A new study by Northern Illinois University psychologists suggests that evidence for the effectiveness of the “Yes Means Yes” affirmative-consent movement, which has taken hold on many college campuses nationwide, might be found in an unlikely subculture—the BDSM community.
While some critics of BDSM associate it with sexual aggression, and particularly violence against women, the subculture has had long-standing norms of affirmative consent, the researchers said. Their study found BDSM practitioners also report lower levels of rape-supportive beliefs than individuals surveyed from outside the subculture.
The psychologists used an online survey to measure the level of rape-supportive beliefs of 185 individuals from three groups—college students, random online respondents and BDSM practitioners.
BDSM practitioners reported significantly lower levels of “benevolent sexism,” “rape myth acceptance” and “victim blaming”— elements of what feminists and other researchers have proposed as being part of a larger rape culture that tolerates and even glorifies male sexual aggression against women.
Benevolent sexism is a chivalrous but also sexist attitude toward women, casting them as pure but fragile. Rape myths are inaccurate beliefs about rape, such as “women secretly want men to sexually dominate them” or “women incite men to rape by flirting with them.” Victim-blaming attitudes shift full or partial blame for sexual assault to the victim, such as “she was asking for it.”
Klement said the idea for the research survey was prompted by criticisms of the “Yes Means Yes” movement and related affirmative-consent policies and laws. The movement challenges sexual partners to explicitly communicate with each other about their desires prior to sexual activity.
In 2014, California began requiring college campuses to use an affirmative definition of consent. Many college and university campuses, and several other states (including Illinois), have adopted similar policies or laws. While the movement aims to stem the prevalence of sexual assault, it hasn’t been universally embraced.
“Affirmative consent contrasts with what we see in movies, TV shows and other media that often portray sex without communication,” Klement said. “Some critics have said ‘Yes Means Yes’ would make sex less sexy.”
The researchers hypothesized that BDSM practitioners would have lower levels of rape-supportive beliefs because of the subculture’s longstanding norms of affirmative consent through negotiation, when participants establish boundaries for sexual and BDSM activities and “safe words” to curtail or end activity.
“We wanted to look at attitudes in a subculture where consent and negotiation are normalized and accepted, yet people aren’t having less sex,” Klement said. “It made sense that this group of people might be more egalitarian, even though that seems paradoxical in a community that’s basically based on power exchange.”
The study, which controlled for age differences, indeed found significantly lower levels of rape-supportive beliefs among BDSM practitioners on three of six measures (with no significant differences among the survey groups on the remaining three).
“Negotiating about sex beforehand doesn’t make it any less sexy,” Klement said. “Consent is the critical element that separates healthy sexual encounters from assault.”
Klement said this point is especially important in light of other recent research, which shows college men and women report some differences in how they indicate and interpret consent from their sexual partners.
Co-authors on the NIU study include Ellen Lee, an NIU doctoral student in psychology, and Brad Sagarin, an NIU psychology professor who conducts research on the science of BDSM. Sagarin said that while the study clearly found an association between BDSM and lower rape-supportive beliefs, more research is needed to determine why that correlation exists.
“This was a correlational study, so we don’t know for certain why members of the BDSM community report lower levels of rape-supportive beliefs,” he said. “Nevertheless, it’s a first step in understanding another potential benefit of affirmative consent.”
In addition to how the study’s findings might relate to the practice of affirmative consent, Sagarin said there is another takeaway.
“The BDSM community has historically been stereotyped,” he said. “When you see a sexual sadist on TV, he is typically not a good guy.
“I think this study helps break the stigma of BDSM practitioners as bad or damaged people,” he added.
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