Jaw-Dropping Truths About History’s Most venereal Practices

Jaw-Dropping Truths About History’s Most venereal Practices

Trista - January 9, 2019

While the term BDSM, an acronym that combines abbreviations for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism, and masochism, is believed to have only been in widespread use since 1991, the erotic practices involved date back for centuries. Whipping for pleasure, in particular, has been practiced in numerous cultures through the ages including the ancient Spartans, medieval Christians, and the 18th century British. Other erotic practices associated with BDSM have spanned the generations from the writing of the Kama Sutra to modern leather daddies in the LGBTQIA+ community. BDSM practices have often been shamed, and even pathologized by the mental health community, yet that is rapidly changing, and now BDSM practices are displayed annually at public street fairs.


15. A Street Festival Dedicated to BDSM Practices began in the 1980s

The Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, California is a celebration of all things BDSM and leather. The festival, which takes place in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood of San Francisco draws over 400,000 visitors annually. The fair includes public displays of many BDSM practices with a heavy emphasis on leather and rubber fetishists. It also includes a wide range of BDSM public displays including intricate bondage and public punishment.

The festival began in 1984 and was, in its first year, a protest against the attempted gentrification of the SoMa neighborhood which had become home to a large population of gay men. San Francisco was an accessible home for gay men due to being a popular port destination for men giving “blue” or gay conduct discharges from the military. A public profile of the gay scene in Time Magazine in 1964 attracted even more gay men to the city.

Throughout the 1980s, the Folsom Street Fair served as a fundraiser and public awareness tool for the AIDS epidemic ravaging San Francisco’s gay community. The gay leather community stepped to the forefront in the late 1980s as the city attempted to shut down bathhouses and gay clubs out of concern for public health. The leather and kink communities continued to become more of a focus throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, which led to the feel and center of the current street fair.

14. The Spartans Loved Whips

The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta was quite kinky, even by today’s standards. Their army engaged in widespread gay practices with military leaders also encouraging this behavior in the belief that strong erotic bonds between soldiers would make for a more exceptional fighting force. Spartan women held a level of freedom and high rank that was unheard of in other cultures at the time. Polyamory was common and likely even encouraged for Spartan women, especially those who had born strong children in the past.

In addition to their surprisingly progressive views of intimacy, the Spartans also were rather fond of whipping. Plutarch wrote about Spartan whipping competitions, saying,

“The boys in Sparta were lashed with whips during the entire day at the altar of Artemis Orthia, frequently to the point of death, and they bravely endured this, cheerful and proud, vying with one another for the supremacy as to which one of them could endure being beaten for the longer time and the greater number of blows. And the one who was victorious was held in especial repute.”

It is not clear if these whipping competitions were erotic for those involved. However, given the institutional pederasty within the agoge school of training for male Spartan youths, it seems entirely plausible that there may have been an erotic component to the contests.

Jaw-Dropping Truths About History’s Most venereal Practices
An illustration of the Marquis de Sade. Wikimedia.

13. The Author Marquis de Sade Discussed Sadism

The Marquis de Sade, born Donatien Alphonse François, was an 18th-century French author, politician and notorious libertine. He became famous both for his scandalous writings and his numerous cases of misconduct against countless people ranging from children to his employees. His most famous work is The 120 Days of Sodom, a collection of stories written in 1785 that depict increasingly cruel and violent orgies at an isolated castle. The work is incredibly controversial and is still banned by many governments, and the original has rarely been translated into other languages due to the incredibly explicit content.

The violence and cruelty prevalent in both de Sade’s work and personal life gave rise to the term sadism, which is defined as gaining gratification from inflicting pain or cruelty on someone else. It is the opposite of masochism, which is the gratification gained from being harmed by someone else. Sadism is a prevalent theme in de Sade’s work, much of which involves sexual violence and cruelty, often including murder as the ultimate act of pleasure.

In the early 19th century, de Sade was arrested at Napoleon Bonaparte’s command due to the salacious nature of his writings and the complaints lodged against him by countless victims of his real-life predations. He spent the rest of his life in various prisons and asylums, but continued to write and used various agents to sneak his manuscripts out for publishing.

12. Ancient Greek Legends Feature Bondage

The ancient Greek story of Andromeda’s rescue by Perseus is believed to be one of the first to depict bondage. In the legend, the Greek queen Cassiopeia of Joppa, after whom a constellation is named, bragged so widely about her daughter’s incredible beauty that she offended sea nymphs who reported her braggadocio to Poseidon himself.

Cassiopeia similarly angered Poseidon, so he sent a sea monster to destroy Joppa. An oracle, ancient Greek religious fortune tellers, told the King of Joppa, Cepheus, that the only way to stop the sea monster was to sacrifice his daughter to it. She was presented as a sacrifice chained tightly to a rock, one of the first depictions of bondage in a legend. The legendary hero Perseus found Andromeda fastened and fell in love with her. He killed the sea monster and saved her life.

