BDSM (i.e., bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) is a frequent theme in culture and media, including in books, films, television, music, magazines, public performances and online media.
During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a variety of periodicals were published on the subject of BDSM. Small independent publishing companies and organized groups were both active in this field, though many have since ceased publication or transferred to online publishing. The German-language Schlagzeilen magazine started in 1988 as the group's internal newspaper and is an important BDSM publication in German-speaking countries today.
Events and figures related to BDSM have also appeared in the media. In 2002, The Washington Post newspaper ran an article which said that Jack McGeorge, a munitions analyst for the UNMOVIC, was also a leader in the Washington, DC BDSM community. Following this, several commentators compared his BDSM activities with the torture techniques used by Saddam Hussein's administration in Iraq. Others compared today's discrimination of BDSM practitioners with the situation of homosexuals in the past.
In Germany EMMA, a well-known feminist magazine, published by Alice Schwarzer, pursued its PorNO campaign against hatred towards women and violent pornography aiming to ban pornography in Germany. In it, Schwarzer states, among other things, that sadomasochistic practices are generally to be equated with violence against women. Her judgment on female sadomasochism ("Female masochism is collaboration!") has often been criticized for implying a state of war between genders. EMMA magazine criticized Helmut Newton, accusing him of "pornografization of fashion photography", and criticized his "therein unrestrainedly realized sadomasochistic obsessions".
BDSM support groups and publications have repeatedly criticized biased media coverage of BDSM.
Sadomasochism is a perennial theme in literature and has inspired several classics like The Story of O by Anne Desclos (under the pseudonym Pauline Réage), Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and the comics created by Eric Stanton. A literary curiosity concerning sadomasochism is Martha's letter to Leopold Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce. The novel Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair published in 1978 by Ingeborg Day (under the pseudonym Elizabeth McNeill) was the basis of the Hollywood movie 9½ Weeks. Justine Ettler's The River Ophelia (1995) details the empty, sometimes violent sex lives of university students and yuppies with surreal overtones.
Author Anne Rice published under the pseudonym A. N. Roquelaure three installments of her Sleeping Beauty Trilogy (The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, 1983), Beauty's Punishment (1984) and Beauty's Release (1985) with explicit BDSM themes.
A nine-volume book series published in July 2006 under the title Bild-Erotik-Bibliothek by Bild-Zeitung, Germany's leading Tabloid and the best-selling newspaper in Europe, in cooperation with Random House gives a clear indication of the commercial potential of the topic. Out of nine installments, three books had a well-defined emphasis on sadomasochism, specifically BDSM. Besides Exit to Eden, also written by Anne Rice under the pseudonym Anne Rampling, it also further featured the sadomasochist classic Story of O. and the explicit novel Topping from Below by Laura Reese.
The Fifty Shades trilogy is a series of popular erotic romance novels by E. L. James which involve BDSM; however, the novels have been criticized for their inaccurate and harmful depiction of BDSM.
While sadomasochistic rituals enacted as theatrical staging might show fetish characteristics, the fetish is not literature. BDSM literature also does not embrace a specific philosophy or morality; instead it represents it, as do other kinds of literature aspects of the particular zeitgeist of its era.
Alfred Kinsey stated in his 1953 nonfiction book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female that 12% of females and 22% of males reported having an erotic response to a sadomasochistic story. In that book erotic responses to being bitten were given as:
In the last decades, publishing houses and imprints specializing in BDSM fiction and nonfiction have been founded in many Western countries, including Circlet Press, Daedalus Publishing, Greenery Press and Nexus Books, an imprint of Virgin Books.
In November 1981, Samois published Coming to Power: Writing and graphics on Lesbian S/M, which reached a worldwide audience the following year when it was reprinted by Alyson Publications. The book combined short stories with basic explanations and safety tips about BDSM practices. It is considered the first introductory books on the subject worldwide. Its concept was internationally adopted by many publications in the following decades.
Other than specialized books with strong emphasis on the practice, there is a growing number of scientific publications and books that discuss BDSM philosophy and culture:
Since the beginning of the 1990s, BDSM imagery has been regularly used within the framework of large marketing campaigns in continental Europe. Widely known examples in Germany are billboards of the cigarette brands Camel and West, showing a camel dressed in "typical" leather outfit, respectively a dominatrix with a whip. While West had to withdraw the ad due to "offense against morality", BDSM motifs were utilized in the following years on a regular basis. In March 2007 the Swedish clothing company H&M promoted the sale of a collection compiled by Madonna with television commercials in Germany. The commercials showed the artist, who has been repeatedly criticized for the use of sadomasochistic subjects in the past, as a dominant lifestyle-icon teaching a lesson to an "inappropriately" dressed female pupil under the cracking of a crop, redesigning her outfit while making fashion statements like "Don't think it – you need to know it".
In Canada, Mini presented the winter package 2005/2005 of the Mini-Cooper in the form of an interactive BDSM-session in which the user, supported by a dominatrix, can test different kinds of spanking tools on the automobile in order to get the optional equipment explained. Their slogan was "Dominate winter".
