BDSM? What's with this bondage/sadomasochism stuff anyway?

What? Why? How?

All right, so what is "BDSM"?

"BDSM" is an acronym of "B&D" (Bondage & Discipline), "D&S" (Dominance & Submission), and "S&M" (sadomasochism). "BDSM" refers to any or all of these things, and a lot of stuff besides.

Tying up your lover is BDSM; so is flogging that person, or bossing that person around, or any of a thousand other things. BDSM is highly erotic, usually (though not always) involves sex or sexual tension; and is highly psychologically charged. One person (the "submissive") agrees to submit to another person (the "dominant"); or, alternately, one person agrees to receive some sort of sensation, such as spanking, from another.

Some people like to be submissive all the time, some people like to be dominant all the time; some people like to switch, being submissive one day and dominant the next.

Many people practice some element of BDSM in their sexual lives without even being aware of it. They may think of "S&M" as "That sick stuff that people do with whips and cattle prods and stuff," yet still blindfold one another from time to time, or tie one another down and break out the whipped cream...

All of these things are "BDSM." BDSM is not necessarily hardcore sadomasochism; it can be remarkably subtle and sensual and soft. Pinning your partner to the bed and running silk or ice cubes or rabbit fur over your lover's body qualifies as "BDSM" (specifically, of a variety called "sensation play").

BDSM doesn't have to involve all of these.

There are many people involved in BDSM who enjoy tying others up, or being tied up themselves, but who do not enjoy S&M--that is, they aren't interested in inflicting or receiving pain. Sometimes, one partner just ties up the other, as a form of foreplay. Similarly, there are many people who may like the psychological control they get from ordering their lovers to do things, but do not care for being physically restrained or tied, or for tying up their lovers.

BDSM is as varied as the people who do it.

I've met many people who engage in BDSM activities, such as bondage or spanking, but who insist they are "not into that BDSM stuff." Usually, it's because they have an idea in their heads about what BDSM is, like "BDSM means wearing a leather mask and being chained to a wall and whipped, and I don't like that, so I'm not into BDSM." But BDSM desn't necessarily mean wearing a hood and being chained to the wall. If you like being lightly spanked, or light bondage excites you, then you're into BDSM.

Some people, myself included, love the aesthetic of an elaborate rope harness, or an elaborate form of bondage; others simply aren't interested in the bondage elements at all. The key to all these different forms of BDSM, though, is the exchange of power or sensation. One person (the "bottom" or "submissive") is choosing to allow the other person (the "top" or "dominant") to have control over him or her in some way, or to inflict sensation in some way. Perhaps it means allowing the other person to tie him up, perhaps it means allowing the other person to spank her, whatever.

In particular, BDSM is NOT abuse!

People who are practicing BDSM in any of its trillions of forms are doing it voluntarily, for fun. It's a way to explore. Everything that happens in a BDSM relationship is consensual; and believe it or not, it's not just about the dominant getting what he or she wants--it's more about the submissive getting what he or she wants.

An abuser has no regard for the feelings, needs, or limits of the victim. A BDSM dominant is concerned above all else with the needs and desires of the submissive. The dominant in a BDSM setting will also look after the psychological well-being of the submissive during and after an activity, for example by providing emotional or physical support in the form of aftercare. Pretty straightforward, really.

BDSM isn't what you see in porn flicks.

The image of BDSM that is portrayed in many materials of this sort has about as much to do with BDSM as the child's tale "Jack and the Magic Beanstalk" has to do with agriculture. These materials show little more than women being used in various unoriginal ways for men's enjoyment, often by force. The reality is that there are at least as many, and perhaps more, male submissives than female submissives; and that BDSM is a mutual activity that is driven as much by the needs of the submissive than by the needs of the dominant.

Uh-huh. Sure. The needs of the submissive. Right. The dominant is the one bossing the other person around; you'd have to be some kind of jerk to want to do that.

While that may seem like it makes sense on the surface, the truth is just the opposite. People who are good at dominating or inflicting pain are, in general, LESS likely than many other people to be jerks or assholes.

