BDSM is a variety of often erotic practices or roleplaying involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, and other related interpersonal dynamics. Given the wide range of practices, some of which may be engaged in by people who do not consider themselves as practising BDSM, inclusion in the BDSM community or subculture is usually dependent upon self-identification and shared experience.
The term "BDSM" is first recorded in a Usenet posting from 1991, and is interpreted as a combination of the abbreviations B/D (Bondage and Discipline), D/s (Dominance and submission), and S/M (Sadism and Masochism). BDSM is now used as a catch-all phrase covering a wide range of activities, forms of interpersonal relationships, and distinct subcultures. BDSM communities generally welcome anyone with a non-normative streak who identifies with the community; this may include cross-dressers, body modification enthusiasts, animal roleplayers, rubber fetishists, and others.
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 is essential. The terms "submissive" and "dominant" are often used to distinguish these roles: the dominant partner ("dom") takes psychological control over the submissive ("sub"). The terms "top" and "bottom" are also used: the top is the instigator of an action while the bottom is the receiver of the action. The two sets of terms are subtly different: for example, someone may choose to act as bottom to another person, for example, by being whipped, purely recreationally, without any implication of being psychologically dominated by them, or a submissive may be ordered to massage their dominant partner. Despite the bottom performing the action and the top receiving they have not necessarily switched roles.
The abbreviations "sub" and "dom" are frequently used instead of "submissive" and "dominant". Sometimes the female-specific terms "mistress", "domme" or "dominatrix" are used to describe a dominant woman, instead of the gender-neutral term "dom". Individuals who can change between top/dominant and bottom/submissive roles—whether from relationship to relationship or within a given relationship—are known as switches. The precise definition of roles and self-identification is a common subject of debate within the community.
"BDSM" is an umbrella term for certain kinds of erotic behavior between consenting adults. There are distinct subcultures under this umbrella term. Terminology for roles varies widely among the subcultures. Top and dominant are widely used for those partner(s) in the relationship or activity who are, respectively, the physically active or controlling participants. Bottom and submissive are widely used 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 or mental control of the bottom is surrendered to the top—is sometimes 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 other circumstances. Explicit sexual activity, such as sexual penetration, may occur within a session, but is not essential. Such explicit sexual interaction is, for legal reasons, seen only rarely in public play spaces, and it is sometimes specifically banned by the rules of a party or playspace. Whether it is a public "playspace"—ranging from a party at an established community dungeon to a hosted play "zone" at a nightclub or social event—the parameters of allowance can vary. Some have a policy of panties/nipple sticker for women (underwear for men) and some allow full nudity with explicit sexual interaction allowed.
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 that 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 is described as "risk-aware consensual kink" (RACK), indicating a preference for 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. They further 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; 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 the higher-risk activities 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 can 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", which is 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 at any point 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, especially when speech is restricted) 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 or top has explicitly revoked his or her consent to any actions that follow the use of the safeword (see Legal status). 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.
Terminology and subtypes
A male bondage rigger demonstrates to the audience how to do rope bondage at the 2015 BoundCon event in Germany. The bondage technique used here is box tie, a basic form of arm and breast bondage.
The initialism BDSM includes these psychological and physiological facets:
Bondage and Discipline (B&D) Dominance and submission (D&s) Male dominance Male submission Female dominance Female submission Sadism and Masochism (or Sadomasochism) (S&M)
This model for differentiating among these 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 human sexuality may overlap among these areas, which are discussed separately here.
Bondage and discipline are two aspects of BDSM that do not seem to relate to each other because of the type of 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 restraint. 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. A 2015 study of over 1,000 Canadians showed that about half of all men held fantasies of bondage, and almost half of all women did as well. Strictly speaking, bondage means binding the partner by tying their appendages together; for example, by the use of handcuffs or ropes, or by lashing their arms to an object. Bondage can also be achieved by spreading the appendages and fastening them with chains or ropes to a St. Andrew's cross or spreader bars.
The term discipline describes 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 submissive partner to the foot of a bed). Another aspect is the structured training of the bottom.
"Dominance and submission" (also known as D&s, Ds or D/s) 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.
Often, "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.
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 being 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 means to an end, as 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 experienced 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 power and control. 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. Research has shown that couples engaging in consensual BDSM tend to show hormonal changes that indicate decreases in stress and increases in emotional bonding.
