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BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis of Sacrifices and Delights



This is a qualitative investigation of 73 individuals in the Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sado-Masochism subculture. There is tremendous stigma attached to this subculture, and while the academic community may be increasingly accepting, the general public is not as accepting or knowledgeable. Fear of negative consequences means that many engage in secrecy and concealment strategies as protective measures. Although there is much literature on the possible consequences and the reasons for concealment, there remain gaps. Our findings reveal how many conceal to cover up or to hide what outsiders may consider immoral or otherwise unacceptable behavior. Others conceal as a means to create a distinction for themselves as part of a secret subculture. Whatever their reasons, those in this subculture engage in a variety of strategies to manage their identity and to minimize their vulnerability.
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BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis of Sacrifices and Delights
Beverly L. Stilesa; Robert E. Clarka
a Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas, USA
Online publication date: 02 February 2011
To cite this Article Stiles, Beverly L. and Clark, Robert E.(2011) 'BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis of Sacrifices and Delights',
Deviant Behavior, 32: 2, 158 — 189
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/01639621003748605
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BDSM: a subcultural analysis
of sacrifices and delights
Beverly L. Stiles and Robert E. Clark
Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls,
Texas, USA
This is a qualitative investigation of 73 individuals
in the Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and
Submission, and Sado-Masochism subculture. There
is tremendous stigma attached to this subculture, and
while the academic community may be increasingly
accepting, the general public is not as accepting
or knowledgeable. Fear of negative consequences
means that many engage in secrecy and concealment
strategies as protective measures. Although there is
much literature on the possible consequences and
the reasons for concealment, there remain gaps.
Our findings reveal how many conceal to cover up or
to hide what outsiders may consider immoral or
otherwise unacceptable behavior. Others conceal as
a means to create a distinction for themselves as part
of a secret subculture. Whatever their reasons, those
in this subculture engage in a variety of strategies to
manage their identity and to minimize their
The purpose of this article is to report the results of a qualitative
investigation of the difficulties=sacrifices and satisfactions=
delights experienced by those who are members of the BDSM
Received 26 February 2009; accepted 15 September 2009.
Address correspondence to Beverly L. Stiles, Midwestern State University, 3410 Taft
Blvd., Wichita Falls, TX 76308, USA. E-mail:
Deviant Behavior, 32: 158–189, 2011
Copyright #Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0163-9625 print=1521-0456 online
DOI: 10.1080/01639621003748605
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lifestyle. Specifically, we examine the difficulties inherent in
being part of a stigmatized subculture and the secrecy and
concealment strategies that follow, as a means of stigma or
information management. As a measure of balance and accu-
racy, we also examine the satisfactions experienced by those
who practice Bondage and Discipline (BD), Dominance and
Submission (DS), and Sado-Masochism (SM).
Currently, the stigma attached to BDSM is tremendous and
the myths and negative press associated with BDSM are ram-
pant (Moser and Madeson 2002). This stigma results from
cultural evaluations or labeling of BDSM as deviant. The
prevalence of what is referred to by BDSM participants as
‘‘vanilla sex’’ (non-BDSM sex), results in dominant social
constructs that define BDSM as deviant. This means that
BDSM participants become socially marginalized or invis-
ible. While the academic community may be increasingly
accepting of BDSM, or ‘‘kinky,’’ as an alternative lifestyle
choice, or subculture, the general public is not as accepting
or knowledgeable. Thus, according to Moser, few people
admit to BDSM interests, and the lack of understanding of
BDSM has lead to many misconceptions as well as fear,
which may further alienate those who are active in the life-
style (1988). Fear of negative consequences means that many
will engage in strategies or tactics as protective measures.
One recognized protective measure is the control or
concealment of one’s deviant or stigmatized identity.
Goffman (1963), defines stigma as an attribute ‘‘that is
deeply discrediting’’ to an individual. What is stigmatized
is also culturally specific and varies over time. One result
of stigma is that individuals in the BDSM subculture must
negotiate or construct their identities amid hostility and mis-
understanding and therefore must maintain them within the
context of a ‘‘deviant’’ subculture. Goffman (1963) contends
that people must seek to manage ‘‘spoiled aspects’’ of their
social and personal identities in a variety of contexts. In other
words, one must manage discreditable identities. One way of
doing so is through what Goffman termed ‘‘impression man-
agement’’ (1959). Stigma management translates into infor-
mation management as a means of coping with a deviant
identity. Individuals strategically regulate information about
themselves, thus allowing them to construct and protect their
identities, which in turn influences how they are perceived
BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis 159
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and treated in social situations (Goffman 1959, 1967;
Kroeger 2003; Learly 1995; Schlenker 2003).
The secret ...the hiding of realities by negative or positive
means, is one of man’s greatest achievements.
—Georg Simmel (1950)
One means of impression management and self presentation
is to conceal information about oneself (Goffman 1959;
Schwartz 1968). Bok defines secrecy as intentional conceal-
ment. She also makes a distinction between secrecy and
privacy. Privacy is defined as ‘‘the condition of being pro-
tected from unwanted access by others’’ (p. 10). There is
overlap between the two concepts when ‘‘hiding’’ is
involved. Individuals protect their privacy from others getting
too close by protecting their personal space. Personal space
involves not only physical aspects but also personal infor-
mation (Bok 1989). Kroeger terms the deliberate conceal-
ment of personal information ‘‘to present the self as other
than who one understands oneself to be’’ (2003:104) as
‘‘disclosure management.’’
Some personal information, however, cannot be hidden or
managed. We are often evaluated through social group
membership based on race, ethnicity, and gender. These
are readily perceived membership categories, but member-
ship defined by sexual proclivities, such as ‘‘kinky,’’ is
concealable. Other groups also possess stigmatizing attri-
butes that may not be apparent to others (being gay or
lesbian, those with a nonconspicuous disability, etc). One
would expect that individuals might conceal aspects of
themselves that violate recognized norms of society or those
that have not received wide acceptance. According to Bok,
to do so permits one to leave undisturbed that which might
result in suffering. This reduces vulnerability and provides
one with more control over potentially damaging infor-
mation (1989). Thus, secrecy is a strategy that is sometimes
necessary as a protective measure against a potentially hos-
tile environment. However, some say that we have a cultural
160 B. L. Stiles and R. E. Clark
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bias against concealing secrets (Katriel and Philipsen 1981;
Parks 1982).
Much of the literature on concealing secrets espouses the
benefits in revealing them, including improved mental and
physical health (Parks 1982; Pennebaker 1997). This litera-
ture is typically focused on the harm of concealing personal
or family secrets in close relationships (Bradshaw 1995;
Caughlin and Petronio 2004; Imber-Black 1998; Vangelisti
1994; Webster 1991). Other research looks at the negative
consequences of concealing such secrets as having had an
abortion (Major and Gramzow 1999) marital abuse
(Yuen-Tsang and Sung 2005) and HIV status (Klitzman and
Bayer 2003). The assertion is that bringing secrets into the
open can be therapeutic, healing, or beneficial and to con-
tinue to conceal them will only bring about further detriment
or the festering of troubles (Bok 1989).
Still, others provide proscriptive warnings regarding
revealing secrets. Kelly and McKillop (1996) suggest that
before revealing a secret one should consider the conse-
quences. They suggest that people should probably not
reveal personal secrets if they lack a nonjudgmental and
trustworthy person with whom to confide. Others suggest
that concealment might be warranted if one has good rea-
sons for it (Imber-Black 1998). The feeling here is that there
is an unknown risk involved in revealing in that one may not
be sure how the receiver of that information is going to react.
Thus, the reasons given for concealing secrets may be
numerous according to Vangelisti (1994). First, individuals
may perceive what would happen if a secret was revealed
and they believe the reaction or evaluation would be disap-
proval. Second, some conceal secrets as a form of defense.
That is, they often worry that the recipient would violate their
trust. Third, some individuals worry that they will not be able
to discuss the secret in a satisfactory manner. Fourth, some
may simply feel that the secret is not relevant to others
(Vangelisti 1994). The bottom line is that ‘‘people refrain
from disclosing sensitive information because of the need
for protection’’ (Afifi et al. 2005:565) as well as to protect
others (Afifi and Guerrero 1998; Kroeger 2003).
However, according to ethnographer, Carol Warren, her
study of gay males indicates that concealment and secrecy
may not be entirely due to worries. She contends that
BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis 161
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concealment ‘‘entails both sacrifices and delights’’ (1974:4),
that ‘‘the secret response ...adds excitement to stigma’’ (p. 5)
and increases the importance of the community. Likewise,
Altman (1976) contends that concealing activities may infuse
them with a sense that the concealed activity is something
sacred. This is particularly true for some religions, such as
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the
Mormons), as well as other groups such as Freemasons,
who require oaths of secrecy from followers (Rich and
Merchant 2003). Therefore, a secret can bind those who
share it.
