A Quick Guide to BDSM Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Quick Guide to BDSM

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The term BDSM1 covers multiple meanings: Bondage, Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission and Sado-Masochism.

This is not a guide on how to do BDSM, as there are so many different activities under the BDSM umbrella and many different orientations of each sub-division - it has taken many books to describe them all. The activities range from mild actions such as bondage to intense pain along the lines of torture. The important element they should all have in common is the BDSM motto: safe, sane and consensual.

Originally the sub-divisions of 'bondage', 'bondage & discipline' (B/D) and 'Dominance & submission' (D/s) were all under the banner of Sado-masochism (S/M, S&M, SM). However, various people involved in these sub-divisions didn't like being associated with S/M, which was understandable as it tended to be considered by uninformed people not involved in the scene, who are referred to as vanillas2, as violent and abusive acts practised by perverts and freaks. After various discussions with involved parties from the different sub-divisions a new acronym, BDSM, was devised.

BDSM is becoming more widespread as more people are getting involved in the scene - in fact, many people may well be including BDSM in their sex lives without realising it. It is also becoming more acceptable, as people learn that BDSM is not as it appears on the surface. It's also viewed more favourably commercially, with pictures such as a Dominatrix dressed in leather brandishing a whip appearing among the hearts, cute animals and flowers of Valentine cards. Ann Summers3, have greatly increased their selection of bondage and BDSM equipment over the last few years. Their stock now includes leather whips, paddles and canes along with various leather clothing and books on various aspects of BDSM. Other well-known high street stores and card shops are now stocking novelty blindfolds, light-whips and furry-handcuffs, particularly around Valentine's Day and Christmas.

There's nothing new about the acts involved in BDSM, the origins of which are lost in the mist of time. Probably the most infamous advocate is 18th Century French author, Marquis de Sade - a sexual sadist to the point that he gave his name to the word. He is noted for his publications, rather than his actions, where one of the crucial elements of the BDSM motto, consent, was often not given by his submissives, or more accurately, victims. Without consent, it is abuse. Abuse is not what BDSM is about.

Sade is therefore credited with having the word 'sadist' named after him. The word 'masochism' is derived from the name of the author Sacher-Masoch, best known for his novel Venus in Furs.


Role-playing is an important part of BDSM. The power exchange of Dominance and submission has already been explained elsewhere, as has bondage. Basically, SM is the combination of all the sub-divisions. The erotica of bondage, the sensual control of bondage and discipline and the emotions and psychology of Dominance and submission, with added physical sensations.

In the SM division of BDSM the Dominant (or 'Dom') plays the role of sadist, inflicting the pain and/or humiliation, and the submissive (or 'sub') plays the role of masochist, receiving the pain and/or humiliation.

It is possible for the result of SM to be mutual sensual pleasure. The Dom gets satisfaction, an emotional high, and turned on from being in control, while the sub enjoys the pain for the enhancement of sexual pleasure. This is said to be partly due to the release of endorphins. These are pleasure chemicals naturally produced by the body, and released at times of pleasure including when laughing, during sex, while eating chocolate, and in some people during pain stimulation in a controlled environment, such as a scene.

It is not always one-to-one, as there can be a multiple players, either at a private function or a public one such as the Torture Garden Fetish Club.

In the literature world of BDSM role-playing, such as in novels or online stories - the following abbreviations are used to denote the players: 'F' an adult female; playing the role of an adult female, 'M' an adult male; playing the role of an adult male. For age-play, where an adult is playing the role of a minor, lower-case 'f' and 'm' are used.

Liberty in Bondage

The idea of a sensation of freedom from being in physical or psychological bondage may seem a strange conception; for some it is the freedom of responsibilities and of decision-making that is the attraction.

In the sometimes topsy-turvy world of BDSM you may find high-powered businessmen and women playing the role of a sub, and experiencing erotic pleasure for someone else, a Dom, taking responsibility and making decisions for them, even if it is for just a short time.

At the other end of the scale, you may find men and women in dead-end jobs with little control of their lives in the role of Dom, experiencing erotic pleasure from being in control of another, a sub, even if it is for just a short time.

These are just two examples - there are many different reasons and types of people from all walks of life involved in BDSM.

Sado-masochism and the Law

There are complex issues surrounding the laws of common assault and grievous bodily harm in the UK. Technically, an individual cannot legally agree to an illegal assault. However, cases that have come before the courts have had different outcomes. Some cases have resulted in convictions and prison sentences, while in others the judge has decreed that what took place within the confines of a consensual private relationship was of no concern to the court.

BDSM Emblem

In the 1990s an emblem, or symbol was designed that was subtle enough to be used discreetly in a vanilla environment, but recognisable for other BDSMers to notice. The design used was that of a circle with a border, enclosing three sections, separated by curved lines, with a hole in each section. It was inspired by the symbol described in The Story of O. The three parts of the emblem have three different meanings - BD, DS and SM / Safe, Sane and Consensual / Doms, Subs and Switches4. The curved lines may indicate a whip in motion. The emblem can contain any combination of colours.

1Although not strictly an acronym, it is often described as such.2A non-derogatory slang word used to describe people not involved in the BDSM scene. Derived from the idea that vanilla is the most basic form of ice cream.3The writer wishes to highlight the fact that Ann Summers is a respectable high street shop, not a porn shop.4A person who switches between playing the role of Dom and sub.

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