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|B&D, B/D, or BD||Bondage and Discipline|
|D&s, D/s, or Ds||Dominance and submission|
|S&M, S/M, or SM||Sadism and masochism|
|Top/Dominant/Daddy/Big/Sir||partner who controls the activity|
|Bottom/Submissive/Little/Pet/Bitch||partner who is controlled|
|Switch||switches between roles|
|B&D, B/D, or BD||Bondage and Discipline|
|D&s, D/s, or Ds||Dominance and submission|
|S&M, S/M, or SM||Sadism and masochism|
|Top/Dominant/Daddy/Big/Sir||partner who controls the activity|
|Bottom/Submissive/Little/Pet/Bitch||partner who is controlled|
|Switch||switches between roles|
BDSM is a variety of erotic practices involving dominance and submission, role-playing, restraint, and other interpersonal dynamics. Given the wide range of practices, some of which may be engaged in by people who do not consider themselves as practicing BDSM, inclusion in the BDSM community and/or subculture is usually dependent on self-identification and shared experience. Interest in BDSM can range from one-time experimentation to a lifestyle, and there is debate[by whom?] over whether a BDSM or kink sexual identity also constitutes a form of sexual orientation.
The term BDSM dates back to 1969; however, the origin of the term BDSM is unclear and is believed to have been formed either from joining the term B&D (bondage and discipline) with S&M (sadomasochism or sadism and masochism), or as a compound initialism from B&D, D&S (dominance and submission), and S&M. Regardless of its origin, BDSM is used as a catch-all phrase to include a wide range of activities, forms of interpersonal relationships, and distinct subcultures. BDSM communities generally welcome anyone with a non-normative streak who identifies with the community; this may include cross-dressers, extreme body mod enthusiasts, animal players, latex or rubber aficionados, and others.
Unlike the usual "power neutral" relationships and play styles commonly followed by couples, activities and relationships within a BDSM context are often characterized by the participants' taking on complementary, but unequal roles; thus, the idea of informed consent of both the partners becomes essential. Participants who exert sexual control over their partners are known as dominants or tops while participants who take the passive, receiving, or obedient role are known as submissives or bottoms.
Individuals are also sometimes abbreviated when referred to in writing, so a dominant person may be referred to as a Dom for a man, and a Domme for a woman. Individuals who alternate between top/dominant and bottom/submissive roles – whether from relationship to relationship or within a given relationship – are known as switches, though the term switch in this context is occasionally seen as derogatory and is rejected by many who might simplistically fit the definition. The precise definition of roles and self-identification is a common subject of debate, reflection, and discussion within the community.
BDSM has become an umbrella term for certain kinds of erotic behavior between consenting adults. There are various subcultures under this umbrella term and distinct difference between these subcultures. Terminology for roles varies widely within the various BDSM subcultures. Top and dominant are widely recognized for those partner(s) in the relationship or activity who are, respectively, the physically active or controlling participants. Bottom and submissive are widely recognized terms for those partner(s) in the relationship or activity who are, respectively, the physically receptive or controlled participants. The interaction between tops and bottoms—where physical and/or mental control of the bottom is surrendered to the top—is sometimes known as power exchange, whether in the context of an encounter or a relationship.
BDSM actions can often take place during a specific period of time agreed to by both parties, referred to as "play", "a scene" or "a session". Participants usually derive pleasure from this, even though many of the practices—such as inflicting pain or humiliation or being restrained—would be unpleasant under other circumstances. Explicit sexual activity, such as sexual penetration, may occur within a session, but is not essential. Such explicit sexual interaction is seen only rarely in public play spaces, and it is sometimes specifically banned by the rules of a party or playspace. Whether it is a public "playspace" - ranging from a party at an established community dungeon to a hosted play "zone" at a nightclub or social event - the parameters of allowance can vary. Some restrict a policy of panties/nipple tape for females (underwear for men) and some allow full nudity with explicit sexual interaction allowed.
The fundamental principles for the exercise of BDSM require that it should be performed with the informed consent of all involved parties. Since the 1980s, many practitioners and organizations have adopted the motto (originally from the statement of purpose of GMSMA – a gay SM activist organization) "safe, sane and consensual", commonly abbreviated as "SSC", which means that everything is based on safe activities, that all participants be of sufficiently sound/sane mind to consent, and that all participants do consent. It is mutual consent that makes a clear legal and ethical distinction between BDSM and such crimes as sexual assault or domestic violence.
Some BDSM practitioners prefer a code of behavior that differs from "SSC" and is described as "risk aware consensual kink" (RACK), indicating a preference for a style in which the individual responsibility of the involved parties is emphasized more strongly, with each participant being responsible for his or her own well-being. Advocates of RACK argue that SSC can hamper discussion of risk because no activity is truly "safe", and that discussion of even low-risk possibilities is necessary for truly informed consent. They further argue that setting a discrete line between "safe" and "not-safe" activities ideologically denies consenting adults the right to evaluate risks vs rewards for themselves; that some adults will be drawn to certain activities regardless of the risk; and that BDSM play – particularly higher-risk play or edgeplay – should be treated with the same regard as extreme sports, with both respect and the demand that practitioners educate themselves and practice the higher-risk activities to decrease risk. RACK may be seen as focusing primarily upon awareness and informed consent, rather than accepted safe practices. Consent is the most important criterion here. The consent and compliance for a sadomasochistic situation can be granted only by people who can judge the potential results. For their consent, they must have relevant information (extent to which the scene will go, potential risks, if a safeword will be used, what that is, and so on) at hand and the necessary mental capacity to judge. The resulting consent and understanding is occasionally summarized in a written "contract", which is an agreement of what can and cannot take place.
In general, BDSM play is usually structured such that it is possible for the consenting partner to withdraw his or her consent during a scene; for example, by using a safeword that was agreed on in advance. Use of the agreed safeword (or occasionally a "safe symbol" such as dropping a ball or ringing a bell, especially when speech is restricted) is seen by some as an explicit withdrawal of consent. Failure to honor a safeword is considered serious misconduct and could even change the sexual consent situation into a crime, depending on the relevant law, since the bottom has explicitly revoked his or her consent to any actions that follow the use of the safeword (see Legal status). For other scenes, particularly in established relationships, a safeword may be agreed to signify a warning ("this is getting too intense") rather than explicit withdrawal of consent; and a few choose not to use a safeword at all. This is sometimes the case for "punishment scenes" between master/slave couples or for some extreme or edgeplay scenes which may include abductions, rape play, or interrogation. This scene dynamic may be referred to as "consensual nonconsent". In some scenes and/or relationships it may be impossible for consent to be withdrawn in the middle of a scene, or the bottom may have the ability to revoke consent for a relationship as a whole, but not for a particular scene.
Aside from the general advice related to safe sex, BDSM sessions often require a wider array of safety precautions than vanilla sex (sexual behavior without BDSM elements). In theory, to ensure consent related to BDSM activity, pre-play negotiations are commonplace, especially among partners who do not know each other very well. In practice, pick-up scenes at clubs or parties may sometimes be low in negotiation (much as pick-up sex from singles bars may not involve much negotiation or disclosure). Ideally, these negotiations concern the interests and fantasies of each partner and establish a framework. This kind of discussion is a typical "unique selling proposition" of BDSM sessions and quite commonplace. Additionally, safewords are often arranged to provide for an immediate stop of any activity if any participant should so desire.
Safewords are, by definition, not commonly used words during any kind of play. Words such as no, stop, and don't, are often not appropriate as a safeword if the roleplaying aspect includes the illusion of non-consent. A safeword is a word or phrase, usually something both parties can remember and recognize and not a word that might be used playfully during a scene (such as stop or don't), that is called out when things are either not going as planned or have crossed a threshold one cannot handle. The most commonly used safewords are red and yellow, with red meaning that play must stop immediately, and "yellow" meaning that the activity needs to slow down. At most clubs and group-organized BDSM parties and events, Dungeon monitors (DMs) provide an additional safety net for the people playing there, ensuring that house rules are followed and safewords respected.
BDSM participants ideally are expected to understand practical safety aspects. For instance, they are expected to recognize that parts of the body can be damaged, such as nerves and blood vessels by contusion, or that skin that can be scarred. Using crops, whips, or floggers, the top's fine motor skills and anatomical knowledge can make the difference between a satisfying session for the bottom and a highly unpleasant experience that may even entail severe physical harm. The very broad range of BDSM "toys" and physical and psychological control techniques often requires a far-reaching knowledge of details related to the requirements of the individual session, such as anatomy, physics, and psychology. Despite these risks, BDSM activities usually result in far less severe injuries than sports like boxing and football, and BDSM practitioners do not visit emergency rooms any more often than the general population.
