Out of the Shadows: About BDSM, Part 5

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Partners and Parties

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

This page covers:

Multi-Person Relationships and BDSM

In this section, we cover how BDSM relates to polyamory and to Swinging.

Multiple Partners and BDSM

Choices, choices: Polyamory and
monogamy in BDSM relationships

BDSM Versus Swinging

Polyamory (or being poly) means having multiple beloveds (as opposed to "monogamy" -- one beloved). The word "polyamory" has a different meaning than sexual profligacy, open marriages, and swinging in that polyamory typically refers to having multiple long-term lovers, all of whom know about (though they may or may not be mutually intimate with) each other. The emphases on openness of communication and balancing the multiple commitments is the key feature that distinguishes polyamory from other forms of multiple partnering.

Often, one's closest lover is called one's primary, with other lovers being called secondaries. Many successful polyamorous relationships revolve around a centrally strong primary commitment, one that may even have started off being monogamous and only gradually extended to include others. However, polyamorous relationships have other expressions as well. One form of polyamory is amongst folks who have egalitarian relationships within small groups of three or four people, occasionally even living together as a group. "Open marriages" can also be forms of polyamory if the outside lovers are long-term and know each other; the dividing line is not clear-cut.

Polyamory in principle has nothing to do with BDSM. Polyamory and monogamy are simply two different alternatives for relationships styles, regardless of whether one is vanilla or does BDSM. However, possibly because not all BDSM necessarily involves sexual activity, or possibly because folks who do BDSM tend to be as highly into communication and openness with their partners as those who consider themselves polyamorous, the discussion and practice of polyamory does seem to come up a lot in BDSM.

One common way that polyamory crops up in BDSM is when a vanilla couple stumbles on BDSM

and BDSM
only to find that their BDSM interests do not coincide. (For example, if one partner wants to submit and the other partner does not want to dominate.) A common question is: "Can I go play with someone else, then?" Of course, no one but the couple can answer that question -- each relationship differs. However, couples stumbling on these complications sometimes find some gain from rearranging their relationship to include polyamory.

Polyamory is not easy (neither is monogamy!), but people who choose it often find the rewards to be worth the extra work.

More on
Every additional person in a group of partners has his or her own limits, desires, fragilities, time-constraints, and concerns, not to mention the additional risks of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and interpersonal frictions, fears of displacement, or jealousy that might arise. For many people, though, the very reward and appeal is precisely in the discovery that forthright communication can, for some, overcome societal traditions that inhibit communication of desires that loving partners occasionally share. And often when it cannot, the very act of caring and learning about the inner self of one's partner can be worth the risks.

Which is not to say that the risk never results in dissolution of relationships; you have to weigh the factors for yourself.

For an excellent book on polyamory and how to communicate openly with one's partner about issues ranging from jealousy to desires, see The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Possibilities, by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. Because
Still more on
BDSM activities are so varied, it can work out that multiplicity of partners can offer solutions that are not feasible under monogamy.

The customs associated with multiple partners (both polyamory and casual partnering) in BDSM differ substantially from the customs of Swinging. Most notably, Swingers tend to do things in pairs, with one pair of partners seeking another pair of partners such that all four people like each other enough to get sexually involved or to trade with each other. In BDSM, such insistence that people agree as a foursome to all get together would only be a coincidence. If one person in a couple wants to experience bottoming to knives and the other person wants to dominate someone by calling the person a slut, it would be highly unlikely for the couple to be able to find another couple whose interests are exactly that one partner wants to top a knife scene and the other wants to be called a slut! The unlikelihood of matching interests makes foursome-matching in BDSM rare.

A second striking difference between multiplicity of partners in BDSM and Swinging is evident at public events. At Swinger events, light touch is commonly the first approach to seeing if someone is interested in you. If two people are making love on a mattress and someone else is interested in joining in, lightly touching the leg or arm of one of the lovers and waiting for a nod or smile is an approved method of communication.

Swingers FAQ
But at a BDSM event, touching someone even on the arm in the social space is customarily considered inappropriate; and approaching a scene and actually touching one of the partners can get you thrown out of the party or club! The common form of finding out if someone is willing to play with you is to ask that person some time during a social conversation.

