January 19, 2004 Time Magazine

Bondage Unbound
Growing numbers of Americans are experimenting with sadomasochistic sex.
But is it always safe and sane?
By John Cloud/Clayton

It turns out that you call it "S and M" only if you don't do it or if you experiment only occasionally with those handcuffs you keep hidden at the back of the nightstand. If, on the other hand, you are seriously involved in the sadomasochistic subculture if, say, you have attended one or more of the nation's 90 annual sadomasochistic events ("Beat Me in St. Louis," for instance) and own not only handcuffs but also a spanking bench, a flogger, some paraffin wax, an unbreakable Pyrex dildo and various other unmentionables you call it, simply, SM.

The linguistic distinction between S&M and SM may seem tiny, but the pop-culture, peep-show version of S&M has little to do with the real lives of those who practice SM (which is why sexologists who study sadomasochism have now also adopted the shorter abbreviation). S&M is Madonna in kinky outfits, Anne Rice chapters that run to the louche even a recent Dannon ad featuring a woman in a French-maid uniform. Such S&M imagery has become so common that our astonishment at Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of leather and pain 20 years ago now seems quaint. Today you can watch Samantha on Sex and the City in virtually the same poses.

But those who practice sadomasochism including those halting dabblers who tee-hee their way through spankings, hoping to paddle excitement into their marriage know it's still taboo. (After all, if it weren't, it would lose its power to excite.) To reconcile the icons with the actual practice, I spent several weeks recently talking to SM practitioners around the U.S. in New York City and San Francisco, yes, but also in North Carolina and New Mexico. Whether they were nervous novices or experienced dungeon masters leading some of the nation's 250 SM organizations, virtually all of them asked for anonymity. One man said he had lost a job when his boss found directions to a bondage workshop in his office. Others said they would be embarrassed if their families learned of their proclivities. We live in a culture in which sadomasochism is everywhere from Versace billboards to at least a dozen college campuses where SM support groups have been established but somehow it remains unseen and unspoken, just beyond the edge of respectability.

Given the silence, measuring SM's popularity is not a precise business, especially since it blurs into the larger category of BDSM, or bondage-discipline-sadomasochism. A 1990 Kinsey Institute report said researchers estimate that 5% to 10% of Americans occasionally engage in SM sex. "The lighter end of BDSM is penetrating bedrooms across America. It's restraint on bedposts, it's spanking, it's fantasy play and it's all fairly common," says Barnaby Barratt, president-elect of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. In his quarter-century of private practice as a therapist in southeastern Michigan, Barratt says, "hundreds, if not thousands" of married couples have told him they want to bind, paddle or play teacher/pupil with each other.

Barratt and other therapists say that couples often hope that role playing or nipple clamps or quick-release bondage will rev up their sex lives. "Many people have this as part of reciprocal, consensual love relationships, and in those cases, we assure them it's not a problem," says Eli Coleman, director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota. He also makes the point that "there's an element of domination or submission or pain involved in almost any sexual interaction. What sadomasochism does is take these elements of eroticism further toward their extreme."

Some couples experiment a few times but return to what serious SM-ers call "vanilla" sex. Others become more deeply involved in the SM scene; they use SM props or fantasies every time they have sex. The scene has become so large and varied that it encompasses the rich farrago of coupling practices known as BDSM, which includes not only SM the erotic enjoyment of inflicting and/or receiving pain but also BD (bondage/discipline) and DS (domination/submission). BD usually involves physical restraint and a punishment/reward setup (say, Nurse Ratched with a patient). DS relationships are often as emotional as they are carnal. Submissives relish transferring authority over aspects of their lives to others; the submissive might allow the dominant not only to tie her up but even to tell her when she must go to sleep.

A common misperception is that most DS relationships involve dominant women dominatrices, in the parlance ordering around submissive men. (As a result, some feminists have come to see BDSM lifestyles as not only transgressive but progressive.) And, indeed, among the many prostitutes who offer BDSM services, more are dominant than submissive, says Dr. Paul Federoff, a University of Ottawa psychiatrist who has studied sadomasochists. "You also might see a lot of dominant women at a BDSM nightclub," he says, but "although it's not the politically correct answer, more women in the scene are choosing the submissive role." In a study Federoff co-authored last year, he found that among 1,320 self-identified BDSM practitioners who anonymously completed a Web survey, 79% of women reported being "always or usually submissive"; only 35% of men did.

