BDSM is any of a number of related patterns of human sexual behavior. The major subgroupings are described in the abbreviation "BDSM" itself:
- Bondage & Discipline (B&D)
- Domination & Submission (D&S)
- Sadism & Masochism (or Sadomasochism) (S&M)
- Also see the Roles and Functions Page
Many of the specific practices in BDSM are those which, if performed in neutral or nonsexual contexts, could be considered unpleasant, undesirable, or abusive. For example, pain, physical restraint and servitude are traditionally inflicted on persons against their will and to their detriment. In BDSM, however, these activities are engaged in with the mutual consent of the participants, and typically for mutual enjoyment. (Any "consent" may or may not amount to legal consent and represent a defense to criminal liability for any injuries caused.)
This emphasis on informed consent and safety is also known as SSC (safe, sane and consensual), though others prefer the term RACK (Risk-Aware, Consensual Kink), believing that it places more emphasis on acknowledging the fact that all activities are potentially risky. There is discussion and dispute about the meaning or intent of the terms, but in essence, both terms refer to all participants acknowledging and accepting some level of risk.
- Sadism and Masochism as Medical Terms
In the past, sadomasochistic activities and fantasies were regarded by psychiatrists as pathological, but are now not regarded as illnesses. Indeed, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) asserts that "The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors" must "cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" in order for sexual sadism or masochism to be considered a disorder.
A Dominant person enjoys controlling a submissive person. Reasons for this are said to include demonstrating skill and power, having ownership of another person, and being the object of affection and devotion. Domination may be the fashion in which the dominant feels most comfortable expressing and/or receiving affection. Service-oriented dominants would add that it is obviously useful to have the resources and abilities of another human at their disposal. In addition, many fantasies involve the reversal of traditional roles or constraints. So men or women who traditionally have powerful roles in contemporary culture may wish to experience submissive roles, while others who normally are responsible for enforcing traditional morality, may wish to experience situations where such limitations do not exist.
Of course, other known possible motives remain to be considered, including pleasure taken not only in sheer power, but in the suffering of others, which is called sadism, thrill seeking in risk taking, and outright self destructiveness. That is why many in the BDSM community are concerned with establishing the motivations of those involved in an encounter and advise caution in making BDSM connections.
Some Dominants and sadists say they are motivated by the desire to give masochists the pain and pleasure desired by them. Thus the sadist is a pleasure giver and not one primarily seeking gratification from the suffering of others.
A Submissive person is one who, of their own free will, seeks to submit to another. Submissives vary in how seriously they take their position, training, and situation. Motivations for engaging in submissive behavior may include relief from responsibility, being the object of attention and affection, gaining a sense of security, showing off endurance, and working through issues of shame. Others simply enjoy a "natural" feeling when they are in the presence of their partner. What are known as service-oriented submissives may also have a deep seated desire to be "of use". Submissives also vary in the extent to which they engage in play, in how often they play, and even in whether they consider their role "play" at all.
In BDSM, a Top is a partner who takes the role of giver in such acts as bondage, flogging, humiliation, or servitude. The top performs acts such as these upon the Bottom, who is the person receiving for the duration of a scene. Although it is easy to assume that a top is dominant and a bottom is submissive, it is not necessarily so.
The top is sometimes the partner who is following instructions, i.e., he tops when, and in the manner, requested by the bottom. A person who applies sensation or control to a bottom, but does so to the bottom's explicit instruction is a service top. Contrast the service top with the pure dominant, who might give orders to a submissive, or otherwise employ physical or psychological techniques of control, but might instruct the submissive to perform the act on him or her.
The same goes for bottoms and submissives. At one end of the continuum is a submissive who enjoys taking orders from a dominant but does not receive any physical stimulation. At the other is a bottom who enjoys the intense physical and psychological stimulation but does not submit to the person delivering them. It should be noted that the bottom is most often the partner who is giving instructions—the top typically tops when, and in the manner, requested by the bottom. However, there is a purist school of BDSM, for whom such "topping from the bottom" is incompatible with the retention of high ethical standards in the relationships wherein BDSM is practised.
