What Is BDSM?

The first thing you need to know is, don’t let anyone answer this question for you.

The scene is full of people who have very definite ideas of what BDSM is, and most of them are more than happy to lay it all out for you. The scene has a thousand clichés that seem almost universal. There are a million clubs with specific rules for behavior and dress codes for tops and bottoms, and a billion dungeons where etiquette is laid down by a few, and everyone else follows along because they are expected to. But this is not BDSM.

Here are a few standards I’m sure you’ve encountered: Everyone has to wear black. Slaves have to wear collars, and they have to belong to someone who is their lord and master/mistress. Slaves shouldn’t speak unless spoken to, and their opinion doesn’t matter anyway. Play areas have to look like gothic or urban dungeons, the darker and grittier the better. Sound familiar? Of course it does. But this isn’t BDSM, either.

I mean, who decided this would be the face of BDSM? Why can’t we wear red or blue or pink, play our games in a park, let the submissives play with whoever they like, and ask them if they prefer bondage, whipping or tickling? Believe it or not, some folks do.

The basic dungeon clichés are found everywhere, but they aren’t universal. And once you get into more specific standards of BDSM, they begin to diverge a great deal… but they’ll never tell you that. Some prefer leather, some like rubber, some wear nothing at all. In some clubs and dungeons you have to identify yourself as a dominant or a submissive, while in others you’re free to try both roles. Many dungeons exclude those minorities their dominant cadre dislikes, be they substance-fetishists, cross-dressers, spankers, ticklers, or whatever, while others welcome those groups specifically. Some clubs only welcome overweight people, while others exclude them. The Goreans say that all women are automatically subservient chattel, to be owned and used by men, bought, sold and even stolen from each other. Other groups revolve around dominant mistresses, and all the men are slaves. Some groups hold to the belief that no one can be a proper dominant until they have served as a slave for a specific period of time, while others let would-be doms jump into their role with no training at all.

The BDSM scene can’t agree on anything, really, yet it seems like everyone is certain their version is the only correct one. It’s not unlike Christianity! Even the letters BDSM are in dispute… do they stand for Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism, or Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism? And which of those symbols is really our rallying sign?

People, there’s nothing at all wrong with this! Of course there is great diversity among our kindred pervs, and that’s how it should be. If you have a particular slant on the practice of domination and submission, find others who share your vision and start a club! It’s all good!

But here’s the tragedy: More times than I can count, I’ve heard this story… a young or inexperienced person says, “I tried BDSM, but it wasn’t what I wanted, so I left.”

When a person has the desire for dominance and/or submission in their soul, whatever its flavor, there is nothing else that will make them happy. They wouldn’t have sought out the BDSM community if they didn’t have this desire. And what they found was a version that didn’t match their needs, and nobody told them that this wasn’t the only version.

Maybe they were collared by a master who took them too far or in the wrong direction, or maybe they were ignored because they didn’t fit the mold of the particular group they tried to join. There are a lot of scary things going on at play-parties, and a lot of accepted customs that might put off a newcomer. Much of it we take for granted, and simply expect the newbies to accept it all, too. I still remember being a newbie, and I remember having to widen my scope considerably to fit the realities of the BDSM scene into it.

If you are a member of the BDSM community, here’s what you need to know: Open your mind and your heart, and accept that yours isn’t the only game in town. When you encounter a newbie, welcome them and talk to them. Find out what their interest is, if you can, and let them know that there are others who share that interest. Don’t just try to fit them into your own version of BDSM.

And if you’re new to BDSM, here’s what you need to know: There is no single way to express yourself in BDSM. Don’t let anyone try to tell you how it should be, or stuff you into a mold you aren’t comfortable with. There are a myriad ways to dominate or to submit; some are sexual, some are not, some involve various levels of pain, others don’t. If you search hard enough, you will find other people who share your vision, and you can make your fantasies come to life.

And here endeth the lesson.

-Brian Tarsis