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 or fetishes. Professional dominants do this in exchange of money for the session activities, but non-professionals do it for the sake of their partners.
In some BDSM sessions, the top exposes the bottom to a wide range of sensual experiences, for example: pinching, biting, scratching with fingernails, erotic spanking or the use of objects such as crops, whips, liquid wax, ice cubes, Wartenberg wheels, and erotic electrostimulation devices. 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.
Types of play
Some types of BDSM play include, but are not limited to:
Animal roleplay Breast torture Cock and ball torture (CBT) Erotic electrostimulation Edgeplay Flogging Golden showers (urinating) Human furniture Japanese bondage Medical play Paraphilic infantilism Play piercing Predicament bondage Pussy torture Salirophilia Sexual roleplay Spanking Suspension Tickle torture Wax play
Aside from the general advice related to safe sex, BDSM sessions often require a wider array of safety precautions than vanilla sex (sexual behaviour 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). These negotiations concern the interests and fantasies of each partner and establish a framework of both acceptable and unacceptable activities. 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 words or phrases that are called out when things are either not going as planned or have crossed a threshold one cannot handle. They are something both parties can remember and recognize and are, by definition, not words commonly used playfully during any kind of scene. Words such as no, stop, and don't, are often inappropriate as a safeword if the roleplaying aspect includes the illusion of non-consent. The most commonly used safewords are red and yellow, with red meaning that play must stop immediately, and yellow meaning that the activity needs to slow down. Green is sometimes used to indficate that the activity is desired, and should continue. At most clubs and group-organized BDSM parties and events, dungeon monitors (DMs) provide an additional safety net for the people playing there, ensuring that house rules are followed and safewords respected.
BDSM participants are expected to understand practical safety aspects. For instance, they are expected to recognize that parts of the body can be damaged, such as nerves and blood vessels by contusion, or that 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 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 any more often than the general population.
It is necessary to be able to identify each person's psychological "squicks" or triggers in advance 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 participants' reactions empathetically and continue or stop accordingly. For some players, sparking "freakouts" or deliberately using triggers may be a desired outcome. Safewords are one way for BDSM practices to protect both parties. However, partners should be aware of each other's psychological states and behaviors to prevent instances where the "freakouts" prevent the use of safewords.
Top and bottom
At one end of the spectrum are those who are indifferent to, or even reject physical stimulation. At the other end of the spectrum are bottoms who enjoy discipline and erotic humiliation but are not willing to be subordinate to the person who applies it. The bottom is frequently the partner who specifies the basic conditions of the session and gives instructions, directly or indirectly, in the negotiation, while the top often respects this guidance. Other bottoms often called "brats" try to incur punishment from their tops by provoking them or "misbehaving". Nevertheless, a purist "school" exists within the BDSM community, which regards such "topping from the bottom" as rude or even incompatible with the standards of BDSM relations.
Types of relationships
BDSM practitioners sometimes regard the practice of BDSM in their sex life as roleplaying and so often use the terms "play" and "playing" to describe activities where in their roles. Play of this sort for a specified period of time is often called a "session", and the contents and the circumstances of play are often referred to as the "scene". It is also common in personal relationships to use the term "kink play" for BDSM activities, or more specific terms for the type of activity. The relationships can be of varied types.
Early writings on BDSM both by the academic and BDSM community spoke little of long-term relationships with some in the gay leather community suggesting short-term play relationships to be the only feasible relationship models, and recommending people to get married and "play" with BDSM outside of marriage. In recent times though writers of BDSM and sites for BDSM have been more focused on long-term relationships.
A 2003 study, the first to look at these relationships, fully demonstrated that "quality long-term functioning relationships" exist among practitioners of BDSM, with either sex being the top or bottom (homosexual couples were not looked at). Respondents in the study expressed their BDSM orientation to be built into who they are, but considered exploring their BDSM interests an ongoing task, and showed flexibility and adaptability in order to match their interests with their partners. The "perfect match" where both in the relationship shared the same tastes and desires was rare, and most relationships required both partners to take up or put away some of their desires. The BDSM activities that the couples partook in varied in sexual to nonsexual significance for the partners who reported doing certain BDSM activities for "couple bonding, stress release, and spiritual quests". The most reported issue amongst respondents was not finding enough time to be in role with most adopting a lifestyle wherein both partners maintain their dominant or submissive role throughout the day.