Within a sadomasochisic context, submissive is only roughly synonymous with bottom. Others opine that a "submissive" is specifically pursuing a dominant/submissive power-exchange as a key element, whereas a "bottom" may or may not be interested (or even willing) to engage in that exchange. For the latter, some have proposed the "pitcher" and "catcher" (borrowed from baseball terminology) as more neutral terminology, with the "pitcher" delivering the sensation, the instruction, etc; and the "catcher" receiving what is "pitched." These are in contrast to the term slave, which is a situation where the '"submissive" in a TPE (or Total Power Exchange) relationship gives up all control to their "dominant" not just for a "scene" but for a "24/7" continuing relationship.'
Some practitioners of BDSM enjoy switching - that is, playing both dominant and submissive roles, either during a single scene or taking on different roles at different occasions with different partners. A switch will be the Top on some occasions and the Bottom on other occasions. A switch may be in a relationship with someone of the same primary orientation (two dominants, say), so switching provides each partner with an opportunity to realize his or her unsatisfied BDSM needs with others. Some individuals may switch, but may not identify as a switch because they do so infrequently or only under certain circumstances. Sometimes individuals switch in just physical roles (top and bottom), and sometimes individuals may switch completely in emotional roles (dominant and submissive) as well. Some switches only switch from relationship to relationship and will stay in that role for the duration of the relationship.
Some BDSM activities may be potentially dangerous if appropriate precautions are neglected. In particular, it is sometimes the practice that the submissive will complain of suffering or beg the dominant to stop, and that this will be ignored by the dominant. Therefore, one aspect to ensure safety is to agree upon a safeword. If the dominant and submissive are in a scene that causes unacceptable discomfort (physical or mental) for the submissive, a safeword can be uttered to warn the dominant of trouble and immediately call for a stop to the scene.
Sometimes BDSM may involve a 'simulation' or 'role play' of rape or other non-consensual acts. A dominant and a submissive may choose to pretend that the submissive is being raped or otherwise forced to do something unwillingly. Therefore, words like "No!" or "Stop!" are inappropriate as safewords, because a submissive playing the role of a victim would say these words as part of the scenario. The ideal safeword is a word or brief phrase (such as "red", "yellow" and "green") that normally would not be spoken during a sadomasochistic act, and which therefore calls attention to itself by its own incongruity.
Some people in BDSM use multiple levels of safewords. For example, the safeword "green" to increase the intensity/pressure/force, "yellow" would be employed to indicate "You are approaching an intensity (or an activity) that I don't wish to experience; please do not continue this scene further in this direction, or do not increase the intensity", while the safeword "red" would mean "Please stop this and release me, right now." The stoplight safeword mechanism is the most common one found in the BDSM community, and as such is universally recognized, causing less potential confusion than some random safeword might.
In situations where the submissives mouth is gagged, or the submissive is otherwise incapable of speaking without violating the fetish scenario, a non-verbal signal is used instead of a safeword. Typically this might be the clenching and unclenching of one or both fists, the dropping a bell or ball, or uttering three loud grunts in quick succession.
It is possible that a dominant may ignore a safe word. A dominant who acquires a reputation for ignoring safewords will experience increasing difficulty finding BDSM partners. Some partners may not use a safeword, as the submissive may have full faith that the dominant can be totally trusted. This concept is debated regularly amongst people in the BDSM lifestyle and observers will find a variety of opinions. Within this sub-culture and community in a lifestyle based on trust, a person who is not known, or not trusted, does not easily find partners.
Adequate care is prudent in bondage to ensure safety from injury. It is wise to invest in first aid training for all involved parties. For activities involving bodily fluids, hygienic precautions should be duly considered for avoiding the spread of sexually transmitted diseases or blood borne viruses.
In any geographical (or perhaps electronic) community of BDSM practitioners there are bound to be the occasional disputes over the safety, skills, or basic honesty and intentions of the participants. These tend to arise from miscommunications, unexpressed assumptions, inexperience, or actual mistakes made by the parties involved. Especially with an area of sexuality which may or may not be legal according to the letter of the law, these incidents will often bring up the question of "community self-policing" of its members. Since so many of the interactions are one-on-one, unobserved by third parties, and of an intimate nature, a conflict or dispute may lead to he-said, she-said types of interactions. Many communities have developed conflict resolution committees to help mediate such situations.
