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Coming out as BDSM

by Terra Bloom

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The discovery of power exchange and BDSM set my marriage on sexual fire and swept up my husband and I in a wave of more honest communication, deeper intimacy, unbreakable trust, and more liberated love. We deeply wished we had discovered our D/s dynamic sooner, and I often felt angry that this path to unlocking sexual nirvana for us had been so deeply buried under myths and taboos and off-putting fetish porn that we only discovered it by accident. That is why I began turning my journals about our BDSM explorations into posts for a blog; I felt morally obligated to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for other natural submissives like me to find. And yet ...

I never tried to put the blog “out there,” never linked it to anything, never talked about my secret project. In fact, over the first four years of enthusiastic practice, we never told a soul about our Dominant/submissive sexual orientation. After all, the rules of polite society tell us that one’s private sex life is no one else’s business (although we are all terribly curious about others). We also wanted to save our children or family members from embarrassment and protect our careers from the stain of stereotypes. Then there was the glare of the #MeToo movement and the fierce cultural rejection of men imposing their sexual will on women. Women were suddenly feeling empowered to protect themselves from being treated as sexual objects, it felt the absolute wrong time to boast about the benefits of sexual surrender to a man.

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A full decade after the runaway success of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy revealed widespread interest in kink, the practice of BDSM-style Dominant/submissive relationships remains stigmatized.

I was not alone in my reluctance to talk about our new passionate way of living. Surveys of BDSM practitioners find that most prefer to conceal their sexual predilection and can suffer from anxiety and fear of being found out. A full decade after the runaway success of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy revealed a widespread interest in kink, the practice of BDSM-style Dominant/submissive relationships remains stigmatized. It is one thing to add a little zip in the bedroom with some roleplay and toy handcuffs (a friend calls this “vanilla, but kinky”), it is quite another to torture one’s partner, or respond sexually to real pain. Such practices have long been judged “deviant” through religious, medical, and psychiatric condemnation. As the authors of one study wrote, “The stigma attached to BDSM is tremendous and the myths and negative press associated with BDSM are rampant.” This stigma, once attached, can be “deeply discrediting” to individuals who must then “negotiate their identities amid hostility and misunderstanding.” Some pay a tragically steep price for their BDSM choices, being stamped as perverted or “sick,” losing jobs or even custody of children. (See this 2021 story in which a man’s position on a North Carolina school board was under threat because he was outed for his BDSM practice. A fellow school board member accused him of having a “grotesque character flaw” and unsafe to be around children.)

Despite the joy it gave my husband and I, there seemed to be no good reason for to “come out” as BDSM, and every reason not to. But, after four years, we longed to talk to other like-minded people about this way of relating that had been so transforming for us, and we decided to venture out into our local BDSM community. I was nervous walking into our first munch, but quickly got over that when welcomed by some of the warmest people I had ever met. Within an hour I was feeling giddy to be able to introduce myself as submissive, and my husband as my Dominant. What a relief to be seen and known for who we felt ourselves to be.

Indeed, it is “the desire for connection and honesty,” says another study on disclosure published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education, that propels many who practice BDSM to come out to friends and family in spite of risks. Most of the study’s respondents said they were aware of their BDSM interests starting before the age of 15 and “considered BDSM central to their sexuality,” making it an important part of their identity. However, those who do come out kinky often describe the experience as fraught, especially when young, “creating a phase of anxiety and shame in the absence of reassuring information.” It is true that kink-practicing people simply do not have the same resources and social support that other people with alternative sexual identities can access today.

That is why joining a BDSM community can be helpful. Kink communities provide safe spaces where the fear of stigma recedes, and one can even begin to feel a certain pride in his or her identity. Going to munches and other BDSM gatherings has taught me that when some of the best people I know are all unashamedly kinky, my own knee-jerk feminist shame about my sexual life has greatly lessened. In its place, I have felt a growing need to be more authentic about who I am with the people close to me. How nice it would be, I’ve thought, to not have to run around the house hiding my BDSM books when company comes, or to be able to stop lying to people about where I’m going when headed to a BDSM class or conference.

But there was something else I heard at my first munch that has fed my determination to come out. A submissive woman was there, and the Dominant she had devoted herself to had just died in a car accident. She talked tearfully about how she had not been invited to the funeral because her Dominant had never felt comfortable informing his family about his D/s relationship with her. She had not been allowed to publicly mourn the loss of the most important person in her world. The leader of the group said, “Maybe in the future, when more people come out as BDSM, heartbreaking things like this won’t happen.” It truly IS heartbreaking to be marginalized for one’s sexual preferences. More than that, it is actively harmful to society and the individuals within it who pay high costs for irrational stigmas that have no basis in fact.

I have come to understand that by trying so stringently to keep my sexual identity hidden, I am helping to maintain the stigma. In acting as if I have a shameful sexual secret that no one can know, I make it harder not only for myself to be understood and accepted, I make it harder for everyone who lives the same kind of life as I do. The only way to banish the stigma attached to BDSM is if more ordinary people who live and love in that way proudly own it. (Although, to be fair, some kinky people actually enjoy the secrecy, and find that the stigma and taboo nature of BDSM gives it more erotic power.)

Of course, there are many situations where it is simply not appropriate to reveal the shape of one’s sex life; I see no reason to tell my sweet, elderly mother-in-law what her son and I do behind closed doors. But I think its long past time that we rethink the rule of polite society that banishes sex into a forbidden secret corner in which we are cut off from knowing about the great diversity of sexual experience that is possible. By being more open about our desires and experiences in a sex-positive way, we help ourselves and others feel more known and validated for who we are.

A few weeks ago, I finally told my adult children that I’m working on a Web site about kinky sex. One greeted the news with a no-big-deal shrug; the other was fascinated, and we had our first real honest conversation about sex beyond me mumbling something about condoms. “It would have been nice,” she said, “to be able to talk about this kind of stuff when I was younger. Maybe I’d have learned how to talk about my sexual desires to my own partners and I’d have had better relationships.” I wish I had been more open, too, I told her, I thought I was protecting you from discomfort, and I feel sad to know that I wasn’t. But I’m learning.

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Terra Bloom is a happy submissive and a former journalist turned screenwriter who is now focused on positive sexuality through bdsm advocacy. (And yes, Terra Bloom is a pseudonym).

Interesting Reading About Coming Out As BDSM

Coming Out Kinky

Coming Out As Kinky: Food for Thought

Coming Out BDSM: Upsides and Downsides

Savage Love Letters of the Day: Coming Out Kinky & BDSM as a Sexual Orientation

Academic Studies About Concealment and Stigma in BDSM

From Secrecy to Pride: Negotiating Kink Identity

BDSM Disclosure and Stigma Management

“Learning the Ropes”: An Exploration of BDSM Stigma, Identity Disclosure, and Workplace Socialization

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  • Sexual diversity in the United States: Results from a nationally representative probability sample of adult women and men
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  • The Language of Pain: A Philosophic Study of BDSM
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  • Sensual, Erotic, and Sexual Behaviors of Women from the “Kink” Community
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  • Consensual Sadomasochistic Sex (BDSM): The Roots, the Risks, and the Distinctions Between BDSM and Violence
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  • Evolutional background of dominance/submissivity in sex and bondage
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