BDSM Terms and the History Behind Them

I’ve thought about writing a little bit about the history of the BDSM community before, but I haven’t had a chance to do much on it so far. Then the other day I had an interesting discussion with someone about the ‘proper’ names for things and it seemed like a good time to dip my toes in the shallow end of a deep subject.

They were under the impression that Top/bottom were terms from the gay community and shouldn’t be used in BDSM because it was a kind of cultural appropriation, and that the proper terms to use were Dom/sub.

This is something that comes up from time to time but only in the past few years. It stems from the idea that the gay community came up with the terms first, which isn’t quite accurate, but we’ll get into that later.

Let’s start off with why using only Dom/sub for everyone in the scene doesn’t work. It’s pretty simple really. Not everyone in BDSM identifies with those terms and you can’t simply tell someone that this what you are, deal with it. That’s not how that works. People know themselves best, they know what categories fit them and no one else should be telling them how they must label themselves.

Bottom is a general category for people on the receiving end. This can refer to sex as it does in the gay community, or it can mean the one on the receiving end during BDSM scenes. Generally speaking every sub is a bottom, but not every bottom is a sub, and some will be angry if you call them a submissive when they don’t feel they are. (Yes, BDSM is a spectrum, of course and there are many people who don’t fit a standard category. That’s why I’m saying generally.)

Submissives submit. That’s a key word for them. They submit willingly to their partner and obey. When people think of the word submissive, they have certain ideas in mind—collars, kneeling, and obedience are just some of those. But more than that, there is an assumption of being owned or being someone’s property that comes with being a submissive. This just doesn’t work for some bottoms.

Identifying as a submissive means that people will instantly think of those things and connect them with you, and they might be entirely inaccurate for your personality and dynamic.

Okay, but do people really get mad if you refer to them as a submissive when they identify differently?

Yes, of course they will. People will always get angry when you try to slap a label on them that doesn’t fit. I’ve seen it a number of times especially with people who have had bad experiences with that role in the past, or newer people in the scene who aren’t quite comfortable in their role yet. They pick a label that feels like them and calling them anything else is almost an insult because you’re subtly telling them that you know them better than they know themselves.

And then there’s a whole bunch of other reasons: first let’s consider the huge divide there has always been between people who do BDSM and people who only incorporate spanking in their relationships. Some of those people shy violently away from Dom/sub titles and tend to stick with Top/bottom. I think it’s getting better over time as BDSM goes more mainstream and becomes less scary to people, but many spankos would be insulted by the idea that what they do is BDSM.

To them BDSM is dark and hardcore, and all they do is a little spanky fun in the bedroom, which is totally different. Or maybe they do domestic discipline, or Christian discipline with their partner and they think of it as having an old-fashioned relationship not a consensual power-exchange dynamic. The idea of the black leather club world horrifies them, and they don’t want anything to do with it.

On top of that, believe or not some of those relationships really don’t fit very far under the BDSM header. If you cause pain only as punishment, and don’t enjoy it, then you aren’t a sadist. If you need punishment to keep you on track, but it’s just a tool and not a turn on, then you aren’t a masochist. No bondage either, means that all that’s left is D for discipline and some people will argue that if they only do one of the four main things then they aren’t really involved in the scene and are just living their lives. Maybe you disagree with it, but you won’t convince them otherwise.

Obviously spanking, DD, and such do fall under the header of BDSM for most people, but you still aren’t going to get them all to admit that. Spanking is old-fashioned and historical; BDSM is scary, intense, and dangerous and that’s just how it is in their minds.

Another reason could be that you enjoy pain and identify as a pain slut but are otherwise a dominant personality. Remember sadomasochism doesn’t necessarily define your personality it only defines what you physically enjoy. Would you want people assuming they could boss you around just because you like to have candle wax dripped on you?

No, of course not; so you aren’t going to tell people “I’m a submissive.” In fact, I’ll be blunt I’ve seen masochists rip into Doms who referred to them as a submissive.

I actually have a problem with people assuming that bottoms are always submissive, and it’s come up in conversation before. People tend to forget how wide and varied the D/s world is and they focus more on the types of roles we see most often in fiction. Doms and subs have become the headliners, but they aren’t all there is. Because of this I made a point of creating a character who was a masochist but not a submissive in my latest novel.

In Taken by the Renegade we meet a girl named Sam who starts off exactly like that. She is a masochist; a pain slut, and she doesn’t want anything to do with submission. She likes pain, and she will bottom with people to get it during scenes, but that’s it.

Don’t even try giving her orders and if you call her a sub she will bite your head off. But like most real-life people in the scene she grows into new roles. For her it happens when she meets someone she feels like she can enjoy being submissive with.

