The Basics of BDSM
If you mention BDSM to the average person, you'll likely conjure up images of guys in over-the-top black leather and silver studs beating the bejeezus out of someone tied up in a grimy dark room somewhere. And many people don't have much of a concept of it at all. As society becomes more bland and "safe", most people don't take the time to explore the avenues in life that aren't presented to them on primetime television. And most of them live out their lives without ever discovering what their likes and dislikes are, and to some extent who they are. Imagine living your whole life and never being adventurous enough to discover your favorite food. What a waste! And as a result, many of them find their sex lives getting repetitive, boring and stale. Here we'll explore a little bit of BDSM for those who are unfamiliar with it, are too shy to ask, and are intelligent enough not to believe everything they see in porn films.
What is BDSM?
BDSM is a combination of several acronyms referring to kinks and fetishes. It stands for Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, and Sadomasochism. BDSM refers to the whole grouping, but you don't necessarily have to be into all of them to enjoy any one of them - although they can certainly dovetail nicely.
Bondage & Discipline
Sometimes referred to as Bondage & Domination, B&D is, very basically, being tied up or restrained in some way. It doesn't have to be elaborate, either. If you've ever grabbed your partner's wrists and pinned them down during sex (or had them do that with you), you've encountered some very mild B&D. It usually involves some kind of equipment, which can be as simple as a jump-rope or belt, or as elaborate as a Roman Cross (which is shaped like an X, with manacles and ankle-cuffs). It's generally accepted that restraints should not, in themselves, cause discomfort or injury. If you're actually trying to cut off the circulation or inflict pain, it should be intentional and quite another thing from the restraints themselves.
The Discipline aspect of B&D is less-frequently understood, and actually the two don't always have to occur together. Discipline involves enforcing a structure of mutually agreed-upon sexual rules, that can involve a loss of privileges, punishment (such as spanking), or sexual obligations. For example, if a group of people who are playing poker decide to start playing for sexual favors instead of money, that would be a form of Discipline. The same goes for personal bets involving sexual favors as a penalty. Discipline dovetails well with Bondage, primarily because they both involve a form of sexual constraint or restraint - with bondage the restraints are physical, and with discipline they're social or psychological. This constriction of options can definitely heighten the erotic and sexual experience, and leads us nicely to Dominance and Submission.
Dominance and Submission
D&S, sometimes referred to as D&s, involves consensually exchanging some degree of power in a sexual or erotic context. The Sub, or "Bottom", yields some degree of authority to the Dom, or "Top". With that power given over, the Top can exert control in a sexual context over the Bottom, within whatever limits and boundaries they have already agreed to. If you've ever played an adult game of Truth or Dare and taken "Dare", you've experienced some mild D&S. It also occurs often naturally during sex, as the partner "on top" generally exerts some amount of control over the situation that the partner "on the bottom" usually lacks. D&S can go from those mild forms anywhere up to and including long-term Master and Slave relationships bound by a legal contract. Indeed, our very form of government in the States is based on a contract with D&S dynamics, with the People ceding a certain amount of their rights to create a government to serve it.
In addition to enhancing sexual and erotic collaboration, D&S can play another very important role in our lives. In the "real world" beyond fetish, we encounter ourselves in D&S-like situations every day, whether from a boss, a politician, or an economy, all of whom have a certain amount of consensual control over us. Getting to know the D&S power dynamic in the bedroom can bring us a great deal of experience we can apply outside of it. Indeed, D&S scenarios are one of the few opportunities we have in life to explore it, learn how it works, discover what we like, and feel free to alter or halt the situation immediately if we choose. (With something like a government, it takes a little more time and effort.) And all of this experience can assist us in a process of self-actualization, where we get a better sense of what our interests and motivations are, and by that come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of what we are as people.
Sadism and Masochism, often considered two components of the same element, refer to the consensual giving or receiving of pain in an erotic context. Pain can enhance the experience in some pretty counterintuitive ways. If you've ever enjoyed the feel of your lover's fingernails scraping against or gripping into you, or have ever had sex that hurt a bit too much and found yourself enjoying that, you've encountered a very mild form of SM.
Contrary to common belief, masochists aren't warped people who enjoy pain for pain's sake, in huge amounts, all the time. As one masochist put it, "If I slam my hand in the car door, I'll yell as loud as anyone else." It's in an erotic context that pain can bring something to the encounter. Sometimes it's the pain itself, and sometimes it's what the pain brings along with it - I've been with a masochist who enjoyed small amounts of pain over an extended period of time, gradually increasing, because it caused his body to send out chemicals to block it - and he enjoyed the rush.
