(Image Credit: © User: Engin_Akyurt / Pixabay / CC0 License)
You probably have at least a hazy idea of what BDSM is about. Something something whips, something something handcuffs, right?
As it turns out, the rabbit hole goes deeper than the surface-level dynamics of kink presented in pop culture. BDSM is a multifaceted practice, and there are as many reasons for doing it as there are practitioners in the world.
So let's explore what BDSM is and some of the more common reasons people are drawn to it.
BDSM is a set of related activities that consenting partners do for pleasure. We mix and combine these activities during sessions involving two or more people to create a powerful exchange of energy between participants.
BDSM sessions are called "scenes." A scene is essentially a game, complete with roles, guidelines, and rules. For this reason, we refer to doing BDSM together as "playing."
Participants fall into two basic categories. One takes control, while the other follows their lead. Leaders are broadly referred to as "tops," and their followers are called "bottoms." There are also those who like to lead and follow at different times. We call them "switches."
There are dozens of overlapping identifications that fall within these categories, like dominants and submissives or sadists and masochists, for example. More on all that in a bit.
"What does BDSM stand for?"
While BDSM is only four letters, it's actually an acronym for three pairs of words.
BD = Bondage & Discipline
DS = Dominance & Submission
SM = Sadism & Masochism (a.k.a. sadomasochism)
Let's break this mofo down.
This is the practice of restraining a partner with rope, cuffs, chains, tape, or other materials.
People like to restrain and be restrained for a number of delicious reasons:
Sexual stimulation: Bondage can be an intoxicating addition to foreplay or sex itself. To limit the movements of another, or give up one’s own freedom of movement, can be quite the aphrodisiac under consensual circumstances.
Creative expression: Crafty people get a special sense of satisfaction from rope bondage in particular. Tying people up requires a series of intricate steps, an awareness of anatomy, and a certain amount of dexterity. It takes skill and expertise, and culminates in an enticing finished product.
Pretty nice, no?
(Image Credit: © User: Ater Crudus / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)
People who tie are called "riggers" or "rope tops," and their helpless restrainees are sometimes referred to as "rope bunnies." (D'aww.)
Bondage stands apart as its own category for good reason. There are whole communities of people who spend years perfecting the ancient art of tying and suspending their partners, and many aren't as interested in the other aspects of BDSM.
This is a partnership dynamic where the top creates behavioral structure for the bottom in the form of rules and expectations. The bottom's obedience is rewarded, while disobedience is punished.
Some partners who practice BDSM as a lifestyle take their disciplinary systems quite seriously, incorporating punishments that are genuinely disliked. Punishments like, standing on your tip-toes while holding a penny against a wall with your nose for 20 minutes ... or worse, writing essays about your misbehavior. Yikes!
However, most practitioners I’ve met approach discipline more playfully. The term "funishment" describes activities disguised as punishment that the bottom not-so-secretly desires.
So why do grown-ass adults like discipline?
It's a bit of an existential matter, and I see it like this:
The world is a fucked-up place, and humans crave order in the midst of chaos. As children, we have parents and guardians to provide us with structure. Do this, don't do that. Things are simple when we have orders to follow. We progress without having to consider the consequences or significance of every decision.
In adulthood there are fewer rules, and therefore less structure. This can feel overwhelming, and not all of us are entirely comfortable being in charge of ourselves.
What if I choose to spend every cent of every paycheck on weed and fabulous designer ice cream heels? Unless the cops happen to catch me doing something illegal, no one has the power to stop me but my own hedonistic self. That's a lot of stress for us indulgent and mischievous types.
Therefore, the idea of a caring partner serving as a behavioral compass can be a sexy and enticing prospect. They hold us accountable and help us become the best versions of ourselves.
"You'll become the finest violinist in all of London if it kills me!"
"... (ouch!) Yes, Mistress. I'll (fuck!) make you proud ..."
