This page begins an introduction to basic BDSM terms and concepts. To return to the About BDSM menu, click here.
Have you ever been launched into an erotic high when your partner suddenly held down your wrists in bed while fucking you? Have you ever told your partner to keep on talking on the phone while you teased him, watching him squirm to concentrate on the phone conversation? Have you ever acted out a fantasy with your partner that entailed spanking or tying one or the other of you to the bed? These common activities are examples of BDSM. However, BDSM also covers a wide range of less common, more highly risky, and unusual practices as well. In this section we give an overview of what modern BDSM is about.
BDSM is a catch-all term covering a wide variety of kinky interpersonal activities. The three main categories are:
Before we go on to discuss each of these terms in more detail, there is a fundamental concept to keep in mind. Modern BDSM is premised on consent -- informed and freely given. The word "consent" is so fundamental to BDSM as it is practiced today that there are a large number of tools, vocabulary, and customs available to ensure that activities that are nonconsensual do not occur. For the partners to be mutually assured of consent generally requires a great deal of open communication. We will have a lot to say about consent and communication.
Although the acronyms BDSM, D&S, and B&D only arose in the last 15 or 20 years, the activities, feelings, and emphases on consent and communication clearly have longer histories. Erotic
Marquis de Sade
The variety of possibilities in BDSM is at once a heady opportunity and a surprising constraint. People doing BDSM not only have to find a partner to whom they are attracted, but also one with specific commensurate interests. We will give an overview of the myriad activities and styles considered to be BDSM below. Take freely what works for you, and enjoy without castigating what does not.
There will be things you will encounter in BDSM that will not be interesting for you. In fact, there will be things that may stun you or gross you out! This effect is so common that there is a word for it. People say they are squicked when they encounter something that someone else does that makes them feel squeamish or "icky." (The word "squick" conflates those two words. The word is attributed to STella, a well-known and feistily articulate woman in the BDSM community in San Francisco.) If something squicks you, just leave that section and go on to something else.
The last introductory word of advice is to be creative. BDSM is an endless experience in growth, creativity, and exploration of interpersonal interaction. No matter how many people have done the particular things you explore, what you learn and what you experience when you do it will be unique to you. BDSM is a living, breathing pursuit. It is not cast in stone. Every single person, every single relationship, and every single interaction is different.
BDSM activities between consenting partners are sometimes called scenes, sessions, or play. Implements, which might be common household items like kitchen spoons, rope, or neckties, or specially made items like handcuffs, floggers (a kind of multi-tailed whip), or furniture with eyebolts, are called toys.
Yossie's Handcuff Collection
BDSM activities go on between two (and sometimes more) partners. The person leading or initiating the BDSM activities is called the top. The person following the top's lead or being done to is called the bottom. These terms originated from missionary-position sex, where the male is literally on top of his partner. However, in the context of BDSM they are quite general and do not have any connotations about who is positioned where. (See also the definitions of dom and sub below.)
Although some people are 100% top and some are 100% bottom, the majority of folks switch, at least occasionally. That is, many folks sometimes bottom and sometimes top. This can be arranged in many different ways. Sometimes partners take turns with each other. Other times, someone will only top one partner and only bottom to some other partner. One frequent way to explore BDSM is for a top to begin by bottoming, or apprenticing, to a mentor -- an experienced top who can teach the person safety, ideas, style, and technique.
For some people, BDSM is a very sexual activity. For others it is not associated with sex or sexual arousal in any obvious way. For some people, BDSM is full-time (also called lifestyle or 24/7). For others, it is confined to the bedroom. For yet others it is an activity to engage in once every few months. What BDSM is about is often a very personal experience, something to be worked out and tailored between the partners, something that grows and changes with the individuals and in their relationships.
The opposite of BDSM is loosely called vanilla sex, a term that roughly refers to sex without any elements of BD, DS, or SM. The distinctions between vanilla sex, foreplay, and BDSM are not clear-cut. How you describe yourself is largely a matter of personal choice. Many common vanilla activities are in fact components of BDSM. But if you want to think of yourself as vanilla with a twist of mint, by all means do so.
It is helpful to think of BDSM activities and experiences as divided into the physical and the psychological. Physical activity covers anything that involves interpersonal physical touch. Examples are bondage, a backrub, sex, tickling, and the causation of pain by, say, spanking or whipping. Psychological activity covers the psychological effects of punishment, praise, love, obediance, control, orders, humiliation, etc., as well as the moods engendered by ritual, symbolic, or religious activity, catharsis, rage, and a variety of what are sometimes called "altered" states.
Most BDSM involves elements of both the physical and the psychological. For example, a punishment may involve both a caning and an emotional involvement between the partners. Similarly, a fight scene or takedown involving overpowerment also includes both physical and psychological elements. Although most people explore some aspects of each category in their play, many folks almost solely fall into one category or another. Some people specialize entirely in bondage. Others bottom only to sensation play (physical interaction with no D&S overtones) but have no desire to submit. Still others only explore domination and submission, and rule out pain play or bondage or whatever does not work for them personally. And some people bottom primarily to pain. The same variety of play styles characterizes tops.
Each of the three terms -- B&D, D&S, and S&M -- traditionally conveys feelings and styles of play that go beyond their denotations. There is a lot of overlap. These terms arose at different times in different circumstances. They get used by many people for many purposes. The terms are not formally delineated; but nevertheless, each offers some insight into both physical and psychological experiences that are widespread. We will cover each in turn below.
B&D includes all forms of bondage and restraint -- whether it is lightly tying your partner to a bed and pleasuring him or her for hours, or intricately excruciating
Japanese Rope Bondage FAQ
Discipline, the other widely practiced component of B&D, traditionally covers all manner of punishments, training, and behavioral reforms, be they physical (say, by the infliction of pain) or psychological (say, by the infliction of humiliation or a time-out). Discipline sometimes is part of a regime for training the bottom. Training can be manifested in a variety of styles, ranging from the rigors of military discipline to the teaching of a wayward child to the gentle encouragement of a valued servant. (Discipline and training are discussed in more detail under DS below.)
Rope bondage as practiced by many is an art form, elaborated in quiet, ethereal, increasingly restrictive binding of the bottom by the top. Bondage represents different things for different people. For many people, the experience of bondage or restraint is both physically pleasurable and emotionally liberating. Being attended to and being enveloped can create a sense of freedom to relax and enjoy not having to take on ordinary responsibilities for oneself for a while. Alternatively, it can create an opportunity to resist, to feel helpless, to float in a dreamy state, to be sexually pleasured, to be overpowered or violated, to be decorated and made beautiful in ornate ropework, to feel erotic fear of the forbidden or the darkness of chains, rope, or leather, or to experience any of a myriad of other symbolic or physically elaborated states. Including the mystery of the conundrum of allowing oneself to be bound.
The power of bondage in creating an experience of being owned, possessed, and helplessly trusting to be cared for is an enactment of intimacy that has no obvious counterpart in vanilla sex. Bondage highlights by taking to the extreme the mutual bond of dependency by the bottom and dependability on the part of the top. These intimate feelings of mutual trust, hope, vulnerability, strength of purpose, desire, and love are the foundation of much of what BDSM is about. Whether or not bondage is an element of the particular way you personally explore BDSM, these feelings are likely to be part of your experience.
D&S has in the last 20 years become an increasingly popular term and an activity of interest in the popular press. Formally, the term emphasizes a pervasive subgroup of the psychological components of BDSM, most notably what is called power exchange. DS is widely experienced by tops as feeling high or aroused from exerting control, and by bottoms as a high or arousal from being controlled. That is, the partners agree to an exchange of power, ownership, command, or property rights. The balance between whether the reins of that control are handed over via a gift of acquiescence or via the implication (or consensual application) of force is up to the partners to decide.
Partners "exchange power" when one partner -- the submissive (or "sub") -- agrees to defer to the other partner -- the dominant (or "dom," and sometimes for females, "domme" or "femdom"; the term "dominatrix" is not generally used for female doms). Recall that the top is the leader of the action and the bottom is the follower or one who is done to (see above). That is, doms and subs are particular kinds of tops and bottoms -- ones who emphasize power exchange in their play. Some people use the terms dom and sub to be synonymous with top and bottom. Others use the terms top and bottom to refer to people who emphasize SM as opposed to DS in their play. Which exact definitions are being used is usually clear from the context, but it can be helpful to ask.
The exchange of power is most often expressed in the form of the submissive accepting orders from the dominant. Many activities that are quite common -- like going to dinner with one's partner without wearing panties -- are forms of DS practiced by otherwise vanilla couples.
Other forms of DS that rely largely on the achievement of particular psychological states include fear play (achieved, say, by threatening the bottom with a knife), role play (using some standardized elements, such as a teacher with a student, a doctor with a patient, an interrogator with a spy, a pet with an owner, etc.)
Another common element of DS is the mindfuck. Mindfucks are a kind of trickery, illusion, or gaming with the bottom's mind. Sometimes mindfucks deceive the bottom into believing that whatever is going on is real when it is not. Thus, a common mindfuck is for the top to show the bottom a sharp knife, but then substitute a dull item (like a letter opener) before running the blade over a nipple or inserting the item into the bottom's cunt. Alternatively, the bottom might discover afterwards that the situation was worse than the bottom believed at the time. Yet another kind of mindfuck is for the top to cause the bottom mild embarrassment or confusion, tripping the bottom in his or her own words. More generally, mindfucks include any sort of mental manipulation.
Another common, though by no means universal, component of DS is punishment or discipline. (This also falls under the less-used category of B&D, but these days it seems to mostly be discussed under the heading of d/s.) Punishments -- for example, spankings, canings, standing in the corner, or whatever the partners agree on -- can be quite desired by the bottom. One common and enjoyable way people play is for the bottom to disobey the top deliberately, or for the top to set the bottom to an unachievable task. On the other hand, sometimes the partners have arranged their play to be directed toward achieving behavioral reforms. In those cases, the top has to work out some form of punishment that goes beyond having a good time and is actually deterring. (Behavioral reform is a complex topic, and is discussed in greater detail in Part 4.)
Lecture describing a
DS Training Technique
A combined ground between DS and SM is emotional sadism/emotional masochism. The most common form is embarrassment or humiliation. Examples include name-calling, having one's partner say he or she has behaved naughtily, or having one's partner engage in an emotionally uncomfortable activity (e.g., masturbating with the window blinds open or eating from a dog dish). Another form of emotional SM is emotional abandonment: play wherein the top responds coldly to the bottom or deserts the bottom. Flirting with someone else at a party or behaving with indifference toward the bottom after a difficult scene (where the inducement of jealousy or the indifference are part of the play) are examples, as is the controversial situation of leaving a bottom who is bound and helpless. (Before you do anything like this latter, think about extreme possibilities such as: What if the bottom has a heart attack or an emotional or physical crisis like becoming entangled in the bonds while no one is present? Leaving a bound bottom is universally considered to be not a safe or recommended activity.)
Emotional SM is a kind of play that is extremely hot for some people, but completely horrifying for others. The word "humiliation" in particular has different meanings for everyone. What feels embarrassing to one person can feel humiliating or even degrading to someone else. It is a good idea to talk carefully with one's partner when it comes to the meaning of humiliation play. Some risks of humiliation/degradation play are discussed in Part 3.
|Four Special Topics on DS: Standardization, Roles, Gor, TPE|
|Does DS involve standardized rules?||Are folks doing BDSM just acting out roles?|
The rules of DS are not standardized. They are typically worked out between the partners during negotiations prior to playing. A submissive is not required to kneel at the foot of the dominant unless the partners have agreed that kneeling is an acceptable play activity. Nor is a submissive automatically required to defer to dominants other than the submissive's own partner. Tops and doms do not all wear leather and boots or carry whips and chains; nor do owned submissives all wear collars.
It is the case, however, that with the proliferation of DS on the net, many chat channels have evolved their own customs, customs that diverge quite a bit from the current "real life" (meaning face-to-face) practice of DS. In particular, it is common on IRC
In fact, in person the custom is precisely the opposite! No submissive or slave is ever treated as such by anyone who has not explicitly negotiated permission to do so. Giving an order to or expecting anything other than common courtesy from a submissive who is not your own is to violate basic human respect as well as to verge on stepping on the toes of someone's possible owner, who might have given the person clear orders never to submit to or be touched by anyone else. This custom of treating all non-partners equally, whether they be dom or sub, top or bottom, long ago gave rise to a well-known retort, should any submissive ever find himself or herself ordered to do something by someone who is not a partner: "I may be a slave, but I'm not your slave!"
Another example of this customization is found in what dominants and submissives call themselves. There is no standardized rule of thumb about when someone is a slave as opposed to a submissive, or a mistress, master, or daddy, as opposed to an owner or top or dominant. Nor is there any standard rule about calling one's dominant "Sir" or "Ma'am" or just by the top's given name. These customs and courtesies of address are entirely up to the partners to work out. If one form of address seems more meaningful for you and your partner than another, by all means adopt that form of address!
For more discussion of net versus real-life relationships, see Part 2.
The word "role" has many uses in BDSM and requires a little clarification. People sometimes describe themselves as taking on the role of the dom or the role of a submissive when they play. This description can be very deceptive for newcomers because it suggests that BDSM is all play-acting, a style of comporting oneself that one sheds when one goes back to "real life" -- say, one's job or interacting with one's family or vanilla friends.
BDSM is not play-acting. Tops and doms typically are no more acting out roles when they play than a mother is just pretending to be a mom when she tells her children to wash up before dinner. When we say someone is acting in her role as a mother, we merely mean she is acting in that capacity, not that she is pretending. Someone who is a mother may also have a job, and hence may comport herself differently or wear different clothes in different circumstances; but neither mode of comportment is commonly considered a pretense.
Similarly, a dom is not typically pretending to be a dom, though he or she may, in that capacity, adopt particular external behaviors or modes of dress. The feelings, however, are very real. Even when partners begin their scene or session with "role play," say, with one partner pretending to be a captive or a teacher, typically these "roles" are just jumping off points that quickly fade into feelings of DS that are very real for the partners.
Moreover, even in pairs of partners where one may take on the "role" of dominant or submissive to please the other partner, it is typically not all play acting. Usually the partners get some real pleasure and joy out of playing with each other. It is inappropriate for an outsider to suggest that what they experience is any less "real" than what someone else may experience.
People comport themselves differently with their lovers than they do with their friends, family, or colleagues. This does not generally mean they are faking what they are doing. BDSM -- and in particular, whether one is dom or sub, top or bottom -- feels and is very real to the participants.
In short: No. Being a dom or a sub is a matter of personal feelings. Who is to say that what someone else feels is the real, true thing as opposed to what you feel?
There are lots of inexperienced doms and subs. Dom wannabees with no face-to-face experience with BDSM abound, particularly on the net. It's easy to utter claims like "I'm a true dom," or "A true sub always bows to her master." But anyone making such pronouncements, even if the person has years of actual BDSM experience, is probably just mouthing off. There are self-impressed folks who do BDSM, and self-impressed folks who are vanilla -- but anyone who claims that he or she does the "real thing" as opposed to others is being just as boastful as when someone you meet in a bar announces "You haven't experienced a really great orgasm till you've fucked me!" Yeah, right.
S&M refers to BDSM activities that emphasize physical interaction between the partners. Physical activity ranges from the most sensual teasing and tickling with feathers to the causation of anything from light to extreme pain. Tops and bottoms who enjoy causing or receiving pain are called sadists and masochists, respectively. The terms "sadist" and "masochist" have different connotations in BDSM than in the popular press or the psychology profession, and do not imply nonconsensual, uncaring, or undesirable behavior.
SM activities are very diverse and include all kinds of surprising things you may never have heard of or considered. Nipple pinching, neck biting, clamps and clothespins, bondage, floggings, whippings, paddlings, spankings, and canings are among the most common SM activities. More exotic SM activities
A common question asked by newcomers is: How can anyone like to experience pain? There are as many answers as there are people who like it. For some people, pain is directly erotic. Some people have orgasms from being flogged; others are highly aroused by nipple clamps. For others, pain is often accompanied by internal chemical reactions, most notably the release of brain chemicals called endorphins. (Endorphins are also experienced by runners and in other physically stressful sports, and appear to be released as a response to ongoing physical pain or stress. For an interesting, light-reading book on endorphins, see Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery by Jeff Goldberg, Bantom Books, 1988.) Endorphin releases are variously described as a kind of rush or buzz, and often a sense that the activity still hurts but it doesn't matter any more. (Though they are usually experienced as pleasurable by those who get them, a few people also experience nausea.) Finally, for yet others, there is nothing at all desirable about the pain per se, but it might be associated with other desired or erotic feelings, such as by occasioning erotic fear or by reinforcing the perception of the top's power over the bottom.
It is also the case that some activities that sound or look painful to newcomers are not actually perceived as painful by the bottom. For example, many multi-tailed floggers are made of hides that are designed to impart a sensation of thud to the bottom's ass or upper back (as opposed to a precise cutting sensation of sting imparted by many single-tail whips or the sharp smack of a hand-slap). The feeling is described by many as similar to a heavy massage. In addition, many scenes involve the top's beginning with a warm-up consisting of lighter, gradually building sensations that relax the bottom and create a mood for the scene. Relaxation, deep breathing, or sexual arousal can, for many people, make activities that would seem painful to an onlooker in fact be directly pleasurable or result in restful, dreamy states.
What kinds of states the partners can or want to achieve in their play -- for example, relaxed dreaminess versus the arresting focus of pain -- is up to the partners to work out. Each person's reactions and desires differ. BDSM in general, and each scene in particular, can take the partners somewhere surprising and new. For many, this exploration of the unknown is very much an appeal of play.
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