For some disclosure … in my early adult life, I flitted from job to job, not really sure what I wanted to do. During this time, I found myself out of work and desperate. A close friend of mine had an interesting proposal. She needed a personal secretary, someone to answer phones and help keep her books. I would get some valuable experience and she would have the help she needed. It just happened to be this friend was a professional Dominatrix. From her, I was introduced into the BDSM sub-culture (or the Scene) of the 1990′s, not as an active participant, but an inside observer. I developed an interest in it that remains to this day.
BDSM has a wide interpretation. At its most basic, it is Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism. Each pairing has its own meanings and its own connotations. These connotations are not always good. We tend to think of sadism as cruelty or submission as weakness. While these images and meanings may play their part in the Scene, they do not define it or its different aspects.
So what does?
Well, I find it is actually easier to consider BDSM not as an acronym, but as a Venn Diagram. Each pairing of BDSM gets its own circle, and those circles overlap in different ways. We tend to think of BDSM in terms of Dominance and submission. While yes, Power Exchange happens throughout BDSM, it is does not always involve the submission/obedience of Dominance & submission (D/s).
I like to look at BDSM in general in terms of Top and bottom. The bottom is the person who relinquishes some amount of Power to the Top in a specific Power Exchange dynamic. In terms of Sadism & masochism (SM) this would mean the bottom giving power to the Top to cause pain. In Bondage & discipline (BD), the bottom gives power to the Top to bind him/her. When BD & SM overlap, this may also include the bottom giving power to the Top to strike him/her while bound with paddles, canes, crops, floggers,and other impact tools. In D/s, the bottom agrees to submit to some degree to the will of the Top, creating the Dominant and submissive dynamic we typically think of when we think of BDSM.
Most people outside of the Scene will not look this deeply at how Power Exchange works in BDSM. They do not see a person giving control to another. Instead, they see a cruel Dominant with absolute control overpowering and lording over the weak submissive. This is problematic because it is from this assumption that stories and images of harm and abuse come. How many images do you see online that cause you to cringe? How often are normal images followed up in comments by crass statements that assume or imply harm? How many stories have you read where the shy and weak submissive-type (typically female) is seduced, controlled, and abused by the aggressive Dominant (typically male)?
This is also problematic because people enter the Scene, introduced through these assumptions. These people may intend to be “normal” participants in the scene, but end up causing harm and division. Others enter the Scene from these assumptions, finding it another place for predation.
If this is just the assumption of the Scene, then what is the truth?
Well, again, BDSM is a power play. It is about control, giving and receiving. Each aspect relies on this give-take relationship to power, with the bottom being in the perceived powerless and/or disadvantaged role.
The truth of this interplay is that the bottom is the one who sets the terms. Most commonly, we think of this as the safe word, the out-of-place word that is used by the bottom if play has reached its limit. Something may be too playful. A demand may be too demeaning. A sadistic play may become too dark.
The safe word, however, is only one thing set by the submissive. The submissive sets the terms for several aspects of the activity in question, especially those aspects that relate to the control that will be relinquished to the Top. A bondage bottom may choose the type of rope, for example, or determine how tight they can be bound, or whether or not an escape method is provided. A discipline bottom may prefer a specific kind of punishment activity – be that impact or something else. Even the slave of a master/slave relationship sets the terms of what he or she will do.
These terms are what we call limits, and no matter the type of BDSM dynamic created, the Top always heeds them. If those limits are pushed, the are only pushed because the bottom partner has already agreed they can be.
Bottoms of any kind, submissive, slave, or play partner, are not bound to stay with a partner who is abusive or who behaves inappropriately. I remember one of the first lessons I learned interacting socially in the Scene was taught to me by a submissive: do not touch the ring on her collar without her permission. Note that lesson was not without her Dom’s permission. I could not touch it without her permission. My action was innocent. I was curious. It was not appropriate, however. That lesson, coupled with my experience working for a Dominatrix, informed all of my interactions in the Scene and my expectations of it, even today.
Tops, whether they are Dominants, Owners, Primal Alphas, Daddies, or play partners are supposed to behave a certain way towards their partners. The specifics vary, depending on the limits of the relationship. One truth stays, no matter the type and mixture of BDSM play: the bottom sets the limits, and the Top does not break those limits.
Which brings us to the other major misconception about BDSM: that it is all about sex.
Sex and sexuality have their place in the Scene. To those looking in from outside, they appear to dominate and define it. From within, that could not be further from the truth. Sex and sexuality may be tools, but they are not a defining factor. In some situations, they may not even come into play at all.
The Dominatrix I worked for is a perfect example. She had several regular clients, none of whom she ever had any degree of sexual contact with. That would have been prostitution, which was illegal where we were. The clubs I would frequent had regular stage shows. The best of these did not involve the implication of sex. They stayed true to the power play that was central to the BDSM scene.
In private, between consenting adults, aspects of BDSM is sometimes used to enhance intimacy. I had partners that I explored BDSM with. I also had partners who had no interest at all in BDSM, and I respectfully kept it out of the bedroom.
No matter the type of play, the terminology, or the intimacy – professional, on display for performances and photos, or sexual relationships – the BDSM Scene is a place of respect. Members respect each others ideas of aspects of the Scene. They respect each others boundaries and preferences. They also respect each others privacy.
For obvious reasons, people within the scene do not tend to openly discuss BDSM. First rule of BDSM Club is that you don’t talk about BDSM Club. Some of its participants are professionals, business leaders, housewives, college students, techies – they come from all walks of life. Because of the stigma placed on BDSM, talking about it can damage a reputation. Still, misconceptions cannot be allowed to stand, because these misconceptions cause too many problems.
It is time for BDSM to reclaim BDSM.