A third way in which Swinging differs from BDSM comes from the emphasis that BDSM puts on prior verbal communication, loosely called negotiation. Vanilla sex is not as varied and not as risky as BDSM. Vanilla activities include actions familiar to most adults: kissing; stroking or licking the body gently, and particularly breasts and genitals; fellatio; cunnilingus; and intercourse. That list is narrow and familiar enough for most adults to be able to read body language about details on the fly. If you don't want something or want to make a minor adjustment to what someone else is doing at a Swinger event, it is usually easy to communicate with either body language or a brief whispered comment. A few words or a shift in body position usually do the trick!

But in BDSM, the range of activities is so broad, so potentially unfamiliar, and sometimes so unique to the individuals involved that prior discussion can preclude a lot of misunderstanding. If you unexpectedly put a knife to someone's throat while holding the person's hair, social custom, not to mention the law, would deem it an attack! To call someone a "slut" while holding the person's head to your cock or cunt, or to order someone to kneel next to you in a restaurant even in the remote corner you asked the Maitre D' for are all sufficiently unusual practices that it has simply evolved as the custom at BDSM events to negotiate even vanilla sex in advance. (In this sense, even what might be called "pickup" play at playparties typically involves the partners' knowing details about each other than many folks who have been married for a year don't ask! Negotiations before playing with someone new at a BDSM event can be quite involved and personal; and they get even more involved and personal after years of the partners' playing together.)

While we're at it, a fourth, though minor, difference between Swingers and folks who do BDSM is the common Swinger refrain: "No means No!" In BDSM, the identical requirement of consent certainly applies, but partners often negotiate a safeword that differs from the word "No." If you are at a Swinger event and someone's "No" is not observed, you would legitimately move in to help. If you are at a playparty or BDSM club and someone's "No" is not observed, you do not know for sure that consent is being violated. (Usually playparties have hosts or DMs whose job it is to assess or find out if consent is being violated, and if you are in doubt you should certainly approach the host or DM and alert him or her.)

BDSM Events and Gatherings

In this section we describe Munches, playparties, BDSM clothing and symbols, and the Scene Community.

Play Events and Social Get-Togethers
What Are Munches? What is a Playparty?

A Munch is a social gathering of BDSM-friendly group of folks for coffee, lunch, or dinner. Munches are usually held in restaurants and announced publicly. They are usually oriented toward creating an environment where newcomers will feel welcome and comfortable. Dress is typically casual street clothes, and Munch organizers are usually very sensitive to the concerns of many newcomers about identification and safety. For many folks, a Munch is the first face-to-face contact they ever have with the larger BDSM Community.

The first Munch was called the Burgermunch and was organized by STella in California outside of San Francisco. It was an immediate success and has spawned many successful offshoots located all around the country. Many cities and towns all over the country and in Europe have Munches, either at periodic intervals or whenever the mood strikes.

The Groups page at this site lists many local Munches, including meeting places, times, and contact information where available.

Also, Munch announcements are regularly posted on the Internet newsgroup ssbb (soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm). Munch announcements were traditionally posted to the Internet newsgroup asb (alt.sex.bondage); some are still posted there.

If there is no Munch group in your area, consider starting one yourself!

Flagging, Collars, Leather: BDSM Fashion

What you wear is a personal matter, not a requirement, for BDSM. For historical reasons, black leather vests, pants, and boots are a common sight at BDSM events. But if you prefer a white teeshirt and jeans, by all means wear what makes you comfortable. There is no standard dress code for BDSM events. At play events, unless the rules specify elsewise, dress ranges from evening gowns to naked. Some folks display their whips and BDSM interests, but others do not.

Corsetry FAQ
If you like to dress up in fetishwear, be it a corset, boots, or latex, play events are usually great places to express yourself.

Locking collars are sometimes worn by submissives as symbols of DS relationships. However, many other symbols are just as commonly worn, including piercings, locking bracelets, belts, tattoos, etc. (See The Story of O for another common BDSM symbol used for rings.) There is no symbol that is universal, and it is up to the partners to decide. Note that black leather clothing and necklaces that look like collars have become very fashionable today amongst Goths and others, so someone wearing a collar is not necessarily doing BDSM!

Wearing a flag (keys or a handkerchief) hanging from one's back pocket to indicate interests has a long tradition in gay communities and is also observed by many folks doing BDSM.

Elf's BDSM
Hanky List
Traditionally, a top flags (that is, wears the pocketed item) on the left, and a bottom on the right. The recognized hanky color for SM is black. Many hanky code colors are fairly obscure, but if
Leathernet's BDSM
Hanky List
you are looking for a list, you can check out Elf's or Leathernet's.

