Images by Chris Rohrer

Each kink—and there are so, so many—has its own language, its own universe within it. For impact play, the vocabulary is in a variety of implements, from floggers to paddles to whips. For rope, there are different dialects in ties for humiliation, pain, restraint. The acronym BDSM references for more than one thing, like the world it describes. It can mean bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism. It is a vast and diverse world, encompassing seemingly infinite combinations of sexual and nonsexual kinks, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as a continuum of preferences.

But for the most part, these languages have been kept hidden or suppressed. It’s been less than a decade since BDSM behaviors were removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For some fetishists, their desires are something they’re born with—how else to explain the deep urges before they even discovered sex? How to explain, as a child, looking up the definition of “spank”—so often that the dictionary would fall open to that page—and feeling strange flutters and desires?

There is still a stigma, however, associated with BDSM, despite the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. But to kinky people, having that movie represent BDSM is like having Basic Instinct illustrate a typical romance. It’s difficult to find any accurate depiction of healthy BDSM relationships in media. Vanilla (what kinky people call the non-kinky) people have been misrepresenting BDSM stories for too long.

Here, four Honolulu residents tell their own stories of what draws them to BDSM. In their own words (interviews condensed for clarity), they share some of what they enjoy: their complicated relationship to pain; the intense connection, intimacy, and vulnerability with others; the explicit communication and consent. Some incorporate aspects of BDSM mostly in sex, while for others it is a lifestyle. None of them wished to be identified by name, for fear of repercussions socially and professionally—pseudonyms are used to ensure anonymity.

Emily, she/her, late 30s, in public relations and marketing

Who knew that I was such a masochist? But maybe I’m not. I don’t enjoy pain simply for the sake of pain. I enjoy it if it gets me somewhere. If it makes me feel stronger. If it means I can do something I didn’t think I could do before. If it brings me closer to someone. And I suppose I like testing my limits. The only way for me to know where they are is to cross them, break them.

I was introduced into the BDSM world about a year ago by someone I was seeing. It started out pretty gradually. A playful spanking, and as he put it, I responded well. Eventually, we were talking about safe words, the importance of communication, and I was bent over his knee, and he was hitting my ass with his hand and then a wooden spoon. We graduated to a leather strap, belts, paddles. And I loved it. He perverted so many household objects that these days I get aroused by the sight of backscratchers, belts, long-handled spoons.

It felt like suddenly all the desires I’d had as long as I had been interested in sex—all the ones I had suppressed and been ashamed about—were given an outlet. I’m pretty independent in the rest of my life, I just like being submissive in the bedroom. I’d had fantasies about being tied up and dominated for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I’d strip my Barbies naked and bind them and have my way with them and pretend it was happening to me.

Thirty years later, I discovered that there was someone willing to indulge my fantasies, not judge me for them, and still treat me respectfully before and after. It blew my mind open. I dove in deep. I realized that it’s not just about sexual submission. I love BDSM for the intimacy, excitement, creativity, and intense attention to sensory details. I love the buildup. I love how a good dominant will know how to read my body. I rarely ever have to say stop because even though we both may like to push things, see how far we can go, he knows before I do when my body, and mind, have had enough. I like the juxtaposition, too, how someone can be flogging me, and then stop, and be, like, wait, are you OK? Do you need a break? I like the contrast of domination and tenderness.

I like how leather feels very different from stiff plastic, from wood—some things sting, others inflict a blunt pain. I like the marks left on my skin, the welts and bruises, private little reminders of the fun I had. And I love rope. Being bound feels helpless, but it also feels like being taken care of. When I’m being bound, I’m in tune with my senses—hearing rope sliding through someone’s fingers, feeling the softness of cotton versus the slight scratchiness of jute, being physically close to my top as they tie. With a top I trust, I am relaxing into their care.

Too many people think being dominant is just rough sex. There’s no buildup, there’s no intimacy, there’s no aftercare, it’s just someone doing whatever the fuck they want without paying attention to me. In the bedroom, I may want to be treated like I don’t matter or exist only for your pleasure, but I don’t want you to actually believe that. That’s the funny thing: It’s as much about the bottom as it is the top. I love the paradox.

Tango, she/her, early 30s, in the tech industry

It’s all about balance in my life. Until I joined the kink community, I felt dominant in all aspects of my life, at work, in my personal relationships and friendships. I felt I needed to find a space where I could not have to be in control, not have to lead, not have to make decisions. I needed it so strongly—that’s how I found the kink community. Kink kind of fills the gap. I can switch into a more submissive or dominant role.