It is necessary to be able to identify each person's psychological "squicks" or triggers in advance to avoid them. Such losses of emotional balance due to sensory or emotional overload are a fairly commonly discussed issue. It is important to follow participants' reactions empathetically and continue or stop accordingly. For some players, sparking "freakouts" or deliberately using triggers may be a desired outcome. Safe words are one way for BDSM practices to protect both parties. However, partners should be aware of each other's psychological states and behaviors to prevent instances where the "freakouts" prevent the use of safewords.
The initialism BDSM includes psychological and physiological facets:
This model for differentiating among these three aspects of BDSM is increasingly used in literature today. Nevertheless, it is only an attempt at phenomenological differentiation. Individual tastes and preferences in the area of sexuality may overlap among these areas, which are discussed separately here.
Bondage and Discipline are two aspects of BDSM that do not seem to relate to each other because of the type of activities involved, but they have conceptual similarities, and that is why they appear jointly. Contrary to the other two types, B/D does not define the Tops and Bottoms itself, and is used to describe the general activities with either partner being the receiver and the giver.
The term bondage describes the practice of Physical restraining. Bondage is usually, but not always, a sexual practice. While bondage is a very popular variation within the larger field of BDSM, it is nevertheless sometimes differentiated from the rest of this field. Studies among BDSM practitioners in the US have shown that about half of all men find the idea of bondage to be erotic; many women do as well. Strictly speaking, bondage means binding the partner by tying their appendages together; for example, by the use of handcuffs or by lashing their arms to an object. Bondage can also be achieved by spreading the appendages and fastening them with chains to a St. Andrews cross or spreader bars.
The term discipline describes psychological restraining, with the use of rules and punishment to control overt behavior. Punishment can be pain caused physically (such as caning), humiliation caused psychologically (such as a public flagellation) or loss of freedom caused physically (for example, chaining the submissive partner to the foot of a bed). Another aspect is the structured training of the Bottom.
"Dominance and submission" (also known as D&s, Ds or D/s) is a set of behaviors, customs and rituals relating to the giving and accepting of control of one individual over another in an erotic or lifestyle context. It explores the more mental aspect of BDSM. This is also the case in many relationships not considering themselves as sadomasochistic; it is considered to be a part of BDSM if it is practiced purposefully. The range of its individual characteristics is thereby wide.
Examples of mentally oriented practices are education games, during which the dominant requires certain forms of behavior from the submissive. Special forms include erotic roleplay like ageplay, in which a difference in age, either real or enacted, formulates the background; or petplay. Concerted deployed sexual rejection exercised on the partner can be an aspect of Dominance and Submission as well. The most established and probably most cliché set form of dominance and submission is Dominance and slavery. These can be administered for the short duration of a session among otherwise-emancipated partners, but also can be integrated into everyday life indefinitely. In a few relationships, it leads as far as total submission of one partner in the truest sense of the phrase total power exchange (frequently abbreviated as TPE). Compensating elements of the total dominance and submission are care and devotion complementing one another, thus facilitating stable relationships. The consensual submission of the submissive is sometimes demonstrated to others by symbols indicating his/her belonging to the dominant, such as wearing a collar, special tattoos, piercings, a very short haircut or a bald head.
Often, "slave contracts" are set out in writing to record the formal consent of the parties to the power exchange, stating their common vision of the relationship dynamic. The purpose of this kind of agreement is primarily to encourage discussion and negotiation in advance, and then to document that understanding for the benefit of all parties. Such documents have not been recognized as being legally binding, nor are they intended to be. These agreements are binding in the sense that the parties have the expectation that the negotiated rules will be followed. Often other friends and community members may witness the signing of such a document in a ceremony, and so parties violating their agreement can result in loss of face, respect or status with their friends in the community.
In general, as compared to conventional relationships, BDSM participants go to great lengths to negotiate the important aspects of their relationships in advance, and to take great care in learning about and following safe practices.
The term sadomasochism is derived from the words sadism and masochism (see Etymology). In the context of consensual erotic activities, sadism and masochism are not strictly accurate terms; there is a significant difference from the medical or psychological usage of both terms. Sadomasochism refers to the aspects of BDSM surrounding the exchange of physical or emotional pain. Sadism describes sexual pleasure derived by inflicting pain, degradation, humiliation on another person or causing another person to suffer. On the other hand, the masochist enjoys being hurt, humiliated, or suffering within the consensual scenario. Sadomasochistic scenes sometimes reach a level that appear more extreme or cruel than other forms of BDSM – for example, when a masochist is brought to tears or is severely bruised – and is occasionally unwelcome at BDSM events or parties. Sadomasochism does not imply enjoyment through causing or receiving pain in other situations (for example, accidental injury, medical procedures).
Discipline often incorporates sadomasochistic aspects, though some sadomasochists distance themselves from D/s practices such as punishment. Sadomasochism is practiced in isolation relatively rarely, though some masochists report biting, pinching, or even stun-gunning themselves as a prelude to, or as part of, masturbation.
In D/S, the Dominant is the Top and the submissive is the Bottom. In S/M, the Sadist is usually the Top and the Masochist the Bottom, but these roles are frequently more complicated or jumbled (as in the case of being dominant, masochists who may arrange for their submissive to carry out s/m activities on them). As in B/D, the declaration of the Top/Bottom may be required, though sadomasochists may also play without any Power Exchange at all, with both partners equally in control of the play.
On a physical level, BDSM is commonly misconceived to be "all about pain". Most often, though, BDSM practitioners are primarily concerned with power, humiliation, and pleasure. Of the three categories of BDSM, only sadomasochism specifically requires pain, but this is typically a vehicle for feelings of humiliation, dominance, etc. The aspects of D/s and B/D may not include physical suffering at all, but include the sensations inherited by different emotions of the mind. Dominance & submission of power is an entirely different experience, and is not always psychologically associated with physical pain. Many BDSM activities might not involve any kind of pain or humiliation, but just the exchange of Powers (Power Exchange). During the activities, the practitioners may feel endorphins comparable to the so-called "runner's high" or to the afterglow of orgasm. The corresponding trance-like mental state is also known as "subspace" for the submissive, or "topspace" for the dominant. Some use the term "body stress" to describe this physiological sensation. This experience of algolagnia is important, but is not the only motivation for many BDSM practitioners. The philosopher Edmund Burke defines this sensation of pleasure derived from pain by the word sublime. There is a wide array of BDSM practitioners who take part in sessions for which they do not receive any personal gratification. They enter such situations solely with the intention to allow their partners to fulfill their own needs and/or fetishes. They do this in exchange of money for the session activities.
In some BDSM sessions, the Top exposes the Bottom to a wide range of sensual impressions, for example: pinching, biting, scratching with fingernails, spanking or the use of various objects such as crops, whips, liquid wax, icecubes, Wartenberg wheels, erotic electrostimulation or others. Fixation by handcuffs, ropes or chains may be used as well. The repertoire of possible "toys" is limited only by the imagination of both partners. To some extent, everyday items like clothes-pins, wooden spoons or plastic wrap are used as pervertables. It is commonly considered that a pleasurable BDSM experience during a session is very strongly dependent upon the top's competence and experience and the bottom's physical and mental state at the time of the session. Trust and sexual arousal help the partners enter a shared mindset. Some BDSM practitioners compare related sensations with musical compositions and representation, in which single sensual impressions are the musical notes of the situation. From this point of view, different sensuous impressions are combined to create a total experience leaving a lasting impression.
In a BDSM relationship, the partner who has the active role in a session or in the entire relationship is described as the "top", a role that often involves inflicting pain, degradation or subjugation. The partner referred to as the "bottom" submits voluntarily to the actions of the top.
Although the top is usually also the dominant partner and the bottom the submissive partner, it is not inevitably so. In some cases the top (known in this case as a service top) follows instructions from the bottom according to the bottom's desires and in a way the bottom expressly requires. If the bondage/discipline aspect of BDSM involves a top actively performing a skill while a bottom willingly submits, then the dominance/submission aspect here is reversed from what is typically expected.
By contrast, a dominant top controls their submissive bottom partner, sometimes by using physical or psychological techniques, although consent is always established first. This power relationship is so common, "bottom" and "submissive" are sometimes used interchangeably. However, most frequently, bottom refers to anyone receiving an act while submissive refers to someone who is obedient to a dominant, i.e.; a dominant receiving a massage from a submissive is considered a bottom while the submissive is the top during the act of giving the massage. The top or bottom actors may change but the roles of dominant and submissive remain the same.
A similar distinction also may apply to bottoms. At one end of the spectrum are those who are indifferent to, or even reject physical stimulation. At the other end of the spectrum are bottoms who enjoy discipline and erotic humiliation but are not willing to be subordinate to the person who applies it. The bottom is frequently the partner who specifies the basic conditions of the session and gives instructions, directly or indirectly, in the negotiation, while the top often respects this guidance. Other bottoms often called "brats" try to incur punishment from their tops by provoking them or "misbehaving". Nevertheless a small, very puristic "school" exists within the BDSM community, which regards such "topping from the bottom" as rude or even incompatible with the standards of BDSM relations.