Amongst the respondents, it was typically the bottoms who wanted to play harder, and be more restricted into their roles when there was a difference in desire to play in the relationship. The author of the study, Bert Cutler, speculated that tops may be less often in the mood to play due to the increased demand for responsibility on their part: being aware of the safety of the situation and prepared to remove the bottom from a dangerous scenario, being conscious of the desires and limits of the bottom, and so on. The author of the study stressed that successful long-term BDSM relationships came after "early and thorough disclosure" from both parties of their BDSM interests.
Many of those engaged in long-term BDSM relationships learned their skills from larger BDSM organizations and communities There was a lot of discussion by the respondents on the amount of control the top possessed in the relationships with almost non-existent discussion of the top "being better, or smarter, or of more value" than the bottom. Couples were generally of the same mind of whether or not they were in an ongoing relationship, but in such cases the bottom was not locked up constantly, but that their role in the context of the relationship was always present, even when the top was doing non-dominant activities such as household chores, or the bottom being in a more dominant position. In its conclusion the study states:
The respondents valued themselves, their partners, and their relationships. All couples expressed considerable goodwill toward their partners. The power exchange between the cohorts appears to be serving purposes beyond any sexual satisfaction, including experiencing a sense of being taken care of and bonding with a partner.
The study further goes on to list three aspects that made the successful relationships work: early disclosure of interests and continued transparency, a commitment to personal growth, and the use of the dominant/submissive roles as a tool to maintain the relationship. In his closing remarks, the author of the study theorizes that due to the serious potential for harm, couples in BDSM relationships develop increased communication that may be higher than in mainstream relationships.
A professional dominatrix or professional dominant, often referred to within the culture as a "pro-dom(me)", offers services encompassing the range of bondage, discipline, and dominance in exchange for money. The term "dominatrix" is little-used within the non-professional BDSM scene. A non-professional dominant woman is more commonly referred to simply as a "domme", "dominant", or "femdom" (short for female dominance). There are also services provided by professional female submissives ("pro-subs"). A professional submissive consents to her client's dominant behavior within negotiated limits, and often works within a professional dungeon. Professional submissives, although far more rare, do exist. Most of the people who work as subs normally have tendencies towards such activities, especially when sadomasochism is involved. Males also work as professional "tops" in BDSM, and are called "masters" or "doms". However it is much more rare to find a male in this profession. A male "pro-dom" typically only works with male clientele.
In BDSM, a scene is the stage or setting where BDSM activity takes place, as well as the activity itself. The physical place where a BDSM activity takes place is usually called a dungeon, though some prefer less dramatic terms, including "playspace", or "club". A BDSM activity can, but need not, involve sexual activity or sexual roleplay. A characteristic of many BDSM relationships is the power exchange from the bottom to the dominant partner, and bondage features prominently in BDSM scenes and sexual roleplay.
'The Scene' (including use of the definite article 'the') is also used in the BDSM community to refer to the BDSM community as a whole. Thus someone who is on 'the Scene', and prepared to play in public, might take part in 'a scene' at a public play party.
A scene can take place in private between two or more people, and can involve a domestic arrangement, such as servitude or a casual or committed lifestyle master/slave relationship. BDSM elements may involve settings of slave training or punishment for breaches of instructions.
A scene can also take place in a club, where the play can be viewed by others. When a scene takes place in a public setting, it may be because the participants enjoy being watched by others, or because of the equipment available, or because having third parties present adds safety for play partners who have only recently met.
Standard social etiquette rules still apply when at a BDSM event, such as not intimately touching someone you do not know, not touching someone else's belongings (including toys), and abiding by dress codes. Many events open to the public also have rules addressing alcohol consumption, recreational drugs, cell phones, and photography.
A specific scene takes place within the general conventions and etiquette of BDSM, such as requirements for mutual consent and agreement as to the limits of any BDSM activity. This agreement can be incorporated into a formal contract. In addition, most clubs have additional rules which regulate how onlookers may interact with the actual participants in a scene. As is the general rule in BDSM, these are founded on the catchphrase "safe, sane, and consensual".
Parties and clubs
BDSM play parties are events in which BDSM practitioners and other similarly interested people meet in order to communicate, share experiences and knowledge, and to "play" in an erotic atmosphere. The parties show similarities with ones in the dark culture, being based on a more or less strictly enforced dress code; most often clothing made of latex, leather or vinyl/PVC, lycra and so on, emphasizing the body's shape and the primary and secondary sexual characteristic. The requirement for such dress codes differ. While some events have none, others have a policy in order to create a more coherent atmosphere and to prevent onlookers from taking part.
