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Photo by Keila MacPherson

Several weeks ago, in the Journal of Personality, Trent University professor of Psychology Dr. Beth Visser and undergraduate student Victoria DeBow published an acclaimed article, entitled “Psychopathic Sexuality: The Thin Line Between Fantasy and Reality,” in collaboration with Julie Pozzebon, Tony Bogaert, and Angela Book of Brock University.

The study involved a thematic analysis of the written sexual fantasies of more than 200 people as well as a follow-up questionnaire showing that people with psychopathic traits are more likely to act on their sexual fantasies than those without.

Furthermore, the study found that those with psychopathic traits were more likely to fantasize about uncommitted, non-romantic sexual activity as well as act on those fantasies when those fantasies involved sexual behaviours often categorized as being ‘deviant’.

Both Visser and Debow were interested in the subject matter due to their mutual interest in ‘dark personalities’- people who lie, cheat, and manipulate.

But while the subject matter might be of general interest and importance to society under any circumstances, what no one could have predicted is that within just a couple weeks of publication questions about the distinction between healthy and unhealthy sexual practices and sexual ‘deviance’ would explode onto headlines across the country with the multiple rape allegations against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

After being let go from the CBC earlier this week, Ghomeshi made a post to his personal facebook page claiming that the CBC of fired him for his personal sexual preferences and that these accusations were an attempt to ‘re-frame’ practices that were performed within, according to Ghomeshi, the context of consensual BDSM and role-play.

So while Dr. Visser and Ms. Debow’s research may offer a lot of insight and contextual information relevant to this ongoing scandal, the allegations against Ghomeshi and his attempt to defend himself by claiming to be engaging in BDSM practices did press the need to further clarify some of the distinctions between healthy and unhealthy, safe and unsafe practices.

Dr. Beth Visser was reached for interview by e-mail:

How would you define the terms ‘psychopathic’ and ‘deviant’?

Although there are researchers who approach psychopathy as a criminal justice issue (for good reason – offenders who are psychopaths tend to re-offend at higher rates than non-psychopathic prisoners), I study psychopathy from a personality perspective.

My interest is specifically in psychopathic traits – the degree to which people are callous, interpersonally manipulative, lacking in empathy, irresponsible, deceptive, impulsive, grandiose, and rule-breaking.

Because I’m interested in a pretty normal range of psychopathic traits, my research samples are just regular people, where there would be very few individuals who meet criteria for a diagnosis of psychopath. Even in these non-offender samples, psychopathic traits predict some pretty interesting outcomes.

I’m glad you asked about “deviant”. I’m really not fond of that word, but it was the best way to connect this study to previous work.

Our “deviant” sexuality items incorporated voyeurism, exposing oneself to someone who isn’t expecting/wanting it, frotteurism (rubbing or pressing against a stranger in a sexual manner), incest, transvestism, and being tied up/tying someone up.

The latter two are behaviors that I personally would describe as somewhat “unconventional” or “less common” whereas the others have a common thread of non-consent. However, I was using an established measure that incorporated all of the above behaviors.

Suppose I’m a student whose partner is interested in doing something that might be considered ‘deviant’ (but not illegal) and I’m not opposed to it, and not uncomfortable with it myself. To what extent should I be worried about whether or not they might be psychopathic?

I think the fact that a partner is “proposing” an activity is a great sign. Discussing and negotiating a new sexual activity and caring about a partner’s comfort level, interest, and satisfaction, are all very non-psychopathic activities.

When a partner is insisting, demanding, or manipulating, that is a gigantic red flag. Engaging in a respectful discussion about a potentially exciting activity sounds pretty darned healthy to me.

Given the current climate (vis a vis the ongoing Jian Ghomeshi scandal) what would your response be to members of the BDSM community who might feel unfairly characterized or associated with psychopathic behavior (or, from a psychological perspective, what separates a healthy paraphilic sexual activities and ones that could be dangerous, exploitative, abusive etc.)?

It’s been interesting to see the Jian Ghomeshi situation unfold as an issue of consent rather than an issue of BDSM. People, including his accusers, haven’t been taking the stance that his preferences are offensive – it’s been about whether they consented to these activities.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on BDSM but my understanding is that it’s a community that has developed some very clear rules and guidelines around negotiating consent.
Also, note that we did code for Dominance sexual activities and Submission sexual activities and neither of those was related to psychopathic traits. Preferences for anonymous, unromantic, and uncommitted sexual activities, however, were related to psychopathic traits.

People with psychopathic traits weren’t any more likely to have “deviant” fantasies, but for those people who did have deviant fantasies, it was the people with psychopathic traits who also reported that they done it in real life. I think a big part of that is the lack of consent in several of the deviant activities (i.e., frotteurism, voyeurism, exposing oneself).

I would suggest that psychopathy probably isn’t related to kink or to paraphilia. I think psychopathy is related a lack of concern for a partner’s well-being and preferences though, and that lack of concern would seem to make for an unhealthy relationship regardless of sexual preferences.