BDSM practitioners may also "switch", meaning they play either or both roles. He or she may practice this with one or more specific partners. The many reasons for switching are often very subjective and sometimes situational. A switch may simply enjoy both top and bottom roles or may be experimenting. Sometimes a relationship with a partner of the same primary preference (for example, two tops) requires switching to fulfill various BDSM needs within that relationship. Some change roles but do not regard themselves as switches as they do so irregularly or under specific circumstances only.
BDSM practitioners sometimes regard the practice of BDSM in their sex life as role playing and so often use the terms "Play" and "Playing" to describe activities where in their roles. Play of this sort for a specified period of time is often called a "Session", and the contents and the circumstances of play are often referred to as the "Scene". It is also common in personal relationships to use the term "Kink Play" for BDSM activities, or more specific terms for the type of activity. The relationships can be of varied types.
Early writings on BDSM both by the academic and BDSM community spoke little of long-term relationships with some in the Gay Leather community suggesting short-term play relationships to be the only feasible relationship models, and recommending people to get married and "play" with BDSM outside of marriage. In recent times though writers of BDSM and sites for BDSM have been more focused on long-term relationships.
A 2003 study, the first to look at these relationships, fully demonstrated that "quality long-term functioning relationships" exist among practitioners of BDSM, with either sex being the top or bottom (homosexual couples were not looked at). Respondents in the study expressed their BDSM orientation to be built into who they are, but considered exploring their BDSM interests an ongoing task, and showed flexibility and adaptability in order to match their interests with their partners. The "perfect match" where both in the relationship shared the same tastes and desires was rare, and most relationships required both partners to take up or put away some of their desires. The BDSM activities that the couples partook in varied in sexual to nonsexual significance for the partners who reported doing certain BDSM activities for "couple bonding, stress release, and spiritual quests". The most reported issue amongst respondents was not finding enough time to be in role with most adopting a 24/7 lifestyle wherein both partners maintain their dominant or submissive role throughout the day.
Amongst the respondents it was typically the bottoms who wanted to play harder, and be more restricted into their roles when there was a difference in desire to play in the relationship. The author of the study, Bert Cutler, speculated that tops may be less often in the mood to play due to the increased demand for responsibility on their part: being aware of the safety of the situation and prepared to remove the bottom from a dangerous scenario, being conscious of the desires and limits of the bottom, and so on. The author of the study stressed that successful long-term BDSM relationships came after "early and thorough disclosure" from both parties of their BDSM interests.
Many of those engaged in long-term BDSM relationships learned their skills from larger BDSM organizations and communities There was a lot of discussion by the respondents on the amount of control the top possessed in the relationships with almost non-existent discussion of the top "being better, or smarter, or of more value" than the bottom. Couples were generally of the same mind of whether or not they were in 24/7 relationship, but noted that in such cases the bottom is not locked up 24/7, but that their role in the context of the relationship was always present, even when the top is doing non-dominant activities such as household chores: cleaning, taking out the trash, and so on., or the bottom being in a more dominant position. In its conclusion the study states:
The respondents valued themselves, their partners, and their relationships. All couples expressed considerable good will toward their partners. The power exchange between the cohorts appears to be serving purposes beyond any sexual satisfaction, including experiencing a sense of being taken care of and bonding with a partner.
The study further goes on to list three aspects that made the successful relationships work: early disclosure of interests and continued transparency, a commitment to personal growth, and the use of the dominant/submissive roles as a tool to maintain the relationship. In his closing remarks the author of the study theorizes that due to the serious potential for harm that couples in BDSM relationships develop increased communication that may be higher than in mainstream relationships
A professional dominatrix or professional dominant, often referred to within the culture as a "pro-domme", offers services encompassing the range of bondage, discipline, and dominance in exchange for money. The term "Dominatrix" is little-used within the non-professional BDSM scene. A non-professional dominant woman is more commonly referred to simply as a "Domme", "Dominant", or "Femdom". There are also services provided by professional female submissives ("pro-subs"). A professional submissive consents to her client's dominant behavior within negotiated limits, and often works within a professional dungeon. Professional submissives, although far more rare, do exist. Most of the people who work as subs normally have tendencies towards such activities, especially when sadomasochism is involved. Males also work as professional "Tops" in BDSM, and are called "Masters" or "Doms". However it is much more rare to find a male in this profession. A male "pro-dom" typically only works with male clientele.
In BDSM, a scene is the stage or setting where BDSM activity takes place, as well as the activity itself. The physical place where a BDSM activity takes place is usually called a dungeon, though some prefer less dramatic terms, including "playspace", or "club". A BDSM activity can, but need not, involve sexual activity or sexual roleplay. A characteristic of many BDSM relationships is the power exchange from the bottom to the dominant partner, and bondage features prominently in BDSM scenes and sexual roleplay.
The term is also used in the BDSM community to refer to the BDSM community as a whole.
A bondage scenario using period costumes
A scene can take place in private between two or more people, and can involve a domestic arrangement, such as servitude or a casual or committed lifestyle master/slave relationship. BDSM elements may involve settings of slave training or punishment for breaches of instructions.
A scene can also take place in a club, where the play can be viewed by others. When a scene takes place in a public setting, it may be because the participants enjoy being watched by others, or because of the equipment available, or because having third parties present adds safety for play partners who have only recently met.
A scene takes place within the general conventions and etiquette of BDSM, such as requirements for mutual consent and agreement as to the limits of any BDSM activity. This agreement can be incorporated into a formal contract. In addition, most clubs have additional rules which regulate how onlookers may interact with the actual participants in a scene.
Today the BDSM culture exists in most western countries. This offers BDSM practitioners the opportunity to discuss BDSM relevant topics and problems with like-minded people. This culture is often viewed as a subculture, mainly because BDSM is often still regarded as "unusual" by some of the public. Many people hide their leaning from society since they are afraid of the incomprehension and of social exclusion. It is commonly known in the BDSM culture that there are practitioners living on all continents, but there is no documented evidence for many countries (due to restrictive laws and censorship motivated by politics or religion) except their presence in online BDSM communities and dating sites.
This scene appears particularly on the Internet, in publications, and in meetings such as SM parties, gatherings called munches, and erotic fairs. The annual Folsom Street Fair is the world's largest BDSM event. It has its roots in the gay leather movement. There are also conventions like Living in Leather, TESfest, Shibaricon, Spankfest, and Black Rose. North American cities that have large BDSM communities include New York City, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, Minneapolis, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. European cities with large BDSM communities include London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Munich, Cologne, Hamburg, Moscow and Rome.
One of the most commonly-used symbols of the BDSM community is a derivation of a triskelion shape within a circle. Various forms of triskele (a shape with three-fold rotational symmetry) have had many uses and many meanings in many cultures; its BDSM usage derives from the "Ring of O" in the classic book Story of O. The BDSM Emblem Project claims copyright over one particular specified form of the triskelion symbol; other variants of the triskelion are free from such copyright claims.
The BDSM Rights Flag is intended to represent the belief that people whose sexuality or relationship preferences include Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, or Sadism and Masochism ("BDSM") deserve the same human rights as everyone else, and should not be discriminated against for pursuing BDSM with consenting adults.
The flag is inspired by the Leather Pride Flag and BDSM Emblem, but is specifically intended to represent the concept of BDSM Rights and to be without the other symbols' restrictions against commercial use. It's designed to be recognisable by people familiar with either the Leather Pride Flag or BDSM Triskelion (or Triskele) as "something to do with BDSM"; and to be distinctive whether reproduced in full colour, or in black and white (or another pair of colours).
BDSM and fetish items and styles have been spread widely in western societies' everyday life by different factors, such as avant-garde fashion, heavy metal, goth subculture, and science fiction TV series, and are often not consciously connected with their BDSM roots by many people. While it was mainly confined to the Punk and BDSM subcultures in the 1990s, it has since spread into wider parts of western societies.
Most common misconceptions about BDSM form when limited understanding become intertwined with prejudices, clichés and stereotypes. Misunderstandings may arise from general lack of knowledge concerning sexuality and sexual practices as well as misconceptions on how one's personal life and public persona can vary greatly. For example, it is sometimes assumed that a submissive would prefer to experience pain and degradation in their everyday life, or conversely, that they would prefer to have exactly the opposite. There is no clear correlation between the position in everyday life and BDSM preferences. Another misconception is the idea of women generally being the dominant party in BDSM relationships. Quite often the picture of BDSM is reduced to the idea of crude corporal punishment, neglecting the broad spectrum of behaviors within the culture. Along with the whip-swinging dominatrix, the sadomasochist in full leather regalia is another common cliché. While overlaps between different kinds of fetishism can exist, there is no inevitable connection between BDSM and fetishism (for example: latex, PVC or leather). The frequent occurrence of such clothing can be partly explained by its function as a quasi-formalized dress code.
