A meta-study of 3,915 scientific studies have lead to the findings in this article on the prevalence of Masochism. In this article, for the first time, we provide a statistically sound estimate on how common masochism is in the general public. Drawing on multiple nationally and internationally representative samples we provide specific insights into how many people have thought of, experience, fantasize, or practice masochism. Additionally, we cover insight on other related activities, fantasies, and fetishes (within the sphere of BDSM, and sub-disciplines of Masochism).
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- Masochistic fantasies are common with 15-28% reporting to have had some. Women reporting higher rates (17-27.8%) than men (15-19.2%).
- 18.8% of people report to have engaged in masochistic behaviors (23.7% of women, 13.9% men).
- 1.4% of people report to engage in regular masochistic acts.
- Most masochism practitioners (over 80%) practice masochism at home, rather than in clubs or other public venues.
- 32.7% of masochism practitioners report to be in non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships.
- 34.1% of masochists identify as exclusively bisexual, 30.7% identify as exclusively heterosexual, and 4.9% identify as exclusively homosexual.
- 55.3% of masochistic individuals reported feeling uncomfortable or terrified by the prospect of their BDSM interests being discovered by others.
- 5% of masochistic individuals had disclosed their interests to a family member, 25.6% to a friend, and 3.8% to a colleague.
- Masochistic individuals have the same mental health levels comparable to the general population, but some sub-groups of masochists report more psychological problems.
- There is no singular cause for masochistic interests, and causal factors may include leisure, high sex drive, mate selection techniques, and positions of social power.
- Sexual sadism is diagnosed in < 10% of rapists but is present in 37% to 75% of people who have committed sexually motivated homicides.
- Holvoet et al. (2017) found that 15.3% of participants reported being hit by a partner as part of a masochistic act. This demonstrates that masochistic behaviors are not uncommon in the general population.
- Dawson, Bannerman, and Lalumière (2016) found gender differences in arousal related to masochism. Women reported greater arousal for masochism (17%) compared to men (15%). This indicates that women may have a higher interest in masochistic acts compared to men.
- Joyal & Carpentier (2017) found that there was a significant difference in the desire to engage in masochism between women (27.8%) and men (19.2%). This further highlights that women may have a stronger inclination towards masochistic behaviors than men.
- In terms of actual experiences with sexual masochism, Joyal and Carpentier (2017) discovered that more women (23.7%) reported having experienced it compared to men (13.9%). This finding not only supports the idea that women have a higher interest in masochism but also that they are more likely to engage in masochistic acts.
- Joyal and Carpentier (2017) also reported that engaging in masochistic behaviors consistently (more than 10 times over the lifetime) had a prevalence rate of 1.4%. This highlights that a smaller percentage of the population engages in masochistic acts regularly.
- The prevalence rates of masochistic behaviors are lower than the prevalence rates of masochistic fantasies. This suggests that while many people may have masochistic desires, fewer people act on these desires or engage in masochistic acts.
It is important to note that the prevalence of masochism can vary depending on the sample, methodology, and cultural factors in different studies. However, the overall findings suggest that masochism is a relatively common sexual interest, with women generally reporting a higher prevalence of masochistic desires and experiences compared to men. Masochistic behaviors are less common than fantasies, but they still occur within the general population.
Demographic characteristics of masochists
- Practicing masochists are typically white, well-educated, and young.
- Higher rates of non-monogamy are reported among masochists.
- Female masochistic practitioners have higher confidence in relationships compared to non-masochistic females.
- Identifying as non-heterosexual is related to masochism, with higher rates of same-sex attraction, bisexuality, and homosexuality reported among practitioners.
|Demographic Characteristic||Percent of masochism practitioners|
|Non-monogamous||14% – 40%|
|Practiced masochism with someone other than primary partner||31.4%|
|Identified as non-monogamous or polyamorous||32.7%|
|Women with masochistic interests reporting same-sex attraction||Higher than conventional interests|
|Masochism involvement in bisexual men, and gay men and women||Significantly higher|
|Identified as bisexual||30.7%|
|Identified as homosexual||4.9%|
|Identified as exclusively heterosexual||34.1%|
|Identified as exclusively heterosexual, men||39.7%|
|Identified as exclusively heterosexual, women||30.4%|
- More than 50% of women in the kink community reported participating in sadomasochistic activities.
- Women engaged in significantly more humiliation (e.g., use of gags) than men.
