WHIPPED SMART

Kinky sex lifts our consciousness into a heightened state of “flow,” according to a new study

American health and sex journalist Michael Castleman has compared BDSM to the child’s game of “trust,” when one child stands in front of another and falls backward, waiting to be caught. It’s a bonding experience, Castleman says, “When the falling player trusts the catcher enough to let go completely, and the catch happens as planned, both players experience a moment of exhilaration that’s difficult to duplicate any other way.”

Now a small study suggests that the exhilarating high from what’s also called “kink” may stem from an altered state of consciousness, and that being a dominant “top,” especially, leads to a state of flow that enhances creativity.

The study, recently published in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, was conducted by psychologists at Northern Illinois University who recruited 14 experienced practitioners of BDSM, aged 23 to 64, for their research. All the volunteers self-identified as “switches,” people who could be randomly assigned to either role in a BDSM dynamic. They might be a “bottom,” which the study abstract describes as “the person who is bound, receiving stimulation, or following orders,” or a “top,” who provides “stimulation, orders, or structure.”

In what’s probably a rare event in lab studies, the subjects then participated in seven scenes of dominance and submission of different sorts; these involved gentle touching, striking, bondage, and fetish dress. All of the participants provided saliva samples and completed a test that measures cognitive flexibility and processing times, as part of the experiment. They also answered a survey designed to assess their state of consciousness.

Combined, the results suggested that playing a bottom was linked to what’s called transient hypofrontality—an altered mind state when time seems to slow down, and some aspects of a “flow” state, but the latter was more significantly associated with topping and being in control of the scene.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who teaches psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, coined the term “flow state” in 1990. He once told Wired magazine that it was the feeling of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”

“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost,” he explained.

To achieve flow, the brain needs to be tasked with doing something slightly challenging, but not impossible, and given rules or parameters. People usually associate flow with running or playing chess, for example, so now we might add kinky sex to the list. The researchers likened flow to a rewarding sense of control and loss of self-consciousness; it has also been strongly linked to enhanced creativity.

Indeed, the ultra-creative Georg Friedrich Haas, a celebrated composer and music professor at Columbia University, decided to speak publicly about his own BDSM practice about a year ago. In interviews with the press, he said finding his partner in love whose sexual turn-on dovetailed with his own—he met her by answering an OKCupid ad with a message that included “I would like to tame you”—improved his productivity immensely. “I’m able to write more than I ever could before. And when I’m writing, I feel more concentrated, at ease, lighter than I used to,” he told Van, an online classical music magazine. He hopes that other artists will learn from his openness and not repress any non-mainstream, healthy sexual urges they might experience.

Increasingly, however, kinky sex is veering into the mainstream, partly thanks to the massive popularity of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which first appeared in 2011 and sold 100 million copies worldwide. A year before that, the American Psychiatric Association announced a change in the wording around “paraphilias,” its term for BDSM practices, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), officially placing consensual kink within the realm of healthy sexual behavior. Only non-consensual whipping, flogging, or bondage is now a disorder.

At Harvard University, there’s even a small school-approved student club, called Harvard College Munch, that’s dedicated to kink. And safe spaces where people can meet to play out their fantasies with paddles or handcuffs and chains are, if not as common as yoga studios, hardly underground.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that, in personality tests, people who practice BDSM were found to be, on the whole, more psychologically well-adjusted than people who stay within the boundaries of plain vanilla sexual encounters. This new study sheds some light on why the behavior once called “perverted” may actually offer sound mind-body benefits.

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