A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the deal with S&M, bondage and discipline, etc.?

March 12, 1982

Dear Cecil:

Since you get into answering kinky questions, I think you'll have lots of fun with this one. I was watching the Tomorrow show when they were doing a report on S&M and the following questions occurred to me:

(1) Are S&M and bondage the same thing? Can the two expressions be used interchangeably?

(2) Where did S&M in its present structured and rather ritualistic form evolve from?

(3) What is the origin of bondage gear?

(4) Is there any significance behind the black and silver color of bondage and S&M apparel?

(5) Are there certain basic pieces of gear (a starter set, so to speak) that practitioners are expected to own?

(6) What is this I hear about wearing certain objects or articles of clothing in a certain way that is supposed to indicate being into S&M? If you answer fully, I'll whip you in gratitude.

Dear Aileen:

I swear, half the people in Baltimore must be bent. I have notes here from residents of that city who want to know (among other things) how to get a job as a gigolo, the world's record for ejaculation volume, and who invented fellatio.  Journalism school doesn't adequately prepare you to cover these topics. However, I have learned a great deal on the job.

Let's start by defining our terms. Sadomasochism (S&M) in general means any sexual encounter in which someone inflicts pain and/or humiliation on a (usually willing) partner. Often these episodes are quite ritualized, involving a "master" punishing a disobedient "slave." The ritual aspect is sometimes referred to as discipline.

Bondage simply means the use of restraining devices (handcuffs, ropes, shackles, harnesses) during sex. It has S&M overtones but need not involve pain. S&M and bondage, therefore, are not interchangeable terms, although the two do tend to go hand in hand.

Fetishism is a dependence on a substance (leather, rubber), object (lingerie, dirty socks), or nonsexual body part (commonly the feet) to trigger sexual arousal. A male bondage enthusiast who has made a genuine fetish out of his sex toys will not be able to get an erection without them.

Flagellism or flagellation is dependence on whipping or caning to achieve sexual release. A dominatrix is a woman, often a prostitute, who specializes in disciplining men.

Deciding what is and isn't S&M can be a pretty arbitrary business. A certain amount of pain is common in many sexual relationships, but the distinction usually drawn is that "ordinary" pain is mild and mutual (each partner gives as good as he/she gets) whereas S&M pain is all one way (although it should be noted that switching roles between one encounter and the next is commonplace).

But even this distinction doesn't always hold up. For instance, the delicate art of fisting (forcing the fist into the anus) has become so widespread among gays in the last twenty years or so that many no longer consider it S&M, although many straights would no doubt think otherwise.

Then we have "water sports," involving urine, and "scat," involving feces. Neither is particularly painful, although they can involve a fair amount of humiliation.

Designation of equipment can be similarly arbitrary. Most traditional S&M and bondage gear is made of black leather and chrome steel, whose color and feel denote menace and brute force-- the sensual juxtaposed with the mechanical. .

On the other hand, there's a whole other category of haberdashery made out of black latex (bras, corsets, briefs, etc.) that is not normally associated with S&M or bondage but some of which clearly has application in that line--hoods and gags, for instance. (I'm told, in case you're wondering, that the kick in latex is that you sweat into it. Different strokes for different folks, eh?)

S&M has been around for thousands of years; the Roman historian Tacitus is said to have made reference to it, and I suppose most of the basic gear involved traces back about as far. But many props are of fairly recent origin, notably motorcycle paraphernalia. You can also get something called a "Vietnamese basket" to hang your partner from the ceiling with--one of many legacies of the late war.

In addition, many of the rituals, particularly the fantasies indulged in by heterosexuals, are inspired by relatively recent events. "Prisoner and concentration camp guard" is unfailingly popular. In Victorian England there grew up an elaborate ritual involving "governesses" who disciplined erring "students" with the birch rods then in general use in the public schools.

There's no such thing as an S&M or bondage "starter set," as you put it, but you can probably get going with a leather belt and some elementary restraining device, such as a rope. Gays tend to go in for fairly utilitarian items like cock rings, penis leashes, dildos, flails, and whatnot. Heterosexual couples are often wont to add elaborate costumery--for instance, the well-known kitten-with-a-whip number, complete with stiletto heels.

You can get various gimmicks to attach to or pierce the nipples, labia, penis, or scrotum, from which you can then hang weights. There's also a speculum-like device for manipulating the anus. Some people invest in full-scale--how shall I say--"arenas," complete with stocks, rack, whipping post, and pulleys in the ceiling.

There are certain items you can wear to tip people off to your sexual preference, but for the most part they're only useful if you're gay. For instance, there was (or there was at one time) an almost comically elaborate handkerchief code, which you used to find printed up and posted in gay hangouts and sex shops. Hanky in the left back pocket signified a dominant, the right pocket a submissive. Yellow means you're into water sports (get it?), red means fisting, green means you expect payment, and so on. Keys and at one time earrings serve(d) a similar purpose. I'm told that in L.A. if you show up with a teddy bear it means you want to be cuddled. To each his own.

Heterosexuals have no such codes, and finding partners can be a real chore, with ads in swingers' publications and notices on sex shop bulletin boards perhaps the commonest methods. In some cities--the big three for this kind of thing are New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles--there are clubs that cater to various specialties, but in most towns you're on your own. Dominant women are particularly difficult to find and a submissive male whose wife or girlfriend won't cooperate usually has to avail himself of the services of a professional. (Not necessarily a prostitute in the usual sense--a professional "domme" I heard from says skilled dommes do not allow the guy any sexual release during a session.)

Up to a point I suppose we can regard certain aspects of this as good clean fun. Simple bondage, for the most part, is harmless, and many whips create more noise than pain.

But there are obvious dangers. Piercing of the skin carries a substantial risk of hepatitis or AIDS, particularly for gays with multiple partners.  During anal manipulation you can rupture the intestine, tear the sphincter muscle, or, if nothing else, lose something inside, which means an embarrassing trip to the emergency room.

And let's face it, when we get into knives, lighted cigarettes, and permanent mutilation we're getting positively pathological. A fair number of people get killed every year because they pick up some random hustler or because they try some strangulation stunt with a rope.

The trick is finding a partner who knows when to quit. Personally, Aileen, I'm into whipped cream and wrestling, but if it's leather that does it for you, bring on that whip. Just don't expect me to take it lying down.

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A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
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