Concealment and secrecy are basic to being human and
living among others. ‘‘With no capacity for keeping secrets
and for choosing when to reveal them, human beings would
lose their sense of identity and every shred of autonomy’’
(Bok 1989:282). Although the literature is replete with infor-
mation on the possible consequences and the reasons for
concealment, there are gaps in our understanding of stigma
and concealment. Moreover, there appears to be no litera-
ture on concealment issues for those in the BDSM subcul-
ture. Because the focus of this study is on the meanings
and perspectives of individuals within a specific social con-
text, those involved in the BDSM lifestyle, we used a descrip-
tive qualitative grounded theory design. Our hope is that our
findings might (a) provide a clearer understanding of how
one experiences belonging to a subcultural group and (b)
generate greater understanding of the experiences of those
in the BDSM subculture specifically.
Data Collection
Although we utilized both qualitative and quantitative
methods to conduct our research of those who are members
of the BDSM subculture, the major component of this study
is based on a portion of the qualitative data gathered. These
research findings represent one part of a much more compre-
hensive, ongoing research project. Interviews and observa-
tional data were gathered over a two year period. We
conducted e-interviews as well as gathered data face-to-face.
An active participant in the BDSM lifestyle, known to the
162 B. L. Stiles and R. E. Clark
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first-named author, agreed to act as gatekeeper to grant us
access. He posted a notice of our research interests and
intentions on a regional BDSM listserv. Many on this listserv
posted it to other listservs to which they belonged. The notice
contained an e-mail address for participants to contact if they
wished to participate.
Once participants contacted us by private messages
through the e-mail address set up specifically for this
research, they were sent an informed consent form to be
read, debriefed on the nature of the study, and guaranteed
anonymity through the selection of codenames. Once they
acknowledged they had read the informed consent and
understood it, they were sent a short 27-item questionnaire
to complete. This questionnaire was used mostly to gather
demographic information as well as some attitudinal
responses. Other than the demographic data used, it was
not a part of the current analysis. This instrument was an
adaptation of an earlier questionnaire created by Charles
Moser, a researcher who has conducted much research
on BDSM lifestyle participants. The final questionnaire cre-
ated for the current research project was shown to an active
participant in the lifestyle, and some changes were made to
incorporate appropriate terminology used within the BDSM
community. After the questionnaire was returned, an
on-line e-interview began. This exploratory study employed
semi-structured, open-ended interview questions. While
pre-established sets of questions and lists of topics were
used, additional interview questions emerged from the
responses of participants. This permitted a mixture of struc-
ture, but also a conversational style of data collection.
Small sets or numbers of questions that were related were
used so as to decrease the likelihood of respondent fatigue
or stalling in responding. Data collection from each respon-
dent took anywhere from a week to several months,
depending on the speed and length of the responses. Some
respondents have remained in touch over the entire
two-year time frame. Many of these have become highly
valued informants. In addition, many of the respondents
have been met in-person at various BDSM conventions to
further discuss issues as well as to permit a first-hand
understanding of practices and norms within the BDSM
BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis 163
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Qualitative methodology has been able to take advantage of
many of the advancements in computer technology, and this
research is no exception. We employed an asynchronous for-
mat for conducting our e-interviews. E-interviews eliminate
the problems with setting meeting times and interviewing
someone who lives far away (e.g., in another state, another
country, or worldwide). In fact, our participants were spread
out over the United States as well as some from other countries.
Selected descriptive characteristics of the study participants
are presented in Table 1.
The participants in this study consisted of 42 women and
31 men who self-identified to be in the BDSM lifestyle.
The majority of males (20) identified as predominantly
or exclusively ‘‘dominant,’’ 10 identified as predominantly
or exclusively ‘‘submissive,’’ only 1 identified as a ‘‘switch.’’
The majority of females (33) identified as predominantly or
exclusively ‘‘submissive,’’ 7 identified as predominantly or
exclusively ‘‘dominant,’’ only 2 identified as a ‘‘switch.’’
The age range of participants was 23 to 75 years with a mean
age of 43 years. A large percentage (40%) of the participants
have been practicing BDSM for more than 10 years.
TABLE 1 Selected Descriptive Characteristics of Study
Participants (n¼73)
Variables %Number
Male 42 31
Female 58 42
BDSM Status
Dominant 37 27
Submissive 59 43
Switch 4 3
Length of Time Practicing
Less than 1 year 0 0
1 year–3 years 18 13
More than 3 years but less than 6 19 14
More than 6 years but less than 10 23 17
More than 10 years 40 29
164 B. L. Stiles and R. E. Clark
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We utilized a grounded theory methodology to assess the
experiences or anticipations of stigma, subsequent reasons
for concealment, the strategies employed for concealing
BDSM involvement, as well as satisfactions maintained
within the subculture. Grounded theory is a descriptive
qualitative methodology (Glaser 1976; Glaser and Strauss
1967) that focuses on the meanings of social phenomena
based on the perspective of symbolic interactionist theory
(Blumer 1969). Symbolic interactionism proposes that
people construct meanings of phenomena based on their
interpretations of interactions they have with others.
Grounded theorists base their research on the assumption
that individuals and groups experience shared social circum-
stances, and that meanings are generated from those shared
circumstances. It is the role of the grounded theorist to
explore and attempt to see the world from the perspective
of one’s respondents, to articulate their meanings, thus mak-
ing sense of their social experience. When possible the
grounded theorist develops a theoretical understanding of
the processes involved in those experiences. This is
accomplished through use of the constant comparative
method in which differences and similarities among the data
are observed and a theoretical scheme is developed (Glaser
and Strauss 1967).
Credibility was established by having the results carefully
reviewed and approved by several informants. There were a
total of eight key informants. Moreover, utilization of both
qualitative and observational data gathering techniques
enhances credibility; prolonged time in the field, two years
thus far; persistent observation; talking to those in the field;
and peer debriefing (Guba and Lincoln 1994). Moreover,
the lead researcher now has a confirmed, accepted, and
trusted presence in the BDSM community. This study’s find-
ings are offered as an in-depth, rich description of experi-
ences of those in the BDSM subculture so that different
insights and theoretical ideas can be generated.
Several themes related to concealment, secrecy, and
stigma management emerged from the analysis. We thought
it useful to use gender, BDSM status, and age to refer to the
individuals whose quotes we used to illustrate our findings.
BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis 165
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Levels of Concealment
The secrecy surrounding BDSM activity and those involved
in this subculture is a result of the stigma attached to this
alternative lifestyle. Stigma management translates into
secrecy or information management as a means of coping
with a deviant identity concerning sexual activities and one’s
BDSM identity, a discreditable trait. Deliberate concealment
of a portion of one’s identity, perceived to be central to the
self, entails the withholding or concealment of information
that could be damaging to oneself if others discovered what
they work hard to keep private. These individuals are aware
of the potential for stigmatization to affect their lives. Thus,
they carefully control what they tell others about their
sexuality. However to tell or not to tell is not a simple
decision. The control of this information is shaped by a
variety of factors.
It is not surprising that various levels of concealment are
linked to those in the lifestyle as well as their counterparts
who are non-participants. The grounded theory analysis in this
study resulted in the emergence of six levels of concealment
for individuals within the BDSM subculture: absolute conceal-
ment, thorough concealment, scrupulous concealment,
partial concealment, fractional concealment, and open.
The ‘‘absolute concealment’’ category encompasses those
members who do not reveal their BDSM activity to any
friends (outside of those also in the lifestyle), co-workers,
or family members. This is descriptive of 38%of our sample
respondents. Many of those involved in BDSM mention that
they only have close friends who are also in the lifestyle. In
other words, they do not maintain friendships with indivi-
duals not in the lifestyle. Many also mention keeping their
BDSM activities quite separate from their public persona.
In the following respondent comment an ‘‘absolute’’ concea-
ler shares his response to questions regarding those who
know of his BDSM involvement: life in public is totally non BDSM. I guess coming up in
the Army with the don’t tell don’t ask attitude for gays, that
we just realized that our interests had to remain of the same
idea. (male dominant, age 51)
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The ‘‘thorough concealment’’ category encompasses those
who tell only close friends. This is descriptive of 25%of
our sample. Although there are many who choose not to tell
family and co-workers of their lifestyle, there are others who
are either estranged from family members, for reasons not
related to BDSM involvement, or say they have no
co-workers as they work in private practice or are not
employed. In addition, those in this ‘‘thorough’’ conceal-
ment category, who tell close friends, generally do so in
varying degrees, but the data indicates that they generally
do not tell ‘‘all’’ of their close friends, as noted in the
following responses:
With one exception, all of my friends, relatives and
co-workers are totally unaware. ... I have one special female
friend who is vanilla herself but open-minded and curious
about what others are into. I share everything with her about
my desires, experiences and interests in the BDSM realm as
well as other, non-BDSM sexual preferences. We have dated,
and she knows me as a whole person, not just sexually. (male
submissive, age 59)
I have told some of my gay friends of my interest in BDSM.
