BDSM – An Acronym of Acronyms

Lots of people have heard the expression “BDSM” over the years, as the media romanticizes the occasional Dominatrix here and there, and suggest scary-looking, dark, steamy dungeon scenes in TV dramas. It seems pretty exciting, doesn’t it? It is for a lot of folks!

When a couple says, “We’re into BDSM,” what do they mean exactly? The acronym BDSM is really three acronyms combined into one, which reflects how closely related the three often are.

The letters B-D-S-M separate out into three primary acronyms: B&D, D&S, and S&M. Here is how the larger acronym breaks down:

  • B&D stands for Bondage and Discipline.
  • D&S stands for Dominance and Submission.
  • S&M stands for Sadism and Masochism.

These categories almost always overlap each other. Although it is possible for someone to only be interested in one specific form of play fulfilling just one of the acronyms, it’s much more common for these areas to exist together during playtime to varying degrees, depending upon the desires and consents of the play partners involved. (Even in BDSM, consent is what makes it all work. Any activity performed without consent is abuse. It’s only with consent that it gets to be called “play.”)

Each of the three areas below are referred to as power-exchange-based types of play, where one person gives up a degree of control to the other person. The two aspects of each acronym polarize each other. This is where the dynamics that build into sexual/sensual psychodrama come from, bringing with it passion and the potential for extended pleasure and incredible flights of ecstasy.

Bondage and Discipline (B&D)

The power exchange in the B&D relationship is between the the person tying somebody up and the one being tied up. Discipline here doesn’t mean getting a good spanking (that is in the S&M section), though it does relate with other kinds of discipline often experienced as kids: for instance, being made to sit in a chair in a corner, or being grounded. Being instructed to use specific postures, having eye contact be disallowed (like an averted gaze), sitting positions, food restrictions, language restrictions, and even sitting in the corner are all sexualized in this kind of power exchange play.

B&D takes many forms, but the bond between the two players is established and strengthened by the part one willingly agrees to play and the connection with the other person in his/her role. It can intensify to become a psychologically powerful connection, and a very exciting one for both players.

Dominant and Submissive (D&S)

The most clearly psychological power exchange of the three, this type of play involves clearly delineated roles where one person takes on the position of being the submissive to the other person’s role as the dominant. This means the submissive does whatever the dominant asks, period! The submissive also looks to the dominant for complete and utter control, as the dominant looks to the submissive for complete and utter obedience. The two need each other to exist.

One should take into account the strength of will it takes to willingly submit to another person. It is not a weak person who can do this. Also, consider the freedom that comes out of following another’s commands: it frees up the ego of being responsible for actions, sometimes allowing one to relax and enjoy doing something that otherwise would be resisted and not enjoyed at all.

Dominants recognize how much they themselves need submissives, and how much the submissives also need to be dominated for fulfillment. There is deep respect of and for the submissive by the dominant for giving of themselves so entirely to the dominant. Similarly, there is immense intensity of focus and of commitment towards the dominant by the submissive. This psychologically-intense devotion bordering on worship towards the dominant has been known to bring about an ecstatic state known as “flying” for submissives. The dominant partner, of course, enjoys seeing the submissive enter such states. A wonderful time is had by all!

Sadism and Masochism (S&M) 

What some people consider the darkest aspect of BDSM, this involves the giving and receiving/experiencing of pain. The masochist transforms this pain into pleasure, while the sadist allows the administration of pain to produce its own fulfilling forms of pleasure. It is as intense as it sounds.

Masochists (also called bottoms) tap into the deepest chemistry of the body: the glands producing adrenalin and its near opposite, endorphins. Adrenalin is the body’s own super-energizer, fueling fight-or-flight instincts, while endorphins are outstanding pain killers and capable of producing near-mystical levels of euphoria. Adrenalin lasts a short time, but if there is enough endorphins built up in the body, an intense sensation of euphoria remains after the adrenalin burns away. Both or either provide the amazing conversion of pain into awesome sensations of pleasure.

To experience the masochist’s highs, the help of a facilitator called a sadist is needed. Sadists both revel in watching the transformation of their subjects into deeper and deeper states of ecstasy, and experience intense adrenalin flashes as well. Many sadists claim there is a psychological top space that boasts some of the euphoric qualities of the endorphin high. This is perhaps a contact high or empathic effect produced by the intense bonding that takes place between the two partners. Whatever its source, the enjoyment derived from producing so much pleasure in the masochist subject is quite profound, and is for many first-time tops a big surprise that often brings up a little bit of guilty soul searching.

Many people do not understand this dynamic. It is extremely important to keep in mind that this is a sensitive and powerfully close bond between two consenting people. Before any actions take place, all participants will have talked extensively about limits and boundaries, desires, and directions they would both enjoy. It is the very fact that the masochist willingly consents to be the subject of the sadist’s attentions that makes this form of power exchange so deeply intimate for both parties.The feedback loop is immediate; the energy of the connection is intense and grows in intensity. The trust-bond is incredibly strong and fuels everything. Communication, giving and receiving, and satisfaction on deeply intimate levels are the rewards.

Who’s in Control?

Aside from vast amounts of trust built between the partners, all three of these areas have a giving and receiving of control from one partner to the other. What the casual observer often doesn’t expect is that it’s usually the bound, submissive participant on the receiving end that holds ultimate control. The dominate active partner is doing to the submissive passive partner exactly what that submissive wants to happen, or what the dominant wants to do that the submissive is willing to go along with. Usually they will have talked about it extensively before anything starts to happen. The action is carefully moderated to build up the excitement and intensity without exceeding either person’s limits.

For example, a flogging starts off slow and light, allowing the recipient to build up their endorphins and get lost in the sensation of the moment. The dominant will constantly check in with the submissive to be sure he is OK. Before they started anything, they established a safe word which, if uttered, will immediately end the scene, stopping the action until communication between the two players can establish where to go next with the scene, or whether this is a satisfactory place to end it. The sadist who just grabs a whip and starts flailing away like a medieval torturer will not have anyone to play with in the future, and might even be arrested and brought up on charges.

You’ve probably done this before

You may have read to this point and thought, “Oh no, not me! I haven’t done anything even remotely like this.” Keep in mind that we’ve described the extreme versions of each type of play. B&D could consist simply of one lover holding a partner’s wrists tightly to the bed as they make love. How many times has someone agreed to do whatever their lover wanted for the evening and let them call the shots? That’s a form of D&S. If you’ve ever raked your fingernails down someone’s back knowing that they’d love the mild pain, or had your nipples pinched to the point that the pleasure and pain mingle into one glorious sensation, then you’ve already toyed with S&M. The important thing isn’t how far you go with it or how extreme you get, but rather learning what you are comfortable with and everyone involved having fun!

Mix and Match

There are all sorts of ways for the types of play to blend together in a single encounter, such as:

  • Bondage play mixed with domination and submission, with a bit of S&M added for spice.
  • A submissive topping the dominant out of obedience, mastering a skill-set to please that dominant.
  • The masochist bound tightly while cleaning the house, wearing a tight corset, and given specific instructions about how the cleaning is to be done, lest the submissive be put in time out.

These three acronyms can play into each other in various ways through various role-play situations and various exchanges. The options are as endless and varied as the mind and desire can invent. 

We hope this has been a handy overview of the key ideas behind BDSM, but continued reading and research is essential to understanding your own comfort zones as well as the comfort zones of those you play with, and for learning how to communicate carefully and completely so that all your play of this type remains consensual and loving. Move slowly through this terrain. There is much to gain here for the intrepid yet careful explorer.