The "Fifty Shades of Gray" trilogy has made kinky sex mainstream, romanticizing the use of whips, chains, and handcuffs. Couples worldwide are buying BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism) sex toys, with sales up 400 percent in 2012. Sexual fantasies of being spanked or whipped, tied up, or forced to have sex have become commonplace, especially in women, but are these interests and behaviors abnormal?

In a recent study published in The Journal of Sex Research, researchers at the University of Montreal found sexual preferences classified as “anomalous” (abnormal) in psychiatry are actually very common, suggesting there is no such thing as “normal” when it comes to sex.

"The main goal of the study was to determine normal sexual desires and experiences in a representative sample of the general population," said co-author Christian Joyal, in a statement.

Joyal and his colleague Julie Carpentier, both in institutions affiliated with the University of Montreal, surveyed a diverse group of over 1,000 Quebec residents on the phone and online about their sexual tastes and interests. The respondents were asked if they enjoyed sex acts that were considered anomalous by the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Sex acts and behaviors listed as “paraphilic,” or atypical, include but are not limited to, voyeurism (joy of watching others have sex), fetishism (sexual arousal toward inanimate objects or body parts), frotteurism (dry-humping), and masochism (pleasure from pain or ridicule).

The findings revealed nearly half of the respondents were interested in at least one type of sexual behavior considered an anomalous paraphilia, whereas one third had experienced the behavior at least once. Out of the eight types of paraphilic behaviors listed in the DSM-5, four (voyeurism - 35 percent, fetishism - 26 percent, frotteurism - 26 percent, and masochism - 19 percent) were found to be common when it came to experiences or desires reported by men and women.

Although men tend to be more interested in paraphilic behaviors than women, women do have a strong interest. According to Joyal, women who report an interest in sexual submission have more varied sexual interests and report greater satisfaction with their sex lives. “Sexual submission is therefore not an abnormal interest," he said.

An earlier study, also conducted by Joyal, found many women who have extreme submission fantasies, such as domination by a stranger, clearly state that they don’t actually want the fantasies to come true. More women than men fantasize about their current romantic partner. Clinically speaking, pathological sexual fantasies involve non-consenting partners, include pain, and are necessary for deriving satisfaction. But aside from that, what exactly is the definition of abnormal or atypical fantasies?

For example, half of the behaviors in Joyal’s recent study are legal, but frotteurism, for instance, is not because it’s by definition non-consensual.

This study suggests that some legal paraphilic behaviors are not as abnormal as previously thought, which is contrary to what is suggested by the DSM-5.

So when it comes to sex, the concept of normality can't truly exist because sexual satisfaction is personal.

Source: Joyal CC and Carpentier J. The Prevalence of Paraphilic Interests and Behaviors in the General Population: A Provincial Survey. The Journal of Sex Research . 2016.