BDSM: What It Stands For

Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, and Masochism

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The movie "Fifty Shades of Grey" came out in 2015, and along with the popular novel it was based on, it brought BDSM into the mainstream of awareness and discussion, out from its position in the shadows of sexuality. But what is it exactly? BDSM is a term most often used to describe a range of sexual activities, but it's also an approach to sex and sex play. BDSM is also sometimes called S/M, S&M, power play, or sensation play.

The term comes from three other acronyms:

  • B&D, which stands for bondage and discipline, involves the use of restraints like cuffs and ties and discipline like spanking. An example of this kind of activity is tying up a partner.
  • D/S, which stands for dominance and submission, involves elaborate play scenarios in which one partner plays the dominant, controlling role, while the other partner submits to that control. An example might be the submissive partner serving food to the dominant one.
  • S&M, which stands for sadism and masochism. A masochist in this context is someone who gets satisfaction from pain, such as a spanking, or humiliation. A sadist in this context is someone who gets pleasure from inflicting that pain. Examples of how this is done overlap with B&D.

About BDSM

BDSM isn’t primarily a clinical term used by medical or health care professionals. Instead, it’s more often a term used by people to describe their own sexual practices and sometimes used by others to denounce or otherwise disapprove of or stigmatize the way others choose to have sex.

There isn’t one accepted definition for BDSM. A very general definition might be that BDSM is a form of sexual expression that involves the willing and consensual exchange of power. Note that the definition is “sexual expression” and not just sexual activities. A lot of people who engage in BDSM talk about the fact that most of it happens in your mind, and often the sexual activities you can see are the least interesting aspect of the action.

And also take note of two key ideas: "willing" and "consensual."  BDSM is not a term that describes any behavior that person is forced or pressured into performing.

Examples of BDSM might be using a pair of stockings to tie your partner to a bedpost during sex and elaborate scenarios of dominance and submission that include role play, costumes, and days of preparation. Often these scenes include no sexual intercourse at all. 

The key to understanding BDSM is that it only describes actions that all parties choose to participate in. Any sexual activity that includes characteristics of BDSM but that is unwanted or forced upon someone would not be considered BDSM; it would be considered harassment or assault.

Boundaries and Consent

A central characteristic of BDSM activities is surrender, and that must be given by consent. It's also all about setting boundaries beforehand and then respecting those boundaries. Usually, a scenario is discussed in detail beforehand so that both partners know what's going to happen and have agreed to it. Safe words are also used by practitioners to keep things from going in a direction that isn't consented to or feels dangerous. Practitioners of BDSM say that trust between partners is central to its payoff.

Roles in BDSM

There are three roles involved in BDSM: doms, or tops; subs, or bottoms; and switches, who go both ways. Tops call the shots, and bottoms submit to humiliation, tying up, or whatever is the game. Switches like to experience both roles but need a partner who also likes to switch.