My relationship with my husband has allowed me to explore relationships with other people where I’m the dominant. Right now my interests in kink are topping rope. My husband and I maintain a monogamous relationship—I do nonsexual rope. Sex was never really the interesting part of kink to me. It was always about the intimacy and the honesty. Sex is not a requirement for that. I think that I had kinky inclinations as early as 13 years old. The few times I expressed them, they were met with negativity. I went into my early 20s suppressing that side. My first fantasy was about being tied up in a chair. Later I had fantasies about having my clothes cut off of me and some consensual non-consent stuff. Definitely all my fantasies were as a recipient up until the last couple years.

As a bottom, I think I really enjoyed being challenged. Rope is oftentimes a challenge—learning how to process and sustain things and really listen to your body. Being able to do something for someone that you really trust, being able to go through it for them, is very gratifying. And the feeling of success, of being able to do things that other people cannot do.

I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily a sadist, but I find that it’s difficult to be dishonest when you’re experiencing pain. Being with somebody as they’re experiencing true pain is really interesting to me. I’ve always liked to make people uncomfortable. I enjoy watching people. I enjoy seeing how people respond to things. Does this rope make you feel relaxed? Does this scene make you feel sensual? Do you really want to do something for me? Everyone responds differently. If you hand somebody a cup that’s full of water and you say, this is my water, don’t spill it, and you antagonize them, everybody’s going to feel differently. A person who accidentally drops that water might cry. A person might intentionally drop that water.

In the scenes I’m interested in, there’s no faking, there’s no pretense. I think in a lot of our interactions with people we pretend we’re happy. We don’t say the things we want to say. We don’t behave the way we truly want to behave. Because kink is out of bounds, it allows the participants to express emotions they wouldn’t normally express. How often in your normal life do you just scream? Screaming can be very cathartic. How often in your normal life do you get to just cry and that’s OK?

Fear is a constant. It’s part of the reason I don’t play with a lot of people. I don’t play with people that I don’t trust. Having been both a top and a bottom, trust plays into it in different ways. As a bottom, you’re trusting that this top doesn’t intentionally cross your boundaries. One of my biggest fears as a top is unintentionally crossing somebody’s boundary and not being able to properly make up for it and resolve the issue. If I do something to somebody and I trigger them, or I make them feel unsafe—there is always that risk. I think there’s a lot of risk from both sides. You want to play with people who you believe wouldn’t do something out of malice.

One of my favorite things I’ve seen out of the community the last couple of years is an accountability circle, where you pick several people from the local community who are respected and independent and can be trusted to not be swayed. If I play with somebody and something goes wrong and they don’t feel comfortable talking to me about it, they potentially have somebody in my accountability circle who they can talk to anonymously or non-anonymously to help come to a resolution on what boundaries are crossed.

In the vanilla world, everything is about interpreting non-verbal communication, and one of the best things about kink is explicit communication and explicit negotiation from the start. One of my favorite things is that people would ask, “Is it OK if I touch you?” Those things are so big. I wish the vanilla community had more of that. In fact, it’s weird to me when it doesn’t happen. What do you mean you didn’t ask what they want? There are pieces of the kink world that can benefit everyone like open discussion, explicit communication, explicit consent.

T.J., he/him, mid-30s, in the health field

I was 17 years old the first time I had a planned exploratory kinky session with a girl I was dating at the time. I spanked her for hours. It turned out she had an extraordinarily high pain threshold and she had more than just a little bit of liking to have her ass spanked. I used my hand for a while and then I used a slipper I had in the car. It was extraordinary.

After that, I went on some spanking chat room. I started talking to an older lady in New York City, about an hour away. We talked for two or three years on Yahoo messenger and emailing back and forth. When I was 22, she brought me to a party on the Upper West Side. I was so nervous. But it was a pretty normal, non-intimidating situation—people wearing cargo shorts, a barbecue going on. Then you hear an unmistakable slapping sound. It just became a kind of normal thing to hear. I was introduced to a girl who said, “Let’s go play.” We went into a room and I just spanked her. And then we hugged. It was fun, and it was the weirdest feeling in the world. I hadn’t told any of my friends about this, and yet I was sitting there with a bunch of strangers that I felt so much more comfortable with than people I had known for 22 years at that point.

Being able to relate to someone with your deepest, darkest desire, knowing they’d probably been through similar self-identity struggles, it was a very peaceful feeling to be able to be so open and not have to hide any part of you. They were normal people, with normal jobs, and normal problems, and yet they had this very specific thing that held them together. Maybe it’s like with country clubs or extreme surfers, that same shared experience. But this one is around an innate, weird, hidden desire. I started to meet more people in that scene. Started going to parties and bigger parties—in New York City, Atlantic City, Vegas, Pennsylvania, Philly—and making more friends.