At these parties, BDSM can be publicly performed on a stage, or more privately in separate "dungeons". A reason for the relatively fast spread of this kind of event is the opportunity to use a wide range of "playing equipment", which in most apartments or houses is unavailable. Slings, St. Andrew's crosses (or similar restraining constructs), spanking benches, and punishing supports or cages are often made available. The problem of noise disturbance is also lessened at these events, while in the home setting many BDSM activities can be limited by this factor. In addition, such parties offer both exhibitionists and voyeurs a forum to indulge their inclinations without social criticism. Sexual intercourse is not permitted within most public BDSM play spaces or not often seen in others, because it is not the emphasis of this kind of play. In order to ensure the maximum safety and comfort for the participants certain standards of behavior have evolved; these include aspects of courtesy, privacy, respect and safewords. Today BDSM parties are taking place in most of the larger cities in the Western world.
This scene appears particularly on the Internet, in publications, and in meetings such as at fetish clubs (like Torture Garden), SM parties, gatherings called munches, and erotic fairs like Venus Berlin. The annual Folsom Street Fair is the world's largest BDSM event and is held in San Francisco. It has its roots in the gay leather movement. The weekend long festivities include a wide range of sadomasochistic erotica in a public clothing optional space between 8th and 13th streets with nightly parties associated with the organization.
There are also conventions such as Living in Leather and Black Rose.
It has often been assumed that a preference for BDSM is a consequence of childhood abuse. Research indicates that there is no evidence for this claim. Some reports suggest that people abused as children may have more BDSM injuries and have difficulty with safe words being recognized as meaning stop the previously consensual behavior, thus, it is possible that people choosing BDSM as part of their lifestyle, who also were previously abused, may have had more police or hospital reports of injuries. There is also a link between transgender individuals who have been abused and violence occurring in BDSM activities
There are a number of reasons commonly given for why a sadomasochist finds the practice of S&M enjoyable, and the answer is largely dependent on the individual. For some, taking on a role of compliance or helplessness offers a form of therapeutic escape; from the stresses of life, from responsibility, or from guilt. For others, being under the power of a strong, controlling presence may evoke the feelings of safety and protection associated with childhood. They likewise may derive satisfaction from earning the approval of that figure (see: Servitude (BDSM)). A sadist, on the other hand, may enjoy the feeling of power and authority that comes from playing the dominant role, or receive pleasure vicariously through the suffering of the masochist. It is poorly understood, though, what ultimately connects these emotional experiences to sexual gratification, or how that connection initially forms. Joseph Merlino, author and psychiatry adviser to the New York Daily News, said in an interview that a sadomasochistic relationship, as long as it is consensual, is not a psychological problem:
It's a problem only if it is getting that individual into difficulties, if he or she is not happy with it, or it's causing problems in their personal or professional lives. If it's not, I'm not seeing that as a problem. But assuming that it did, what I would wonder about is what is his or her biology that would cause a tendency toward a problem, and dynamically, what were the experiences this individual had that led him or her toward one of the ends of the spectrum.
It is agreed on by some psychologists that experiences during early sexual development can have a profound effect on the character of sexuality later in life. Sadomasochistic desires, however, seem to form at a variety of ages. Some individuals report having had them before puberty, while others do not discover them until well into adulthood. According to one study, the majority of male sadomasochists (53%) developed their interest before the age of 15, while the majority of females (78%) developed their interest afterwards (Breslow, Evans, and Langley 1985). The prevalence of sadomasochism within the general population is unknown. Despite female sadists being less visible than males, some surveys have resulted in comparable amounts of sadistic fantasies between females and males. The results of such studies demonstrate that one's sex does not determine preference for sadism.
Following a phenomenological study of nine individuals involved in sexual masochistic sessions who regarded pain as central to their experience, sexual masochism was described as an addiction-like tendency, with several features resembling that of drug addiction: craving, intoxication, tolerance and withdrawal. It was also demonstrated how the first masochistic experience is placed on a pedestal, with subsequent use aiming at retrieving this lost sensation, much as described in the descriptive literature on addiction. The addictive pattern presented in this study suggests an association with behavioral spin as found in problem gamblers.
