By Ethan Davidson
HIV/STD Counselor, Educator


The topic of Sadomasochism has received a lot of media attention recently. But much of it has focused on behavior that is either extreme and non-consensual, or purely theatrical. There is little available in the mainstream media that lets an interested person know what real SM is all about.

SM stands for two words, sadism and masochism. These are named after two writers, Marquis De Sade and Sacher-Masoch. Both were European aristocrats whose erotic activities took place more in their minds than in the real world.

A sadist enjoys inflicting pain. The Marquis De Sade lived in eighteenth century France, and his books covered virtually all forms of sexuality which were considered socially unacceptable. Unfortunately, Sade wrote more to shock than to inform. The sadists in his novels abused non-consenting victims.

A masochist enjoys receiving pain. Sacher-Masoch was a nineteenth century Polish Baron who wrote the novel "Venus In Furs". This book established many of the conventions of later Sado-masochism, such as the dominant mistress and her willing slave. Although Sacher-Masoch's book is not as violent as the writings of Sade, there is still something depressing about "Venus In Furs." Neither the mistress nor the slave ever seem to get much enjoyment out of their activities.


The contemporary SM scene is far more practical, more rooted in the real world, than the writings of the two men who gave it it's name. The motto now is "safe, sane, and consensual." There are an extremely wide variety of activities and experiences that fall under the broad definition of S/M. "Safe" means what it says. The people who participate should not be hurt in any way they do not want to be, nor damaged in any way that will not heal, or that will cause them real problems in their lives. For example, if you whip somebody, you must be careful not to hit any organs, and if you tie somebody up, you must be careful not to cut off circulation in their wrists.

"Sane" means that participants must not only be careful not to physically damage those they are with, but not to emotionally damage them either. If a person starts to have a bad experience, then the activity must stop until the person has returned to a good state of mind.

"Consensual" means that individuals participate only in activities they choose to do, and no one is pressured to do anything that they do not want to do. This is essential. The difference between consensual and non consensual SM is the same as the difference between consensual sex and rape. Both may involve the same act, but one leaves a person feeling good, while the other can cause severe trauma.

So long as the basic principles of "safe, sane, and consensual" are adhered to, people are free to do whatever they want, as long as they can find somebody who wants to do it with them.


SM is practiced by men and women who are heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, gay and transgender. It is practiced by people of all races and incomes, in nations all over the world. Various forms of it have been practiced by most cultures throughout history, whether they were "primitive" or "civilized."

Many people report having sexual fantasies of a sadomasochistic nature from a very early age, much like gay men and lesbians often have attractions to members of the same sex very early. Others discover an interest in SM much later in life. For some people, it becomes a major part of their life, while for others it is a way to spice up an otherwise conventional sex life. Nobody has the right to judge your fantasies as too extreme or too tame.


SM has become an umbrella term which covers a wide variety of practices. Not all of them will be described here because that would be a book, and more than one person has already written that book. But I will try to give a brief description of those which are most common.


This focuses mainly on the giving and receiving of pain. The erotic enjoyment of pain is not as unusual as most people think. Many people who do not think of themselves as SM practitioners enjoy giving and receiving hickeys, bites, scratches and spankings during passionate sex. Sadomasochists simply extend this to include other tool such as whips, slappers, paddles, clothes pins and so forth. The important thing to remember is that consensual sadists inflict pain only on people who enjoy receiving it. So what they are really "inflicting" is pleasure. In the upside down world of SM, the sadist may look like a bully who is tormenting a helpless victim. In reality, the sadist may be working hard to provide the masochist with the kind of experience he or she craves.

Scientists have learned that the body produces an opiate like substance known as "endorphin." This chemical produces euphoria and indifference to pain. Orgasm is one thing that causes the body to release endorphins. Another is exercise. Another is pain.

An experienced sadist might start with just a small amount of pain, known as a "warm up". This will cause endorphins to be released. This will enable the masochist to tolerate more pain. Gradually, the sadist will increase the amount of pain, which will in turn increase the amount of endorphin. If the sadist has a sufficient amount of patience and skill, he or she can enable the masochist to experience tremendous euphoria, and the amount of pain the masochist actually experiences may be relatively small.

Many people involved in SM experience a craving for physical sensation, particularly for the intense sensations that can be triggered by pain and other physical stimulation. For many, this is not experienced as pain but as a very different sensation which is extremely pleasurable and satisfying. The goal is to orchestrate exactly the right type of sensation in the right amount and degree of intensity to provide the participants with a fully satisfying experience.

