An Examination of Empathy and Interpersonal Dominance in BDSM Practitioners

J Sex Med. 2021 Mar;18(3):549-555. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2020.12.012. Epub 2021 Feb 3.


Background: Recent research has indicated that participation in BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and/or sadism-masochism) is not associated with psychological distress or psychopathology but that sexual roles may be associated with personality characteristics, specifically interpersonal dominance and empathy.

Aim: The present study examined potential differences between those who identify as dominant, switch, and submissive on interpersonal dominance and empathy.

Methods: Individuals who identified as members of the BDSM community were recruited online via a social networking site.

Main outcome measures: Self-reported demographic variables, the Personality Assessment Inventory, Dominance subscale, and the Interpersonal Reactivity Index Empathic Concern subscale.

Results: Participants were well distributed across sexual roles (n = 279; 25.4% dominant, 38% submissive, 36.6% switch), identified as primarily female (59.5%), primarily heterosexual (53.4%), and the most common age group was 25-34 years (27.2%). BDSM role was associated with scores on the Dominance subscale; dominant BDSM practitioners scored significantly higher on the Dominance scale than switches, who in turn scored significantly higher than submissives (dominant mean [M] = 61.44, standard deviation [SD] = 8.26; switch M = 53.99, SD = 11.18, P < .01; submissive M = 49.41, SD = 11.46, P < .01). There were no differences on the measure of empathy between dominant, submissive, and switch BDSM practitioners. On average, individuals who identified as submissives and switches scored in the average range on the Dominance scale compared with the normative sample, and individuals who identified as dominants scored higher but not in the markedly elevated range.

Clinical implications: The study provides information on the relationship between interpersonal dominance as a personality trait and dominance as a sexual role and has implications for reducing stigma related to these practices.

Strengths and limitations: The study contributes to the growing literature suggesting that while BDSM roles may correspond with specific personality characteristics, they are not indicative of personalities significantly different than the general population's. The study also included individuals who identified as switch, a group often excluded from quantitative research in the BDSM community. The sample was, however, recruited exclusively online, and findings may not be applicable to all BDSM practitioners.

Conclusion: These findings suggest that there are no differences in empathy between BDSM practitioner roles, and although there are differences in interpersonal dominance, these characteristics are not likely to be prominent in individuals' everyday interactions. Jansen KL, Fried AL, Chamberlain J. An Examination of Empathy and Interpersonal Dominance in BDSM Practitioners. J Sex Med 2021;18:549-555.

Keywords: Empathy; Masochism; Sadism; Sexual Behavior; Surveys and Questionnaires.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Masochism*
  • Sadism
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Surveys and Questionnaires