BDSM: Bondage. Discipline. Dominance. Submission. Sadism. Masochism.
I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for quite some time. With the inclusion of my story “Ring of Fire” in the anthology Best Bondage Erotica 2014 (edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and published by Cleis Press), I have been thinking a lot about bondage and BDSM and how people perceive and understand these expressions of sexuality.
I write in different genres, and I’m aware that some people who like my poetry may be getting more than they bargained for when they read my erotica! I know that everyone has different boundaries, and sometimes my familiarity with erotica and sex based communities makes me think that people are much more sexually open, aware, and educated than they actually are. At the core of BDSM is both sex and education. Most people who identify with BDSM share an open mind, self-awareness, a strong interest in sex and sexuality, and a willingness to learn, to experiment, and to explore sex in its many different facets.
People who engage in BDSM can have very loving, stable, and healthy relationships. People can also engage in BDSM activities without having any relationship outside of play. The dynamic can be monogamous or poly. The people involved can be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual, transgendered, and any other type of orientation one can think of. The rules are made up by the players, and the essential ingredients for a strong BDSM relationship are the same ingredients that make up any other “type” of intimate relationship – communication, trust, respect, and love.
The fact is that BDSM is a label. It’s a label that opens the door to kink and fetish very quickly. And once that door is opened, there is a whole world to explore. Using this term is a way to identify a certain set of behaviors that occur, but that doesn’t mean that two people who are “into BDSM” are into the same things. The label covers a very broad category and attempts to define types of sexually charged behaviors, so we all have a general understanding of what we’re talking about when we use the term. Still, our connotations of these definitions vary greatly, even among people who self-identify with BDSM.
Because I have written several stories relating to BDSM themes, I feel that I have a responsibility to provide some type of map and to define the terrain I’ve asked the reader to travel. Sex is an incredibly personal subject. I feel that BDSM is inherent to sex, meaning that BDSM activities exaggerate and amplify what is already present within us and underlying our sexual interactions. I believe that is the most important connection that many people fail to understand about BDSM.
When two people have sex, at some point, one of them will have to be the giver and one of them will have to be the taker. This is the natural sexual dynamic, and it is a power dynamic. Often, people who consider themselves “normal” enjoy the feeling of being weighed upon by another body or being held down while having sex. They enjoy the sensory stimulation of touching and being touched. They like sex hard and rough. They like sex soft and gentle. They enjoy learning about sex through each others bodies. They like wearing special things to feel sexy and to give visual stimulation. These are “normal” feelings, explored and taken to a further extreme in BDSM.
Within the world of BDSM, there is some specific vocabulary. When people engage in BDSM, they are “playing.” The event in which two or more people are playing together is called a “scene.” I think it is important to note the meaning these words have in our general vocabulary to understand this mindset. In BDSM, playfulness and creativity are celebrated. Roles are taken on which further exaggerate our natural tendencies. People into BDSM are categorized in roles of Dominant, Submissive, and Switch. A dominant person (also known as Top, Master, Madam, Mistress, Sir) is a person who likes to be in control and who prefers to be the sexual aggressor. A submissive person (also known as Bottom, Sub, Slave) is a person who relinquishes control and prefers to be the sexual recipient. A switch is a person who “switches” between these two roles.
Power play is an important aspect to BDSM, but both dominants and submissives have their own particular power. Communication and trust are prerequisites to play, and essential to the BDSM dynamic. The terms of Dominance and submission are rooted in sexual expression and often, one’s personality and sexual behaviors coincide and follow a similar patterning. However, a type-A person who is aggressive and appears to be a control freak may not necessarily be sexually dominant – that may be an area of their life where they willingly and gratefully give up their sense of control. Giving oneself to another is an act of power. Submissives are not doormats. Dominants are not tyrants. Sex is full of variables, and uniquely specific to each person. Our impulses, needs, wants, and desires are part of our genetic make-up, hardwired from birth, and are either nurtured or repressed.
The parts of ourselves that are nurtured will continue to grow and develop. The parts we repress can lead to dysfunction and distance from the self. There are certain instances where repression is necessary in our society, and this extends into what is considered taboo. For example, movies are rated according to language, violence, nudity, and general adult content. Some of these topics may border on taboo, but because of the cathartic nature of the medium, these topics are considered acceptable within the parameters of consent and age restriction. Something taboo goes against the rules and mores of a given society, and is generally considered “wrong.” Any society that does not want to descend into absolute chaos needs some type of outline and structure. Rules are necessary to define what is acceptable and not acceptable for a functioning society.
