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Young Adults & BDSM

Guest Blog: Young Adults & BDSM

By Dr. Lee Kinsey

Trends in young adult sexuality are poorly tracked. Because many in the United States are squeamish about studying sexuality there is not much we know about what emerging adults do and do not do with their sexuality. However, some researchers who study sexuality have noted a recent rise in aggressive sexual behaviors somewhat attributed to an increase in pornography use[1] since the end of the 20th century. Some found that these more aggressive behaviors like choking, spanking, and name calling also resulted in decreased feelings of sexual satisfaction, increased alienation from their partners,[2] and increased feelings of victimization.[3]

These trends are concerning but need to be properly understood. As a sex therapist and educator, I caution against moral panic or the abolition of porn or BDSM material. This evidence is limited and seems to point to one major finding – many young people are still getting their sex education from pornography rather than more realistic and comprehensive material. Specifically, it seems, young adults are getting their education about BDSM behaviors from poor representations of it in widely available porn.

Most of the pornography on the internet that depicts aggressive behavior does not depict actual BDSM play. It depicts a caricatured version of BDSM, with no consent processes, no education of or agreement to limits, and no explanation of the potential harms and benefits of aggressive, sexual play. It seems that young adults are experimenting with these behaviors without an appreciation for how they might affect their feelings of safety and connection. Put together, these findings indicate that a lack of proper sex education and porn literacy may be harming young people.

If pornography is the primary vehicle through which the young learn about sex, then they are, unfortunately, not learning about the importance of consent. Although conversations about consent are rising in the US, these conversations mostly focus on consent to sex in general not consent to specific kinds of sex, like rough, bondage, or roleplay sex. Researchers have also found that sexual risk taking is positively correlated with psychological distress among college age people, particularly among young women.[4] Meaning that those who are possibly more likely to try “riskier” behaviors are also more likely to suffer from mental and emotional vulnerabilities that could make them more susceptible to harm.

This evidence points to a clear problem with a clear solution. Emerging adults should be educated to critically view pornography through education programs on porn literacy, and they should be educated on the risks, benefits, and processes around basic BDSM-associated behaviors. For example, although porn often shows aggressive behavior as enhancing sex (eg. choking to produce orgasm), young people should be informed that this depiction is staged, with paid, professional actors whose orgasms are, if not faked, timed perfectly through the magic of film editing. Educators are developing programs on porn literacy, and the initial data is promising.[5] 

They could also be educated on the importance of creating consent around aggressive behaviors, discussing limits, discussing risks, and planning for after care. Although BDSM behaviors are often associated with cathartic and emotionally helpful experiences,[6] they are also risky without proper boundaries. Because emerging adults are at greater risk for victimization in sex, they must understand to respect these behaviors and celebrate them only after creating safety.

For those looking to help a young adult understand healthy sexual behaviors, finding a good sex therapist can help. Dr. Lee Kinsey is a certified sex therapist and relationship counselor in Texas and Massachusetts. He and his associates offer comprehensive sex therapy and relationship counseling services to adults and adolescents. You can learn more about his practice at www.leekinsey.com.


[1] Jochen Peter & Patti M. Valkenburg (2016) Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research, The Journal of Sex Research, 53:4-5, 509-531, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441

[2] Paul J. Wright, Debby Herbenick, Bryant Paul & Robert S. Tokunaga (2021) Exploratory Findings on U.S. Adolescents’ Pornography Use, Dominant Behavior, and Sexual Satisfaction, International Journal of Sexual Health, 33:2, 222-228, DOI: 10.1080/19317611.2021.1888170

[3] Debby Herbenick, Elizabeth Bartelt, Tsung-Chieh (Jane) Fu, Bryant Paul, Ronna Gradus, Jill Bauer & Rashida Jones (2019) Feeling Scared During Sex: Findings From a U.S. Probability Sample of Women and Men Ages 14 to 60, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 45:5, 424-439, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2018.1549634

[4] Delishia M. Pittman, Cassandra Riedy Rush, Sarah Litt, Melanie L. Minges & Alicia A. Quayson (2021) Psychological Distress as a Primer for Sexual Risk Taking Among Emerging Adults, International Journal of Sexual Health, 33:3, 371-384, DOI: 10.1080/19317611.2021.1919950

[5] Emily F. Rothman, Avanti Adhia, Tiffany T. Christensen, Jennifer Paruk, Jessica Alder & Nicole Daley (2018). A Pornography Literacy Class for Youth: Results of a Feasibility and Efficacy Pilot Study, American Journal of Sexuality Education, 13:1, 1-17. DOI: 10.1080/15546128.2018.1437100

[6] Newmahr, S. (2010). Rethinking Kink: Sadomasochism as Serious Leisure. Qualitative Sociology, 33(3), 313–331. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-010-9158-9

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