Friday, November 12, 2004

What is BDSM?





This essay is one that I've been kicking around for a fairly long time now. Recently, I condensed my feelings about BDSM into a few brief paragraphs and included them into the body of the foreword for a novel I'm writing called Evolutions. When I read the foreword to my submissive, Grace, she about flipped her lid, telling me I had perfectly defined the BDSM lifestyle. I wouldn't go so far as to say that my essay perfectly captured the lifestyle, but I think I did manage a good job of at least expressing my own feelings on the topic. What I've decided to do here is to expound upon the foreword, and delete the specific references to Evolutions.

When I write an essay, story or poem and send it out into the world, I do so in the full knowledge that I'll never know all of the people who will ultimately read it, or how my audience will react. I hope I touch lives and hearts, but I'll mostly never know for sure. So to my audience, or perhaps "vidience," I have a few things to say and ask of you before we get don to brass tacks. If you are knowledgeable about this lifestyle, a real-life 24/7 participant, perhaps you're by now thinking this is all old hat, just another rehash of how we in this lifestyle feel, and nothing that would be deep or profound, or enlightening. Perhaps, if such is the case, you're right, but perhaps you've been looking for the right words to explain BDSM to some aspirant to knowledge (dom, sub or vanilla) who just needs to hear in a new way what you've been trying to explain about the lifestyle. Perhaps herein are those words.

Perhaps you're just curious about BDSM, or somehow accidentally came to this essay somehow, either printed or online. If so, I'd like to suggest that you carefully read my essay and carefully consider all I have to say here. But before you begin to glimpse into this special world, I would ask you to do both of us a favor. I want you to cast away your prejudices before you proceed further. This is neither the time nor the place to cling to your preconceived notions, but to jettison them, that you might open your mind and your heart to what I have to say here about myself and my friends and acquainances who live this lifestyle of dominance and submission.




First and foremost, I want to say I believe there are far more of us in some measure involved in dominance and submission than the vanilla mainstream would try to have us believe. I don't base this contention upon any statistics I've seen. Indeed, I don't know if there are any reliable statistics about the BDSM lifestyle and those of us who live it and love it. No, I base my contention instead upon my life's observations. We humans are an insecure lot, by and large, terrified of revealing our inner selves, I'm sad to say, to even those closest to us. We are all too often such cowardly sheep, blindly following the herd instead of our hearts. I thikn too many of us are even afraid of how we'll view ourselves if were were to prop those hidden doors open and explore our deepest secret desires. That saddens me greatly. How many very wonderful people who would love to be part of this lifestle never come to explore it, too afraid? Even if it's just one person, I say that's too many. I certainly don't think that BDSM is for everyone, but unlike gays, there are thousands out there who just can't find it inside themselves to take the chance, to explore these desires.

I think many of us explore our desires in circumspect ways, too fearful to openly express them. For instance, listen to people when they make jokes, because the subjects of those jokes often afford insight into the teller's heart. This is not to say that each and every joke every person relates tells the listener "I'M INSECURE ABOUT THIS!!!" I work hard to not cubbyhole people that way, but I cannot forget the teen boy I once was, just beginning to discover my sexuality. Including myself, every one of my male peers spoke of homosexuals with derision, scorn and ribaldry. Were we all really gay deep inside? I don't think this is the case. The vast majority of my peers married women, fathered children, and generally grew up to be flamingly heterosexual, myself certainly included. But I remember being afraid of girls as they likewise developed sexually, ultimately to flower into full womanhood as we boys likewise developed into men. I was by and large uncomfortable around teen girls (they ARE strange even to this day ... LOL), and such discomfort plants the seeds of insecurity, usually expressed as jokes or derisive commentary.

You've probably figured where I'm going with this line of thought, but I'll spell it out nonetheless. How often do you hear or express jokes about whips, chains or leather? Be at least honest with yourself even if you find you cannot be so with me. What, exactly, are your feelings on BDSM? Let me throw this into the mix, a conversation Grace tells me she had with a friend, one of those people who seems doomed to a live of never understanding, a person to whom an original thought and a cold drink of water would more than likely prove to be irretrievably fatal. Read on ...

Have you ever spanked or been spanked in an adult relationship, no matter how briefly, lightly or gently? How about bondage, again, no matter how lightly done or easily escapable or symbolic? Blindfolds? Tickling? Grace pointed out to her friend, and I agree one hundred percent, that if you have willingly administered or received the lightest intentionally delivered pain or even the least surrender and exchange of control, then you have stepped into our world, the realm of BDSM. The nameless young lady's paradigms shifted without a clutch at that point and her poor little head exploded, Grace told me. She was fortunately nowhere near a glass of ice water at the moment, and survived the experience. When she eventually emerges from the catatonia after the shock treatments, she should be just fine, but is likely to drool for several years to come. Attagirl, Grace!

Let me ask you another question when you've returned from the loony-bin shock lab, my Dear Reader. Are you back already? Great! Yeah, I agree, Grace's friend is a sad case. Anyway, here's my question. Have you ever gone to an adult book or toy store and perused the leather goods and handcuffs, or perhaps the S&M magazines? If so, then I submit that you are at least interested in this lifestyle to some degree.




I need to get more off my chest here if you're still reading this. I want to work with you for a moment to see if you're still carrying preconceived notions about the BDSM lifestyle and those of us who live it. Maybe we can start to dispel them and open your eyes.

First and foremost, we're everywhere and have been since time out of mind. If you explore the literature of BDSM for long, you're inevitably sure to find writings of the Victorian era rife with BDSM. In the 1950's, an author using the nom de plume "Pauline Reage" wrote the novel "The Story of O," exciting great commentary passionate with approval and scorn from the literary community of the day. The novel is still in print, in fact, available at most any regular bookstore you may patronize, and almost a half-century after its debut, it still sparks passionate debate and controversy among literati in and out of the BDSM lifestyle. Perhaps the first mainstream author to finally place her real name upon BDSM fiction is Anne Rice, who originally wrote the Sleeping Beauty trilogy and "Exit to Eden" under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaire, but later released the tales for publication under her real name. "Exit to Eden" was later made into a movie starring Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Ayckroyd.

I'm not going to offer commentary about stories and books I've read based on this lifestyle. If you choose to read them yourself, I want you to do so without the shadow of my opinion interfering with yours, that you might read these things and form your own conclusions. However, I want to spek for a moment about the movie, one of the very few feature films addressing the BDSM lifestyle, and as far as I know, the latest. I think "Quills" has been released since, but while it is about the Marquis de Sade, it's not about BDSM but more general sexuality and perversion. (Is there such a thing as vanilla perversion? A cute topic for jest, I suppose.) Author's note: This essay was written in the year 2001, long before the movie Secretary was made, which is likely to be the topic of another essay soon to come.

The movie "Exit to Eden" was only loosely adapted from the novel, more a vehicle for O'Donnell's and Ayckroyd's antics than a serious glimpse into BDSM. But it did afford the vanillas a sympathetic glimpse, however briefly, into our world. However poorly done, the movie served to illustrate my next point.




Before I get to that, though, I want to share a little something with you. I'm hand-writing this essay at a Denny's, where I usually stop most nights after I get off from work. It's mostly a quiet place where I can write and think over cigarettes and raspberry iced tea. I've written most of "Evolutions" here while the waitresses schlepped glass after glass after pitcher after pitcher of tea out to my table. I've become a regular here, sort of like Norm or Cliff from that old show Cheers, I guess. Anyway, sometimes when they're not running themselves ragged, I get to chat for a moment with a couple of the waitresses. Tonight, out of the blue, my waitress stayed for a moment and let me a little bit further into her life. She told me she's clean and sober, a recovering drug and alcohol addict. As we spoke, the discussion centered on the universal acceptance found by all and from all in the twelve-step programs. I couldn't help but reflect on the irony of this, considering that what you're about to read is more or less directly quoted from the foreword I wrote last night, before she and I had this talk. BDSM, you'll come to find, is often loaded with its little ironies. Read on, and you'll understand ...

I remember seeing a television commercial years back for some sort of rehab center, and the voice-over asked, "what does an alcoholic look like?" The answer, obviously, is that an alcoholic could be anyone, of any race, size, sex, religion, sexual orientation, income level, creed, color, political affiliation or shoe size. Those of us in the BDSM lifestyle are no different, not to be cubbyholed and dismissed. We are as multidimensional as anyone because we are anyone. I once debated politics with a domme I know, as an example. She contended that no one could be in this lifestyle who has my political beliefs, trying to dismiss me as a dominant and merely categorize me as a "wannabe." I'm not terribly fond of this woman in any event, and her invective did absolutely nothing to endear her to me, not that either of us really gave a damn then or now. But it was tantamount to saying I had to hold certain exclusive opinions were I a black man, or a Catholic, or a millionaire, homosexual or whatever. God, how shallow can a person be? May I give her some ice water and tell her "I think, therefore I am! Now begone!" as she swallows it? My reply to her attempt to dismiss me over my politics is this: I'm in this lifestyle, but it isn't my life. There is far more to me than BDSM, and thank God that can be said about each and every one of us. Coincidentally, I am neither Catholic, black, a millionaire, nor gay. Other than "millionaire," none of these categories are even those which I would particularly desire to fit!

If there's a category of humanity that exists, I think I've encountered it somewhere in the BDSM lifestyle. We are no different than the alcoholics I mentioned. We are no different than Hispanics. We are no different than homosexuals. We are no different than middle income moms and dads (even Ward and June Cleaver). We are no different than your postman, preacher or Avon lady. We are all these people, we are all people, we are everywhere in every generation. The BDSM lifestyle makes us no different than those not in the lifestyle. In fact, the reverse is actually true. BDSM is a common thread many of us share, each of us in this lifestyle seeking and finding our own levels.

It's sad that the media seems to report only the man-bites-dog stories, and that we read these stories and use them to paint other groups of people with broad strokes of misinformation and bigotry. If you read about BDSM in the newspapers or see it on the evening news, it is usually because someone did something outrageous and reprehensible. I think it'll be a long time before the media cares to portray us in a positive light. In that way, we are the brothers of the Muslims. For every single news story I've read portraying Muslims in a positive light, I've seen hundreds more depicting these people as mad bombers, rabidly intent on the wholesale slaughter or all non-Muslims worldwide, Hitlers in kaffiyehs and flowing robes. You'd think by now we'd learn, but it seems we're happy to be doomed as sheep to the media's shepherd, and thus blindly believe that Muslims are a worldwide menace, as Hitler once caused Germany to believe of the Jews, and as we Americans once shamefully believed of our west-coast Japanese-Americans, many of whom were born on our soil, and almost all of whom were entirely loyal citizens of our great land.

Have you ever met a Muslim? Have you ever befriended a Muslim? I have, and the ones I've met have been ordinary people like you, like me, like all of us. The only constant among Muslims that I've found is that they're all Muslim, subscribing to the teachings of the Holy Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, and worshipping God, whom they call Allah. To be sure, most of them are not wild-eyed airplane hijackers. Neither are all of them rich, or convenience store owners or tobacco merchants. They're just ordinary everyday people who share a common belief in God, just as we BDSM-ers only share a commonality of one facet in our lifestyles. We're not all freaks and perverts, nor sickos nor weirdos. We're just people.

(Author's note: This essay was written several months before the events of 11th September 2001, but those events do more to illustrate my point than to eliminate it, in my honest opinion)




So what is BDSM and the BDSM lifestyle? Let me begin by saying what the lifestyle is not. This is not a lifestyle of abuse. It is not about torturing unwilling captives for one's own pleasure alone. It is not about dominants treating submissives as less than human, for our submissives are not cattle or unfeeling objects. BDSM is not about spanking. BDSM is not about bondage. Now here's what BDSM and the BDSM lifestyle is ...

BDSM is about complete mutual trust, one for the other, first and foremost, trust that each seeks to please the other and will endeavor to ensure that neither partner comes to harm. BDSM is about unfailing honesty on the parts of all involved. And BDSM is about deep and abiding love. These limitless degrees of trust, honesty and love form an unbreakable triad, a unity among its partners usually far stronger than that found out in what we think of as the vanilla world.

I want to discuss our relationships in this lifestyle for a moment. Grace and I have frequently discussed the BDSM lifestyle in generalities, going beyond the particulars of our own relationship and out into the wider world of our peers and friends in this lifestyle At varying times we have spoken from emotion, but at other times from the standpoint of logic. Grace is a very intelligent woman, and I've found that I love delving into her thoughts I'd like to share with you our conclusions, in no particular order.

We have concluded that the roles in BDSM relationships begin with at least basically predefined roles, dominant and submissive, or switch-switch, ad infinitum depending on the couple in question. That in no way means that every one of the relationships in BSDM is identical. The reverse is true, in all actuality, but we BDSM-ers at least begin with a great deal more knowledge of our partners' wants and needs than most vanilla folk, I'd daresay. By definition, a BDSM relationship begins on a step of trust and honesty that vanillas might take years to make. I suppose you could say we begin a relationship in the center and work outward while our vanilla counterparts tend to advance their relationships in more linear fashions, often striking pitfalls that BDSM-ers would find unimportant, but that the Vanillese more often discover to be unrecoverable. because the trust and honesty needed to hoist one another from these punji-pits isn't there yet. I think vanillafolk often spend way too much of the early stages in relationships posturing and hiding parts of themselves from their partners in ill-advised attempts to show only their best sides. Personally, I think that's insane and counterproductive. All of us, BDSM or vanilla, get into relationships seeking something long-term, at least sooner or later. We're not running for office, for Christ's sake, but oftentimes for lifelong commitment, hopefully with the man or lady who will become a soul's mate. If you happen to be a vanilla reading these words, please consider them and take them to heart, and if you're hiding things from your partner, get those things out on the table, and soon, so you can mutually deal with them and cement trust and honesty firmly in place, that it might point you always to the right path, a compass never erring from True North. Yeah, yeah, so I wax poetic sometimes. Sue me! But getting back to my point, I contend that if you dispense with the deep issues early, the minor ones will seem more and more trivial, even laughable, as they arise. Perhaps your partner will find the big issues to be unrecoverable and break the relationship. If so, you are at least free before you've invested too much of yourself backing a lame horse at the Kentucky Derby. But if you work out whatever the deep issues may be, I think you'll come to find that you will also have gone a long way toward casting doubt and insecurities into the bowels of Hell where they belong, before they destroy love, trust and honesty irreparably.

I am very close friends with a dom named "Bob," who has come to this lifestyle relatively recently. (As an aside, I've noticed that many BDSM-ers come to the lifestyle later in life after some momentous self-discovery or admission brings them to epiphany. I think that's great, but I'm a bit different. I remember being seven years old and daydreaming about domming on Ginger and MaryAnn out there on Gilligan's Island.) Anyway, Bob and I talked late into the night about how happily stunned he and his slave "Millie" are at the seemingly infinite love, trust and honesty they'd suddenly found in BDSM from the get-go. I'll tell you what I told Bob that night: Vanillas could stand to open their eyes and learn from we grizzled old perverts.

Last Saturday, I attended a meeting of a BDSM organization in my area, Houston, Texas. The moderator led the discussion on the topic of psychological aspects of BDSM. Ideas and opinions fairly crackled across the room.. The discussion was lively, at times deeply profound and outrageously hilarious. One woman there offered a brief comment that expressed my diatribe, and I'd like to share it here. She said that almost no vanillas in her life know about her BDSM lifestyle, but that in our realm it is a given that we are free and encouraged to share our deepest feelings, only far later getting into the small talk like favorite movies or whether we prefer McDonald's to Burger King. That same woman later broached again the topic of trust, saying that she and her master had hosted a number of BDSM parties in their home and had never been violated or suffered a theft during the course of these events. She plainly stated that we tend to be very honest and honorable people in most regards. To that observation, I would like to add my own. There are women and there are ladies. There are men and there are gentlemen. After ten years as a paramedic, I've seen too many people bared of their masks to ignore the difference, and we southerners tend to be big on gentility in any event. Most of the BDSM-ers I've known have far and away been ladies and gentlemen, strata above mere women and men. Take a bow, y'all, because you deserve it.

But what more is BDSM, you may by now be asking. Hopefully you've not by now gotten bored and fallen asleep or went to find a rerun of Adam-12 on Nick at Nite. BDSM is about the elevation of our humanity, raising all involved upon pedestals to stand proudly in the warm sun, under a dazzlingly blue and cloudless sky. Oh! So now you're calling your lawyer to sue me out of a zillion bucks for malpractice of poetry, eh? Well, I don't have a poetic license in any event. Go ahead and sue, but there's no blood in this ole domly turnip, so I think your shyster's going to send you packing.

If you have studied this lifestyle for anything more than the scantest perusal, you've surely encountered our motto scattered everywhere: Safe, Sane and Consensual. That's not just a jazzy feel-good slogan, but the way we live this lifestyle. Safe, Sane and Consensual is indeed one exclusive definition of our lifestyle, however flexibly applied from couple to couple. If an experience was unsafe, if it was insane, if all didn't consent to it, then it was absolutely not BDSM but abuse. Author's note: See my essay on SSC on this blog for more thoughts on this particular topic.) I know of no one in the BDSM lifestyle who is accepting of an abuser. Are people in the BDSM lifestyle spanked, whipped, beaten? You betcha. Are these same people held, cherished, hugged, loved? Absolutely. BDSM is for the mutual pleasure and satisfaction of all involved. It's not just confined to cheap thrills and kinky sex, but usually reaches from there and on into the deeper, more private and sacred chambers of the spirit. I'll flatly tell you the kink is fantastic and I love it, but it's like condiments served alongside the entree in a four-star restaurant. Please accept my apology in advance for what I'm about to say, but it is exactly the difference between an old fashioned down and dirty raunchy fuck and lovemaking, where bodies, hearts and souls are laid bare and shared. In either case, you came, and I hope very well. At times, a lowdown raunchy fucking is just what the doctor ordered, but it's far more the lovemaking that most of our souls crave.

Submissives may often be hurt, and sometimes very badly. They may be brought to tears, screaming, or sometimes even bleeding and scarring at their behest and consent. I don't venture to guess the reasons why, anymore than I guess why I love barbecued chicken but hate fried chicken. Neither am I able to explain why we dominants are pleased to deliver such pain to our loved ones. Are we made? Are we born? I don't know and neither do I care. It's good enough for me that we simply are. But "hurt" lives in a galaxy light years apart from intentionally delivered harm to one's body or spirit, which is beyond the pale, unforgivable.

And no, BDSM does not require that one be spanked or restrained. One of the more fun and interesting activities I've found in D/s play falls under the broad category called "sense play," in which a submissive is subjected to a number of physical sensations, sometimes blindfolded, sometimes wearing earplugs, sometimes restrained. Pick any combination of the above. The submissive may feel ice rubbed on the skin, or soft rabbit fur, or the blunt side of a knife dragging down the body. Perhaps the submissive will feel the most feathery of fingertip caresses. The list is as endless as the results are ... well ... WOW!