Many artistic interpretations of the scene including Andromeda’s hands bound above her head, in a posture that would be familiar to any visitors to the Folsom Street Fair. Rembrandt, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Gustav Doré, and countless others painted Andromeda with cuffs holding her hands above her head, attached to a cliff or stone face by the ocean.

Jaw-Dropping Truths About History’s Most venereal Practices
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch circa 1890. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

11. Author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch Coined Masochism

Much like the author the Marquis de Sade gave us sadism, another author gave us the term masochism. Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch featured spanking and numerous other forms of physical punishment in his infamous novel Venus in Furs. The book, written in 1869, features a man, Severin von Kusiemski, whose strongest desire in life is to serve as a slave to a woman. This desire to feel pain, humiliation or domination from another person is the hallmark of masochism.

In a famous scene, Kusiemski is physically punished by his mistress and displays classical masochistic behavior by asking for more. The scene goes,

“Did I hurt you?” she asked, half- shyly, half-timidly.
“No,” I replied, “and even if you had, pains that come through you are a joy. Strike again, if it gives you pleasure.”
“But it doesn’t give me pleasure.”
Again I was seized with that strange intoxication. “Whip me,” I begged, “whip me without mercy.”
Wanda swung the whip, and hit me twice. “Are you satisfied now?”
“Seriously, no?”
“Whip me, I beg you, it is a joy to me.”

Unlike the Marquis de Sade, who became notorious for his abuse of countless people in pursuit of sadism, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch only engaged in consensual masochism with a handful of women throughout his life. He also was noted as a humanist and socialist and spent a great deal of energy working to fight antisemitism in Austria.

Jaw-Dropping Truths About History’s Most venereal Practices
An illustration from The Garden of Kama. Wikimedia.

10. The Kama Sutra Has Instructions for Slapping

The Kama Sutra is a famous ancient Hindu text that details desire and healthy marriage practices. The name comes from Kama, which is a broad term for desire, and Sutra which is a term for collections of lessons or rules. While the book contains numerous non-intimate guides to a happy and fulfilling life, it is primarily known in the west as an original manual.

The Kama Sutra contains detailed information on slapping and describes six areas to slap and four ways to hit.

“The place of striking with passion is the body, and on the body the special places are: The shoulders, the head, the space between the breasts, the back, the jaghana, or middle part of the body, the sides…striking is of four kinds: Striking with the back of the hand, striking with the fingers a little contracted, striking with the fist, striking with the open palm of the hand.”

The Kama Sutra also appears to relate dominance to slapping or spanking, as it contains a passage that discusses a woman becoming dominant over a man which reads, “sometimes carried away by passion a woman puts aside her natural temperament and acts the part of the man by slapping and beating him or play fighting with him…she at the height of excitation becomes hard and fearless and dominates…”

9. The Kama Sutra Also Teaches About Biting

In addition to teaching lovers how to slap and spank, the Kama Sutra also contains advice on erotic biting. It poetically describes a full-mouthed bite as the “line of jewels” and instructs such a bite to be used on the throat, armpit or thighs only. The Kama Sutra gives explicit instruction to women on how to bite their male partners, saying she should

“take hold of her lover by the hair, and bend his head down, and kiss his lower lip, and then, being intoxicated with love, she should shut her eyes and bite him in various places… when her lover shows her any mark that she may have inflicted on his body, she should smile at the sight of it, and turning her face as if she were going to chide him, she should show him with an angry look the marks on her own body that have been made by him. Thus if men and women act according to each other’s liking, their love for each other will not be lessened even in one hundred years.”

The emphasis on equality between male and female desire in this passage is indeed unique for the time. While the Kama Sutra does pervasively discuss the feminine nature as a set and given identity, it does treat women with more reverence and equality than most other contemporary writings.

8. Twelfth Century Courtly Love Inspired Erotic Writings

One wouldn’t think to find much eroticism or kink in 12-century courtly writings, but in truth, the groundwork for much later eroticism was laid in this period’s passionate novels. A common theme of medieval romantic writing was the man whose sole desire was the hand of a woman he couldn’t attain. Often it was a woman of higher status or who was already betrothed to another. His undying love and pain at being unable to have her were common aspects of the stories.

The idea of being a slave for love seems to have originated in this period, and it’s easy to see how being a slave for love developed through the ages into literally being a slave as part of a romantic relationship. The idea of pining for someone so strongly it was physically painful was frequently depicted in the 12th-century romances, which also could easily have transformed over time into the romanticism of actual pain.