They have dealt with it well, but I try to only tell those I think
will cope well. ... (male submissive, age 56)
Most of my friends are unaware, only a few close friends
whom I knew would be accepting of it. None of my
current coworkers, none of my family. (male submissive,
age 37)
Most of my friends know. I don’t tend to cultivate relation-
ships with people who can’t handle who I am. I do try to
respect the degree of information people are comfortable
with, however. People often ask questions they don’t really
want to know the answers to, or may be looking for a very
basic response and not great detail. Some of my friends know,
but we have never really discussed it much. Others have
been genuinely interested in understanding better, and I have
done a fair bit of education with them. (female submissive,
age 31)
‘‘Scrupulous concealers’’ encompasses those who have dis-
closed only to family members and is descriptive of 11%of
our sample. Those in the ‘‘scrupulous’’ category are usually
BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis 167
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selective of the family members to whom they reveal their
BDSM activities as the following statement indicates:
I do not discuss my sex life with my parents. My brother and
sister are both aware of my involvement in the scene. Having
had to band together to deal with our parents as children, we
are unusually close now. My children are not aware of my
involvement. This is primarily because they really don’t want
to know that their mother has a sex life at all. Similarly, my
ex-husband is unaware because he is totally clueless on sex-
ual matters, so there would be no point in telling him. (female
submissive, age 51)
This reminds us that although the topic of sexuality is very
accessible in American society because it is ubiquitous (on
television, advertisements, newspapers, movies, music,
books, and magazines), it is less so in families. Parents often
take great measures to present themselves as asexual to their
The ‘‘partial concealment’’ category encompasses those
who tell some friends and some family. This is descriptive
of 18%of our sample respondents. Even though those in
the ‘‘partial’’ category have disclosed to some friends and
some family, they are also selective in doing so as noted in
the following comments:
I keep this pretty much to myself. Only two friends, one I
have known for a long time and one who I’ve known on-line.
My wife also is aware. Other than that, I’ve kept this pretty
much to myself. (male submissive, age 58)
I have close friends that know about my involvement in the
lifestyle ...unless they ask flat out, I don’t bring it to their
attention. My family doesn’t know, only my sister. My mother
is a counselor for abused women and children, and a very
militant feminist. She strongly believes that women should
have a lot of power, and use it. I’m pretty sure that the idea
that her daughter was a willing slave might give her a heart
attack. Since I’m in school full time, I don’t discuss that
aspect of my life with the people I go to school with, and
as far as co-workers go, I’ve never discussed it with them.
(female submissive, age 26)
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Another noted:
Some friends and family know, some don’t. I decide who to
tell on how open-minded they are. I don’t like to ‘‘flaunt’’ it
and simply avoid the confrontation. (male dominant, age 39)
The ‘‘fractional concealment’’ category encompasses those
who only conceal to one or two individuals. This is descrip-
tive of 6%of our sample respondents. This category of indivi-
duals essentially say, ‘‘I do not conceal, ‘but’ I do not tell so
and so.’’ Most from whom they conceal their identity are
one or both parents, grandparents, other elderly relatives, or
those who are very young. As one informant stated:
Yes, I am very open and out about my lifestyle. All of my
friends and my daughter and son-in-law know about it. Even
my brothers know. ... I haven’t dropped the bomb on my
father but I’m betting nothing much would surprise him.
I’ve always been the rebel, however, we are not close and
he doesn’t need to know, so why go there. My immediate
bosses all know and I told them in the interview before they
hired me that I was both a lesbian and a Leather Woman. I
didn’t want it to come back and bite me in the ass later
and I wanted to be out and proud of who I am. (female
submissive, age 49)
Another disclosed:
I don’t say hello I am Debbie and I am a submissive but when
anything about lifestyles comes up I share. The only person
who I never told was my father. He was an assembly of
God preacher and I did not want the lecture about how
disappointed Jesus must be. My lifestyle is very common
knowledge among friends, and people I have worked with.
(female submissive, age 58)
Still another stated:
Most everyone I relate to knows; I am not afraid of
discrimination—Indeed if someone would not wish to talk
to me due to my interests, then I don’t want to know them!
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The only people unaware are elderly relatives and my
parents. (male dominant, age 44)
The last two levels are really nonconcealment categories.
The ‘‘open’’ category encompasses those who do not con-
ceal to anyone, but rather are open about their lifestyle to
everyone including all friends, co-workers, and family mem-
bers. Only one of our respondents falls into this category.
This is 1%of the sample. The only person who says that
she does not conceal to family, friends, nor co-workers sees
herself as enlightening others and correcting their misunder-
standings of those in the BDSM subculture, thus playing,
from her standpoint, an educational role. Even though she
says that she does not conceal her BDSM activity to anyone
she does remain cautious as this statement indicates:
I do not advertise, but I am careful not to give off the wrong
signals either. ... I am pretty much open in generality, and do
not try to purposefully hide, for I feel that I have a right to live
as I wish. I have found that by being more open and taking
subtle risks, that people tend to judge less, and accept my dif-
ferences, knowing the type of heart=mind that I am as a per-
son. If I appear too closed or guarded, then many will feel
that I am ashamed of my life, or have something to hide that
I am not proud of. It sends out the wrong signals, so I am care-
ful about impressions. I do try to promote tolerance and free
thinking among my circles, when opportunity presents itself,
giving me an opening to gently slip something in. ... I seek to
always enlighten others to a different way of experiencing
life, by throwing them a tender morsel of information that will
make them stop and think. (female submissive, age 45)
Finally, there are individuals who have been exposed as
members of the lifestyle against their wishes. These indivi-
duals fall into several of the levels of concealment prefer-
ences, but share in common the experience of accidental
or intentional outing. Eight percent of the sample have
experienced accidental or intentional outing from another.
While this is a small percentage of those in the sample, the
consequences have, with the exception of one case, had
injurious effects, further revealing the importance placed
on guarding one’s privacy by choosing to conceal. The
170 B. L. Stiles and R. E. Clark
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following statements reveal the devastation and=or
embarrassment experienced:
My wife and daughter went out to dinner to celebrate my
wife’s birthday. My daughter seemed stressed and as the meal
ended she broke into tears and told us she had found my
porn. It turns out she had found a couple of tapes of me giving
Sandy phone spankings (I hadn’t met anybody in person yet
at that point). She also found my file cabinet unlocked and
looked through it, and discovered that I had a post office
box and used it to send and receive BDSM stuff. My daughter
didn’t understand in the least and was very upset. We were
all seeing a counselor at the time off and on ...nothing extra-
ordinary, normal family issues ...and she was actually not
helpful at all with this crisis. ... Over the three plus years
since then, my daughter has seen our marriage endure and
even strengthen. ... She has in some fashion (like many teen-
agers she doesn’t confide things like this in us) come to terms
with her dad either being or having been twisted and doing
porn things with women over the phone ...but the memory
of that disaster is still painful for me and I’m sure my daughter
and my wife as well. (male dominant, age 56)
My husband’s eldest daughter found out through one of his
ex-girlfriends that dad was kinky and therefore anyone dad
was with was kinky too. We invited her to breakfast,
approached the subject with love, openness and honesty.
She tried her best to be mature about it but at 19, it really
ended up that she would rather not think about it much less
talk about it. ... (female submissive, age 34)
My husband was outed at work. My husband is in a very
insular and interconnected field of work, and being outed
did him no good at all, job wise. He’s been reasonably mis-
erable at work ever since, and changing jobs won’t help since
all the biomed industries in this area are inter-related in a lot
of ways. (female dominant, age 54)
My 2 daughters have found my lifestyle by snooping
around my computer. They are very unhappy about it. I have
told them that it was my life and I plan to live it the way I see
fit. They have thrown every argument from the culture, religi-
on to mental illness at me but they can’t deny that I seem
happier now. They actually told my mother about it. That
was the hardest part to try to explain. (male dominant, age 56)
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Someone I know from a part-time job in vanilla life ...
embarrassingly ran into each other at Boston’s Fetish Fair
Fleamarket a few years ago. Of course, neither one of us
has mentioned it since. (male dominant, age 42)
Afifi and Guerrero (1998) contend that the reasons that
people conceal sensitive information can be dichotomized
into two overarching categories—These are for reasons of
self-protection and to protect others. According to Kroeger,
disclosure management is about protecting or accommodat-
ing the self (2003). People automatically assume that others
engage in ‘‘vanilla’’ (non-BDSM) sexual activity unless they
have information indicating otherwise. Non-BDSM sexuality
is believed to be prevalent. Afterall, this is the norm.
Naturally, the concern one has when concealing BDSM
activities or proclivities is that they may not be accepted
by others if they reveal sexual practices that are not norma-
tive, are little understood, and are stigmatized by the
majority of society. Downplaying or concealing a trait that
others may perceive negatively allows one to blend into
the mainstream.
