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The (short but informative) History of BDSM

The (short but informative) History of BDSM

Though a definitive history of BDSM is obscure and eludes most historians and scholars, it is agreed that dominance and submission, restraint and role-play have always been present in much of recorded history and across different cultures.

From ritualistic flagellation in ancient Greece to the Kama Sutra in India, then to medieval courtly love, flagellation in English brothels, and the Marquis de Sade (you might have heard about that guy), BDSM was everywhere! So, pop on those mouth gags, lace up those thigh-high PVC boots and come with me into a deep dive into the history of BDSM!

What is BDSM?

In case you haven’t heard of BDSM or have heard the acronym before but don’t know what it means, BDSM stands for:

● Bondage ● Dominance ● Discipline ● Sadism ● Masochism.

Activities and relationships in BDSM are often characterized by the participants' use of physical restraints, consensual exchanging of power (a.k.a. the Dominant and the Submissive) and infliction of pain, through spanking, flagellation and so on.

If you want a deeper deep dive into BDSM and how to practice it safely and consensually, I highly recommend checking out my other articles, such as A Crash Course in BDSM for Newbie. Now with that out of the way, let’s get down to some time travel!

Antiquity

In ancient Mesopotamia (now modern-day Iraq) archaeologists and scholars discovered the oldest textual reference to BDSM in the world in the form of a religious hymn dedicated to the Goddess Inanna. Inanna was the goddess of love, beauty, war and fertility, and her worshippers paid tribute to her in ways modern submissives might be familiar with.

The text written in cuneiform script on clay tablets describes the rites carried out in tribute to the goddess. These rites involved being whipped while ritualistically dancing to the point of going into a “sexual frenzy”, “gender transformation”, going into “altered states of consciousness”, and other rituals involving pain, punishment and ecstasy.

In the 9th century BC, Spartans practised a ritual called diamastigosis (flagellation) on young men (ephebes), in honour of the goddess Artemis Orthia. The ritual was an initiation and has been described by contemporary historians such as Plutarch, Xenophon, Pausanias, and Plato. 

In the ritual, the ephebes would try to reach the altar, laden with cheese, while trying to evade priests armed with whips. The purpose of the diamastigosis was to prepare the young boys for the life they would have to face as adults and, later, soldiers. My only question is - did they get to eat the cheese in the end?!

Dating back to the 5th Century, the Etruscan “Tomb of the Whipping”, located in Tarquinia, Italy, may be one of the oldest graphical depictions of sadomasochism (and the Eiffel Tower, if you know what I mean). The tomb was named after a fresco that depicts a woman in a three-way with two men - one of whom appears to be holding a cane, while the other has his hand in the air - no doubt readying for another blow. 

Some scholars believe that the whipping might have been ritualistic (dedicated to the God of wine and hard-core partying, Dionysus), or that the frescos served as a ward against demons and a symbol of life. 

Meanwhile, in Pompeii, the “Villa of Mysteries” has a fresco depicting a young girl, initiated into the “Mysteries” by receiving lashes from a magnificent-looking winged woman with a whip. Historian Anne O. Nomis states that in the Greco-Roman world, the “whipstress”, like the one in the Villa of Mysteries, does not hold a role in meaningless violence but one of sacred initiation, “driving a ceremonial symbolic death and rebirth”.

Tomb Of Whipping Tomb Of Whipping discovered and excavated in 1960 by Carlo Maurilio Lerici

The Kama Sutra – 3rd Century

Some of you might have heard about the Kama Sutra - the naughty Indian manual for sex positions that has survived into the modern age through books and websites (thanks Cosmo!). What some of you might not know, is that the Kama Sutra mentions BDSM!

The Kama Sutra describes six different places to hit, four different ways of hitting and even the sounds one should make while being hit. The text also describes ways of biting, pinching, and clawing, ooh la la!

What is amazing about this part of the Kama Sutra is that author, philosopher Vatsyayana Mallanaga, emphasizes that the mentioned activities “should only be performed consensually since only some women consider such behaviour to be joyful”. This makes the Kama Sutra one of the first written texts to not only deal with sadomasochism but also with consent and safety.

Kama Sutra Carving

Kama Sutra carving in the Khajuraho Temples

Medieval Europe and the Art of Courtly Love – 12th Century

Courtly love is the literary concept of love that emphasizes nobility and chivalry. Texts depicting courtly love were filled with stories of knights and princesses entangled in throes of extreme passion, and undying love, willing to perform any feat for the sake of that love. Another popular trope in stories of courtly love is that the lady, the object of the knight’s affection, is married to another man or is “unobtainable” in some way or the other. Thus, he experiences the “extreme pain” of never obtaining the object of his affections. These stories became so popular that they even influenced real social practices and courtship. But what does it have to do with BDSM?

A research paper called “How Venus Got Her Furs: Courtly Romance as Sadomasochistic Erotica”, written by Tom Driver, believes stories of courtly love illustrated male subordination/female domination and “propagates a masochistic association between love, pain, and pleasure with the expressed purpose of titillating its readership”. This point is best illustrated by the 12th-century poem, Lancelot, Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes:

“Love, which led and guided him, Comforted and healed him at once And made his suffering a pleasure”

Enter the Marquis de Sade, Sexual Sadist – 18th Century

If you are an avid practitioner of BDSM, you might have heard of the Marquis de Sade. Born on the 2nd of June 1740, Donatien Alphonse François was a French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher, and libertine writer. 

As a libertine, he, and other like-minded individuals, believed that they were freethinkers who must “liberate their minds and bodies from the dogmas of the Church to enjoy life to the full”.

While this philosophy is sound and even modern, in 1768, the Marquis de Caraccioli’s “Critical, Picturesque and Concise Dictionary” linked Libertine Philosophy to hedonism and with no“moral principles, a sense of responsibility, or sexual restraints, which they see as unnecessary or undesirable” and ignored accepted morals and behaviour observed by the larger part of society.

De Sade’s literary works, the most famous being 120 Days of Sodom and Justine, combined philosophical discourse with hard-core pornography, depicting sexual fantasies that emphasized violence (to the point of being criminal), suffering, and blasphemy against the Church. These sexual fantasies included acts such as beatings, forced orgasms, knife play (amongst others), humiliation, and group sex, and that’s not even the end of the list.

The themes of sexual cruelty and violence in de Sade’s work are so prevalent that the words sadism and sadist were eventually derived from his name. 

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Fanny Hill – 18th Century

Across the English Channel, an Englishman in debtors prison wrote what would be later considered "the first original English prose pornography, and the first pornography to use the form of the novel". Originally published in 1748, John Cleveland’s novel details the life of Frances “Fanny” Hill.

Fanny, an orphan, gets swept up by 18th century London and becomes a sex worker, where she has intimate encounters with both men and women, participates in orgies and witnesses many different kinds of “taboo” acts – all of which are described in graphic detail. One of the acts described in the novel is impact play:

 “At last, he twigged me so smartly as to fetch blood in more than one lash: at sight of which he flung down the rod, flew to me, kissed away the starting drops, and sucking the wounds eased a good deal of my pain. But now raising me on my knees, and making me kneel with them straddling wide, that tender part of me, naturally the province of pleasure, not of pain, came in for its share of suffering”.

Oh my, is it me or is it getting hot in here?

"The English Vice" and Theresa Berkley – 18th to 19th Century

In the Victorian Era, corporal punishment in schools was very common, and many contemporary writers theorize this is the reason why flagellation became popular with the English. 

Taught in a same-sex environment, an upper-class boy’s only female interaction may be through their teacher or governess, who would take the boy across her knee and spank his bottom if he misbehaved.

These naughty schoolboys eventually grew up to be wealthy upper-class men – men who would pay hefty amounts of money to be flogged by “whipping whores”. Flagellation was so popular in London brothels that German sexologist, Eugène Dühren, proclaimed “England today is the classic land of sexual flagellation”. The French would eventually coin the term “the English vice” to describe flagellation in 1718. 

One of the best “whipping whores” of the 19th century was Theresa Berkley. Berkley was a successful brothel-madam and professional “governess” (the word dominatrix wouldn’t be coined until the 1960s), who specialized in chastisement, flagellation, whipping and other forms of impact play.

Sometime in 1828, Berkley invented a piece of furniture custom-made for flogging. English writer Henry Spencer Ashbee describes the aptly named “Berkley Horse” as follows:

“It is capable of being opened to a considerable extent, so as to bring the body to any angle that might be desirable. There is a print in Mrs Berkley's memoirs, representing a man upon it quite naked. A woman is sitting in a chair exactly under it, with her bosom, belly, and bush exposed: she is manualizing his embolon, whilst Mrs Berkley is birching his posterior”.

I think embolon means penis, but I am not too sure…Victorian slang is so tricky…

Anyway, thanks to the Berkley Horse, many from the wealthy upper-class and aristocracy, including King George IV, would flock to Berkley’s brothel, begging to be flogged like the naughty boys they were. One man even offered Berkley "a pound sterling for the first blood drawn, two pounds if the blood runs down to my heels, three pounds if my heels are bathed in blood, four pounds if the blood reaches the floor, and five pounds if you succeed in making me lose consciousness."

It is unknown whether Berkley took up the man’s offer but what he was asking for does not sound safe or sane! Yikes!

Berkley Horse

Theresa Berkley's BDSM apparatus the 'Berkley Horse'

Venus in Furs and Masochism – 19th Century

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, born on the 27th of January 1836, was an Austrian writer who was famous for his novella, “Venus in Furs”, written in 1869. It details the life and obsession of Severin von Kusiemski, a man who wants to be dominated by the object of his affections, Wanda von Dunajew. Eventually, Severin becomes Wanda’s slave and throughout the story, encourages her to treat him more and more degradingly as time went on, as shown in this excerpt:

"Did I hurt you?" she asked, half-shyly, half-timidly. "No," I replied, "and even if you had, pains that come through you are a joy. Strike again if it gives you pleasure." "But it doesn't give me pleasure." Again, I was seized with that strange intoxication. "Whip me," I begged, "whip me without mercy."

Wanda swung the whip and hit me twice. "Are you satisfied now?" "No." "Seriously, no?" "Whip me, I beg you, it is a joy to me."

A contemporary of Sacher-Masoch, Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing would coin the term “Masochism” in 1886 from his name. The Venus in Furs author did not approve of the use of his name, but unfortunately for him, it stuck.

Post-World War II: American Fetish, European Fetish and Gay Leather – 20th Century 

As we have seen so far in this article, people have been inflicting pain onto others, or themselves, and engaging in power-play, all in the name of pleasure and pain for most of recorded human history.

Dr Robert V. Bienvenu, PhD, author of Safe, Sane, and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism, attributes the rise of modern BDSM into three sources - “European Fetish” (1928), “American Fetish” (1934) and “Gay Leather” (1950).

European Fetish (1928) according to Dr Bienvenu, was heterosexual in orientation and was based on the representation of industrial materials such as leather, rubber, metal and PVC. These materials would then be crafted into costumes and footwear, such as boots. The European fetish style had become popular in underground magazines by the 1930s, and these magazines, such as London Life, became a popular advertising venue for artisans, who would showcase and advertise their works in them.

American Fetish (1934) was widely influenced by its European cousin, in terms of sexual orientation, forms of media used and the fashion aesthetics that would emerge. In a period of the 1930s – 60s, several key innovators of the American fetish started to emerge and make their mark in the BDSM subculture, such as Fetish art distributor Charles Guyette and his successor, Irving Klaw, pin-up model Bettie Page and photographer John Willie. 

By the 1940s, Page’s erotic BDSM pin-up photographs started thriving outside of BDSM circles and she would become one of the first successful fetish models, as well as one of the most famous pin-up girls in American mainstream culture. Page’s popularity would then influence artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton into using BDSM themes and motifs in their body of works, which are still a topic of discussion today.

Last, but not least, is Gay Leather (1950) , the third phase of modern BDSM. The Gay Leather subculture was developed in American gay communities and evolved from post-war motorcycle clubs and bars that appeared in New York City, San Francisco, Las Angeles and Chicago during the 50s and 60s.

 By using leather, and later fetishized military uniforms, as a symbol of masculinity, it used “hyper-masculine butch” aesthetics that countered the effeminate and passive stereotypes of male homosexuality. Academic Frenchy Lunning summed up Gay Leather as “masculinity, violence, and aggressive sexuality of black leather” in contemporary fetish form. Just like the European and American Fetish gave us Bettie Page and John Willie, Gay Leather gave us artist Touko Valio Laaksonen, otherwise known as Tom of Finland.

Called by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade the “most influential creator of gay pornographic images”, Laaksonen’s career spanned four decades and produced over 3,500 illustrations. His works featured men in partial undress or in tight, fetishized biker fashion or military uniform with, ahem, exaggerated sexual traits. As one dominant puts it; “their cocks are hanging out!”

Like John Willie and Bettie Page, Laarksonen influenced the 20th-century gay culture and created “strong, powerful and self-assured works of art” that, like the Gay Leather scene, opposed the effeminate gay stereotypes.

The Internet and BDSM – Late 20th Century to 21ST Century

The internet and evolving technology opened up the floodgates for globalization and communication. This made some people realise – “oh hey, I can connect with other kinky people!” From the late 1980s, kink-minded individuals were able to connect anonymously, either locally or worldwide, through chat rooms, internet forums and, later on, social media sites. 

Due to the explosion of the internet and BDSM’s growing popularity in it, sex shops and online adult toy companies that specialized in “niche” leather and PVC gear started to expand into the mainstream “vanilla” market. 

Nowadays, one cannot browse a sex toy store, whether it is online or physical, without seeing some BDSM gear being offered in their stock. Items that are common in BDSM usage, such as padded handcuffs, leather and latex garments, whips (and other impact play implements), are out in the open! This is a huge leap forward compared to 70 years ago when the BDSM subculture was underground, and artisans had to peddle their leather crafts under the table.  

When one looks back at the history of BDSM, it is plain to see that it is intertwined with the history of human sexuality. Since the dawn of humanity, kinky humans have used BDSM to express their sexuality, gender and love; seeing that recorded instances of kinkiness go as far back as the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, it is safe to say that BDSM will not be going away anytime soon.

Modern day BDSM

Check out Adulttoymegastore’s full range of BDSM toys to to discover a new form of pleasure.

Illustrations by Aimée Sullivan. Follow her on Instagram: <a href=https://www.instagram.com/aimeeisokay/ target="_blank">@aimeeisokay</a

BDSM crash course for beginners:

References:

Rita Kim, Sex History Nerd, BDSM Enthusiast & Erotic Artist
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