50 Shades of Grey releases tomorrow, and with that will come the inevitable discussions of morality, permissibility, sadomasochism as a phenomenon, and endless other inquiries into BDSM culture. Now, this is not a defense of the books or the movie. The books have a strange power dynamic that borders on abusiveness and actual sadism. There have been a number of write-ups on whether the books glorify abuse or are in line with common BDSM practices. If you wish to read those, you can simply Google it. Rather, this is intended as an overview of BDSM culture. Many people outside of the culture do not understand the intricacy of it: power dynamics in a BDSM relationship, what it truly means to be a top / bottom, and what it means to be a part of the culture itself. Consider this your explainer.

BDSM and the Culture

BDSM, or Bondage-Discipline-Sadism-Masochism, is a term often argued over its intended interpretation as an initialism, but most agree that it is a specific type of erotic behavior characterized by unusual sexual practice / fetish. BDSM as a term and as a culture has a wide net. It's characterized most predominantly by bondage play and restraint. However, BDSM subcultures have come to include many different irregular sexual practices. These include rubber enthusiasts, extreme body modifiers, and animal players (not necessarily furries). But, through all this, the most common BDSM practice remains dominance and submission.

Dominance and submission, or D&S, refers to an interpersonal role play where one takes the role of the dominant, or top, and the other takes the role of the submissive, or bottom. Through informed consent, D&S practitioners will role play scenarios where one person is submissive to the other: they do what they are told to, they are abused either verbally or physically, and they are penetrated in order to satisfy the desires of the dominant. The dominant will use a number of different methods in order to dominate their submissive: they will flagellate them, restrain them, verbally or physically abuse them, and penetrate them in order to achieve sexual gratification. In their roles, the dominant and the submissive have an agreed upon freedom of will: the dominant can be strong or weak and will satisfy the strong or weak bottom as agreed upon. This is solely dependent upon the level of freedom granted to one another. Most commonly, safewords are used to let one another know when something is going too far. Though there is a specific subset called edgeplay which removes the safeword option entirely.

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Restraint seems to be the one aspect of BDSM culture of which the mainstream public is most aware. It is not uncommon, or hasn't been in my experience, to hear of the use of handcuffs in the bedroom, rope to tie a partner up, or improvised restraints to experiment. However, a number of other restraints are in play for dominants to use. These include restraint methods such as arms above the head and tied to a beam, a forced downward position with the arms being forced behind the back by being tied above, and all four limbs being restrained whilst the submissive is flat on their back or face. Some devices that are not all that common in the bedroom of non-BDSM practitioners include thumb cuffs, toe cuffs, cock-and-ball cages and collars, pleasure tape, and spreaders (exactly what you think it is). Submissives will allow their dominants to restrain them (if this is the desired experience) with any number of devices and in any number of ways within the consent of the two parties.

BDSM is generally either a role-play scenario within the bedroom or a BDSM club, or it is a daily power dynamic. BDSM couples most commonly share the balance of power within a relationship; however, the bedroom provides an avenue for release of repressed psychology. It is not entirely uncommon for roles to switch either. Switching is an occurrence agreed upon ahead of any sexual role play, and involves a role reversal. Most commonly, this occurs when two dominants are in a relationship with one another. The role reversal allows each to achieve sexual gratification through desired means. There are those couples that do live out a D&S relationship throughout their daily life. While uncommon, the roles require that the dominant completely maintains control of the submissive through any number of means, 24/7.

BDSM and Its History

The term BDSM originated in 1969, possibly as a compound initialism of the abbreviations of three common practices: B&D, D&S, and S&M. However, this sexual behavior has not been unheard of, in the civilized world, prior to this time. In fact, recent archaeological evidence suggests that dominance and submissiveness as sexual practice dates back at least 5000 years ago. Anne Nomis, writing on the history of the dominatrix and practices, discovered cuneiform tablets specifically detailing ritual fetishization in worship of the goddess Inanna (the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and warfare). The Western world also shared similar practices including diamastigosis (ritual flagellation of young men) and a story of flagellation for sexual arousal in Petronius's Satyricon.

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Of course, the Kama Sutra outlines specific types of allowable hitting during sex. In fact, the Kama Sutra likely contributed to the spread of many sexual practices, including BDSM, across the globe in the years following its composition. Since it was written a good deal of texts outlining different variants of sexual behavior, including BDSM, have been written in its vein.

BDSM imagery also provides us with a historical glimpse into BDSM prevalence throughout the centuries. Below are a number of different images displaying different acts associated with BDSM today.

Etruscan Fresco

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Copper Engraving

Flagellation Scene

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Animal Play

BDSM Today

As a culture, BDSM stands as anathema to sexual normativity in our modern society. Estimates within the United States hold that about 5-10% of adults practice BDSM. This minority has led to a number of misconceptions about the practice and some rather extreme interpretations. For example, most assume that BDSM practitioners assume traditional gender roles (male dominant / female submissive), yet there is evidence that the roles are evenly split, or that there are equal "maledom" and "femdom" couples. The culture itself appears to be more tolerant of gender role neutrality, allowing equal participation based on sexual preference. BDSM cultures are also proven as being far more tolerant of homosexuality and the transgendered. BDSM, as typically viewed, is not the misogynistic pleasure palace the public sees it as.

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In the run up to the theatrical release of 50 Shades of Grey, much more attention has been put upon the culture; almost as much as when the book was released some time ago. The problem with all of that is not the light shown upon the culture (after all, normativity doesn't necessarily correlate with propriety), but that the book infantilizes the female lead, creates an abuse fantasy amongst the housewives of modern America and the world, and makes a mockery of BDSM culture. The culture of BDSM centers on a world of consenting adults practicing anormative sexual behavior in order to mutually achieve sexual gratification. The books and the movie have no such center. And while, as some dominatrices have pointed out, this may lead to greater sexual exploration, what does it do for those who go from 0-100mph in their relationship? The narrow truth is that the exploration may lead to more harm than good in the overall scheme.

For BDSM practitioners, today's world is as free to them as it is to any minority community. Greater understanding as a result of the internet's ubiquity has allowed BDSM culture to become less insular and more exposed. Couples trying variants of BDSM role-play were 1 out of 5 according to a 2005 global sex survey. We might say that BDSM has sort of grabbed a bit of niche for more adventurous couples. With any luck, public misconceptions will fall away and BDSM as a culture will not be viewed with a neutral-negative stereotype any longer.