From a social exchange theory perspective (Thibaut and
Kelley 1959), individuals weigh costs of exposure and bene-
fits of concealment. The benefits and consequences might
partially be explained by anticipated consequences of what
will happen if one’s secret is revealed. Anticipated conse-
quences may be based on reactions to previous revelations
of stigmatized activity. The present research did find support
for concealment grounded in concerns for self-protection as
well as for protection of others.
As responses were analyzed, emergent themes corresponded
to three categories of concerns for protection of self: fear of
effect on one’s job or the work environment; fear of its effect
on friendships and=or family relationships; and overarching
concern with the stigma attached to the lifestyle. Fear of its
effect on one’s job or the work environment is exemplified by
the following revelations: ‘‘I suspectthatifmyworkdiscovered
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what I do that I would be let go. ...Sooo the fewer people who
know the better’’ (male dominant, age 60).
I am now half way to retirement with a large company
working in upper management for a good salary. ... The
company I work for is very cutting edge leading the industry
with diversity hiring, advancement, and support, yet they still
have a ‘‘morality clause’’ in their hiring agreement. Since
‘‘owning’’ someone and controlling what rights they have
and when, along with binding them for a whipping or flog-
ging is frowned upon in today’s society, I would be
terminated for doing that. (male dominant, age 53)
Should my husband lose his professional license (state
licensing boards can be capricious), not only would our
livelihood be threatened, but the jobs of his staff would be
affected as well. (female submissive, age 49)
In terms of my career, being a teacher puts me in a very
vulnerable position. I work in a very conservative
community. That coupled with me being a teacher would
probably make me a target for dismissal. (female submissive,
age 40)
In the workplace, it could be disastrous, I work in a
‘‘macho-male’’ environment, and knowledge of my lifestyle
would just invite ridicule. They already think of me as
more-than-a-bit strange; that would just be too much. (male
submissive, age 46)
Well, my employer does not know, and I would probably
be fired if they did know. I am a pediatric RN. I don’t think
people would let me take care of their kids if they knew.
(female submissive, age 35)
Fear of its effect on friendships and=or family relationships
is exemplified by the following statements: ‘‘Based upon the
comments I have heard, I have no question that there would
be a major change in friendships.’’ (male submissive, age 29)
I think some of my wife’s family would interpret BDSM as
abuse, and that would either alienate them from us or else
stress our marriage. (male dominant, age 49)
Only three members of my immediate family knows. With
the rest of the immediate family I would probably be disowned.
Some of our friends might run away screaming, others might
quietly disappear, and still others would just see it as another
of my (numerous) quirks. (male submissive, age 46)
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If family found out, they’d probably experience distress
and worry, and acquaintances ...well, probably some
distancing from me. (female submissive, age 41)
Fear of the overarching concern with the stigma attached to
the lifestyle is based on the negative stereotypes that those
in the lifestyle recognize that others harbor. People who con-
ceal information about self that is stigmatizing risk that they
will be evaluated negatively if this aspect of the self is discov-
ered. While many recognize a multitude of misconceptions
held by those not in the lifestyle, the vast majority of parti-
cipants perceive the major stigmas to be those of abuse and
mental illness. That individuals recognize the stigma attached
to the BDSM lifestyle is exemplified by the following:
A misconception is that BDSM (S&M) is abuse. It is portrayed
this way on many shows (CSI, NYPD Blue, The Inside). What
is being portrayed is abuse and criminal and wrongly misla-
beled as BDSM. Second, that people who participate in
BDSM are mentally ill. BDSM is not considered a mental ill-
ness any more than homosexuality is (so I guess it would
depend on who you talk to!). I have also heard that people
(especially submissives) are acting out in this lifestyle things
that happened to them as children. That is to say, if you are
in the BDSM lifestyle, you must have been abused as a child.
Further, that because we participate in this ‘‘extreme’’ sexual
lifestyle that we would some how be open to socially unac-
ceptable and criminal activities such as children, etc. (female
submissive, age 24)
There’s a misconception that we are sick or crazy because
we tie someone up and whip them. What kind of person
would be excited by causing someone pain? They would also
not understand how someone could control another person,
or how that person could allow someone to control them. It
must be due to threats and intimidation. (male dominant,
age 53)
I think the biggest misconception people have about our
community is that we are all a bunch of leather wearing
freakish porn watching, beat each other up, and have sex
with everyone perverts. (female submissive, age 34)
My former girlfriend was totally against the lifestyle and
didn’t want to understand. She reached her own conclusions
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and determined it was violent, that sex was rampant, that all
people did was whip one another, piss on each other or
masturbate in groups. (male submissive, age 59)
I think that for those who are vanilla, BDSM is nothing but
another name for sexual perversion. BDSM is mental sick-
ness. Only people with low esteem get into this stuff. (male
dominant, age 56)
As previously stated, an individual’s anticipated negative
consequences of disclosure may be based on reactions to
previous revelations of stigmatized activity. Our findings
demonstrate support for this in that many individuals have
previously disclosed information that is or has the potential
to be stigmatizing, and as a result of the reaction from those
to whom they disclosed prior behavior, have decided to con-
ceal their BDSM involvement. The following responses are
illustrative of the effect of prior disclosure on the reluctance
to reveal one’s BDSM involvement:
As far as family goes, they are unaware. When they found out
I was a lesbian, they did not speak to me for weeks. This was
a few years ago. Today they know it but refuse to acknowl-
edge it, thinking perhaps if it isn’t spoken about then it
doesn’t exist. (female submissive, age 35)
My closest friends know, my family does not. I am also
Pagan and have been through a lot with that in the earlier
days. I feel the need to be a bit careful about this aspect of
my life. I am very out as a Pagan and as a lesbian, maybe I
feel that is about as much as I can expect people to try to
understand. (female submissive, age 41)
Frankly, while I have told a number of people that I am gay
(although only one of my sisters and no other member of my
family or my late wife’s family); I have told very few of these
same people of my BDSM interests. My oldest friend and I go
back to 7th grade together. He was horrified when I came out
to him and prefers to ignore this aspect of my life. Just last month
when he visited, I offered to tell him more, saying as he was my
life—at least in a conversational sense. He said most emphati-
cally he wanted to know nothing. (male submissive, age 56)
As for family ...I’m already the black sheep. They’d prob-
ably be even more convinced that I have sold my soul to
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satan ...they would be very judgmental and possibly verbally
abusive. I’ve [previously] come out as queer, as pagan, as
poly. ... (female submissive, age 31)
Protection of Others
Kroeger (2003) contends that some may lie to themselves
about the reasons they conceal, downplay, cover, or attempt
to pass for something or someone other than who they are.
The lie they tell themselves is that they are covering or con-
cealing to protect others. That is, they are protecting others
by making certain that others are not made to feel
uncomfortable. However, we did find that many concealed
out of respect or deference for the feelings or beliefs of
others. Emphasis was on the costs of disclosure for the other
person, rather than their own personal risks. Age was often
cited as a reason not to tell; elderly parents wouldn’t under-
stand, neither would younger individuals. They were seen as
incapable of understanding BDSM or appreciating the
While the aforementioned reasons for concealment
involve issues of self-protection, the following reasons for
concealment are based on the concern for the protection
of others:
Even though our intimacy is completely divorced from my
husband’s work, public knowledge or in-your-face activism
could cause serious psychic harm to those he’s helped and
counseled, people who’ve rightfully trusted him and would
see him as a stereotypical pervert even though it would be
unwarranted, there would be a great sense of betrayal, I’m
certain of it. (female submissive, age 49)
Well, since some of my activities are with very morally
righteous groups such as Square dancing, which I am the
president of the local club, and Special Olympics which
me and my wife are the head coaches for the county, it would
hurt a great many people, so I make sure that my interests stay
behind closed doors with others that also prefer to keep
things hidden. (male dominant, age 51)
In one of my jobs I work with a lot of teenagers ...they are
very much unaware of my lifestyle choices. Not only are they
too young to understand the complexities of living in this
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lifestyle, it simply isn’t their business. (female submissive,
age 35)
My non-queer friends and co-workers mightbe a bit
uncomfortable talking about it. (female submissive, age 32)
Concealment as Enhancement
The present research also finds that in addition to
self-protection and the protection of others, concealment is
a means of enhancing one’s experience. In other words, rea-
sons for concealment can serve a positive function in several
ways. First, when one conceals a secret from certain groups
or individuals, but that secret is shared by those involved in
the secret activity, it has the effect of creating a bond or
building cohesion between them. This has the effect of deli-
neating the ‘‘ingroup’’ from the ‘‘outgroup’’ (Petronio 2002).
