I find that generally there is blurry understanding of BDSM. Lots of people seem to confuse fetish with BDSM, and a surprisingly large number of people seem to think that BDSM is about sex. Neither of these associations is a good idea because they both obscure what BDSM is really about.
Let me first clarify things about fetish. A fetish is something that serves to stimulate sexual desire, but to be a fetish it needs to be something which doesn't normally or commonly stimulate people in that way. That means that fetish involves objects, or materials, or non-sexual parts of the body. Rubber or stockings are common fetish materials, and feet are common fetish parts of the body. They are a fetish when they make someone feel sexually aroused.
There's a very important element to this definition, and that is that fetish doesn't need to involve anyone else. When it does, that person frequently serves as an object rather than as a full human individual. With BDSM we almost always have a second individual involved---such as the person tying the knots, the person cutting the flesh, or the person wielding the cane. Thus an important part of understanding BDSM is the understanding of the relationship between the people concerned.
BDSM differs from fetish in two important ways:
- It involves a second person,
- It doesn't always involve sex. In fact, for many people it rarely or never involves sex.
I'd like to examine this second claim for a moment---i.e., that BDSM doesn't involve sex.
It's true that there are many in the fluffy handcuff brigade who use BDSM---such as light bondage or flogging---as a sex aid. But there are also many "hard-core" BDSM folk for whom their BDSM activities are the goal, rather than being merely a warm-up for some rumpy-pumpy.
For example, a couple into cutting---where one cuts designs into the other's flesh with a scalpel and without the aid of anaesthetic---are not going to engage in a long session of carving designs into flesh and then suddenly whip off their clothes and get at it. It's often pain that's important here and despite what some people might like you to think, it is actually agony and it doesn't make you horny.
In a similar way, a couple into heavy impact play---such as flogging or whipping---are not going to have a long session where the top puts in every bit of energy he has to hammer his partner with every implement at his disposal and then, sweat dripping off him and barely able to stand any more, leap vigorously onto his partner (who is feeling similarly exhausted) and have energetic sex. No. More likely they will both curl up somewhere and either rest or fall asleep.
Finally, a couple into suspension bondage are not going to construct some amazing rope bondage and then winch one partner into the air followed by the one remaining on the ground stripping off his clothes and leaping into the air with an erection hoping to fortuitously (and briefly) enter his partner satisfyingly before falling back to the ground.
The important thing about BDSM has to do with the fact that it involves two people. It involves one person doing something to another person, and that second person surrendering to the experience. It is a form of penetration. Not sexual penetration, but having one person intensely feel what their partner is doing to them. It's about that first person (who we might call a top, dominant, or master) having a deep and powerful effect on their partner (who we might call a bottom, submissive, or slave).
While there might be some actual physical penetration (such as with piercing or cutting), there also might not be physical penetration (such as with mummification or flogging). There will, however, always be a that one person creating or causing a powerful sensation, feeling, or reaction in their partner.
This is BDSM, and this is one way you can tell the difference between BDSM and fetish, or between BDSM and other types of relationships.