Why? Because in order to be good at doing it, you need to be highly in-tune with your submissive. People who are self-centered generally make poor dominants, because they lack the empathy required to be able to read and judge their partner's reactions, and bring their partner where that person wants to go. Assholes quickly find that nobody wants to play with them; and people who are empathic tend not to be assholes. All of the real top-notch dominants I've ever met, without exception, are incredibly cool people.

In tune with your submissive? The dominant is the one calling the shots. What does the dominant care about the submissive?

Believe it or not, the dynamics of a BDSM relationship are often driven by the submissive, not by the dominant. The submissive sets the limits; the submissive decides what places can and can not be explored; the submissive has the ability to call a halt to the scene. The dominant, in many ways, is simply a facilitator. It's the dominant's job to create a setting where the people involved can explore the submissive's fantasies.

(As an aside, it's important to note that these limits can change over time. It may be that something that used to sound like it wouldn't be fun or interesting might in the future tickle your fancy; and that things you enjoy now, you may not necessarily enjoy in the future. People change over time. It's important, when you explore BDSM, to remember that, and to make a habit of talking to your partner about things you like and don't like as those things change.)

Dominating your partners does not mean that you don't want to please them. It is not always, or even usually, true that a dominant is interested in his own gratification rather than his submissive's. In fact, many dominants are driven as much by their desire to please their partner as by anything else; the psychology of a healthy BDSM relationship is driven by the submissive as well as by the dominant, and a dominant can take pleasure from gratifying the needs of the submissive just as easily as the submissive can take pleasure from gratifying the needs of the dominant. This kind of thing is not one-directional.

It's all for the submissive's benefit? Yeah, right. The submissive is the one being bossed around or spanked or whatever. How can you say that isn't abuse?

Simple. Two reasons:

1. In a BDSM relationship, the submissive sets the limits. A victim of abuse doesn't get a vote; the victim can't tell the abuser what to do, or how much to do it. A submissive sets all the limits--what kinds of things can be (and can't be!) done, how much, and for how long.

And while we're on the subject of limits, there is more than one kind of limit in a BDSM relationship. Everybody has "hard" limits--things that they absolutely will not do, and will not even consider. Some people, for example, like to be tied up but don't like the idea of being whipped; if they won't allow themselves to be whipped, ever, that's a hard limit.

There are also "soft" limits--things that someone won't do under ordinary circumstances, but will allow to be "forced" on him or her in the context of a particular scenario that's being acted out. Between soft limits and hard limits lies an interesting psychological territory to explore.

2. A submissive gets a way to opt out. This may be a code word, or a sign of some sort; if the submissive uses it, he or she has had enough and the scene is over. An abuse victim doesn't tell the abuser when to stop.

So don't you have to be kind of sick or messed up to do that stuff?


C'mon, really. I mean, tying people up...whipping them. Isn't that demented?


For the most part, people who are into this kind of thing are remarkably well-adjusted. People involved in BDSM generally are neither abusive nor come from backgrounds where they were abused, because people with that kind of backgrounds aren't likely to be sexually turned on by giving someone else power over them. That doesn't mean that no BDSM relationship is abusive--since people are what they are, no form of human interaction is immune to abuse. But it does mean that the people you'll find in the BDSM community are, for the most part, very stable. (In fact, if you're going to get involved in this kind of stuff, it helps to have a cast-iron ego and a strong sense of self, particularly if you're a submissive.)

Some people think anyone interested in BDSM is suffering from some kind of past abuse. I think that the "BDSM interest=past abuse" assertion is most frequently made by people who don't understand what BDSM is. They see someone being flogged, they say "Oh! People in a BDSM relationship get hit; people in an abusive relationship get hit; ergo, BDSM is like an abusive relationship. QED."

But the fact is, the psychology of a BDSM power exchange is vastly different from the psychology of abuse; and in a BDSM relationship, the psychology is frequently driven by the limitations of the submissive, not the dominant. Typically, it is the submissive who says "This far and no farther"--which is entirely contradictory to the psychology of abuse.

Now I'm not saying that people into BDSM are never victims of abuse, of course. If you survey any arbitrary group of people--all lawyers, all redheads, all Toyota Camry owners, all BDSM participants--you'll find that some people in that group are abuse survivors. But that doesn't imply a direct connection between abuse and the practice of law, or hair color, or choice of transportation...or BDSM.