So the term bottom is just a much better fit in some situations. Then people know you are a receiver which gives them a clue about possible play, but you haven’t been pinned into a role that doesn’t fit you.

Moving on, you have the people who obey but only when forced to it. The “Make me!” crowd. Brats for instance, who want to be spanked don’t always like to think of themselves as submissives because they find it doesn’t fit them well. Brats like to hide misbehavior and act up to get attention. When you lump them in under the submissive banner they come off as being terrible submissives instead of what they really are, which is bottoms who want to be naughty and get punished for it.

They aren’t terrible, they are behaving exactly as they should be if you have them in the right category. Imagine telling a Dom you’re a submissive when you’re really a brat. There’s a good chance you’re both going to walk away from that unhappy.

Last, we get around to Little dynamics. Littles are bottoms who go into a childlike space and for some of them the term submissive is okay because when they aren’t being little they do submit, but there are some who are Littles and only Littles. They are cared for as children and only punished if they break a rule like a child would be. Calling them submissives while they are in kidspace can be squicky and upsetting.

Now, let’s be honest, some of us don’t say “I’m a bottom” that often because it’s a vague category. Many will identify as specifically what we are, most of the time, but sometimes that doesn’t work. No one at a get-together is going to say, “Hi! Are you a Top, Master, Dom, Caretaker, Switch, Submissive, Painslut, Brat, or Little?” That would be ridiculous. They are going to shorten it, maybe to a simple “Top or Bottom?”

Or if you’re making a meme about what type of bottom fits you based on your horoscope you have the same need to be brief on the individual categories. That sort of meme was what started this whole conversation the other day, so I just thought I should throw that in here as an example.

But there are a large number of people who do simply call themselves a Top or bottom. Because they aren’t one thing all the time, or one narrow category. I’m a service submissive mostly just with my own Doms because they have a right to my labor. With others, I may be submissive, I may be a brat, I might even be a Little, and oh yes sometimes just a masochist.

So, am I going to run through the whole list? Or am I going to use the category that covers all of those?

Obviously, this all goes for the Top roles as well, though I would say more people in that category are willing to use just that term without needing any further definition. Maybe it’s because there are slightly fewer main choices under that umbrella and those are pretty specifically defined.

I mean if someone says they are a Master or a Dom you pretty much know what to expect. But people don’t always feel comfortable with either of those titles since they are associated with the more intense D/s relationships, whereas a Top is general enough to fit quite a few styles.

I also think that referring to yourself as a Top seems a little less silly than referring to yourself as a bottom, because bottom has the whole butt connotation with it. I know some on the bottom who won’t call themselves that just because it makes people giggle. ‘He spanked his bottom on the bottom,’ is the kind of thing that makes everyone laugh so that’s incentive to label yourself with a little bit more finesse.

Soooo, in the end Top/bottom works best in some situations because they are umbrella words that fit everyone, and Dom/sub should not be the preferred words in those situations because they don’t cover all the kinky flavors. I do use Dom/sub a lot here because those are the words that define my current relationships and they are handiest for me, but you will also see me default to Top/bottom as well when I’m covering broader topics.

But let’s move on and talk about how two cultures ended up using the same blanket terms. Well—we didn’t because we weren’t two cultures way back when. Top/bottom popped up in gay culture back in the 1950’s to describe who gave and who received during sex—but it wasn’t all of gay culture. It was specifically the leathermen that came up with it and they were kinky from the start. Which means in a very short time it went from just meaning sex to also meaning what your position was in a power-exchange scene.

AHA! So BDSM people did steal it from gay culture!!!

Sorry, no. The gay leathermen brought those terms with them when they literally created the core of what we consider the BDSM community now. In fact, most of the early BDSM community was made up of gay men and lesbians. The terms transitioned from sexual positioning to power relationships because people who used them both ways were the basis of the community that now welcomes all sexual orientations and pairings.

Yes, people from all walks of life, all genders, all sexualities, all everything have secretly been kinky af since the dawn of time. I’m not saying gay people created kink. I’m saying that they were a major force in the creation of a community. A community that drew in all of us naughty people and gave us support and a home to freely express our kinks and perversions safely. They were the driving force and the backbone of the earliest BDSM groups.

In other words BDSM people didn’t steal the terms, that’s what the established terms were when the circle opened up to include people outside the gay community. Gay people provided the early structure that grew into what we have now and to erase that and drop those phrases would be like erasing the gay culture’s contributions to this community.

And…if you’re going to stop using Top/bottom because you feel it’s been appropriated than you might want to drop Safe, Sane, and Consensual which was originally taken from a statement of purpose put together by David Stein for GMSMA (A gay SM activist group) in the 1980’s.

