The biggest problem in BDSM? The BDSM Scene.

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As it happens with every single form of sexuality, the reality of BDSM suffers from several problems you’ll never see in its most common depictions, which is to say pornography. Is it the moralists’ hatred? The uncertain legal status? The forbidding prices of many toys? The few reliable information about some of its practices? Not at all. As you can read on any specialized website, what almost every enthusiast has to fight with is a whole different enemy, common with all sexuality: finding your ideal partner. Or any partner – let’s see why.

Just before last Christmas a new member’s message appeared on Italy’s most active BDSM online community. «I am 28, I just discovered I feel attracted by this sort of things but I never did them nor I’ve understood yet which role fits me best» he said. «Could you please tell me where could I find people to try these sort of experiences with?» The reaction was shocking. Just in the first 24 hours over seventy replies filled with hostility were published, all of them sharing one concept: «how do you dare to come here with such requests? Live the forum as long as we do, and maybe something will happen.» The dismayed man’s subsequent objections met only derision.

A few months eariler at a Sadistique a beautiful girl told me her own incredulous experience on the same site. «I subscribed, I compiled my profile and in a matter of hours I was banned without having had the time to do anything else. When another member friend of mine asked and explanation, they told him that ‘it was impossible that a masochist nineteen-years old girl entered like that, even publishing her photo. Since it obviously was a fake profile, they had deleted it according to their rules’.» Which felt strange, since as everyone at the party had just ascertained, the girl had nothing fake to her.

Again, a close friend into BDSM since her adolescence wishing to find her lifemate repeated to me what I have been hearing forever by every female kinkster. «The most logical solution to meet likeminded persons would be to place a personal on the dedicated websites, but after my first experience I’m through with that. In a few hours I received hundreds of replies: all of them incoherent, offensive, from dissociated people or by guys who didn’t even read my ad.» On the same topic, a couple who asked my help as personal coach was astonished instead. «We really love fetish and after so many great adventures abroad we wanted to meet other Italian couples like us. Our ad said we are very flexible and our picture showed we are good-looking and we own great latex clothing; our only request was to receive a photo – even a masked one – and make a four-persons phone call after the first contact to better organize a dinner to know each other.» The result: just two replies with a picture attached, four more delirious ones and not one call back..

Last anecdote, this time personal. Since the first edition of my BDSM – A guide for explorers of extreme eroticism came out in 2004 I became persona non grata on every dedicated Italian website. Every single time I posted any fact-based answer on a forum, many strangers rained accusations on me ranging from ‘he’s a profiteer wanting only to exploit us real enthusiasts’ to real slanders which required legal actions. Since the main motivation in my work is the satisfaction in helping others to realize their fantasies and better live their sexuality, for a few years I insisted to refute these absurd aggressions with logic and facts – until I realized I had better things to do, and I eventually forgave any participation to those sites.

Each one of these examples – and there would be much more of them – is an expression of one single fundamental phenomenon, which grew to absurd proportions in Italy but which can be seen quite everywhere in the world: the schism between online extreme eroticism and the real world. Or, in other words, the worst enemy of BDSM is the “BDSM world” itself, or its most accessible face at least. Yet things didn’t always run like this, and understanding what brang us to the current situation can be very useful to also learn about a couple of key psychological erotic dynamics.

From initiatic journey to instant orgasm

Looking back to the past we can see a dynamic which was inaltered in centuries. He who noticed to feel an attraction toward any form of alternative sexuality had two possibilities: repress it pretending it was nothing, or go on a real initiatic journey trying to realize his fantasies.

The first step was to give a name to his impulses. A really difficult step, since such “improper” topics were condemned by society, which not only hushed them, but didn’t even officially admit they existed at all. A fitting and relatively recent example is Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis: even if for decades it was considered the reference about these themes, it was written in Latin specifically to dissuade “common people” to read it.

The next phase was to overcome the pathologizing prejudices, to understand you weren’t sick nor in need of any cure, and to accept yourself. Then it came the time to find more detailed information: how do you tie bondage knots? Where can I get hold of a whip? What can be safely done, and what makes you risk ending up at the hospital or before a court? Who makes the clothing and accessories fueling my fetishes?

List of BDSM newstands in Italy, circa 1980

The meager list of the newsstands selling BDSM magazines in Italy, circa 1982

Before 1980 there were no manuals nor magazines explaining this; even in the next twenty years they were difficult to find, requiring daring trips to ill-reputed bookshops or sketchy mail orders.

Unless you were so lucky to know somebody already expert about BDSM and wishing to play the mentor role you then had to walk a very steep path, of which we didn’t even mention the most complex part: finding someone to put your fantasies into practice with. Specialized clubs and public events were extremely rare. Northern Europe had a few brothel somewhat catering to unusual tastes, but the real possibilities were essentially two. The first was to convince your official partner to explore these weird pleasures together – but very few men and women dared to risk a rejection which could bring social stigma, psychiatric institutionalization, divorce or other ills with it. The other was – but only beginning in the Fifties – to trust shady “lonely hearts” personal columns where on occasion potentially revealing terms appeared: ‘docile’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘unusual clothing lover’, ‘modern minded’… an actual secret code to which so many hopes desperately held on. Those courageous enough replied in semi-anonymous fashion using the terribly slow ‘poste restante’ service, where mail was sent not to persons, but to postal offices where you could take the parcel only if you carried a personal ID with the correct number. Getting to exchange more traditional addresses could take months, and it wasn’t the end of it yet. Who would the interlocutor be? The person described in the letters or a mythomaniac, an insane or a blackmailer? And even in the best of cases, how many chances there would be for his tastes to actually click with ours?

It is clear how in such conditions many years could go by before reaching even your very first real experience. Years in which less motivated persons would drop the quest putting up with a more traditional sex life, and the most stubborn ones fueled an incredibly intense, unstoppable passion inside them. Concepts we now take for granted like safewords or negotiating limits and activities before playing were just meaningless before the burning desire to finally live what occupied your dreams for so long. And while this approach had obvious negative aspects, it also guaranteed unmatchable enthusiasm.

Those constant enough to walk all of this path, courageous enough to throw themselves into a really uncertain experience, smart enough to deal with the ensuing feelings and emotions, and strong enough to keep looking for more meetings obviously went through a real and deep transformation. Like shamans surviving an ordeal, they became something different from the persons who take their first step of such an impervious journey. The final step not all of them took was then to integrate this new social identity. Having grown too large for the tight fit of their normal civil roles, these persons felt the need to find out their similars, to exchange their experiences, to build a common culture that, even if marginal, allowed them to feel part of a tribe instead of outcasts. Very slowly, through even more years of searching, you eventually entered private circles, clandestine clubs, micro-communities that kept in touch through the slow tools of the analog era.

And then the Internet came, and even more revolutionary… the Web.

Overnight all information became accessible in seconds instead of years. All the paraphernalia became effortlessly available with prices sometimes of one fiftieth than before. All the literature, the culture and the porn for which shortly before you could risk jail arrived in mass, free, easy to hide and right on your desktop. But most of all, a whole universe of immediate contacts opened. If until 1970 BDSM kinksters could hope to meet a dozen of likeminded people at most and no more than a hundred until 1995, the Net gave immediate access to hundreds of thousands of men and women worldwide – a revolution so pivotal to be actually impossible to describe in words.

But at what price?

Between biochemistry and anthropology

It is clear that only a madman could find the advent of the Internet negative. Information access allowed for fundamental developments in the culture of extreme eroticism: in its safety particularly, from sexually transmitted diseases knowledge and prevention to the the ‘safe, sane and consensual’ concept applied to the various BDSM practices. The Web allowed us to fearlessly take on our darkest fantasies, giving us the tools to live the indispensable introspection phase in a more positive and serene way. A network of people more than computers allows to create both virtual and real meeting points, events, seminars, thematic art… of course nobody would want to go back to the difficulties of the past.

Muscular man under shrink wrap

Yet even the shiniest medal has another side. Paradoxically the one of the digital era is the very ease of access to all of this abundance. This is not a personal observation, but pure biochemistry: when your fantasies can be instantly fulfilled your organism doesn’t have the actual time to release a number of neurotransmitters that facilitate arousal and allow you to experience high emotional levels. Most importantly, the serotonin release initiated by reaching your goal – not just orgasm, but even just finding the exact stimulus you were looking for – immediately destroys your interest. Why apply yourself to searching and creating the encounter of your dreams when your organism can feel the same just by taking an easy stroll on Youporn?

Well, for example to fulfill that need of social belonging we discussed earlier. But this aspect too is abundantly catered for by the Net and its virtual communities. It is hard to feel like a cursed outsider when you can subscribe to six or seven forums in a matter of minutes, and appear there with a “perfect” identity. Until fifteen years ago, for example, to be called a ‘master’ took quite a feat. You had to meet somebody recognizing that role, prove your competence, gain the respect of others. To hold the title of ‘slave’ you needed to have actually served someone, endured his sadism, be good enough to elaborate the suffering it entailed. All of this disappeared like the proverbial tears in the rain. Today in most cases to win these roles and more you just have to select them in a handy pull-down menu. Online nobody shall ever force us to prove anything. As a matter of fact, most “kinksters” on the Web have no actual experience at all of the things they blab about, nor any wish to actually engage the real world. Even the very civil tolerance typical of virtual hangouts acts as a boomerang. Since nobody bans undesirables, most communities are physiologically overcame by unbalanced people – sometimes spreading theories and information that would be very dangerous if put into practice.

Looking closer the problem isn’t even this schism between virtuality and reality. Let’s just think of the sports world: nobody ever complained if only 22 athletes take part to a soccer match compared to the hundreds of thousands of supporters comfortably enjoying it from their sofas. Having a community of sympathizers can actually be a compliment. The trouble is that in the case of BDSM the supporters are such a monstruous, numerous, noisy, violent bunch that it completely invaded the playfield where those poor players wanted to continue their happy game. It is not surprising that the latter got fed up with this and went playing elsewhere. So both the supporters and the athletes found their serenity, but what about those few candid souls who still dream to play in the big league? Out of metaphors, what happens today to those who really want to join the world of extreme eroticism?

We saw the answer at the beginning. People full of good intentions do the most logical thing: they search Google, find countless dedicated websites… and they smash their noses on the “culture” of virtuality. Now they have two possible reactions. The first and most common is to think «these people are entirely different from what I expected and I don’t want to have anything to do with them», promptly moving on to other interests. The other is to try and comprehend that mentality, until they give up or accept it. Net result: every passing day the online “Scene” grows with new converts who will contribute to keep away those who would like to turn their fantasies into reality. Which is to say the very people the online communities constantly lament the lack of. The ugly truth is that the answer to the question «where are all the hot coeds and the handsome and refined stallions?» simply is: «elsewhere, because you drove them away ».

Now we only have to find out how to get out of this stalemate… bus since I am a sadist I prefer leaving you hanging for a while. We’ll get back to this in a later post.

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