The psychiatric profession agrees, In fact, according to the DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic reference text "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" published by the American Psychiatric Association, The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning in order for sexual sadism or masochism to be considered a disorder.

BDSM is not what it looks like from the outside. It's not just tying people up and having sex, and it's not just arbitrarily whipping people. That's very crude, and kind of boring. What it is is a sort of role-playing, where the people involved are acting out a fantasy that involves taking or giving up power. Sex is often involved, but not always.

Role-playing? Fantasy? You make it sound like it's all some kind of game.

It is. You're exercising your imagination, and you're playing a game with the other person. You get to be the dominant; your partner is the submissive; you're playing the role of the mad scientist who's just kidnapped someone and is going to use this poor innocent person for evil experiments. Or whatever. (There are people who do this all the time--one always the dominant, one always the submissive--who will tell you it isn't a game, but that's part of the game.)

At the same time, however, it is very serious. You're creating a framework that allows you to have fun and explore some very powerfully charged areas of human psychology, and push your boundaries at the same time. In this way, BDSM can be a powerful tool for self-discovery and exploration.

You can also explore fantasies by roleplaying scenarios that are highly charged psychologically. One such type of exploration is a form of BDSM called "resistance play," in which one person (the dominant) takes another person (the submissive) by force, and the submissive is expected and encouraged to resist by force. This kind of play is not everyone's cup of tea, of course, but it can be a safe and fun way to explore some of the darker fantasies that are very common in a surprising number of people.

This also can lead you into some highly volatile psychological territory. Even if it seems like something you really want to experiment with, it's possible that it can hit some psychological triggers that produce a reaction you didn't expect. So it pays to go carefully.

Many of the standard rules of BDSM apply doubly or triply to this kind of scenario. For example, using a "safeword"--a code word that means "Stop!"--is absolutely vital when you're experimenting with resistance play; one of the tenants of resistance play is that "no" does not mean "no," so you need a word that does

It also pays to negotiate the basic parameters in which you'll operate beforehand. Different people have different idea of what constitutes "force" or how rough "rough" is. If everyone involved isn't on the same page, someone may get hurt in a way that isn't so fun.

Whoa, wait a minute. Force? Whipping? That's supposed to be FUN??

It is fun, if that's your sort of thing. The experience of being flogged is nothing like what you imagine it would be like. For the most part, it's more stimulating than painful. Ditto for the experience of acting out, say, a resistance-play fantasy.

Quite honestly, there was a time when I drew the line at the whipping thing. I was absolutely certain I'd never, ever, under any circumstances, allow someone to flog me. Not me, no sir.

But then I tried it (long story), and it was absolutely nothing like what I thought it'd be like.

Ever have a really deep massage? The kind that hurts, but still feels good? Same thing, only more so.

Besides, when you're sexually aroused, all kind of stimulation can be fun. Ever had a lover who left gouges in your back during sex? Or one who bites? It's very passionate and intense. If you're in the right frame of mind, even a flogging that leaves welts isn't really painful, precisely--not like stubbing your toe, or running into the edge of the bathroom wall at two o'clock in the morning because you didn't turn the light on. It's more like the lover who claws your back when she gets off thing. But hey, if it's not for you, don't do it.

Damn straight! I would never do that; I respect my lover too much.

Experimenting with intense things like resistance play and pain play do not mean you do not respect your lover. Quite the contrary; respect for your lover is absolutely paramount if you wish to do these things safely.

Respect for your lover is not just in behaving according to some ideal about the way "men are supposed to treat women" or whatever. Respect for your lover lies in exploring with your lover, creating with your lover, doing with your lover those things that you and your lover wish to do, sharing yourself on a very deep level with your lover... It's reflected in everything you say, do, express, feel, and think with your lover.

Different people want, need, and value different things. Respect recognizes those differences. And above all else, respect is an integral part of the mutual process of self-exploration and self discovery.

Now hold on a minute, kink-boy. We're talking about kinky S&M here, not Buddhism. What do you mean, "self exploration?"

Just that.

BDSM is a very broad term that encompasses many wildly different practices, and many wildly different beliefs. But central to all these things is the idea of challenging boundaries and testing limits--and that's precisely what self-exploration is all about.