BDSM is practiced in all social strata and is common in both heterosexual and homosexual men and women in varied occurrences and intensities. The spectrum ranges from couples with no connections to the subculture outside of their bedrooms or homes, without any awareness of the concept of BDSM, playing "tie-me-up-games", to public scenes on St. Andrew's crosses at large events such as the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. Estimation on the overall percentage of BDSM related sexual behaviour vary but it is no longer assumed to be uncommon.
A non-representative survey on the sexual behaviour of American students published in 1997 and based on questionnaires had a response rate of about 8–9%. Its results showed 15% of homosexual and bisexual males, 21% of lesbian and female bisexual students, 11% of heterosexual males and 9% of female heterosexual students committed to BDSM related fantasies. In all groups the level of practical BDSM experiences were around 6%. Within the group of openly lesbian and bisexual females the quote was significantly higher, at 21%. Independent of their sexual orientation, about 12% of all questioned students, 16% of lesbians and female bisexuals and 8% of heterosexual males articulated an interest in spanking. Experience with this sexual behaviour was indicated by 30% of male heterosexuals, 33% of female bisexuals and lesbians, and 24% of the male gay and bisexual men and female heterosexual women. Even though this study was not considered representative, other surveys indicate similar dimensions in a differing target groups.
A representative study done from 2001 to 2002 in Australia found that 1.8% of sexually active people (2.2% men, 1.3% women but no significant sex difference) had engaged in BDSM activity in the previous year. Of the entire sample, 1.8% men and 1.3% women had been involved in BDSM. BDSM activity was significantly more likely among bisexuals and homosexuals of both sexes. But among men in general, there was no relationship effect of age, education, language spoken at home, or relationship status. Among women, in this study, activity was most common for those between 16 and 19 years of age and least likely for females over 50 years. Activity was also significantly more likely for women who had a regular partner they did not live with, but was not significantly related with speaking a language other than English or education.
Another representative study, published in 1999 by the German Institut für rationale Psychologie, found that about 2/3 of the interviewed women stated a desire to be at the mercy of their sexual partners from time to time. 69% admitted to fantasies dealing with sexual submissiveness, 42% stated interest in explicit BDSM techniques, 25% in bondage. A 1976 study in the general US population suggests three percent have had positive experiences with Bondage or master-slave roleplaying. Overall 12% of the interviewed females and 18% of the males were willing to try it. A 1990 Kinsey Institute report stated that 5% to 10% of Americans occasionally engage in sexual activities related to BDSM. 11% of men and 17% of women reported trying bondage. Some elements of BDSM have been popularized through increased media coverage since the middle 1990s. Thus both black leather clothing, sexual jewellery such as chains and dominance roleplay appear increasingly outside of BDSM contexts.
According to yet another survey of 317,000 people in 41 countries, about 20% of the surveyed have at least used masks, blindfolds or other bondage utilities once, and 5% explicitly connected themselves with BDSM. In 2004, 19% mentioned spanking as one of their practices and 22% confirmed the use of blindfolds or handcuffs.
A 1985 study found 52 out of 182 female respondents (28%) were involved in sadomasochistic activities.
A 2009 study on two separate samples of male undergraduate students in Canada found that 62 to 65%, depending on the sample, had entertained sadistic fantasies, and 22 to 39% engaged in sadistic behaviors during sex. The figures were 62 and 52% for bondage fantasies, and 14 to 23% for bondage behaviors. A 2014 study involving a mixed sample of Canadian college students and online volunteers, both male and female, reported that 19% of male samples and 10% of female samples rated the sadistic scenarios described in a questionnaire as being at least "slightly arousing" on a scale that ranged from "very repulsive" to "very arousing"; the difference was statistically significant. The corresponding figures for the masochistic scenarios were 15% for male students and 17% for female students, a non-significant difference. In a 2011 study on 367 middle-aged and elderly men recruited from the broader community in Berlin, 21.8% of the men self-reported sadistic fantasies and 15.5% sadistic behaviors; 24.8% self-reported any such fantasy and/or behavior. The corresponding figures for self-reported masochism were 15.8% for fantasy, 12.3% for behavior, and 18.5% for fantasy and/or behavior. In a 2008 study on gay men in Puerto Rico, 14.8% of the over 425 community volunteers reported any sadistic fantasy, desire or behavior in their lifetime; the corresponding figure for masochism was 15.7%. A 2017 cross-sectional representative survey among the general Belgian population demonstrated a substantial prevalence of BDSM fantasies and activities; 12.5% of the population performed one of more BDSM-practices on a regular basis.
