Sexuality & Culture

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 471–492 | Cite as

Subcultures, Narratives and Identification: An Empirical Study of BDSM (Bondage, Domination and Submission, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) Practices in Italy

  • Laura ZambelliEmail author
Original Paper


I present a subcultural analysis of the Italian Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism (BDSM) community based on recent empirical findings. The research involved over 1 year of participant observation into the BDSM community of Milan and 43 interviews with members or key witnesses. Throughout the article, I explore the heuristic value of the category of subculture in highlighting important features of BDSM groups. Subcultures are intended as formed by: (1) norms, behaviours, narratives, and artefacts that circulate in a group, and (2) a sense of identification, or subcultural participation in a community. I then present four ideal types of BDSM practitioners based on the degrees of subcultural identification with the group and of display of BDSM-identification throughout practitioners’ everyday life. Some empirical examples are provided. In addition, I describe the formation of the BDSM subculture in Italy in the last 40 years as recollected by long-term members and key witnesses. Besides, I discuss its most recent developments. A subcultural analysis of BDSM groups allows the identification of group elements like power structures and shifting roles, and the different degrees of emotional and cultural involvement of social actors in the group.


BDSM Italy Subculture Bondage Domination Sadomasochism 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


  1. Alison, L., Santtila, P., Sandnabba, N. K., & Nordling, N. (2001). Sadomasochistically oriented behavior: Diversity in practice and meaning. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 30(1), 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bennett, A. (1999). Subcultures or neo-tribes? Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste. Sociology, 33(3), 599–617.Google Scholar
  5. Breslow, N., Evans, L., & Langley, J. (1985). On the prevalence and roles of females in the sadomasochistic subculture: Report of an empirical study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14(4), 303–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brumatti, F. (2011). 30 ANNI DI STORIA BDSM in Italia (1980–2010). Retrieved from
  7. Dalzell, T. (2009). The Routledge dictionary of modern American slang and unconventional English. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. Dalzell, T., & Victor, T. (2008). The concise new Partridge dictionary of slang and unconventional English. London, New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Dean, T. (2009). Unlimited intimacy. Reflections on the subculture of barebacking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dymock, A. (2014). Towards a consent culture: An interview with Kitty Stryker. Journal of the International Network for Sexual Ethics & Politics, 2(1), 75–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Faccio, E., Casini, C., & Cipolletta, S. (2014). Forbidden games: The construction of sexuality and sexual pleasure by BDSM ‘players’. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16(7), 752–764.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fine, G. A., & Kleinman, S. (1979). Rethinking subculture: An interactionist analysis. American Journal of Sociology, 85(1), 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gelder, K. (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. London, New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Hodkinson, P. (2002). Goth: Identity, style, and subculture. Oxford, New York: Berg.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Krueger, R. (2010a). The DSM diagnostic criteria for sexual masochism. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(2), 346–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Krueger, R. (2010b). The DSM diagnostic criteria for sexual sadism. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(2), 325–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Landi, N. (2011). BDSM. Ars erotica tra dolore e piacere. Rivista Di Sessuologia, 35(4), 261–267.Google Scholar
  18. Langdridge, D., & Barker, M. (2007). Safe, sane, and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  19. Langdridge, D., & Butt, T. (2005). The erotic construction of power exchange. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 18(1), 65–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Maffesoli, M. (1988). Le temp des Tribus: le déclin de líndividualisme dans les sociétés de masse. Paris: Klincksieck.Google Scholar
  21. Magaudda, P. (2009). Ridiscutere le sottoculture. Resistenza simbolica, postmodernismo e disuguaglianze sociali. Studi Culturali, 6(2), 301–314.Google Scholar
  22. Mains, G. (1984). Urban aboriginals: A celebration of leathersexuality. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine.Google Scholar
  23. Moser, C., & Levitt, E. E. (1987). An exploratory-descriptive study of a sadomasochistically oriented sample. Journal of Sex Research, 23(3), 322–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Newmahr, S. (2010a). Power struggles: Pain and authenticity in SM play. Symbolic Interaction, 33(3), 389–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Newmahr, S. (2010b). Rethinking kink: Sadomasochism as serious leisure. Qualitative Sociology, 33(3), 313–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Newmahr, S. (2011). Playing on the edge Sadomasochism, risk, and intimacy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Plummer, K. (1995). Telling sexual stories: Power, change, and social worlds. London, New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Redhead, S. (1993). Rave off: Politics and deviance in contemporary youth culture. Brookfield, VT: Avebury.Google Scholar
  29. Ritchie, A., & Barker, M. (2005). Feminist SM: A contradiction in terms or a way of challenging traditional gendered dynamics through sexual practice? Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review, 6(3), 227–239.Google Scholar
  30. Sandnabba, N. K., Santtila, P., & Nordling, N. (1999). Sexual behavior and social adaptation among sadomasochistically-oriented males. Journal of Sex Research, 36(3), 273–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Santoro, M., & Sassatelli, R. (2008). Lavoro simbolico e immaginazione etnografica. Intervista a Paul Willis. Studi Culturali, 2, 241–272.Google Scholar
  32. Santoro, M., & Sassatelli, R. (2009). Introduzione. In M. Santoro & R. Sassatelli (Eds.), Studiare la cultura. Nuove prospettive sociologiche (pp. 9–54). Bologna: Il Mulino.Google Scholar
  33. Sisson, K. (2005). The cultural formation of S/M: History and analysis. Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review, 6(3), 147–162.Google Scholar
  34. Spengler, A. (1977). Manifest sadomasochism of males: Results of an empirical study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 6(6), 441–456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Stein, D. (2002). ‘Safe Sane Consensual’. The making of a Shibboleth. VASM scene (The newsletter of vancouver activists), September/October, pp. 1–8.Google Scholar
  36. Switch, G. (2001, May). Origin of RACK: RACK vs. SSC. Prometheus #37. New York: The Eulenspiegel Society (TES).
  37. Troiden, R. (1989). The formation of homosexual identities. Journal of Homosexuality, 17(1–2), 43–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. von Krafft-Ebing, R. (1886). Psychopathia sexualis. Eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie. Stuttgart: Verlag von Ferdinand Enke.Google Scholar
  39. Watters, E. (2003). Urban tribes: A generation redefines friendship, family, and commitment. New York: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  40. Weiss, M. D. (2011). Techniques of pleasure: BDSM and the circuits of sexuality. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Zambelli, L. (2016). Feminism and BDSM: Empirical findings and theoretical debates in US, UK and Italy. INSEPJournal of the International Network for Sexual Ethics & Politics (forthcoming).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Social ResearchUniversity of Milano-BicoccaMilanItaly

Personalised recommendations