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Kinky Sex: When Did BDSM Become So Wildly Popular?

BDSM, once viewed as the exclusive fiefdom of really creepy perverts, has crossed over and become quasi-respectable, stylish and safe.

It’s just another day at The Armory in San Francisco: A bound and naked woman is laid out on a stylish serving table. Elegantly-dressed people of both sexes gather around—enjoying the view, apparently—and take turns having their way with her. Various devices are deployed—dildos, floggers, electrical stimulators. She says “Thank you, sir” and “Thank you, madam” frequently.

Welcome to "The Upper Floor," a high-definition Internet reality show where, website copy states, “real submissive women and real submissive men become house slaves to be dominated, trained, punished, spanked, whipped, and fucked … Inspired by the legendary French BDSM erotic novel The Story of O, The Upper Floor illustrates real lifestyle BDSM as it is lived by 24/7 slaves and Masters, complete with … explicit sex in bondage, punishment, erotic humiliation, and more.”

The Upper Floor is a project of, a thriving pornography business that was founded by Peter Acworth, a British-born entrepreneur and lifelong aficionado of BDSM (for Bondage, Domination, Submission—or Sadism—and Masochism). sells subscriptions to websites with names like, and, yes, Acworth often attends these, er, corporate events. “He’s the master of the house,” says colleague John Sander.

Only in Satan’s City by the Bay, right? Not exactly. Acworth was recently invited to speak at a summit on innovation convened by the ever-so-respectable The Economist. That’s right—the king of kink was given a place on the dais alongside a Harvard Business School professor, an Intuit business executive and other decent folk. Whether you view this as the end of civilization or a sign of progress, one thing is sure: a barrier has come down.

BDSM is all over our entertainment media, too. In her latest music video, Christina Aguilera slaps a riding crop against her palm, laps from a cat dish, and sports a rhinestone-studded ball gag. In movies like the 2005 comedy hit The Wedding Crashers and television shows like the self-consciously low-brow mockumentary RENO 911!, kinky scenes are played for laughs.

The lesson, kiddies? BDSM, once viewed as the exclusive fiefdom of really creepy perverts, has crossed over and become quasi-respectable, stylish and safe. Comical, even!

The shifting public perception of BDSM is one of those seeming overnight changes that was centuries in the making. In the late 18th Century, the Marquis de Sade put his profoundly sick-puppy stamp on kink, firmly establishing it as sex play (sex pain, really) between non-consenting adults. A hundred years later, when psychologists started studying this behavior, they found their subjects in insane asylums. “Criminals were their point of reference,” says Denver-based sex therapist Neil Cannon. No wonder, then, that BDSM meant a brute in a basement with an unwilling woman and a whip.

That’s not what healthy kink is about—not by a long shot. “Safe, sane and consensual” is the prevailing community standard. Although Ernest Greene, the executive editor of Larry Flynt’s Taboo magazine and a long-time leader in the BDSM community, has a “quibble” about the phrase—“Is it really sane to wear latex in July?”—the basic point remains. Kink done right is about sexual power games played out in circumstances that make it safe for everyone. And it’s done right by almost all practitioners.

The public perception of kink is shifting to match the reality. More and more people are coming to see your typical BDSM practitioner as the man or woman next door who enjoys consensual role-play along with, maybe, a dollop of pain on the side (or elsewhere).

It’s the more accurate view, according to sex therapist Cannon. “While every group has its outliers, kinky people tend to be well-adjusted and emotionally stable,” he says. “These are healthy, high-functioning people.”

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