BDSM activities are practiced by people of all sexualities. Many practice their BDSM activities exclusively in private, and do not share their predilections with others. Others socialize with other BDSM practitioners. The BDSM community can be regarded as a subculture within mainstream society. Being involved in BDSM or Dominant/submissive relationships on a regular basis is often referred to as being "in the lifestyle". Communities of BDSM lifestylers are prevalent in all parts of the world. Large cities and small town alike have organizations where lifestylers meet to learn, share and practice. These groups are often underground and can be hard to find, but as society becomes more and more accepting, the groups are coming out of the closets. In the United States some of these communities have even applied for and been granted 501C status as educational and community [support groups].
A 1990 Kinsey Institute report said researchers estimate that 5% to 10% of Americans occasionally engage in sexual activities related to BDSM. This was based on the 1983 "Playboy Readers Sex Survey" by Walter Lowe. There has been an explosive growth in the BDSM community since the 1983 study, which raises the possibility that the 1983 figures are unrepresentative of current behavior.
On a physical level, BDSM "[sensation play]" often involves inflicting pain, even if without actual injury. This releases endorphins, creating a sensation somewhat like runner's high or the afterglow of orgasm, sometimes called "sub-space", which many find enjoyable. Some writers use the term "body stress" to describe this physiological sensation. Perhaps more eloquently, the philosopher [Edmund Burke] defines this sensation of pleasure derived from pain by the word sublime This experience is the motivation for many in the BDSM community but is not the only motivating factor. Indeed, a strong minority of BDSM participants (especially "submissives") may well participate in a [scene] that they do not derive any physical pleasure from. This is done in order to provide their "Dominant Master/Mistress" with an opportunity to indulge their desires or fetishes.
In some kinds of BDSM play, the "top" (usually a dominant partner) applies sensation to the "bottom" (usually a submissive partner) by spanking, slapping, pinching, stroking or scratching with fingernails, or using implements like straps, whips, paddles, canes, knives, hot wax, ice, clothespins, bamboo skewers, etc. The sensation of being bound with rope, chains, straps, cling wrap, handcuffs or other materials can also be part of the experience. The tools of BDSM play encompass a wide variety of items from specifically designed implements to ordinary household items, known as "pervertibles."
A pleasurable BDSM experience is thought to depend greatly upon a competent top and the bottom attaining the correct state of mind. Trust and sexual arousal help a person prepare for the intense sensation. Some have even gone so far as to compare adept BDSM play to musical composition and performance, each sensation like a musical note. Likewise, different sensations are combined in different ways to produce the total experience.
Some sensations have been equated to different levels of bodywork and may have the same end result of causing emotional releases, energetic shifts, karmic clearing between play partners and other physical and psychological experiences.
- BDSM may or may not involve sex of any kind.
- BDSM may or may not involve sexual role playing.
- How dominant or submissive a person may be in their regular life does not necessarily indicate which role they will play in a scene. Some might opine that there is roughly an inverse relationship.
- Some BDSM players are polyamorous or sexually monogamous but engage in non-sexual play with others.
- A couple may engage in BDSM sexuality with an otherwise non-D/s relationship dynamic.
The terms "S&M" and "SM" were originally derived from the clinical terms sadism, masochism and sadomasochism. Some practicioners, especially those producing pornography, attempted to distance themselves from what was then classified as a mental illness and began to use the term "B&D" (Bondage & Discipline). The terms "DS", "D/s", "domsub" or "subdom" were also used to refer to some or all of BDSM, including sadomasochistic activities. However, BDSM was developed as a composite abbreviation for B&D, D/s and SM, although some practicioners believe that D/s should not be linked to BD/SM or "physical BDSM".
The historical origins of BDSM are obscure. There are anecdotal reports of people willingly being bound or whipped as a prelude to, or substitute for, sex going back to the fourteenth century. The medieval phenomenon of Courtly Love in all of its slavish devotion and ambivalence has been suggested by some writers to be a precursor of BDSM. Some sources claim that BDSM as a distinct form of sexual behavior originated at the beginning of the eighteenth century when Western civilization began medically and legally categorizing sexual behavior. There are reports of brothels specializing in flagellation as early as 1769, and John Cleland's novel Fanny Hill, published in 1749, mentions a flagellation scene. Other sources give a broader definition citing BDSM-like behavior in earlier times and other cultures, such as the medieval flagellants and the physical ordeal rituals of some Native American societies.