To maintain a secret reinforces one’s identity as a member of
a group. Second, concealment adds excitement to one’s
activity and makes one’s experiences within the subculture
important (Altman 1976; Warren 1974). In fact, central to
the very definition of a subculture is that there are values,
behaviors, and physical artifacts that distinguish it from the
larger culture. Several participants spoke of the pleasure of
concealing secrets from outsiders:
We wear matching silver bands on our right ring fingers. Mat-
tie’s says mistress on the inside, and mine says slave. We
wear them all the time, kind of our little public private secret,
flirting with disaster, perhaps, but we enjoy knowing what
others don’t. (male submissive, age 46)
I don’t feel isolated in not being able to tell others of my
BDSM interests ...if anything it’s the I know a secret that
would make your head spin ...nananana kind of thing.
(female submissive, age 24)
I like having something that I keep for myself considering
I’m out thereabout so many other things (bisexuality,
polyamory, gender queerness, political views, etc.). (male
dominant, age 45)
The above analysis of reasons for concealment indicates a
complexity that prior analysis did not recognize.
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According to Blaine (2000:136), the first strategy of stigma
management includes strategies for ‘‘improving interperso-
nal outcomes.’’ Many of those who are involved in the
BDSM lifestyle, involving behaviors that are discreditable
by the standards of many outsiders, choose to manage their
public persona to appear like everyone else. Goffman
referred to this as ‘‘passing’’ (1963). According to Blaine
(2000) passing is a means of improving one’s interpersonal
outcomes. The strategies used to conceal involvement in this
potentially stigmatizing lifestyle are as varied and complex
as the reasons for concealment. Moreover, they are by no
means mutually exclusive since an individual may utilize
one or many of these strategies in the effort to conceal their
activity. The emergent themes can be delineated into four
categories. Each of these strategies is used to make them
more acceptable to others or to improve their interpersonal
outcomes by decreasing the costs of the stigma.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The most common strategy is that of ‘‘hiding in plain sight.’’
Many behaviors and physical artifacts utilized by those in the
BDSM lifestyle can be hidden in plain view from those who
are not knowledgeable. Those in the lifestyle depend on the
ignorance of those not privy to the subcultures norms nor
symbolic items to maintain their privacy. The following
statements illustrate this strategy:
We like to hide things in plain sight’s like a private joke.
I designed a rack to play Rick on and he built it. It’s made
with PVC pipe, and is put together with bolts and screws.
I’ve had it in several garage sales as a clothing rack. You
would laugh to know the number of people that thought it
was a brilliant idea for hanging clothes on. My father has
helped me move it around. He thinks it’s cool too. (female
dominant, age 46)
I flag all the time in subtle ways ...asimpleleathercuff
bracelet, a wide leather watchband with grommets. ... Ifeela
need to flag all the time. It has to do with integrity and my out-
side matching my inside. It’s about subtle visibility ...people
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don’t usually see what isn’t already within the realm of what
they expect to see. Being casual and at ease makes it fairly easy
to be discrete in plain sight. (female submissive, age 31)
The house is furnished nicely and we are complimented on
the decorating we do. To the eye of someone in the lifestyle
they would notice the furniture can be used easily to bind
someone and the curtain drawbacks and hooks in the house
have heavy duty screws instead of the standard 1’’ screws
they come with. In other words I appear heterosexual vanilla
to people who know me and visit me. (male dominant,
age 53)
Male dominants and female submissives often hide their
symbolic protocol since their power dynamics fit right into
traditional gender roles:
The interaction between I and Cathy does not significantly
change in front of anybody. When my mother came to visit
us and stayed with us for 2 months, Cathy did most of the
things for me just the way she does everyday which is prim-
arily being submissive in nature. ... We were having break-
fast in a restaurant. Cathy fixed my coffee, she put jam on
my toast, she put eggs and hashbrowns in my plate and then
served all these things to me. An older gentleman was watch-
ing all this. When she was done, he almost got up with
excitement and complimented me how well behaved my
wife was. I told him that she was my slave and said it with
a straight face. He seemed to totally accept it. He was grin-
ning ear to ear at all this. This is an example of how relatively
easy it is to explain or to show the D=s interaction in front of
non-BDSM people. I think it is culturally and religiously
imbedded in most of our psyche to accept male as dominant
and female as submissive, which makes it easier to explain
this dynamics. (male dominant, age 56)
Compartmentalization of Public from Private Behavior
Individuals alter their behavior, dress, and their language
when in public to keep the two separate. They often play
the part of someone not involved in BDSM through the use
of non-BDSM clothing and other markers to signify their
status as just like everyone else. This is the displaying of
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‘‘disidentifiers’’ and=or avoiding ‘‘stigma symbols’’
(Anderson et al. 1994). The following quotes are typical of
this strategy:
I don’t walk around publicly with a leash, nor would my
Master require me to do something that would compromise
my prestige. Above all, it is not necessary to make a show
of one’s submissiveness in order to be that way, and I con-
sider my sexuality the same as in a vanilla relationship. When
I am with my Master, I call him Master, or I call him by his
name in front of others, but ‘‘yes Sir’’ has slipped a few times
...people think it is cute. (female submissive, age 47)
I make sure that the two lives are completely separate. My
mistress never refers to me in a sub like manner when we are
outside the house unless it is part of a carefully arranged
scene and we are both sure it is something that we want to
do. (male submissive, age 29)
We (my Master and I) do not wear fetish clothes around
town, or big collars with leashes, etc. I address him as Sir
or Master but will refer to him by name when outside of
‘‘friendly’’ environments. (female submissive, age 24)
Moreover, as a means of compartmentalization, those in the
BDSM lifestyle socialize with others in the lifestyle in places
(clubs that are referred to as dungeons) separate from main-
stream ‘‘vanilla’’ folks. This is a means of engaging in their
specialized BDSM activities in a place where they can avoid
people who would be prejudicial and discriminatory if they
observed their activities. This provides an escape or sanctu-
ary for these individuals. In fact, one of the prominent dun-
geons, in which we conducted our research, was named
Out of Sight
Individuals often keep physical artifacts hidden and out of
sight completely. Those not in the lifestyle, therefore, never
view them. As one informant commented:
Visiting my home you would be hard pressed to see any signs
of my BDSM interests. I have a dungeon room in the base-
ment (painted all black) with hooks, cabinets with locks
and the like. I also use the room for storage of paintings not
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on display in the remainder of my house. When I created it, I
said I was building a secure room with low light levels for my
art collection. The locked door suggests that as well as the
locked cabinets within it. I take the sling down and hang
pictures from the hooks. (male submissive, age 56)
Another stated: ‘‘I don’t leave toys laying around the living
room or anything like that but that’s because they don’t
match the paint’’ (female submissive, age 24). And another
noted: ‘‘At home there is one room in our house that is
always locked. Even my own children haven’t entered that
room in the ten years that I have owned my home and put
the extra dead bolt lock’’ (male dominant, age 51).
Interestingly, one could even say that in this respect there
are two levels of concealment operating. Not only are cou-
ples and individuals private about their activities as well as
the fact that they cannot engage in activities in public, but
the groups=conventions and even the locations in which they
participate with others in the lifestyle are often concealed and
private, although this might be less the case in some states
such as California than in more conservative parts of the
country. Most non-BDSM individuals would find it difficult
to locate a BDSM dungeon, or would be hard pressed to
recognize one in a large city. They are often very private,
exclusive, and hidden from view. Furthermore, once in the
dungeon, people meet, but do not really know each other
outside of the BDSM activities in which they participate. In
fact, instead of using one’s real name, scene names are used
for purposes of anonymity, and individuals rarely know about
the private lives of the people they meet in the dungeons.
Cover Stories
Cover stories allow ‘‘kinky’’ individuals to pass as ‘‘vanilla’’
folks. This is not difficult to do since many ‘‘vanilla’’ indivi-
duals know very little about BDSM. What they think they
know is often sensationalistic accounts from TV shows or
movies. The lack of knowledge on the part of those not in
the lifestyle, make cover stories easily convincing or believ-
able. The following exemplify cover story responses:
I am visiting a ‘‘friend’’ when I go out to ‘‘play’’ with some-
one. I am hosting a ‘‘dinner party’’ if some guys come over
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here to play. Since I do a lot of conventional entertaining
anyway, this is perfectly plausible. And I do provide dinner.
(male submissive, age 56)
I go to elaborate means to keep from letting my family
know of my involvement. I have created a social group of
game players (Dungeons and Dragons and the like which
I’ve done in the past (i.e., actually played them), of pro-
fessional associations and of classes and an occasional work
obligation to travel to explain why I’m out late or not home
over a weekend. (male dominant, age 54)
The few times something has come up one time I
was meeting someone after work to return a cat-o-nine tails
he had left at my house, I had it in a bag in the backseat of
my car and somehow it came out of the bag and someone
at work walked by my car and saw it. ... I just told him the
guy I was seeing was into the SCA (Society for Creative Ana-
chranism ...or however you spell that ...the people that do
the knightstuff) ...and he had forgotten to grab it before
he left. When I decided to get a piercing mom noticed
it. ...I told her it was a ‘‘self-esteem’’ thing ...and she bought
that story. (female submissive, age 34)
According to Blaine (2000:136), the second strategy of
stigma management includes strategies for ‘‘improving
psychological outcomes.’’ The strategies for improving
psychological outcomes are ‘‘cognitive in nature and involve
thinking about one’s stigma and the experiences associated
with it in ways that are beneficial to self-esteem and
well-being’’ (p. 142). There are two main strategies used
for improving how individuals participating in BDSM feel
about themselves.
