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  What is BDSM?

 
Have you ever been launched into an erotic high when your partner suddenly held down your wrists in bed while pleasuring you? Have you ever told your partner to keep on talking on the phone while you teased him/her, watching him/her squirm to concentrate on the phone conversation?

Have you ever acted out a fantasy with your partner that entailed spanking or tying one or the other of you to the bed? These common activities are examples of BDSM. However, BDSM also covers a wide range of less common, more highly risky, and unusual practices as well. In this section, we give an overview of what modern BDSM is about.

Probably the most famous descriptions of BDSM come from the works of the Marquis de Sade in the late 1700s (although those descriptions are largely of activity that is not clearly consensual). BDSM is depicted routinely in art from the Middle Ages, and is the subject of some of the earliest photography from the middle 1800s. (See, for example, 1000 Nudes. (Uwe Scheid Collection, Benedikt Taschen, Bonn, 1994). Pp.260-284, for some extraordinary turn-of-the-century photos of consensual BDSM in France and Germany, including thoroughly modern equipment and activities.)

BDSM: is a catch-all term covering a wide variety of kinky interpersonal activities. The three main categories are:

B&D: Bondage and Discipline (also called BD)
D&S: Domination and Submission (also called DS or d/s)
S&M: Sadism and Masochism (also called SM)

Although the acronyms BDSM, D&S, and B&D only arose in the last 15 or 20 years, the activities, feelings, and emphases on consent and communication clearly have longer histories. Erotic BDSM activity is accurately described in the Karma Sutra of Vatsyayana. The variety of possibilities in BDSM is at once a heady opportunity and a surprising constraint. Every single person, every single relationship, and every interaction is different.

It is helpful to think of BDSM activities and experiences as divided into the physical and the psychological. Physical activity covers anything that involves interpersonal physical touch. Examples are bondage, a backrub, sex, tickling, and the causation of pain by say, spanking or whipping. Psychological activity covers the psychological effects of punishment, praise, love, obedience, control, orders, humiliation, etc., as well as the moods engendered by ritual, symbolic, or religious activity, catharsis, rage, and a variety of what are sometimes called “altered” states.

Most BDSM involves elements of both the physical and the psychological. For example, a punishment may involve both a caning and an emotional involvement between the partners. Similarity, a fight scene or takedown involving overpowerment also includes both physical and psychological elements. Although most people explore some aspects of each category in their play, many folks almost solely fall into one category or another. Some people specialize entirely in bondage.

Others bottom only to sensation play (physical interaction with no D&S overtones) but have no desire to submit. Still others only explore domination and submission, and rule out pain play or bondage or whatever does not work for them personally. Some people bottom primarily to pain. The same variety of play styles characterizes tops.

Each of the three terms – B&D, D&S and S&M – traditionally conveys feelings and styles of play that go beyond their denotations. There is a lot of overlap. These terms arose at different times in different circumstances. They get used by many people for many purposes. The terms are not formally delineated; but nevertheless, each offers some insight into both physical and psychological experiences that are widespread. We will cover each in turn below.

A Bit of Vocabulary: BDSM activities between consenting partners are sometimes called scenes, sessions, or play. Implements, which might be common household items like kitchen spoons, rope, or neckties, or specially made items like handcuffs, floggers (a kind of multi-tailed whip), or furniture with eyebolts, are called toys. The fact that we use terms like play and toys, does not mean BDSM is for children or that we think of what we are doing as a kind of lightweight activity lacking in seriousness. Some BDSM is in fact very light and playful, but other BDSM is serious and risky. These terms have come to be used merely to have a way to talk about BDSM. The person leading or initiating the BDSM activities is called the top. The person following the top’s lead or being done to is called the bottom. These terms originated from missionary-position sex, where the male is literally on top of his partner. However, in the context of BDSM they are quite general and do not have any connotations about who is positioned where. (See also the definitions of dom and sub below).

Although some people are 100% top and some are 100% bottom, the majority of folks switch, at least occasionally. That is, many folks are sometimes bottom and sometimes tip. This can be arranged in many different ways. Sometimes partners take turns with each other. Other times, someone will only top one partner and only bottom to some other partner. One frequent way to explore BDSM is for a top to begin by bottoming, or apprenticing, to a mentor – an experienced top who can teach the person safety, ideas, style and technique.

For some people, BDSM is a very sexual activity. For others it is not associated with sex or sexual arousal in any obvious way. For some people, BDSM is a full-time (also called lifestyle or 24/7). For others, it is confined to the bedroom. For yet others it is an activity to engage in once every few months. What BDSM is about is often a very personal experience, something to be worked out and tailored between the partners, something that grows and changes with the individuals and in their relationships.

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