Since the term BDSM covers a broad range of human behavior, the arising spectrum of individual interests and personalities is large and extremely diverse. Due to the lack of information in the total population and the reluctance with many to come out about matters of an extremely personal nature leads to situations in which actions and statements of individual BDSM practitioners are accredited to the community at large just as the larger LGBT community has been characterized by drag queens and other minority communities similarly mischaracterized.
At least in the western, industrialized countries and Japan, since the 1980s sadomasochists have begun to form information exchange and support groups to counter discriminatory images. 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. Some credit highly publicized events like Operation Spanner and the International leather contests with fostering international cooperation and collaboration.
Some people who feel attracted by the situations usually compiled under the term BDSM reach a point where they decide to come out of the closet, though many sadomasochists keep themselves closeted. Even so, depending upon a survey's participants, about 5 to 25 percent of the US-American population show affinity to the subject. Other than a few artists, practically no celebrities are publicly known as sadomasochists.
Public knowledge of one's BDSM lifestyle can have devastating vocational and social effects (Persona non grata) for sadomasochists. The reason for this is seen by some authors as primarily a lack of public educational advertising, exacerbated by overly lurid and sensationalized media coverage.
Within feminist circles the discussion has been split roughly into two camps: some who see BDSM as an aspect or reflection of oppression (for example, Alice Schwarzer) and, on the other side, pro-BDSM feminists, often grouped under the banner of sex-positive feminism (see Samois); both of them can be traced back to the 1970s.
Some feminists have criticized BDSM for eroticizing power and violence, and for reinforcing misogyny. They argue that women who engage in BDSM are making a choice that is ultimately bad for women. Feminist defenders of BDSM argue that consensual BDSM activities are enjoyed by many women and validate the sexual inclinations of these women. They argue that feminists should not attack other woman's sexual desires as being "anti-feminist", and point out that there is no connection between consensual kinky activities and sex crimes. The main point of feminism is giving an individual woman free choices in her life; that includes her sexual desire. While some radical feminists suggest connections between consensual BDSM scenes and non-consensual rape and sexual assault, sex-positive feminists may tend to find this insulting to women.
It is often mentioned that in BDSM, roles are not fixed to gender, but personal preferences. The dominant partner in a heterosexual relationship may be the woman rather than the man; or BDSM may be part of male/male or female/female sexual relationships. Finally, some people switch, taking either a dominant or submissive role on different occasions. Several studies on the correlation of BDSM pornography and the violence against women recapitulate that there is no correlation. Japan is a useful example: a country which has the lowest rate of sexual crimes of all industrialized nations while being well known for its comprehensive BDSM and bondage pornography (see Pornography in Japan). In 1991 a lateral survey came to the conclusion that between 1964 and 1984, despite the increase in amount and availability of sadomasochistic pornography in the US, Germany, Denmark and Sweden there is no correlation with the national number of rapes to be found.
Operation Spanner in the UK proves that BDSM practitioners still run the risk of being stigmatized as criminals. In 2003, the media coverage of Jack McGeorge showed that simply participating and working in BDSM support groups poses risks to one's job, even in countries where no law restricts it. Here a clear difference can be seen to the situation of homosexuals.[clarification needed] The psychological strain appearing in some individual cases is normally neither articulated nor acknowledged in public. Nevertheless it leads to a difficult psychological situation in which the person concerned can be exposed to high levels of emotional stress.
In the stages of "self awareness", he or she realizes their desires related to BDSM scenarios and/or decides to be open for such. Some authors call this internal coming-out. Two separate surveys on this topic independently came to the conclusion that 58 percent and 67 percent of the sample respectively, had realized their disposition before their 19th birthday. Other surveys on this topic show comparable results. Independent of age, coming-out can potentially result in a difficult life crisis, sometimes leading to thoughts or acts of suicide. While homosexuals have created support networks in the last decades, sadomasochistic support networks are just starting to develop in most countries. In German speaking countries they are only moderately more developed. The internet is the prime contact point for support groups today, allowing for local and international networking. In the US Kink Aware Professionals (KAP) a privately funded, non-profit service provides the community with referrals to psychotherapeutic, medical, and legal professionals who are knowledgeable about and sensitive to the BDSM, fetish, and leather community. In the US and the UK, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation & Federation, National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) and Sexual Freedom Coalition (SFC) have emerged to represent the interests of sadomasochists. The German Bundesvereinigung Sadomasochismus e.V. is committed to the same aim of providing information and driving press relations. In 1996 the website and mailing list Datenschlag went online in German and English providing the largest bibliography, as well as one of the most extensive historical collections of sources related to BDSM.
BDSM parties are events on which BDSM practitioners and other similarly interested people meet in order to communicate, share experiences and knowledge, and to "play" in an erotic atmosphere. The parties show similarities with ones in the dark culture, being based on a more or less strictly enforced dress code; most often clothing made of latex, leather or vinyl/PVC, lycra and so on., emphasizing the body's shape and the primary and secondary sexual characteristic. The requirement for such dress codes differ. While some events have none, others have a policy in order to create a more coherent atmosphere and to prevent voyeurs from taking part.
At these parties, BDSM can be publicly performed on a stage, or more privately in separate "dungeons". A reason for the relatively fast spread of this kind of event is the opportunity to use a wide range of "playing equipment", which in most apartments or houses is unavailable. Slings, St. Andrews crosses (or similar restraining constructs), spanking benches, and punishing supports or cages are often made available. The problem of noise disturbance is also lessened at these events, while in the home setting many BDSM activities can be limited by this factor. In addition, such parties offer both exhibitionists and voyeurs a forum to indulge their inclinations without social opprobrium. Sexual intercourse is taboo within most public BDSM play spaces or not often seen in others, because it is not the emphasis of this kind of play. In order to ensure the maximum safety and comfort for the participants certain standards of behavior have evolved, these include aspects of courtesy, privacy, respect and safewords among others. Today BDSM parties are taking place in most of the larger cities in the western world.
In some cities there are specialized BDSM clubs with a more or less structured program schedule, in which theme parties alternate with topic-free "play evenings", similar to the business concepts of more conventional nightclubs. Social control of these parties and/or in the clubs is far higher than in a normal discothèque. Consensuality in the public BDSM sessions is strictly monitored and enforced. Apart from commercial events there are also privately organized or only moderately profit-oriented parties, which are organized by BDSM groups and individuals. Minors are not allowed at parties or clubs, even though intercourse and drinking are usually not found in these parties.
BDSM is practiced in all social strata and is common in both heterosexual and homosexual men and women in varied occurrences and intensities. The spectrum ranges from couples with no connections to the subculture outside of their bedrooms or homes, without any awareness of the concept of BDSM, playing "tie-me-up-games", to public scenes on St. Andrew's crosses at large events such as the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. Estimation on the overall percentage of BDSM related sexual behaviour vary but it is no longer[when?] assumed to be uncommon.
A non-representative survey on the sexual behaviour of American students published in 1997 and based on questionnaires had a response rate of about 8–9%. Its results showed 15% of openly homosexual males, 21% of openly lesbian and female bisexual students, 11% of heterosexual males and 9% of female heterosexual students committed to BDSM related fantasies. In all groups the level of practical BDSM experiences were around 6%. Within the group of openly lesbian and bisexual females the quote was significantly higher, at 21%. Independent of their sexual orientation, about 12% of all questioned students, 16% of lesbians and female bisexuals and 8% of heterosexual males articulated an interest in spanking. Experience with this sexual behaviour was indicated by 30% of male heterosexuals, 33% of female bisexuals and lesbians, and 24% of the male gay and bisexual men and female heterosexual women. Even though this study was not considered representative, other surveys indicate similar dimensions in a differing target groups.
A representative study done from 2001 to 2002 in Australia found that 1.8% of sexually active people (2.2% men, 1.3% women but no significant sex difference) had engaged in BDSM activity in the previous year. Of the entire sample, 1.8% men and 1.3% women had been involved in BDSM. BDSM activity was significantly more likely in bisexual and gay men. But among men in general, there was no relationship effect of age, education, language spoken at home, or relationship status. Among women, in this study, activity was most common for those between 16 and 19 years of age and least likely for females over 50 years. Activity was also significantly more likely for bisexual women, lesbians, and women who had a regular partner they did not live with, but was not significantly related with speaking a language other than English or education.