For some, it is not just the intense sensation itself but the experience of pushing their limits that is so exciting and pleasurable. For mountain climbers, the potential danger of the activity is part of the thrill, and the fear pushes them to meet the challenge of reaching the top of Mount Everest. Similarly, some people experience S/M as a way of "pushing the envelope" and forcing themselves to break through barriers, and they love the rush of doing something daring and exciting.

Dominance And Submission

In the realm of D/S, the physical sensations may not be as important as the psychological interaction. A dominant enjoys telling others what to do, and a submissive enjoys being told what to do. Thus, a submissive may not particularly enjoy pain, but may take it and enjoy it if that is what the dominant wants. That same submissive could derive profound enjoyment from serving a drink or scrubbing a floor, if that is what the dominant wants.

The dominant enjoys the power she or he experiences during these interactions, while the submissive enjoys the opportunity to surrender power, to "give it up" to someone else under safe, controlled, and generally temporary circumstances.

But again, fantasy often differs quite a bit from reality. Many "submissives" want to be told by a specific kind of person to do a specific thing in a specific way, and are not shy about communicating this. In such a situation, it is often debatable who is dominant.

Bondage And Discipline

A very common fantasy is to be tied up by an attractive person, who will then do whatever he or she wants with their "victim's" helpless body. However, in these fantasies, what he or she wants to do generally coincides very closely with what the "victim" wants done.

Bondage play can vary from elaborate ropework which takes years to perfect to a light hearted attempt to tie somebody to a bed post with scarves.

If you choose to explore bondage, be careful not to cut off circulation by putting ropes or restraints on too tight. If coldness, numbness, or pins and needles are experienced by the person being bound, it is time to remove these restraints.

Cheap hand cuffs can be very dangerous. Don't use them unless you or your partners are extremely knowledgeable about their use.

Remember that if you let somebody you do not know well tie you up in a private place, you are putting yourself at risk.

If you choose to put yourself into such a situation, it is best to use what is called a "silent alarm" This means that you tell a trusted friend what address you are going to be at, and what time you will call them. If you do not call your friend back, they should call the police. Of course, do not get so carried away in your enjoyment that you forget to call your friend back, or you may have an embarrassing interruption.

A silent alarm may seem silly, but it can save your life.


Role Play

Many people find that the activities described above are more fun if they are mixed with role play. For example, one partner may pretend to be a pirate, and the other may pretend to be a princess who has been kidnapped by him. Or one may pretend to be the queen of Babylon, and the other may pretend to be her slave. Or one may pretend to be an outlaw biker, and the other a girl or boy whom he ravishes.

Only your imaginations limit the type of role plays you engage in. Some people like to pretend to be other genders, to be animals, to become inanimate object such as chairs.

However, if you are going to do a role play, it is particularly important that you both agree on a safe word.

Safe Words

Suppose you are having a great time being tied to a mast and flogged by the pirate of your dreams. But something changes. He starts to hit you harder, and it doesn't feel good anymore. What do you do?

You could say "stop hitting me so hard." If you don't have a safe word, this is all you can do. The pirate may stop hitting you so hard, but in so doing, he will have to stop pretending that he is a pirate, since a real pirate wouldn't take orders from a captive.

So most SM practitioners find that it is best to have a "safe word."

A common set of safe words is the "traffic light system." In this system, green means "harder". Yellow means "too hard, slow down or lighten up." And red means "stop immediately, something is really wrong."

Some people feel that these words also disrupt the role play, and they prefer to use something that can fit into it the role, such as the word "mercy."

It is crucial that both partners agree on the safe words and remember what they are. Otherwise, the play can become unintentionally non-consensual.

The best time to discuss safe words is during negotiation.


Suppose you have fantasized for years about someone who will tie you up and alternatively whip you and caress you with feathers. Now is the moment you have been waiting for. You are tied up, but there are no feathers in sight. There isn't even a whip. Instead, he or she puts a saddle on your back, and pretends you are a pony

This irritating situation could have been avoided if the people involved had done some negotiating.

Negotiations vary. At their most simple, somebody might say, "Care for a flogging?" You might say "sure."

But there is usually more to it. They will probably ask where you most and least like to be hit, what your pain threshold is, whether you're more of a masochist or a submissive or both, whether you have any health problems that could be important to know about, and what your safe word will be.

