Misconceptions about BDSM (and the truth behind them)

Misconceptions about BDSM (and the truth behind them)

Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and submission, and Sado-Masochism (BDSM) isn’t very well understood by people who do not engage in it.

In part, this is due to how it is portrayed in popular culture. Mainstream films, like 50 Shades of Grey and 365 Days, are often the only example that people see. And films like these portray BDSM as unhealthy at best, and abusive at worst.

However, the reality of BDSM is very different.

For more on the basics of BDSM, see my recent Introduction to BDSM, but here I will be looking more closely at some of the most common misconceptions and countering them with things that the kink and BDSM community would really like people to know.

“Practising BDSM is dressing up in (black) leather, chaining someone up in a dungeon and whipping them”

Sometimes true.

As someone who has been exploring kink for a while now, this one makes me giggle. In essence, it’s a caricature of BDSM. Yes, BDSM can involve leather, and chains, and dungeons, and whips, but do these things feature regularly? No. Not in my experience.

There is definitely something about what you wear that can help you to get into a Dominant headspace, but, again, BDSM is so much more than that. I used to love it when my Dom wore tracksuits bottoms (no, not just grey ones) and I never use leather – or any animal products at all, actually – because I’m vegan and that translates into the bedroom.

“People who are into BDSM are on the fringes of society”

Definitely not true.

I love attending kink events. I love them because (almost) anything goes and there are people belonging to literally every sub-group of society that you can think of in attendance.

BDSM is so much more common than you think. I personally know lawyers, accountants, bankers, healthcare professionals, musicians, and teachers who enjoy it. Sadly, society judges people for the choices they make in relation to their private lives, and the common narrative seems to be that people who engage in BDSM are not able to be “upstanding members of society”.

I can tell you that this is simply not true; I’ve met some of the best, most intelligent, most compassionate, and most gentle people I know through kink.

“BDSM is inherently abusive”

Not true.

Healthy BDSM hinges on consent. Therefore, by definition it cannot be abusive. If there is no consent, what is happening is not BDSM, it is abuse.

BDSM is a way of consensually playing with the exchange of power. It involves communication and negotiation and the limits of what is acceptable and what isn’t are set by the person “giving up” their power.

Of course, there is a fine line and coercive control is a very real factor that needs to be taken into account when exploring power exchange dynamics. More on this a bit later.

“BDSM is linked to trauma”

Sometimes true, but likely not in the way you think.

According to a 2020 study (S. Ten Brink et al) there are, “No findings to support the hypothesis of BDSM being a coping mechanism for early life dynamics or trauma.”

50 Shades is a terrible example of BDSM from a trauma point of view. Christian Grey is acting out his childhood trauma by inflicting pain (emotional and physical) on Ana without consent. His entry into BDSM is also questionable, and his relationships with past therapists do not seem particularly helpful.

Many people who enjoy the different aspects of BDSM do not have traumatic pasts, or “Daddy issues”. Amongst other reasons, they enjoy it because it gives them the freedom to embody a different persona, a chance to access a part of themselves that doesn’t get acknowledged very often, or – shocking I know – simply because it’s fun, and it feels good.

However, there is also a lot to be said for the safe space that BDSM can offer to allow people to process trauma, if trust, consent and communication are firmly in place. Furthermore, according to the same study mentioned above, there is evidence that people who engage in BDSM are actually more self-aware, possible more mentally healthy, and much more mindful about sexual practises than people that don’t.

This has absolutely been my experience.

“Submissives are weak/ Dominants use submissives”

Not true.

A healthy BDSM dynamic is all about consensual power exchange. This means that the Dominant will hold the power sometimes, and the submissive will hold the power at others. And, ultimately, the limits of play are defined by the submissive/ bottom.

Again, misconceptions like this one overlook consent. Within the confines of BDSM, Dominants do not “use” their submissive outside of what has been agreed, even if it may appear this way from the outside. In some dynamics, and often within specific scenarios, a submissive will consent to being “used”, and – again – it is this part of BDSM that is regularly depicted in popular culture but without the negotiations that go on behind the scenes.

The submissives I know are anything but weak; in fact, submission helped give me my voice.

“BDSM is all about sex”

Not true.

Yes, there is usually a sexual element to BDSM, but the idea that people who practise it are sex-addicted, unable to maintain committed relationships, or constantly having orgies is a myth.

In fact, there are many ways to practise BDSM without involving sex at all. While they may incorporate a sexual element, the “Discipline” and D/s parts especially can often be unrelated to sex. Discipline is often something that is woven into a dynamic in a number of ways, ways that can be powerfully positive for an individual and a couple, and that can have absolutely nothing to do with sex. And D/s can be as much about service as it is about sexual submission.

BDSM is often synonymous with debauchery… but many people who are in D/s dynamics are monogamous, and just like monogamous relationships in general, these can be short-term, long-term, casual or marriage.

However, monogamy is not the only option and the kink community is often a little more open-minded about what relationships look like. I wrote previously about ethical nonmonogamy but this, too, is not the hedonistic, debaucherous affair most people assume it to be.

BDSM absolutely can be a way to open yourself up sexually, but is it just sex? No.

“Practising BDSM has to involve pain”

Not true.

It is only the S&M part of BDSM that involves pain, yet somehow the whipping and spanking is the only part that’s ever really depicted. Perhaps because the rest of it is “too boring”. Except, it’s the other parts of it that distinguish it from abuse.

“BDSM is just like 50 Shades of Grey”

Totally untrue.

If you were to ask me a single thing the kink community would like you to know about BDSM, it is that BDSM is nothing like 50 Shades of Grey!

I’ve spoken about this throughout, but the desire for BDSM to be removed from associations with 50 Shades of Grey is the one thing that came up over and over again.

50 Shades, while it captured people’s minds and was the first time the idea of BDSM really became mainstream, was actually a very problematic depiction. It relied heavily on damaging tropes like those I mentioned above: that it’s all about trauma; that it’s a way for a Dominant to abuse a submissive; that the submissive has no power; that it’s a dirty little secret.

So what is the truth about BDSM?

BDSM, in practise, looks different depending on who is doing it, and on which day you are talking to them. One day, it might be S&M heavy: spanks and whips. On another day, it might well be cuddles and colouring. So, it’s hard for me to encapsulate all its nuances and complexities in one article. But here are some of the most important things to know:

Consent is required

As I’ve already mentioned a number of times, BDSM relies on consent, another topic I’ve written about previously. Consent cannot be gained through coercion, and relies on both parties being in a frame of mind that allows them to be fully able to decide what they want.

The kink community has a number of different acronyms that they use in order to assess this:
  • SSC – safe, sane and consensual
  • RACK – risk aware, consensual kink
  • PRICK – personal responsibility, informed, consensual kink

As you can see, consent features across the board, but so does the idea that people who practise BDSM need to do so with a significant level of consideration for themselves and the others involved.

BDSM can involve some practises that are inherently considered not to be “safe” (anything that involves inflicting pain, for example) and evolving language around mental health means that “sane” is not so good at encapsulating the complexities of an appropriate headspace. For these reasons, the SSC acronym, is starting to be used less and RACK/ PRICK used more.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that what’s important here is perhaps not so much the semantics as the meanings themselves. And regardless, enthusiastic consent is the lynchpin in deciding whether a BDSM dynamic is healthy or not.

Trust – the foundation of consent

For me, trust takes time; for others, trust is implied as a given until it is broken.

With BDSM, I always err on the side of caution. When meeting a new partner, I will take my time getting to know them before we engage in any physical BDSM-related play. I will also chat to friends on the scene, and be very open about the way things are going and any green or red flags that come up. And, while it is often frowned upon to share partners, in the kink scene I really enjoy getting to know people through other people because it often means they are vouched for.

Importantly, the bondage and S&M parts of BDSM are not something that should be taken lightly. There are some very real safety issues involved in anything that involves restraining someone or inflicting pain – mental or physical – on another person. In order to enjoy it, you have to trust the person you are with. Most importantly, you have to trust them to stop if you ask them to.

Communication is key

And that’s where the communication part comes in. Unlike Christian Grey and Anastasia (whose nod to this was her signing a contract), BDSM is all about negotiation and communication. I go into more depth about limits and safewords in the other articles in this series, but a healthy BDSM relationship is one in which communication happens – a lot. I have never communicated so much, or so honestly, with partners.

Communication happens when you discuss the things you like and don’t like and aren’t sure if you like; it happens verbally and nonverbally; it happens during a “scene”; and it happens afterwards. It is constant. And it’s brilliant. But again, this is rarely – if ever – really depicted in portrayals of BDSM.

BDSM is actually incredibly intimate. It involves engaging with your emotions. It is raw and real, and it creates incredible bonds between people.

The limits of play are defined by the submissive, not the Dominant

I mentioned this above, but this bears repeating: BDSM is about consensual power exchange but the power in a healthy BDSM dynamic is ultimately held by the submissive/ the bottom. It is the boundaries and limits of the sub that dictate what can and can’t happen, and it is up to the Dominant/ the top to respect and adhere to this.

Limits can be anything:
  • Words/ names the top is not allowed to use when addressing the bottom
  • Hair-pulling
  • Pain inflicted on certain parts of the body, like the inner thighs
  • Body shaming
  • Tickling
  • Anal play/ anal play without prior warning
  • It can also go to the rarer types of play, like not wanting to engage in scat (poo play), water-sports (pee play) and blood play

Limits are even more important in scenarios, in which it may seem that the Dominant is ignoring a sub’s boundaries (for example, consensual non-consent play, which often involves a submissive being overpowered despite saying, “No”). However, these kinds of scenarios take an awful lot of negotiation beforehand, and are only ever undertaken if safewords and safe signals have been agreed. They are role-play and I cannot stress this enough: in a healthy BDSM dynamic, consent is imperative and always in place.

In conclusion

The aim of this article is to humanise BDSM and debunk some common misconceptions.

In summary:
  • Practising BDSM can be about dressing up in (black) leather, chaining someone up in a dungeon and whipping them, but not as often as you might think
  • People who are into BDSM are upstanding members of society, who are often lawyers or teachers or nurses
  • BDSM is not inherently abusive
  • BDSM is not a coping mechanism for traumatic pasts. In fact, people that practise it are incredibly likely to be mentally healthy and self-aware
  • BDSM is not all about sex, but it can be a great way to explore your sexuality
  • Not everyone that practises BDSM enjoys pain
  • Healthy BDSM is nothing like the dynamic portrayed in 50 Shades of Grey
  • Healthy BDSM is actually all about consent, trust and communication
  • The submissive is in control. Yes, really.

See also An Introduction to BDSM