What BDSM Teaches About Authority, Obedience and the Self

A large part of social psychology is the study of power, authority and obedience, within all aspects of our society. However, there is often an overlooked aspect/ lifestyle within society which is nevertheless important to many and a strong reflection of social psychologist’s concepts. BDSM can be a lifestyle, it can be the nature of a relationship or it can be a purely sexual experience. Within mainstream society it is largely portrayed as a type of extreme, dangerous sexuality involving whips, chains, leather and uniforms, and for many that is what it is. It is also a reflection of society and of our interactions. Most people are familiar with the BDSM fantasies where one person takes on an traditionally authoritative role while the other takes on a role which is subservient to them (a police officer and criminal, for example). BDSM can also simply involve two people where one takes on a dominant role in a relationship, or just give and/ or receive pain.

The important element is that BDSM reflects many of the theories which social psychologists study every day. Both the Milgram experiment and BDSM teach us about obedience. Both the Stanford Prison experiment and BDSM teach us about the power of the situation, and how our attitudes are shaped by the roles we inhabit. Both social psychologists and BDSM practitioners are familiar with the concept of the self, our ideal selves and who we believe we ought to be and how incongruity between them can cause tension and depression. In all social interaction there is more at play than people believe from casual observation; while BDSM might appear to be entirely sexual fetish it is an excellent reflection of society and the power dynamics within.

Navarick’s (2009) article examines the Milgram experiment in detail, specifically discussing why 65% of Milgram’s participants displayed full obedience in (supposedly) shocking another human being (p. 155). In doing so, Navarick’s article touches on a number of elements of obedience which are present not only in Milgram’s experiment, but also BDSM. One finding was how participants, when questioned about why they obeyed the experimenter, responded “I was just following orders.” Navarick (2009) quotes Milgram, “”Behaviour that is unthinkable in an individual who is acting on his own may be executed without hesitation when carried out under orders.”” (p. 156). In this Milgram shows that there is a liberating element to obedience in that because the participant is acting as expected in the eyes of an authority figure, they are free to act in ways they wouldn’t normally.

Within BDSM play submissives often report that they feel a liberation in “just following orders”, in surrendering to an authority figure (Brame, Brame & Jacobs, 1993, p. 208). There is a sense of “inevitability” which accompanies surrender, and this can manifest itself through bondage (where the submissive is restrained and helpless to resist) and D/s scenarios (where the submissive directly carries out orders from the dominant). This desire to submit is not due to low self-esteem, or a lack of self worth. In fact, many submissives report that outside of a BDSM context, they are assertive and even competitive with others (p. 217). Bondage has been found to be popular among people who normally resist authority, as they derive satisfaction (and possibly relaxation) from knowing that their fate and actions are in the hands of a dominant party. The submissive often finds the freedom to do something which normally they would not be able to, BDSM is taboo and cognitive dissonance is a factor when (for example) a normally assertive man finds themselves wishing to submit to a woman.

Within a BDSM context, the man is able to submit as the power dynamic is safe, and their well-being is overseen by the Dominant party; conditions which have been proven to make a person more readily obedient. This is one way how BDSM reflects what social psychologists have learned about obedience, many people feel liberated from the consequences of their actions when there is an authority present who (supposedly) takes responsibility.

Another finding in Milgram’s experiment (which has been found in additional research including Navarick’s) was that over time, a subject will become increasingly respondent to orders. Navarick (2009) found that the longer the experiment continued, the less likely a participant was to leave. With the most participants leaving at the tenth intensity level (the one where the ‘student’ demanded to be let free) before dropping off dramatically, even when the ‘student’ again makes a plea to stop at the twentieth level (p. 167). There is a level of habituation which occurs, as well as a “process of self-justification wherein each repetition of the act added to the psychological cost that would be incurred by quitting and acknowledging that the previous obedience was an error in judgement.” (p. 166). This repetition and habituation is seen in BDSM , often when a submissive is first introduced to the authority of a dominant. In one example, the dominant instructs the submissive to refer to her as “Mistress” and is to begin and end every sentence as such.

At first there is a struggle within the submissive who experiences cognitive dissonance at the prospect of submitting to another when she is normally assertive and independent. Early responses to the dominant are quiet and restrained, however as the scene continues the submissive begins to respond clearer and more quickly than she had at the beginning. What is happening is what Navarick has observed, the submissive begins to become habituated to being submissive and the initial aversion has subsided. Cognitively this is because the submissive has accepted her role within the scene, justifying her submission by knowing that she doesn’t wish for it to stop and are happy doing what is asked of her. To the point where the dominant no longer needs to re-enforce the rule like they might have early on, the replies become nearly automatic. This shows a parallel between how social psychologists have come to understand obedience and the realities many people engaging in BDSM discover.

Another parallel between social psychologist’s findings and BDSM is the focus of the next article; obedience is greatly determined by the perceived legitimacy of an authority figure. Toorn et al. (2010) argued, “Our findings suggest that in the minds of individuals the structural notion of the authority’s power is translated into the personal attribute of legitimacy.” (p. 137). Toorn et al. (2010) found that individuals are more likely to deffer their decisions to an authority, accept their suggestions and have more favourable opinions and more satisfaction on the outcome of a situation if it were “decided by legitimate authorities.” (p. 137). The article argues that because individuals are so dependant on the system which sustains them, that they are taught to be obedient to authority figures. Because an individual is dependent on these systems, they are often helpless to resist and look for ways to justify differences in power (p. 128). What this means is that when faced with authority, we have a tendency to ascribe more positive traits towards those persons and will yield to them at a greater extent than to someone of equal/ lesser power. BDSM is about power, it is about authority and at its core is a (perceived) power imbalance between two groups. The most famous examples of BDSM play are the maid and her employer, the prisoner and their interrogator, or the criminal and their arresting officer.

There is a reason why BDSM emphasizes these power dynamics; it is very effective. Even knowing that a scene where a submissive is taken prisoner is constructed, the symbols the dominant uses within it can have a striking psychological effect because they draw on society’s obedience to authority. The Dominant carrying a whip or wearing a uniform makes the scene feel much more real, because in introducing traditional symbols of authority, you have introduced an authoritative element. Toorn et al. (2010) found even the perceived legitimacy of an authority figure increases a feeling of dependence upon them. (p. 135). When a session begins, the dominant and submissive are still the same people as before they began, but there is a shift in perception which submissives report. It is different to meet the Dominant when they are in street clothing, and then to meet them a half hour later when they are dressed as a school’s headmistress.

The psychological effect on the submissive happens quite rapidly; as one professional Dominatrix puts it, “When you affect the body [via whips, chains, uniforms and other symbols of authority], you affect the mind.” (Brame, Brame & Jacobs, 1993, p. 88). From personal experience, when first meeting a dominant after she dressed in the clothing of a wealthy Victorian lady, and then addressed the submissive as a servant, there was an intense psychological response. There was suddenly a nervousness to please her, do right by her and maintain favour which did not exist before that moment.

All of this occurred because the dominant was now presenting as a figure with authority, and the submissive was taking the role of someone without any. Toon et al’s. (2010) findings support this. When a person is faced with authority, they are more likely to feel dependant on that figure and abide by their decisions. BDSM uses that aspect of social psychology as a way to promote the lopsided power dynamic which BDSM scenes are so dependant on. Had the dominant met the submissive without those symbols, there would not have been such an intense effect and the dominant would not have been able to exert as much influence over the submissive. BDSM uses and plays with the concept of authority and reflects what social psychologists have come to understand about it.

Related to this is role-playing and the power of the situation, which are both at play in our society, and BDSM. The Stanford prison experiment is most likely the most famous example of role-playing and it shows how much the role a person takes influences their attitudes. Uniforms and symbols of authority were introduced, “… police agreed to “arrest” the prisoners and book them, and once at the prison, they were given identity numbers, stripped naked, and deloused. The prisoners wore large smocks with no underclothes…” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 53). Zimbardo recounts that initially “nothing much happened as the students awkwardly tried out their assigned roles in their new uniforms.” (p. 53). Similarly to how at first there was nervousness for a submissive to outright reply “Yes, Mistress” as she adopted her new role.

However Zimbardo points out that early in the second day, following a rebellion by the prisoners, the guards found themselves needing to assert who was in charge of the situation (p. 53). Everyone involved was a student, there was no major power difference between them, however the students playing guards felt a need to assert their authority simply because they were playing guards. Zimbardo states that, “The situation won; humanity lost.” (p. 55). Zimbardo also stated that the system became self-perpetuating, in that parents who saw their prisoner son in such conditions did not fight to withdraw him because they did not want to challenge the authority the role-playing had seemingly vested in his captors (p. 55).
Within BDSM play, it is very easy to lose one’s self in the scene and that is part of the appeal (along with part of its danger, which is discussed below).

