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Breaking Down BDSM from Top to Bottom

Everything you need to know about the planet’s kinkiest acronym

For those who have never ventured outside of vanilla sex, it can be hard to get an accurate idea of what BDSM actually is. Sure, there are all those whips, chains and subterranean dungeons, but what’s actually going on with them? More broadly, what do all those letters in “BDSM” even mean?

Hold on to your butts, because it’s a real orgy of an acronym: “Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism.” And yeah, I know there’s more words than there are letters, but don’t worry, I’m here to explain. Away we go…

Bondage and Discipline (B and D)

While the other parts of this acronym describe opposing but interlocking roles (sadism and masochism, for example), bondage and discipline are a dichotomy based around two different kinds of restraint: Physical and psychological. Bondage is typically more physical, and can be done with rope, handcuffs, leather restraints, latex or something more DIY. Discipline is often more mental, and may take the form of punishments and training that reinforce a set of consensual rules. Examples of this would be a cane to the rear as a reminder to obey, or a threat of orgasm denial for disobeying orders.

Dominance and Submission (D and S, stylized as D/s)

D/s is a form of intimacy in which people derive pleasure from the consensual exchange of power. In this dynamic, the submissive relinquishes aspects of their agency to their dominant partner, who gives them rules, orders, discipline and nurturing in return.

Sadism and Masochism (S and M, stylized as S&M)

S&M describes two groups of people who derive pleasure from inflicting pain (sadism) and receiving it (masochism). The pain isn’t always physical — playing with humiliation, objectification and denial could all be categorized as forms of sadomasochistic play.

But while parts of the BDSM acronym can exist on their own, they often intermingle. Let’s say one man consensually inflicts pain upon another with a paddle to the ass — that could be an act of sadomasochism they both find pleasurable, but it could also be a dominant rewarding his submissive with pain as an act of loving discipline. Likewise, while a collar counts as bondage and can be used to physically restrain, it can also be a poignant and symbolic reminder of one’s dominance or submission. It’s a rich and perverted tapestry!

Notably, BDSM isn’t always about sex. For some, it’s a form of fucking that can happen without any genital involvement and could be classified as more of a “sensual” act than a “sexual” one. For others, it’s extremely sexual, and holes are penetrated. Either way, the point is that BDSM is a customizable framework of intimacy; one through which many people experience desire, love, themselves and even life itself. 

Finally, any activities that take place under the umbrella of BDSM should be explicitly consensual. A good scene is rarely spontaneous, and it generally involves a fair amount of negotiation, communication and preparation beforehand. Likewise, proper BDSM practitioners know that consent can be revoked at any time, and that scenes can be renegotiated in the moment if need be. Kinky people often use verbal and non-verbal safewords to signal when to start and stop play, and many also use the traffic light system to communicate comfort and consent in the moment (red is stop, yellow is slow down and green means go). All that communication actually makes sex pretty fun — maybe you vanilla people should try it?

How Society Sees BDSM

While most BDSM practitioners see it as a consensual act of intimacy, it’s still stigmatized in many parts of the world. In the U.K., courts have refused to recognize “bodily harm” as something that can be consented to, and in the U.S., practitioners of BDSM and many other fetishes were defined as mentally ill in the DSM (no relation) until 2010. Because of this, there have been many parents who’ve lost custody of their children because of their supposedly “atypical” sexuality (though it’s way may more “typical” than you’d think — according to a 2017 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 69 percent of people have fantasized about or engaged in BDSM). 

That said, pop culture does seem to be changing people’s views. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM has officially entered the mainstream, and while it’s hardly an accurate portrayal, it’s significant that hordes of everyday Americans showed up to watch it with popcorn in air-conditioned AMCs. Likewise, BDSM has been featured on TV shows like Succession and Billions, and even though the people doing it are rich white dudes who seem to use it more for anesthesia than personal growth, it’s still proof of its dissipating taboo. Rihanna even has a song about it — how much more mainstream can you get?

Another reason the pervy tides could be turning is the growing body of research that says BDSM practitioners tend to be happier and more well-adjusted than non-kinky people. That feels wholly unsurprising — given that consensual power exchange requires self-awareness and solid communication skills, it seems logical that living out your deepest fantasies in a safe way would be better for you than suppressing them out of shame or fear. After all, why be ashamed of your fetishes when you can fetishize your shame?

Why Are People into BDSM?

One of the most common questions people ask about BDSM is why people do it. There’s no universal answer, of course — everyone has a different reason, and all of them are valid. 

Some people’s fetishes are rooted in trauma, and in some cases, consensual pain and control can be a means to process it. But that’s hardly the full story — as much research has shown, there’s no inherent link between BDSM and trauma, and kinky people are no more likely to be traumatized than their vanilla counterparts. In fact, most people just do it because it feels good. To wit, BDSM can actually get you “high,” offering two distinct, altered states of consciousness called “top space” and “bottom space.” As many kinky people have reported, these states mirror “flow” and are similar to a runner’s high, only with way less running and way more latex. 

Some practitioners also use BDSM to express desire in a way not typically afforded by societal standards applying to their race, gender, class or orientation. It’s a form of play that allows us to renegotiate our pleasure and responsibilities in a way that can be freeing, even if we’re giving up control. 

For Tina Horn, host of the fetish podcast Why Are People Into That?! and author of sex rebel sci-fi comic series SfSx, an interest in kink has more to do with personal tastes and the genuine enjoyment of exploration than anything else. “We need to stop thinking of sexual proclivities as any different from taste in food,” she tells me. “Taste is nature and nurture. It can be cultivated, and it deepens and changes over time. I honestly think kinky people are just more interested in and inclined to explore what goes into the flavors that excite them.” 

Restraint is sweet. Control is salty. Pain, sour. Submission, umami. It’s all just a matter of finding the recipe of kinks that suits your fetishistic flavor palate. 

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