Richters et al. (2008) study also found that people who engaged in BDSM were more likely to have experienced a wider range of different sexual practices (e.g. oral and/or anal sex, more than one partner, group sex, phone sex, viewed pornography, used a sex toy, fisting, rimming, etc.). They were, however, not any more likely to have been coerced, unhappy, anxious, or experiencing sexual difficulties. On the contrary, men who had engaged in BDSM scored lower on a psychological distress scale than men who did not.
Another representative study, published in 1999 by the German Institut für rationale Psychologie, found that about 2/3 of the interviewed women stated a desire to be at the mercy of their sexual partners from time to time. 69% admitted to fantasies dealing with sexual submissiveness, 42% stated interest in explicit BDSM techniques, 25% in bondage. A 1976 study in the general US population suggests three percent have had positive experiences with Bondage or master-slave role playing. Overall 12% of the interviewed females and 18% of the males were willing to try it. A 1990 Kinsey Institute report stated that 5% to 10% of Americans occasionally engage in sexual activities related to BDSM. 11% of men and 17% of women reported trying bondage. Some elements of BDSM have been popularized through increased media coverage since the middle 1990s. Thus both black leather clothing, sexual jewellery such as chains and dominance role play appear increasingly outside of BDSM contexts.
According to yet another survey of 317,000 people in 41 countries, about 20% of the surveyed have at least used masks, blindfolds or other bondage utilities once, and 5% explicitly connected themselves with BDSM. In 2004, 19% mentioned spanking as one of their practices and 22% confirmed the use of blindfolds and/or handcuffs.
A 1985 study found 52 out of 182 female respondents (28%) were involved in sadomasochistic activities.
In the past, many activities and fantasies related to BDSM were generally attributed to sadism or masochism and were regarded by psychiatrists as an illness. For example, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) categorized 'sadomasochism' as a "Disorder of sexual preference" (F65.5) and described it as follows: "A preference for sexual activity which involves the infliction of pain or humiliation, or bondage. If the subject prefers to be the recipient of such stimulation this is called masochism; if the provider, sadism. Often an individual obtains sexual excitement from both sadistic and masochistic activities."
With the 1994 publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) new criteria of diagnosis were added. The 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. In an AASECT article providing guidelines for therapists working with BDSM clients, sexologists Charles Allen Moser and Peggy Kleinplatz highlight that distress can occur in BDSM patients due to stigma and discrimination surrounding BDSM, and that in these circumstances the role of the therapist is to "validate the distress rather than to 'cure' the BDSM desires". The DSM-IVs' latest edition (DSM-IV-TR) further requires that the activity must be the sole means of sexual gratification for a period of six (6) months, and either cause "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" or involve a violation of "consent" to be diagnosed as a paraphilia.
That said, overlap of sexual preference disorders and the practice of BDSM practices can occur.
In Europe, an organization called ReviseF65 has worked towards this purpose in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). In 1995, Denmark became the first European Union country to have completely removed sadomasochism from its national classification of diseases. This was followed by Sweden in 2009, Norway in 2010 and Finland 2011. Recent surveys on the spread of BDSM fantasies and practices show strong variations in the range of their results. Nevertheless it can be stated that the vast majority of the researchers assume 5 to 25 percent of the population showing sexual behavior related to joyfully experienced pain or dominance and submission. The population with related fantasies is considered even higher.
There have been few studies on the psychological aspects of BDSM using modern scientific standards. One pivotal survey on the subject was published by US-American psychotherapist Charles Moser in 1988 in the Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality. His conclusion was that while there is a general lack of data on the psychological problems of BDSM practitioners, some fundamental results are obvious. He emphasizes that there is no evidence for the theory that BDSM has common symptoms or any common psychopathology; Clinical literature, though does not give a consistent picture of BDSM practitioners. Moser emphasizes that there is no evidence at all supporting the theory of BDSM practitioners having any special psychiatric problems or even problems based solely on their preferences.
Problems do sometimes occur in the area of self classification by the person concerned. During the phase of the "coming-out", self questioning related to one's own "normality" is quite common. According to Moser, the discovery of BDSM preferences can result in fear of the current non-BDSM relationship's destruction. This, combined with the fear of discrimination in everyday life, leads in some cases to a double life which can be highly burdensome. At the same time, the denial of BDSM preferences can induce stress and dissatisfaction with one's own "vanilla"-lifestyle, feeding the apprehension of finding no partner. Moser states that BDSM practitioners having problems finding BDSM partners would probably have problems in finding a non-BDSM partner as well. The wish to remove BDSM preferences is another possible reason for psychological problems since it is not possible in most cases. Finally, the scientist states that BDSM practitioners seldom commit violent crimes. From his point of view, crimes of BDSM practitioners usually have no connection with the BDSM components existing in their life. Moser's study comes to the conclusion that there is no scientific evidence, which could give reason to refuse members of this group work- or safety certificates, adoption possibilities, custody or other social rights or privileges. The Swiss psychoanalyst Fritz Morgenthaler shares a similar perspective in his book, Homosexuality, Heterosexuality, Perversion (1988). He states that possible problems result not necessarily from the non-normative behavior, but in most cases primarily from the real or feared reactions of the social environment towards the own preferences. In 1940 psychoanalyst Theodor Reik reached implicitly the same conclusion in his standard work Aus Leiden Freuden. Masochismus und Gesellschaft.
Moser's results are further supported by Richters et al.'s (2008) study on the demographic and psychosocial features of participants in BDSM done in Australia. Richters et al. (2008) found that BDSM practitioners were no more likely to have experienced sexual assault than the control group, and were not more likely to feel unhappy or anxious. The BDSM males reported higher levels of psychological well-being than the controls. It was concluded that "BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, not a pathological symptom of past abuse or difficulty with 'normal' sex."
In contrast to frameworks seeking to explain sadomasochism through psychological, psychoanalytic, medical or forensic approaches, which seek to categorize behaviour and desires and find a root "cause," Romana Byrne suggests that such practices can be seen as examples of "aesthetic sexuality," in which a founding physiological or psychological impulse is irrelevant. Rather, sadism and masochism may be practiced through choice and deliberation, driven by certain aesthetic goals tied to style, pleasure, and identity. These practices, in certain circumstances and contexts, can be compared with the creation of art.
Not much empirical research has been done on gender differences or prevalence rates of categorized roles within BDSM. Though, one Australian demographic study found higher rates of female participants than males, it can not be generalized.
One common misconception of BDSM and kink is that women are more likely to take on masochistic roles than men. Roy Baumeister (2010) actually had more male masochists in his study than female, and fewer male dominants than female. The fact that neither of these gender differences were significant, suggests no assumptions should be made regarding gender and masochistic roles in BDSM. One explanation why we might think otherwise lies in our social and cultural ideals about femininity; masochism may emphasize certain stereotypically feminine elements through activities like feminization of men and ultra-feminine clothing for women. But such tendencies of the submissive masochistic role should not be interpreted as a connection between it and the stereotypical female role—many masochistic scripts do not include any of these tendencies.
Baumeister (2010) found that masochistic males experienced greater: severity of pain, frequency of humiliation (status-loss, degrading, oral), partner infidelity, active participation by other persons, and cross dressing. Trends also suggested that male masochism included more bondage and oral sex than female (though the data was not significant). Female masochists, on the other hand, experienced greater: frequency in pain, pain as punishment for 'misdeeds' in the relationship context, display humiliation, genital intercourse, and presence of non-participating audiences. The exclusiveness of dominant males in a heterosexual relationship should be noted because, historically, men in power preferred multiple partners. Finally, Baumeister (2010) observes a contrast between the 'intense sensation' focus of male masochism to a more 'meaning and emotion' centred female masochistic script.
Levitt, Moser, & Jamison's 1994 study provides a general, if outdated, description of characteristics of women in the sadomasochistic (S/M) subculture. They state that women in S/M tend to have higher education, become more aware of their desires as a young adult, are less likely to be married than the general population. The researchers found the majority of females identified as heterosexual and submissive, a substantial minority were versatile—able to switch between dominant and submissive roles—and a smaller minority identified with the dominant role exclusively. Oral sex, bondage and master-slave script were among the most popular activities, while feces/watersports were the least popular.
Though BDSM in itself can be considered a sexual orientation or identity, and is considered one by some of its practitioners, the BDSM and kink scene is more often seen as a diverse pansexual community. Ideally, this is a non-judgmental community where gender, sexuality, orientation, preferences are accepted as is and/or worked at to become something a person can be happy with. In research, studies have focused on bisexuality and its parallels with BDSM, as well as gay-straight differences between practitioners.
Demographically, Nordling et al.'s (2006) study found no differences in age, but 43% gay male respondents compared to 29% straight males had university level education. The gay men also had higher incomes than the general population, and tended to work in white collar jobs while straight men tended toward blue collar ones. Because there were not enough female respondents (22), no conclusions could be drawn from them.
