By Gloria G. Brame, PhD, MPH in Human
One of the most misunderstood
areas of human sexuality is paraphilia, and specifically the
realm of BDSM/fetish sex. Although the fantasies and activities
that fall under the BDSM umbrella are frequent fodder for media
scandals and sensational movies, frank dialogue about why people
enjoy these variations is hard to find. Instead, many people
feel guilty and ashamed that they have abnormal sexual desires,
and worry that their fantasies imply that they have serious
While not as organized yet as the Gay & Lesbian movements,
the BDSM/fetish communities have become an active political
and social force in recent years. Thousands of websites currently
host BDSM/fetish content, and hundreds of support groups and
educational organizations have sprung up to accommodate the
burgeoning communities of kinky folk. From a seemingly small,
secretive subculture, the BDSM/fetish world has emerged on the
Internet as a thriving open culture. Off-line, however, not
that much has changed in the public's negative perception of
kinky sex and the people who have it. This section of sexualhealth.com
aims both to educate readers seeking to understand more about
BDSM/fetish sex, and to offer sympathetic, non-judgmental advice
to all who have questions and concerns about its safe practice.
As a clinical sexologist and author who has interviewed and
counseled thousands of people over the years, and as a BDSMer
myself, my perspective on sexuality and what is "normal"
can be neatly summed up as follows: normal sex is whatever consenting
adults find pleasurable. If you are of legal age; if you understand
exactly what you're getting into sexually and feel good about
it; if you can find another charming adult who shares your interests;
and if you practice safe sex and take all other reasonable precautions
to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies, then you aren't just
normal, you're blessed.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the same things are normal
for everyone. Peoples' sexual imaginations and impulses are
incredibly diverse. Just as you wouldn't expect the whole world
to agree on which color is prettiest or which flavor of ice
cream tastes best, different people need and want different
kinds of experiences in bed. Some of these experiences may not
turn you on; some of them may strike you as downright weird;
but all of them are perfectly acceptable, as long as the people
who are actually engaged in it feel happy with their choice.
So what is BDSM? A short list of the types of fetishes and interests
which fall under this heading includes: bondage, spanking, cross-dressing,
transgenderism, role-playing, corporal punishment, sadomasochism,
foot and shoe fetishism, golden showers, enemas, age play, infantilism,
rubber fetishes, master/slave relationships, sexual dominance
& submission, and dozens more kinks and fetishes that involve
one person being in control and the other person surrendering
Most important to know is that when I talk about BDSM/fetish
sex, I mean kinky intimacy between consenting adults. The concept
of adult consent is critical to understanding BDSM. On the surface,
an outsider may view an adult spanking or more extreme acts,
such as a piercing or whipping, with the horror one feels at
witnessing an assault. The outsider may equate rough sex with
assault, and then assume that it is an act of anger or emotional
coldness. It is therefore crucial to understand the underlying
dynamic of BDSM lovers.
Here are several points to consider:
--BDSMers are as romantic, loving, and
committed to relationships as anyone else. But instead of finding
a kiss romantic, they may find wearing someone's collar to be
romantic. Or a spanking may excite them more than conventional
foreplay, and enhance their love for their partner.
--To a masochist, extreme sensation is
perceived as pleasurable. You may compare it to a runner's high:
the more intense the activity, the more their endorphins pump,
and the more ecstatic they feel.
--A person who takes the submissive role
is neither passive nor a victim. He or she has made a conscious
decision to pursue BDSM and has probably looked long and hard
to find a compatible dominant partner.
--BDSMers make explicit agreements about
what they will and will not do together. Many use communication
tools to ensure that they never overstep each other's boundaries.
Examples of these include "safe words" (a word or
phrase the submissive may utter when he or she wants an activity
to end); "contracts" (written agreements outlining
each partner's needs, desires, and expectations); and "negotiation"
(the process of deciding what kind of relationship the partners
want, and what level of commitment each will make). See A short
lexicon of BDSM terminology for more terms.
--Dominance and abuse are as different
as loving intercourse and rape. BDSM involves consenting adults
who expect to derive pleasure from their experience.
--BDSMers may be aroused by "regular"
sex too, but the BDSM acts give them the higher level of sexual
satisfaction that they need to feel emotionally balanced.
--Not all submissives enjoy pain and
not all dominant enjoy giving pain. Many BDSMers are only interested
in sensual play, psychological domination or fetishes.
--Being into BDSM does not imply any
psychological or emotional problems. BDSM is only a problem
when an individual feels depressed or anguished about his or
--BDSM/fetishism cannot be cured. They
are not diseases, for one. These desires are innate to individual
sexual identity and usually persist throughout one's active
sexual life. Counseling can only help people to accept their
needs and to make healthful, positive choices.