A lot of times, when I am drained of energy, sadism is more appealing because it’s less taxing. Sometimes being a dominant can be taxing. A good dom should always be attentive and aware of what’s happening and be on. Read body language, read breathing patterns. Read through moans. You can tell a good whimper from a bad whimper. When you start to get to know someone, they give you signals, too. Breathing patterns is a really big one. Watch if someone’s going into a trance, someone’s relaxing into it, or someone’s just stressed out.

There’s a deeper emotional aspect to kink in my eyes. One, you’ve found someone that shares this desire, this very deep part of you. Two, it’s the trust involved in it. If you think about anything pain-related—bondage, suspension, caning, degradation—you are trusting each other so deeply to not let it go awry, for either of you to be harmed. That goes so much deeper to me than like, “We’re going to have sex for the 57th time in the same position.” Obviously, the sex feels good. But the dance of kink, that delicate partner swing dance or whatever you want to call it, is so powerful that it seems to kind of transcend sex.

Aftercare is super important. Being able to build back up I think is imperative. It’s not an option.

Subs might want to be broken—they’re bratty and sassy until they’re broken. There might be degradation, humiliation. But giving up that much to someone, giving up that control can make you feel low. As a top or dom, you are building them back up, telling them, it was a scene. You are a respected, wonderful human being and you are not the worthless little slut that I was saying you are. How deep you take the person is how equally high you should build them back up when you’re done. Otherwise they’re left with this broken type of feeling. One, it’s emotional. Two, if you think about the serotonin, dopamine, and the huge amount of endorphins that are released, when those leave, you have a really hard drop. Making sure you hold the person, comfort the person, wrap them in a blanket and surround them with positivity can make that drop a lot less severe.

One of the most fun scenes I’ve had was after I was playing with a girl and we had just had funishment (playful punishment) during the party. She was telling me she was supposed to be taking a medication but kept ignoring it. I got really upset and started lecturing her. She started to tear up. She was kind of cowering in front of me. I stopped and said, “Oh no, I’m sorry.” And she said, “No, keep going. Do not stop.” So I went back to lecturing. “I am upset by this. I don’t want to have to talk to you again about this. I’m going to leave something in your mind that should remind you how severely you messed up.” And I spanked her really hard. “Tomorrow I want you to tell me when you took your pill.” And she did, and she continued to take it after that. I’d probably like to explore the discipline thing more. There’s a helping side to it.

Warren, he/him, mid-60s, in construction

I remember when I was in 7th grade, in the ’60s, and the theaters would have illustrations for horror movies—dungeons, men and women being tortured. At that time, it was fascinating. It didn’t get arousing until the 8th grade as I was hitting puberty. I had access to All Man magazine, it always seemed to feature on the cover women being tortured or captured—a carryover of WWII. And Penthouse used to put out an anthology that had spanking or women tied up.  

By high school, I knew the term sadism/masochism, but we didn’t know the words “submissive,” “dominant,” “BDSM.” I’d experiment with girlfriends with kissing. My thing with girls was to hold their arms, tell them to just gently part their lips and I tease them that way and see how they react. That was a form of dominating her, making her feel a little helpless. When she got a little more reactive, I’d say, no, just settle down. It was a small concept of control. Eventually I realized that that’s not the normal way of necking.

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Now my specialty is the cane. Some canes have very little flexibility. Some are stingier than others. Each one is completely different. Visualize a line of fire. A thin cane—a thin line of fire. Wider cane—a wider line of fire. And then it emanates. It starts spreading out. And then the question is, can you take that flame and embrace it as warmth, as pleasure?

I used to host high-end parties in Hawai‘i for about 20 to 25 people. People had to go through an interview. In those parties, there was no intercourse. You could have orgasms. We had a dungeon, pillory, benches, cross, sling, suspension ring, wax, things for medical play.

BDSM is just one aspect of my life, but I apply it elsewhere. I use dominance to influence people by letting people believe in themselves. And BDSM allows me to be creative. What is important to me is I need to understand the person. I don’t play with a person unless I understand what makes you tick.

BDSM elevates to another level than just physical pain. The intensity is mental and physical, and as it gets higher, that’s where you start to get more intimate. As she trusts more, more of her inhibitions leave. Then she can share with you what she really wants. There’s a part of you that’s always primal. It’s the primal part that ultimately a sadist wants to reach. Because that’s where the person is most passionate, animalistic, most emotional, most vulnerable.