First, these individuals turn to one another as a source of
support and companionship. The interactions in the afore-
mentioned dungeons, serve the purpose of confirming who
they are and that there are others who are like-minded. This
association provides for a source of interpersonal validation
for their activities and beliefs. These interactions and associa-
tions provide a space where those in the lifestyle can
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construct positive identities. Interestingly, the participants
meet each other, but really do not know each other. Some-
times figuratively, and sometimes not so figuratively, people
put on masks or put on a front in order to develop an identity.
We are also reminded that the social meanings attached to
physical spaces are socially constructed by the individuals
who interact within the given space. The way individuals
act and the roles individuals assume in the dungeons versus
public spaces can vary greatly. This is consistent with Goff-
man’s (1959) concepts of front stage and back stage beha-
vior. Simmel (1903) believed that anonymity provided
limitless opportunity for self-expression and reinvention, a
very attractive way of life for many. Although the dungeons
provide anonymous settings, there remains a tremendous
amount of social solidarity.
Another means for those participating in BDSM to improve
their own self-perception in the face of social criticism, is to
reframe their activities and their lifestyle. Many BDSM part-
icipants often reframed their BDSM activities and lifestyle in
terms of traits that were either inborn or traits they had since
childhood, rather than something of which someone selec-
ted or chose. The belief is often touted that one is predis-
posed to the BDSM lifestyle. Thus, they are being true to
themselves. This is a means of deflecting blame for the pos-
session of such stigmatized sexual proclivities. Illustrative of
this are the following statements:
I was aware that I had a tendency toward something,
however indefinable or understandable, for I was barely into
adolescence at the time I first began to realize what was
occurring in my mind and body. At the early age of about
5, I was already identifying with my current nature. I had
even formed an imaginary master in my head. (female
submissive, age 45)
I’ve had these kinds of interests since I can remember,
though not from a sexual perspective until after puberty. I
knew it wasn’t something generally accepted in the ‘‘normal’’
society, but I wasn’t sorry about having them. Now I under-
stand that the BDSM community openly embraces sexuality
as a natural part of us, something that doesn’t need to be
repressed. It lets people be their inner selves for once. (male
switch, age 27)
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Although increased exposure to the subject matter clearly
brought my interests to the surface, it is my view that the
underlying orientation was always there, ‘‘wired’’ into me. I
can recall a conversation with a neighborhood girl and boy
(all of us about age 10 or 11), in which we compared notes
about methods used by our parents to physically punish us.
The girl initiated the conversation. I can’t speak for her or
the others, but my contributions to the conversation were
purely fiction, since my parents rarely spanked. I mention
this, because the conversation was clearly titillating, or what-
ever word would accurately describe feelings at that age. In
my mind, it showed that ‘‘something’’ was always there.
(male submissive, age 59)
Reframing also occurs in terms of how they compare them-
selves to the ‘‘vanillas’’ sexually. Many in the BDSM lifestyle
improve their self-concepts by suggesting that those who
engage in vanilla sex have boring sex. Many go so far as to
suggest that they are in tune with who they are sexually
because they are so much more intelligent and more
insightful sexually.
I think that BDSM sex is much better and more interesting.
Within the BDSM community, you can freely and openly
discuss sex to a degree that is generally not possible in the
vanilla world. Playing with multiple partners is far more
acceptable than in vanilla life. Nothing is off limits, as long
as it is Safe, Sane and Consensual. I love the sex role reversal
involved in activities such as forced bi and strapon sex and
would likely not be able to do those things in the context
of a vanilla relationship. (male submissive, age 59)
Vanilla sex is BORING! Lol. While I don’t define it as
strictly as the Catholic Church, ‘‘vanilla’’ to me means the
usual, one man one woman, one or two positions, in the
bed in the bedroom with the lights out, roll over and go to
sleep type of sex. (male dominant, age 44)
Secrecy is deserving of theoretical attention for as Bok (1989)
contends, secrecy is basic to being human and living among
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others. Although the literature is replete with information on
the possible consequences and the reasons for concealment
of ‘‘secret’’ information, there are gaps in our understanding
of stigma and concealment. Our findings help to fill those
gaps by examining concealment and secrecy within the
BDSM subculture. Our findings help to reveal how many
conceal to cover up or hide what outsiders may consider
immoral behavior. Others conceal as a means to create a
distinction for themselves as part of a secret subculture.
According to Simmel (1950), maintaining a secret creates a
distinction between those who know and those who do
not. Therefore, the secret is a form of knowledge that is
unequally shared.
Many who identify as ‘‘kinky’’ and who associate and
identify with others in this subculture do so in a revelatory
manner. Many seem to enjoy the strategies used to conceal
their identities and activities. This association with
like-minded others serves to produce or reinforce new iden-
tities that are valued. It provides for meanings and affectual
identifications expressed through shared feelings and under-
standings. This permits participants to feel as though they
are living life more authentically at least as they reveal
and share their true identities with one another. This is
important since those who see themselves as marginal, dif-
ferent, or deviant are likely to understand the importance of
associating with others sharing their alternative values,
beliefs, and activities.
Moreover, the ‘‘secret’’ that is revealed only to trusted
others, but concealed from mainstream society, does add
excitement and a sense that this subcultural lifestyle is spe-
cial, sacred, or distinctive. Perhaps this also explains why
those involved often see themselves as the more progress-
ive members of society in that, by their definition, they
know and understand things that most people cannot
However, this identification with others managing the
same stigma does not mean they experience only positive
empowerment or distinctiveness. Some enjoy having secrets,
but others see this as a negative. For many, the secrecy
surrounding this subculture is not only a source of distinc-
tiveness, but is also a source of conflict and fear. While many
say they feel no isolation because they are able to share with
BDSM: A Subcultural Analysis 185
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others in the lifestyle, many do fear the loss of their jobs and
relationships, if the wrong individuals discover their secret.
Therefore, concealment also means that something about
one’s identity is disfavored or stigmatized in society and that
things could go badly if others found out. So concealment is
viewed as necessary, if one is to fit into mainstream society,
but at the same time, the detrimental effects of concealment
are such that doing so prevents many individuals from fully
experiencing authenticity in their relationships. Further-
more, many still yearn for ‘‘acceptance’’ of an identity that
they know violates the normative expectations of main-
stream society. In addition, Yoshimo (2006) contends that
concealment, or what he terms ‘‘covering’’ means that
many groups are held back. He believes that having to con-
ceal or cover is a threat to civil rights. One cannot acquire
true acceptance if one must hide one’s actual identity. Yet
everyone conceals at some time or another to win accept-
ance. That is, they have to protect themselves or they risk
not being accepted by others, others who may not be
accepting of BDSM activities.
Our findings also indicate that many conceal out of
concern for the protection and feelings of others. Whether
to create a sense of distinctiveness, to protect themselves,
or for the protection and feelings of others, those in the
BDSM subculture engage in a variety of strategies to manage
their public persona or to disguise their vulnerability.
Our stigma management findings support the notion that
sometimes stigmatized groups can manage stigma by
attempting to minimize their spoiled identities while at other
times attempting to highlight them. Concealment strategies
are employed to improve both interactional outcomes as
well as psychological outcomes.
As previously stated, some personal information cannot
be hidden or managed. However, much personal infor-
mation remains that can and is concealed or managed
by individuals. As others have recognized, to engage in
impression management (Goffman 1959), disclosure
management (Kroeger 2003), or concealment and secrecy
(Bok 1989; Simmel 1950) is crucial to human social
interaction. This allows us to protect our identities
and allows for some predictability and ease of social
186 B. L. Stiles and R. E. Clark
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BEVERLY L. STILES has a Ph.D. in sociology from Texas A&M University, College Station.
She teaches courses on gender, family, consumerism, media, and social psychology at
Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. Her major research interests include
sexual minorities, risk reduction for HIV, factors influencing HIV noncompliance, and
ROBERT E. CLARK has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Montana. He is Vice
President for Institutional Effectiveness at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls,
Texas. He has taught courses on the family, family violence, qualitative methods, relation-
ships, human sexuality, and social stratification. His research interests are in the areas of
bad news delivery and sexual minorities.
