“What the hell is BDSM?” and Other Questions, Answered

“Kinky sex is defined not so much by what it is, but what it’s not,” Bernie, a southwestern Ontario entrepreneur in his mid-50s, told Metro News this October. His statement was made in response to former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s defence of the sexual assault allegations brought against him by nine women, stating that it was nothing more than consensual, kinky, BDSM sex.

Besides Ghomeshi being outed as rapist scum, BDSM is also being talked about on the morning news in a more positive light, soccer moms praising E.L. James’ novel 50 Shades of Grey for being a modern kink masterpiece.

Sadly for devout soccer moms and rape apologists alike, Ghomeshi’s disgusting sexual behaviour and James’ completely inaccurate portrayal of BDSM couldn’t be further from the real thing, but negative and far-off depictions of kink are just about the only thing being talked about right now. So, what the hell is BDSM?

The origins of BDSM as a term are difficult to trace. Eric Partridge’s book The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English traced it back as far as 1969, the BONDAGE & DISCIPLINE and SADISM & MASOCHISM elements combined into an easy acronym.

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these terms: remember ‘em!

The origins of bondage came from various places. In Tarquinia, a sixth century B.C. Etruscan flogging grave known as the Tomba della Fustigazione (Tomb of the Whipping) exists, wherein a woman is seen erotically being flagellated by two men, with a cane and a hand, respectively.

Tomba Della Fustigazione

The act of flagellation was also present in the first or second century in the Roman poet Juvenal’s Sixth Book of Satires. The Kama Sutra, the most famous text depicting some of the sadomasochistic acts and connotations practiced within contemporary BDSM. This Sanskrit text from (what historians estimate to be) between 400 BCE and 200 CE was written by Vātsyāyana. It speaks of consent, includes some safety rules and focuses primarily on the submissive’s pleasure. This is outstanding, because consent is the most important part of BDSM culture and still sometimes fails to be mentioned when BDSM is discussed in modern times, which could easily contribute to instances of abuse and ignorance within the community.


Born in 1740, Marquis de Sade, real name Donatien Alphonse François, was a Parisian philosopher, known for writing explicit, violent, blasphemous sexual works. A temperamental child of aristocratic origins, his obsession with flagellation was sparked after the act was used against him as a punishment for misbehaving in school.

TELEVISION PROGRAMME…. Masters of Darkness: De Sade Pictured..
a portrait of Marquis de Sade

His most famous text “120 Days of Sodom” was written while he was incarcerated for sodomy. The term Sadism is drawn from his name. The texts he wrote described some of the sadistic acts practiced in BDSM today; however, he had no mention of consent, and discussed pedophilia, bestiality and extreme violence, setting him apart from the very safe and sexy BDSM we know and love today.

The term masochism is drawn from the name of the Ukranian romance author Leopold von Sacher­-Masoch, who wrote some of his stories from a submissive standpoint, showing the structured relationship of a submissive and a dominant.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

He advocated for feminism in his daily life, but pressured his wife to fulfil a very dominant sexual and romantic role that she did not consent to, which shows both negative and positive aspects of his views on sexuality.


Contemporary artists and photographers in the field have also helped to bring BDSM into the sphere of public discussion as their works became more mainstream, depicting acts of BDSM and erotic scenes of the like. After Gene Bilbrew, a fetish artist of the 50’s, emerged Robert Bishop, his works from 1971-­1985 in magazines and catalogues presenting a visually brighter, more explicit look at BDSM-­related artwork.

In 1982, Barbara Nitké was raising to prominence as a talented female photographer, working in the completely male­-dominated setting of pornography sets. When the hardcore porn industry found its new home in Los Angeles in 1991, she went on to photograph the sets of SM and fetish movies in New York City.

Its origins in film and photography stem largely from Irving Klaw. A producer in the 1950s and 1960s, his photographs of Bettie Page arguably his most famous works, he also published bondage comics by Eric Stanton and John Willie.

BDSM-related imagery, although growing more and more common, can still create controversy today. For example, pop performer Madonna was often seen pushing sexual boundaries throughout her career, generating tons of negative feedback and immense publicity after the release of her Erotica album, especially. Still, Madonna wasn’t the first, and she certainly won’t be the last to get kinky on national television.

Madonna’s Erotica album
Madonna’s Erotica album

a typical shocking Madonna look from her Erotica days
a typical shocking Madonna look from her Erotica days


What if, when I mentioned, BDSM, you thought of “50 Shades of Grey” by the best-selling novel by the (likely orgasm-deprived) so-called author E.L. James? My response: NO! 50 Shades of Grey” is abuse, plain and simple.

