The history of bdsm: from ancient times to the 21st century

November 14, 2016
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If you like to get a little kinky during sex, you’re not alone. The history of BDSM spans thousands of years across many different cultures. To truly understand the roots of BDSM, we need to look at the fundamentals of the way humans interact. From dominance to submission, restraint to role-play, these interactions have existed in both erotic and non-erotic contexts throughout history. Let’s take a look at where they came from!

Origins

BDSM has been a thing for a very, very long time. The academic historian and archaeologist Anne Nomis identified BDSM in ancient Sumerian texts about rituals to the Goddess Inanna. Nomis points to ancient writings such as the Hymn to Inanna, which mentions rituals of domination, cross-dressing, altered states of consciousness, punishment, moaning, and ecstasy. Mmm.

Ancient Greece and Rome

4000–3100 BC. There’s a mention of flagellation (whipping, flogging) in the Roman poet Juvenal’s sixth book of Satires.

900 BC. Examples of other ritual flagellation can also be found around Sparta. The whipping often went down in Artemis Orthia, one of the most important religious areas of ancient Sparta. Here, a priestess would whip young men in a ceremony intended to make them more manly.

500 BC. In the Etruscan Tomb of the Floggings near Tarquinia, is an erotic painting of two men flogging a woman. This is one of the earliest graphic proofs of BDSM activities.

70 AD. In Pompeii there were images on the wall of the Villa of Mysteries, where a “Whipstress figure” with wings is initiating a young woman into the Mysteries. Sounds sexy.

Kama Sutra

200 AD. You’ve heard of a little book called the kama sutra, right? This well-known Hindu text is often seen in Sanskrit Literature as the standard on human sexual behavior. In the West, it has contributed to the spread of many sexual practices, including BDSM. Cool fact: it’s also considered one of the first written records dealing with consensual BDSM activities and safety rules.

The Last 500 Years

1500–1700 AD. During this time, the profession of the Dominatrix started to emerge. According to Nomis, there are a ton of recordings of erotic sexual acts, specifically flagellation. She points to an erotic setting in John Davies’ late 16th-century epigram, Shadwell's 1676 play Virtuoso and Troth's 1680 book Knavery of Astrology.

20th Century

1919–1933. There are a few key moments in the 20th century when BDSM culture really hit its stride. During the period before WWII, Weimar, Germany was known for being super sexually progressive, with an extension of European fetish culture that was common in the early 1900s.

1934. Another distinct heterosexual kink culture known as "American Fetish", rose up during the depression in the USA. Lots of the visuals we associate with BDSM were at play here: high-heeled shoes and boots, long black gloves, piercings, tattoos, uniforms, costumes. Role play, cross-dressing, female domination, wrestling girls and human ponies were all part of the culture here.

1950s. Post WWII brought the birth of the leather community and beginnings of gay subculture in North America.

1960s. During the sexual revolution of the 1960s in North America, BDSM-themed content started to pop up in commercial film and photography. Irving Klaw, John Willie, Eric Stanton and model Bettie Page all contributed to normalizing BDSM in American mainstream culture—and bringing us some super sexy art and films.

1970s. Though there are too many artists to mention, Robert Mapplethorpe was an amazing photographer who documented BDSM-related activities and pushed the movement forward. His most famous work chronicled the underground BDSM scene in New York.

Present Day. Many people today know about BDSM through Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestselling book by E.L. James. While the representation of BDSM in the book is problematic, it’s great that it’s inspired a ton of people to explore their own sexual preferences and embrace their kink.

Though it’s still new to some people, BDSM has a long and varied history. Through the work of gay rights activists, art, literature and film, the BDSM world is becoming more widely accepted and easier to access. Wanna give it a try? Check out our beginner’s guide on how to tie someone up.

Go ahead—embracing your kinky side is good for you.