- BDSM practitioners tend to engage in behaviors with increasing intensity over time, with less extreme behaviors typically preceding more intense behaviors.
- BDSM identification and behaviors can change over time, though the fluidity of these differs between individuals.
- For a majority, BDSM behaviors are in addition to, not a replacement of, more typical sexual behaviors.
- Over 87% of women in the kink community engaged in at least one of 10 role play scenarios, with master/slave being the most common.
- About 75% of these women indicated arousal by an object in at least one of five fetish categories (clothing, body parts, fabrics, uniforms, body fluids).
- Gay men preferred hypermasculine behaviors, while straight men preferred humiliation.
- BDSM play can be viewed as a set of behaviors that take on different meanings to individuals based on partner and context.
- Most BDSM practitioners (over 80%) practice BDSM at home, rather than in clubs or other public venues.
Mental health, personality, and relationships
Here are the main findings in short:
- Masochistic individuals have mental health levels similar to the general population. Some sub-groups of masochists report more psychological problems. For example, a study found that 12% of masochistic participants reported at least one suicide attempt, a rate higher than the general population.
- Hypersexuality, sexual compulsivity, impulsivity, and sensation seeking are positively related to paraphilic interest scores in masochistic individuals. One study found that 88% of participants in “Master/slave” relationships reported satisfaction with their relationship.
- Despite social stigma, research suggests that masochism can be beneficial to both social and romantic relationships. For instance, almost 90% of masochistic participants who attended related events reported holding a membership at one or more BDSM organizations, with 70.9% indicating this involvement provided them with an avenue for social support.
And, following here is the deep dive into the findings of the scientific articles:
Psychological Correlates and Mental Health:
- Masochistic individuals have mental health levels comparable to the general population (Connolly, 2006; Cross & Matheson, 2006; Richters et al., 2008, 2003).
- A study found that masochistic individuals reported lower depression scores, but typical levels of anxiety, compared to population norms (Connolly, 2006).
- On measures of dissociation, submissiveness was related to reported memory disturbance and depersonalization, regardless of gender (Connolly, 2006).
- Masochistic individuals with a history of sexual abuse may be at risk of mental health issues, including higher rates of suicide attempts, more hospital psychological treatment, and greater likelihood of visiting a physician regarding BDSM-related injuries (Nordling et al., 2000).
- For males, more engagement in BDSM was associated with an increased chance of a suicide attempt, but only when this relationship was mediated by both fearlessness about death and perceived pain tolerance (Brown et al., 2017).
- 37.4% of masochistic practitioners reported some level of suicide ideation in the past two weeks (Roush et al., 2017).
- Masochistic individuals did not differ from population norms on honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, desire for control, self-esteem, life satisfaction, and empathy (Hébert and Weaver, 2014).
- Dominants and submissives scored lower on altruism than population norms (Hébert and Weaver, 2014).
- Submissives scored higher on openness to experience and emotionality, and dominants scored higher on desire for control and extraversion (Hébert and Weaver, 2014).
- Masochistic individuals scored higher on openness to experience, extraversion, and conscientiousness, and lower on rejection sensitivity, neuroticism, and agreeableness than controls (Wismeijer & Van Assen, 2013).
- Switches and dominants scored higher on openness to experience than submissives, and submissives scored higher on agreeableness than dominants (Wismeijer & Van Assen, 2013).
Interpersonal Relationship Factors:
- 34.1% of masochistic individuals reported feeling they could tell most of the adults in their lives about their BDSM interests, while 9.5% said they did not feel comfortable disclosing to anyone, and 4% reported they had to permanently hide their interests (Connolly, 2006).
- The majority (53.7%) of masochistic individuals felt uncomfortable by the prospect of their BDSM interests being discovered by others; 1.6% of these individuals said it terrified them (Connolly, 2006).
- Fewer than 5% of masochistic individuals had disclosed their interests to a family member, 25.6% to a friend, and 3.8% to a colleague (Holvoet et al., 2017).
- Prejudice toward masochistic individuals was related to more homophobia and social and sexual conservativism (Yost, 2010).
- 76% of licensed mental health professionals reported having at least one client that engaged in BDSM (Kelsey et al., 2013).
- Over half (52%) of mental health professionals did not consider themselves competent enough to see BDSM clients, and 64% reported having no graduate training mentioning BDSM (Kelsey et al., 2013).
