What Is BDSM?

BDSM is a compound acronym. That means that some of the letters within it stand for more than one thing. Let’s unpack it and find out what those letters mean.

  • B – Bondage
  • D – Dominance / Discipline
  • S – Sadism / Submission
  • M – Masochism

That all seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? Bondage is tying people up or restraining them in any other way for your mutual pleasure. Dominance is taking control and commanding someone, usually used in a sexual sense. Discipline is the act of punishing or inflicting pain, used here in an erotic context between two consenting adults. Sadism refers to the mindset of someone who enjoys causing pain to another, while submission refers to someone who wishes to give up control and agency to another for sexual gratification. Finally, masochism refers to the mindset of those who enjoy receiving pain – usually for sexual reasons.

The term may, at one time or another, have meant only the things that I’ve listed above. In fact there are still some people now who insist that BDSM only covers those six very strictly delimited activities. For the most part though, people acknowledge that the term has widened over time and come to encompass a whole range of sexual activities and proclivities.

Included within the term BDSM now may be people who enjoy particular fetishes – sexual fascinations with things that are primarily considered to be non-sexual. It may also include transgender people, or other people who have chosen to change or cultivate their sexual identity in some way.

The term may also include people who don’t have sex at all, or who consider pain, submission and dominance to be completely nonsexual things. It may include people who have no deviant desires at all, but are simply curious about the lifestyle. It may include people who are into leather, into fantasy, into whips and chains, into food, into feet. It may include people who are strictly monogamous, or people who frequently enjoy orgies, or who never have sex at all.

In short, the term BDSM is used as a catchall term to indicate a group of people who have something unusual about their sexuality. Two people might say that they’re into BDSM, but mean completely different things when they use the term. It’s best not to make any assumptions – indeed, most people would prefer it if you asked exactly what BDSM means for them, rather than just taking a guess and proceeding on that basis.

There are a few other terms that the BDSM community sometimes uses to refer to itself. Most of them are similarly loose, and cover a wide range of things. You might hear people who are into BDSM refer to themselves as kinksters, fetishists or deviants. The meaning is generally the same, and is always fairly fluid. I’ll be using the terms interchangeably throughout this guide.

It is, perhaps, worth taking a moment to reflect on what BDSM means for you. What does it involve? What kinds of kinks and fetishes interest you? What is completely excluded from it? And what do you think when someone tells you that they’re into it?

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