You cannot know your limits if you never test them and never explore them. You may know some general things, but you can't truly know yourself if you have never explored and never experimented. As Francis Bacon wrote, Your true self can be known only by systematic experimentation, and controlled only by being known.

BDSM provides a context and a set of tools for exploring your own personal boundaries in a safe, fun, enjoyable, and mutually reciprocal way. It provides a vehicle by which you can get to know yourself and your lover much more deeply and intimately than you might have thought possible. And hey, you often find along the way that you can be surprised! You probably have turn-ons that you don't even know you have, and you will never discover without exploration.

And that, my friend, can truly enrich your life and the life of your lover.

When it comes right down to it, if your goal is self-knowledge and personal enlightenment, I put six months in a BDSM relationship up there with three years in a Tibetan monastery any day.

But where do you draw the line? How much is too much?

You draw the line wherever you want to. There isn't one way to "do" BDSM, and not everybody is in to the same things. If you like being tied up, but you don't want to be whipped, then don't be whipped! Every person is unique; not everybody has the same turn-ons; if you don't like something, don't do it.

Most people who practice BDSM believe in "safe, sane, and consensual."

That means: Don't do anything blatantly unsafe; don't try anything that's likely to get you killed or injured if you screw up, and don't do something if you aren't sure how. Be reasonable and rational. Know the difference between fantasy and reality. Make sure you're both into it before you do it. Do that, and you'll probably be okay. It's like anything else; exploring an interest in fine cuisine doesn't mean you have to like fish eggs! If it isn't for you, then that's where you draw the line.

Once you get involved in this sort of thing, don't you keep going further and further? Can you ever stop?

Some people are afraid to start exploring new things in bed because they are worried that if they start doing "kinky stuff," they won't ever be able to go back to "normal" sex, and ordinary non-kinky sex won't be fun any more.

That's absolutely not the case at all. Eating pie doesn't mean you don't like cake any more; having one kind of sex doesn't mean you don't like any other kind of sex any more.

And you might find all kinds of new things that are fun!

People are very, very complex creatures, and it's unrealistic to think that you know the whole truth about every aspect of yourself without ever having experimented with the things that turn you on. There are many things that I thought would never appeal to me that experimentation has proven are huge turn-ons for me, and I suspect the same is true of most people.

Not even "most people who are into BDSM"--most people. Nobody is completely static, and nobody can be expected to know absolutely everything about himself or herself from the get-go.

So when you start experimenting, you may find that there are things that turn you on that you never thought would turn you on. But then again, unless you are hopelessly shallow, as you go through life you'll probably discover new things that turn you on even if you don't get involved with BDSM!

And of course you can stop. Just because you learn something new about yourself, that doesn't mean you're changing into some kind of raving, uncontrolled lunatic! It just means you've discovered something new, that's all.

But how do I know if it is for me? How do I know if I'm a dominant or a submissive? How do I know if I like any of this stuff?

That depends on you. It's not like there's only one kind of person who's into BDSM; and it's not like only men are dominant or only women are submissive. (In fact, the deck seems to be tilted in favor of men who are submissives.)

And you don't necessarily even have to be dominant or submissive! Maybe you like experimenting with being tied up, or tying up your lover, but all that bossing-about stuff does nothing for you. So, the terms "dominant" or "submissive" may not apply to you, even though you do want to experiment with some aspects of BDSM. Don't get hung up on the terminology. It's really not that important.

Are you into any of this at all? Well, that depends. Have you ever had fantasies about being tied up and helpless while unspeakable things are done to your body? Have you ever wanted to be able to tell your lover exactly what to do ("Get on your knees and bark like a dog!")? You might enjoy experimenting with this sort of thing. Hey, there are worse things in the world than having an interesting and varied sex life--and if you experiment and decide it isn't for you, so be it!

So...why? What's the point of tying people up? Why would someone agree to any of this?

That's a complicated question.

The short answer is: Because it's fun, it's highly arousing, and it's tremendously powerful. It's a great vehicle for exploring a number of different kinds of fantasies in a way that's exhilarating.

