BDSM: Where did it come from? - CherryDTV
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BDSM: Where did it come from?

BDSM stands for ‘bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism’, and the acronym has largely replaced the earlier term ‘sadomasochism’. To understand the history of BDSM, we must start from the very beginning at the earliest known practices and work our way back to modern day. So, we give you an abbreviated Time Line of BDSM!

Travis Scott Bdsm GIF by SZA - Find & Share on GIPHY

The imagery in BDSM can be dark and unsettling, a dim, dungeon-like room filled with chains, whips, and cages… imagery such as this is what critics use to claim BDSM is anti-woman and to continue pushing the agenda of heteronormativity gender norms. These portrayals are wrong, destroying and ignoring the true history of BDSM.

The history of BDSM is complicated and revolutionary, a history filled with strong individuals. 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 belong, be edgy, to create shock and awe in others by wearing a collar, a rope pentagram, or a puppy mask. BDSM and its history are all about understanding out who you are, learning to take responsibility for yourself, and refusing to care or be influenced by what others think.

Ancient BDSM

The earliest known use of BDSM style practices comes from Ancient Mesopotamia circa 3100 BC

Ancient Mesopotamia followed the Tigris-Euphrates rivers, located in the Middle-East near Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Saudi Arabia over 5,000 years ago, 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. Many archeologists and anthropologists date the first known BDSM and Domination-style practices to have taken place in Mesopotamia.

While, in Sparta of Ancient Greece, (circa 900BC) there is evidence of ritualistic floggings of both men and women being practiced by the religious cult of Orthia. Young boys were publicly flogged as part of their initiation rites as a Spartan soldier,  in order to toughen them up.

Goddess Orthia, also known as Artemis or Worthia.

In Pompeii, a figure known as a “whip-mistress” can be seen on the wall of the Villa of the Mysteries (Roman villa) to signify the initiation of a young woman into the Mysteries.

Villa of Mysteries

One of the most prominent pieces and graphical proof of sadomasochist activity came in 1960, when Italian historian, Carlo Maurilio Lerici, discovered the Tomb of the Whipping, a room where whipping for sexual pleasure happened.

The issue with the historical depictions of BDSM/sex in Ancient Greece is the focus on the physical act of sex. However, In the History of SexualityMichel Foucault explains “in Greece, truth and sex were linked, in the form of pedagogy, by the transmission of 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.

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Tomb of Whipping

This Estrucan tomb, located in Italy is named after the fact that there is a fresco which depicts two men flogging a woman while in an erotic situation, dating back to approximately 490 BC. The art inside the tomb teaches both men and woman to respect each other equally as-well as explaining that different types of impact-play during erotic scenarios that achieve various types of joy through pain administered on bottoms. 

Tomb of Whipping

Additionally, throughout the 14th century in Medieval Europe, there was a period known as “Courtly Love” where individuals willingly submitted to being tied up and beat. Many historians have associated this period and behaviour to the beginning of BDSM impact-play practices.

So it seems to be that BDSM practices have existed in many cultures as far back as 5,000+ years ago!

BDSM and Tantra

BDSM-like practices have and still do exist in every culture around the world. 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 arousing 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 Karmasutra 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 in the modern world.

18th Century BDSM

The word Sadism is derived from Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat, philosopher, and writer. Mostly known for his libertine sexuality and his popular book, The 120 Days of Sodom. De Sade spent 32 years of his life moving from prison to prison, over 15 years of which were spent in asylums because of his writings, most of which were actually written while he was actually in prison.

Marquis wrote The 120 Days of Sodom in an astounding 37 days in 1785! The novel tells the story of four male libertines who lock themselves in an inaccessible castle with a harem of 36 victims so that they may experience ultimate sexual gratification through the sexual abuse, torture and eventual slaughter of their victims.

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, in fact the attraction to his work intensifies because of these labels. So much so that it has been banned by some governments. However, it is significant to BDSM history and I highly recommend reading it…. at your own risk.

Depiction of the Marquis de Sade by H. Biberstein in L’Œuvre du marquis de Sade. Bibliothèque des Curieux, Paris, 1912

The origin of masochism

Another fine fellow with significant relevance within BDSM history is an Austrian journalist and author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch whose name is the origin of the word masochism.

Most popular for his book Venus in Furs, 1870. The book portrays female dominance and sadomasochism and tells the story of a man who is so incredibly infatuated with a woman that he asks to be her slave and encourages her to progressively degrade and humiliate him.

Leopold never would admit that the book was a story about his desires, however there were stories of him encouraging his wife to enact the book with him.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

A very important moment for BDSM in the 18th century came in 1890 when a German psychiatrist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced the terms “sadism” and “masochism”; referring to the pleasure in physical and emotional pain. The term “Sadomasochism” was born!

20th Century BDSM

BDSM existed in 1940s and 1950s America because of underground publication of “sex” magazines. Artist and photographer, John Willie really placed BDSM at the forefront for being the best known underground fetish photographer. John gave birth to what we now view as the contemporary imagery of BDSM; leather, high heels, latex, bondage etc.

Bettie Page

Bettie Page, Best known throughout the 1950s as a popular pinup model, she also posed for many fetish photographers; earning her the title as the Queen of Pinup 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. 

Consensual BDSM

Informed consent became a fundamental part of BDSM culture in 1980 due to the consensus on consent. BDSM practitioners developed, introduced and adopted what’s widely known as the “BDSM Creed” or “SSC” meaning that play must be; safe, sane, and consensual. These principles are absolute fundamentals in modern BDSM practices.

Perhaps one of the most significant and maybe unsurprising contribution to BDSM as we know it today is technology. None truer than Usenet. For those unfamiliar, think of Usenet as the precursor to what is known today as forums.

Established in 1980, Usenet is a message board system with various categories or “groups”. One such group, popularized by BDSM was “alt.sex.bondage“. The first documented use of the “BDSM” acronym itself is reported to be from a Usenet posting in 1991.

Eventually, the alt.sex.bondage group had become so overwhelmed that it ultimately gave birth to alternative social networks such as FetLife!

BDSM in the 21st century

The popularity of BDSM in modern culture has never been higher, and it is only increasing.

This could largely be due to technology and the access to information being right at our fingertips. As well, as fetish books and movies like 50 Shades Of Gray being popularised and becoming almost pop culturesque in nature.

In addition to traditional sex shops, which sell sex paraphernalia, there has also been an explosive growth of online adult toy companies that specialise in leather/latex gear and BDSM toys. 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 “vanilla” markets.

The former niche expanded to an important pillar of the business with adult accessories. Today practically all suppliers of sex toys do offer items which originally found usage in the BDSM subculture. Padded handcuffs, latex and leather garments, as well as more exotic items like soft whips for fondling and TENS for erotic electro stimulation can be found in catalogs aiming on classical vanilla target groups, indicating that former boundaries increasingly seem to shift.

Not to mention how modern fashion trends are largely influenced by BDSM costumes and culture.


As well as children’s toys now being dressed in provocative lingerie-style clubbing outfits.


With the help of internet and blog forums like Tumblr, it is easier to understand the history and help people understand that BDSM is not a nefarious culture. However, access to social media invites judgment! Some still question the mental state, family background, and personality of people who practice and are part of BDSM culture, 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!

Modern Day Insight Into BDSM From A Dominatrix

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6 comments

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Anonymous July 12, 2021 at 2:12 am

A very informed article. Extremely interesting to follow the history behind it.

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