E.L. James, someone who somehow makes more money than most people
E.L. James, someone who somehow makes more money than most people

I feel it is best outlined within the article “50 Shades and Abusive Relationships“ written by Jenny Trout, wherein she compares the “Universal Red Flags” in Sandra L. Brown, M.D.’s book “How To Spot A Dangerous Man” to the situation Ana endures in James’s novel. Her analysis shows that their interactions blatantly fulfil all of these criteria, romanticized to seem like something people should yearn for in a relationship. He manipulates and degrades her time and time again.

Please never use this as an example of BDSM. It is an abusive situation and perpetuating the idea that it is anything but extremely dangerous is potentially very harmful.


Great! Now that you know the history of BDSM, the general terms, what it is, exactly, and what to avoid, you are ready to learn how to get into the BDSM scene, should that be an interest of yours.


If you’ve decided that BDSM may be of interest to you, it’s important to learn how this culture came to be, how it’s practiced today and where you can find all the information necessary to get started.

There are tons of easy ways to meet people within the BDSM scene, the easiest likely being signing up for the website Fetlife (which is free!) and checking out the events, groups, pages, and just speaking to people who seem interesting. I made many friends within the scene, both play partners and pals that are just there to listen.

fetlife’s interface
fetlife’s interface

Some people just want friendships, are in relationships already or just aren’t looking for a new play partner, so don’t feel intimidated by the idea that there are obligations once you sign up. In fact, the most crucial part of BDSM is the consent factor! Anyone who’s a true part of a community will always mention this to a beginner.

Another way is to put yourself on the line and attend public events that can be discovered via Facebook, flyers, or word of mouth; however, be careful to only attend something you completely trust. Montreal Fetish weekend, held in September, offers tons of amazing kinky experiences, and is totally open to everyone (besides the whole “it costs money” thing) from star fetish models to newbie players.

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To discover what elements of BDSM you enjoy (and to show your partner to ease communication), here’s a personal pleasure checklist:

If you wanna DIY some BDSM stuff:

http://www.ohjoysextoy.com/diybdsm/ (cheap!)
An easy-to-read little infographic on bondage by the super sex-positive, queer site Ohjoysextoy:

IN CONCLUSION, be safe, be kinky, and always have fun. Sex should be a positive experience for everyone involved, so whether you like inflicting pain, receiving pleasure or sitting out and watching, be sure to do your research. Oh, and don’t read 50 Shades of Grey, unless you’re analyzing it and vomiting during. Also, never use Wikipedia.

Enjoy yourselves, kinksters!


Bronwyn: an Advocate

Bronwyn Haney, director of external affairs at The Hive, has a colourful way of dressing. She wears 1920’s business glasses and her long blonde curls are dip-dyed blue and purple. She strikes you as the kind of person who even looked interesting, like someone who you could talk to about any subject and who would always have a different and creative way of viewing it.

On a regular afternoon at Dawson College nearing the end of October I entered the school’s gender advocacy center to discuss a few topics pertaining to sexual assault and consent in a school setting with her. I was greeted warmly by Bronwyn and other members of The Hive in a bright, welcoming room with artwork on the walls, a sofa with pillows of various colors and designs thrown on top, and a collection of books in one corner with titles such as “A History of Feminism”. After admiring the small space the Hive operates in, and commenting about both our birthday parties and the upcoming Rocky Horror Ball she would be attending, our conversation began to shift towards the reason for my visit.

What was the reason for my visit? Well, the combat against crimes of sexual nature has seen a few developments in recent months regarding the issue of rape in schools that I wanted to discuss: universities in North America have been updating their procedures for the handling of on-campus sexual assault. These actions have been put in place following a surge in frustration and dissatisfaction voiced by the student body of prominent Universities, with complaints of a lack of support in tackling on-campus rape, raising awareness and educating faculty as well as students on sexual assault and consent. Concordia students are calling for sexual assault awareness workshops for all students and staff at the university, something that has recently been officialised in San Francisco, and at Columbia University an art student has made the news with a term-long project on on-campus rape by carrying her dorm room mattress with her all around campus, among many other measures being taken in universities.

But what I wanted to know was how my school was reacting to on-site rape, or raising awareness among students about this issue. So, knowing Bronwyn to be insightful and a compassionate person regarding human rights, I met up with her to discuss Dawson, her position at The Hive, and how both these entities are working towards eliminating rape amongst its students and staff.