- 88% of participants in “Master/slave” relationships stated that
Trauma, abuse as a child, or other triggers for masochism
The relationship between childhood abuse, trauma, and BDSM has been explored in various studies, revealing some intriguing findings that challenge common assumptions and provide a more nuanced understanding of the factors contributing to BDSM interests.
- BDSM practitioners had comparable PTSD and trauma-related phenomena scores and incidence rates of trauma similar to population averages, with no higher borderline personality or dissociative identity disorder symptoms (Connolly, 2006; Richters et al., 2008).
- CSA (Childhood Sexual Abuse) is not the only potential origin of forceful sexual fantasies, as low levels of sex guilt and high levels of erotophilia also predicted such fantasies (Shulman & Home, 2006).
- Most BDSM practitioners (90.4%) in a study reported no abuse, indicating that trauma is not a common precipitating factor of BDSM interests (Nordling, Sandnabba, & Santtila, 2000; Hillier, 2019).
- Engagement in BDSM was unrelated to having been sexually coerced before the age of 16, with men engaging in BDSM showing significantly less psychological distress (Richters et al., 2008).
- Stronger feminist beliefs combined with low levels of guilt were related to erotophilia and more sexual experience (Shulman & Home, 2006).
- Both male and female BDSM practitioners were more likely to have experienced CSA than the general population, but the majority still reported no abuse (Nordling, Sandnabba, & Santtila, 2000).
- Childhood trauma did not significantly predict dominance or submissive sexual behaviors within a sample of kink-identified participants (Hillier, 2019).
Dismissing popular hypothesis
- Weak support for attachment hypotheses: Attachment styles among BDSM practitioners are similar to those in population samples, providing weak support for the theory that poor attachment resulting from childhood abuse leads to masochistic or sadistic ego states (Santtila, Sandnabba, & Nordling, 2001; Wismeijer & Van Assen, 2013).
- Disinhibition hypothesis: Social power has been found to be positively related to arousal by sadistic thoughts in men and masochistic thoughts in women, indicating that power might play a role in disinhibiting BDSM-related interests (Lammers & Imhoff, 2016).
- Compensation for lack of power in childhood: Contrary to the hypothesis, submissives rather than dominants were found to have lower self-esteem and higher levels of sexism, suggesting that using dominance to compensate for low self-esteem is not a common driving factor for BDSM interests (Malovich & Stake, 1990; Valentine, 1998).
Neurology and Biology
The following main findings shed light on the neurological and biological differences in BDSM practitioners, exploring aspects such as empathy levels, context-dependent empathetic response, and the role of neurodevelopmental factors in paraphilic preferences. These findings challenge traditional psychopathological models and provide a more nuanced understanding of the factors influencing BDSM interests and practices.
- Reduced empathy in female submissives: Luo and Zhang (2018a) found that female submissives showed reduced trait empathy and subjective empathetic response, with more BDSM experiences associated with further reduction in empathy.
- Context-dependent empathetic response: Luo and Zhang (2018b) showed that the subjective feeling of humiliation and objective loss of ability to move facial muscles due to wearing a ball gag decreased female submissives’ empathetic response, suggesting that diminished empathy may be a result of, rather than a cause for, BDSM practices.
- Limited associations between neurodevelopmental factors and paraphilic preferences: Rahman and Symeonides (2008) found small associations between greater paraphilic interests and non-right handedness and numbers of older brothers in men, but Dawson et al. (2016) did not replicate the association between paraphilic interests and non-right handedness.
Relation to sex drive
In the following I explore various factors that may contribute to an individual’s interest in BDSM, and more specifically Masochism, revealing a complex interplay of psychological, social, and biological factors. These findings demonstrate that there is no singular cause for masochistic interests and that practitioners do not suffer from more psychological problems than the general population – however, there is a relationship between sex drive and masochistic behavior.
- Men generally report a higher incidence of atypical sexual interests, including BDSM, with the exception of masochism, where more women report having this fantasy.
- Higher sex drive may be an etiological factor in the development of masochistic interests and bahaviors.
- Masochism practitioners do not suffer from more psychological problems than the general population and do not show levels of empathetic neural responses associated with psychopathy.
- Childhood sexual abuse (CSA), if a contributing factor, is more likely to be related to hypersexuality or erotophilia than BDSM interests themselves.
- Causal factors for BDSM interests may include leisure, high sex drive, mate selection techniques, and positions of social power.
- There is a lack of good research on genetic, hormonal, and neural correlates, and no singular causal factor for BDSM has been identified.
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