The more elaborate the fantasy, the more intense the negotiation needs to be. People with very formal play styles require more negotiation than people whose play style is more casual. But even the most casual player should do some negotiation, or they may find themselves playing with somebody whose idea of a good time is not at all similar to theirs.

Top And Bottom

One phrase you will hear a lot in the SM community is "tops and bottoms."

A top is the person who is in charge of and directing the scene, and usually the top is doing something to another person. The top may be flogging the bottom or caressing her with silk, ordering him to scrub the floor faster, or massaging her with a whip in exactly the way that he is told. It doesn't matter. Usually the person who is doing something to somebody is a top, and the person who is having something done to him or her is a bottom, but not always. Sometimes a top may order the bottom to fuck him or her, or to whip him or her.

Many people enjoy switching from one role to another. A person who likes to both top and bottom is called a "switch."

Master And Slave

A very common role playing game is that one person is the "master" or "mistress" and the other is a slave. In this fantasy, the master owns the slave and can do whatever he or she wants with his or her property.

In real life, slavery is illegal. So if the "slave" doesn't enjoy the game, he or she is free to leave.

Some people, however, carry the fantasy to great lengths. They may base an entire relationship on the idea that one person "owns" the other. They may have a "slave contract" which details exactly what the slave is expected to do to please his or her master. Such people are sometimes called "life style" players, because to them, the role play never stops.

In reality, things are often not what they appear to be. The slave often has a great deal of power in the relationship.

The important thing to remember is that no matter how much time you spend playing a game, it is a still game.

A Scene

When two or more people do SM together, this is known as "a scene," because of its similarity to theater. If someone goes to a professional to participate in S/M and the exchange of money is involved, it is usually called a "session."

The Scene

In the San Francisco Bay Area, and many other urban areas, people with an interest in SM have formed a loose knit community. Comprised of a variety of organizations which put on classes and host parties and social events, this community is known collectively as "the scene."

"Play parties" are an important part of the scene. These are parties where people can socialize and do SM. People called "dungeon monitors" or "DM's" walk around making sure that people don't do anything unsafe or non-consensual, and that they don't disrespect or intrude upon each others scenes.

The San Francisco Bay Area has one of the most active and diverse SM scenes in the world. There are organizations for gay men, organizations for women only, and organizations that are primarily heterosexual. There are groups for dominant men and submissive woman, and groups for dominant women and submissive men. There are groups where the focus is primarily sexual, and groups where the focus is primarily spiritual.

One good place for a new person to start is the Society Of Janus. This organization focuses on providing education as well as social events and occasional play parties. It is a good place to meet experienced SM players, as well as other newcomers. Another excellent resource for both beginners and long-time participants is QSM, since they provide a variety of classes on S/M practices and sell books and other materials related to S/M. Good Vibrations Bookstores sell many excellent S/M books, magazines, and toys and equipment.

It is a good idea to select your new play partners from within the organized SM community. If you meet somebody at a bar, you have no way of knowing how safe they are. Predatory sociopaths usually either don't join, or don't stay long, in the organized SM community. They prefer to seek victims in places where people don't know them and aren't very sophisticated. People who are violent or don't respect safe words will be banned from going to SM parties or joining organizations, once this behavior becomes known.

It is not a bad idea to ask somebody for references, people they have played with in the past.

You should also be aware that, unfortunately, the SM community is prone, like all other human communities, to gossip and infighting. So occasionally, a person's warning that somebody is bad may not be based on real information, but on gossip or a personal grudge. Listen to what people say, but use your own judgment.

You will meet many interesting people in the scene who will be into many different aspects of SM, kink, and fetish play. You may have to experiment to find out what your own likes and dislikes are. Do it with a spirit of fun and adventure, and make sure to protect yourself and the people you play with.


Many SM activities involve what are called "toys," objects which can be used to create or enhance an experience. A toy can be anything from a clothespin used to pinch a nipple or a dildo for intercourse, to whips or paddles for flogging, and countless other objects limited only by the imagination and creativity of the participants.


One aspect of protecting yourself and others is to take reasonable measures to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted and blood born diseases. The Stop AIDS Project Safe SM Sex Group has an excellent pamphlet called "SM Sex...Safely." This booklet outlines in detail how to safely participate in many SM activities while minimizing your risk of diseases. Copies of the pamphlet are available free from most Bay Area SM organizations or by calling (415)-575-0150 to request copies. This should be required reading for all SM players. Some SM activities involve almost no risk of disease transmission, some involve the same risk as conventional sex, and some involve a higher risk than conventional sex.

Many SM activities do not involve genital sex at all. If your partner likes to dress you in sexy clothes, tie you up with scarves, and call you dirty names, this will probably not, by itself, transmit any diseases.

But many SM practitioners do enjoy mixing SM with genital sex. It is important that negotiations include a discussion of what kind of sex, if any, will take place, and what will be done to make it safer. After the play begins, at least one of the players is likely to be in a highly physically and/or emotionally vulnerable situation. This is not the best time to make life and death decisions.

Sometimes two people have different views on how much needs to be done to keep sex safe. In this case, the person who wants a higher degree of safety should set the limits. For example, if one person feels that oral sex without a barrier is an acceptable risk, but the other does not, a barrier should be used. This is true regardless of which person is top or bottom, dominant or submissive, male or female, etc. It is not OK to try to pressure a person into taking a risk that they do not feel comfortable with.

Pain play that does not draw blood is relatively low risk. Still, to be on the safe side, it is best to not use the same toy that you used on one person on another person without cleaning it first. Either put the toy away for at least a few days before using it on another person, or clean it with a mixture of water and either bleach or hydrogen peroxide, or with "toy cleaner" liquid disinfectant (available at leather shops and Good Vibrations), then rinse in water and air dry overnight.

Urine is a relatively low risk body fluid, but it is possible to transmit some STDs through urine. The risk increases if it has blood in it. If you want to make urine play safer, do not allow another persons urine onto cuts or mucus membranes, only onto unbroken skin.

The most dangerous body fluid of all is blood. Most SM play does not break the skin and does not draw blood. But some SM play does accidentally or intentionally draw blood. In this case, the highest degree of caution must be exercised.

SM activities which deliberately break the skin include piercing, cutting, and single tail whipping. It is generally agreed upon that nobody should do these activities unless they have taken classes on the subjects, or studied them with experienced players. If you do attempt them, wear latex or vinyl gloves. Do not touch or taste another person's blood. Let any toy that draws a person's blood belong to that person only, and never use it on anybody else. If you play with needles, be careful not to stick yourself, and deposit used needles immediately in a Sharps container, do not attempt to reuse them or recap them. Sharps containers are available free in most drug stores, such as Walgreen's.

Contact with another persons blood is a very efficient way to transmit the Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV viruses, all of which are potentially deadly. Avoid direct contact with another person's blood at all costs.


Lastly, I should mention that for some people, SM is not only a way to fulfill sexual fantasies, but also a spiritual path. Many people find that pain, or submission, or dominance, puts them into a deep, trance like state. In that state, they can have visions and revelations. Sometimes, these visions help them in their life, sometimes they can be transformed into art, and sometimes they make the person feel more in touch with nature and with the divine.

If this path is for you, remember that the main tools you need to keep having these experiences are your body and a partner. Take good care of both, and you should be able to keep drinking from this ancient well of wisdom for many years.


Society of Janus (415)-292-3222 or
QSM (sells SM books and holds SM classes regularly in San Francisco.) (415)550-7776
The Exiles (women's SM organization) (415)-487-5170
Leathermen (men's SM group) (415)-626-3747
or Leathermen and
The 15 Association (men only) (415)-673-0452
Good Vibrations Stores (books, videos, toys) (510)-841-8987
or (415)-974-8980


The Topping Book by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt
On the Safe Edge: A Manual for SM Play by Trevor Jacques, et al
The Lesbian SM Safety Manual edited by Pat Califa
Leatherman's Handbook by Larry Townsend
Erotic Power by Jeannie Scott
Coming to Power by the Samois Collective
SM 101 by Jay Wiseman
Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns by Phillip Miller and Molly Devon


Dossie Easton, MFCC (415)752-7455 - San Francisco
Kim Hraca, MFCC (510)601-1859 - Berkeley
Bill Henkin, PhD (415)923-1150 - San Francisco
Kathy Labriola, Counselor (510)464-4652 - Berkeley
Louanna Rogers, PhD (415)-641-8890 San Francisco
Patricia Craven, MFCC (510)-841-1980 Berkeley
Kevin Ahern, MFCC (510)-881-0775 Castro Valley and Berkeley

Ethan Davidson is a San Francisco-based writer and HIV/STD counselor/educator. He can be contacted by e-mail at