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BDSM is not a sexual orientation. D/s is.

by Mistress Lila

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The question: Is BDSM and power exchange a sexual orientation in the way that homosexuality or bisexuality clearly is? Or is interest in kink a choice, like one chooses a hobby?

The debate on whether BDSM relationships are the result of an orientation or a leisure activity has been going on for more than a decade. Serious academic studies, along with numerous psychologists and sex therapists, have picked apart the subject. Some who come down on the side of BDSM as an orientation have even called for the K (for Kink) to be added to the LGBQTA list. Among Millennials, and those now coming of age in Gen Z, there seems to be a growing need to formally self-identify each and every aspect of the self. Therefore, this issue has been gaining interest.

When considering sexual orientation, science looks at these key factors:

  1. Sexual Behavior — what kind of behavior do you engage in?
  2. Sexual Attraction — what kind of partner are you attracted to?
  3. Exclusivity — is this the only kind of sexual behavior you engage in?
  4. Onset of each of these factors — how old were you when you first recognized your interest?

If we take these factors into account in determining whether BDSM qualifies as a true orientation or a leisure activity of choice, there are good arguments to be made for both sides. But the argument cannot be settled until we root out a problem that lies within the question.

The confusion begins with the array of practices included in the acronym BDSM. This condensed abbreviation refers to three separate categories: Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, and Sadism & Masochism (S/M). This acronym identifies specific role-playing sexual behaviors. (Please note “behavior” is the operational word here, not orientation.)

The acronym also creates a fundamental misunderstanding about the differences between Dominance and submission (D/s) and BDSM. D/s is a specific relationship dynamic based in power exchange, while BDSM or S/M is a type of kinky behavior that may or may not be associated with D/s. In nearly all the articles online, there is no differentiating between the two. However, it is a fallacious premise upon which many academic studies have been based.

For many, BDSM is their preferred method for expressing their sexuality. What it isn’t, is an expression of core values. It underestimates the essence of a true Dominant or submissive person. People who choose to play in the BDSM arena as a sport or leisure activity should not be equated with those who hold power exchange as their spiritual calling. (There is a difference between a “bottom” who enjoys being whipped for the sexual thrill it gives him or her, and a submissive who accepts a whipping from his or her Dominant even when there is no sexual reward.) For those of U/us who are core D/s, it is not the idea of being kinky that appeals to U/us, but rather the emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy found in a Dominant/submissive relationship that matters most.

While BDSM and its various incarnations can be a compelling way to enact the D/s power exchange, it is not a fetish W/we act out to “spice up” our sex lives. It is a method by which we are able to express the depth of O/our true selves. Whether we intuit our D/s inclinations as a child or much later in life, W/we know the D/s is a beingness that is non-negotiable. W/we do not switch or change identity. We do not just enjoy being Dominant or submissive, or even need it to get turned on. W/we ARE Dominant or submissive. It is in O/our sexual DNA.

We see this in some of the newer studies of the stability of sexual orientation “choices.” Within the LGBTA community, more than half of individuals queried have changed their sexual or romantic attraction preferences at some point. In the D/s community, interests are more stable, with fewer people indicating that they lose their interest in power dynamics. In fact, less than 20% change their orientation as either Dominant or submissive throughout their lives. More studies need to be done about how people feel about BDSM as a primary interest.

For convenience sake, D/s has been pushed under the BDSM umbrella, but while the two are often linked, they are not mutually exclusive. Consider the 50’s household dynamic, or the pet/Master relationship. Those are but two examples of how a D/s relationship is not predicated on BDSM activities. I contend that BSDM is not an orientation, but D/s is. One does not have to practice BDSM, one chooses to practice BDSM. Granted there may be an obsessive need or attraction to the practice, but with discipline and/or self-control, you can stop the behavior. (Not that there is anything wrong with the behavior.) But to deny your essence, your primal truth of being a Dominant or submissive, is not a choice. D/s is a true Orientation.

For further reading:

Is BDSM a Kink/Hobby or Sexual Orientation?

BDSM as Sexual Orientation; a comparison to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Sexuality

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Mistress Lila is a Domme with more that twenty-five years BDSM experience both professionally and personally. She resides in Central California where she offers workshops on the subject, and counsels lifestyle couples.

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academic articles

  • Bondage-Discipline, Dominance-Submission and Sadomasochism (BDSM) From an Integrative Biopsychosocial Perspective: A Systematic Review
    — ncbi
  • Fifty Shades of Belgian Gray: The Prevalence of BDSM-Related Fantasies and Activities in the General Population
    — isiarticles.com
  • Sexual diversity in the United States: Results from a nationally representative probability sample of adult women and men
    — ncbi
  • The Language of Pain: A Philosophic Study of BDSM
    — Sagepub
  • Sensual, Erotic, and Sexual Behaviors of Women from the “Kink” Community
    — ncbi
  • Between Pleasure and Pain: A Pilot Study on the Biological Mechanisms Associated With BDSM Interactions in Dominants and Submissives
    — ncbi
  • A "Different Economy of Bodies and Pleasures"?: Differentiating and Evaluating Sex and Sexual BDSM Experiences
    — ncbi
  • A Systematic Scoping Review of the Prevalence, Etiological, Psychological, and Interpersonal Factors Associated with BDSM
    — ncbi
  • Consensual Sadomasochistic Sex (BDSM): The Roots, the Risks, and the Distinctions Between BDSM and Violence
    — researchgate.net
  • Evolutional background of dominance/submissivity in sex and bondage
    — ncbi

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