BDSM: History, Culture, and Awareness

Posted on November 6th, 2012

In the 18th century, the Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat and philosopher became well recognized for his shocking, libertine sexual politics and personal lifestyle. He was more than ahead of his time. The marquis engaged in philosophical discourse around sexuality, and his philosophy, sexual practices, and erotic writings were known to combine the prurient with the sometimes violent. His words and deeds were considered criminal and blasphemous against the Catholic Church, and he would be imprisoned or locked in an insane asylum for 32 years of his life. The words “sadist” and “sadism” come from his name, Sade.

Although the eponymous ascription of the term goes to the Marquis de Sade, it was applied by Freud and the psychoanalysts of the 20th century. This combination of things sexual and violent did not originate with the infamous marquis. Many things sadomasochistic appear in historical studies of the medieval period, although it is doubtful these things arose even there.

Today, people are not frequently jailed or housed in mental hospitals simply for espousing what many may consider to be salacious or lascivious views. Unless their actual practices break local laws by violating another’s informed consent or causing harm to the point of gross injury or death, sexual practices are mostly left to the realm of live-and-let-live. Mostly. The US is still a recently religiously (and therefore sexually) puritanical society, and even post-1960s sexual revolution, a great deal of social stigma remains around sexual practices perceived to be unusual, abnormal, or “deviant.” To wit, oral sex laws are still on the books in 18 states as of 2007-illegal even between spouses in the confines of their own bedrooms in some states-and in 10 states sodomy is still illegal, with four states holding that sodomy is illegal only if you’re gay.

BDSM Culture

BDSM is an acronym which stands for “bondage and discipline,” “dominance and submission,” and “sadism and masochism.” People who practice BDSM might like to incorporate pain, dominance, submission, bondage, just some of these things, or all of these things and then some into their sexual practices. Many people who practice BDSM consider it a sexual or cultural identity, though not all do. Some people who practice BDSM incorporate it into their lives 24/7 and into their sex lives 100% of the time, though certainly not all do.

BDSM’s proponents and practitioners include straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, and queer identified people; people from every race and ethnicity; people who may be librarians, school teachers, CEOs of multinational corporations, stockbrokers, or artists; people who are able-bodied and people with disabilities-virtually all types of people.

Is BDSM Dangerous?

Because BDSM is considered to be a marginal practice, meaning that only a minority practice it and of those most are quiet on the subject, mainstream society remains ill-informed on the subject and unaware of who practices it. As a result of this lack of awareness, it is widely assumed that BDSM is both “unnatural,” deviant, and dangerous, although it can be argued that any sexual practice holds an inherent risk factor.

The broader BDSM community holds to a philosophy encapsulated by the slogan “safe, sane, and consensual” or SSC. They promote an ethical code of conduct which states that practitioners should engage safely, while in a sane and reasonable frame of mind (e.g., while not intoxicated), and such that full informed consent has been given for all activities prior to their taking place. Another term used by many in the BDSM community is RACK, which stands for Risk Aware Consensual Kink. It should be noted that informed consent as implied in SSC nor the awareness implied by RACK do not necessarily stand as legal protection in the event that someone is grievously harmed either physically or psychologically in the practice of sadomasochism.

Many people who have or do practice BDSM lead normal, healthy, productive lives. Except for what goes on behind the privacy of the rooms in which they conduct their sexual lives (not necessarily always bedrooms, you know), they are just like you and me. Extensive studies in the field of psychology by Pamela Stephenson Connolly, Peggy Kleinplatz, Charles Moser, and others have firmly established that people who practice safe and consensual BDSM do not have greater instance of childhood trauma, histories of abuse and violence, or more mental illness than the general population. Those myths have been dispelled. The current raging best seller by EL James, Fifty Shades of Grey, depicts a protagonist enamored with a man who has a “sickness” and who uses sexual dominance in an unhealthy way (cable ties are not safe or sane) for unhealthy reasons. While millions of readers may be enamored with this character, he doesn’t accurately portray a lifestyle, nor should he be emulated or copied. Fifty Shades may be bringing knowledge about an already well-established lifestyle to the suburbs, but only true awareness will help people to refrain from judgment; to resist the urge to sensationalize; and to act with safe, sane consent should they decide to give these practices a try.

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