The response of “Yes, Mistress” steadily came easier and the psychological effect of being a maid to a wealthy woman became stronger as the role-playing progressed. Aided by symbols such as the whip, collar and uniform, there was a very real sense of helplessness instilled in the mind of the submissive when in reality the dominant had no real power over her. There was also a restriction on what the submissive felt she could do and how she could speak because she did not wish to step outside of the bounds of her role. In general her speech became more brief and yielding, and this was not only because she had been told to do so, but because to challenge the dominant was something a maid is not supposed to do. Happening regardless of the fact that the submissive was not actually a maid and that the dominant was not actually a wealthy noblewoman. The power of roles and role-playing is at work within BDSM, and the Stanford prison experiment shows how the roles we take do influence our attitudes and behaviour (to the point where the experiment came to resemble a BDSM scene itself).

Zimbardo’s (2007) article closes by discussing the Stanford prison experiment’s modern day relevance, and in doing so discusses a danger which BDSM practitioners are well aware of; a condition known within the BDSM community as ‘top’s syndrome’. Knowing how susceptible people are to the situation and the roles which we take on, Zimbardo examined how a role became justification for physical and emotional abuses. How easy it becomes to abuse and believe that abuse is “good for” someone who occupies a position which you are told is lower than yours (p. 55). Top’s syndrome is exactly this, when the dominant party within a BDSM scene or relationship comes to believe that the submissive truly is unworthy or dehumanized, and then acts without regard for their well being. This is a problem within the community and often times dominants will use their position as such to justify abusing another saying “They asked for it.” (Brame, Brame & Jacobs, 1993, p. 51). Zimbardo stressed the need for people involved in the military and prison system to be aware of the abuses which can stem from powerful roles, and the BDSM community is aware of this need. While there is more attention being given to the power of the situation and the potential for abuse, there are no proven ways to ensure that these abuses cease.

It should be noted that BDSM is also aware of the consequences of a person’s relationship with authority and that there can be very negative affects on the psychology of both dominant and submissive following play. For the dominant there are two reactions to a session which all involved must be aware of. The first is ‘top drop’, a term referring that, “Hitting another person, or otherwise “torturing” them, no matter how consensually it was done or how much the other person enjoyed it, is taboo.” (1996, Wiseman, p. 65). This causes feelings of depression and guilt over what the dominant has done. For the submissive there is ‘sub drop’, where the submissive is often faced with cognitive dissonance over what they have experienced and done. As Zimbardo’s article on the Stanford prison experiment shows us, people can have a very negative reaction when they are faced with the fact that they have done something which is inconsistent with their sense of self. “I too had been transformed by my role in that situation to become a person that under any other circumstances I detest – an uncaring, authoritarian boss man.” (Zimbardo, 2007,p. 54).

Not alone in this, many of the participants (guards and prisoners) suffered mental breakdowns and lasting signs of mental trauma due to knowing that they carried out these roles to such an extreme, when they before believed themselves incapable of. The parallel with BDSM is that after a scene there is often a period of depression (even after a positive experience) where the participants struggle with what has transpired. For submissives, it is often that they consented to being degraded, bound, tortured which (similar to what dominants do) is taboo, and it can be difficult to understand that it is not necessary a reflection of their self worth. The submissive can be independent and worthy within society, and still hold the desire to submit to another; and this is something that most submissive deal with at one point in their lives while practising BDSM. Both dominant and submissive are affected by self-discrepancy, a theory that their notion of self is challenged when it is not compatible with who they believe they ought to be. “The ought self is the representation of who a person feels he or she should become, ” (Phillips & Silvia, 2005, p. 704). In this case the self is someone who has dominant or submissive desires, but believes they ought not to have them due to the norm of society which barely acknowledges BDSM or classifies those who partake in it as ‘perverts’. In order to alleviate the tension which exists, people experienced with BDSM advocate that both parties meet in a ‘vanilla’ (non-BDSM) context to discuss their session and generally ‘check-in’ with one another.