While the love depicted in all 12-century courtly romantic literature was quite chaste, the theme of debasing or humiliating oneself in the pursuit of transcendental love certainly has an erotic overtone to it. It isn’t hard to see how such writings could have influenced the later development of more verbal humiliation, debasement, and pain in more explicitly erotic novels like de Sade’s 120 days of Sodom or Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs.

7. Fanny Hill Revealed Kinky 18th Century Practices

England’s rather kinky bedroom practices in the 18th century were revealed to the world through Britain’s first pornographic novel Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in 1748. The author, John Cleland, described numerous scenes of kinky eroticism including orgies, spanking, whipping and more. The novel, which follows the exploits of an orphaned bisexual prostitute, contains a descriptive passage which details what is clearly BDSM behavior.

“At last, he twigged me so smartly as to fetch blood in more than one lash: at sight of which he flung down the rod, flew to me, kissed away the starting drops, and sucking the wounds eased a good deal of my pain. But now raising me on my knees, and making me kneel with them straddling wide, that tender part of me, naturally the province of pleasure, not of pain, came in for its share of suffering: for now, eyeing it wistfully, he directed the rod so that the sharp ends of the twigs lighted there, so sensibly, that I could not help wincing, and writhing my limbs with smart; so that my contortions of body must necessarily throw it into infinite variety of postures and points of view, fit to feast the luxury of the eye.

But still I bore every thing without crying out: when presently giving me another pause, he rushed, as it were, on that part whose lips, and round about, had felt this cruelty, and by way of reparation, glued his own to them; then he opened, shut, squeezed them, plucked softly the overgrowing moss, and all this in a style of wild passionate rapture and enthusiasm, that expressed excess of pleasure; till betaking himself to the rod again, encouraged by my passiveness, and infuriated with this strange taste of delight, he made my poor posteriors pay for the ungovernableness of it; for now showing them no quarter, the traitor cut me so, that I wanted but little of fainting away, when he gave over. And yet I did not utter one groan, or angry expostulation; but in my heart I resolved nothing so seriously, as never to expose myself again to the like severities.”

6. Fifteenth Century Monk Enjoyed Vinegar Soaked Whips

Flagellation was a relatively common religious practice among early Christians. Flagellation, along with other forms of self-inflicted pain or discomfort such as hair shirts, was believed to cleanse the body of evil and purify the soul. Such practices were part of the “mortification of the flesh,” a Christian doctrine that revolved around how to put to death the sinful nature of human flesh and its related appetites.

Ironically for a 15th-century monk, flagellation was inseparable from the appetites of his human flesh. Italian author Pico della Mirandola wrote of a monk who could only enjoy this intimate activity if he was whipped to the point of bleeding with a whip that had been soaked in vinegar. This notion is one of the first noted cases of pathological masochism, meaning that the sufferer can only experience satisfaction with pain instead of merely preferring it.

While it is more controversial than in Christianity, some Shia Muslim groups also engage in forms of self-flagellation. On the Day of Ashura, some Shia communities march in honor of the martyring of Imam Hussein and whip or cut themselves as they advance. Self-harm using sharpened blades is banned in Shia Islam by its mujahideen but regardless some followers, especially in India and Pakistan, cut themselves on the back with knives in ritual self-flagellation.

5. Eighteenth Century Brothels Offered Whipping Services

As the power of the Catholic Church began to wane in the eighteenth century, its tight control on self-flagellation as a religious ritual began to slip as well. Flagellation began to enter the secular world, and it was immediately recognized as something that blended pain with pleasure. Arabic doctors in the 18th century wrote about the use of flagellation as an arousing stimulant. This use seemed to be widely recognized in England, where brothels began to incorporate flagellation into their services.

In 1718, Treatise on the use of flogging was published, which detailed the various virtues and methods of punishment or flagellation. This publication led to flogging being dubbed the “vice of the English,” a stereotype which continues to persist to this day through the spanking school marm of English pornography.

Brothels were widespread and extremely popular in 18th-century England. Even the King, George VI, was known to frequent brothels, as did many other men from various social classes. As flagellation became more popular, brothels had to up their game and provide grander flogging services. One brothel reportedly had a machine that could whip up to 40 people at a time. Another madame, Mrs. Berkley, invented a chair that would later be called the Berkley Horse to deliver a flogging.



4. The 1950s Saw the Rise of Gay Leather Culture

In the early 20th century, BDSM culture was being impacted by the invention of new industrial materials such as easy to obtain mass-produced leather, rubber, and polyester. In the 1930s, metal and leather began to be incorporated into both costumes and personal tools used by both heterosexuals and gay. With the rise of new “wetlook” fabrics, rubber and latex fetishism developed.

In the 1950s, highly masculine biker and greaser cultures were prevalent in the United States. The gay male community began to adopt elements and symbols of that culture. By taking stereotypically masculine cultural factors, gay men were challenging the status quo assumptions about gay men being effeminate and submissive. An icon of this era was Tom of Finland, a muscle-bound gay man often depicted in leather police or military attire. Tom of Finland was created by famed Finnish erotic illustrator Touko Valio Laaksonen.