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... Intrinsic origins of m/s interestsalso called essentialist, dispositional, trait, and, sometimes, sexual orientation or identityare deeply rooted in the personal history of the individual (Damon, 2001;Jozifkova, 2013;Portillo, 1991;Scott, 1985). These origins are described with statements such as: "I have had these interests for the longest I can remember"; "I have always been that way"; "At threefour y.o., I already enjoyed tying-up my dolls"; "It's in me, it is me"; "The first time I tried I felt so relieved, something was missing in me for so long"; "The first time I tried I knew it was the true me" (see for instance, Carlström, 2019;Scott, 1985;Stiles & Clark, 2011;Yost & Hunter, 2012). However, many practitioners, like anyone else, have no precise idea about the origins of their sexual interests (Taylor & Ussher, 2001). ...
... However, many practitioners, like anyone else, have no precise idea about the origins of their sexual interests (Taylor & Ussher, 2001). According to some reports, interest in m/s was already present, although not erotized, during childhood (e.g., being tied-up or submissive in child plays; Breslow et al., 1986;Carlström, 2019;Scott, 1985;Stiles & Clark, 2011). These interests generally developed further (or became conscious) as sexual fantasies during puberty (Gosselin & Wilson, 1980). ...
... Those in the first subgroup are classically labeled "balancers" (Scott, 1985), as their main goal is to stop being responsible, to let go, in an erotic environment. Those in the second subgroup (whose basic preference is for sexual submission) resemble the general population in that there are significantly more women than men (Bienvenu et al., 2005;Botta et al., 2019;Castellini et al., 2018;Stiles & Clark, 2011;Wismeijer & Assen, 2013;Yost & Hunter, 2012). Indeed, women are much more likely than men to be sexually aroused by submissive behaviors, both in fantasy (see Leitenberg & Henning, 1995;Joyal et al., 2015 for reviews) and practice (Joyal & Carpentier, 2017;Jozifkova, 2018;Mundy & Cioe, 2019), at least in rich industrialized countries (where such studies are usually conducted). ...
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A growing number of studies have demonstrated that BDSM (Bondage/Discipline-Domination/Submission-Sadism/Masochism) practices are not signs of mental illness. However, the reasons for engaging in such behaviors are not well understood, especially for sexual masochism or submission (m/s). A thorough review of the literature was conducted, as well as a search in Internet forums and an online survey to obtain testimonies that provide information on the origins of interest in m/s and the reasons for engaging in it. A qualitative content analysis was performed on narratives from 227 m/s practitioners. Sixteen themes emerged from this analysis, eight related to the origins of interest in m/s and eight to the reasons for engaging in m/s. The origins described were seen as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Reasons to engage in m/s were related to one of three main types of activities: use of interpersonal power; experiencing physical pain; and altering one’s state of mind. These results concord with accounts found in non-academic books and small-scale studies suggesting that m/s interests are often present early in life and usually practiced to reach an altered state of mind associated with sexual arousal. Possible reasons for choosing m/s over more common means of mind alteration are discussed.
... The overlap between the terms 'kink' and 'fetish' means Running Head: 'Can I be a kinky ace?': How asexual people 7 7 that the remainder of this paper will refer to them interchangeably. Following recent mainstream interest in kink perhaps as a result of media representations in books and films such as the Fifty Shades of Grey i franchise (James, 2011), kink research has been predominantly focused on BDSM (Stiles & Clark, 2011;Hébert & Weaver, 2015). Other aspects of kinks and fetishes have been relatively under-studied. ...
... In the past I have tried to convince partners to do a little light bondage with me and it has failed. Not participating in sex made it difficult to get my to quench curiosity and create non-conventional forms of intimacy (Stiles & Clark, 2011;Sloan, 2015). The implication here is that if she were to participate in 'plain old sex' then she would be in a stronger position to persuade her partners to participate in BDSM in return. ...
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Prior research has found that asexual people may fantasise or participate in activities typically conceptualised within mainstream society as ‘sexual’. These behaviours may be considered paradoxical when an asexual person is conceptualised as someone who does not experience sexual attraction or desire. This research aimed to explore how kinks and fetishes are conceptualised, experienced, and negotiated by asexual individuals. Forty-eight participants were recruited via the first author’s social media accounts and asexuality forums to take part in an online qualitative survey. The data were thematically analysed and three themes were developed. In “Am I asexual?”: (How) can you be a kinky ace?, we discuss the feelings of doubt or distress that some participants reported in relation to what was seemingly sometimes understood as the paradox between their self-identity as asexual and their exploration of kinks and fetishes, and how this was negotiated by these participants. In the second theme, Between me and me’ and make believe: Kinks and fetishes as solo and imaginary, we report on how kinks, fetishes, and fantasies were often understood in a solitary context and as either undesirable – or impossible – to live out. In the final theme of Kink as a sensual enhancement in relationships, we highlight the ways in which participants positioned their kinks and fetishes as an agent for intimacy. These findings expand our knowledge and understanding of how asexual people negotiate kinks and fetishes and capture the complexities of asexual identities beyond a lack of sexual attraction or desire, particularly in relation to the notion of autochorissexualism.
... In sum, BDSM continues to be a frequently marginalized and misunderstood practice (B. Graham, Butler, McGraw, Cannes, & Smith, 2016;Stiles & Clark, 2011;Wright, 2006). ...
... Beckmann found that some participants explicitly associated their experiences of BDSM with shamanistic and other spiritual experiences with mystical elements. For instance, many BDSM participants report out-of-body experiences, feelings of deep connection with others present during a ritual or scene, and/or feelings of deep connection to the universe similar to experiences reported by participants in other kinds of rituals that use intense physical experiences to produce changes in psychological or emotional states (Carlstrom, 2018;Hebert & Weaver, 2015;Klement et al., 2017;Stiles & Clark, 2011). Similarly, in work on professional dominatrixes (women who engage in BDSM for pay) and their clients, Lindemann (2011) found similar themes among professional BDSM participants and their clients. ...
Since the explosion of social scientific and sociological research on BDSM in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the field has grown exponentially. In this review, I identify three particularly fruitful recent lines of research in sociological and related approaches to BDSM. First, I discuss work that critically analyzes the meaning(s) of BDSM for participants and the role of debates about the sexual and the erotic in relation to BDSM. Second, I discuss work on BDSM identities, including scholarship that examines BDSM identities in relation to other identities. Here, I also discuss emerging lines of scholarship that focus on the ways in which privileges (particularly race/ethnicity and class) shape identification with and access to BDSM communities. Third, I discuss work on BDSM communities, examining the ways that community organization shapes BDSM experiences. I conclude with suggestions for future research in the field including deepening and broadening intersectional analyses of BDSM experiences, exploring specialized roles and identities that exist within the broader BDSM umbrella, and investigating similarities and differences between those who participate in BDSM on a time‐limited basis versus those for whom BDSM is an ongoing, continual core aspect of identity.
... 4 Intentional asphyxiation is a common practice in those engaging in consensual BDSM (Bondage and Discipline; Dominance and Submission; Sadism and Masochism), an abbreviation used to cover a wide range of sexual activities that are often concealed from the mainstream public. 5 'Edge play' commonly involves consensual asphyxiation named 'breathplay' or asphyxiophilia (achieving sexual arousal related to restriction of breathing), and has been described as leading to 'transcendental experiences' that create a shift in consciousness. 6 Many of those engaging in BDSM report adhering to the code of 'safe, sane and consensual' practice, commonly using a 'safe word' or 'tapping' to signal the immediate halt of acts such as asphyxiation with their partners. ...
Background and aims: Intentional asphyxiation leads to cerebral hypoxia, starving the brain of oxygen and inducing hypoxic euphoria, but carries a serious risk of accidental death, especially if practised alone. This article raises the question as to whether it could usefully be regarded as having addictive properties. Methods and results: A review of the literature, together with eight case study vignettes, are presented. Intentional asphyxiation can occur with or without sexual activity. Initiation often occurs in adolescence, with development in some cases of an entrenched behaviour pattern, driven by a strong euphoriant effect, without adequate safeguarding from serious harm, and being undertaken by people with co-morbidities. There does not appear to be strong evidence of seeking support for cessation of the practice. Discussion: Intentional asphyxiation behaviours may have addictive properties and understanding this aspect of the problem may be fruitful in guiding research and interventions aimed at addressing it.
... Despite the rise of BDSM communities and community studies, the practice is still stigmatized because it is assumed to deviate from social norm. Labels such as perversion, deviant and paraphilia are still used to describe BDSM activities; therefore practitioners adopt several strategies to conceal their involvement with BDSM (Stiles & Clark, 2011, Bezreh, Weinberg & Edgar, 2012. Also, discovery by family and friends can cause distress and affect one's social functioning (Moser & Kleinplatz, 2006). ...
