“BDSM” is an acronym of “B&D” (Bondage & Discipline), “D&S” (Dominance & Submission), and “S&M” (sadomasochism). “BDSM” refers to any or all of these things, and a lot of stuff besides.
Tying up your lover is BDSM; so is flogging that person, or bossing that person around, or any of a thousand other things. BDSM is highly erotic, usually (though not always) involves sex or sexual tension; and is highly psychologically charged. One person (the “submissive”) agrees to submit to another person (the “dominant”); or, alternately, one person agrees to receive some sort of sensation, such as spanking, from another.
Some people like to be submissive all the time, some people like to be dominant all the time; some people like to switch, being submissive one day and dominant the next.
Many people practice some element of BDSM in their sexual lives without even being aware of it. They may think of “S&M” as “That sick stuff that people do with whips and cattle prods and stuff,” yet still blindfold one another from time to time, or tie one another down and break out the whipped cream…
All of these things are “BDSM.” BDSM is not necessarily hardcore sadomasochism; it can be remarkably subtle and sensual and soft. Pinning your partner to the bed and running silk or ice cubes or rabbit fur over your lover’s body qualifies as “BDSM” (specifically, of a variety called “sensation play”).
BDSM doesn’t have to involve all of these.
There are many people involved in BDSM who enjoy tying others up, or being tied up themselves, but who do not enjoy S&M—that is, they aren’t interested in inflicting or receiving pain. Sometimes, one partner just ties up the other, as a form of foreplay. Similarly, there are many people who may like the psychological control they get from ordering their lovers to do things, but do not care for being physically restrained or tied, or for tying up their lovers.
BDSM is as varied as the people who do it.
I’ve met many people who engage in BDSM activities, such as bondage or spanking, but who insist they are “not into that BDSM stuff.” Usually, it’s because they have an idea in their heads about what BDSM is, like “BDSM means wearing a leather mask and being chaned to a wall and whipped, and I don’t like that, so I’m not into BDSM.” But BDSM desn’t necessarily mean wearing a hood and being chaned to the wall. If you like being lightly spanked, or light bondage excites you, then you’re into BDSM.
Some people, myself included, love the aesthetic of an elaborate rope harness, or an elaborate form of bondage; others simply aren’t interested in the bondage elements at all. The key to all these different forms of BDSM, though, is the exchange of power or sensation. One person (the “bottom” or “submissive”) is choosing to allow the other person (the “top” or “dominant”) to have control over him or her in some way, or to inflict sensation in some way. Perhaps it means allowing the other person to tie him up, perhaps it means allowing the other person to spank her, whatever.
In particular, BDSM is NOT abuse!
People who are practicing BDSM in any of its trillions of forms are doing it voluntarily, for fun. It’s a way to explore. Everything that happens in a BDSM relationship is consensual; and believe it or not, it’s not just about the dominant getting what he or she wants—it’s more about the submissive getting what he or she wants.
An abuser has no regard for the feelings, needs, or limits of the victim. A BDSM dominant is concerned above all else with the needs and desires of the submissive. Pretty straightforward, really.