The 1950s leather culture had a substantial impact on the broader BDSM culture alongside pinup icons like Bettie Page who was frequently photographed with bondage accessories. Gothic and bondage-adjacent icons like Vampira also helped to develop the culture. In the latter half of the 20th century, leather was an unavoidable fixture of the BDSM community and is omnipresent at BDSM community events like the Folsom Street Fair. It also remains a fixture of the gay male scene, especially among niche kinks like leather daddies.

Jaw-Dropping Truths About History’s Most venereal Practices
A plague fragment from a temple of Inanna. Wikimedia.

3. A Mesopotamian Goddess Was Worshipped With Domination Rituals

One of humanity’s earliest civilizations had a goddess whose priests engaged in domination rituals to appease here. In Sumer, the earliest Mesopotamian civilization in what is now Iraq, the goddess Inanna ruled over love, sensuality, fertility, procreation, and war. Through the ages, she became known as the Assyrian goddess Ishtar and the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

Through many Akkadian writings, Inanna is always portrayed as a beautiful young woman, but interestingly never as married, faithful or a mother. She is pictured in The Epic of Gilgamesh as a promiscuous and spiteful young woman. Inanna was afforded a reverence for her bold confidence and independent, often even reckless behavior that would be unheard of in later religions, especially the Abrahamic faiths.

Her temples in Mesopotamia were thought to be primarily staffed by prostitutes who served as her priests and priestesses. Her sacred prostitutes were considered to promote fertility and the procreation of the people. At least some of their rituals involved domination. She was a famous and influential god in the Sumerian pantheon. It wasn’t until the reign of Hammurabi, which saw a drastic decline in the rights and power of women that Inanna fell out of favor.

Jaw-Dropping Truths About History’s Most venereal Practices
The Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom. Wikimedia.

2. Spanking and Flogging Were Considered a Uniquely British Vice

The slightly wild Treatise on using flogging was published, in English, in 1718. The revolutionarily saucy manuscript quickly led to flogging and spanking being dubbed a uniquely English vice. This reputation was fanned into a flame throughout the rest of the century as brothels, a trendy place to visit in 18th century England, began to implement flogging services into their offerings.

One brothel proprietor, a Mrs. Berkley, invented the Berkley Horse – a chair designed explicitly for recipients of floggings. Her brothel catered exclusively to upper crust wealthy patrons. Given King George VI’s propensity for visiting brothels, perhaps he even received a whipping a time or two at her luxurious Charlotte Street location. In addition to her patented chair, she also kept many whipping devices including soaked birch rods, nettles, leather straps, and holly brushes.

The idea that spanking and flogging are uniquely British continues to a lesser extent today, with the prevalence of the spanking schoolmarm stereotype in pornography. Despite the stereotype, there are 18th-century Germanic writings depicting floggings and Arabic doctors of the same century wrote of flagellation being used for arousal. While the British may have most profusely sung its praises, it’s clearly other cultures also enjoyed a good spank.

Jaw-Dropping Truths About History’s Most venereal Practices
The cover of the DSM-5. Psychiatry.org.

1. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) Previously Listed BDSM as Deviant Behavior

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the diagnostical manuals of the American Psychiatric Association, have a somewhat checkered history when it comes to its representation of intimate relations. The DSM categorized homosexuality as a pathological behavior until its 1973 edition. It also listed BDSM practices as deviant behavior until the DSM 5, which was published in 2013.

The core of the controversy centers around the idea of paraphilias. Paraphilias are defined as attraction to unusual objects, people, or situations. A foot fetish, for example, could be considered a harmless paraphilia. Ephebophilia, or the appeal to teenagers, on the other hand, is regarded as a harmful paraphilia if acted. Homosexuality and BDSM practices were both listed as paraphilias in the manual for many years.

The difficulty with such definitions is that the US legal system often relies on the DSM in court proceedings. The description of homosexuality as a harmful paraphilia was used to lock up gay men and women in mental health units for years. The status of BDSM practices as harmful paraphilias was similarly used in court cases and would often impact how therapists treated patients who engaged in BDSM practices. Thankfully, the most recent version of the DSM distinguishes between paraphilias, which are harmless, and paraphilic disorders which cause distress or harm to oneself or others.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Where Did BDSM Come From?” Melissa Sartore, Ranker. n.d.

“Behind the Harness: The Extraordinary History of the Folsom Street Fair” San Francisco Travel staff. June 2018.

“Inanna” Joshua J. Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia. October 2010.

“So, are you a pervert?” Martin Robbins, Vice. November 2014.

Story, Neil R. London: Crime, Death & Debauchery. London: The History Press, 2007.