Crops and bullwhips are what most people think of when they think of SM, but there are a plethora of unexpected options out there. Something as simple as a clothespin, strategically placed, can cause pain - especially once it's removed and the blood comes rushing back to the sensitive area. I recently attended a BDSM tea party where people were shown how to use a handful of shishkabab skewers bound together with duct tape to create something that could be used as a gentle crop for slapping, or even simply used to slowly drag the points along someone like fingernails. All kinds of options exist, with everyday household items, for the creative sort of person.
Often, when people first find themselves exploring BDSM it doesn't occur to them how much safety matters. They tend to be a bit overwhelmed - or enthusiastic! - about all of the various options that exist out there, and the idea of taking precautions to make sure a scene plays out okay simply doesn't occur to them. And let's face it, they're coming from a mainstream background where everything is usually rigidly structured and idiot-proofed. The BDSM community usually doesn't do that to the same extent as the mainstream community does, opting more for personal freedom than for babyproofing. This means it's good to know what precautions to take going into an encounter so that it turns out well.
One of the biggest considerations in BDSM is the trustworthiness of your partner or partners. Putting an ad out on Craigslist for a total stranger to tie you spread-eagled to a bed, gag you and have their way with you isn't guaranteed to go well. You're looking for someone who is psychologically stable enough to handle it, and you're looking for someone who has or can establish some level of trust with you first. All kinds of people are out there - I just had a friend of mine get attacked while hitchhiking locally, and ended up having to spend his birthday recuperating in bed. People vary in all areas of life, and the BDSM scene has the tendency to attract more than its share of psychologically unbalanced individuals, so it's a good idea to establish trust between you and a partner before agreeing to enter into a scene with them. The same goes for anyone who needs discretion about their BDSM-related activities. Get to know someone first, and it's usually a good idea to let a friend or confidante know where you'll be during a scene and when you'll call them afterwards.
The BDSM community
It may be different in your area, but here in the California Bay Area we have a BDSM community - probably several - that can be a great asset when exploring the scene. In addition to having the experience and information to share to make things go more smoothly, people in the community know each other. That alone is enough to weed out people who are reckless, unstable, or unsafe. With a reputation comes some amount of reliability. You might want to Google for BDSM groups in your area if you're interested in the scene. It also means that any prospective partners you meet within the community are likely to share your interest in BDSM.
Contracts and boundaries
Perhaps you've decided to explore BDSM, and perhaps you've found someone you trust - a current partner, for example. You're all ready to try a BDSM scene together and put one of you at the other's mercy - but how far will it go? If you're going to Sub for your partner, for example... can they show up at your work and give you sexual orders? Or let's say you're ready to be tied up and gagged - what if it goes in a direction you hadn't even considered and definitely aren't up to try? This is why people usually establish some kind of contract or set of boundaries ahead of time. It keeps things from going off into nonconsensual territory, and that makes things go better for all concerned. A contract or set of boundaries sets the limits before anything happens, so that problems don't come up in the middle of a scene. It doesn't have to be anything elaborate - between people who are already partners it can be as simple as a discussion ahead of time about what kind of things are okay and not okay. This establishes clear communication, and drastically reduces the occurance of mistaken beliefs about what the other person will allow. It's a good idea to be as explicit as possible while establishing your boundaries - "just normal stuff" can mean many different things to many different people. If you're stuck as far as possibilities, consider going through the Purity Test with your partner for ideas.
Safewords are a brilliant innovation brought to us by the BDSM community that makes scenes even safer. You may have established boundaries with your partner, but what if something comes up you hadn't taken into consideration? Or if things get a lot more intense within those boundaries than you'd bargained for, and you're just not okay with that? Safewords, to the rescue!
Safewords allow either of you to call the scene to an abrupt halt by calling out a pre-designated word or phrase you've both agreed on. The basic philosophy is just the same as it is in "regular" sex - namely, take No for an answer, and Stop for an order. Safewords can be anything, but they should usually be words you're not likely to call out during sex without fully meaning to. For example, "Stop!" can actually add a lot of value to a scene if it isn't a safeword. Using the standard streetlight colors works well - Red for "Stop Immediately If Not Sooner", Yellow for "You're Really Close to Red", and Green for "I'm Okay, More Please!". Sometimes though, safewords just don't work. You're bound and gagged - how the heck are you supposed to call out "God Save the Queen!"?! You and your partner(s) should establish ahead of time what sequence of body language and/or wriggles will equate to your safeword(s).