Sexually speaking, the same 2006 study by Nordling et al. found that gay males were aware of their S/M preferences and took part in them at an earlier age, preferring leather, anal sex, rimming, dildos and special equipment or uniform scenes. In contrast, straight men preferred verbal humiliation, mask and blindfolds, gags, rubber/latex outfits, caning, vaginal sex, and cross-dressing among other activities. From the questionnaire, researchers were able to identify 4 separate sexual themes: hyper-masculinity, giving and receiving pain, physical restriction (i.e. bondage), and psychological humiliation. Gay men preferred activities that tended towards hyper-masculinity while straight men showed greater preference for humiliation. Though there were not enough female respondents to draw a similar conclusion with, the fact that there is a difference in gay and straight men suggests strongly that S/M (and BDSM in general) can not be considered a homogenous phenomenon. As Nordling et al. (2006) puts it, “People who identify as sadomasochists mean different things by these identifications.” (54)
In Steve Lenius' original 2001 paper he explored the acceptance of bisexuality in a supposedly pansexual BDSM community. The reasoning behind this is that 'coming-out' had become primarily the territory of the gay and lesbian, with bisexuals feeling the push to be one or the other (and being right only half the time either way). What he found in 2001, was that people in BDSM were open to discussion about the topic of bisexuality and pansexuality and all controversies they bring to the table, but personal biases and issues stood in the way of actively using such labels. A decade later, Lenius (2011) looks back on his study and considers if anything has changed. He concluded that the standing of bisexuals in the BDSM and kink community was unchanged, and believed that positive shifts in attitude were moderated by society's changing views towards different sexualities and orientations. But Lenius (2011) does emphasize that the pansexual promoting BDSM community helped advance greater acceptance of alternative sexualities.
Brandy Lin Simula (2012), on the other hand, argues that BDSM actively resists gender conforming and identified three different types of BDSM bisexuality: gender-switching, gender-based styles (taking on a different gendered style depending on gender of partner when playing), and rejection of gender (resisting the idea that gender matters in their play partners). Simula (2012) explains that practitioners of BDSM routinely challenge our concepts of sexuality by pushing the limits on pre-existing ideas of sexual orientation and gender norms. For some, BDSM and kink provides a platform in creating identities that are fluid, ever-changing.
Psychiatry has an insensitive history in the area of BDSM. There have been many involvements by institutions of political power to marginalize subgroups and sexual minorities. Mental health professionals have a long history of holding negative assumptions and stereotypes about the BDSM community. Beginning with the DSM-II, Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism have been listed as sexually deviant behaviours. Sadism and masochism were also found in the personality disorder section This negative assumption has not changed significantly evident in the continued inclusion of Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism as paraphilias in the DSM-IV-TR. These said biases and misinformation can result in pathologizing and unintentional harm to clients who identifies as sadists or masochists.
According to Kolmes et al. (2006), major themes of biased and inadequate care to BDSM clients are:
These same researchers suggested that therapists should be open to learning more about BDSM, to show comfort in talking about BDSM issues, and to understand and promote "safe, sane, consensual" BDSM.
Nichols (2006) compiled some common clinical issues: countertransference, non-disclosure, coming-out, partner/families, and bleed-through
Countertransference is a common problem in clinical settings. Despite having no evidence, therapists may find themselves believing that their client’s pathology is "self-evident". Therapists may feel intense disgust and aversive reactions. Feelings of countertransference can interfere with therapy. Another common problem is when clients conceal their sexual preferences from their therapists. This can compromise any therapy. To avoid non-disclosure, therapists are encouraged to communicate their openness in indirect ways with literatures and artworks in the waiting room. Therapists can also deliberately bring up BDSM topics during the course of therapy. With less informed therapists, sometimes they over-focus on clients’ sexuality which detracts from original issues such as family relationships, depression, etc. A special subgroup that needs counselling is the "newbie". Individuals just coming out might have internalized shame, fear, and self-hatred about their sexual preferences. Therapists need to provide acceptance, care, and model positive attitude; providing reassurance, Psychoeducation, and bibliotherapy for these clients is crucial. The average age when BDSM individuals realize their sexual preference is around 26 years. Many people hide their sexuality until they can no longer contain their desires. However, they may have married and/or had children by this point. Therefore, therapists need to facilitate couples counselling and disclosure. It is important for therapists to consider fairness to partner and family of clients. In situations when boundaries between roles in the bedroom and roles in the rest of the relationship blurs, a "bleed-through" problem has occurred. Therapists need to help clients resolve distress and deal with any underlying problems that led to the initial bleed-through.
For many people, BDSM practices can lead to profound transcendental experiences, reminiscent of shamanic ordeals. Additionally, many have turned to various spiritual traditions to guide them ethically, or have sought to reconcile their BDSM desires with their chosen religious or spiritual tradition. BDSM spirituality groups have formed within local groups and on the Internet; there have also been BDSM support groups for members of particular religions, such as Defenders (a subgroup of the Roman Catholic DignityUSA), People of Leather Among You (connected with the Metropolitan Community Church), Black Leather Wings (for Neopagans) and Leather & Grace (for Unitarian Universalists).
Practices of BDSM survive from some of the oldest textual records in the world, associated with rituals to the Goddess Inanna (Ishtar in Akkadian). Academic historian and archaeologist Anne O Nomis has undertaken research revealing cuneiform texts dedicated to Inanna which incorporate domination rituals. In particular she points to ancient writings such as Inanna and Ebih (in which the Goddess dominates Ebih), and Hymn to Inanna describing cross-dressing transformations and rituals "imbued with pain and ecstasy, bringing about initation and journeys of altered states of consciousness; punishment, moaning, ecstasy, lament and song, participants exhausting themselves in weeping and grief."
During the ninth century BC, ritual flagellations were performed in Artemis Orthia, one of the most important religious areas of ancient Sparta, where the Cult of Orthia, a preolympic religion, was practiced. Here ritual flagellation called diamastigosis took place,in which young adolescent men were whipped in a ceremony overseen by the priestess. These are referred to by a number of ancient authors, including Pausanius (III, 16: 10-11).
One of the oldest graphical proofs of sadomasochistic activities is found in the Etruscan Tomb of the Whipping near Tarquinia, which dates to the fifth century BC. Inside the tomb there is fresco which portrays two men who flagellate a woman with a cane and a hand during an erotic situation. Another reference related to flagellation is to be found in the sixth book of the Satires of the ancient Roman Poet Juvenal (1st–2nd century A.D.), further reference can be found in Petronius's Satyricon where a delinquent is whipped for sexual arousal. Anecdotal narratives related to humans who have had themselves voluntary bound, flagellated or whipped as a substitute for sex or as part of foreplay reach back to the third and fourth century.
In Pompeii, a Whipstress figure with wings is depicted on the wall of the Villa of Mysteries, as part of an initiation of a young woman into the Mysteries. Nomis notes that the Whipstress role drove the sacred initiation of ceremonial death and rebirth. The archaic Greek Aphrodite may too once have been armed with an implement, with archaeological evidence of armed Aphrodites known as hoplismene known from a number of locations in Cythera, Acrocorinth and Sparta, and which based on Nomis's study on Eastern Goddesses she notes may well have been a whip.
The Kama Sutra of India describes four different kinds of hitting during lovemaking, the allowed regions of the human body to target and different kinds of joyful "cries of pain" practiced by bottoms. The collection of historic texts related to sensuous experiences explicitly emphasizes that impact play, biting and pinching during sexual activities should only be performed consensually since only some women consider such behavior to be joyful. From this perspective the Kama Sutra can be considered as one of the first written resources dealing with sadomasochistic activities and safety rules. Further texts with sadomasochistic connotation appear worldwide during the following centuries on a regular basis.
There are anecdotal reports of people willingly being bound or whipped, as a prelude to or substitute for sex, during the 14th 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 18th century when Western civilization began medically and legally categorizing sexual behavior (see Etymology).
The professional occupation of the Dominatrix has been traced by academic historian Anne O. Nomis from British Library Rare Book sources, which reveals flagellation practiced within an erotic setting recorded from at least the 1590s evidenced by a John Davies epigram, and other references to flogging schools in Shadwell's 'Virtuoso' (1676) and Troth's 'Knavery of Astrology' (1680). Visual evidence such as mezzotints and print media is also identified revealing scenes of flagellation, such as "The Cully Flaug'd" from the British Museum collection.
John Cleland's novel Fanny Hill, published in 1749, incorporates a flagellation scene between the character's protagonist Fanny Hill and Mr Barville. A large number of flagellation publications followed, including "Fashionable Lectures Delivered With Birch Discipline" (c1761), promoting the names of ladies offering the service in a lecture room with rods and cat o' nine tails.
Other sources give a broader definition, citing BDSM-like behavior in earlier times and other cultures, such as the medieval flagellates and the physical ordeal rituals of some Native American societies.