In fact… if you go back in the history you’re going to find that a lot of the things we do and say in the BDSM world came directly from the people who put it all together, and that, my friends, is the gay leather community. It would be ridiculous to claim the whole BDSM world has been appropriated and you can’t really pick and choose among the things they defined at this point and say who has a right to use what when we’ve all been mutually using these things for sixty years.

I suspect in the beginning that the gay and non-gay kinksters came together, as outsiders often do, to present a more powerful front against the vanilla world who thought they were mentally ill. There aren’t a lot of records around that detail how we all become one big kinky family. I’m sure there were clashes and if you’re picturing one big playground with everyone hanging out together–well, I doubt that happened for a long time.

Still they did all come together. The gay community might have started things rolling but there is strength in numbers and the more people involved the safer everyone was. And once people came together it was inevitable that they would learn from each other and terms would be passed around freely with everyone using them.

Now the BDSM culture is an entirely different stand-alone creature that encompasses far more than anyone could have expected in the beginning. But because we have the same roots, we’re going to share a lot of terminology in common that’s just how it is.

We all grew into this lifestyle together, using the same terms and phrases and building on them as needed. SSC came from a need to differentiate between consensual activities and domestic abuse, especially to the vanilla world outside. It was useful so everyone adapted it until better options came along.

Likewise, Top/bottom were important classifications because if you’re going to play with someone, you need to know if you are compatible opposites. Now we’ve branched out and added lots of other words to both of those categories, but that doesn’t mean the old ones are no longer valid.

I’ve been active in the scene for a long time, and it’s only recently I started seeing the occasional person complaining that BDSM people stole Top/bottom from gay people and they shouldn’t use it. Or I’ll see someone say, ‘It doesn’t mean that! Top and bottom is just for sex!’ Most of the time these are younger people who don’t actually understand the history and haven’t done much research into how BDSM became a community instead of a bunch of naughty people hiding in basement clubs and worrying about the cops raiding them.

Sometimes having a long history of using something doesn’t mean it’s okay. Just because you’ve been doing something for years doesn’t automatically excuse it from being problematic there is always growth and change in society. There are things that have historical precedence that I will absolutely stand up and say are cultural appropriation and we should stop using them, but this isn’t one of them.

It’s not stealing to learn from each other. It’s not stealing when you join a community and adopt the terms and behaviors that have already been established in that community. If anything, I’d say coming in and trying to force a change to a structure someone else built is wrong and not respectful of the work that was done before you.

And sometimes… words  just have more than one definition depending on the context. Maybe in this case there is occasionally confusion, but it’s usually pretty easy to sort out and most of the time there is enough overlap that it really doesn’t matter. And the reason for that overlap is because we all came from the same root.

Now, people are going to think what they think and you can rarely change anyone’s mind, especially when it comes to things they feel were taken from them. But once you learn the history of how it all came together it changes things. As a BDSM player who has held various roles in the community and a woman who falls under LGBTQA I’d love to see more people looking into the history, because it’s fascinating.

And I’m grateful for the people who helped build this community and gave us a structure where we could all explore these needs and desires without fear.

For those who like to dive deep there are a number of old documents available online that give you an idea of how some of these things came to be. Notes from meetings, transcripts of conferences that were held to build this community are around from before the Internet was even a thing. The sites hosting them come and go, some are just in archive status now because they’ve been up for years. And a lot of it is a bit dry but you can find information if you look.

For instance, if you’re interested in the origins of SSC you can check this out: Safe, Sane, and Consensual by slave David Stein.

Unfortunately this is an earlier version that was later revised and hosted on a site that is no longer around, at least not currently, but it’s still interesting to read if you’re like me and you like to know where things came from.

I’m going to wrap this up for now, but I do want to say that this isn’t meant to offend anyone. This is an attempt to clear up some misinformation that’s out there, which is basically the reason this blog exists. History matters, context matters and when discussing something like appropriation, you have to enter the conversation with an understanding of the background because it can be a prickly subject.

The truth is rarely uncomplicated, but I want to give you a serious thought to end on. That the gay leathermen were the cornerstone of the early BDSM community is 100% fact and something that can’t be denied. Their contributions should be celebrated because they did a lot of the grunt work to get us all where we are now.

But in my opinion, arguing over terms that some kinky people taught other kinky people as they built a community around themselves in the 1960’s is not going to honor that work. The BDSM community and the gay community are too tightly entwined to separate things now after all this time.

Instead we need to all make sure that the LGBTQA section of the BDSM community is never pushed out or ostracized. They went from being the majority to a minority in a community that they built, and I have seen heterosexual groups try to exclude them many times. That is cultural appropriation. It’s wrong; it will always be wrong and it’s something that should be fought so maybe that’s a better use for that energy.

And on that note…
Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay home if you can!

3 Replies to “BDSM Terms and the History Behind Them”

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