Full-text available
Abstract: Although the history of sadomasochism now known as BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism) could be traced to the 19th century, it began to gain popularity through mainstream media in 2011. Despite the plethora of information in social media and the extent of practices in Nigeria, academic and reliable statistics are not available or are rarely encountered. BDSM has been portrayed by the media to consist of the use of physical torture, verbal and emotional humiliation to derive sexual satisfaction. This study explored the practices of BDSM activities among youths’ especially undergraduate students. A cross sectional survey was carried out in Lagos State using a structured questionnaire that was administered among undergraduate in three universities. The questionnaire evaluated participation in three BDSM categories - Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission and Sadism and Masochism. Data were analysed using univariate and bivariate statistical techniques. The result indicated that there is a prevalence of BDSM activities among youths. Also, participants in the older age groups are fewer than others. Dominance and Submission records the highest frequency among others. The prevalence rate between males and females was comparable as there was no significant difference.
... The study shows that BDSM has a variety of meanings for the practitioners, especially in relation to transcendence (Beckmann, 2001b). There have also been phenomenological, semiotic and other qualitative studies on the practice of BDSM (Bardzell, 2006;Prior and Williams, 2015;Stiles and Clark, 2011;Turley et al., 2011), the consent, ethics and beneficial outcomes from BDSM (Fulkerson, 2010;Nielsen, 2010;Powell, 2010) and the media representations of BDSM (Barrett, 2007;Beckmann, 2001b;Comella, 2013;Weiss, 2006aWeiss, , 2009). Finally, criminological research has focused on how the BDSM subculture conceives disability (Beckmann, 2001b) and legal studies have scrutinised the laws connected to BDSM practices (Attwood and Walters, 2013;Bennett, 2013;Cowan, 2012;Khan, 2009). ...
Full-text available
Recently, much has been written in the mass media about the novel and film Fifty Shades of Grey. It was widely portrayed as an example of BDSM (a common abbreviation for the terms bondage, discipline, dominance, submissivity, sadism and masochism) subculture and used as a symbol of sadomasochistic identity. But is this public view based on the self image of BDSM subcultural members or is it a figment of the imagination of writers and journalists? This article presents the voice of BDSM activists, who are silenced and excluded from the public debate. Using a virtual ethnographic method, we analyse the BDSM blogosphere as a platform for subcultural expressions of opinion. We combine this with a documentary analysis. In doing so, we examine how BDSM subculture members perceive themselves in contrast to the mainstream view of them pictured in the book Fifty Shades of Grey. This article investigates to what extent the subcultural conception of BDSM corresponds to the book's depiction and where it differs fundamentally.
... Regardless of whether BDSM is approached from a leisure framework or sexual orientation perspective, considerable stigma remains toward BDSM practitioners [27,28]. A growing body of literature clearly shows that kink/BDSM is not psychopathological [12,29,30]. ...
Purpose of Review This review summarizes recent empirical and theoretical scholarship pertaining to two primary ways that BDSM is conceptualized, specifically as a unique sexual orientation or as a form of leisure experience. This review helps clinicians understand how BDSM is currently positioned by scholars and by some within the BDSM community. Recent Findings Recent studies have found strong support for both the sexual orientation and leisure perspectives, distinctly. The sexual orientation approach currently focuses on a somewhat narrow segment of highly invested BDSM participants, while the leisure approach accounts for a broad range of diverse participation and experience. Summary BDSM can be understood as both an orientation and as leisure for many but not all participants. Both perspectives share the same underlying multidisciplinary substrate. Although the emphases of the orientation and leisure approaches are different to some degree, the sexual orientation perspective (OP) and the serious leisure perspective (SLP) seem to account equally well for sexual identity centered on BDSM. Understanding both perspectives provides a more complete understanding of the variation and complexity of BDSM.
... Exclusive BDSMers (people who have sex only inside the BDSM scene) were not different from no-exclusive practitioners in terms of sexual satisfaction. If the practices were shared inside an ownership/belonging relational context (furthermore, if the ownership/belonging relationship was coinciding with a romantic/committed one), men and women seemed to be more satisfied, maybe because they were freer from sexual stigma 38 and empowered by relational trust and affectivity. 39 Having control and versatility seemed to have a positive effect not only on satisfaction, but also on sexual health. ...
Background: Published studies show good psychological health of people involved in bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and sadism-masochism (BDSM) activities; nevertheless, there are few studies on characteristics related to gender, role in the BDSM scene, sexual functioning, and satisfaction among BDSM practitioners. Aim: The aim of this study was to explore gender and role differences, prevalence of sexual complaints, related distress, and sexual satisfaction in BDSM participants compared with the general population. Methods: A group of 266 Italian consensual BDSM participants (141 men and 125 women) were recruited with a snowball sampling technique. An anonymous protocol, including self-reported ad hoc and validated questionnaires, was used. The control group was composed of 100 men and 100 women who were not significantly different from the BDSM group for the sociodemographic data and were randomly extracted from an Italian database on sexual functioning of the general population. Main outcome measures: Self-reported demographic factors, including favorite and most frequent BDSM practices, the Sexual Complaint Screener, and the Sexual Satisfaction Scale, were completed by the participants. Results: The mean age of the BDSM group was 41.42 ± 9.61 years old (range 18-74). Data showed a varied outlook of practices, fantasies, rules, and roles. With regard to concerns about BDSM activities (fantasies and behaviors), participants reported a very low self-declared degree of distress. The dominant and switch groups appear to be more satisfied and less concerned about sexuality than the general population and the submissive group. Role in the BDSM scene was the only significant predictor of sexual satisfaction, showing a medium effect size. Clinical implications: Results from this study could be helpful to inform sexual health care professionals and to reduce the stigma related to the BDSM population. Strengths & limitations: In general, this study may help to describe better some characteristics related to gender, role, sexual preferences, function, and satisfaction. The main limitation regards the sampling method, which does not allow us to consider the group as representative of BDSM participants in general. Conclusion: Data showed a varied outlook of practices, fantasies, rules, and roles in both BDSM men and women. BDSM participants (especially dominant and switch groups) appear to be more satisfied and less concerned about sexuality than the general population. This is an attempt to increase the attention of researchers and health care professionals to this important topic and to improve the care provided to people with specific preferences and behaviors. Botta D, Nimbi FM, Tripodi F, et al. Are Role and Gender Related to Sexual Function and Satisfaction in Men and Women Practicing BDSM? J Sex Med 2019;16:463-473.
Identities shape how people make sense of their world. Overlapping identities create borderlands fraught with tension and oppression in which individuals struggle to avoid blaming, hating, and terrorizing themselves or others when viewed as wrong/other. Women who are feminist and submissive can experience polyrhythmic realities if beliefs about feminism contradict beliefs about submission, and vice versa. In Dominance/submission relationships, the Dominant partner takes psychological and/or physical control over their submissive partner. Some people perceive this as incompatible with feminist values. Dominance/submission relationships are seen as inherently unequal, even when the submissive partner has chosen to allow their Dominant partner to make decisions and establish expectations for their conduct and behavior. Recent scholarship has explored BDSM through diverse feminist lenses, including a radical feminism, postcolonialism, sex-critical approaches and Black female sexualities. In online forums, women have discussed their challenges navigating feminist and submissive identities, yet little is known about how researchers have addressed these identity dilemmas. The purpose of this structured literature review is to examine the scholarly literature on women in the BDSM community who identify as both feminist and submissive and how they perceive and navigate those intersecting identities. Three themes emerged: agency, power, and consent as feminist constructs; normalization of BDSM; and reconciliation of feminist and submissive identities. Implications and areas for future research are offered.
This article explores issues of consent in the context of BDSM. I argue that consent is a complex expression which must be thought beyond the ‘yes means yes, no means no’ that proliferates mainstream debates around consent education. This article draws on qualitative interview data to examine how BDSM practitioners talk about consent and consent violations. It examines how these discussions about consent within a BDSM context interact with non-BDSM discussions and how they do, or do not, inform each other. Though consent is centralized in BDSM as a practice of community-building, sometimes consent violations are ignored or dismissed because this community-building also relies on neoliberal constructions of the autonomous self and heteronormative accounts of desire to explain them. These findings have serious implications for better understanding not only of consent within this subcultural practice, but how heteronormative values saturate contexts where unequal power relations or hierarchies manifest themselves outside of this. By insisting on this nuanced understanding of sexual consent, this article transforms existing debates about consensual sexual practice by exploring consent as a grey area, and where violations are experienced as abusive and where they are not. It also offers pertinent insights into how mobilizing an ethical consent praxis might better attend to questions of consent.
In this article, the authors review the theories and empirical findings concerning the consequences of revealing personal secrets (i.e., ones that directly involve the secret keeper). Most of the literature has suggested that revealing personal secrets is advantageous to the secret keeper. However, choosing to reveal secrets is a complex decision that can have disturbing consequences, such as being rejected by and alienated from the listener. Such rejection may lead the revealer to construct a negative self-image. The authors contend that (a) there are many circumstances when the secret keeper is better off not revealing a personal secret and (b) the real or perceived feedback from the confidant plays a critical role in determining whether the secret keeper will benefit from the revealing. They recommend when one should reveal one's secrets to others.