In one sense, then, "Doc" and "Surri" aren't so unusual. Married in July, they live in Clayton, N.C., in a just renovated home that when I visited in November had been overtaken by Christmas decorations. ("I'm a Christmas freak," says Surri.) She is Doc's wife, but she also thinks of herself as his "slave," and although she sometimes says the word just like that using her fingers to create quotation marks in the air their master/slave arrangement directs almost every aspect of their lives. Doc tells Surri what she can and can't wear every day, and when the three of us arrived at a steak house for dinner, Doc ordered: "She'll have a white Zinfandel and a glass of water." (Surri did choose the Robert Mondavi over the Sutter Home on her own.)

If Surri fails to accomplish something Doc asks say, cleaning out the car or working in the garden he might spank her or stand her in the corner as though she were a wayward child. When she succeeds, he might call her a "good girl" or give her a small gift. ("I filled out one of those online profiles that ask for your favorite quote, and mine was 'Good girl,'" says Surri. "Hearing [Doc] say that makes me happier than anything else in the world.") Surri, who turns 38 this month, particularly enjoys such "age play" when she's ill; at those times, Doc, 39, might bring her a Winnie-the-Pooh bear. In the bedroom, Surri likes Doc to flog her, but softly, in a light figure-eight pattern. She's not one of those slaves who enjoy the sting of a whip. Says Doc: "A lot of people in the life aren't into pain, despite everything you hear in the media."

Doc and Surri take BDSM much further than most practitioners, but they say they merely verbalize and theatricalize the unspoken power exchanges that exist in every relationship. "About 80% of how we live our lives is the way Mom and Dad did in the '50s," says Doc. "And the way most Baptists live their lives down here," says Surri, referring to the Southern Baptist Convention's resolution that wives should "submit" to their husbands.

But when does this theater go too far? Why would a grown woman let anyone tell her what to eat and wear? "Sometimes people do get lost in this behavior," says Coleman of the University of Minnesota. "It can become very, very powerfully erotic and mood altering." Because of this concern, "sexual sadism" and "sexual masochism" are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the psychiatry compendium. The latter diagnosis, for instance, might apply to someone who starts out wanting a playful smack but ends up begging to be beaten bloody.

BDSM activists yes, there are BDSM activists counter that any sexual activity can become overpowering. And few sexologists would argue that whips and stilettos, in and of themselves, cause sexual compulsion. That's why some mental-health professionals contend that the American Psychiatric Association should remove sadism and masochism from the DSM. "There are no data to support their inclusion," says Charles Moser of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. "There is no study that shows that having BDSM interests causes distress or dysfunction."

In addition, the chains, the hot wax, the boot-licking humiliation they're all secondary for most BDSM practitioners. "Pain is a means to an end, but not the goal itself," says Federoff of the University of Ottawa. "People into this scene, all of them, will tell you that they want anesthetic when they go to the dentist as well as you do. What's different is what they use pain for." BDSM-ers like to use athletic analogies: marathoners endure the agony of the last miles so they can savor the accomplishment of finishing. SM, they say, is no different.

But that doesn't explain why people do it a question that sexologists can't yet answer. "Tell me the etiology of heterosexuality or homosexuality," says Moser, "and I will tell you the etiology of SM." Federoff has compiled new online surveys from 2,000 women and 2,000 men who identified themselves as part of the BDSM scene. "We have only started to analyze the data," he says, "but the first impression is that the people we have looked at tend to look very much like regular people from all walks of life that is, they tend to look like people who might fill out Web questionnaires on any topic. Second, by the measures of psychological health we were able to get, they tend not to look particularly psychologically impaired" at least no more so than the general population.

At this point, we should make clear that the BDSM these researchers study is consensual. No one in the fledgling BDSM movement argues in favor of actual slavery or rape (though eroticized simulations of such crimes are common). Among the BDSM clubs and support groups, all the reputable ones preach the BDSM mantra: safe, sane and consensual. "Like every other subculture, we have a fringe, an element that doesn't follow the rules," says Susan Wright of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, a BDSM advocacy group formed in 1997 that claims 34 member organizations representing 10,000 people. "But every mainstream BDSM group has a mission statement that includes those words over and over: safe, sane, consensual."

More specific guidelines always check bound limbs to ensure circulation, for instance have developed over the decades, she says. BDSM has a rich history. In the 19th century, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing famously applied a French literary term le sadisme, which described the sexually violent writing style of the Marquis de Sade to mental patients who exhibited an "association of lust and cruelty." Less famously, Krafft-Ebing named masochism after the bawdy novels of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose most famous work, Venus in Furs (1870), describes the willing enslavement of a dreamy man by a beautiful widow.

