The Psychology of Pain

They came to David Mirich looking for answers. Some were referred by the courts, since Mirich, a Wheat Ridge-based licensed psychologist, is a sex-offender evaluator. Some came of their own volition, not waiting for a judge to tell them that they needed help. They got pleasure from pain, they told tell Mirich. Did that make them sick?

Mirich didn't know what to tell these sadomasochists -- and, upon research, he found that no one else did, either. "There was very little literature on the psychological functioning of sadomasochists, and no large-scale studies that I was aware of," he says. "In my field, we call this a gap in the literature."

That gap isn't new. Ever since Sigmund Freud determined that inflicting or receiving pain during intercourse was "the most common and important of all perversions," scholarly work on the topic has been relatively sparse. Although a 1990 Kinsey Institute report found that 5 to 10 percent of Americans occasionally engage in BDSM, and whips and leather gear can be found at the local mall and on prime-time TV, the general public still isn't comfortable with such a lifestyle -- and few scientists have studied it.

"There's only a small group of us," says Thomas S. Weinberg, a sociology professor at Buffalo State College who's studied BDSM. Sexual sadism and masochism are still listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, albeit only as activities that are non-consensual or cause serious distress.

And there's still a question as to whether such behaviors are legal. "The law has no way to say 'What is this?' Are we looking at people consenting to activities in private, or is it being looked at as a criminal activity like assault?" says Robert Ridinger, an anthropology professor at Northern Illinois University.

Mirich decided to help fill the knowledge gap. "No nationwide, large-scale study has ever been conducted on consensual sadomasochists," he says. "I wanted to know if there were any similarities or differences between the 700 or so sex offenders I've evaluated and these sadomasochists."

So several years ago he started seeking out BDSM participants, putting ads in media outlets across the country and visiting clubs like the Enclave. He gave the people he found IQ tests to measure their intelligence, and used the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI, tests to check for psychiatric problems. He tested 210 individuals in all -- and when compared to analogous tests he'd administered to sex offenders, the results were significant.

Consensual sadomasochists "appear to be quite bright, in the above-average range, as a group," says Mirich. In fact, his BDSM subjects had an average IQ score of 113, whereas the average score in the general population is 100, and 96 among his sex offenders.

On the MMPI test, Mirich's sex offenders scored unnaturally high on the psychopathic-deviate scale, suggesting social deviation and amorality. The BDSM practitioners, however, didn't demonstrate any significant MMPI variations at all, on psychopathic-deviate or other scales. "As a group, they don't have clinically significant elevations on the scales that would show them to be similar to sexual criminals that I work with," says Mirich.

But for now, Mirich won't go further than that, not publicly. He won't venture an opinion on the significance of the BDSM population falling in the top 19th percentile of the United States in intelligence, or what it means that these people show no statistical signs of personal, social or behavioral problems. He may say more when his results -- which have yet to be published in a scholarly journal -- are presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology in Denver in June.

He has reason to be reticent. "These are very stigmatizing behaviors, and if you are a researcher, there is always a risk of being tarred by the same brush," says Weinberg. "There is always an accusation of 'You are what you study.'"

That means that the most important question of all -- what causes these behaviors -- may stay unanswered until the scientific community feels more comfortable with BDSM. "We really don't know why people have these feelings," says Weinberg. And until they do, Mirich won't have a satisfactory answer for those who come knocking on his door.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner