I used to think that S/M involved a big bad scary world that I could never be a part of, that it was all about being the toughest and able to withstand the most and that those who liked a little bit of this and a little bit of that just didn’t cut it. But I’ve come to learn a lot about the many forms that S/M can take, and this is what I want to discuss.
S/M is short for sadomasochism, and is often referred to as BDSM – Bondage Domination Sadism Masochism.
Sometimes D/s is thrown in – dominance and submission. All of these terms and related activities reference an exchange of power, and this is crucial to keep in mind. Any relationship can involve power exchange, whether on a sexual level or many other levels, so S/M is really just an explicitly choreographed playing out of the many ways we feel powerful and powerless in our lives.
There is an organized S/M community which involves play parties, where participants go to practice S/M with their partners as well as strangers or friends, as well as public S/M gatherings such as balls and conferences. As well, there are S/M clubs and restaurants that people can go to. All of these things are definitely important, but I also want to emphasize here that all sex, including S/M, is at heart democratic.
That means that anyone can practice it, and you don’t need special clothes, special friends, or special equipment – you simply need the desire for it and the willingness to experiment.
That was what I was missing when I used to read about S/M as a theoretical issue, because those who speak of S/M as an “issue” give it a lot more fancy airs than it really deserves. Like other forms of sexuality, S/M can run the spectrum from fantasies and private little games to elaborate scenes played out in front of an audience. Some people are into cutting, rope bondage, hot wax. Others are into psychological play within a master/slave relationship. Others may have extravagant fantasies about all the ways they want to be tortured and humiliated but in real life are not ready for that level of pain. All of these things and many more are encompassed by the term S/M, which is why it is often difficult to discuss; people come to such discussion with vastly differing preconceived notions and agendas and cannot see past the rhetoric and stereotypes.
One of the key things that is a staple to S/M is that it be “safe, sane and consensual.” These four simple words make all the difference in the world, and they should clue us in to the fact that those who practice S/M are doing so out of a mutuality and respect for each other, not out of some evil need to beat someone up. THAT is called violence, and it is not safe, sane OR consensual. What that phrase means is that if you are going to take part in S/M, you have to be aware of what YOU want and your own limits, as well as your partner’s, and if for some reason you feel that your partner does not or will not respect your limits, stop it before it starts.
Many people use a safeword, meaning a word that the bottom, or the person who is being acted upon, can use at any time and for any reason to stop what is going on. This is very important because often we are testing our own limits and cannot state in advance exactly how far will be “too far” and a safeword provides the freedom to let oneself go and know that at any moment you can say “no” and that is OK. It also tells the top, or the person who is doing the action to someone else, that they are doing something that the other person wants done to them.
The other night, walking down my block from the bus stop, I was mugged.
My purse was stolen, along with a disk with the original version of this column. A man stopped me, pretended to have a gun, stole my purse and punched me in the mouth. THAT, my friends, is real violence, and it is terrifying and horrible and awful. I did not consent to that, and I did not like it, and it is not acceptable.
I want to contrast that experience with some of the pleasures I’ve had with S/M to show that it is a whole different world, that the two have as little in common as sex and rape, as birth and death, as love and hate. Superficially, they may seem similar but that surface similarity disappears once we take even a moment to understand what they mean to the participants. I am usually a bottom, and I enjoy having people tie me up and spank me and talk dirty to me. I don’t know why, but these things turn me on incredibly.
It’s instinctual, it simply IS, and I know that for some reason those actions are incredibly powerful triggers that get me aroused very quickly. Sometimes people ask me if it hurts to get spanked, and my answer is yes and no. It does hurt in its way, but it’s a pleasant kind of pain, and one that moves from pain to pleasure, and back again, blurring the lines between them. I know that it’s something I enjoy because I find myself craving it even when I’m alone, on a very visceral level; I can feel my skin tingling with the anticipation of being spanked.
It’s part of my own sexual repertoire, something that I claim as part of who I am. That desire is independent of whether my partner wants to do it to me, which brings up another point – if someone wants you to hurt them in some way or tie them up or whatever it is, and you feel uncomfortable, you too have the right to say no. S/M, like any form of sex, should be mutually desired and desirable, otherwise it’s not really worth doing.
Back to the pain/pleasure principle:
it’s not the same kind of pain as simply being punched or hit, and the key factor distinguishing the two is that my being spanked is a negotiated action, whereas my being mugged was something that was forced upon me. S/M is negotiated between the parties involved, and that means each and every time. In other words, even though I do enjoy being spanked, it doesn’t mean I want every lover I have to do it to me, or that I want it to happen every time I have sex. It also means that even if someone has done it with me before, that doesn’t give them carte blanche to just jump right into it without getting permission. In fact, I am usually the one to ask to be spanked, to have to tell someone that that is what I want, and to me that is what makes S/M a positive thing. It has to involve two (or more) people talking about what they want or don’t want and then acting upon those desires. Ultimately, it’s as simple as that.
When I wrote before that sex is democratic, I was trying to convey the fact that you do not need to be into one S/M practice to be into another. Maybe you are only into having your nipples pinched, bitten, played with. And if someone tried to do that with your clit or wanted to tie your wrists, you’d balk. That is FINE. One of the reasons I love talking about sex with people is the range of things that get people off, the many many ways that people bring themselves TO sex, that they make “sex” individualized. Because sex doesn’t have one singular meaning, even though in our culture it’s become shorthand for penis-vagina sex.
But really “sex” is anything you want it to be, and that can include endless variations on whatever theme you want. I am in no way trying to denigrate those who practice S/M as professionals or who are active in the S/M community by these statements, merely trying to point out that you CAN try this at home. On that note, though, I want to tell you to make sure that you are in no way putting someone at risk of permanent damage – if you want to try something you’ve never had any experience with before, it would be wise to surf the web or read a book or ask a friend about it so that you know what you are getting yourself into.
I’m not some authority on S/M; I haven’t done that much of it and there are plenty of things about S/M that I have yet to learn.
But I do know that there are certain things that I like and have come to claim as my own, and that there is nothing wrong with S/M. S/M is not for everyone, and as Pat Califia writes in an essay called “Sacred Blood” (I’m paraphrasing), those who would practice S/M just to be cool will never get anything real out of it. S/M can be powerful, heady, gutwrenching, orgasmic, and can give you a kind of non-chemical high, but only if that is something you want from it.
Any form of sexuality can be whatever you want it to be, and though that may sound trite, boring and/or simplistic, I believe it with all of my heart. S/M is powerful because it can bring us to emotional and physical extremes if we let it, in ways that non-S/M sex often cannot. The tradeoff of reaching these extremes is that you really have to put yourself into the practice and be willing to get swept away and taken to another world, so to speak. S/M can be marvelous and mind expanding and help us think about our bodies in new ways, and learn from ourselves and our lovers or play partners. These are some of the things that I get out of it and that I see others get out of it and why I am writing about it now.
Recommended reading ( see BOOK REVIEW page ) :
Pat Califia, Macho Sluts
Pat Califia “Sacred Blood,” from Ritual Sex Samois, Coming to Power : Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M
Pat Califia, Robin Sweeney, The Second Coming: A Leatherdyke Reader
Joan Nestle, “The Gift of Taking,” from A Restricted Country
Jay Wiseman, SM 101: A Realistic Introduction
Philip Miller, Molly Devon, Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns : The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism
Dossie Easton, Catherine A. Liszt, The Bottoming Book : How to Get Terrible Things Done to You by Wonderful People
Dossie Easton, Catherine A. Liszt, The Topping Book : Or, Getting Good at Being Bad