BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, Masochism)

BDSM is an acronym for bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism and includes a variety of erotic practices.1 Though the term BDSM dates back to 1969, its origin of the term BDSM is unclear, but it is believed to have been formed either from joining the term B-D (bondage and discipline/dominance) with S-M (sadomasochism). BDSM includes a variety of practices, ranging from light bondage and erotic spanking, to advanced suspension bondage and electrostimulation. Today, BDSM is considered a kink, with a fairly large community of people who enjoy practicing it or some combination thereof. BDSM is a blanket term which covers many different practices such as cross-dressing, leather, latex, rubber fetishes, body modification, golden showers, wax play, erotic electrostimulation, suspension, edgeplay, and spanking.1 BDSM is not specific to any one sexual orientation or gender identity, rather, all identities are represented in the community. Inclusion in the BDSM community is usually dependent on self-identification. Interest in BDSM can range from one-time experimentation to a lifestyle. It is important to note that BDSM does not always involve penetrative sex or orgasm. People in the BDSM community practice BDSM for a variety of reasons.1

Bondage and Dominance (B-D)

Bondage, discipline, dominance, and submission are all included in the B-D portion of BDSM.  Bondage and discipline are sexual behaviors closely related to S-M. These practices involve physically restraining a person with devices or psychologically restraining them with commands as a key part of a sexual experience. Bondage and discipline differs from S-M in that they often may not involve any physical pain, only physical restraint. 

Regardless of sexual orientation, the majority of men and women involved in bondage and discipline prefer to play the submissive role, sometimes referred to as the “bottom.” Some people view it as “easier” to take the submissive role because it may take less effort. In addition, many enjoy the idea of someone else being in control of them, and enjoy giving up control or free will to another person. There are many individuals, however, who receive great satisfaction from being the one in power. Those who take this role are referred to as “tops.” 

A stereotype exists within heterosexual B-D relationships that men are always the dominant players. In fact, there are a fair amount of women who enjoy playing the dominant role. A woman who takes this role is usually called a dominatrix. A dominatrix may also serve as tops to subservient women as well. Some people enjoy participating as both the top and bottom roles (both dominant and submissive); these people are referred to as “switches.” In dominance and submission (D-S), men and women oftentimes act out roles demonstrating various power positions, for example, teacher and naughty student. Dominance and submission does not usually involve actual violence and the sexual scripts are often carefully planned out beforehand (including the establishment of safe words). There are basic scripts (sequences of expected behaviors for a given situation) that D-S people are familiar with, that guide BDSM interactions. There are also established non-verbal signals that can be used to communicate in these experiences. Therefore, it is merely the illusion of the dominance within the scene that arouses those involved in D-S, not actually being controlled beyond safety or treated as subordinates. When looking for a new D-S partner, individuals usually arrange meetings in public places frequented by other members of the D-S community, such as at conferences or designated D-S bars. 

Sadomasochism (S-M)

Sexual sadists are people who become sexually aroused by inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on another person. The reverse sexual behavior of sadism is masochism, the practice of deriving sexual pleasure from being beaten, humiliated, tied-up, or tortured. Sadists and masochists may find activities that society deems painful to be pleasurable. Some of the activities sadomasochists engage in include humiliation, bondage, spanking, whipping, biting, and role playing. There is a broad spectrum of activities included in S-M. Typically, individuals choose activities that they find pleasurable and create scripts to act out, or role-play, each time they engage in S-M.  Participants of S-M may create “safe words” that are used as signals to either slow down, decrease, or completely cease an action. These safe words keep the roleplaying safe and enjoyable for both parties. When the behaviors of S-M occur for extended periods of time and cause impairment or distress to either one or both of the participants, then it is labeled as a paraphilia. A paraphilia is an atypical, sometimes extreme, stimulus that creates sexual arousal.

 The majority of people who engage in S-M are heterosexual, although individuals of any sexual orientation can be interested in BDSM. Men are more likely than women to have been interested in S-M since childhood, while women are more likely to have been introduced to it later in life by a partner, friend, or discovered it on their own through the Internet. There are many theories that attempt to pinpoint the causes of sadism and masochism. Some psychologists suggest classical conditioning as a possible source. For example, a young boy’s penis rubs against his parent's leg while receiving a spanking and he becomes sexually aroused, learning to associate pain with sexual pleasure. Another theory behind masochism stipulates that the behavior is an attempt to escape self-awareness, in much the same way that drugs are used to escape reality. The masochists use it as a way to forget about the “real world” and focus only on the painful experience at hand, thereby making it pleasurable.

Safe Words and Consent

An important aspect of kinky play and BDSM, as with any sexual activity, is consent. Though BDSM is characterized by its rough nature, it is still crucial that all parties involved in a BDSM scene consent to everything that happens. Consent must be given continually throughout the duration of the encounter in order for all parties to enjoy themselves. One way that people assure consent for a BDSM scene is by planning it out beforehand. Those who are familiar with or are a part of the BDSM community will often sit down together and plan out exactly what will happen during the encounter, discuss personal boundaries (such as what type of toys a person is comfortable using), and agree upon a safe word.1 Sometimes, there is even a written contract created in order to establish a set of rules. A safe word is a word or phrase which is said to indicate that a person (usually the bottom) has reached their limit, or has had enough. A safe word is usually a random word (such as “banana”) which indicates that the top(s) must immediately stop what they are doing. This allows the person in the submissive role to freely use words like “no”, “stop”, or “help” to enhance their experience.

For some, BDSM has progressed from a sexual activity into a lifestyle.  Some couples engage in dominance and submission every day. Many people that are extremely invested in BDSM will not consider dating someone who would not want to practice it as well. If one is interested in becoming a practitioner of BDSM there are clubs and forums on the Internet that provide more information about the culture. The Internet is also a good way to meet others that are interested in BDSM. A simple covert way that someone may show their interest in BDSM is through the use of the BDSM emblem.

The BDSM emblem is a design based on a Triskele. The triskele consists of three "arms" that curve out from the center and merge with an encompassing circle. The triskele is an ancient shape that has had many uses and meanings in many cultures. Before approaching somebody you may think is a member of the BDSM community, be certain that the triskele they are wearing is a BDSM emblem and not one from another culture. It is the details of the design that differentiate the triskele as the BDSM emblem. Those details include a black inner color, rims and spokes of a color indicating metal such as silver or gold, and three holes, one in each section. The three divisions represent the three trio ideas of BDSM. The first being the three divisions of BDSM itself: B-D, D-S, and S-M. Secondly, the three-way creed of BDSM behavior: safe, sane, and consensual. Thirdly, the three divisions of the community: tops, bottoms, and switches. BDSM is a diverse subculture that has many diverse categories that may appeal to many different people.

BDSM’s Portrayal in Pop Culture

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has undeniably generated a massive following in recent years. Its increased presence in media is an astounding feat because of its focus on a highly taboo topic: bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. This is surely not the first time that erotica has depicted BDSM, but it is the first time that such a depiction became mainstream in pop culture. Fifty Shades of Grey sold over 100 million books worldwide, grossed over $500 million in the first movie, and has opened up more conversation about the BDSM community.2,4 Some women actually feel empowered and thus more comfortable exploring their sexuality as a result of the popularity of the books.1 The series, however, has faced some criticism for being inaccurate and non-representative of the practice.2 The story paints violent sex as acceptable and even worthy of a reward. The main character, Ana Steele, is a young, white female that allows herself to be sexually harmed by her powerful and wealthy boyfriend, Christian Grey, because she does not want him to leave her. The University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center states that “consent may not be valid if a person is being subjected to actions or behaviors that elicit threat or fear (coercion or force)”.6 Although she provides verbal and even written, contractual consent, it is accompanied with the added threat of her partner leaving her. It could be argued that Ana is under emotional or psychological threat, which means that she cannot give consent. This promotes a negative mentality that can encourage violence in relationships. The underlying themes that Fifty Shades of Grey represents are not aligned with the reality of BDSM. Practitioners ensure that there are safe and healthy ways to engage in BDSM.

The series also fails to mention that interest in BDSM does not always stem from a troubled childhood or history of abuse (like with Christian Grey’s background). The series reinforces such stereotypes about the types of people that get into the practice. The average person can easily be drawn to BDSM through genuine curiosity, exposure through a partner, or a specific experience. Inaccurate portrayals of BDSM on society, could set new societal standards and norms that can be adopted by the masses. The book’s original target audience consisted of heterosexual women in their 30s and 40s. It fails to address the rest of the culture that includes homosexual, lower-class, non-white people, and many more that also practice BDSM.  Because of Fifty Shades of Grey, society may only see BDSM as something that is for heterosexual, white couples, essentially shaming the others in the community. The Daily Dot provides a list of alternative books in the BDSM genre that include The Submission of Emma Marx and Secretary that may better represent the culture.1     

How to Find Others Interested in BDSM

There are many events hosted by the BDSM community where people of similar interests can meet each other in person. The website organizes BDSM gatherings worldwide, with the United States being their most popular region. claims to be the “largest BDSM Community on the Planet” and is a website that seeks to connect people with others who are interested in the specific types of kinks that they desire. There is an 18+ sub-Reddit thread dedicated to BDSM called the “BDSMcommunity”. There are individual threads that go into more detail addressing people’s experiences and encounters with BDSM. Here, people ask questions that people of the BDSM community can answer. They even provide a “New to Kink or our family of sub-Reddits” for new members.

Tips for Beginners Exploring BDSM

BDSM is fun for many people, and can be enjoyed in many different ways, as long as it is practiced in a healthy way. Trying something new can be a good way to learn more about yourself and your partner, and can bring new and exciting experiences into the bedroom. Like any new experience, it is a good idea to start slow. Make sure that there is good communication between you and your partner at all times, and that you feel comfortable with each situation.2

Step 1: Talk with your sexual partner about what you are interested in and what your fantasies are. Be open, honest, and specific about what you hope to get out of your sexual experience.

Step 2: Listen to your partner. Since a sexual relationship is a two-way street, be sure to listen carefully to what your partner desires and imagines as well.

Step 3: Explore ideas together about how to achieve your fantasies. Talk about different sexual acts that you have heard of or seen that you wish to try.

Step 4: Set boundaries. Make sure to discuss with your partner what your limits are, and listen to theirs. Make your consent and dissent clear to your partner.

Step 5: Go slowly. Before you begin, decide on one or two new things you will try during your “scene.” Build up the intensity slowly. For example, if you are trying spanking, have your partner start softly and slowly increase the intensity until you reach an enjoyable place.

Step 6: Checking in. During the experience, make sure to ask your partner how they are feeling about the encounter. After you try out your new moves, talk it over with your partner. Describe what you liked and disliked, what you want to do more of, and have your partner share the same information.

Step 7: Explore! Continue to try new things with your partner as you become more comfortable with the process. Also, look around you for inspiration- there is a whole world of BDSM waiting for you to discover. Whether it’s through online BDSM chatrooms, websites, porn, or in real-life sex clubs or bars, connecting with others who are interested in BDSM can be a great way to learn more.


Because of media, there is more conversation and coverage regarding the BDSM community and its practices. BDSM can be practiced by anyone and can be extremely rewarding for couples when done correctly. Beginners should research the practice in order to practice it in a safe and healthy way. The BDSM community is very welcoming, especially to those who are interested in learning. There are many resources in the form of online and offline groups that can help a person navigate their BDSM interests.

For more information, watch this video created by Buzzfeed!



  1. "The Largest BDSM Community on this Planet." Web. 

  2. Dickinson, EJ. "'Why Fifty Shades of Grey' is actually good for women" 21 Feb. 2015. Web.

  3. Green, Emma. Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

  4. LeVay, Simon, Janice Baldwin, and John Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexuality, Second Edition. Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2012

  5. Pleasure Mechanics. "A 10-Step Beginners Guide To Exploring The Kinky Art Of Bondage." Your Tango. Tango Media Corporation, n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

  6. Mendelson, Scott. Box Office: 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Becomes 6th R-Rated Film To Top $500M. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

  7. University of Michigan. “What is Consent?” Web. 


Last Updated: 28 February 2018.


BDSM, bondage, dominance, submission, sadomasochism, kinky, tied up, foreplay