50 shades of Narcissism

Narcissism and BDSM – Fifty Shades of Something

Disclaimer: Warning contains references to rape which some readers may find distressing.

Thanks to the success of the 50 shades books and films a form of BDSM has come out of the closet so to speak. BDSM is a fairly recent term to describe the sexual activities of a subculture where the participant engages in role playing behaviour involving some aspects of domination, discipline submission and sadomasochism. Whilst these behaviours have gone on for many years, often in a non-consensual setting (The term sadism comes from the name of the Marquis de Sade who lived in 18th century France and who was amongst other incarcerations arrested for expounding his ideas of sadism in a novel – Justine) consensual BDSM, sometimes linked to prostitution, was more of a 20th Century development.

BDSM behaviour exists on a continuum ranging from being turned on watching bondage p**n with your partner as part of foreplay, to planned orgies and mass staged events such as the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. Indeed, there are organisations such as The Society of Janus which have as their main object the aim of educating people and keeping them safe in BDSM settings. The prevalence of BDSM behaviour in the general public is a matter of speculation and estimates vary between 12 and 65%.

In reading the many web pages devoted to BDSM it is clear, that for many people in the 21sts century it is a liberating form of sexual expression compatible with equality, emancipation and a more open attitude toward sex, sexuality and gender identity. The elephant in the room however, is like Christian Grey of 50 Shades, there may be some practitioners of BDSM who don’t read the instruction manual or at least misunderstand the intent and use BDSM techniques in sex to dominate or avoid intimacy and meaningful, mature relationships. More worrying some researchers have suggested that because of “reactance” Narcissism and BDSM may be a worrying combination.

So what is “Reactance” and how does in relate to Narcissists and sex?

One of the key elements of BDSM is role play where one person “pretends” not to want the sexual advances or domination of the other. It may involve restraint and rape fantasies too which are mutually satisfying for those involved. The key to it remaining consensual is an agreement beforehand and the use of codewords which clearly indicate a desire to stop which are always obeyed.

Narcissists typically have problems with intimacy and respecting “the other”. Their self-centredness, belief in their own attractiveness, power and in their own special superiority could make them a dangerous participant in BDSM. There is a narcissistic reactance theory which suggests that men who have NPD are more prone to rape when refused sex by a woman they desire.

Brehm described reactance theory as an explanation of the phenomenon of obsessive thinking about that which we cannot have. A person on a diet will see forbidden foods everywhere, a person trying to give up alcohol or cigarettes will be seemingly surrounded by smokers and drinkers. He suggested that people denied something are more likely to demand or take the thing they are denied because they cannot stand the restriction on their freedom. Reactance is a reaction to maintain freedom in the face of restriction and is often directed towards the person causing the restriction and may involve aggression directed at the person denying them.

Bushman and his colleagues draw on the evidence that Narcissism is characterised by lower threshold for aggression than the general population. They suggest:

“There are multiple reasons for predicting that narcissists would be more likely than other men to engage in sexual coercion, in addition to their propensity for aggressive retaliation… First, their inflated sense of entitlement may make them think that women owe them sexual favors. Second, their low empathy entails that they would not be deterred by concern over the victim’s suffering. Ironically, narcissists are capable of empathy but simply do not bother to use it when it is not in their interests to do so. Third, their tendency to maintain inflated views of self by means of cognitive distortions might help them rationalize away any borderline objectionable behaviors, such as if they could convince themselves that their coercion victims had really desired the sex or had expressed some form of consent”

In the context of BDSM this type of behaviour, narcissistic reactance could violate the code of consensual dominance and submission and result in rape.

BDSM and Narcissism may not always be a bad combination

OK, so we have explored the dark potential of BDSM and Narcissism, are there any possibilities of a positive dimension? Well yes, if you accept that not all narcissists may be aggressive and some even are filled with self-loathing. A narcissist who finds they cannot engage in “vanilla sex” or who struggles to meet the emotional commitment in someone else which is often a necessity in a romantic, sexual relationship may find the emotional detachment of a BDSM relationship to be sexually fulfilling without the emotional entanglement. This is the type of BDSM represented and much criticised in the “50 Shades” genre for Christian Grey as depicted by EL James is every inch a narcissist. A narcissist in vein of Christian Grey, may not be fully entering into the “spirit” of the sub culture but it could work for both parties.

Alternatively, those narcissists who secretly harbour self-loathing as a result of their overbearing parent or other figure from childhood, might find a dominatrix to be a turn on. Hearing their own inner voice of loathing externalised, could in some circumstances be arousing. And because BDSM exists in a semi-private sub culture with discretion guaranteed (for with few exceptions, exposing a client or “sub” necessitates unwanted exposure for the “dom”). In this world – “you keep my secret and I’ll keep yours” rules the day.

  1. Bushman, B; Bonacci, A and M.van Dijk (2003):  Narcissism, Sexual Refusal, and Aggression: Testing a Narcissistic Reactance Model of Sexual Coercion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,Vol. 84, No. 5, pp1027–1040.

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