More recently, the Internet has helped connect curiosity seekers with BDSM organizations. Doc and Surri, for instance, help lead a North Carolina group that started less than a year ago but already has nearly 700 people on its e-mail list. The calendar of BDSM social events now includes gatherings for every imaginable subgroup everything from the International Deaf Leather Contest (scheduled in Dallas in August) to the Black Rose convention in the Washington area, a yearly weekend of workshops and parties that draws 1,000.

Host communities aren't always thrilled to learn that hundreds of kinky convention-goers will be dropping in. In 2002, after Baptist leaders heard that the Howard Johnson hotel in Bridgeton, Mo., had served as the site for Beat Me in St. Louis, the Southern Baptist Convention canceled reservations at the hotel. Last year the Kenner, La., police chief mailed letters to local hotels urging them not to provide accommodations for Fetish in the Fall, a four-day series of parties and educational demonstrations Dances with Whips, for instance set for November. Chief Nick Congemi was worried that the gathering's activities would be "borderline illegal"; organizers canceled the event to spare attendees embarrassing public scrutiny.

Congemi has a point about the law. It is a bedrock principle of common law that consent is no defense against assault charges, and many prosecutors see BDSM activities like flogging as assault. In the past half-century, many SM participants have been successfully prosecuted. But while most appellate judges have upheld those convictions, a 1999 New York State ruling is altering the landscape. In that case, an appeals court overturned the conviction of Oliver Jovanovic, a Columbia University grad student who had been sentenced to 15 years for kidnapping and sexually abusing an undergrad. Before the alleged assault, the woman had e-mailed her SM fantasies to Jovanovic. The trial judge had refused to admit the e-mail messages into evidence, but the appeals court held that while no one has a constitutional right to engage in SM, the e-mails would have shed light on whether Jovanovic reasonably believed that the woman had consented.

Of all the knotty issues swirling around BDSM, consent was the most difficult for me to understand. No means no, but does yes always mean yes? If you ask someone to pass a flame across your genitals or tie you up for hours or tell you what to eat, are you in your right mind? I pressed Surri repeatedly on these issues. Finally, after a robust drag on her cigarette (which she had asked Doc's permission to smoke), she answered, "What we worry about when we look at our own community and try to make sure abuse isn't happening is whether submissives are restricted in their speech. And I can always say what I want ... Yes, Doc makes the final decision about things. But if he said to me, 'Shave off your hair,' well, we would have some issues because there's not a chance in hell I would do that." Surri and Doc do take the master/slave relationship to elaborate lengths, but she can always end it. "Ultimately," she says, "I have more control in this relationship than he does."

But Surri admits that not all her SM relationships have been so balanced. After she left her second husband Doc is her third she "got tied into a very bad person," she says. One day the man told her to get into a dog kennel, and she willingly complied. But then he left her alone a major no-no under the safe-sane-and-consensual guidelines taught at SM conferences. As it happened, the apartment building accidentally caught fire. Surri suffered burns and smoke inhalation. "I was nearly dead when the paramedics got to me," she says. When I ask what happened to the man, tears well in her eyes. "Nothing." Surri didn't press charges because she was worried that if the authorities discovered her dominant-submissive lifestyle, they would come for her daughter.

Surri's daughter, a polite, sunshiny 14-year-old, knows that her mom takes orders from her stepdad, but Doc and Surri keep their sexual relationship along with the floggers and other apparatus private. Surri says her daughter's most common response to any mention of the BDSM lifestyle is, "Ugh, Mom!" (The daughter's privacy is one reason I agreed not to use real names for Doc and Surri. Another is that there are no legal protections for BDSM; the home-improvement warehouse where Doc works could fire him.)

I left North Carolina unsure what to think about the couple. They seem madly in love "because we have this kind of relationship, everything has to be spoken, so it's much deeper," says Doc. And they are hardly radicals. Doc is a Schwarzenegger Republican and a big fan of the Left Behind novels, the evangelical Christian thrillers that graphically depict the damnation of the sinful. Both Surri and Doc criticize the moral laxity of parents who allow kids to shirk their chores and sass their elders.

On the other hand, Surri's "biggest satisfaction in life" should probably be something other than "seeing [Doc's] approval." She says it's in her nature to submit that, in a manner of speaking, she has no choice but to give up choice. But can such thorough submission truly be safe, sane and consensual? Wright says BDSM-ers debate such issues all the time. If SM is to become a more accepted part of the mainstream, those serious debates and not just the titillating extremes of "S&M" iconography will have to come out of the closet.

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