"Safe, Sane and Consensual"
Now, from the makers of Safewords, come the BDSM Rules of Thumb! Yes, the BDSM community have boiled down basic rules of thumb for BDSM safety as Safe, Sane and Consensual. The elements of a BDSM scene would have to be all three in order to work. Being commanded to perform sexual favors in your office or in the middle of a political convention might be Safe and it might be Consensual, but it wouldn't necessarily be Sane. Being tied down and given a tracheotomy by your medically-inexperienced partner might be Consensual - it takes all kinds - and it might even be Sane with the proper precautions and sterilizations, but with an inexperienced partner it definitely wouldn't be Safe. (The same goes for nude javelin-throwing on a trapeze, in case you were wondering... and with commands to have unsafe sex with random other people.) And Consensual goes without saying - no matter how Safe it is, no matter how Sane it is, real honest-to-god unfaked rape, for example, is definitely Not Okay. (Although totally Consensual, agreed-upon faked rape scenes can be very fun indeed.)
Most people have such a hazy perception of the BDSM community and its practices that it's almost funny. They haven't taken the time to look into it for themselves, and so they assume that their assumptions about it are correct. It's amazing how much of what most people call "thinking" is actually just rearranging their prejudices. For example, most people have no idea that the BDSM community keeps itself pretty free of psychologically unstable types, because word about someone will get around. The BDSM scene is actually safer than mainstream society because people are actually making an ongoing, deliberate effort to be careful and responsible. When's the last time you went out on a date and made arrangements with a friend to call them when you got back? So it can be downright amusing to find out what "most people think" about BDSM. Someone in the community had hired a maid to clean his house, and she discovered huge, mammoth chains attached to each corner of his bed. She flipped out, and to keep her on he had to convince her that those were "earthquake chains", designed to hold the bed in place during an earthquake.
BDSM and self-actualization
Whatever the common misconceptions about BDSM are, it can certainly lead to an amazing amount of self-actualization. You practically can't go through something that different without discovering a heck of a lot more about yourself. These are basic psychological drives and desires being explored here, and building a better firsthand understanding of them is so healthy. It's when we let these drives go unexamined, when we keep them in the dark, that they begin to fester and warp into something less desirable - and those repressed desires have a nasty tendency of rearing their ugly heads elsewhere in our lives, both individually and collectively. It's much the same as the criminalization of basic desires by society - those needs won't go unfulfilled, they'll simply be satisfied in more harmful ways. As counterintuitive as it might seem, BDSM can actually be a means of harm reduction. By the same token, repressing of underlying psychological drives and desires in mainstream society for supposedly devout religious reasons can only bring harm in the long run.
But politicians and religious figures continue to preach some bland, dogmatic form of repression, even where there's no arguable "sin" to it. Of course they do, and it's not because they're saints by any means. When people don't acknowledge what and who they are, when they never find out and actually live their lives, they get used to a lower quality of life and lower standards. They also have less of a chance of recognizing the kinds of power plays that go on in politics and business. BDSM types often recognize them immediately, because they're so intimately familiar with the dynamics at work. I may be the only person in your life who tells you this, but if you want to learn to succeed in business or politics - get some BDSM experience under your belt. You'll be able to pick up the scent of power plays going on around you at the first whiff, and that will give you a distinct advantage.
They say you never forget your first. And you know what? It's true! I still remember mine. A black leather pair of eighty dollar manacles, complete with faux fur lining. They were comfortable. They were strong and rugged. And they looked terrific. I never regretted getting them one bit, even at 16. But you don't have to spend a whole lot to explore BDSM. Try going to a camping or sporting goods store and getting a few lengths of rope. Nylon is usually the best - it's cheap, comfortable, strong, and it won't fray. Not ready to get spendy on some exotic nipple clamps? Your drug store is probably having a special on clothespins as we speak (and you can save money rather than use the dryer as well - nice fresh-scented clothes!). Speaking of drying clothes, you can get some interesting effects by tightly winding a clothesline around strategic areas - just be sure not to leave them there too long. And I know it's very Old Hollywood, but why buy a riding crop when you can use a wire hanger on the cheap? There are all kinds of possibilities out there, and if you do it right nobody will even guess that bringing a large roll of plastic wrap and a big leather belt with you on a trip means you plan on having a lot of pleasure as well as business - plastic wrap, when wound around someone enough, can easily keep them immobilized while you get in some quality time with them.
