How Many People Are Actually Doing S&M? We Decided to Find Out

Sex surveys are the best surveys.

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The moment I heard that Fifty Shades of Grey was coming out, a question popped into my mind: Who out there is actually engaging in S&M (or B, or D) activity? From bondage to discipline to whips to handcuffs, who's got their own mini (or massive) Red Rooms of Pain? 

So, like any good journalist, I asked just about everyone I could find. At bars, coffee shops, on the street, over formal dinners I would ask this most intimate of questions. "Do you…?" Here's what I found out.

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Everyone likes to think they're kinky. 

Most people I talked to seemed, at some point or another, to have tried something a little "naughty." And according to the research, a percentage of the population is engaging in genuine BDSM activity regularly. There are surprisingly few studies on this topic, but a 1990 Kinsey Institute report states that 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population engages in sadomasochism at least an occasional basis. Around 11 percent of men and 17 percent of women reported trying bondage. And a 2005 survey conducted by Durex reports that 36 percent of adults in the United States use masks, blindfolds, and bondage tools during sex, compared to 20 percent worldwide. 

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But obviously, thanks to the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Mass Hysteria, the tides have turned. More people than ever are aware of BDSM, and the conversation is changing in favor of exploring slightly more "taboo" areas of sexual relationships. So what did that mean for my survey?

85% of the people I polled had engaged in some kind of light BDSM. And some had gone even

85% of the people I polled had engaged in some kind of light BDSM.

further. As my friend Todd said, "If we're two consenting adults and I want you to punch me in the face while giving me a hand job…and you're into that? Great." 

The "and you're into that" part is, of course, the tricky part. Often, people are willing to explore BDSM activity but are afraid that their partner will judge them. And, to kick a dead horse, it's not cool to engage in any activity that isn't consensual. As Sarah Beall, the Madam Curator over at Make Love Not Porn, told me, "One thing to stress about people who are into BDSM is that in order to have a truly safe, consensual, and sexually satisfying kinky sex life, they have to learn to communicate more than the average bear. While Hollywood movies might portray a dominant instinctually knowing what a submissive wants, in real life most kinky sex first starts with a lengthy discussion of safe words and the desires and boundaries."  

How does this play out on a practical level in a healthy relationship? My friend Marissa had a dream one night that she used nipple clamps and, upon waking, asked her husband to order some online. He was willing to give it a shot. It turns out she doesn't like them in real life. But hey, she was glad they tried.

The people who don't do it are the kind of surprising ones.

The perception with BDSM is that it's often the wilder types who are into it—i.e. the ones who aren't intimidated by sexual exploration and who, the assumption goes, have lots of partners. But not so in real life. "I'm never in a relationship long enough to do BDSM," my friend Laurie said. "No one breaks out handcuffs on a Tinder date. That's how you get arrested." 

Assuming you didn't meet your date at a sex club or a BDSM chat room, you may very well feel uncomfortable broaching how you like to be tied up at the conclusion of the first date—but it seems like people who transcend the barrier between hooking up and actually dating are the ones who engage in this type of behavior the most. 

One interesting little tidbit I'll leave you with: An Australian study from 2002 determined that BDSM practitioners might be happier than people who don't "go there." Time to break out those whips?

You should also check out:

Inside the Life of a Dominatrix

A Dominatrix Reviews 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

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