What is BDSM?
BDSM is a wide range of consensual activities that are either sexual or indirectly connected to sexuality.
The four letters can be read in two ways. Either as the initialism for Bondage, Dominance-games and SadoMasochism. Or as being a condensed version of Bondage & Discipline + Dominance & Submission + Sadism & Masochism.
What is "Bondage", in this context?
Bondage means tying someone up. Usually with ropes. Can also be with chains or whatever, or putting someone in a cage, or simply forbidding the person to move. The later is sometimes categorized as Discipline.
To be Bondage, it has to be sexual and consensual.
If it is consensual but not sexual, it's just a game or something. If it is neither sexual nor consensual, it's kidnapping. If it's sexual but not consensual, it's kidnapping or sexual assault or both.
What is Dominance-games / Dominance & Submission?
An exchange of power: One person choosing to surrender to another by his own free will. Because he want to, not because he has been coerced or extorted in any way. Of course, the surrender only counts if it's accepted by the Dominant.
This dominance & submission can be limited to a single scene, ranging in length between seconds and hours, or be more drawn out. Some people have this kind of dominance dynamics permanently integrated in their relationships. There are three main differences between this and patriarchal gender roles. The first is that BDSM is gender neutral. The Dominant may be male or female, and may be hetero- homo- or bisexual. So may the submissive. The second difference is that they have this dynamic because they want
to and choose
to, not because they have been thought that "it's the way it's supposed to be". The third is that they have detailed options for what parts of their relationship is or isn't included in the dominance. For example, it's very common that the Dominant has no say over the submissive's professional life - especially since many sexual submissives are very dominant career people in their professional lives.
What is SadoMasochism / Sadism & Masochism?
A masochist want to experience pain - of the right kind, from the right person, in the right context. This can take the form of spankings, whippings, hot candle wax, or whatever. If the person who give these experiences is also enjoying the session, then this person is called a "sadist". These people typically combine their sadism with empathy and ethics, and are thus not dangerous or destructive in any way. However, a person who is a sexual sadist and
a psychopath is an entirely different matter
Also, note that "BDSM" is a range of "activities", while the title "sadomasochist" is often used about people who are interested in BDSM - including people who doesn't practice. In this sense of the words, Sadomasochism is the interest / desire / preference / orientation (whatever you prefer to call it), while BDSM / Sadism & Masochism is the act that express it.
So, it's all mixed together?
Some people combine all three parts, while others pick only one or two. It's a smorgasbord. Some people are masochists without being submissive, while some people are submissive without wanting pain to be a part of the deal at all. Of the people who enjoy both D&S and S&M, some enjoy each of them in their own right, while others enjoy one and only use the other to reinforce the experience. Likewise, some people enjoy both being the dominant and being the submissive. This is often referred to as being a "switch". Others enjoy only one of the positions.
Same goes for fetishism: There is no inherent connection between enjoying spanking and enjoying leather clothes, but the same subculture includes both.
How old is BDSM?
The sexualities currently categorized as BDSM are very old. Some of them probably older than mankind itself, since the instinct to dominate or submit is integrated into all social species. As for S & M, it's mentioned in the ancient Indian textbook Kama Sutra. Sexy ways of beating, scratching or biting each other gets a chapter each. Also, female dominance is mentioned in one chapter, as an interesting kink. Male dominance is not mentioned, since ancient India was patriarchal: Male dominance was taken for granted.
The social construct to categorize such things as "BDSM", on the other hand, is quite recent. The leather subculture started blooming up after WWII. After that came the concepts of B&D, D&S and S&M, which got merged into BDSM. The whole subculture is based on the concept sometimes called Safe, Sane and Consensual
or Risk Awareness Consensual Kink. This reflects modern civilization's values of individualism, mutual respect and caring for each other.
The words Sadism and Masochism was originally only about the sexual variations included in BDSM. The words was invented by the 19:th century sexologist Kraft-Ebing. He derived the names from Marquis De Sade and Leopold von Sasher-Masoch, two aristocrats who was both authors of sadomasochistic pornography. De Sade wrote satires where he portrayed the authorities as horny hypocrites who oppressed the population, while Masoch wrote about his romantic desire to be dominated by a woman.
