Out of the Shadows: About BDSM, Part 1

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Introduction to BDSM

This page begins an introduction to basic BDSM terms and concepts. To return to the About BDSM menu, click here.

What is BDSM?

Scenes, Play, Tops, and Bottoms: A Bit of Vocabulary

What is vanilla sex?

What are B&D, D&S, and S&M?


B&D (Bondage and Discipline)

D&S (Domination and Submission)

Four Special Topics on DS: Standardization, Roles, Gor, TPE
Does DS involve standardized rules? Are folks doing BDSM just acting out roles?

The rules of DS are not standardized. They are typically worked out between the partners during negotiations prior to playing. A submissive is not required to kneel at the foot of the dominant unless the partners have agreed that kneeling is an acceptable play activity. Nor is a submissive automatically required to defer to dominants other than the submissive's own partner. Tops and doms do not all wear leather and boots or carry whips and chains; nor do owned submissives all wear collars.

It is the case, however, that with the proliferation of DS on the net, many chat channels have evolved their own customs, customs that diverge quite a bit from the current "real life" (meaning face-to-face) practice of DS. In particular, it is common on IRC

IRC Help
and many BBSs for channels to expect submissives to use only lower case letters in their nicknames and to address all tops and doms as Sir or Ma'am. (Tops and doms are expected to use only upper case letters and commonly adopt a very high-falutin' tone.) These practices are not typically found off the net in BDSM groups that get together in person.

In fact, in person the custom is precisely the opposite! No submissive or slave is ever treated as such by anyone who has not explicitly negotiated permission to do so. Giving an order to or expecting anything other than common courtesy from a submissive who is not your own is to violate basic human respect as well as to verge on stepping on the toes of someone's possible owner, who might have given the person clear orders never to submit to or be touched by anyone else. This custom of treating all non-partners equally, whether they be dom or sub, top or bottom, long ago gave rise to a well-known retort, should any submissive ever find himself or herself ordered to do something by someone who is not a partner: "I may be a slave, but I'm not your slave!"

Another example of this customization is found in what dominants and submissives call themselves. There is no standardized rule of thumb about when someone is a slave as opposed to a submissive, or a mistress, master, or daddy, as opposed to an owner or top or dominant. Nor is there any standard rule about calling one's dominant "Sir" or "Ma'am" or just by the top's given name. These customs and courtesies of address are entirely up to the partners to work out. If one form of address seems more meaningful for you and your partner than another, by all means adopt that form of address!

For more discussion of net versus real-life relationships, see Part 2.

What is Gorean Play?

Gorean play is stylized kind of play that is DS-like but with highly standardized customs. It is

Gor Books
based on a series of science fiction novels about an imaginary planet called Gor in which females are all extremely deferential to males. A female slave (called a kajira) on the planet Gor is subject to the whims of any passing male according to some specific customs. Males are assumed to be dominant, also according to some specific roles. There are occasional roles available for those who cross gender assumptions; this is more common on IRC than in the books themselves.

What differentiates Gorean play from D/s is that D/s does not involve any standardized rules applying to all submissives or all of any single gender or category of people. The rules of D/s are typically worked out in a highly customized manner between the partners.

On occasion, the rules partners arrive at are a close approximation to the customs of Gorean play. If that works for you, great! You may find partners amongst Goreans, as well as amongst folks with BDSM backgrounds. But if you are new to BDSM and offended because you accidentally stumbled on some Gorean channels/rooms where you are expected to behave in some way or other because of your gender or your nick, my recommendation is to just look elsewhere. Gorean play is a special case that works for some, but not all.

The word "role" has many uses in BDSM and requires a little clarification. People sometimes describe themselves as taking on the role of the dom or the role of a submissive when they play. This description can be very deceptive for newcomers because it suggests that BDSM is all play-acting, a style of comporting oneself that one sheds when one goes back to "real life" -- say, one's job or interacting with one's family or vanilla friends.

BDSM is not play-acting. Tops and doms typically are no more acting out roles when they play than a mother is just pretending to be a mom when she tells her children to wash up before dinner. When we say someone is acting in her role as a mother, we merely mean she is acting in that capacity, not that she is pretending. Someone who is a mother may also have a job, and hence may comport herself differently or wear different clothes in different circumstances; but neither mode of comportment is commonly considered a pretense.

Similarly, a dom is not typically pretending to be a dom, though he or she may, in that capacity, adopt particular external behaviors or modes of dress. The feelings, however, are very real. Even when partners begin their scene or session with "role play," say, with one partner pretending to be a captive or a teacher, typically these "roles" are just jumping off points that quickly fade into feelings of DS that are very real for the partners.

Moreover, even in pairs of partners where one may take on the "role" of dominant or submissive to please the other partner, it is typically not all play acting. Usually the partners get some real pleasure and joy out of playing with each other. It is inappropriate for an outsider to suggest that what they experience is any less "real" than what someone else may experience.

People comport themselves differently with their lovers than they do with their friends, family, or colleagues. This does not generally mean they are faking what they are doing. BDSM -- and in particular, whether one is dom or sub, top or bottom -- feels and is very real to the participants.

What is Total Power Exchange (TPE)?

Total power exchange (or TPE) is a term that is sometimes used to describe a certain class of 24/7 (full-time) DS relationships wherein the submissive gives up to the dominant a very comprehensive range of rights to control the submissive's daily existence.

The choice of the word "total" is rather unfortunate, since it is obviously not humanly possible for a dominant to control every blink or thought a submissive might do or have every moment of the day. Not to mention the extreme situations that could occur if submission were actually "without limits": Would you rape a child or kill someone if so ordered by your dom? Let the dom remove one of your limbs? If you are the dom, might you order the submissive to leave a viable career because you are envious of the sub's opportunities? The idealism that such things could never happen is very pretty if morals, ethics, and consent are in order, but legally and personally consequential if not. It is na´ve to sign a contract that says there are "No limits" to what the dom can order if you have never thought about -- and talked openly about -- such possibilities with your partner.

However, the idealism of the dom's having a right to complete control and decision-making power over the submissive is very inspiring to some, and works well in some cases.

Not all 24/7 DS relationships involve total power exchange. Nor does TPE mean that there are no negotiations or communication in the relationship (see Part 2 for more on communication and negotiation in BDSM). TPE is a concept that gives rise to a lot of

controversy and vehement debate, much of which is judgmental casting of stones in the direction of those who do not play in one way or another. If you love TPE and that's the way you want to arrange your relationship, great! If you are skeptical that it exists or don't want to arrange your relationship that way, also great! There is no gain to castigating the way someone else plays, since in general it does not constrain you from playing the way you want.

Is there such a thing as a "true" dom or a "true" sub?

S&M (Sadism and Masochism)

Continue on to Part 2: Safety and BDSM
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