People are dominant or submissive for different reasons. Being submissive in a BDSM scene can be tremendously liberating, particularly for people who aren't comfortable exploring their sexuality or their personal boundaries. When you agree to act as a submissive, you give up responsibility for what's going on; you sit back and let things happen. Provided you trust the person who's being the dominant, you can mentally relax and concentrate on the role that's being created for you.

As a dominant, the pleasure comes from constructing a scenario and acting it out. You can, at least within reason, determine the submissive's fate; you're the scriptwriter, director, and producer of the entire show; you construct the fantasy world and make it real. Being a good dominant is a lot of work. You have to be creative; you must be able to improvise; and you have to pay attention to your submissive, to maintain the illusion you're creating and make sure your submissive is getting what he or she wants from the scenario. In many ways, the dominant person is a facilitator; the dominant's job is to make a fantasy that takes the submissive wherever he or she wants to go, and bring that fantasy to life.

For many people, BDSM is an intensely personal and meaningful experience, from either side. I am both dominant and submissive--a switch. I am into BDSM because I want more. I want more experience, I want more intensity; I want to feel more, think more, experience more, be more. I want to live life in immoderation, not moderation; I want to experience intensity because I want to live intensely.

I surrender to another because I want to be taken to that place where reason and thought disappears, where the world folds up flat and spins away into its own corner and there's nothing left but what I'm feeling.

I take control of another because I want to take them to that place--because when I become the orchestrator and the director of their world, when I can set the stage and write the script and make them, for a little while, become someone else, somewhere else, then I can feel what it is to wake the sleeping lion--and that is heady stuff indeed.

On top of that, it's very romantic.

What? Romantic? You've got to be joking.

Nope. See, that's one of the things about BDSM that isn't obvious to someone on the outside. When a dominant is creating a BDSM scenario, the dominant needs to focus his or her attention entirely on the submissive. A good dominant pays very close attention to the submissive--how the submissive is reacting, what's going on around the submissive, what the submissive is feeling--everything. Having somebody pay that close attention to you doesn't suck. It's very romantic.

So you've got someone tied to the bed. So what?

It's more than just tying someone to the bed. The good stuff isn't in tying the knots; it's in what you are while you're tying the knots. Think of it as a game that's two parts acting, two parts roleplaying, three parts sex, and two parts psychology.

Or, if you want, think of this: There she (or he, depending on who you are) is, lying helpless beneath you, restrained hand and foot, blindfolded, and you have a feather in your hand...and she's very ticklish...and she doesn''

Uh...wait. Blindfolded?

Yeah! That way, the submissive (a) can't tell what's about to happen (anticipation can be half the fun) and (b) is made to focus more closely on what she's (or he's) feeling.

So, anyway, there she is, restrained hand and foot, and you get out the clothespins, and...


Yes. You use them to...well, maybe we'll get into that in the "How" section.

The point is: Just tying somebody up is boring. The fun is in the stuff that goes with it. When you're restrained, you have this delicious feeling of helplessness, your lover free to do anything to your vulnerable's fun!

(Incidentally, there's more than one way to tie somebody up. When most people think about bondage, they think of tying someone spreadeagle to the bed. That's a simple form of "restraint bondage"--tying somebody to keep that person from moving.

Another form of bondage is "stimulation bondage"--tying somebody up, not to keep that person from moving, but in a way that stimulates that person sexually. For example, there is a form of rope harness called a "karada" which is typically tied around a woman in such a way that the ropes pass across her breasts, around her back, and up between her legs. This form of bondage does not restrict motion at all--in fact, you can wear it to work under your clothes!--but every time she moves, the ropes shift across her breasts and between her legs, constantly stimulating her and reminding her that they are there.)

The same kind of fun can be had in bossing your lover around. The fun part isn't that you can give orders; anybody can be pushy. The fun part is in the fact that your lover is compelled, within the limits of the game, to obey. She must submit as you tell her to slowly--no, more slowly--peel off her clothes, and caress her own body as she tells you, Maestro, that she'll do anything to make you happy; then, as you direct, pick up the vibrator and...

You get the idea. These are some very tame scenarios, but they illustrate that there's more going on than just tying somebody to your bed or bossing somebody around. There's an entire interaction here that's highly sensual and very intense.

Okay, okay, so, what do you actually DO, anyway?

Ah, now that's the fun part. That bit has been moved to its own page.