An Overview of the Current BDSM Subcultures

Toni O. L. Brown

Toni O. L. Brown

Apart from a few studies, relatively little sociological attention has been accorded the BDSM subculture. Past literature on this subculture has been limited in focus and previous studies have implemented less than well-rounded sampling. Drawing on data collected through an ethnographic approach across eleven states, this article briefly examines the lived experiences of BDSM participants. Specifically, attention is focused on how BDSM participants experience stigma in four distinct manners, including negative public portrayal, value diminishment, mockery and shunning and discrimination or prejudice. Attention then turns to the stigma management strategies BDSM participants employ, including concealment, disclosure or collective action, reappropriation of negative labelling and disengagement from mainstream society. Consistent with previous research surrounding stigma management, this article and further studies reveals that BDSM participants, like other deviant groups, take an active role in defining their identity and controlling their social interactions.

It is difficult to provide a concise definition of the BDSM subculture because it is so varied, broad, and diverse. BDSM is an acronym that stands for the six words “Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism.” It is an umbrella term used to encompass several smaller and often overlapping subcultures. It includes those interested in sexual proclivities of various sorts. It contains fetishists and people who define themselves as “kinky.” BDSM is about sexual orientation beyond the typical scope of heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual. It allows room for asexuals, celibates, heteroflexibles, gynephiles and androphiles. It gives space to transgenders, cisgenders, gender variants and non-genders.

As much room as BDSM affords to sexual orientation, it affords even more room for sexual inclination. It is a community that embraces physical pleasure, as well as physical pain, and even physical deprivation. It encourages indulgence and welcomes the corporeal. Fat, thin, short, tall, fit, slovenly, hairy, bald, natural, or modified; every “body” is welcome. It is also about non-sexual fetishism. If one has a fascination with dressing like a panda bear and rolling around in public to be petted, that person can find a place in the BDSM community. If one is inclined to paint portraits in their own blood, worship feet, or try to fit inside a giant balloon, there are subcultures in the BDSM community to satiate and encourage the interest(s).

BDSM is about relationship dynamics and power exchange. It provides models for traditional, non-traditional, and post-modern relationships. Men who enjoy being demeaned and insulted by controlling women sit side-by-side with women who kneel at their husband’s feet. Hierarchies are formed and used to frame interactions. Control is traded for obedience. Responsibility and power are traded for deference and surrender. Grown men asking permission to urinate and grown women standing in the corner are not only welcomed, but also necessary, for the survival of the rank component of the BDSM social structure.

The BDSM community is about subcultures and countercultures, some consciously avoiding the mainstream. “Furries” (people who dress as animals), “littles” (adults who role-play children), leather dykes, vampires, bikers, and professional sex workers can all be found breaking bread together at a BDSM convention. People who share nothing in common regarding their careers, education, and family may come together as intricate subcultures in the sphere of BDSM. It is about role-playing, both in and outside of the bedroom. People who otherwise do not meet the definition can experience roles of teachers, students, clergy, parents, children, animals, prisoners, guards, and magical beings.

BDSM is also about alternative lifestyles. Constant daily routines, a lifestyle of secrecy, chore charts, isolation, communes, private economy and dress codes are all common. Households are centred around concepts derived from erotic literature. Relationships are founded and developed around concepts of “who is in charge.” Manifestos, mission statements, policies, and procedures are written and revised to ensure adherence to rules, hierarchies of authority and above all else, to guarantee that everything is consensual among all players.

BDSM communities pepper the globe. They can be found in most industrialized countries on most continents. In America, they span from coast to coast. They can be located in urban metros as well as small rural communities. Membership may range from three close friends to hundreds of strangers. There are BDSM groups in all fifty states and thousands of cities. In America, one need not ever drive more than about four hours to find a BDSM friendly group. They meet in flashy fetish clubs, calm family restaurants, library basements, and private homes. Like many subcultures, the BDSM subculture is prevalent almost everywhere but typically goes unnoticed.

BDSM groups have the same elements as any other social group, such as shared goals, roles, relationships, norms, and sanctions. Most local-level groups share a sense of familiarity. They create their own division of labour and establish methods of conflict resolution. Because they possess these same characteristics of most other social groups, they are a ripe ground for sociological investigation.

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