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 are the sexual games played in brothels, which go back into the 19th century if not earlier. Irving Klaw, during the 1950s and 1960s, produced some of the first commercial film and photography with a BDSM theme (most notably with Bettie Page) and published comics by the now-iconic bondage artists John Willie and Eric Stanton.
Stanton's model Bettie Page became at the same time one of the first successful models in the area of fetish photography and one of the most famous pin-up girls of American mainstream culture. Italian author and designer Guido Crepax was deeply influenced by him, coining the style and development of European adult comics in the second half of the twentieth century. The artists Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe are the most prominent examples of the increasing use of BDSM-related motives in modern photography and the public discussions still resulting from this.
Alfred Binet first coined the term erotic fetishism in his 1887 book, Du fétichisme dans l’amour
Richard von Krafft-Ebing saw BDSM interests as the end of a continuum.
Leather has been a predominantly gay male term to refer to one fetish, but it can stand for many more. Members of the gay male leather community may wear leathers such as Motorcycle leathers, and/or may be attracted to men wearing leather. Leather and BDSM are seen as two parts of one whole. Much of the BDSM culture can be traced back to the gay male leather culture, which formalized itself out of the group of men who were soldiers returning home after World War II (1939–1945). WWII was the setting where countless homosexual men and women tasted the life among homosexual peers. Post-war, homosexual individuals congregated in larger cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. They formed leather clubs and bike clubs, some were fraternal services. The establishment of Mr. Leather Contest and Mr. Drummer Contest were made around this time. This was the genesis of the gay male leather community. Many of the members were attracted to extreme forms of sexuality, for which peak expression was in the pre-AIDS 1970s. This subculture is epitomized by the Leatherman's Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, which describes in detail the practices and culture of gay male sadomasochists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the early 1980s, lesbians also joined the leathermen as a recognizable element of the gay leather community. They also formed leather clubs, but there were some gender differences such as the absence of leatherwomen’s bar. In 1981, the publication of Coming to Power by lesbian-feminist group Samois led to a greater knowledge and acceptance of BDSM in the lesbian community. By the 1990s, the gay men’s and women’s leather communities were no longer underground and played an important role in the kink community.
Today the Leather Movement is generally seen as a part of the BDSM-culture instead of as a development deriving from gay subculture, even if a huge part of the BDSM-subculture was gay in the past. In the 1990s the so-called New Guard leather subculture evolved. This new orientation started to integrate psychological aspects into their play.
In the late-eighties, the Internet provided a way of finding people with specialized interests around the world as well as on a local level, 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.
In addition to traditional sex shops, 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. 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 "vanilla" markets. The former niche expanded to an important pillar of the business with adult accessories. Today practically all suppliers of sex toys do offer items which originally found usage in the BDSM subculture. Padded handcuffs, latex and leather garments, as well as more exotic items like soft whips for fondling and TENS for erotic electro stimulation can be found in catalogs aiming on classical vanilla target groups, indicating that former boundaries increasingly seem to shift.
During the last years the Internet also provides a central platform for networking among individuals who are interested in the subject. Besides countless private and commercial choices there is an increasing number of local networks and support groups emerging. These groups often offer comprehensive background and health related information for people who have been unwillingly outed as well as contact lists with information on psychologists, physicians and lawyers who are familiar with BDSM related topics.
The terms sadism and masochism are derived from the names of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, based on the content of the authors' works. Although the names of the Sade and Sacher-Masoch are attached to the terms sadism and masochism respectively, the scenes described in Sade's works do not meet modern BDSM standards of informed consent. BDSM is solely based on consensual activities, and based on its system and laws, the concepts presented by Sade are not agreed upon the BDSM culture, even though they are sadistic in nature. In 1843 the Hungarian physician Heinrich Kaan published Psychopathia sexualis ("Psychopathy of Sex"), a writing in which he converts the sin conceptions of Christianity into medical diagnoses. With his work the originally theological terms "perversion", "aberration" and "deviation" became part of the scientific terminology for the first time.[dubious ] The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft Ebing introduced the terms "Sadism" and "Masochism" to the medical community in his work Neue Forschungen auf dem Gebiet der Psychopathia sexualis ("New research in the area of Psychopathy of Sex") in 1890.
In 1905, Sigmund Freud described "Sadism" and "Masochism" in his Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie ("Three papers on Sexual theory") as diseases developing from an incorrect development of the child psyche and laid the groundwork for the scientific perspective on the subject in the following decades. This led to the first time use of the compound term Sado-Masochism (German "Sado-Masochismus") by the Viennese Psychoanalytic Isidor Isaak Sadger in its work Über den sado-masochistischen Komplex ("Regarding the sadomasochistic complex") in 1913.
In the later 20th century, BDSM activists have protested against these conceptual models. Not only were these models were derived from the philosophies of two singular historical figures. Both Freud and Krafft-Ebing were psychiatrists. Their observations on Sadism and Masochism were dependent on psychiatric patients, and their models were built on the assumption of Psychopathology. BDSM activists argues that it is illogical to attribute human behavioural phenomena as complex as sadism and masochism to the 'inventions' of two historic individuals. Advocates of BDSM have sought to distinguish themselves from widely held notions of antiquated psychiatric theory by the adoption of the initialized term, "BDSM" as a distinction from the now common usage of those psychological terms, abbreviated as "S&M".
The legal status of BDSM is entirely dependent on the legal structure of individual countries. Each individual country makes its own determination to whether the practice of BDSM has any criminal relevance or legal consequences. Criminalization of consensually implemented BDSM practices is usually not with explicit reference to BDSM itself (i.e., spanking an adult who specifically requests another to do such action to the requesting person), but results from the fact that such behavior could be considered a breach of personal rights, which in principle constitutes a criminal offense though some jurisdictions especially in the United States do specifically list such acts as flagellation (spanking) between consenting adults as "assault" regardless of consent between such consenting parties.
In Germany, Netherlands, Japan and Scandinavia such behavior is legal in principle. In Austria the legal status is unclear, while in Switzerland certain[which?] BDSM practices can be considered criminal. Spectacular incidents like the US-American scandal of People v. Jovanovic and the British Operation Spanner demonstrate the degree to which difficult grey areas can pose a problem for the individuals and authorities involved. For these reasons it is important for practitioners of BDSM to learn the legal status concerning BDSM activities in the country they reside in.
The practice of BDSM is not generally penalized in Germany if it is conducted with the mutual consent of the partners involved. To fulfill the charge of coercion the use of violence, or the threat of a "severe mistreatment" must involve an endangerment to life and limb. In cases where the continued application of the treatment could be ended through the use of a safeword, neither coercion nor sexual coercion may be charged. Similar principles apply for charges of sexual abuse of people incapable of resistance. In such cases taking advantage of a person's inability to resist in order to perform sexual acts on that person would be clearly punishable. The potential use of the safeword is considered to be sufficient possibility for resistance since this would lead to the cessation of the act, so a true inability to resist is not considered to be in effect.
According to §194 the charge of insult (slander) can only be prosecuted if the defamed person chooses to press charges. False imprisonment can be charged if the victim—when applying an objective view—can be considered to be impaired in his or her rights of free movement. According to §228 of the German criminal code a person inflicting a bodily injury on another person with that person's permission violates the law only in cases where the act can be considered to have violated good morals in spite of permission having been given. On 26 May 2004 the Criminal Panel No. 2 of the Bundesgerichtshof (German Federal Court) ruled that sado-masochistically motivated physical injuries are not per se indecent and thus subject to §228.
Still, this ruling makes the question of indecency dependent on the degree to which the bodily injury might be likely to impair the health of the receiving party. According to the BGH, the line of indecency is definitively crossed when "under an objectively prescient consideration of all relevant circumstances the party granting consent could be brought into concrete danger of death by the act of bodily injury". In its ruling, the court overturned a verdict by the Provincial Court of Kassel, according to which a man who had accidentally strangled his partner to death had been sentenced to probation for negligent manslaughter. The court had rejected a conviction on charges of bodily injury leading to death on the grounds that the victim had, in its opinion, consented to the act.
Following cases in which sado-masochistic practices had been repeatedly used as pressure tactics against former partners in custody cases, the Appeals Court of Hamm ruled in February 2006 that sexual inclinations toward sado-masochism are no indication of a lack of capabilities for successful child-raising.
In British law, consent is an absolute defence to common assault, but not necessarily to actual bodily harm, where courts may decide that consent is not valid, as occurred in the case of R v Brown. Accordingly consensual activities in the UK may not constitute "assault occasioning actual or grievous bodily harm" in law. The Spanner Trust states that this is defined as activities which have caused injury "of a lasting nature" but that only a slight duration or injury might be considered "lasting" in law. The decision contrasts with the later case of R v Wilson in which conviction for non-sexual consensual branding within a marriage was overturned, the appeal court ruling that R v Brown was not an authority in all cases of consensual injury and criticizing the decision to prosecute.