Some people who feel attracted by the situations usually compiled under the term BDSM reach a point where they decide to come out of the closet, though many sadomasochists keep themselves closeted. Even so, depending upon a survey's participants, about 5 to 25 percent of the US population show affinity to the subject. Other than a few artists and writers, practically no celebrities are publicly known as sadomasochists.
Public knowledge of one's BDSM lifestyle can have devastating vocational and social effects for sadomasochists. Many face severe professional consequences or social rejection if they are exposed, either voluntarily or involuntarily, as sadomasochists.
Within feminist circles the discussion has been split roughly into two camps: some who see BDSM as an aspect or reflection of oppression (for example, Alice Schwarzer) and, on the other side, pro-BDSM feminists, often grouped under the banner of sex-positive feminism (see Samois); both of them can be traced back to the 1970s.
Some feminists have criticized BDSM for eroticizing power and violence, and for reinforcing misogyny. They argue that women who engage in BDSM are making a choice that is ultimately bad for women. Feminist defenders of BDSM argue that consensual BDSM activities are enjoyed by many women and validate the sexual inclinations of these women. They argue that there is no connection between consensual kinky activities and sex crimes, and that feminists should not attack other women's sexual desires as being "anti-feminist". They also state that the main point of feminism is to give an individual woman free choices in her life; which includes her sexual desire. While some feminists suggest connections between consensual BDSM scenes and non-consensual rape and sexual assault, other sex-positive ones find the notion insulting to women.
It is often mentioned that in BDSM, roles are not fixed to gender, but personal preferences. The dominant partner in a heterosexual relationship may be the woman rather than the man; or BDSM may be part of male/male or female/female sexual relationships. Finally, some people switch, taking either a dominant or submissive role on different occasions. Several studies investigating the possibility of correlation between BDSM pornography and the violence against women also indicate a lack of correlation. As an example, Japan is listed as the country with the lowest sexual crime rate out of all the industrialized nations, despite being known for its distinct BDSM and bondage pornography (see Pornography in Japan). In 1991 a lateral survey came to the conclusion that between 1964 and 1984, despite the increase in amount and availability of sadomasochistic pornography in the US, Germany, Denmark and Sweden there is no correlation with the national number of rapes to be found.
Operation Spanner in the UK proves that BDSM practitioners still run the risk of being stigmatized as criminals. In 2003, the media coverage of Jack McGeorge showed that simply participating and working in BDSM support groups poses risks to one's job, even in countries where no law restricts it. Here a clear difference can be seen to the situation of homosexuality. The psychological strain appearing in some individual cases is normally neither articulated nor acknowledged in public. Nevertheless, it leads to a difficult psychological situation in which the person concerned can be exposed to high levels of emotional stress.
In the stages of "self awareness", he or she realizes their desires related to BDSM scenarios or decides to be open for such. Some authors call this internal coming-out. Two separate surveys on this topic independently came to the conclusion that 58 percent and 67 percent of the sample respectively, had realized their disposition before their 19th birthday. Other surveys on this topic show comparable results. Independent of age, coming-out can potentially result in a difficult life crisis, sometimes leading to thoughts or acts of suicide. While homosexuals have created support networks in the last decades, sadomasochistic support networks are just starting to develop in most countries. In German speaking countries they are only moderately more developed. The Internet is the prime contact point for support groups today, allowing for local and international networking. In the US Kink Aware Professionals (KAP) a privately funded, non-profit service provides the community with referrals to psychotherapeutic, medical, and legal professionals who are knowledgeable about and sensitive to the BDSM, fetish, and leather community. In the US and the UK, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation & Federation, National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) and Sexual Freedom Coalition (SFC) have emerged to represent the interests of sadomasochists. The German Bundesvereinigung Sadomasochismus is committed to the same aim of providing information and driving press relations. In 1996 the website and mailing list Datenschlag went online in German and English providing the largest bibliography, as well as one of the most extensive historical collections of sources related to BDSM.