(Source: By Ostra Studio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Discipline-inclined tops enjoy maintaining order in the lives of their partners, and see it as a pleasurable and benevolent act. Many also derive a heady sense of power from it. Let's face it, we all have an urge to put people in their place at times, but aren't often in the position to do so.
(I’m sure you can name at least 10 government officials who could use a well-intentioned thrashing.)
With enthusiastically consenting partners, tops can indulge their inner rule-enforcer while staying guilt (and prison) free. Fun for all!
In terms of BDSM, the dominant partner plays the leader in scenes or the general relationship dynamic. Male dominants are referred to as "doms," while the nickname for a female dominant is spelled "domme." These roles differ from a professional dominatrix, which are women who dominate clients in exchange for payment.
Dominants enjoy taking control and giving orders. How this is expressed depends on the nature of the relationship. Some partnerships involve sexual activity, but not all.
There are even long-distance relationships where dominants top from afar. Examples of this might include texting a submissive partner to tell them what time to sleep, or when they're allowed to masturbate.
At the end of the day, dominance is all about attitude. It's about having the confidence and intelligence to responsibly lead and tell others what to do.
There are different ideas about how this should work. Some envision "proper dominants" as arrogant, aloof, and forceful during play. However, the best dominants I've played with have primarily been patient, considerate, and extremely empathetic people.
Bottoms don't follow the lead of dominants because they demand it, but because they radiate presence and command our attention by virtue of who they are. Their confidence and know-how makes us feel safe enough to relax and have a good time.
Submission is the act of giving one's partner control, usually temporarily and within a defined set of guidelines.
Submissives, as these practitioners are called, are the yin to a dominant's yang. We often call them "subs," which holds true regardless of gender.
Submission is sometimes viewed as weakness by people who have trouble understanding BDSM, but there's nothing weak about submitting. It takes immense courage and adaptability to put oneself in such a vulnerable position. Submission is often spoken of as a “gift" that can be revoked at anytime.
What exactly do submissives get out of BDSM? The answer to this differs from person to person, but there are a few common responses.
First and foremost, while dominance done right is attractive to many people, it's like heroin for subs. Being led by a partner with a strong sense of confidence can be incredibly enthralling.
Secondly, many subs tend to be quite independent, take-charge types in their everyday lives, and feel relief from letting someone else be in control for a change.
(Image Credit: © User: geier / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Some also enjoy submission for the sense of simplicity it provides. During play, submissives are expected to focus on a limited number of things, like following orders and clearly communicating their feelings.
Everyone handles submission differently. Some subs are passionate and adulatory toward their dominants. Others submit shyly, giggling through every task. Some resist by acting bratty or talking back. Many do all of the above at different times, or with different partners, depending on the energy of the moment. If submission is indeed a gift, then what it looks like will depend on the intention and personality of the person giving it.
Sadists derive pleasure from inflicting physical, mental, and/or emotional pain on consenting partners.
The word "consenting" is key. We're not talking about people who enjoy hurting others against their will. Truly non-consensual behavior qualifies as abuse, assault, and/or rape, and people who cross this boundary aren't welcome in the BDSM community. They become notorious for their bullshit, and consequently lose partners while gaining terrible reputations (and/or criminal records).
Even when you understand how consent applies in BDSM, watching a scene between a sadist and a masochist can be shocking or even upsetting. Sadists aren't fazed by the tears and screams they cause during play. In fact, many prefer to pause and observe, staring into the depths of their partner's soul, to sap as much stimulation as possible from those intense and vulnerable moments.
As a masochist, I'm thrilled that these people exist, but I've had a harder time understanding sadism than any other aspect of BDSM. I've inflicted pain on play partners in the past, but only because they also identified as masochistic, and somebody has to play the role of the hurter for sadomasochism to occur.
"I just want you to be happy, you sweet little pain junkie!"
A sadist's passion for causing suffering goes deeper than this, which tends to create cognitive dissonance in those who can't relate. "How can a good person get enjoyment from the suffering of another?"