Being able to talk to one’s partner after a scene in a setting where the session’s roles are non-existent allows for a couple things. First it allows for an integration of the self, in that the (submissive for example) is able to realize that their desires and actions are not necessarily harmful, nor are they expected to not have these desires. The other party also becomes an example that they are not alone in having these desires, and thus influence the person struggling to accept theirs. There is less discrepancy between the ‘self’ and the ‘ought’ as the submissive (for example) realizes that they are not expected to be someone who is independent and dominant all the time. The second reason for the post-session consult is that it breaks the roles people held within the scene, which allows people to relate to one another as equals again instead of as dominant/ submissive. This is for the same reasons debriefing is done by social sychologists. The consultation aims to resolve any lingering negative feelings and ensures that the roles which existed throughout the scene are clearly broken from. BDSM practice has been greatly influenced by social psychologist’s notion of the self, along with self-discrepancy theory. It acknowledges that there is a need to be awareof the lasting consequences of unbalanced power dynamics and the need for proper debriefing.

BDSM is in many ways a parody and a microcosm of society and the dynamics which exist between people. In borrowing the symbols, interactions and dynamics from society as a whole, it allows people to construct their own reality. However because BDSM reflects so much on how we interact within society, it is subject to the same principals which are at work in the ‘vanilla’ world. People who submit within BDSM often report that the presence of an authority figure has paradoxically a binding and liberating aspect and that there is a very strong desire to submit to the will of and offload responsibility onto that authority. This paradox facilitates obedience within a BDSM scene and reflects how many people under authority will often act in a way they could not bring themselves to normally. Additionally, the longer a scene continues and the longer a submissive follows orders has shown to strengthen obedience to the dominant. BDSM reflects how our attitudes can be shaped when faced with symbols and positions of authority.

A large part of BDSM play is the dominant positioning themselves as an authority and how there is a very real change in the submissive’s perception and attitude towards them. Outside of BDSM contexts, studies have shown that when perceiving an authority as legitimate a person is more likely to feel dependent on them, and feel satisfied with the decisions which they make. Studies have shown how the power of the situation has a large impact on attitudes and behaviour, and BDSM has shown this as well. People partaking in BDSM easily assume the roles they’re playing, and like the Stanford prison experiment showed, there is a serious potential for abuse based on nothing but an artificial power dynamic.

Finally, BDSM can impact one’s sense of self when their concept of the self conflicts with what they ‘ought’ to be; this is a very common occurrence among people who engage in BDSM, as well as with people who engage in other activities. Like social psychologists, BDSM practitioners know the need to recognize all of these concepts and many work and apply what they learn in hopes of better understanding how we interact within society. While it is largely taboo within society, BDSM is a lifestyle to millions of people and there is more to it than whips and chains. BDSM interactions reflect society’s interactions and in doing so display social psychologist’s theories about the self, authority, obedience, attitudes and more.

References

Jacobs, J., Brame, W. D., & Brame, G. G. (1993). Different loving: The world of sexual dominance & submission. New York: Villard.

Navarick, D. J. (2009). “Reviving the milgram obedience paradigm in the era of informed consent.” The Psychological Record, 59, 155-170.

Phillips, A. G., & Silvia, P. J. (2005). “Self-awareness and the emotional consequences of selfdiscrepancies.” Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 31(5), 703-713.

Toorn, J. v. d., Tyler, T. R., & Jost, J. T. (2010). “More than fair: Outcome dependence, system justification, and the percieved legitimacy of authority figures.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 127-138.

Wiseman, J. (1996). SM101: A realistic introduction (Second ed.). San Francisco: Greenery Press.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). “Revisiting the stanford prison experiment: A lesson in the power of the situation.” Chronicle of Higher Education, , 53.

This article was written July 7th, 2011.

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One Comment

  1. Excellent article. It was a bit of an epiphany when I made the connection between BDSM dynamics and the relationship with God advocated for by Christianity. And, in that they try to emulate aspects of their relationship to God in inter-human relationships, how many of the unequal power hierarchies promoted by the Bible are interpreted for contemporary applications.
    Of course, as your post points out, it is all too easy for the power imbalance to move beyond perception/voluntary construction, be abused, and then control becomes dogmatic.

    Sometimes I muse on how Christians could much better understand how their relationships are actually supposed to be, in concrete details and applications, through studying BDSM. (especially as lifestyle) Then I remember how impossible it would be to even broach the subject with most Christians, because of the stigma.

    (No comment on other religions, since I don’t have sufficient knowledge and experience with them.)

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