“Researchers estimate that 5-10 percent of the U.S. population engages in sadomasochism for sexual pleasure on at least an occasional basis, with most incidents being either mild or stage activities involving no real pain or violence.”– Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex, 1990
What is SM?
SM stands for sadomasochism. Sadomasochism is sensual, erotic role-playing where participants use physical sensation, emotional control, and/or psychological drama to explore and experience fantasies. It can involve a consensual and negotiated playing with power and control The term SM is often used as an umbrella term for many different behaviors that can include other terms such as Bondage and Discipline (B&D), Dominance and submission (D/s), Master and slave (M/s), Sadism, Masochism, S&M, Fetish, Leather, Rough Sex, Power Exchange, Total Power Exchange (TPE), and many others.
This term is the generally accepted umbrella term for a broad group of behaviors that include, power exchange and the consensual giving and receiving of intense erotic sensation. The behaviors used in consensual SM are negotiated and involve the communication of limits and the use of a safeword that can stop all action at any time. SM play is about exploring a person’s fantasies and innermost desires, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. Just as fantasies are specific to the individual, the way that folks practice and experience SM is also individual. It is therefore impossible to define SM in a way that will represent the experiences and desires of everyone.
SM can include but is not limited to: tying a person’s hands during sex, erotic spanking, wearing a blindfold during sex, being flogged, cross-dressing, wearing leather or latex, or exploring painful stimuli and the resulting endorphins. SM can be sensual, erotic, sexual, or completely non-sexual. No one person enjoys every behavior.
For many, SM is a type of erotic theater where fantasies can be acted out in safety. Some SM folk enjoy enacting fantasies in which one person is powerful (perhaps a Master, Top, or abductor) and one is powerless (perhaps a slave, bottom, or captive). Although outwardly it may look as though the Bottom gives up control to the Top, the Bottom actually maintains control by setting limits and by using a safeword that stops all action.
Some Important Definitions
SM is Safe, Sane, and Consensual
Just because you consent to play does not mean you consent to everything. You have the right to set limits. SM is not Abuse. The most basic difference between SM and abuse is consent.
It is not consent if
- You did not expressly give consent.
- You are afraid to say no.
- You say yes to avoid conflict.
- You say yes to avoid consequences (e.g. a fight, losing a job, losing your home, being outed).
You might be abused if…
Interest in SM crosses race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational level, sexual orientation, and gender identity. In the United States there are over 500 educational and social organizations that exist for SM/Leather/Fetish practitioners.
This portion of the webpage was written by Sabrina Santiago, MSW; and was developed through collaboration between The Network/La Red and The New England Leather Alliance. Portions of this webpage were adapted from:
- The “SM vs. Abuse Policy Statement” created at the Leather Leadership Conference in 1998.
- “When Someone You Love is Kinky” by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, Greenery Press 2000.
- “S/M is Not Abuse”– Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO).
- “What is S/M?” by Susan Wright and Charles Moser, www.ncsfreedom.org.