Partial suspension at the Folsom Street Fair. The historical origins of BDSM are
obscure. There are anecdotal reports of people willingly being bound or whipped,
as a prelude to or substitute for sex, going back to the fourteenth century. The
medieval phenomenon of courtly love in all of its slavish devotion and
ambivalence has been suggested by some writers to be a precursor of BDSM. Some
sources claim that BDSM as a distinct form of sexual behavior originated at the
beginning of the eighteenth century when Western civilization began medically
and legally categorizing sexual behavior. There are reports of brothels
specializing in flagellation as early as 1769, and John Cleland's novel Fanny
Hill, published in 1749, mentions a flagellation scene. Other sources give a
broader definition citing BDSM-like behavior in earlier times and other
cultures, such as the medieval flagellants and the physical ordeal rituals of
some Native American societies.
Although the names of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch are
attached to the terms sadism and masochism respectively, the question remains as
to whether their ways of life would meet with modern BDSM standards of informed
BDSM ideas and imagery have existed on the fringes of Western culture throughout
the twentieth century. Robert Bienvenu attributes the origins of modern BDSM to
three sources, which he names as "European Fetish" (from 1928), "American
Fetish" (from 1934), and "Gay Leather" (from 1950). Another source is the sexual
games played in brothels, which go back into the nineteenth century if not
earlier. Irving Klaw, during the 1950s and 1960s, produced some of the first
commercial film and photography with a BDSM theme (most notably with Bettie
Page) and published comics by the now-iconic bondage artists John Willie and
There are numerous BDSM emblems in use but the one that may be most recognized
is a circle with 3 divisions that resemble the Yin-Yang symbol. It can be worn
anywhere without attracting attention except from those who are familiar with
Much of the BDSM ethos can be traced back to gay male leather culture, which
formalized itself out of the group of men who were soldiers returning home after
World War II (1939-1945). This subculture is epitomized by the Leatherman's
Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, which essentially defined the
"Old Guard leather" culture. This code emphasized strict formality and fixed
roles (i.e. no switching), and did not really include lesbian women or
heterosexuals. In 1981, however, the publication of Coming to Power by Samois
led to a greater knowledge and acceptance of BDSM in the lesbian community.
In the mid-nineties, the Internet provided a way of finding people with
specialized interests around the world and communicating with them anonymously.
This brought about an explosion of interest and knowledge of BDSM, particularly
on the usenet group alt.sex.bondage. When that group became too cluttered with
spam, the focus moved to soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm.
New Guard leather subculture appeared around this time, which rejected the rigid
roles and exclusion of women and heterosexuals of the Old Guard.
In addition to the bricks and mortar businesses, which sell sex paraphernalia,
there has also been an explosive growth of online adult toy companies that
specialize in leather/latex gear and BDSM toys. The first known online store
specializing in bondage gear was JT's Stockroom, which became a primarily online
business as early as 1990. Once a very niche market, there are now very few sex
toy companies that do not offer some sort of BDSM or fetish gear in their
catalog. Kinky elements seem to have worked their way into even the most
"vanilla" markets. However, amongst lifestylers, a tradition of craftmanship
prevails and it is common for people to take pride in creating their own toys or
purchasing from local artisans.
BDSM and fetish imagery has spread out into the mainstream of Western culture
through avant-garde fashion, the goth subculture, rap, hip hop and heavy metal
video clips, and science fiction television and movies.
The modern BDSM subculture is widespread. Most major cities in North America and
Western Europe have clubs and play parties, as well as informal, low-pressure
gatherings called munches. There are also conventions like Living in Leather,
TESfest and Black Rose, as well as the annual Folsom Street Fair in San
Francisco. North American cities that have large BDSM communities include New
York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco,
San Diego, Dallas, Minneapolis, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. European
cities include London, Paris, Munich, Berlin and Rome.
The Leather Pride Flag and the BDSM Emblem are symbols used by sections of the
BDSM communities or subcultures.