BDSM characterizes a range of practices and expressions, both erotic and non-erotic, involving restriction, sensory stimulus, role-playing, and a variety of relational dynamics. Given the wide range of practices, some of which may be engaged in by people who don’t 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 some debate has begun over whether a BDSM or kink sexual identity also constitutes a form of sexual orientation.
The term BDSM is believed to have been coined as a compound initialism in the 1990s to combine communities and practices that had a significant amount of crossover – bondage and discipline (B&D or B/D), dominance and submission (D&S or D/s), and sadomasochism or sadism and masochism (S&M or S/M). BDSM is currently frequently used as a catch-all phrase to includes a wide range of activities, forms of interpersonal relationships, and distinct subcultures which may or may not fit well into the original three intended categories. With an ethos of “your kink is OK!” many BDSM communities 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.
Although it’s increasingly commonfor couples, particularly younger couples, to have “power neutral” relationships and/or play styles, 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. Typically participants who are active – applying the activity – are known as tops, those who exercise control over others are commonly known as dominants, and those who inflict pain are known as sadists. These are often the same person, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Similarly, those participants who are recipients of the activities are typically known as bottoms, those who are controlled by their partners as submissives, and those who receive pain as masochists; again, these are frequently the same person and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. 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 is occasionally seen as derogatory or unnuanced and is rejected by many who might simplistically fit the definition. 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, but there is little that unites all its disparate 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 sometime 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 normal circumstances. Sexual intercourse—be it oral, anal or vaginal—may occur within a session; but it 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.
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 which 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 described as “Risk Aware Consensual Kink” (RACK), indicating a preference of 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. Further, they 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 (and 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 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 are able to 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”; 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) 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 which follow the use of the safeword. 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. In some scenes 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. 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.”
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 ought to be something both parties can remember and call to mind or recognize when things are either not going as planned or have crossed a threshold one cannot handle. The most common used form of safewords are “green”, “yellow”, and “red”. “Red” meaning to stop and there would be no further play. “Yellow” being, “This is getting too intense”. “Green” meaning that everything is okay. At most clubs and group-organized BDSM parties and events, Dungeon monitors provide a safety net for the people playing there, ensuring that house rules are followed and safe words respected.
BDSM participants need to understand practical safety aspects. For instance, they must recognize that parts of the body can be damaged, such as nerves and blood vessels by contusion, or 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 different 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 more often than the general population.
It is necessary to be able to identify each person’s psychological squicks or “freakouts” in advance in order 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 their reactions empathetically and continue or stop accordingly. For some players, sparking “freakouts” or deliberately using triggers may be a desired outcome.
The initialism BDSM includes psychological and physiological facets:
- Bondage & Discipline (B&D)
- Dominance & Submission (D&S)
- Sadism & Masochism (or Sadomasochism) (S&M)
- Types of Play
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
Bondage and Discipline are two aspects of BDSM that do not seem to relate to one another because of the type of the 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 the 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 Bottom to the foot of a bed). Another aspect is the structured training of the Bottom.
Dominance and submission
“Dominance and submission” 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. 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 . 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 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.