BDSM is a compounded acronym that stands for B&D (Bondage and Discipline), D/s (Dominance and submission), and S&M or SM (Sadism and Masochism), and is used as an overarching term to describe various types of kinky sex or play. BDSM as a term is used to cover a large range of activities, behaviors and desires that are considered non-normative in mainstream culture.
People who engage in BDSM do so in varying amounts; some on occasion, and others on a day-to-day basis, known in the BDSM community as "living it 24/7." BDSM is generally practiced by setting up "scenes," or a specified time and space to engage in BDSM activities. BDSM activities include, but are not limited to: spanking, whipping, sensation play (with hot and cold temperatures, clamps, feather ticklers, electrical play, etc.), bondage (with hand cuffs, chains or rope), power exchange (Dominant/submissive or Master/slave) and sexual role plays (Teacher/student, Doctor/patient, Escort/client, etc.). Those engaging in BDSM generally agree that all play should be safe (performed in ways that reduce as much risk as possible associated with these types of play), sane (sober and of sound mind) and consensual (with all participants enthusiastically agreeing to pre-discussed activities).
BDSM essentially refers to the erotic pleasures of degrading role play, sadistic disciplining and masochistic submission. The idea is to explore the kinky pleasure behind the pain of flesh or moral degradation.
The concept of BDSM is far beyond the simple terminology discussed above. The idea of dominance and submission, sadism and masochism are not just sexual ideas, but an ardent lifestyle choice for some. To be able to understand the practice completely, one must well understand what each component means as a BDSM and erotic practice.
Bondage & Discipline
While keeping one bound and gagged for violent reasons has forever been abhorred by society, the situation behind closed doors is a completely different story. The given practice allows people to take on roles of the “Top” (Dominator) and the “Bottom” (Submissive). Bondage essentially involves physical restraining for erotic pleasure. While the novice can indulge in light bondage by using belts and handcuffs to tie the limbs for erotic stimulations, the hardcore practitioners use elaborate contraptions to bind genitalia and limbs for heightened pleasure. Processes like asphyxiation are also a part of the bondage.
Discipline on the other hand is a practice not so different from bondage. It essentially involves psychological restraining by corporal punishment rules for behavior exerted beyond the acceptable range. The range of punishment can be physical, as in the case of spanking and flagellation, or psychological using degrading language. The concept of inflicting pain for pleasure makes the process extremely erotic for both parties involved.
Sadism & Masochism
Without doubt, these words define the core of BDSM. Sadism and masochism are inspired by pain – infliction and submission. Sadism is the inner impulse experienced by meting pain to the partner, which can be in form of language abuse, spanking or flagellation for the uninitiated and practices like asphyxiation, candle wax, electro-stimulation for the experienced. These concepts are intrinsically related to one’s relationship with pain and how much one is willing to push boundaries because of it. The sadistic partner is the one who inflicts the pain and the submissive partner gains erotic stimulations by enjoying every aspect of the pain experienced.
BDSM, although appears to be really exciting, must only be exercised with your partner’s consent. While light practicing is harmless, it is extremely easy to get lost in the power-play and actually end up actually harming your partner!
How Many People Practice BDSM?
Nearly 47 percent of women and 60 percent of men have fantasized about dominating someone sexually, while slightly more women and fewer men are aroused by the idea of being dominated, according to a study published online March 3, 2016, in The Journal of Sex Research. The same study also found that almost 47 percent adults would like to participate in at least one nontraditional type of sexual activity, and 33.9 percent said that they’d done so at least once in the past. No wonder if you search the phrase “BDSM” on Google it will return more than 500 million results.
Bondage & Discipline: Almost 50 percent of both women and men have fantasized about being tied up in order to obtain sexual pleasure.
Dominance & Submission: 65 percent of women and more than 50 percent of men have fantasized about being dominated sexually.
Sadism & Masochism: Almost 25 percent of women and more than 40 percent of men have fantasized about spanking or whipping someone for sexual pleasure.
BDSM capitalization is the practice of capitalizing or using all lower-case pronouns to denote the role or status of BDSM participants. According to BDSM capitalization rules, proper nouns and pronouns related to a dominant individual or master are capitalized.
The words related to a submissive individual or slave are lower case.
BDSM capitalization is also sometimes called Slavese or Slave-Pidgin.
BDSM capitalization can be applied to first, second, or third-person pronouns in their singular and plural forms. As an example, first-person singular pronouns referring to a Dominator would be I, Me, My, Mine, and Myself, while those referring to a submissive are i, me, my, mine, and myself.
Some sources believe that BDSM capitalization came into practice with Old Guard Leather guidelines which insisted submissives use only the third-person to refer to themselves. Another theory is that the practice sprung from chat rooms where the capitalization helped convey participants’ roles to the online community.