A century later, these words had picked up some quite different and quite negative meanings. "Sadism" was used as a generic slur for being a malicious Jerk Ass
, while "masochism" was used as a similar slur to brand people as self-destructive. A popular excuse for refusing to help victims of Domestic Abuse
was to brand them "masochists", implying that they merely pretended to not enjoy the beatings, just to get attention. These days, these creepy secondary meanings are losing power as actual
sadism and masochism is becoming more and more socially accepted.
So, this whole thing about SSC...?
Most of it is covered under the useful notes page on Consent
. However, safety is a huge field that is not covered there and will not be sufficiently covered here either. If you are interested, read a book
Generally speaking, BDSM is entirely free from risk of disease/infection and unwanted pregnancies, as long as you don't break the skin or combine it with intercourse. However, the people who practice it need to be careful with blood circulation, respiratory systems, and not hitting any vulnerable areas such as over the kidneys. Most importantly, don't use comic books and similar fiction as instruction manuals: See the Common Hollywood Sex Traits
What about BDSM in media and tropes?
There are three different basic ways to handle BDSM in works. Portraying a character or group as into BDSM. Portraying events that are interesting or sexy
in a BDSM way
, without necessarily being BDSM in the context of the work. And finally, portraying the dynamics and nuances for where various lines are drawn.
Portraying a character’s interest in BDSM can be done in three different tones of voice: It can be portrayed as something positive
, something neutral
(usually for comedic effect, toying with expected prejudices in the audience) or as something negative and maybe “perverted”
. Sometimes, people into BDSM gets the role of Exotified Subculture of the Week
Portraying events as BDSM-sexy can be done in many ways. Three of the many tropes commonly used for this are Abusively Sexy
, Bound and Gagged
and Spank the Cutie
When it comes to portraying dynamics and boundaries, the following tropes are often useful:
Why are people into BDSM?
Lots of different reasons. Some enjoy the physical sensations, some enjoy dreaming away by acting out role-playing scenarios. Some enjoy the control and responsibility that come with being the dominant, some enjoy the Freedom from Choice
(and responsibility) that can come with being the submissive. For some it's a thrill, for some it's about feeling secure.
Most people who enjoy BDSM can enjoy vanilla intercourse as well. For some, guilt doesn't come into it either way. For others, submission is a way of escaping sexual guilt: By taking the role of the innocent victim, they can enjoy the sex without feeling like a slut. For yet others, guilt doesn't cone into it naturally, but they choose
to cultivate a sense of guilt and make up excuses for why they deserve to be "punished" - not out of any actual guilt, but simply because they enjoy it. Compare with civilians who are peaceful or even Actual Pacifist
, but enjoy taking on the role of bloodthirsty world-conquering emperor in various strategy computer games, reveling in the sociopathy because their fellow players doesn't sustain any actual
trauma from having their virtual citizens slaughtered.
Also, the human brain tend to enjoy having it's systems exercised. If our jobs doesn't include physical labor, we start going to the gym. We eat sour and bitter candy, in spite of those taste receptors originally evolved to warn us from spoiled or poisonous food. We don't like food that's that
sour or bitter, but a bit of sourness or bitterness is good. Likewise, no-one enjoy a hammer to the kneecaps - but some people do enjoy a spanking. Along this line, being used to a bit of pain can for some people make the bad kinds of pain more bearable.
But is BDSM always a good thing?
While no Safe, Sane and Consensual
sexuality is inherently
forms of sexuality can be used in destructive/self-destructive ways. It's always important to be careful with your own and your partner's emotional and physical well-being.
Once upon a time, psychiatry believed that heterosexual intercourse within marriage was always a good thing, even if non-consensual
, while so-called "deviant" sexualities was inherently bad. However, this view is long since dead. In 1990, the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual known as DSM finally stopped counting sadomasochism as being inherently bad. Before 1990, being a sexual sadist or masochist counted as having a mental disorder. After 1990, only sadistic rapists and self-destructive masochists are considered having a disorder - those who play SSC are now considered mentally healthy. There's also a lot of scientific research supporting the conclusion that the typical sadomasochist is not unhappy or destructive, and isn't immoral or unhealthy unless you declare BDSM to be immoral and unhealthy ''in itself''