Taboo subjects that are sexual in nature include necrophilia, rape, bestiality, child molestation, and incest. In all these cases, the taboo arises because of the concept of “consent.” A person who is dead, unconscious, or raped is taken without consent. Animals have no way to consent, or even comprehend the nature of human sexuality – just as children are not capable of that kind of understanding. Any being who is forced into a sex or sexual situations without their consent can be psychologically and physically damaged.The taboo against child molestation and incest protects the child’s vulnerability within social and family structures and their dependence on the adults in their lives to teach them right and wrong. These taboos exist as a measure of protection.
BDSM edges taboo because of how it intertwines sex and violence in ways that may make some people uncomfortable, but it is not taboo primarily because it is consensual. It is spoken about and defined in ways to achieve a deeper relationship with sexuality and sexual expression. It is a deliberate and conscious engagement with agreed upon rules and limits. Sex itself is a violent act. There is nothing subtle about penetration. The act of sex is invasive and intensely personal. BDSM plays with and exaggerates what is already present in sexuality in order to go deeper into sexuality, to push against boundaries and limits and explore the edges, to expose and manipulate the exchange of power in sex, and ultimately, to understand ourselves better as sexual persons.
One aspect to BDSM that many people don’t seem to like is that some of the behaviors can be perceived as violence. Hitting and striking a person is perceived as violent, and violence in our society is generally looked down upon. We provide avenues for violence through television, video games, movies, sports, etc … one could look at BDSM as another type of avenue. The fact is that human beings are naturally a violent species. Anyone who has worked with very young children can attest to that. We train children not to hit. We train them not to bite. We teach them that expressing anger in violence is bad. And that works for the greater society, so we can coexist and live together somewhat peacefully. But the violence is still within us. We repress it and we channel it in other ways.
Why is it okay for one person to hit another in the context of BDSM? I feel that the biggest reason why it is okay is because it is not the kind of violence that springs from anger and rage – it is sensory stimulation and sexualized touch. It is consensual enacting and conscious agreement, and that is not really violence. We have learned negative associations to expressing touch in a rough manner. We all have different thresholds for what we consider pleasure and what we consider pain. Those who venture into BDSM seem to have a higher need and threshold for sensory stimulation (which includes a range of soft touch to hard touch, neither of which is good or bad).
All BDSM literature says that one should never play with his or her partner if there is real anger involved, and goes further to say that drugs or alcohol should not be used during play so that each partner is as cognizant and aware of what is going on as possible. Safety is another aspect to BDSM that differentiates the type of violence that is being accessed. Many people use a “safeword” to make sure that the play will stop immediately if someone becomes uncomfortable. In BDSM activity where hitting and striking is involved, there are still limits; breaking the skin and leaving lasting marks or scars are unacceptable by most standards. BDSM play demands a higher level of education and awareness about sex and during sexual activities because of the risk levels involved.
As I said before, I feel that BDSM is inherent to sex, meaning that BDSM activities exaggerate and amplify what is already present within us. We are a violent species who have attempted to train ourselves that anger is bad and violence is wrong. And we have learned to express our anger positively and channel our aggression and violent tendencies in ways that are safe. We have received so many mixed messages about sex and sexuality and gender roles and power dynamics while growing up, we have very complicated feelings about ourselves as sexual beings, and this all comes out during sex. As a result, some people are very distant from their sexual selves. There may be fear or guilt or embarrassment involved. However, there is always potential to heal, to change, and to grow. The risk of opening oneself up is worth the reward of understanding oneself better. The fact is that sex is not only one of the greatest mysteries of life, it is the key of life. Sex is the essence of our existence.
Engaging in BDSM activities and behaviors in a conscious way explores our personal and social and sexual boundaries, and provides a framework to do so positively and safely. There is always risk involved. High risk players engage in more extreme types of BDSM, but they also have a higher responsibility to make sure that they are well educated in what they are doing, so that everyone involved has the best experience possible, and no one gets killed or seriously injured while playing. Knowledge is the highest form of power.
