What is a BDSM – bondage, discipline, submission and masochism – lifestyle?

Cornerstones of scene are trust and respect between consenting adults, say adherents

Psychosexual therapist Emily Power-Smith explains that the rules of a bondage discipline submission masochism lifestyle rely on a safe, consensual atmosphere. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

When Graham Dwyer’s defence counsel Remy Farrell observed there were many “unique features” to his client’s murder trial, he was perhaps understating the case somewhat.

Certainly, for many Irish people, the trial is the first time they’re likely to have encountered widespread talk of knife-play, dominants, submissives, slaves and sites such as alt.com.

The trial heard there are many users of such sites, which begs the question of how large the BDSM (bondage, discipline, submission and masochism) community is in Ireland and what those users get from their participation in the scene.

Speak to those involved and they will tell you that the very cornerstones of the BDSM scene are trust and respect between adults who are consenting to certain sex acts.

Pain inflicted during these interactions is not the end goal: rather, exploring the edges of one’s sexuality is.

Yet pain releases endorphins, creating a heightened state of sensation. But the relationship between Graham Dwyer and Elaine O’Hara operated well beyond the scene’s traditional parameters.

“People (on the BDSM scene) definitely do see themselves and what they do as separate (to this particular case),” explains psychosexual therapist Emily Power-Smith.

“I’ve not had anyone talk to me about being worried or fearful (about being unsafe) within the community.

“Those interested in BDSM don’t need to make that distinction. People are able to separate the case on a personal note, but when they see media coverage like this, there is a definite concern about being stereotyped.”

“Fig”, (an internet moniker), is the organiser of the Dublin BDSM scene’s largest monthly club night, Nimhneach, and has been actively involved in the community for decades. At his events, which regularly draw hundreds of people, he says the tone is celebratory, not furtive.

Informal gatherings

Nimhneach holds what are known as “munches” – informal gatherings for people to convene in a pub in their regular clothes and talk about anything from the weather to buying whips.

It’s a way for people to talk to potential partners in a low-pressure setting.

Some are held in Dublin, a smaller number are held in Cork and Galway. About 30 people attend Dublin munches and an average of 20 attend them in smaller cities.

Invite-only parties, meanwhile, often attract about 50-60 people. Age-wise, the crowd is usually 20-somethings and over, with some 80-plus members noted. The gender split, according to Fig, is usually 45 per cent male, 45 per cent female, and 10 per cent undecided/not sure.

“It looks like a work do from the outside,” he says. “The only mindset is that everyone is very sex-positive and has an advanced sense of sexuality.

“It’s difficult to say how many folks are into BDSM, but anecdotally, I’d put the figure at about 10 per cent of the (Irish) population. That’s including the folks who have a more than a passing interest, all the way to folks who live it 24/7.”

He explains that while people who practise BDSM are keen to push themselves to their own personal limits, there’s a common guiding principle of “sane, safe and consensual”, with the aim that “everyone can enjoy the experience”.

“When you’re dealing with the edges of sexuality, politeness goes a long way,” Fig says. Despite this “sane, safe, consensual” ethos, he adds that he has “lost count of the number of men I’ve thrown out of the club for being too inappropriate, drunk or obnoxious”.

Within BDSM practice, the ultimate transgression is breaking trust during a sex act (for example, continuing to whip someone if they have invoked a “safe word”).

Once that happens, word can quickly get around the overall scene about a person. “If you get banned from Nimhneach you quickly get banned from other events,” says Fig.

Yet it’s impossible to monitor online activity quite so effectively, and Kelly (not her real name), a 25-year-old “submissive” from Kildare, has encountered both good and bad on sites like fetlife.com. “It’s as much of a risk when you meet someone on (dating site) OKCupid,” she says.

Kelly has also encountered many newlyweds and newly engaged couples exploring the scene. “Professional people beginning to settle down,” she says.

Asked why she enjoys practising BDSM, Kelly says: “Without this element, I don’t enjoy sex. If you’ve been struck by someone it causes an effect and leaves a mark.

Someone is going out of their way to do this for you and they care enough to do it. It makes me feel special. I find it relaxing and energising.

“Done properly, it can open up a space to talk with your partner about how you want to be treated. I don’t really like to play with strangers, but I do play with my partners.”

Experts including Emily Power-Smith also observe that a person’s preference for dominant or submissive behaviour does not extend beyond the bedroom.

Just because Kelly, for instance, prefers to be a submissive, does not mean that she wants to be abused, physically or emotionally, in a non-sexual context. BDSM practitioners are very careful to make this distinction.

“Research shows that historically, some of those drawn to being submissive often have to be powerful and responsible in their everyday lives,” explains Power-Smith.

“Some bankers, judges and politicians often look to be dominated. They can be in the moment, and it’s a massive release and relief for some people.

“It does seem to be more appealing to more people now than ever. I expect it will continue to grow as a means for balancing responsibility and business.”

Different roles

Gayle Brewer, psychologist and lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, says: “Often we find that people are adopting roles quite different in everyday life, so someone in a powerful position, responsible for a large set of employees or network, might crave taking a complete break from their normal experience.

“Yet someone denied that power or decision-making in everyday life might really enjoy being dominant in a BDSM context.”

BDSM runs a wide gamut, and at the far reach of the spectrum lies knife-play and bloodletting.

Some practitioners stick to the illusion of bleeding, using the edge of a credit card, warmed olive oil and a blindfold in lieu of the real thing.

“Knife-play pushes people to their absolute limits, and so very few people engage in it as it’s so extreme,” says Power-Smith. “You need to be highly trained and take several safety precautions. But it’s more about the element of psychological power play, rather than the knife being a weapon.”

According to Fig, Ireland’s BDSM scene prides itself on creating a space for “people to be free and be who they are”.

But as the Dwyer case shows, the scene is not without its predators. “You’ll find married men and wannabe dominants and they have an impossible fantasy where they see women as victims for their own pleasure,” he adds.

“But the reality is, you’ll find predators in every corner of life.”

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