Most larger cities have clubs or social organizations for those of us into BDSM, and I highly recommend looking into them. They can be a great place to socialize and be, if only for a short time, with like minded people in a casual environment. But it's not at all why I recommend looking into these organizations. Above all else, these societies provide a venue to learn this lifestyle intellectually and emotionally. Should you attend, you will likely find an open-minded acceptance of one and all seldom encountered in Vanillaworld, save the occasional twelve-step group. The internet has perhaps been the greatest boon to our lifestyle. Shielded by anonymity, it is now possible to find and contact like-minded people in one's locale. But these BDSM societies should not be considered to be singles' bars, so I recommend that you attend with a closed mouth and open eyes instead of trolling for some cute little subbie to spank. Many there are in deeply devoted relationships, dom and sub. This is not to say the unattached are automatically unwelcome, but a simple suggestion that you take your prejudices and assumptions and lay them aside, then enter with an open heart, an open mind, open eyes and open respect.




This is a discussion Grace and I have held long into many a night. I suppose this is my testimony of hope for the BDSM lifestyle and our future. Hope springs eternal, right?

Do you remember when the tennis star Billie Jean King rocked the sporting world with her admission that she was a lesbian? I remember it, even though I was still a youngster, a future far ahead of me when I would realize that I, too, am a lesbian, however wrapped in a man's body. I remember people left, right and center were freaked, utterly freaked, that someone so previously well-regarded as a heroine to the sports world, and I suppose to the women's liberation movement as well, was now an overnight infamous pervert.

I suppose how you regard gays and lesbians is for you to decide, just the same as your feelings regarding any other subset of humanity, to include BDSM-ers. I am neither here to praise nor condemn gays and lesbians, but to have them illustrate my eventual hopes for those of us who practice dominance and submission.

You see, the homosexual community is starting after all this time to gain footholds in the mainstream culture. No longer do we necessarily go into an autmatic panic and think a gay is by definition a menace to ourselves and our children. To be sure, we still have a liberal lacing of homophobes and gay bashers out there, just the same as other extremist groups of racists and other bigots that are still around, and likely always will be. But you're probably a lot like me as regards bigotry: You've seen it running in all directions and from all directions.

The American culture has slowly but surely arrived at the conclusion that gays are just people living another life. To be sure, the main beneficiaries of culture's slowly evolving attitude change are the feminine lesbians and to what I think is a lesser degree, masculine gays, what one might term "normal homosexuals," as if any human has ever attained that state of grace known as "normality." Gays and lesbians have arrived to a more secure place in American society. My hope is that in the fullness of time, BDSM-ers will be accepted by our culture as just the ordinary, everyday people we are, that our choice or avocation or birthright will no longer hang over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, keeping us cloistered in secret garrets like latter-day Anne Franks. I want us, my numerous friends and acquaintances who share this beautiful lifestyle with me, to be able to emerge from our closets without the fear of being made yet another group of outcasts. We merit your bigotry no more than any other subset of culture that is harmful to no other.

I'd like to leave you with one parting thought, if you're still reading this and didn't fall to sleep for a good dose of QWERTY-face. There is really no facet of society where dominance and submission is not the rule. There are those who dominate every person they encounter, and those who daily submit to the domination. We all have someone who is dominant to us, be it a boss, a doctor, a policeman, the PTA president, whatever. And all of us have dominated or do dominate or will dominate others, perhaps subordinates at work, a person who wants our business, and even our children. At least the BDSM lifestyle is one we're free to embrace or reject at our will and pleasure. We have to submit to our employers or we're fired. We have to submit to the law, or we're jailed or fined. These are consequences we've no choice but to suffer. These elements of dominance and submission are required of us, no matter our choices or opinions of them. It makes me wonder exactly who are the demented ones and which of us are truly sane.