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History and Background

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A selection of BDSM paraphernalia including handcuffs, collars, and whips

Bondage, Discipline, and Sadomasochism, or BDSM, is a subculture involving a group of people who participate in deviant sensual and erotic behavior surrounding the application or reception of physical, psychological, and emotional pain. Activities are consensual and can include spanking, caning, paddling, flogging, whipping, electric shock play, and genital piercing (Lindemann 2010:592). Encounters generally involve two figures: the dominant, responsible for administering such acts, and the submissive who receives them. Although the titles suggest a hierarchy of power, sexual activity in the BDSM culture is better characterized as an open dialogue between the two; both figures have the right to negotiate the behaviors and stop at any point. Furthermore, the purpose of BDSM is mutual enjoyment from physical and psychological stimulation rather than intense torment. Encounters can occur in houses, clubs, parties, or workspaces known as dungeons.

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An ancient portrayal of BDSM practices from the caves of Lazio, Italy in which the dominant-submissive relationship is suggested

Indications of practices associated with BDSM trace back to the fifth century BC, from which archaeologists have found textual records containing images of whippings and flagellation for erotic purposes. The 14th century brought anecdotal accounts of consensual physical stimulation as a prequel or substitute for sexual acts. Additionally, the ancient text Kama Sutra laid some of the groundwork for modern BDSM in a section about hitting, biting, and pinching in lovemaking. The text, which many scholars consider to be the first written resource on the topic, explained how only select individuals considered such behavior pleasurable and therefore were required to obtain full consent. Although such texts and records include several components of today’s BDSM subculture, these behaviors and concepts were not categorized until the 18th century, when the Western world began to officially name certain erotic activities. Modern day participants of BDSM originally congregated on the west coast of the United States in the early ’60s where they would attend swinger parties, or gatherings in which people would walk around nude and swap spouses for an evening. As this diversion generally attracted people with an affinity for more deviant sexual practices, partygoers easily transitioned to social events centered around BDSM (Powell 2011:11).

Due to the extreme demonization facing BDSMers during this time period, the majority of the subculture’s development and growth happened in secrecy. Leaders of BDSM clubs or households would consequently conduct an exclusive process to make sure that those showing interest were genuinely curious and did not intend to shame, ridicule, or thwart the institution. In order to participate and learn about the subculture’s practices, individuals would often have to make contact with members through an advertisement in a magazine, speak on the phone with a representative from that particular institution, and schedule a meeting with members in order to be considered for admittance. New members–called slaves and often women–would then enter the group at the bottom of the hierarchy, with few rights and abilities of their own (Powell 2011:12). Members of the subculture at large generally differed in opinion regarding the state of BDSM during this time period. While some believed that such a disparity in power automatically came with varying levels of experience, others questioned the inequality of the genders.
 
Since the Women’s rights movement of the 70s, the role of the slave has evolved into the more empowering
A depiction of a typical dominant-submissive relationship

A depiction of a typical dominant-submissive relationship

submissive of modern day BDSM. While those interested in joining the community at its outset had to surrender everything ranging from their bank accounts to their homes in conjunction with their sexual power, women demanded the ability to have influence in their sexual encounters and took ownership of their lives. Now a woman can just as easily act asa dominant or a submissive, and much stricter rules apply in terms of negotiation. While one clearly has power over the other, the two figures enact a dynamic upon which both have agreed and swear to abide by during sexual encounters. This furthering of female autonomy has contributed much in the way of raising BDSM out of the shadows and fostering more acceptance around the subculture (Powell 2011:13).
 
People feel inclined to join the BDSM subculture for a variety of reasons. Many in committed relationships want to better understand the desires of their partner and therefore relinquish control for a temporary period of time. Others appreciate the idea of another briefly taking responsibility for their decisions, and still more enjoy the uncertainty and thrill of theBDSM party scene. However, one common thread between a vast number of participants is the strong pull felt early in life towards the practices associated with the subculture. Whether they were introduced to the culture through an acquaintance, the media, or a BDSM presence in their community, members felt a natural attraction towards the characteristics of the subculture. Many enjoy the sensation of deviating from the norms of hegemonic sexuality, finding that“BDSM activities are quite exotic compared to the standardized, dominant norms for gender and sexuality within our culture”(Powell 2011:65)
 
Although the BDSM subculture ultimately remains far less stigmatized today than in its history, it still carries a number of misconceptions among dominant societies. It is legal in almost every state as well as several countries, and many communities in which BDSM thrives sell paraphernalia and information on street corners. However, many people unfamiliar with the practices still associate BDSM with sexual abuse and cannot reconcile their ideas with the exoticness. Additionally, those from dominant society assume that people associated with BDSM are more likely to have experienced sexual trauma earlier in life, although data actually suggests the opposite. This stereotyping often prevents individuals from expressing their sexuality in the ways that feel most genuine to them. What follows is a number of different lenses with which to analyze BDSM and possibly discredit certain myths surrounding the subculture.
 

Gender and Female Empowerment

Contrary to popular belief, those who participate in the modern BDSM subculture often confound gender roles. In other words, either men or women can practice as dominants and submissives, and negotiations regarding limits, preferences, and the use of safe words occur just the same. Furthermore, “many women view BDSM as a challenge to gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality” because of the active role in which they take during encounters (Hammers 2014:67). The sexual activities allow them to reach fulfillment on their terms without feeling overwhelmed or abused. In particular, women who have experienced sexual trauma in the past see BDSM as a means of recovering their agency; they can relive portions of the aggressiveness or violence that originally caused them damage in a way that feels safe and comfortable, thereby adjusting the experience through their perspective. Through this process,the “numb zones” of their bodies become reactivated and they can explore he activities they enjoy (Hammers 2014:77).

Artistry and Sensuality

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BDSM often involves the pursuit of artistry, excellence, and technique rather than explicit sexuality

Several members of the BDSM subculture report an interest more associated with artistry, excellence, and mastering a craft than sexuality. In fact, explicit sexual acts rarely become involved during sessions. Similar to any other skill, dominants must learn to stimulate and excite within the agreed-upon boundaries. One dominatrix claimed, “to me it’s an art form. I have to know that I can step on a person without breaking a rib. I know that I have to be incredibly careful and delicate because something could bruise when it’s not supposed to and do real damage when it’s not supposed to” (Lindemann 2010:593). Dominatrices and submissives alike have the opportunity to explore the strengths of their bodies, how they respond to certain behaviors, and what allows them to empower themselves in a manner almost comparable to athletics, dance, or theater (Turley 2016:149). Members learn to operate under a moral code of “communicating needs, wants, and desires to partners and open dialogues with self and community, the notion of responsibility and transparency among community members, and safety and ensuring protection from harm” (Holt 2016:922).

Stigma

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A protest for the rights of BDSMers in Taiwan

BDSM has operated under the impact of heavy stigma surrounding the deviant nature of the practices and the misconceptions of sexual abuse. Depictions of BDSM in the media, most recently from the novel Fifty Shades of Gray, have illustrated the subculture as nonconsensual, threatening, and praying on some idealized depiction of virginity and innocence. Therefore, several members choose to conceal their lifestyle choices for three main reasons: fear of personal safety, discrimination in the workplace, and alienation from social circles (Stiles and Clark 2011:172). This societal judgment can result in members concealing central information about their lives and interests from others, leading to psychological strain and feelings of doubt in their choices.

Media

BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!

A documentary about myths and misconceptions in which several members of the BDSM community attracted them to the subculture and how typical media representations  

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwCMttqrqtg

50 Shades of Grey BDSM vs Real BDSM

An informative commentary on the distinctions between authentic BDSM and its portrayal in Fifty Shades of Gray. Topics of discussion include the necessity of consent, the mutually enjoyable nature of the relationships, safety and comfort and communication.    

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gJ8Ht4Ty3E

Rihanna–S&M (2010)

The fast-paced song speaks to the excitement and thrill of S&M behavior, in line with the concepts of empowerment and confidence.  

Significant Scholarship

Articles

Hammers, Corie. 2014. “Corporeality, Sadomasochism and Sexual Trauma.” Sage Journals 20(2): 68-90.

Holt, Karen. 2015. “Blacklisted: Boundaries, Violations, and Retaliatory Behavior in the BDSM Community.” Deviant Behavior 37(8): 917-930.

Lindemann, Danielle. 2010. “Will the Real Dominatrix Please Stand Up: Artistic Purity and Professionalism in the S&M Dungeon.” Sociological Forum 25(3):588-603.

Powell, Rodney D. 2011. Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sado-Masochism (BDSM): Partnerships, Couples, and Health Outcomes, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1018360674?accountid=7379.

Stiles, Beverly and Robert E Clark. 2011. “BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis of Sacrifices and Delights.” Deviant Behavior 32(2): 158-189.

Turley, Emma. 2016. “‘Like nothing I’ve ever felt before’: Understanding Consensual BDSM as Embodied Experience.” Psychology and Sexuality 7(2): 149-162.  

Books

Ortmann, David M and Richard A Sprott. 2013. “Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM Sexual Communities.” Lanham, Maryland. 

 

Other Resources

Miller, Philip, and Molly Devon. 1995. Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns: The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism. Fairfield, CT: Mystic Rose. 

          An account from two experienced BDSMers that removes the shame, fear, and misconceptions surrounding the subculture.

Wiseman, Jay. 1998. SM101: A Realistic Introduction. Eugene, OR: Greenery Press.

          For beginners looking to learn about and participate in the subculture. Includes information about role play, bondage, and flagellation.