Practices of BDSM survive from some of the oldest textual records in the world, associated with rituals to the Goddess Inanna (Ishtar in Akkadian). Cuneiform texts dedicated to Inanna which incorporate domination rituals. In particular she points to ancient writings such as Inanna and Ebih (in which the Goddess dominates Ebih), and Hymn to Inanna describing cross-dressing transformations and rituals "imbued with pain and ecstasy, bringing about initiation and journeys of altered states of consciousness; punishment, moaning, ecstasy, lament and song, participants exhausting themselves in weeping and grief."
During the ninth century BC, ritual flagellations were performed in Artemis Orthia, one of the most important religious areas of ancient Sparta, where the Cult of Orthia, a preolympic religion, was practiced. Here ritual flagellation called diamastigosis took place, in which young adolescent men were whipped in a ceremony overseen by the priestess. These are referred to by a number of ancient authors, including Pausanius (III, 16: 10-11).
One of the oldest graphical proofs of sadomasochistic activities is found in the Etruscan Tomb of the Whipping near Tarquinia, which dates to the fifth century BC. Inside the tomb there is fresco which portrays two men who flagellate a woman with a cane and a hand during an erotic situation. Another reference related to flagellation is to be found in the sixth book of the Satires of the ancient Roman Poet Juvenal (1st–2nd century A.D.), further reference can be found in Petronius's Satyricon where a delinquent is whipped for sexual arousal. Anecdotal narratives related to humans who have had themselves voluntary bound, flagellated or whipped as a substitute for sex or as part of foreplay reach back to the third and fourth century.
In Pompeii, a whip-mistress figure with wings is depicted on the wall of the Villa of Mysteries, as part of an initiation of a young woman into the Mysteries. The whip-mistress role drove the sacred initiation of ceremonial death and rebirth. The archaic Greek Aphrodite may too once have been armed with an implement, with archaeological evidence of armed Aphrodite known from a number of locations in Cythera, Acrocorinth and Sparta, and which may have been a whip.
The Kama Sutra of India describes four different kinds of hitting during lovemaking, the allowed regions of the human body to target and different kinds of joyful "cries of pain" practiced by bottoms. The collection of historic texts related to sensuous experiences explicitly emphasizes that impact play, biting and pinching during sexual activities should only be performed consensually since only some women consider such behavior to be joyful. From this perspective the Kama Sutra can be considered as one of the first written resources dealing with sadomasochistic activities and safety rules. Further texts with sadomasochistic connotation appear worldwide during the following centuries on a regular basis.
There are anecdotal reports of people willingly being bound or whipped, as a prelude to or substitute for sex, during the 14th century. The medieval phenomenon of courtly love in all of its slavish devotion and ambivalence has been suggested by some writers to be a precursor of BDSM. Some sources claim that BDSM as a distinct form of sexual behavior originated at the beginning of the 18th century when Western civilization began medically and legally categorizing sexual behavior (see Etymology).
Flagellation practiced within an erotic setting has been recorded from at least the 1590s evidenced by a John Davies epigram, and references to "flogging schools" in Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso (1676) and Tim Tell-Troth's Knavery of Astrology (1680). Visual evidence such as mezzotints and print media is also identified revealing scenes of flagellation, such as "The Cully Flaug'd" from the British Museum collection.
John Cleland's novel Fanny Hill, published in 1749, incorporates a flagellation scene between the character's protagonist Fanny Hill and Mr Barville. A large number of flagellation publications followed, including Fashionable Lectures: Composed and Delivered with Birch Discipline (c. 1761), promoting the names of ladies offering the service in a lecture room with rods and cat o' nine tails.
Other sources give a broader definition, citing BDSM-like behavior in earlier times and other cultures, such as the medieval flagellates and the physical ordeal rituals of some Native American societies.
BDSM ideas and imagery have existed on the fringes of Western culture throughout the twentieth century. Robert Bienvenu attributes the origins of modern BDSM to three sources, which he names as "European Fetish" (from 1928), "American Fetish" (from 1934), and "Gay Leather" (from 1950). Another source are the sexual games played in brothels, which go back into the 19th century if not earlier. Charles Guyette was the first American to produce and distribute fetish related material (costumes, footwear, photography, props and accessories) in the US. His successor, Irving Klaw, produced commercial sexploitation film and photography with a BDSM theme (most notably with Bettie Page) and issued fetish comics (known then as "chapter serials") by the now-iconic artists John Willie, Gene Bilbrew, and Eric Stanton.