I learned from speaking with her that she has been acting as director of external affairs since the beginning of the semester. She, like many other students in the school, was a bit confused about what exactly The Hive was at first. “I didn’t really know what it was,” she explained to me, recalling her first semester at Dawson last year. “It was being treated as a club at the time, so I was really confused and I felt that I didn’t really have a place here.” It’s true; the Hive is not a club and it is trying to change that view students have of it, by putting up a clear sign on their door stating “This is a service, not a club!” for example.

Bronwyn informed me enthusiastically that The Hive provides students with peer support and information on sexual health, sexuality and gender identification and gives out free tampons, pregnancy tests, condoms, lubricant, etc. to any student in need. It is also a safe space for people to come in and talk about issues pertaining to sex and gender without fear of being judged, or even just to take a break, have some tea and rest on their couch.

“I always really loved the idea when I first heard that Dawson had a gender advocacy center and all the things they offered here.” She then went on to point out how privileged we are a this school for having such a service. “Abbott doesn’t have one, Vanier doesn’t have one.”

She told me she wanted to get involved once she heard about it, and when her friend who works at the student union offered her the position, she jumped at the opportunity.

Bronwyn, as well as all the other members of The Hive, is not paid for her work. She is a volunteer and her primary role is to spread the word about The Hive’s intentions to other advocacy centers, attend workshops and events organized by other schools and advocacy centers that pertain to any of the issues The Hive handles and to be available at The Hive every Thursday to greet whoever comes to visit, answer their questions or help them find what they’re looking for.

The Hive is also a service that is working to fight rape and rape culture within the school. “Just the mentality The Hive has, and our point of view on rape and rape culture. We’re trying to abolish it, in terms of rape culture we’re trying to denounce it. […] We try to educate people on what rape culture is, what consent is, what yes means, what no means. For instance, say someone comes in and says ‘I’ve been raped’ we try and take the steps necessary to help the student so we contact—“ she suddenly grins and looks at another girl who was sitting with us, working quietly and listening in “Well, we contact Jules.” The girl laughs and explains to me “Because I’m the director of internal affairs at the student union so I can help in that way, but The Hive already takes the necessary steps depending on what the person wants to happen so if the person would not like to contact the police then we don’t. We contact whoever the person wants to contact.” Bronwyn adds “We just want to try and bring justice to the situation.”

Their primary method of combatting rape and rape culture is through education. “We have a lot of zines up on our wall and just a lot of information about it. We are all aware of what rape culture is and we can deconstruct it for students and educate on what is consent, rape culture, what is okay and what’s not okay to do in a given situation. We have pamphlets, we have brochures, there’s a lot of literature in the Hive about that.” She specified that all the reading is open to students who come in looking for information just not to take away with them, but they are working on a program to lend out their books.

Some of the Zines in the Hive that students are welcome to read for important information about sex, gender, etc.
Some of the Zines in the Hive that students are welcome to read for important information about sex, gender, etc.

The more I spoke with Bronwyn, the more I got a sense of her passion and her love for what she does. She genuinely cares about the issues brought up by The Hive, and you can tell she enjoys being a part of the fight not just against rape and rape culture, but also against gender stereotypes, human rights violations and a lack of education surrounding sex and sexual health. I could see the sense of fulfilment in her eyes when she spoke to me.

“I’m going to a workshop series called ‘How to Be a Better Friend and Ally’ which is not necessarily pertaining to consent specifically but it’s just surrounding the ideas of how to be supportive.” It seems like a very fitting workshop for someone who occasionally enters in contact with survivors of rape to attend in order to be able to communicate in a caring and understanding manner.

“Do you think that Dawson has done enough to address rape and rape culture?” I asked her towards the end of my visit.

Her answer was out of her mouth before I even finished the question. “No,” she replied. “No, definitely not. It’s not something that’s openly discussed here, it’s something that’s often avoided.”

Her position on the importance of tackling on-campus rape demonstrated just how committed she is to help her fellow students: “This is supposed to be a safe space for students to come and learn, not to get harassed.”

I concluded the interview with one very important question. What more could Dawson do? How could we eliminate on-campus rape and rape culture within the school once and for all? “I think that we could encourage dialog about these subjects. I think that we can encourage students to come forward if anything happened to them and take the steps to abolish whatever negative situation that might be. That would be the best, just to start communicating, to start fixing that, so that we can have a safe space for students… and for staff.”

The Hive is located in room 2D. 1a in Dawson College and welcome students to visit them and take advantage of their numerous services. Don’t be shy!