What is BDSM?

BDSM = Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, S&M

BDSM is a convenient abbreviation for most of the interesting activities discussed in the alt.sex.bondage newsgroup. It's so convenient that it packs six initials into four letters: B&D/D&S/S&M => BDSM. It's generally understood to include related activities/phenomena that don't fit strictly into any of those three categories. An "umbrella term" like this is useful because so few actual (as opposed to theoretical) activities fit into only one category.

Bondage

Bondage deals with tying people up (or being tied up). Or chaining them up, or restraining them with straps, or straightjackets, or ... well, you get the idea, no? In theory it can be enjoyed simply for its own sake -- the sensations and images of it. In fact, some people do enjoy bondage as bondage, without any interest in D&S or S&M, but far more people find it pushes their D&S buttons at the same time, or use it only for the D&S aspects, or combine it with D&S and/or S&M.

Dominance and Submission

Dominance and submission deals with exchange of power, trust, obedience, role-playing, "slavery" ... one person submitting to the commands of another. Like bondage, it can exist as a separate phenomenon, but it's likely to incorporate the others. Bondage may be used to enhance the feeling of submission. Pain-play (i.e. S&M) may be used to emphasize the position the submissive is in or as punishments for disobedience.

S&M

S&M sort of stands for "sadism and masochism", but not quite the same way the psychiatric establishment uses those terms. So it's less confusing to keep the phrase tidily together as "S&M". S&M involves strong sensations. It's associated with pain, in particular, in most people's minds, but in fact pain is only one class of sensations used. Furthermore, some stimuli which would ordinarily be perceived as pain are not perceived as pain by some participants when in an S&M headspace! (Note that I said "some".) While I don't have statistics on this, it's my impression that S&M is the one phenomenon of these most likely to occur without the others. Nonetheless, it is quite common for one's interest in S&M to be in the context of bondage or D&S (the pain makes it so very much clearer that one can't get away because one is tied up, for example) or simply alongside an interest in bondage and/or D&S.

Interestingly, while most "vanilla" (i.e. not-into-BDSM) people do not consider tickling to be a BDSM activity, many BDSM folks do.

More terminology

Some people like to tie people up, whip people, or give orders. Others like to be tied up, like to be spanked or whipped, or like to obey. Because so many of the words one might use to describe these preferences seem specific to just one aspect of BDSM, push people's buttons, or only fit the ways some people play, folks in the scene use the generic terms "top" and "bottom". (Note that these words have a different meaning in gay male culture, if I'm not mistaken.)

In bondage, a top likes to tie up bottoms. In S/M, a top likes to provide strong stimulation (pain or otherwise) to a bottom. In D&S, a top orders or controls a bottom. A "switch" is someone who enjoys being both a top and a bottom.

Note that it's not always the top who's in control of things -- in fact, much less often than the other way around! For example, a bottom might ask to be tied up, and his or her top might decide to honor that request, asking the bottom if there were any particular things he or she wanted the top to do to him or her tonight. Also, many people use "safewords", code phrases that mean, "I'm not just playing, I really need you to stop." If a couple uses a safeword, the bottom can stop the current activity by using the safeword.

Some people claim that the bottom is always the one who's really in control, no matter how things look. They're mostly right, but things can get more complicated

2004 D. Arthur Glenn Jr.

 

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