The crack of a whip is heard across the room, followed by a yelp of pain and a request for more.

Someone is handcuffed to a St. Andrew’s Cross, her bare back facing onlookers. Her dominant, the wielder of the whip, scratches the woman’s back teasingly before expertly flicking the whip for another sharp smack on her skin.

This BDSM (Bondage/Discipline/Dominance/Submission/Sadism/Masochism) scene isn’t happening on a movie screen; this type of scene takes place in various, discreet locations in San Antonio.

BDSM is a subculture that is often misunderstood but is also gaining more mainstream recognition.

Films like “The Secretary,” “Quills,” and “Hellraiser” show various aspects or influences of BDSM, though not always accurately. BDSM is about consensual, legal activities between adults. Most people in the BDSM culture follow the code of Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). The code encompasses awareness regarding risks of activities in play and the limits of all parties involved (such as no fireplay or needleplay).

Today, there are BDSM communities or dungeons in many cities in the country, including San Antonio, but there is a universal value in discretion within all regions. Participants come from all types of backgrounds, and many have a lot to risk if discretion is not respected.

Most local dungeons invoke “Vegas Rules,” (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas), in regards to activities within their walls. Respect and discretion are considered the two most important values in the BDSM lifestyle.

A key figure in both the San Antonio and Austin kink communities, Ambrosio, who uses a pseudonym, comments that there is always a type of “churn” in the community.

“There’s a constant influx and exodus of people in the community. People attend munches and parties, and then I won’t see them again for months, or years, or maybe never again,” Ambrosio said. “Either they find what they want, and they don’t need it anymore; or they don’t find what they want, and they look for it elsewhere.”

A munch, which is a vanilla gathering to discuss BDSM subjects in a non-threatening setting (such as a restaurant), is often the first step to getting involved with the BDSM lifestyle.

In 1996, Ambrosio co-founded a local group in San Antonio that holds a monthly munch for both experienced players and curious newcomers. He also created a website, evilmonk.org, as a resource for the community. On the website, Ambrosio provides links to helpful articles and essays written by experienced players about safety, communication, laws, traditions and many other BDSM-related subjects.

BDSM is not always sexual; sometimes it’s just about the mental and emotional connection to another person or a group of people. Some people see BDSM as an extreme, close-contact sport, where a play partner is no different than a tennis partner. Others choose to live the leather lifestyle, which is built on power exchange (dominant/submissive roles in a relationship).

“BDSM is about play,” Ambrosio said. “Leather is about how you live your life.”

Historically, the leather lifestyle was exclusively a gay male culture dating back to the 1940’s, but there has been a large inflow of heterosexual participants who have embraced it.

Leather is only one sector under the BDSM umbrella. There are many types of play, philosophies, fetishes, identities and beliefs in kink. Along with straight participants, BDSM has a large queer population within the community as well.

Because of how diverse BDSM is by its very nature, it’s always important to remember the widely used acronym, “YKINMK,” or “Your Kink Is Not My Kink.” As long as one’s play is legal and consensual, it’s no one else’s place to judge.

With the rise of the internet, the BDSM scene has become a much larger entity. People are able to communicate with others and find that they are not alone in their desires or kinks. There are a handful of BDSM social networks that connect people to their local scenes. In fact, it has become very easy to find the BDSM culture if one has a genuine interest in it.

What’s one disadvantage of this? “The more mainstream BDSM gets, the less cohesive the subculture becomes,” Ambrosio said. In other words, education is not as valued as Ambrosio feels it should be within the community, mostly because of the vast number of newcomers.

Although many groups have workshops on rope art, flogging techniques and many other kink-related subjects, Ambrosio says it’s not enough.

“There are no workshops for new people to learn about the basics, at least not on a regular basis. Learning the basics, I think, is actually more valuable than learning technique. It has gotten to the point where novices are teaching other novices. Someone who has been in the lifestyle for two weeks should not be allowed to teach someone who has been in the lifestyle for a day.”

Ambrosio also suggests that younger “kinksters” who are barely exploring don’t feel the need to attend functions such as workshops or munches; they prefer to play on their own without learning the ropes first.

“The established groups can offer younger novices greater educational opportunities. I’m afraid that most kinky young people don’t have a healthy concern for learning about safety as kinky people in their 30s. Maybe they don’t believe that they could be hurt or don’t appreciate the risks involved.”

Although there is a strong sense of community in the BDSM culture, one has to stay cautious. There are predators lurking, and although the community polices itself, not all are recognized. Ambrosio recommends that one should not trust someone completely until one really knows that person. “Not even community leaders are always trustworthy and safe,” Ambrosio said.

“Sometimes non-kinky people join our community in search of something they couldn’t find elsewhere,” he adds. “For the men, it’s often easy sex. For the women that I’ve observed, it’s love and protection. If they’re not able to fake the kinky aspects, they will disappoint themselves and the people with whom they become involved. If they can fake the kinky aspects, then they have to live a lie.”

Whether a person chooses the dominant or submissive role, most BDSM community leaders would suggest a lot of research. A person should read and learn for his or herself and not completely depend on someone else’s mentorship.

Ambrosio suggests that mentorship often leads to transference of opinions and bias, though not all share his view.

Through any viewpoint, however, Ambrosio’s advice on the subject rings true: “Just learn your stuff. If you want to be a dominant, learn your stuff. Submissive? Learn your stuff. Never stop learning. I can’t stress the importance of knowledge too much. It is your protection from harming others and
from being harmed yourself.”

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