Fifty Shades of Grey has shaped a whole culture’s view of BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism). In that fictional world, a powerful man plays out his sadistic fantasies as a powerless woman indulges her masochistic ones. This narrative demonstrates what’s called the “playing out” hypothesis of sadomasochism: In sexual fantasies we re-create our daily power roles. A new paper, however, presents an alternative hypothesis and some surprising findings, including that, all else being equal, high-ranking executives are more turned on by fantasies involving sexual submission than are their underlings.
Joris Lammers and Roland Imhoff report on their “disinhibition” hypothesis in an upcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science. They base their predictions on extensive research showing that social power — having control over others’ outcomes — reduces inhibition. In one 2003 study, for example, participants primed to feel more versus less powerful were more likely to reposition an annoying fan blowing on them. Other work finds that wealthy people are more likely to commit selfishly unethical acts than are poor people, by virtue of their feeling more powerful — and therefore less accountable and vulnerable.
Many people have sadomasochistic impulses — one meta-analysis reported that between 31 percent and 57 percent of women have rape fantasies — but such impulses go against social norms that separate sex from violence, affection from domination. Therefore, the thinking goes, many people inhibit them. And because traditional gender roles prescribe men to be active and women passive in many social domains, men should be especially likely to bury fantasies of submission and women fantasies of domination. But the disinhibition hypothesis predicts that power frees people to let their freak flags fly, increasing sadomasochistic thoughts in everyone and especially masochistic thoughts in men and sadistic thoughts in women.
To test their predictions, the researchers invited readers of a science website and a lifestyle website in the Netherlands to complete an online questionnaire, compiling data from 14,306 anonymous respondents. As a measure of power, people rated their professional position, from unemployed to top-level management. They then rated their agreement with items such as “It sexually arouses me to fantasize about torturing a consenting person” and “It sexually arouses me to fantasize about being tortured by a person on my own demand.” People also rated their desire for social dominance in everyday life, by evaluating statements such as “I like to give orders and get things going.” (The study could only measure correlations, but given the known psychological effects of power, a case for its causal influence on disinhibition in the bedroom can be made.)
Overall, men were more into fantasies of sadism than women were, likely in part because of socialized gender roles. Yet while real-world power increased women’s attraction to sadism (controlling for age and social dominance), the picture for men was split. Among those with an especially strong impulse to dominate others, more power was associated with finding greater appeal in sadism, but among men who shied from dominance, power decreased their interest in sadism. This pattern suggests the men felt free to take on the role that suited them personally — not the one that suited the masculine ideal.
Women, on the other hand, were more into masochistic fantasies than men were. Women with more versus less power were slightly more aroused by thoughts of masochism (meaning power increased their interest in both ends of the sadomasochistic spectrum), but power increased men’s appetite for masochism nearly twice as much as women’s. This is where the findings most strongly support the disinhibition hypothesis and challenge the “playing out” hypothesis: Powerful men are not enacting their typical roles of domination, but tapping into a buried interest in submission that clashes with societal expectations.
The authors note that respondents’ real-world power was less predictive of their fantasy preferences than were gender, age, and social-dominance motivation. For example, as expected, social dominance predicted arousal to sadistic thoughts, in both men and women. Oddly, this contrasts with a study by Patricia Hawley and William Hensley, who found that in women social dominance predicted greater enjoyment in submission fantasies. The difference may lie in the fact that Lammers and Imhoff measured sadomasochism with items featuring torture and humiliation, whereas Hawley and Hensley used the story of someone overtaken by a passionate partner. Perhaps socially dominant women enjoy being sexually irresistible to an equally dominant partner (as Hawley and Hensley suggest), but don’t want to be humiliated in the bedroom, and meanwhile do get a kick out of humiliating others.
The bottom line, as Lammers put it to me, is that “power tends to be a source of sexual liberation” — for better or worse: In another study in press, Lammers and Jon Maner report that among their Dutch respondents power increased infidelity (especially for women, for whom straying is a bigger taboo). So in addition to the fictional Christian Grey, who disciplines a young woman in the Fifty Shades novels, we might consider the real-life Max Mosley, the former head of Formula One racing, who was publicly shamed for a leaked video showing a dominatrix striking him in a German-themed dungeon.
The distress Mosley’s infidelity caused his family was regrettable, but to his credit, the shame of his particular games didn’t stick. All participants had consented. As Mosley told The Guardian recently, “It’s just sexual activity.”