Flagging by wearing something in a back pocket has

Leather Pride
nothing to do with ordinary flags. But while we are at it, Tony DeBlase's Leather Pride flag displayed here is a widely-recognized symbol of BDSM.
Another symbol of BDSM that has been showing up a lot is this triskelion (a swirl of three legs or branches emanating from a central point, also called a triskele). This symbol, called the BDSM Emblem by its originator, Quagmyr, is related to similar figures with Celtic and oriental roots, but differs officially in having "eyes" that open to the background instead of closed dots. More information on the history and meanings of these symbols can be found at the linked sites.

Playparties are parties where play is allowed. Most playparties are private events held in people's homes, but some are large events held at hotels or clubs. (Some events with open playparties are listed in the calendar on the Events page.) Playparties tend to provide cleaner environments than public BDSM clubs and, because the guests are usually invitation-only, fewer clueless gawkers.

Playparties can be wonderful ways to meet other folks who do BDSM, learn about safety and technique (many experienced players are flattered to be asked how to flog or how to do rope bondage), get creative ideas for your own play, and, if you enjoy it, play with your partner in front of others. Playing in public at a party can also be a relatively safe way to play with a completely new partner. On the other hand, playing in front of others does tend to deter many people from doing extremely intimate or intense scenes.

Playparties are not usually pick-up parties. (See the contrasting material on Swingers for more on negotiation when playing with newly met folks.) This is not to say that you will not meet someone at a playparty with whom you might end up playing eventually, but just that coming on to everyone you meet is not the goal of the party and very likely will get you kicked out. Although people at playparties do sometimes play with people they have only first met that evening, the majority of play is between partners who have known each other a long time and negotiated carefully and fully. Playing with someone you only first met that evening does happen, but it is much less common than at Swinger events, and is, at most events, preceded by lots of prior discussion and negotiation.

Playparties also are commonly alcohol-free. If you are going to bring something for the hosts, make it fresh fruit or brownies, not beer or wine.

A few well-known customs of playparties include the standard "No touching" rule (that is, it is unacceptable to touch someone without asking, not even someone's arm in conversation), not ever treating anyone

Playparty Etiquette
new you meet who you are sure is a submissive as if the person is your submissive, never touching anyone else's toys without asking permission, and being respectful of the space where other people are playing.

Sometimes the scenes at playparties can be quite intense. If you are at a playparty and you see a scene that disturbs you, the custom is to leave the room quietly. (A common arrangement for playparties is for the party to have a Social Room where no play is allowed, in part for such eventualities.) If you believe a scene is nonconsensual, the custom is to ask the host or a designated Dungeon Master (DM) about the scene. It is inappropriate to intervene directly in a scene unless there is an outright emergency (for example, if a frame collapsed on the players). If you and your partner are considering doing a scene that might look unsafe or nonconsensual, it is a good idea to get permission from the hosts or DMs first, and to have spotters lest an onlooker starts to worry enough to intervene.

Playparties tend to afford greater opportunities to play intensely than public clubs because they are typically attended by people who know each other well enough to have a sense of the way they each play. On the other hand, just because someone is at a playparty does not necessarily mean the hosts can guarantee that that individual is a safe enough player for you personally. Negotiation and checking references for people are still important.

The Scene Community

The Scene Community, Scene, or Leather Community, refers to those who interact for social, play, or support purposes with others who do BDSM. Being a "member" of the Scene Community is as nebulous a concept as being a golfer -- you can be as avid or as casual a participant as you like. The Scene Community includes some folks who are "out" about their BDSM activities. It includes some who organize Munches, educational groups, public play events, and a few who engage in political lobbying to influence laws bearing on BDSM. But it also includes many people who are not the least bit "out" about their BDSM activities, have no desire to play in public settings, or have no interest in making political statements.

There are no local, national, or international boundaries to the Scene Community. Nevertheless, a sense of overall community is evident. Many customs (such as negotiation, safety and privacy concerns, emphases on open-mindedness and respect, and specific play activities) are strikingly similar from one region or subgroup to the next. Moreover, if you go to a few events, even local events such as munches or private gatherings, you will soon discover that people you meet in one place know people you have met somewhere on the other side of the country.

There are differing styles within gay, lesbian, and heterosexual BDSM subgroups. Styles also differ a great deal depending on where and from whom a person first learned about BDSM. Information travels fast in this day and age of the computer, but the Scene Community, amorphous as it may be, pre-dated and probably still surpasses computers as a mechanism for sharing information about BDSM.

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