The Extended History of BDSM

By Skyeler Huntsman

Ishtar_vase_Louvre_AO17000-detail
An image of Inanna carved on the Ishtar Vase from the early second millennium BC. Source: Wikipedia 

BDSM has dark and disturbing imagery. A dark, dungeon-like room filled with chains, whips, and cages. Critics use this imagery to claim BDSM is anti-woman and to continue heteronormative gender norms. These portrayals are wrong and destroy and ignore the history of BDSM. The history of BDSM is complicated and revolutionary, a history filled with strong women and men. It is a history exposing the creation of gender and questioning social normativity. BDSM has become a lifestyle, with its own set of rules and orders, a culture people practice in order to be edgy, to startle by wearing a collar, a rope pentagram, or a puppy mask. BDSM and its history is about figuring out yourself, learning and taking responsibility, and refusing to follow or care what others think.

Bondage, Discipline, Domination, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism, aka BDSM has a long history. According to historian Anne O’ Nomis, BDSM began in Mesopotamia, where gods and monsters ruled over human subjects. Goddess Inanna with her jeweled-adorned body and her crown, shimmered and dazzled as she looked down at her human subjects. She induced her followers to perform a dance for her; as the dance intensified, Inanna whipped her followers into a sexual frenzy. The subsequent sexual intercourses created both pleasure and the continuation of Mesopotamia. This dance, with its moans and pleasures, could not save the fate of Mesopotamia. The ashes of the city did not destroy BDSM; the dance for the goddess was just a seed.

The history of Ancient Greece also includes BDSM from ritual flagellation of men and women in Sparta to  The Tomb of Whippinga room where whipping for sexual pleasure happened. The problem with the historical depictions of BDSM/sex in Ancient Greece is the focus on the physical act of sex. In the History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault explains “in Greece, truth and sex were linked, in the form of pedagogy, by the transmission of a precious knowledge from one body to another; sex served as a medium for initiations into learning.” This transmission of precious knowledge was different for each Greek couple, one couple’s knowledge could be just about sex, another couple’s knowledge could be a teacher/student relationship. The student/teacher relationship was between someone older, wiser teaching a younger being about the meaning of life. Some relationships focused on survival, like the Sacred Band of Thebes. The study of sexuality and sexual practices in Ancient Greece focuses too much on sex in our modern sense. Historians have not focused enough on the discourse of these relationships, either for what they were or their complexity.

In every culture BDSM-like practices existed. The existences of these practices reveal the fluidity of both gender and sexuality. Victorian Britain, with the help of explorer Richard Burton, created a myth around the Indian text, the Kamasutra. The titillating illustrations of differing sexual positions could be read merely as a sex manual.  But the book is not a guide for sex but for enlightenment, a guide for both men and women to better their lives by acquiring better understandings of themselves, their partner(s), and the world around them. The Kamasutra teaches men to respect women, and women to respect men, because the goal is liberation from this world. Liberation, moksha, is a complex idea, but for some, the use of BDSM in the Sutra is a guide to liberate both sex and gender conformities, based on principles of communication, trust, and consent. Nevertheless, the focus of BDSM changed from being about trust and honesty to about control and sexual gratification.

England, France, and some parts of Germany from the 16th century to the 19th century experienced a blossoming of erotic literature and art from the publication of Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso to John Cleland’s Fanny Hill.  Stories of chamber maids whipping their masters or young feral servants whipping their mistresses, with the implications of power turned topsy-turvy, were tantalizing back in the day. The Marquis De Sade changed erotica in the late 1700s with the publication of 120 Days of Sodom and Justine. Sade’s work is graphic. His writing depicts the sexual pleasure of beatings, forced orgasms, humiliation, group sex, rope play, and even cutting. The labels placed on Sade’s work are shocking, controversial, and to some feminist writers, his work is sexist. These labels do not repel people from Sade’s work, the attraction to his work by “sick freaks” intensifies because of these labels.

Although the publication of Sade’s work introduced many to the world of BDSM, it really came out of the closet in the twentieth century. Germany after World War I was a place in need of life. The war decimated the country, and it left a generation of men and women frustrated at the old way of life. Some decided to liberate themselves by creating clubs to express their homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexuality, and to simply have fun. These cabarets are beautifully described by British author Christopher Isherwood who was in Berlin during this time. Fascism ruined and destroyed these clubs, even though many guards, soldiers, and fascist youths frequently visited and ‘played’ in them. Hitler destroyed and persecuted this sexual freedom, but he did not destroy it; it just went underground.

BDSM existed in 1940s and 1950s America because of underground publication of “sex” magazines. These magazines, with the help of photographer of John Willie, are one of the reasons for the contemporary look of BDSM: the leather, high heeled shoes, latex dresses, corsets, and the binding of hands and arms together by rope. Women depicted in Bizarre, wore high heeled leather shoes, some had their hands bound behind their back, or over their heads, with either ropes or leather. Some pictures showed them being beaten and others showed them struggling with their restraints. One of the most famous Bizarre model was Bettie Page. Page was both the Queen of the Pinups and the Queen of BDSM. She was strong, powerful, innocent with a pretty smile. Importantly, she revolutionized sexuality. In her words “they claimed, I opened up the sexual revolution but I was just doing my job and I’d loved every moment of it.” In some part the sexual revolution of the 1960s happened because of her, the relaxing of censorship happened because of her, and she inspired generations of women to embrace their sexuality and their femininity, whether they want to be submissive or be a dominatrix. I suggest everyone watch the beautiful and heartbreaking film The Notorious Bettie Page. BDSM began to break free from the underground and become an artistic movement.

The Gay Rights Movement so linked with Stonewall, also began with a simple drawing of a leather clad officer on a page of a magazine. Images of homoeroticism have long been part of both American and world culture, from the words of Oscar Wilde to the paintings of Thomas Eakins and J.C. Leyendecker. However, there was no clear definition of sexuality or “look” attached to being gay. Tom of Finland, Touko Valio Laaksonen, like Bettie Page, created a look and identity for both BDSM and gay culture. The media in the early twentieth century portrayed gay men as limp-wristed, fastidiously clean, sissy and sassy, simply weak men. Tom of Finland created strong, powerful, sexy, and self-assured men. His art work revolutionized both the gay culture and the art world. Tom of Finland’s influence can be seen in the look of heavy metal and the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Bettie Page, Tom of Finland, Mapplethorpe, and so many others helped usher in mainstream BDSM.

Remember when MTV use to play music videos? I do not either but for those who do, remember the videos of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, even the Eurythmics. These artists, plus numerous others, used BDSM for their look and modes of expression: Marilyn Manson with his corsets and smashing industrial lights cutting his chest, Trent Reznor screaming “Closer” to a crowd of screaming fans. I will not go into the look and lyrics of Rammstein, this is an academic blog after all. With the help of internet and blog forums like Tumblr, it is easier to realize this history and help people understand BDSM is not a nefarious culture. However, access to social media also invites judgment. Some still question the mental state, family background, and personality of people who are part of BDSM, but the history of BDSM proves the fluidity of gender and sexuality.  There is no “right way” to be or to express sex, gender, and sexuality.

Skyeler Huntsman is a history master’s student studying gender and sexuality.  

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