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Ishtar & de Sade & Wonder Woman & Bettie: A Brief History of BDSM

Ishtar & de Sade & Wonder Woman & Bettie: A Brief History of BDSM
on October 30, 2017 in Sex Talk

The History of BDSMWhile the BDSM acronym wasn’t coined until 1969, its practices (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism) began long before that.

Whipsters- Flagellating Before it Was Cool

The earliest recorded references to BDSM come from Mesopotamia, with a goddess known as Ishtar (or her Sumerian counterpart, Inanna). Ishtar was the goddess of (among other things) love, sex, desire, and war, and her followers worshipped her by performing a ritualistic dance. As they danced, Ishtar whipped them into a rapturous sexual frenzy, a thrilling combination of ecstasy and pain. Ritual flagellation was also practiced in Ancient Greece; several different authors describe an initiation ceremony known as diamastigosis, in which a temple priestess whipped adolescent Spartan boys. A fresco from the Etruscan Tomb of Whipping (such a swoon-worthy name!) offers visual proof of ancient BDSM practices. The artwork portrays two men whipping a woman in an obviously sexual situation. Other visual aids: the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii contains a picture of a winged “Whipstress”, who is supposed to have used flagellation and bondage as part of religious initiation rites for young girls.

The Kama Sutra also contains references to pleasurably painful sex acts, including hitting, pinching, and biting. The text specifies that not everyone enjoys being on the receiving end of these practices and that they should only be performed on willing, enthusiastic partners. Consent has been such an important issue the past few years — how validating to learn just how long it’s been around.

Two Sides of Every Coin

Obviously, no BDSM history is complete without mention of the Marquis de Sade (from whom we get the term sadism) and his lesser-known counterpart, Leopold von Sacher Masoch (three guesses as to his contribution). The Marquis was an 18th-century French aristocrat and author who penned a wide variety of works featuring eroticisim and violence in every possible combination. He spent most of his life imprisoned for both his unconventional sexuality as well as his writings against the Catholic Church.

While you might be less familiar with von Sacher-Masoch, you likely know the Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs”, which takes its title from his novel. His work centers on a man who entreats his lover to take him as her slave, encouraging her to dominate and abuse him in increasingly degrading ways. Reportedly, von Sacher-Masoch even took his wife to Venice so that they could reenact the book together.

The Roots of Contemporary BDSM

Modern BDSM is thought to have its roots in both American and European underground sex magazines, which featured photos of women in black leather, high-heeled boots, corsets, and latex wear — all the things we typically associate with BDSM today. Bettie Page remains one of the iconic figures of this time period — her strength and power coupled with her beauty and sense of absolute joy as she wielded a riding crop or raised her hips for a spanking helped to revolutionize human sexuality during this time period.

While most 20th-century BDSM is relegated to counter-culture, one woman in particular helped bring it into the mainstream, presenting images of bondage and submission that were considered tame enough to pass as children’s entertainment. That woman is currently enjoying a huge cultural renaissance — of course, we’re talking about Wonder Woman. Created in the 1940s by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was inspired by Moulton’s idea of DISC theory (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance). Marston believed that humans ultimately want to submit to a loving authority; Wonder Woman is the embodiment of that authority. The main tool of her trade is her magical lasso, which she uses to compel evil-doers to tell the truth. Bondage and restraints of all kinds are a major theme in the comic, used not only for the villains but for the heroine as well. (A quick google image search will give you a good idea of how this particular kink found its way into mainstream culture.) For more information on Wonder Woman’s creation, we recommend the recent release Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which details Marston’s unconventional personal life, especially his polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, both of whom were instrumental in Wonder Woman’s creation and development.

Last but not least, we can’t forget the role of the Internet in BDSM. Sites like FetLife have allowed the BDSM community to identify and connect with each other easily, while online sex shops offer access to all the tools and costumes a dom or sub could imagine. Blogs and online articles on various topics allow the curious to do some research before diving in.

In short, BDSM has been around in some form or fashion since ancient times, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be disappearing anytime soon!

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