BDSM practice, age at awareness of these interests, and transparency to others were queried.

Outcomes: Individual item scores and summary scores on four BDSM categories were included in the analyses.

Results: A high interest in BDSM-related activities in the general population was found because 46.8% of the total sample had ever performed at least one BDSM-related activity and an additional 22% indicated having (had) fantasies about it. Interestingly, 12.5% of the total population indicated performing at least one BDSM-related activity on a regular basis. When asked whether they saw themselves as being interested in BDSM, 26% stated this to be the case and 7.6% self-identified as BDSM practitioners. Interests in dominant and submissive activities were comparable and, remarkably, were highly intercorrelated. BDSM and fetish interests were significantly higher in men than in women. The older group (48-65 years) had significantly lower BDSM scores compared with their younger peers. Of participants with a BDSM interest, 61.4% became aware of it before 25 years of age.

Clinical implications: There is a high level of interest in BDSM in the general population, which strongly argues against stigmatization and pathologic characterization of these interests.

Strengths and limitations: This is the first thorough study concerning prevalence of interest in and fantasies about a wide range of BDSM-related activities in the general population worldwide. Although our findings tend to argue against it, we cannot completely rule out participation bias introduced by non-interest in the non-completers. In addition, some topics might have been subject to interpretation by the respondents.

Conclusion: Interest in BDSM is present in most of the general population. Further research is needed to destigmatize it by confirming BDSM as a leisurely preference rather than a psychiatric affliction. Holvoet L, Huys W, Coppens V, et al. Fifty Shades of Belgian Gray: The Prevalence of BDSM-Related Fantasies and Activities in the General Population. J Sex Med 2017;14:1152-1159.

Keywords: BDSM; Fetishism; Masochism; Prevalence; Sadism.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Belgium
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Fantasy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Masochism / psychology
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Sadism / psychology*
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult