Susan Sontag once called BDSM “the furthest reach of the sexual experience.” As historian Stephen K. Stein shows in his new book, Sadomasochism and the BDSM Community in the United States: Kinky People Unite, the sexual community of BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism) has evolved over the past half-century. Its practitioners have shifted their practices and gained more mainstream acceptance, fostering a broader culture of sexual freedom in the modern United States.

Stein is an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis. He answered questions via email. 

What is BDSM? How can a historian research it?

Generally speaking, BDSM includes a host of practices that inject a power dynamic into sexual activities, though many people engage in BDSM activities, such as flagellation, that do not specifically lead to sexual intercourse. 

The BDSM community offers rich opportunities for historians. The Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago is dedicated to preserving the community’s history, along with that of leather organizations, whose membership often overlaps that of BDSM organizations. It has the papers of many important BDSM activists, as well as club newsletters, convention programs and other publications. Most of these, though, date from 1980 to the present. The BDSM community’s earlier years are very poorly documented. 

How has the status of BDSM evolved in the United States since the 1960s? Have the sexual practices changed over this time?

Popular, psychological and legal perceptions of BDSM have changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Previously seen as a mental dysfunction subject to criminal prosecution and requiring psychiatric treatment, BDSM activities today spark much less disapprobation.

Today’s BDSM community evolved slowly over time as people with BDSM interests found one another via personal ads, cruising bars and bathhouses, and personal introductions. The first formal, publicly advertised BDSM organizations formed in the early 1970s as forums for learning, personal exploration and finding like-minded partners.

BDSM organizations exploded in size and number in the 1980s, and these organizations helped institutionalize and normalize BDSM practice, encouraging some activities and discouraging others. Practically every American city has a local BDSM group (or several), and these remain the central institutions of the community despite the growth of [BDSM social network] FetLife and other internet sites, which connect kinky people.

Why did BDSM leaders advocate a “safe, sane and consensual” movement in the 1980s and 1990s?

Early BDSM organizations and activists struggled to define and explain their sexual interests. In the mid-1980s, they adopted the phrase “safe, sane, consensual.” It proved useful against both external critics (“What we do is safe, sane and consensual, so leave us alone”) and to police conduct within the BDSM community (“What you’re doing is not safe, sane, consensual, so knock it off”). Over time, the community’s emphasis on consent and the individual right to pursue happiness in one’s own way proved an effective counterargument to BDSM critics. 

Read the Full Article Here:

Talking With Stephen K. Stein About the BDSM Movement in Modern America by Aram Goudsouzian

Aug. 19, 2021