• Alexandra Gold

BDSM Culture and Community

BDSM Culture and Community: A Brief History


The culture surrounding BDSM is sometimes dismissed as insignificant and lacking in true community and structure. However, it is an enriching band of diverse individuals containing several subcultures within.


Many practices and relationships that are today associated with sadomasochism (SM) have a long history, and those involved were thought to be isolated and alone. Their interests were thought to be perversions, strictly sexual and uncommon. However, these ideas predate modern conceptualizations of SM and do not indicate association with the modern BDSM community—a distinct subculture that emerged in the twentieth century. 


Some popular SM subcultures under this modern BDSM umbrella include the gay leather subculture, the lesbian sm subculture, and the heterosexual fetish subculture—each with their own unique trajectories and motifs.


Although there remain distinctive subgroups and internal debates over various issues in kink, today’s BDSM Community has embraced the motto of “Safe, Sane, and Consensual,” and the norm of framing SM as erotic play and eroticizing power expressions. These smaller subcultures—gay leather, lesbian sm, heterosexual fetish—are tied through a shared interest in these defining frameworks and make up the greater BDSM community.


In 1987, the first leather contingent marched in the Gay and Lesbian March on Washington and representatives of 92 SM organizations were there as parts of the contingent. Now, kink groups march with others around the world representing an ever expanding number of kink sub-communities.


The American BDSM Community today is composed of approximately 1,000 organizations and groups around the country, with state and national-level organizations providing a forum for ongoing community development, activism, and research. Some of these include the Leather Leadership Conference, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Leather Archives and Museum, the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities, and us at The Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance, TASHRA. These organizations and more participate in yearlong kink studies and activism, and oftentimes participate in larger events.


Some such large community events include International Mr. Leather in Chicago (3000+ attendees), the Fetish Fair Fleamarket in Boston (3000+ attendees), and the Folsom Street Fair in SF (400,000+ attendees). Now, during COVID-19, many of these events are hosted online to maintain the sense of fraternity amidst a pandemic, a challenge to a community of people, many of whom had finally established safe spaces to gather after decades.


The BDSM subculture has an origin story, established codes of behavior, ways to pass down a system of shared meanings, and resources and encouragement for individuals to develop a sexual identity and participate in BDSM as they choose. It offers a unique community within which to explore oneself and one's sexuality.

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