Bondage is the physical restraint, binding, or tying of the body for the purpose of heightened sensory and sexual response. It is also a visual aesthetic. This is the area that includes ropes, chains, and blindfolds and seems to be the area most people are comfortable with. On Valentines Day, one can see a plethora of bondage type toys in the most normal of stores. Red plastic handcuffs mingle with chocolate hearts in the aisles and it all seems very acceptable.
Types of bondage range from low risk to high risk. Using a blindfold can increase sensory response and is considered low risk. Being suspended or hogtied in bondage also increases sensory response, but carry higher risks and require more education to execute. Besides physical bondage, there is also a mental type of bondage, where a person belongs to another. A Dominant belongs to his or her submissive as much as a submissive belongs to his or her Dominant, no matter what the power differential is during play. This kind of dynamic is already found in our institution of marriage. The concept of “collaring” in a BDSM relationship is a symbol akin to a marriage ring.
Discipline is the controlled use of force for the purpose of sensory stimulation, and an activity that expresses controlled violence. I already spoke at length on the role of violence in BDSM, and all of what I have said applies to discipline. Instruments such as whips, floggers, and crops are used to strike and hit the body. This is an area of BDSM that I think most people are uncomfortable with. People immediately think of abuse and all of the messages we have been taught that violence directed towards another is wrong. But Discipline can also include feather-play, tickling, and light touching.
There is a danger of people who have abusive tendencies being drawn to BDSM. However, the use of discipline in a BDSM relationship differs most importantly from abuse in the fact that it is consensual, controlled, and sensory. It is not anger or raw violence. Again, there is a level of education and knowledge base to be achieved before engaging in Discipline. One needs knowledge of the body and knowledge of the tools involved to safely engage in this kind of sensory stimulation. This activity can be low risk or high risk depending on the extremity in which Discipline is used.
Discipline is also used for the psychological purposes of “punishment” and “training.” I use these terms in quotes because punishment and training in BDSM world relates to play. A person can be “punished” for any number of reasons, but the punishment is never given in anger, because without that control, this activity could move outside the realm of play and into the realm of abuse. These are risks that people knowledgeable about Discipline are aware and conscious of. It is one thing to take things to the edge; it is quite another to fall over it.
Sadism and Masochism are not really activities, although combined with other kink and fetish behaviors and aspects of bondage and discipline, they could be. Sadism refers to people who enjoy giving pain. Masochism refers to people who enjoy receiving pain. While there are some people who engage in this type of pain-play, I believe that Sadio-Masochism is an antiquated label that does not account for the range of feelings and sensations most people actually experience during BDSM. S&M was one of the first terms that people used to label and identify this type of edgy sexual activity and is still strongly associated with the newer term, BDSM.
People have come to prefer the terms of Dominance and Submission to express these roles because these terms seem truer to the power exchange inherent in sex. Still, Dominants are often seen as sadists, because they are the givers, and submissives are often seen as masochists, because they are the receivers. These definitions are inaccurate because they are based upon the idea that BDSM is all about pain. Again, it is essential to understand the nature of “play.” The dominant partner does not want to truly hurt the submissive partner. Neither does the submissive partner want to be truly hurt. Some people have tried to use the term “pleasure-pain” to differentiate these feelings and sensations from true pain. But the fact is that our vocabulary doesn’t account for physical force without qualifying it as good or bad. A hard touch does not always equal pain. A hard touch is not always meant to give pain. Touch is a range of intensity.
Because BDSM is such a vast subject, it is impossible for a single post to address all aspects and variations on what BDSM is and what it means. Sex, sexuality, and sexual expression are an important and necessary part of who we are, and the answers to these questions will be unique to each person. I encourage you to explore further! There is a wealth of information to be found in books and local communities and online. Here are a few interesting articles I found to jump start further reading:
A Loving Introduction to BDSM by Michael Castleman, M.A. (Psychology Today, 2012)
BDSM Can Be “Love Sex” Too by Clarisse Thorn (Clarisse Thorn, 2011)
Sacred Sexuality & BDSM / Power Exchange: ‘A Union of Love’ by W.A. Henkin, Ph.D. (Temple Illuminatus, 2011)
I also recommend Wikipedia’s article on BDSM for a thorough reading of the encyclopedic aspects of BDSM, from general information to psychology to history to literature.