Have you ever felt curious about people who engage in BDSM?[i]Possibly interested in trying it out yourself, while at the same time feeling apprehensive. You would not be alone. Many others have similar thoughts. They also worry what this interest signifies; are they weird, unnatural, in need of treatment? This concern is hardly surprising, considering the stigma that has – until recently –accompanied BDSM. A brief historical and cultural review can help provide guidance.
What is BDSM?
The use of physical or mental pain to promote sexual stimulation has not always been perceived in a negative way. Until it became a medical diagnosis it received little attention and was not even classified as a sin. BDSM behaviour has been recorded throughout history, dating back to ancient Egypt. It was generally regarded in a positive light, with painful stimuli being viewed as an acceptable part of a person’s sexual repertoire, (e.g. The Perfumed Garden, The Kama Sutra). Much later, the writing of sadomasochistic activities (e.g. Marquis de Sade) was seen by physicians as a medical curiosity, but not something that required their intervention. However, following on from the work of Krafft-Ebing and later Freud, BDSM practices became seen as examples of sexual pathology, and were diagnosed as such. The belief that people who engaged in BDSM were mentally ill became established and continued for over a hundred years. This view was reflected in the highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in which BDSM has been classified as a mental disorder since the DSM’s first publication in 1952. Since the 1980’s a campaign has been waged for a return to a more enlightened understanding of BDSM, including the removal of BDSM from the DSM. This was fully achieved as recently as 2013 when finally, consenting adults were no longer deemed mentally ill for choosing sexual behaviour outside the mainstream.[ii]
So, in these more enlightened times, what could a novice curious about the BDSM scene expect?
The five main categories of BDSM
Dominance and Submission
Dominance is the appearance of rule over one partner by another. The dominant partner is variously called sadist, dominant, top, master, mistress or ‘S.’ The submissive partner gives the appearance of obedience to their partner, and is variously called masochist, submissive, bottom, slave or ‘M.’ BDSM participants are extraordinarily clear about which part they are playing. The experience of physical and/or psychological pain is used to express dominance and submission.
Role playing is about establishing a role primarily to act out sexual fantasies. Some participants like to take turns playing both the dominant and submissive roles (‘duals’) while others have definite preferences. Part of role playing is establishing a ‘scene,’ such as master and slave, teacher and student, mistress/master and servant. Some scenes are simple, some are more specific and can include a ‘script.’ Scenes can be enhanced by various paraphernalia including clothing, chains and restraints.
Most players in the BDSM scene would agree that one of the most important principles is that of consent. All acts should be safe, sane and consensual. It is assumed that everyone has the ability to mentally, psychologically and socially choose for themselves whether or not to engage in an activity. Everyone will be expected to practice risk awareness. This means that all understand the potential risks and have taken the necessary precautions for their safety. Participants soon learn who will not abide by these rules; word gets out and no one goes near them.
Activities are placed within a sexual context. Even if there is very little sexual contact during the encounter most participants say what they are doing has a sexual meaning and is clearly erotic. Sometimes the main sexual activity takes place when the role play is over.
Participants have to agree that what has taken place is BDSM. For example, even quite intense physical pain will not always be seen as BDSM, with participants preferring a mutual definition of masculinity and toughness and/or unwillingness to give into pain, explaining that everyone else in their group ‘can take it.’
This description above of the five main categories observed may help to lessen your fears of further exploration of the BDSM community.[iii]It can be seen that BDSM activities usually operate within clear boundaries, with issues such as consent and safety being a primary concern. However, there remain those who advise caution.
Is it a mental illness?
Some of Freud’s successors continue to speak of BDSM in the language of mental illness. Sheldon Bach, Clinical Professor at the New York Freudian Society maintains that some people are ‘addicts’ who use BDSM in an attempt to cope with emotional deficits. They feel compelled to engage in BDSM acts, doing anything that is asked of them. Sheldon claims this is because they are unable to experience love. They are searching for love and BDSM is the only way they can try to find it because they are locked into sado-masochistic interactions they had with a parent.
The BDSM community itself have expressed related concerns, explaining the real danger is that some people have misplaced anger and pain, and are trying to resolve these issues in destructive ways. Instead of confronting their emotional pain they seek physical pain to relieve their distress. The relief is usually short lived and the need for destructive behaviour quickly returns.[iv]Thus, there are both mental health professionals, and members of the BDSM community who acknowledge possible negative effects of BDSM activities. However, most people in BDSM circles are dominant or submissive in very specific situations, while in everyday life they can, and do play a whole range of roles. But if the only way a person can relate to someone else is through sadomasochistic games, there is probably a deeper psychological problem.
In spite of the above, the idea that BDSM is pathological has been largely dismissed by those who work in the field of mental health. BDSM is increasingly being seen as one part of the continuum of sexuality and sexual behaviour. The ingredients in good S&M play – communication, respect and trust – are claimed to be the same ingredients found in good traditional sex. The outcome is the same too; a feeling of connection to the body and the self. With regard to communication, the BDSM community may have something to teach others. For example, when setting the scene for BDSM activity, there is discussion ahead of time about what everyone wants to do and also their limitations. There is usually far less discussion between those who engage in ‘vanilla’[v]sex. If there were better communication we might avoid many misunderstandings, from awkwardness between couples to accusations of sexual assault. We need to get more comfortable with these conversations. Presently we are poorly equipped to have honest dialogue about sex. BDSM are one of the few communities who elevate/prioritise sexual/erotic communication in this way. Perhaps we have a lot to learn from them
Hopefully, this brief exploration will help to clarity your thoughts and feelings about whether to further explore BDSM.
[i]In recent years the term S&M, has given way to BDSM. BDSM has become an all-encompassing term for sexual activities between consenting parties. Within BDSM there are several subcategories including bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
[ii]This was similar to the removal of Homosexuality from the DSM in 1987
[iii]These categories were derived from interviews and observations conducted over an eight-year period.
[iv]Yasuko Thanh, blogger and member of the BDSM community.
[v]Vanilla sex is the BDSM community’s description of conventional sexual practice.