Fans of BDSM capitalization feel that the practice shows respect for the dominant partner and that it reinforces the roles in BDSM relationships. However, BDSM capitalization has come under fire from some members of the BDSM community who feel that the rules of standard grammar should always apply. They argue that respect for individuals, or the BDSM community as a whole, is about more than the capitalization of letters or the ability to use a shift key. In addition, they feel that any dom/sub relationship should be strong enough that it doesn’t need to flout existing grammar conventions to strengthen it.
The History of BDSM: Not So New
Explore a little more and you will also discover that BDSM is nothing new. Among BDSM’s historical high points:
Art and texts from ancient Greece and Rome show physical pain being used as an erotic stimulus, per the book An Illustrated History of the Rod, by William M. Cooper, first published in 1868.
The Kama Sutra, the revered Sanskrit text on sexuality written in India about 2,000 years ago, describes six appropriate places to strike a person with passion and four ways to do it. It also has chapters titled “Scratching,” “Biting,” and “Reversing Roles.”
The Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat who lived from 1740 to 1814, wrote a variety of erotic novels and short stories involving being beaten and beating others. Eventually the author’s name gave rise to the term sadism.
Similarly, the term masochism is derived from the name of Austrian nobleman and author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs describes a dominant-submissive relationship.
Back in 1953, a Kinsey Institute study found that 55 percent of women and 50 percent of men were aroused by being bitten.
And even pre-Fifty Shades of Grey, 36 percent of U.S. adults reported having had sex using masks, blindfolds, or other forms of bondage, according to the 2005 Durex Global Sex Survey.
Is BDSM Still Considered a Medical Disorder?
At one time, mental health experts were dubious about whether those who practiced BDSM were mentally healthy. But the American Psychiatric Association took a huge step in de-stigmatizing kink with the release of the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. For the first time ever, the guidelines drew a clear distinction between consenting adults who engage in sexual behaviors outside the mainstream, such as BDSM, and those who force others to engage in those behaviors without consent.
That means simply experimenting with, say, whips and chains, is no longer a sign of mental illness that by itself “justifies or requires clinical intervention,” the manual states.
There are true sexual disorders that are similar in theme. Sexual sadism disorder, for instance, involves inflicting physical or psychological pain on another for the purpose of sexual pleasure. And sexual masochism disorder involves deliberately involving yourself in a situation in which you are humiliated, beaten, or abused for the purpose of sexual excitement.
The difference between these two disorders and BDSM is consent, in the case of sexual sadism disorder, and that BDSM does not go to the degree of causing significant distress or impairing function, in the case of sexual masochism disorder.
The Psychology of BDSM: Why Are People Drawn to It?
Most of the available evidence shows that the majority of BDSM enthusiasts are mentally healthy and typical in every respect except that they find traditional (“vanilla”) intimacy unfulfilling and want something more intense.
“People always ask if it is normal to be interested in BDSM,” says Michal Daveed, a spokesperson for The Eulenspiegal Society, a nonprofit organization in New York City that describes itself as the “oldest and largest BDSM support and education group” in the country.
“Normal is a funny word to describe a really widespread and diverse humanity. If your definition of normal is how many people are doing this, it is way more people than you may think,” says Daveed. “And if your definition of normal is ordinary, the BDSM world is full of ordinary people whose sexuality happens to be hardwired a particular way.”
One landmark study published in 2008 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that people who engaged in BDSM were more likely to have experienced oral sex or anal sex, to have had more than one partner in the previous year, to have had sex with someone other than their regular partner, and to have taken part in phone sex, visited an internet sex site, viewed an X-rated film or video, used a sex toy, had group sex, or taken part in manual stimulation of the anus, fisting, or rimming.
However, they were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious. Indeed, men who had engaged in BDSM scored significantly lower on a scale of psychological distress than other men.
“Our findings support the idea that BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, and for most participants not a pathological symptom of past abuse or difficulty with ‘normal’ sex,” the researchers concluded.
“BDSM is a healthy expression of sexuality,” says Filippo M. Nimbi, PhD, a researcher at the Institute of Clinical Sexology and in the department of dynamic and clinical psychology at Sapienza University, both in Rome.
Dr. Nimbi is also the coauthor of a study published in the March 2019 issue of The Journal of Sexual Medicine that compared 266 consensual BDSM practitioners to 200 control subjects who described their sex lives as traditional. Echoing the earlier study, the researchers found that the BDSM group tended to report fewer sexual problems than the general population.
“People engaging in BDSM are usually people who have thought a lot about their sexuality,” Nimbi explained in an email. “They have explored and faced their sexual boundaries. Basically, they know what they like, and they do it. This has a positive outcome on their sexual experiences and on the overall quality of their lives.”
Many people think it is pathology or a perversion to, say, want to be spanked hard and to be happy about that, he added. “We each develop our erotic fantasies from our different tastes, experiences, and curiosities, beginning in childhood and lasting until the end of our lives. Everyone is different. We can develop the same fantasy from different stories, and we can develop different fantasies from the same stories. Some people find in BDSM a way to be free, to get wild, to let go, and to play a different role from their everyday lives. And if they get satisfaction and respect the ‘rules,’ why should it be abnormal?”
