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BDSM in China

“I love being dominant, and the feeling of power I have in our sexual role-playing games,” says 28-year-old Ada Ling, a certified nurse who lives and works in Beijing.

“[And] I love being trampled by her, especially when she’s wearing high heels,” her 26-year-old boyfriend, university tutor and graduate student Xiao Wu explains.

Xiao and Ling met roughly two years ago on a BDSM message board. While in the popular imagination, BDSM most often evokes images of skintight leather suits and whips, practitioners of BDSM usually define it in relational terms – as forms of erotic play based on control and uneven power dynamics.

In the wake of the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, which depicts a young woman’s sexual awakening and initiation into the world of BDSM, the erotic subculture has been garnering considerable attention around the world.

Although neither the film nor the best-selling trilogy of novels by EL James upon which it is based have been officially released on the Chinese mainland, a frenzy of interest around BDSM has nevertheless developed in the country.

“For me, BDSM is like a secret garden, in which I’m totally liberated to be my true self,” said Xiao. “The feeling of being controlled excites me.”

BDSM is a compound acronym that combines “bondage and discipline” (B&D), “dominance and submission” (D&S) and “sadism and masochism” (S&M).

One partner will usually assume the role of the “dominant,” who wields control over his (her) “submissive” partner.

In Ling and Xiao’s relationship, it is Xiao who usually adopts the role of the submissive.

“I get a kind of mental pleasure from being humiliated, tied up, and even punished, such as being spanked on my side or whipped on my back,” he explained.

Ling said that common scenarios in their BDSM role-plays included Roman queen and servant, police officer and prisoner, and dog owner and dog.

Sexual perversion?

In China, numerous headlines for articles related to Fifty Shades of Grey have described BDSM as a form of “sexual perversion,” and some social media users have even questioned whether it is a form of sexual abuse.

Peng Xiaohui, a sexologist at Wuhan-based Central China Normal University, rejected such characterizations outright. He noted that essential to BDSM was the idea of mutual, informed consent.

“Consent in BDSM is crucial,” said Peng.

“The level of stimulation is discussed and agreed upon in advance. Also, there always has to be a unique ‘safe word,’ which is a word or gesture to signify a limit if one of the partners wants to stop.”

Sexual abuse, on the other hand, is “arbitrary and reckless, intended to hurt the victim, and constitutes a criminal offence,” said Peng.

As for BDSM being a form of sexual perversion, Peng said that the term “perversion” has no medical or psychological basis.

Used in medical discourse, the term “perversion” was initially coined by 19th-century Russian physician Heinrich Kaan to impose a Christian, moral dimension on psychological behaviors.

In recent years, a number of studies have also emerged to dispel common misperceptions that those who engage in BDSM are psychologically damaged.

A 2008 article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine titled “Demographic and Psychosocial features of participants in BDSM” found that BDSM practitioners were no more likely to have been coerced, unhappy, anxious or experienced sexual abuse than those who did not engage in BDSM.

The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders also excludes consensual BDSM as a mental disorder, as long as the erotic activities engaged in do not result in harm or distress.

Peng suggested that the reason BDSM had been characterized so negatively in China was a combination of ignorance and prudishness when it came to sex.

“There’s a huge gap in attitudes toward BDSM in China and other countries. Most Chinese even have no basic knowledge about sex, much less alternative sexual practices [like BDSM].”

A survey of members of China’s BDSM community shows that most come from white-collar or creative backgrounds. Photo: IC

Forming ‘special relationships’

Wang Hua (pseudonym), a mid-aged man, moderates a sex-interest and BDSM group on WeChat and runs a sex toy company.

His company also provides consultancy to people who are confused in relationship and sex.

Wang said that based on his years of involvement in BDSM communities, he considered BDSM to be about more than just sexual intercourse. Rather, it should be thought of as a ritual or ceremony, where consenting partners can form private, intimate relationships based on trust and love.

“If we take Fifty Shades Of Grey as an example, people always talk about how ‘perverted’ Christian Grey [the main male character, who practices BDSM] is,” said Wang.

“Most people don’t talk about how he devotes himself to pleasing the girl, how he earns her trust, and the efforts he takes to make her happy.”

Ling and Xiao agreed with Wang’s remarks, noting that their BDSM play was based on furthering their emotional connection with each other, and that more often than not, there was no sexual intercourse during their BDSM sessions.

“I first discovered BDSM in 2010 through a Japanese animation – it was kind of pornographic – but it was also about relationships and love, and about the role of bondage and rules [in intimate relationships],” said Ling.

“My partner and I love each other, and when we’re not engaging in BDSM activities, we also have a normal relationship and a normal sex life, and I can be timid and he can be dominant.”

“We respect each other and know how to fulfill each other’s needs,” Xiao added.

“It’s a special relationship, which is more interesting than marriage.”

Speaking about the origins of BDSM, Peng said it was unclear when it emerged as a common sexual practice or when it started to be practiced in China, but he suggested that there was evidence that rituals of domination which involve a degree of pain in achieving sexual pleasure have been around “from the beginning of mankind.”

Growing acceptance

Because of the social stigma that can be attached to BDSM, many who practice BDSM choose to keep their pastime hidden.

In private studies and surveys conducted around the world however, a large number of people have confessed to having interest or participating in BDSM.

A global survey conducted in 2005 by condom manufacturer Durex showed around 20 percent of 317,000 people had used bondage utilities in their sex life at least once, and 5 percent of the respondents explicitly identified themselves as practicing BDSM activities.

Based on private testimony and market data, interest in BDSM in China has also grown considerably in recent years.

A search for “SM,” a common shortening of BDSM in China, yields more than 386,000 results on taobao.com, China’s largest online retail platform. Wang said that this was roughly double the number of BDSM tagged products that were on the website a year ago, and that demand for BDSM-related products from his own company had also been on the rise.

“I think that these days, more people are curious about BDSM,” said Ling.

Around three years ago, when I first joined the online BDSM interest group that I’m part of, there were hardly any others. [But now] there are a lot of BDSM interest groups on social media platforms like WeChat and Sina Weibo.”

Wang said based on an online survey conducted of 802 people in the BDSM community, most people with an interest in BDSM worked in the white-collar and creative sectors, including IT workers, journalists, artists, doctors and nurses, directors, writers, civil servants and accountants.

“Most of them are well-educated and have good jobs. They have higher expectations in life.”

Based on his research, Wang said he was positive about the growth of the BDSM subculture in China.

Peng urged tolerance for BDSM.

“Even if the majority does not agree with what a certain minority is doing, as long as it does not hurt the society as a whole or impinge on other’s freedom, it should not be restricted,” said Peng.

“I hope people in China will be more tolerant of alternative sexual practices like BDSM.”