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


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.

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  1. At least until DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association 2000) sexual sadism and masochism are categorised as mental conditions. By reading the last edition of the Manual, DSM 5, it appears that sadism and masochism have been excluded from this list when not accompanied by distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning (American Psychiatric Association 2013).

  2. It would be more precise to speak about subcultures (plural) instead of a singular subculture, in the opinion of Langdridge and Butt: “There is no homogeneous S&M culture, but a heterogeneity that becomes increasingly apparent as sexual stories elaborate and proliferate in the late modern world” (Langdridge and Butt, 2005). Fine and Kleinman (1979) in fact, underline that subcultures are not internally homogeneous. Langdridge and Butt underline, though, the relation between an internal heterogeneity and the importance of personal narratives (especially coming out narratives), which are pointed out in detail by Plummer (1995).

  3. Nevertheless, in 2011 the journal “Deviant Behavior” featured an article focused on BDSM practices.

  4. The term BDSM is quite recent. Its origin has been traced by Dalzell and Victor (Dalzell and Victor 2008; Dalzell 2009) back to the beginning of the 1990s in the United States. I do not have further details about the occasion in which it has been used.

  5. To reconstruct the history of the development of the Italian BDSM scene I have to account for the problem of sources, since academic research on the topic does not really exist—except two small cases, a theoretical paper (Landi 2011) and a small piece of online empirical research by Faccio et al. (2014)—and there are few eye witnesses of the early days. I had to rely on key informants and on the memory of long-time members of the scene. Hence, the information collected could be fragmentary, incomplete and locally-focused.

  6. Among the most cited erotic comics there are Isabella, Biancaneve, Zora la Vampira, Lando, Sukia, L’Uomo Supposta, Vartan and Satanik (Brumatti 2011; Malcolm, male, submissive, 2013; Sybil, female, mistress, 2014). Note: when names, and not surnames, are indicated as references between parenthesis and followed by gender, BDSM role, and year, they refer to research participants interviewed for the research (e.g. Garrett, male, switch, 2013).

  7. Among them, I Moderni, SM and Club (Brumatti 2011; Malcolm, male, submissive, 2013). The first BDSM elements represented by pictures were models wearing latex and involved in rope bondage sessions (Malcolm 2013).

  8. Poste restante is a service where the post office holds mail until the recipient calls for it.

  9. Some ads were hosted on the still existing magazine Secondamano, dedicated to buying and selling used items or hosting job announcements (Malcolm, male, submissive, 2013).

  10. Periodical happy hours, or munches, were held at Trezzo sull’Adda and Mortara, the area of Porta Romana and Porta Genova in Milan (Lombardia), Mestre (Veneto), and Bologna (Emilia-Romagna) (David, male, submissive, 2013; Malcolm, male, submissive, 2013). Since the 2000 s, the "Kinky Pop”, born in 2013, and the older “First Fridays” have been the most famous munches in Milan.

  11. Some happy hours, such as “La Chattina”, “Legami” and “Fetlife”, were born around the online communities of some BDSM-themed social media (Peter, male, switch, 2013; Quianna, female, dominant sadist, 2014).

  12. Names, and not surnames, indicated as references between parenthesis and followed by gender, BDSM role, and year refer to BDSM practitioner interviewed for the research (e.g. Garrett, male, switch, 2013).

  13. A famous periodical ‘femdom’ play party held in Milan was “Il Piedistallo”, named probably after the famous Club Pedestal in London; other series of femdom play parties were organised by the community of Femdom Italia and by specific mistresses, like the “Bacaro Sadico” party. Some unique events, never repeated, have been organised in Milan, like the “Secret Fetish Party” and “Revolution” (Red, male, master, 2014). A few bars, near the crowded Navigli neighbourhood in the city centre, organised BDSM events; some of the performances there attracted several people into the club, dragged from the surrounding streets, including curious non-BDSM practitioners. Furthermore, in Milan some discotheques organised and organise BDSM-themed events, such as the fetish night at the “Hollywood”, the one at the “Depot” or at the “Black Hole”. Other discotheques hosted specific events, such as corset fashion shows. “Feetaly” was a fetish community centred around the foot fetish which existed during the first 2000s and has now disappeared. Nowadays, several BDSM play parties are held in Milan, like “Sadistique”, “L’Ultimo Lunedì”, “Makabra”; other are in central Italy, like the one organised at the “Tref Point" (Emilia-Romagna) (Malcolm, male, missive, 2013; Maud, female, mistress, 2013; Red, male, master, 2014; Sybil, female, mistress, 2014). The website Sadicamente,, recently started to list the BDSM parties and events taking place in Italy; in addition, a search engine for locating BDSM parties and events is available through the social network Fetlife,

  14. Fetlife is the “BDSM and fetish community for kinksters by kinksters”, a social network widely used by BDSM practitioners. Before that, some mailing lists were present in the first 2000s with the aim of discussing BDSM issues and meeting new partners (Garrett, male, switch, 2013).

  15. I am using the word ‘dominant’ as a synonym for master, mistress, and top, and ‘submissive’ as a synonym for slave and bottom. I am aware that I am not considering the shades and the differences among the terms, which nevertheless vary among communities and countries. For the sake of this article, I will be using dominant and submissive as all-encompassing terms.

  16. Shibari is like what is labelled ‘rope bondage’, being physically tied by ropes, yet with a strong focus on the relationship between the two players as mediated by ropes.

  17. Not all the BDSM practitioners interviewed and/or involved in the research have been represented.

  18. I am obviously omitting his name because in this context is not relevant.

  19. Here, I am drawing a comparison between BDSM and the disclosure of one’s non-heterosexual sexual orientation. I refer in particular to Troiden, who stated the many reasons that could prevent a person to come out in a work environment (Troiden, 1989). One of them is to have a highly-qualified job, which after a coming out could either be lost or endangered.


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Correspondence to Laura Zambelli.

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



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Table 1 Research participants named in the article

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Zambelli, L. Subcultures, Narratives and Identification: An Empirical Study of BDSM (Bondage, Domination and Submission, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) Practices in Italy. Sexuality & Culture 21, 471–492 (2017).

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  • BDSM
  • Italy
  • Subculture
  • Bondage
  • Domination
  • Sadomasochism