Self-aware sadists spend a great deal of time processing this question too. Many were raised, like many of us, not to hurt people because it's wrong. However, they simultaneously grew up harboring fantasies about doing so. As you'd imagine, a kind and moral person would experience inner turmoil in response to this.
Eventually they learn about those of us who like pain in certain contexts. Because BDSM provides a controlled environment for exploration, a sadist's inclinations can be used for good rather than evil.
The sweetest nectar for sadists, from what I can tell, is reactions. They adore experimenting with cause-and-effect, like curious scientists who want to see what happens when they poke at A or prod at B.
"Hmm, now what should I do with you?" - Every fucking sadist ever
They may also be motivated to explore the instinctual "fight" response inherent within us all. A particularly sadistic friend of mine in San Francisco told me that his teeth clench and he experiences a buildup-and-release sensation similar to orgasm while carrying out actions that cause pain. The process of overcoming that barrier is apparently intoxicating.
Sadistic practitioners often get a bad rap from those outside the kinky community. "You (and your batshit-crazy partners) must be sick!"
While I understand why people viewing BDSM from afar might get this impression, we can't equate respectful and consent-minded sadists with the assholes of the world who carry out violent desires without regard for consent.
There are many, many people in the world who get off on hurting others. The truly dangerous ones are the abusers without the capacity to empathize. They're not the BDSM-lovers who constantly check in with their partners about limits and safewords.
I asked my sadistic friend from SF whether he thought he'd enjoy hurting someone who didn't want it.
"It'd take a lot of forceful, military-grade conditioning for me to cross that line, and I've never been tempted to do so. Why would I want to hurt a non-consenting partner when there are so many people who love it when I torture them?"
Masochists enjoy receiving pain of differing degrees via various means. This pain can be physical, mental, emotional, or a combination of all three. A lot of us, though not all, are (extremely!) sexually aroused by it.
Physical activities we might enjoy include being bitten, scratched, spanked, whipped, pierced, burned, cut, and a variety of other sensations. Mental and emotional activities often center on forms of humiliation and/or degradation.
Masochists do, of course, feel the discomfort of pain like everyone else. Our brains just seem to interpret the sensation differently within a consensual framework.
Speaking for myself, pain caused by an intimate partner in a controlled environment turns me on, but more than that, it gets me high in a way that conventional drugs don't. It's a warm, peaceful, lucid, and purifying feeling.
This isn't a strange phenomenon, scientifically speaking. Any neurologist can tell you that the nervous system responds to pain with the release of happy brain chemicals.
Medicinenet.com has summed this up nicely:
"Stress and pain are the two most common factors leading to the release of endorphins. Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. In contrast to the opiate drugs, however, activation of the opiate receptors by the body's endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence."
There you have it. Yummy neurochemical magic, without any horrible resulting dependency.
I've also read accounts from masochists who describe the catharsis of pain as an almost religious experience. I'm not a religious person, but can relate on a spiritual level. It's a bit like practicing meditation. By experimenting with pain, we can become better at placing degrees of separation between jarring sources of sensory input and our reactions to them. Personally speaking, this has helped me learn to cope with suffering from a more mentally and emotionally objective standpoint.
(Granted, I'm only interested in doing this in ways that are safe. I don't haphazardly run into traffic hoping to get hit.)
It's a common (but tired-as-fuck) trope in fiction for sadists and masochists to have developed their fetishes as the result of an abusive childhood or traumatic experience. I've been asked by friends whether I ended up this way for that reason.
The answer is a definite no for me as my parents weren't hitters. I'm sure some people into S&M did suffer through abusive childhoods, but there are also plenty of victims who don't go on to develop these sorts of proclivities. I find it unrealistic to try to argue definitively for this type of cause-and-effect connection. All types of people end up becoming kinky.
So there we are!
Hopefully this has given you a clearer view of BDSM and why people do it. As you can see, the term doesn't only refer to one specific type of action or relationship. Instead, it encompasses various categories of consensual play that may overlap and interconnect, and they don't all appeal or apply to every practitioner.
Thanks for reading!