Stanton's model Bettie Page became at the same time one of the first successful models in the area of fetish photography and one of the most famous pin-up girls of American mainstream culture. Italian author and designer Guido Crepax was deeply influenced by him, coining the style and development of European adult comics in the second half of the twentieth century. The artists Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe are the most prominent examples of the increasing use of BDSM-related motives in modern photography and the public discussions still resulting from this.
Alfred Binet first coined the term erotic fetishism in his 1887 book, Du fétichisme dans l'amour Richard von Krafft-Ebing saw BDSM interests as the end of a continuum.
Leather has been a predominantly gay male term to refer to one fetish, but it can stand for many more. Members of the gay male leather community may wear leathers such as Motorcycle leathers, or may be attracted to men wearing leather. Leather and BDSM are seen as two parts of one whole. Much of the BDSM culture can be traced back to the gay male leather culture, which formalized itself out of the group of men who were soldiers returning home after World War II (1939–1945). WWII was the setting where countless homosexual men and women tasted the life among homosexual peers. Post-war, homosexual individuals congregated in larger cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. They formed leather clubs and bike clubs, some were fraternal services. The establishment of Mr. Leather Contest and Mr. Drummer Contest were made around this time. This was the genesis of the gay male leather community. Many of the members were attracted to extreme forms of sexuality, for which peak expression was in the pre-AIDS 1970s. This subculture is epitomized by the Leatherman's Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, which describes in detail the practices and culture of gay male sadomasochists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the early 1980s, lesbians also joined the leathermen as a recognizable element of the gay leather community. They also formed leather clubs, but there were some gender differences such as the absence of leatherwomen's bar. In 1981, the publication of Coming to Power by lesbian-feminist group Samois led to a greater knowledge and acceptance of BDSM in the lesbian community. By the 1990s, the gay men's and women's leather communities were no longer underground and played an important role in the kink community.
Today the Leather Movement is generally seen as a part of the BDSM-culture instead of as a development deriving from gay subculture, even if a huge part of the BDSM-subculture was gay in the past. In the 1990s the so-called New Guard leather subculture evolved. This new orientation started to integrate psychological aspects into their play.
The San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley consists of four works of art along Ringold Alley honoring leather culture; it opened in 2017. One of the works of art is metal bootprints along the curb which honor 28 people (including Steve McEachern, owner of the Catacombs, a gay and lesbian S/M fisting club, and Cynthia Slater, a founder of the Society of Janus, the second oldest BDSM organization in the United States) who were an important part of the leather communities of San Francisco.
In the late-eighties, the Internet provided a way of finding people with specialized interests around the world as well as on a local level, and communicating with them anonymously. This brought about an explosion of interest and knowledge of BDSM, particularly on the usenet group alt.sex.bondage. When that group became too cluttered with spam, the focus moved to soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm. With an increased focus on forms of social media, FetLife was formed, which advertises itself as "a social network for the BDSM and fetish community". It operates similarly to other social media sites, with the ability to make friends with other users, events, and pages of shared interests.
In addition to traditional sex shops, which sell sex paraphernalia, there has also been an explosive growth of online adult toy companies that specialize in leather/latex gear and BDSM toys. Once a very niche market, there are now very few sex toy companies that do not offer some sort of BDSM or fetish gear in their catalog. Kinky elements seem to have worked their way into "vanilla" markets. The former niche expanded to an important pillar of the business with adult accessories. Today practically all suppliers of sex toys do offer items which originally found usage in the BDSM subculture. Padded handcuffs, latex and leather garments, as well as more exotic items like soft whips for fondling and TENS for erotic electro stimulation can be found in catalogs aiming on classical vanilla target groups, indicating that former boundaries increasingly seem to shift.
During the last years the Internet also provides a central platform for networking among individuals who are interested in the subject. Besides countless private and commercial choices there is an increasing number of local networks and support groups emerging. These groups often offer comprehensive background and health related information for people who have been unwillingly outed as well as contact lists with information on psychologists, physicians and lawyers who are familiar with BDSM related topics.
Increasingly, American universities are witnessing BDSM and kink education by providing student clubs, such as Columbia University's Conversio Virium and Iowa State University's Cuffs. University BDSM clubs are also found in the UK, Canada, Belgium, and Taiwan.
Some American universities—such as Indiana University and Michigan State University—have professors who research and take classes on BDSM.