In the U.S., Anheuser-Busch has repeatedly sponsored the fetish-lifestyle Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. Diesel jeans ran several sadomasochistic-themed advertisements in various fashion magazines.
The Velvet Underground song "Venus in Furs" (from The Velvet Underground & Nico) is based on a book by Masoch of the same title; the name of the band itself comes from a book about paraphilias (including BDSM) in the United States.
Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" may be the most well-known popular song with BDSM connotations, primarily due to the music video.
Adam Lambert's "For Your Entertainment", Puddle of Mudd's "Control", and Madonna's "Erotica" are explicitly from the dominant's point of view - as is "Baby Let's Play Rough" by the country-western vampire singer Unknown Hinson, whereas Nedra Johnson's "Alligator Food" and Lady Gaga's "Teeth" are written from the perspective of the submissive.
Jace Everett's "Bad Things" (the theme song of the TV series True Blood) alludes to BDSM.
The German punk band Die Ärzte recorded the song "Sweet, Sweet Gwendoline" that introduced the BDSM-related character Sweet Gwendoline to a large part of the population that otherwise had no contact to the BDSM subculture. German gothic rock band Umbra et Imago, famous amongst the fetish goth scene, also recorded a song entitled "Sweet Gwendoline".
Industrial music in general likely has the most BDSM themes, as well as being one of the biggest influences on Rivethead fashion. Rammstein is one of those industrial bands, as their song "Ich Tu Dir Weh (I hurt you)" is about BDSM. Depeche Mode are known for their BDSM undertones, "Master and Servant" being a well-known example.
Other famous songs with BDSM themes include:
In 2010, Christina Aguilera released her Bionic album which contains the single "Not Myself Tonight". The controversial, high-concept video for the single is rife with aggressive BDSM imagery. Aguilera is seen as a bound and gagged slave as well as a latex-clad dominatrix with a riding crop and a group of look-alike slave girls.
Also released in 2010, rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars's music video for "Hurricane", directed by Jared Leto under his pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins, includes elements of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission. Though initially banned from most networks due to violence and heavy sexual content, the video received three nominations at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Direction and Best Editing.
Comic book drawings: John Willie with Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline (published as a serial in Robert Harrison's mainstream girlie magazine Wink from June 1947 to February 1950 and later in several other magazines over the years), Guido Crepax with Histoire d'O (1975)
Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood created several restrictive BDSM-inspired clothing items of punk fashion for the 1970s punk subculture; in particular bondage trousers, which connect the wearer's legs with straps.
A table in Larry Townsend's The Leatherman's Handbook II (the 1983 second edition; the 1972 first edition did not include this list) which is generally considered authoritative states that a black handkerchief is a symbol for sadomasochism and a grey handkerchief is a symbol for bondage in the handkerchief code, which is employed usually among gay male casual-sex seekers or BDSM practitioners in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Wearing the handkerchief on the left indicates the top, dominant, or active partner; right the bottom, submissive, or passive partner. However, negotiation with a prospective partner remains important because, as Townsend noted, people may wear hankies of any color "only because the idea of the hankie turns them on" or "may not even know what it means".
While BDSM activity appeared initially quasi-"subliminally" in some movies, in the 1960s and 1970s there were film adaptations of famous works of BDSM literature including Venus in Furs (1969) and the Story of O (1975).
In the 1960s and 1970s Spanish director Jess Franco developed several movies that were typical examples of the exploitation-genres' approach, often based on the works of the Marquis de Sade and censored in many countries worldwide.
With the release of the 1986 film 9½ Weeks, the topic of BDSM was transferred to broader audiences with high impact and notable commercial success. Since the late 1990s movies like Preaching to the Perverted (1997), a movie generally considered a reaction to Operation Spanner, and Secretary (2002) started to increasingly reconcile financial demands with authenticity.
From the 1990s to the early 2000s, mainstream media representation of alternative sexualities, including BDSM, increased dramatically. First noted in 1983, this trend shows no signs of abating today.
With the development of documentary productions such as SICK: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997), Bound for Pleasure (2002), Wir leben ... SM! (2004), Graphic Sexual Horror (2009) and KinK (2013), an increasingly broader approach to the subject matter is developing, targeting wider audiences.
During the last four decades, the spectrum of productions has been greatly enlarged, showing the topic has arrived in mainstream movies:
Besides these mainstream movies, there is a huge market for underground sadomasochistic direct-to-DVD and Internet-download films. The majority of these have no explicit sexual content, but a few are also pornographic films. These videos fall into specific fetish categories such as bondage, corporal punishment (domestic and school spanking), pony play (animal role-playing) and dungeon-based BDSM centered on the master/slave dynamic. The porn industry has responded to this growing trend by creating a number of sex films with an S&M theme. The most noteworthy are the award-winning The Fashionistas (2002) and its 2003 sequel, The Fashionistas II.
In recent years, movies like 9½ Weeks (1986), Tokyo Decadence (1992), and Secretary (2002) have been shown, sometimes edited, on television in several countries. In 2001, the Canadian documentary KinK became the first television series on the topic worldwide.
Other examples of BDSM in television and film are:
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