The Physicality of BDSM: Why Does It Feel Good?
Patti Britton, PhD, MPH, cofounder of the credentialing and training institute Sex Coach U and a past president of the American Association for Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, as well as other experts are quick to point out that seeking the pain-pleasure connection is not unique to the BDSM community. Think of athletes who push past physical comfort to experience a “runner’s high,” or people who chase thrills by engaging in dangerous extreme sports, like skydiving. Think of the bliss that aficionados of super spicy food experience when biting into a pepper sets their mouth on fire, or the rush of fear that
riding a roller coaster or watching a horror movie can bring.
“The same chemical cocktail of endorphins, dopamine, and other hormones that make those experiences pleasurable to some makes BDSM actually quite wonderful to others,” says clinical sexologist Francesca Gentille, coeditor of “The Marriage of Sex & Spirit”, and host of the podcast “Sex: Tantra & Kama Sutra”. “I like to compare sexual preferences to taste in food. Most of us don’t like bland food, but we have a range of how spicy we like it.”
Impact of BDSM on its adepts’ well-being, relationships and bodies
Recent studies devoted to understanding BDSM and its effects on the body have shown surprising results. Researchers have found that BDSM practices may offer a number of health benefits.
Improved Mental Health
In one study, researchers looked at personality traits, relationship attachment styles, and the general well-being of individuals who engaged in BDSM. Contrary to many popular stereotypes, the study found that those who engaged in these sexual practices were actually, on average better adjusted than their non-BDSM practicing counterparts.
Those in the BDSM group:
- Felt more secure in their relationships;
- Had an increased sense of well-being;
- Were more conscientious toward others;
- Were more extroverted;
- Were more open to trying new experiences;
- Had decreased anxiety;
- Were less sensitive to others' perceptions.
Research has shown BDSM participants enter an altered level of consciousness similar to the meditative state yoga practitioners experience or the marathoner’s “runner's high.” It is commonly known these activities can benefit health by helping lower our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Participation in BDSM may have the same effects.
For example, one series of studies found that partners in dominant roles had decreased cortisol levels after a BDSM session. Cortisol is known as the "stress hormone" and may be associated with a range of health issues including high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, and insulin resistance.
Researchers have also found that some participants regard BDSM as a spiritual experience.
Researchers have also determined that participating in successful sadomasochistic scenes increases the feeling of connectedness and intimacy with partners. While the exact reasons for this are not entirely clear, research has shown that doing novel things with romantic partners, rather than the same routine activities, increases intimacy. Brain scans of married couples revealed that sharing novel activities triggers the brain's reward system and floods it with dopamine and other feel-good chemicals.
Tips / Tricks
The world of BDSM has its own distinct subcultures and terminology. It can be intimidating for beginners, but there are some tips and tricks that may help you explore.
- Remember that communication is critical. Before you even begin, you need to talk about your interests and boundaries. If you are engaging in something as part of a BDSM scene, it needs to be something that each partner has talked about beforehand.
- Start slowly. Light BDSM practices are a good starting point for figuring out what you like and what you are comfortable with. Role-playing sexy scenes or engaging in dirty talk, for example, can help you explore your fantasies.
- Set the scene. Engage all of your scenes. Mood lighting, scented candles, soft music, and erotic clothing can all help create the right mood for your BDSM play.
- Have a safeword and don't be afraid to use it. BDSM should be fun for everyone involved -so if something isn't working for you or is too much for you to handle, there is no shame in saying so and trying something else.
Endorphins are morphine-like chemicals produced by the body that help diminish pain while triggering positive feelings.
They are released from the pituitary gland (see below) of the brain during periods of strenuous exercise, emotional stress, pain, and orgasm.
Endorphins help relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure or euphoria. They play an important role in the brain's reward system, which includes activities such as eating, drinking, sex, and maternal behavior.
The body produces endorphins in response to intense physical exercise.
Research suggests that exercise helps to improve mood and may even aid in the treatment of depression. Yet, exercise addiction may occur in people who exercise excessively.
The pituitary gland is often referred to as the "master gland" because it controls several other hormone-producing glands, including the thyroid gland.
It sits behind the bridge of the nose at the base of the brain, close to the optic nerves.
The pituitary gland works like a thermostat adjusting the thyroid hormone levels
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (see below) that helps send signals in the brain and is involved mainly in controlling movement
Neurotransmitters are chemicals made by nerve cells called neurons. They are used to communicate messages across different parts of the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body.
Dopamine also helps to aid the flow of information to the brain regions responsible for thought and emotion.
Dopamine plays a role in the brain’s reward system, helping to reinforce certain behaviors that result in reward. A surge of dopamine, for instance, is what prompts a person to take a second slice of pizza…
In a study published in June 2018 in the journal Nature Communications, researchers uncovered the role of dopamine in lessening fearful reactions over time, an important component of therapy for people with anxiety disorders, such as phobias or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).