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BDSM goes mainstream

Just as sex shops have gone from being hidden, dark corners to bright stores with show windows, the world of bondage, submission and sadomasochism is also coming out of the dungeons into the light

Dahlia Nyx, Bizarrlady stands in the wooden room in the Domina Bizarre Studio LUX
Dahlia Nyx, 'Bizarrlady' in the wooden room of the Domina Bizarre Studio LUX in Berlin (Germany).Britta Pedersen (dpa/picture alliance via Getty)

The room is filled with people dressed in leather and latex. They wear harnesses and chains; some sport collars with a ring and others pull on a leash in their hands. On one of the walls there is a large X, a Saint Andrew’s cross. In another stands a throne-like armchair, and, a little further on, a person-sized cage. From the ceiling hang hooks to tie ropes. Even the uninitiated observer can infer that this is a space for BDSM, an acronym for Bondage, Domination-Discipline, Submission-Sadism, Masochism, a set of sexual practices that include the transfer of power from one person to another. BDSM has long been considered alternative and underground, but it has begun to enter the mainstream.

Just as sex shops have done, which in recent years have gone from closed, dark corners to bright stores with show windows, the BDSM world has also come into the light. A major turning point was the 2011 publication of 50 Shades of Grey, which popularized fantasies of domination, submission, bondage, spanking and more. Today, media references to these sexual practices are no longer considered shocking.

“Since the internet, this world has changed enormously. It has been opened to the public. But being better known doesn’t make it clearer. More information means more information, both true and false. It creates a lot of confusion, and prejudices are maintained,” said Mistress Minerva, a dominatrix with 17 years of experience. One of these prejudices maintains that people who subscribe to these alternative sexual practices suffer from a mental disorder, an ancient stigma that studies have disproved. One of them, Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners: a sexological approach, by Olga Martínez Sánchez, Óscar Lecuona de la Cruz and Natalia Rubio Arribas, concludes that “in general terms, there are no statistically significant differences between people who practice BDSM and those who do not in terms of the five personality traits.” They also refute the cliché that links these tastes to trauma.

Baden-Wuerttemberg, Stuttgart: Floggers, paddles and whips hang in a studio behind disinfectant
Floggers, paddles and whips hang in a BDSM studio in Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart.Sebastian Gollnow (dpa/picture alliance via Getty I)

Another misconception is that BDSM is synonymous with abuse. It is not. All practices are agreed upon by all parties involved. But it is true that, in extreme games, the line can be blurred. The BDSMK Association makes it clear in its manifesto: “Although BDSM and abuse are by no means synonymous, we must assume that power exchange games can be attractive to all kinds of toxic people. We do not tolerate personality nullification practices, non-consensual violence or oppression of any kind.”

How many people practice BDSM?

According to the article A Systematic Scoping Review of the Prevalence, Etiological, Psychological, and Interpersonal Factors Associated with BDSM, between 40% and 70% of people, both men and women, have had fantasies related to BDSM. Around 20% have engaged in BDSM.

FetLife is a virtual meeting place for the BDSM, fetishist and kink community. It has, according to data from the network itself, nearly 10.5 million registered users. In addition to bringing together people with shared tastes, its goal is to “help people feel comfortable with who they are sexually.” This phrase reflects the fact that such practices are still socially stigmatized.

Tattoo parlour and sex bookshop In the heart of Soho on the last day before  the second national coronavirus lockdown on 4th November 2020 in London, United Kingdom
A tattoo studio and sex bookstore in London's Soho (UK).Barry Lewis (In Pictures via Getty)

Another proof of the popularity of BDSM is the existence of clubs, or dungeons, for fetishists to meet. In many Spanish cities there are places to meet or communities that organize parties on this theme. There are also associations, specialized stores, training courses, Facebook groups and countless Twitter profiles of dominant and submissive people. A simple internet search reveals an alternative world hidden in the open.

A world with its own codes

Like any subcultural group, the BDSM community has its own codes that include terminology, roles, aesthetics, norms. They include the initials SSC (sensible, safe and consensual, as a basic principle of this type of practice), safe words (to be able to stop any game when a participant is uncomfortable) and aftercare (the necessary care for the submissive person after a session).

With its increased popularity, not all people who enter this world may know these codes. This is how Mistress Minerva sees it: “Before, the people who contacted me were very clear about what BDSM was. The submissives called knowing the protocol and how to respect it. About six years ago, I stopped advertising precisely because of this. I got tired of being disrespected, of feeling like they were looking for something quick without taking into account the necessary preparation time, of trying to bargain.” “BDSM became fashionable,” concluded the Mistress, “and when it becomes trendy, it can lose its basic essence.”

Arola Poch is a psychologist from the University of Barcelona, has a degree in Audiovisual Communication and is a sexologist from the Camilo José Cela University. She is an expert in sex education and sex education, with several books published.

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