Although the names of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch are attached to the terms sadism and masochism respectively, the question remains as to whether their ways of life would meet with modern BDSM standards of informed consent.
BDSM ideas and imagery have existed on the fringes of Western culture throughout the twentieth century. Robert Bienvenu attributes the origins of modern BDSM to three sources, which he names as "European Fetish" (from 1928), "American Fetish" (from 1934), and "Gay Leather" (from 1950). Another source is the sexual games played in brothels, which go back into the nineteenth century if not earlier. Irving Klaw, during the 1950s and 1960s, produced some of the first commercial film and photography with a BDSM theme and published comics by the now-iconic bondage artists John Willie and Eric Stanton.
The Leather Pride Flag, which has become a symbol of the BDSM and fetish subculture. Much of the BDSM ethos can be traced back to gay male [leather subculture], which formalized itself out of the group of men who were soldiers returning home after World War II. (1939-1945). This subculture is epitomized by the Leatherman's Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, which essentially defined the "Old Guard leather" culture. This code emphasized strict formality and fixed roles (i.e. no switching), and did not really include lesbian women or heterosexuals. In 1981, however, the publication of Coming to Power by [Samois] led to a greater knowledge and acceptance of BDSM in the lesbian community
In the mid-nineties, the Internet provided a way of finding people with specialized interests around the world and communicating with them anonymously. This brought about an explosion of interest and knowledge of BDSM, particularly on the usenet group alt.sex.bondage. When that group became too cluttered with spam, the focus moved to [soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm].
"New Guard Leather Subculture" appeared around this time, which rejected the rigid roles and exclusion of women and heterosexuals of the Old Guard.
In addition to the bricks and mortar businesses, which sell sex paraphernalia, there has also been an explosive growth of online adult toy companies that specialize in leather/latex gear and BDSM toys. The first known online store specializing in bondage gear was JT's Stockroom, which became a primarily online business as early as 1990. Once a very niche market, there are now very few sex toy companies that do not offer some sort of BDSM or fetish gear in their catalog. Kinky elements seem to have worked their way into even the most "vanilla" markets. However, amongst lifestylers a tradition of craftmanship prevails and it is common for people to take pride in creating their own toys or purchasing from local artisans.
BDSM and fetish imagery has spread out into the mainstream of Western culture through avant-garde fashion, the goth subculture, rap, Hip hop music and heavy metal music, Music video clips, and science fiction television and movies.
The modern BDSM subculture is widespread. Most major cities in North America and Western Europe have clubs and play parties, as well as informal, low-pressure gatherings called munches. There are also conventions like National Leather Association-International Living in Leather, [TESfest] and [Black Rose], as well as the annual [Folsom Street Fair] in San Francisco. North American cities that have large BDSM communities including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, Minneapolis, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. European cities include London, Paris, Munich, Berlin and Rome.
The legal situation of sadomasochistic activities varies greatly between countries. In Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, consensual BDSM is legal.
In the UK, BDSM activities which cause injuries which are more than 'transient or trifling' may be illegal (see Operation Spanner), but the few cases since the original R v Brown 1990 ruling have been contradictory in their judgments, and yet a dining club involved in nyotaimori (that is it had food served on otherwise naked women) in many restaurants in west London wound itself up because it was thought to be illegal.
In other countries it is an example of a consensual crime.
At least in the western, industrialized countries and Japan, since the 1980s sadomasochists have begun to form information exchange and support groups to counter the discriminatory image held by orthodox science and parts of the public. This has happened independently in the United States and in several European countries. With the advent of the web, international cooperation has started to develop - for example Datenschlag is a joint effort of sadomasochists in the three major German-speaking countries, and the mailing list Schlagworte uses the model of a news agency to connect six countries.
- Clothing as bondage
- Bondage corset
- Courtly love
- Fetish club
- Hellfire Club
- Human sexuality
- Jack McGeorge
- Kink Aware Professionals
- Operation Spanner
- People v. Jovanovic
- Sexual fetishism
Publishers (fiction and non-fiction)
- SICK: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, a documentary about the life of Bob Flanagan
- Fetishes by Nick Broomfield
References and further reading
- Also see the page [ Getting Started ]