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A Loving Introduction to BDSM

The myth is that it’s abusive. Actually it’s about trust and communication.

In the child’s game, Trust Me, one person stands behind the other. The one in front falls backward, trusting the other to catch them before crashing to the floor. Trust Me contains an element of danger, the risk of not getting caught and getting hurt. The person falling places great trust in the person catching. When the falling player trusts the catcher enough to let go completely, and the catch happens as planned, both players experience a moment of exhilaration that’s difficult to duplicate any other way.

It’s About Trust

BDSM is similar. The myth is that it’s abusive and weird—whips and chains! Actually it’s about trust. When trust trumps the possibility of harm, the result can feel incredibly intimate and erotic.

There are several terms for BDSM: power-play or domination-submission (D/s) because one lover has control over the other, at least nominally; sado-masochism (SM), which involves spanking, flogging or other types of intense sensation; and bondage and discipline (BD), which involves restraint. But the current term is BDSM.

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Many people consider BDSM perverted, dehumanizing, or worse. But aficionados call it the most loving, nurturing, intimate form of human contact and play. People can have sex without conversation, negotiation, or any emotional connection. But in BDSM, the players always arrange things in advance with clear, intimate communication, which creates a special erotic bond.

DeSade and Sacher-Masoch

Ancient Greek art depicts BDSM. The Kama Sutra (300 A.D,) touts erotic spanking, and European references date from the 15th century. But BDSM flowered during the 18th century, when some European brothels began specializing in restraint, flagellation and other “punishments” that “dominant” women meted out to willingly “submissive” men.

In 1791 the French Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) published the first SM novel, Justine, which included whipping, flogging, nipple clamping, and restraints. His name gave us “sadism.” DeSade was imprisoned for criminal insanity, one reason many people consider the sexual practices he popularized crazy.

In 1870, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), published the novel, Venus in Furs, about male sexual submission. His name inspired “masochism.”

In 1905, Freud coined the word, “sadomasochism,” calling its enjoyment neurotic. The original Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I, 1952) classified sexual sadism as a “deviation.” DSM-II (1968) did the same for masochism. DSM-IV (1994) lists SM as a psychiatric disorder.

Just Another Way to Play

But all available evidence shows that the vast majority of BDSM enthusiasts are mentally healthy and typical in every respect—except that they find conventional (“vanilla”) sex unfulfilling and want something more intense and intimate. Before condemning BDSM, remember that not too long ago, oral sex and homosexuality were considered “perverse.”

Two to 3 percent of American adults play with BDSM, most occasionally, some often, and a few 24/7. That’s around 5 million people. Meanwhile, around 20 percent of adults report some arousal from BDSM images or stories.

There are public BDSM clubs and private groups in every major metropolitan area and throughout rural America. Many cities have several.

Never Abusive

If you’re repulsed by BDSM, don’t play that way. But BDSM imagery pervades society. Henry Kissinger once called power “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Kings and nations have fought to dominate others. Capitalism assumes a dog-eat-dog world where succeeding means exerting control. And in sports, players strive to “humiliate” opponents.

But what kind of person feels sexually aroused by pain? Many people who are perfectly normal in every other respect. Again, consider sports: When football players make brilliant plays, teammates often slap their butts, punch them, or slap their helmets. Recipients accept this “abuse” gratefully as a sign of appreciation and affection. Or consider a hike up a mountain. You get sunburned. Thorns scratch your legs. And by the time you reach the summit, you’re aching and exhausted. Yet you feel exhilarated.

Sadly, media BDSM has grossly distorted the pain that submissives experience. It’s more theatrical than real. When performed by ethical, nurturing dominants (“doms” or “tops, ), BDSM is never abusive.

“It’s always consensual,” says Jay Wiseman, author of SM 101. “Abuse is not.” You don’t need restraints, gags, or whips to abuse someone. In loving hands, the equipment heightens sensual excitement, allowing both players to enjoy their interaction, or “scene,” as good, clean, erotic fun.” When BDSM inflicts real pain, it’s always carefully controlled with the submissive (“sub” or “bottom”) specifying limits clearly beforehand.

Subs are very particular about the kinds of pain—many prefer to call it intense sensation—that bring them pleasure. “They experience the pain of bee stings or a punch in the face exactly like anyone else,” Wiseman says, “and dislike it just as much.”

“Safe” Words

BDSM is more theatrical than real. Sessions are called “scenes” and participants carefully choreograph their moves in advance.

First, participants agree on a “safe” word, a stop signal that the sub can invoke at any time. The safe word immediately stops the action—at least until the players have discussed the reason the bottom invoked it, and have mutually agree to resume. A popular safe word is “red light.”

Some terms should not be used as safe words: “stop,” “no,” or “don’t” because both tops and bottoms often enjoy having subs “beg” tops to “stop,” secure in the knowledge that they won’t.

Any top who fails to honor pre-arranged safe words violates the bottom’s trust and destroys the relationship. Tops who fail to honor safe words are ostracized from the BDSM community.

Subs Are in Charge

Although bottoms feign subservience, the irony of BDSM is that the sub is in charge. Bottoms can invoke the stop signal, and tops vow to obey immediately. Meanwhile, tops act dominant, but they must also be caring and nurturing, taking bottoms to their agreed-upon limit, but never beyond it. In this way, BDSM provides an opportunity for everyone to experiment with taking and surrendering power, while always feeling safe and cared for. People who enjoy BDSM say it results in amazing erotic intensity.

Learning the Ropes

Before experimenting with BDSM, get some instruction. Read a book, take a class, visit Web sites or clubs.

It takes extensive negotiation to arrive at mutually agreeable BDSM play. Wiseman says that before every scene, players must negotiate all aspects of it, from the players to safe words to everyone’s limits.

How to Begin

First decide if you're more into S&M or B&D. If the former, then spanking is the way many people begin. If the latter, blindfolding the sub can be fun. 

What Is Intimacy?

Relationship authorities define intimacy as clear, frank, self-revealing emotional communication. But many people equate “intimacy” and “sex.” To be intimate is to be sexual and visa versa. Only it isn’t. It’s quite possible to be sexual with a person you hardly know, the “perfect stranger.”

Most couples don’t discuss their lovemaking very much, which diminishes its intimacy. But BDSM absolutely requires ongoing, detailed discussion. Players must plan every aspect of their scenes beforehand and evaluate them afterward. Many BDSM aficionados say that pre-scene discussions are as intimate, erotic, and relationship-enhancing as the scenes themselves. And couples who enjoy occasional power play but who are not exclusively into BDSM often remark that it enhances their non-BDSM “vanilla” sex because the practice they get negotiating scenes makes it easier to discuss other aspects of their sexuality. The skills required for BDSM include trust, clear communication, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the other person. Those same skills that enhance relationships and sex—no matter how you play.

 

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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