Getting serious: Full-time contracts
It doesn't happen often, but it does happen - people so much enjoy their BDSM relationships that they decide to make them full-time commitments. Dom/Sub relationships can and do turn into full-fledged lifetime relationships, bound by legal contract. Usually, the Slave will sign over all of their assets to the Master in exchange for a legal obligation to take care of them. The Slave literally becomes the property of the Master, and consensually. B&D relationships seldom go to this extreme, although there are human cages, and in extreme cases agreements to become human furniture for someone else. Yes, in return for being taken care of some people will willingly agree to act as furniture, maintaining their position and being sat upon and used as tables.
SM doesn't really have a parallel, although in extremely rare cases someone can want to go into intense degrees of pain, surgery, or even death. Rammstein once performed a song called Mein Teil, based off of a rather grisly true story. A man in Germany once took out a classified ad in the personals, seeking someone who would willingly let him butcher them. He got at least one response, and they met up. The butcher performed surgery on the recipient, removing his penis and boiling it. They then got into an argument over who would get to eat it. Afterwards, the butcher consentually murdered the recipient, and ate his remains. It should be noted that this kind of thing is not accepted as safe and sane within the BDSM community, which is doubtless why the butcher was taking out a personals ad to find someone.
Variants of BDSM
BDSM has many variants and sub-genres, depending on what the individual people involved find that they enjoy. Not everyone is into all of them, and many are very obscure. But a few are worth a brief mention.
Also called puppy play, some people enjoy acting as human pets. They often take on the characteristics of animals, usually puppies and dogs, and will communicate more through barks, yips, and doglike body language. Sometimes they will be adopted by others, and fed with dog dishes for their food and water. Often they will have collars with their names on them, and be kept on leashes. Many pups have a strong conviction that they are spiritually more akin to dogs than humans, and some are downright adorable. Sometimes life as a pup seems a lot simpler than the life as a human, and if it's not hurting anyone it's difficult to pass judgement on them for it. Still, sometimes they make the papers on a slow news day (and sometimes, in order to make a slow news day), and sensationalism takes over. Take the case of Tasha Maltby, a Goth pet who was thrown off an Arriva bus by an abusive driver because her boyfriend Dani Graves kept her on her leash. Arriva later apologized for the behavior of the bus driver but insisted that she could not be on her leash while on the bus, citing safety liability concerns. The story has made the rounds on blogs across the internet, often with harsh judgements from the bored housewives of the world.
Sometimes people with a D&S interest will find that they enjoy a variant, referred to as humiliation. This generally involves demeaning and grueling treatment and tasks, either privately or publicly. Again, if it's safe, sane and consensual it isn't hurting anyone. I just wish our politicians understood the distinction there.
Breath control (or "Breathplay")
Sometimes an interest in being bound and dominated will extend into something called breathplay. This generally involves the Top using a breathing mask or gas mask to control the intake of oxygen the Sub receives. This alone can be quite a fundamental form of control, but "gasping" or partial asphyxiation during sex can also heighten the climax if done properly. I should definitely add that this must be done properly or it can be dangerous or even fatal, and anyone inclined to try it should read up on it first at the very least.
Live a little!
I hope you've enjoyed learning a little bit about the wide world of BDSM. While it's not often talked about, lots of people in all walks of life practice some form of BDSM, from the very mild to the very extreme. Minimum-wage coffee-shop employees, attorneys, investment bankers...maybe even someone you know. Trouble is, if nobody talked about it they wouldn't have as good an idea of what they were doing, what else they could do, or how to do it more safely. I think that's important - we get so much of our information from the mainstream media these days that people have become so alike in many ways. It's good to take a bit of time and effort developing our sense of who and what we are, and BDSM can be a thoroughly enjoyable approach to doing so.
There are so many things out there in life that you just never know if you're missing out on something you'd find simply amazing, if only you thought to try it. Imagine spending your whole life without the Internet. It's tough to conceptualize, but generations of people did it - somehow. Fortunately, today we don't have to. We can enjoy all that is out there for us and while we probably won't be into all of it, there's surely something out there just waiting for us to stumble upon it - something that could change our whole lives.