What is BDSM?

The acronym “BDSM” is an amalgam of three acronyms:

  1. B/D for bondage and discipline: the use of bondage and other practices to produce or enhance erotic arousal and/or intimacy.
  2. D/s for dominance and submission: the consensual empowerment of one person by another to enhance or produce erotic arousal and/or intimacy.
  3. S/M for sadomasochism: the practice of deriving sexual pleasure from inflicting and/or receiving pain or other intense stimuli.

It is also known simply as S/M, or by other terms such as “leathersex” and “consensual kink.”  In online chats and discussion groups, some people also use WIITWD (“what it is that we do”).

BDSM can best be defined as a continuum of erotic practice and expression involving the consensual use of restraint, intense sensory stimulation, and fantasy role-play.  This continuum can run from sensation play and light bondage to bullwhips, suspension, and more.  Still, these practices are confined to what is safe, sane and consensual – that the risk of potential harm is minimized, that all involved are capable of understanding the consequences, and that all involved agree without coercion or deception.  Even when a particular BDSM encounter (or “scene”) appears to be coercive or cruel, it has been negotiated and planned to appear that way, with the bottom or submissive having a safeword to indicate when to stop, and with the top or dominant providing nurturing and supportive aftercare when the scene is done.

For many who identify with BDSM/kink/fetish sexuality, their desires for any of the wide variety of alternative sexual expressions and relationship patterns are as much an orientation to them as their gender-based attraction. Some of these parallels include:

  • having fantasies and desires about bondage, dominance/submission and sadomasochism at a relatively early age;
  • regarding their BDSM-based relationships as more enduring, innate, fulfilling, passionate and satisfying than previous “vanilla-only” relationships;
  • being more readily and deeply aroused by fetish imagery, BDSM erotica, and/or other kink-related stimuli (ie, the sound of a whip being cracked).

While a growing number of kinksters and our supporters have openly regarded their desires as an orientation, some are more ambivalent; they can be equally satisfied with kink or vanilla relationships. But even this parallels our understanding of orientation as a continuum of desire, response and identity. Additionally, the few reliable surveys done on self-identified kinksters indicate no common causative factors, and no significant differences from the general population regarding psychopathology or history of abuse This further parallels GLBTQ+ experience in terms of academic and clinical psychological understanding.

As with the GLBTQ+ community, there is a BDSM community, also known as the kink, S/M, “Leather” or “fetish” community or “Scene.”  Members often identify according to their preferred roles – “tops” or “dominants” at one end of the spectrum, “bottoms” or “submissives” at the other, and “switches” who alternate between the two.  People often adopt “Scene names” to distinguish their BDSM personae from their “vanilla” identity, to protect themselves from possible discrimination, to celebrate a sense of transformation or self-discovery, or other reasons.

BDSM is many things, but it is not abuse or exploitation.  Abuse and exploitation are inherently coercive; BDSM is inherently consensual.  Abuse and exploitation are about rage, contempt and mistrust; BDSM is about caring, respect, trust and communication.  Abuse and exploitation are about one person having power and control over another for its own sake; BDSM is about one person entrusting another with power and control for the sake of fulfilling each other’s desires.

BDSM is also not all about sex.  It is also about sensuality, spirituality and creativity.  It is about playing with illusion and paradox, with the light and shadow of human desire.  BDSM is as much about artistry as it is about arousal.

And with all that said and done, what do those of us in the BDSM community want?  Ultimately, we want the same thing that vanilla people want: to live, work and love as we choose, to be a part of a community and a family.  We want to be understood and respected, or at least left alone. We want to be known for who we are really – all of who we really are – as opposed to the myths and stereotypes of what we do.  We want it to be known that we are as spiritual as everyone else, and as concerned with ethics as everyone else.  And we want to be able to join others in expressing our spiritual and ethical concerns without shame or fear.

Most vanilla people are not necessarily interested in what we do, as it can make them feel uncomfortable at some level.  This we understand, as not all of us kinksters are completely comfortable with things that other kinksters may do.  We even have a term for such a feeling – squick, as in: “What those two were talking about really squicked me.”

For that reason, We won’t go into detail about various BDSM practices.  By the same token, if you hear about one or another form of erotic expression, don’t assume that any kinksters you know will be into it, much less experts.

It’s also more important to answer three other questions: Who does BDSM?  Why do we do it?  How do we meet, agree to and engage in it safely?

For those of you who are more visual: