Hello! Before I get to my question I just wanted to say that I love your blog! Your thoughts and answers are really insightful and I enjoy reading your opinion on things. My question is: do you know of any texts covering the history/culture of BDSM? I know there are a number of texts covering the modern understanding of the community but I have not found one that discusses a history of the overarching BDSM culture. If you could help me, I would really appreciate it! Thank you for your time!

subgirlygirl:

Hello, and thank you! There are numerous Google-able writings and thought pieces dating back to the mid-late 1800′s, most notably von Krafft-Ebing, Freud, and Girard; but I believe a lot of that is in regard to the psychology (and, as some believed, psychopathy) of sadomasochism. In Googling ‘history of dominant submissive’ (as search terms), I found this article – which seems, at a cursory glance, to touch on your question. I only skimmed it, so it could be (or lead to) exactly what you were looking for – or it could be a waste of three minutes. I wish I could help, but as of now Google is my go-to tool, as well.

I can help, at least a little.  

Oooh, I know, I know!  At least a little!

TL;DR: Almost everything we do regarding BDSM (and vanilla!) originated in the same cultural transformation that brought us the rest of the Victorian Era.

I
used to be a lot more in touch with this from trying to figure out why I could
play in the B/D and S/M spaces but couldn’t work up a real head of steam for
D/s.  One of the problems of writing a history of BDSM, and of D/s in
particular, is that through much of history in much of the world operational
violence committed against subjugated humans wasn’t particularly sexualized.
Instead it was just how you made servants, spouses, children, employees, and
conquered people do what you wanted.  Or when you just did what you wanted
to subject people.  

Distinguishing
D/s is made more complicated by the issue that until roughly the Puritan
Revolution men were seen as the moral and chaste gender and women as the amoral
gender who couldn’t control their “womb’s” demand for pregnancy (and therefore
sex with anyone they could trick into having it with them.)   So back then
one was more likely to see men flogging themselves to restrain their own “bestial” urges and binding, confining, or
disciplining women for tempting them.

Things
started to get a little more interesting in Western Civilization around the
turn of the 19th Century.  A bizarre new medical theory about semen
conservation was just emerging –  “losing” a teaspoon of semen was more
dangerous than losing a pint of blood, resulting in madness, consumption,
blindness, and early death.  Since boys can (and could) masturbate
multiple times a day… doctors, concerned parents, and civic leaders began
introducing absurdly drastic steps to basically save men’s health and lives.
 Including male circumcision, strapping children in bed, attaching
anti-erection devices, whipping and flogging, aaaaannnnd corn flakes (no, really, corn flakes! Graham crackers too.!)

Side
note: Ever notice how old Victorian porn uses the word “spend” for
ejaculation?  The prevailing medical theory was that men could come only a
certain number of times and then they’d die.  So “spending” literally
meant using one of your finite set of health points!

At
the same time the absolutely novel Protestant project to relocate the seat of
morality and chastity away from men and onto women was largely complete, with
the result that suddenly men could pursue sex as often as they wanted while
women were supposed to “encourage” them to “control” themselves while
in turn absolutely stifling and repressing their own normal
sex drives.  (As much out of concern for men’s health – see semen
conservation – as for their own moral standing.)  One result of this
newfound switch was the notion that women had to be coerced or pressured into
sex rather than resisted.

Stir
that all together – the removal of moral restrictions on men’s sexual
expression, the replacement of moral restrictions with even more draconian
medical ones, plus a social agreement that men had to pressure or dominate
women into sex and women must resist sex unless pressured or dominated – and let’s see what comes out.

Oh look!  It’s the Victorian era!

It’s no surprise that despite hints and traces of earlier practices
virtually all our tropes, gear, and practices around BDSM and kink – from
riding crops to corsets to cock cages to the dizzy suffix “ix” for women practitioners – still look and feel almost exactly
as it did when in the mid-to-late Victorian era it arose from.

Domination,
submission, bondage, sadism, and sex have all been around forever.  But
the sexualized practice of BDSM in our culture didn’t
really exist before the Victorian era. 

It’s
worth noting that the Kama Sutra with its meticulous detailing of ways to
spank, scratch, and bite was almost completely unknown in Western Civilization
till the ultra-Victorian Sir Richard Burton published his English translation
at the height of the era.  Same for most
of the other references that are often cited as earlier influences.

It’s also worth noting that Western Civilization’s biggest kink of all – “vanilla” sex with all its anxious restrictions, taboos, inhibitions, and terminology – also comes to us right out of the Victorian missionary culture.