BDSM - a mash-up acronym for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism - is the kinky stuff you do behind closed doors, but did you ever wonder where it got its start? The history of this sexual practice is complicated - combining wild positions, whips and chains, pain and pleasure, and power relationships - and has been around as long as intercourse itself.
This type of roleplaying that can include dominance and submission is about more than just intercourse, however, and its origins come out of cultural, personal, and erotic preferences converging. With the written word and artistic rendering, sexual desires and practices found representation and expression, offering a voice to participants, comfort to adherents, and even a sense of refuge to people seeking to understand. Over time, this all came together to form the modern sexual subculture we know.
In Mesopotamia, the fertility goddess Inanna would whip her subjects so they would become aroused. She adorned herself in jewels, riled the people into a dance of sexual frenzy, and cracked her whip until they started having intercourse. In Greek art, flagellation was common. The Greek biographer-turned-Roman Plutarch wrote about Spartan whipping competitions:
The boys in Sparta were lashed with whips during the entire day at the altar of Artemis Orthia, frequently to the point of [expiration], and they bravely endured this, cheerful and proud, vying with one another for the supremacy as to which one of them could endure being beaten for the longer time and the greater number of blows. And the one who was victorious was held in especial repute.
Romans had the Tomb of The Flogging (or Whipping), a room where women whipped each other in celebration of Bacchus or Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and Juvenal mentions whips in his Satires.
According to the Kama Sutra, there are six appropriate places to strike a person with passion and four ways to do it:
The place of striking with passion is the body, and on the body the special places are: The shoulders, the head, the space between the breasts, the back, the jaghana, or middle part of the body, the sides [...] striking is of four kinds: Striking with the back of the hand, striking with the fingers a little contracted, striking with the fist, striking with the open palm of the hand.
The lines between pain, pleasure, and passion are often intertwined given the Kama Sutra also mentions:
[S]ometimes carried away by passion, a woman puts aside her natural temperament and acts the part of the man by slapping and beating him or play fighting with him [...] she at the height of excitation becomes hard and fearless and dominates.
Much like advice on love pats, the Kama Sutra lists appropriate places to bite and ways to do it. For example, the "line of jewels," a bite using all of one's teeth, should be used when biting the throat, armpit, or thighs.
The Kama Sutra also provides instructions on how a couple should use mouth-play to foster the passion in their relationship:
[A woman should] take hold of her lover by the hair, and bend his head down, and kiss his lower lip, and then, being intoxicated with love, she should shut her eyes and bite him in various places [...] when her lover shows her any mark that she may have inflicted on his body, she should smile at the sight of it, and turning her face as if she were going to chide him, she should show him with an angry look the marks on her own body that have been made by him. Thus if men and women act according to each other's liking, their love for each other will not be lessened even in one hundred years.
Courtly love, the 12th century social and literary phenomenon, was based on the idea of extreme passion, undying love, and a man willing to undertake any feat for his lady. Simultaneously, the man experiences the extreme pain of never being able to obtain the object of his affection. She is usually betrothed to another man, of a higher class, or out of his reach in some way.
The idea of allowing enslavement in the name of love and devotion, according to some scholars, influenced later erotic literature and behavior.