Events Feminist Voices Column

Demystifying BDSM

By Flavian Mèche, Yung-Hsuan Wu

Content Warning: The article contains discussion about sex and BDSM which some readers might find triggering. Readers discretion advised. 

‘Cause I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it

Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But chains and whips excite me – Rihanna, 2011

Leather, handcuffs, whiplash. Mysteries, restraints, pain. 

Vivid imageries of an isolated sex dungeon with cages, canes, and torturing tools often jump right into our head when we all hear these 4 letters: BDSM. Our interpretations of what they mean probably (and unwittingly) bear quite a bit of resemblance with popular literature, movies, or pornography. The most prominent example is the best-seller 50 Shades of Grey whose main character is adept at BDSM. . However, the author justifies Mr Grey’s inclination by sexual abuse he survived during his childhood as if being SM could only be a result of trauma. More concerning, many of the sex scenes – allegedly sadomasochistic – are romanticised rape scenes, as the hero does not for an instant take into consideration his partner’s desires and boundaries (Bebe MK, Balance ton Corps, p.103-104). This illustrates some of the many assumptions constituting the representations of BDSM, as they exist in the collective imagery.

Our intent with this essay is to go beyond these common representations, usually far from reality as they parody, extrapolate from, or simply build on stereotypes, by diving deeper into demystifying BDSM as a practice and as a community. 

Glossary (in an infobox if possible)

But first things first, let’s divide and conquer the abbreviation. These four letters stand for three types of practices:

  • B/D – Bondage/Discipline: Game of physical restriction and psychological control 
  • D/S – Domination/Submission: Game of power exchange between a dominant player (dom) and a submissive player (sub)
  • S/M – Sadism/Masochism: Game of power exchange with infliction/reception of erotical pain

Kink / Kinkiness / Kinksters: Deriving from the idea of a “bend” (or a “kink”) in one’s sexual behaviour, the term is used to designate non-normative sexual practices – in opposition to “straight” or “vanilla” sex – and practitioners.

Finally, here are two trivial concepts, that we think must (unfortunately) still be defined:

Consent: Permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.

Boundary: The limit of what someone considers to be acceptable behaviour.

BDSM as a practice

How could pain ever be pleasurable? This question seems to haunt plentiful people, barring them from stepping into the realm of BDSM and picking it up as a practice. But it is actually a misleading question. We love sex because it is pleasurable, and BDSM is one of many fantasies that rest on our deep-down desire for greater pleasure. We don’t have to be hardcore to practice BDSM. We don’t have to terrorise anyone during a session. In fact, many sexual practices in BDSM don’t concern pain at all, and many of us have probably unknowingly practised them.

According to research done in Montreal, 11-16% of the population seriously practice BDSM, and 40-65% have experienced fantasies falling under the broad umbrella of it. While there might be many stigmas attached to the practitioners of BDSM, research shows the contrary. Instead of belonging to a group of marginalised people or being stigmatised as social outcasts, those interested in BDSM are as regular as the general public: well adapted to the social environment, unburdened by psychopathologies, and experiencing high levels of satisfaction, intimacy, trust, and communication in relationships. So truly, there’s no need to freak out if your next-door neighbour engages in such activities. BDSM can be practised safely, securely, and only among those who wish to participate. Your neighbour won’t do anything to you (unless you want them to). 

So, BDSM is not about pain, BDSM is not a form of social pathology, and many people have already enacted some versions of it. BDSM is about pleasure, something we seek in sex. Then, the real question is: how do we find pleasure through BDSM?

To begin with, BDSM is about entering an alternative reality where you assume roles. Master, slave, dom, sub, daddy/mommy, baby, teacher, student, and so on. Oh, also space sheriff and alien overlord. Each role comes with rules tailored to a chosen scenario, and that is where imagination runs wild. 

There is a difference between sexual and erotic scenarios. In BDSM, not all actions are sexual; instead, it is often the erotisation of such actions that excites the nerves and elicits desirable emotions. For instance, having your hands cuffed when you’re walking down the streets is less than desirable. Having your hands strapped to a headboard, nevertheless, can be unexpectedly sensual as it signifies an exchange of power and control. The same goes for slapping, choking, candle dripping, and a thousand other kinks. These behaviours are only sexualised in a particular context. If taken out of the scenarios, they lose their sensuality. 

And this is what lies at the core of BDSM practices: the choice of contexts, the rulemaking, and the consent. When we have sex without context, we are following the most straightforward body instincts to discover pleasure. But with BDSM, consenting parties come up with a rule book: if you do A, you would get a reward. If you do B, you would get another form of reward (perhaps disguised as a punishment). It renders sexual practices intriguing as both parties could achieve gratification by following the rules, however you make them, and you are not searching for the right spot to scratch like an aimless fly anymore. This way, pleasure is almost guaranteed and solidified according to your taste. 

The foundation of those rules is what separates BDSM from downright abuse: consent. Regardless of your role, there is no pleasure in being subjugated to scenarios or rules to which you do not consent. Even if a part of the play lies in taking control of another person, there is always a limit or context under which such control is effective. Safewords or gestures are often utilised as the switch to signal whether parties are in or out of play. This is the reason why BDSM is never about the pain. It is an unambiguously consensual guideline to pleasure.

BDSM as a community

In addition to the endless number of possibilities or practices, BDSM is more than what happens in the bedroom. It is a mindset, a shared interest, and a community. 

To thrive in any kind of society is to respect its rules, be it laws, norms, or a common vision. Otherwise, one runs the risk of being the deviant, who are stigmatised and ostracised. The constant pressure to police ourselves according to the grander societal norms and codes all the time could be immense. Therefore, under certain contexts, we choose to escape all social codes and the leash they come with by substituting them momentarily with more salient and more specified rules. Think about any kind of game. From sports, board games, to roleplays, we focus on and obey these specified rules to “have fun”, relieving ourselves for an instant from the constant social pressure. 

Apart from live-action role play (LARP), we as adults do not play pretend like we used to as children. We no longer play to be dogs and cats or mimic adult routines. Maybe it’s because we realise that adulthood is more than playing ‘House’, and the burden of endless social responsibilities killed the buzz for us a long time ago. Recall that distant time of our lives when we could be happy and carefree, enjoying good playtime simply by honouring rules and codified behaviours. BDSM is rooted in this past pleasure of pretending. That is why the BDSM community events are often called “game-night”, in which players (Kinksters) can only have fun if the rules are respected. 

BDSM is thus a way to reclaim control over reality, leave any unpleasurable power dynamic, social relations, and pressure to conform in the real world, and construe an alternative reality where players can structure their own rules.

Mindset: Fantasy, imagery, and events.

Let’s interject a short discussion on fantasy. Building an alternative reality of your fantasies can be quite demanding. It takes imagination, real work, and, guess what, group work. 

But how do people come to discuss something so intimately personal? We usually believe that our fantasies are shamefully quirky and unique, like a dirty sock to be hidden underneath the bed in an old shoebox. Chances are, what you’ve fantasised about are more commonplace than you’d think. According to Lehmiller (2018) most people, regardless of gender, tend to fantasise about the following three broad genres: Group-sex, Novelty, and Power & Control. Yes, even our fantasies can be basic. Of course, fantasising about a certain setting does not mean that we want that in our lives. More often than not, fantasies are as good as long as they stay as such. Nevertheless, being curious and wanting to enact upon some of them is totally justifiable, and knowing that we are not isolated on the island of hot desires may be liberating. The issue resides in how we could ever find potential partners with similar interests or express our craving for exploring a new practice in the vast ocean.

BDSM as a community is a way to get in touch with like-minded people, ready to exchange fantasies and perhaps even experience them with you in a safe environment. It is paramount to dispel the misconception that the BDSM community provides a permissive framework for people to explore their “depraved” fantasies, mistakenly cast as violent, carnivalesque, and anarchical by outsiders. This vision cannot be further away from reality, and we hope that our previous section has stressed enough the cruciality of rules and codes as the gatekeepers of fun and pleasure.

Various types of Events

So, what are some safe and fun events in the BDSM community? The most well-known is the game nights, but there actually exist many other options for people of different levels of experience. Well, particularly if you are a first-timer, you might yet to embrace cladding all in leather wandering among strangers.

First off, the often overlooked are the Munches. A munch is a casual social gathering that usually takes place in a public space, such as parks, restaurants, or bars for people already involved or interested in BDSM to exchange and get to know each other. These events could, but rarely, impose a theme or target a particular demographic, such as those of a certain age range, sexual orientation, or gender expression.

Second, the most exciting game nights, sometimes called the dungeons, are where steamy actions take place. Events can be hosted in spaces permanently or temporarily transformed and decorated for the night at the host’s discretion. Depending on how the address is shared and how accessibility is managed, events can be in a private, semi-public, or public setting. For a private event, entry is upon invitation only. In semi-public settings, the hosts must be contacted and will manage their guest list. Public events are open to anyone in clubs, saunas, or in any other locations whose address is publicly known. Each event has its own set of rules, detailing the theme, age range, presence of sexual behaviours (remember, not all kinky practices are sexual), and more.

Finally, workshops. It should not come as a surprise that binding your partner into a masterpiece of art requires more than YouTube tutorials. Just like how any of us acquire professional skills through practice, BDSM skills need to be harnessed under guidance as well. Workshops are where the experts help the novice improve in certain practices, such as shibari (a type of bondage) or Dominatrix (a type of domination).

Getting started

By now, our words may have scratched your curiosity (or so we hope). You might be thinking, with reason: “This is all good, but…where do we start?” 

We are well aware of the plethora of obstacles that might hold you back from jumping down this salacious rabbit hole. It may be overwhelming to directly attend a game night without having previously been in contact with some members of the community. Moreover, BDSM clubs/dungeons can be hidden (or not), and even public events are rarely publicly advertised. 

Say that you’ve stumbled upon a club or landed yourself an exclusive invitation (how privileged!). Events might have special requirements to ensure that participants always respect consent and boundaries (the key of any game activities, really). This includes having preferential entry fees for couples, women, and regular members, or only inviting through referrals. 

This is where being in contact with the community either by knowing other kinksters or being active on forums such as Fetlife becomes handy. We list hereafter some strategies to overcome these barriers and begin your exploration on the right foot.

First, it is always good to spend time educating ourselves on the subject, whether it’s by listening to podcasts or following forum discussions. This will help us understand the mindset, start scavenging ideas for what we may find erotic, familiarise ourselves with the nomenclature to describe what we may like to explore, and understand others’ needs and boundaries.

Second, apart from being active on online forums, we could attend non-game Munches to socialize and establish the first point of contact with the community. Discussions may or may not be on the topic; the idea behind is to get to know people that would share the same interests. Watch out! You might see the same gorgeous faces at game events (the BDSM community is quite tight-knit, and you could imagine that the one in Switzerland is even smaller). These non-game events are often advertised online, on Fetlife or other channels.

Last but not least, as we all have different levels of sensitivity and comfort in the same environment, choosing carefully the first events to attend will reduce the overwhelming feelings that may arise. Depending on if we feel more comfortable in an intimate environment or the anonymity of a crowd, being on our own or surrounded by people of trust, many different kinds of events exist, such as workshops, private dungeons, half-public or public clubs.

Conclusion

It should be noted that everyone is entitled to their own expression of sexuality, be it within the realm of BDSM or not. Maintaining open-mindedness in such a subject matter should be a given, not a courtesy. In the meantime, we wish to recognise our positionality and privilege for residing in a society where discussing sexual practices wouldn’t lead to stoning or being burnt at the stake. We benefit to some extent from the freedom of expression in sexual practices, and it is crucial to respect each other.

In conclusion, we have given a broad landscape of BDSM as a starting point and we hope that we were able to unveil some aspects often overlooked or distorted by popular culture. We will then leave you with our key takeaway on “how to build a dungeon”: practices are the building blocks, consent is the cement, fantasies and imagination are the room decorations, and rules are your sex toys. Play within the dungeon safely, we wish you an eternity of pleasure.

Welcome to the dungeon

Fetlife

Test BDSM


Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

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