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