Gather ’round for the friskiest history lesson you’ve ever had! While the acronym BDSM – short for “bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism” – was only coined in 1969, you might be surprised to learn that the practices have always been around. The union of pain and pleasure carries with it a rich history spanning across many cultures. Whether you’re already a participant or just a curious mind, read on to learn more!

In Mesopotamia, as early as 4000 BCE, the fertility goddess Inanna would whip her subjects until they became aroused and had sex in honor of her. Thought to be dedicated to Dionysus, another god of pleasure, “The Tomb of the Whipping” is an Etruscan tomb with art inside that dates back to 490 BCE. It contained depictions of men flogging women in an erotic context. 

Additionally, the Kama Sutra – written sometime between 400 BCE and 300 CE – was big on biting and impact play, right down to outlining six places to hit and four methods of hitting! This laid some of the groundwork for modern BDSM, and even mentioned obtaining consent before engaging in the activities.

In a 15th-century work, Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola mentions one monk who couldn’t enjoy sex unless he was struck with a whip soaked in vinegar!

In the 1500s, far before the days of handcuffs, the Japanese practiced an art called Hojōjutsu to restrain their prisoners with complex rope knots. This was the precursor to what we now know as shibari, or erotic rope bondage.

The 1748 English novel Fanny Hill, also known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, is considered to be England’s first explicit novel. It includes orgies, erotic whippings, and canings. Brothels – and doctors’ offices! – of this time often offered flogging as a service as well. After the publication of “A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs”, the practice was even nicknamed “the English Vice.” Germany was in on the action as well, with multiple books written on flogging. In 1828, English dominatrix Theresa Berkley invented the “Berkley Horse” upon which to pose her clients in the prime spanking position. It was among the first BDSM-dedicated furniture pieces. 

But what about the evolution of the language we used to describe these kinks? Did you know the word “sadism” comes from the Marquis de Sade? This French nobleman wrote novels during the 18th and early 19th centuries full of explicit sexual acts. Unfortunately, they were labeled obscene and brutal enough to land him in prison!

But what about masochism? Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch included spanking and other kinks in his stories. His classic Venus in Furs, written in 1869, tells the story of a man who wants to be a woman’s slave for his own sexual gratification. The character is whipped and derives pleasure from the punishment. Psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing would later coin the term “masochism” to describe this proclivity in von Sacher-Masoch’s writing.

In 1929, psychologist Havelock Ellis completed his Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Ellis countered the aforementioned Krafft-Ebing – and Sigmund Freud – by arguing that there is little distinction between masochism and sadism, as the two are complementary emotional states. Ellis formed our modern conception of “S&M” and, quite progressively, outlined pain as a valid manner of creating pleasure, and (consensual) violence as a valid expression of love. He also disputed Krafft-Ebing’s claims that sadism is a “male” sexual response and masochism a “female” sexual response.

From 1945 to 1959, artist and photographer John Willie published Bizarre magazine, featuring illustrations, cartoons, and photos of bondage fashion. Bettie Page was a frequent collaborator and model for Willie, and as this classic beauty swiftly became a household name, BDSM began to emerge from the underground to become an aesthetic movement. Additionally, a magazine called Physique Pictorial also ran artwork by Tom of Finland, an artist who had served during World War II and fetishized men in uniform. In fact, many veterans found it difficult to readjust to life back home and missed the hierarchy, discipline, camaraderie, and order of their time in the military. Thus, some gravitated to the BDSM lifestyle. Industrialism saw the increased incorporation of metal and leather in fashion – and in fetish. By the 1950s, leather-wearers had become a bona fide sexual subculture.

With the more sexually liberated attitude of the 1960s and 1970s came more visibility for the community.  BDSM support groups like the Eulenspiegel Society in New York and the Society of Janus in San Francisco popped up. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe gained infamy for his photos of BDSM practitioners. Cruising, the thriller film starring Al Pacino, was about a serial killer stalking gay men in the leather scene.

Ever since the 1980s, popstars and mainstream fashion have consistently adopted the aesthetics of BDSM by way of harnesses, masks, and more. There are now numerous conventions dedicated to BDSM worldwide. With the advent of the internet, networking and archiving has reached exponential levels. People can link up with others who share their interests, no matter what they are. (Did you know the controversial BDSM-centric book Fifty Shades of Grey was originally written on FanFiction.net as an extension of Twilight!?)

Exploring the genesis of BDSM means exploring the fundamentals of human interaction and desire. As this brief history lesson shows, BDSM inclinations transcend time, place, social class, culture, orientation, and gender. We are all united by our desire to give our trust and power over to another, and to treasure the trust and power we are given. Many people who participate in the BDSM lifestyle may hide that side of themselves for fear of ostracization or shame, but incorporating it as a valid part of human history and sexual psychology can help end the stigma.