Following Operation Spanner the European Court of Human Rights ruled in January 1999 in Laskey, Jaggard and Brown v. United Kingdom that no violation of Article 8 occurred because the amount of physical or psychological harm that the law allows between any two people, even consenting adults, is to be determined by the jurisdiction the individuals live in, as it is the State's responsibility to balance the concerns of public health and well-being with the amount of control a State should be allowed to exercise over its citizens. In the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007, the British Government cited the Spanner case as justification for criminalizing images of consensual acts, as part of its proposed criminalization of possession of "extreme pornography". Another contrasting case was that of Stephen Lock in 2013, who was cleared of actual bodily harm on the grounds that the woman consented. In this case, the act was deemed to be sexual.
The United States Federal law does not list a specific criminal determination for consensual BDSM acts. Many BDSM practitioners cite the legal decision of People v. Jovanovic, 95 N.Y.2d 846 (2000), or the "Cybersex Torture Case" which was the first U.S. appellate decision to hold (in effect) one does not commit assault if victim consents. However, many individual states do criminalize specific BDSM actions within their state borders. Some states specifically address the idea of "consent to BDSM acts" within their assault laws such as the state of New Jersey which states "simple assault" to be defined as "a disorderly persons offense unless committed in a fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent, in which case it is a petty disorderly persons offense". BDSM activities including flagellation (spanking) specifically without paying for such action (i.e., prostitution) between consenting adults are specifically addressed as illegal in certain individual states.
In 2004 a judge in Canada ruled that videos seized by the police featuring BDSM activities were not obscene, and did not constitute violence, but a "normal and acceptable" sexual activity between two consenting adults.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in R. v. J.A. that a person must have an active mind during the specific sexual activity in order to legally consent. The Court ruled that it is a criminal offence to perform a sexual act on an unconscious person – whether or not that person consented in advance.
In Italian law BDSM is right on the border between crime and legality, and everything lies in the interpretation of the legal code by the judge. This concept is that anyone willingly causing "injury" to another person is to be punished. In this context though "injury" is legally defined as "anything causing a condition of illness", and "illness" is ill-defined itself in two different legal ways. The first is "any anatomical or functional alteration of the organism" (thus technically including little scratches and bruises too); The second is "a significant worsening of a previous condition relevant to organic and relational processes, requiring any kind of therapy". This could make it somewhat risky to play with someone as later the "victim" may call foul play citing even an insignificant mark as evidence against the partner. Also any injury requiring over 20 days of medical care must be denounced by the professional medic who discovers it, leading to automatic indictment of the person who caused it.
§90 of the criminal code declares bodily injury (§§ 83, 84) or the endangerment of physical security (§89) to not be subject to penalty in cases in which the "victim" has consented and the injury or endangerment does not offend moral sensibilities. Case law from the Austrian Supreme Court has consistently shown that bodily injury is only offensive to moral sensibilities, thus it is only punishable when a "serious injury" (a damage to health or an employment disability lasting more than 24 days) or the death of the "victim" results. A light injury is generally considered permissible when the "victim" has consented to it. In cases of threats to bodily well-being the standard depends on the probability that an injury will actually occur. If serious injury or even death would be a likely result of a threat being carried out, then even the threat itself is considered punishable.
The age of consent in Switzerland is 16 years which also applies for BDSM play. Minors (i.e. those under 16) are not subject to punishment for BDSM play as long as the age difference between them is less than three years. Certain practices however require granting consent for light injuries with only those over 18 permitted to give consent. On 1 April 2002 Articles 135 and 197 of the Swiss Criminal Code were tightened to make ownership of "objects or demonstrations [...] which depict sexual acts with violent content" a punishable offense. This law amounts to a general criminalization of sado-masochism since nearly every sado-masochist will have some kind of media which fulfills this criterion. Critics also object to the wording of the law which puts sado-masochists in the same category as pedophiles and pederasts.
In September 2010 a Swedish court acquitted a 32 year old man of assault for engaging in consensual BDSM play with a 16 year old woman (the age of consent in Sweden is 15). Norway's legal system has likewise taken a similar position, that safe and consensual BDSM play should not be subject to criminal prosecution. This parallels the stance of the mental health professions in the Nordic countries which have removed sadomasochism from their respective lists of psychiatric illnesses.
Although it would be possible to establish certain elements related to BDSM in classical theater, not until the emergence of contemporary theatre could you see such topics as the main theme in the performing arts. Exemplifying this are two works: one Austrian, one German, in which BDSM is not only incorporated, but integral to the storyline of the play.
Worauf sich Körper kaprizieren, Austria. Peter Kern directs and writes the script for this comedy which is a present day adaption of Jean Genet's 1950 film, A chant d'amour. A marriage in which the wife (film veteran Miriam Goldschmidt) submits her husband (Heinrich Herkie) and the butler (Günter Bubbnik) to her sadistic treatment, until two new characters take their places.
Ach, Hilde (Oh, Hilda), Germany. A play by Anna Schwemmer that premiered in Berlin. A young Hilde becomes pregnant, and after being abandoned by her boyfriend she decides to become a professional dominatrix to earn money. The play carefully crafts a playful and frivolous picture of the field of professional dominatrices.
Apart from films that are part of the commercial pornography circuit, cinema has been treated since its inception with in depth BDSM relationships, from 1909 to the present decade. The current decade in particular has an abundance of examples: Sade, Quills, The Piano Teacher, Beyond Vanilla, Secretary, Wir leben, Bitter Moon, Fifty Shades of Grey among others. The first feature film shown around the world at film festivals and in cinemas that was principally set in the BDSM and fetish lifestyle was the 1997 UK production Preaching to the Perverted (film), written and directed by Stuart Urban and starring Guinevere Turner. Filmed in a cartoon, high camp style, the film was also a political satire inspired by actual prosecutions of BDSM lifestyle practitioners such as Operation Spanner. It encountered censorship problems in the UK and USA and was the last film banned in Ireland in the twentieth century.
Naturally, there are thousands of movies that touch on or contain accents of BDSM or generic sadomasocism, or contain scenes of BDSM scenarios: Last Tango in Paris, Emmanuelle, Personal Services, Basic Instinct, Eyes Wide Shut, not to mention many others, but these are not seen as part of the filmography of BDSM.
Although examples of literature catering to BDSM and fetishistic taste was created in earlier periods, BDSM literature as it exists today cannot be found much earlier than World War II. However, such work as The Trial of Gilles de Rais that dates to 1440 with expressions that coincide with S&M refers as easily to sadist and masochist as to slave and master... a revealing and leveling equation: sadist-slave, masochist-master, both alternating as victims.
A central work in BDSM literature is undoubtedly the Story of O (1954) by Anne Desclos (under the pseudonym Pauline Réage) in addition to: 9 ½ weeks (1978) by Elizabeth McNeill, Dezemberkind (2003, 2004) by Leander Sukov, works by Mitchell Joyce, The Third Secret of Fatima (2010), A Breed Apart (2010), and the Master Slave Encyclopaedia (2011), some works of the writer Anne Rice (Exit to Eden, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty (1983), Beauty's Punishment (1984) and Beauty's Release (1985)), Jeanne de Berg (L'Image (1956) dedicated to Pauline Réage), and the novel Topping from Below(1999) by Laura Reese. Marthe Blau: Submission and Between Your Hands(2005). More recent works include E L James:Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), Fifty Shades Darker (2011) and Fifty Shades Freed (2012). Works from the Gor series by John Norman, and naturally all the works of Patrick Califia, Gloria Brame, the group Samois and many of the writer Georges Bataille (Histoire de l'oeil-Story of the Eye, Madame Edwarda, 1937), as well as Bob Flanagan: Slave Sonnets (1986), Fuck Journal (1987), A Taste of Honey (1990). A common part of many of the poems of Pablo Neruda is a reflection on feelings and sensations arising from the relations of EPE or erotic exchange of power.
As in the case of literature a list of BDSM art should not include works of the early history depicting sadomasochism, flogging, fetishism, and so on., but should start when the integrative aspects of BDSM become visible. In this sense figures such as those from Venus de Kostienki, Russia (3000 BC) or engraved on the tomb and the sarcophagus of the Egyptian aristocrat Bastret (1376 BC) are not considered BDSM art (as depicting BDSM was not their primary purpose). For art which is undeniably BDSM art, it follows that the artist has spent most or part of their work dealing with BDSM, so an image of flogging by an artist who does many BDSM works is probably depicting BDSM, while the same image done by a historic maritime artist depicting life aboard a British vessel would probably not be considered BDSM art (although context, and the work itself would usually ultimately determine what the subject matter is discussing). Examples include:
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