It turns out that you call it "S and M" only if you don't do it or if you experiment only occasionally with those handcuffs you keep hidden at the back of the nightstand. If, on the other hand, you are seriously involved in the sadomasochistic subculture--if, say, you have attended one or more of the nation's 90 annual sadomasochistic events ("Beat Me in St. Louis," for instance) and own not only handcuffs but also a spanking bench, a flogger, some paraffin wax, an unbreakable Pyrex dildo and various other unmentionables--you call it, simply, SM.
The linguistic distinction between S&M and SM may seem tiny, but the pop-culture, peep-show version of S&M has little to do with the real lives of those who practice SM (which is why sexologists who study sadomasochism have now also adopted the shorter abbreviation). S&M is Madonna in kinky outfits, Anne Rice chapters that run to the louche--even a recent Dannon ad featuring a woman in a French-maid uniform. Such S&M imagery has become so common that our astonishment at Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of leather and pain 20 years ago now seems quaint. Today you can watch Samantha on Sex and the City in virtually the same poses.
But those who practice sadomasochism--including those halting dabblers who tee-hee their way through spankings, hoping to paddle excitement into their marriage--know it's still taboo. (After all, if it weren't, it would lose its power to excite.) To reconcile the icons with the actual practice, I spent several weeks recently talking to SM practitioners around the U.S.--in New York City and San Francisco, yes, but also in North Carolina and New Mexico. Whether they were nervous novices or experienced dungeon masters leading some of the nation's 250 SM organizations, virtually all of them asked for anonymity. One man said he had lost a job when his boss found directions to a bondage workshop in his office. Others said they would be embarrassed if their families learned of their proclivities. We live in a culture in which sadomasochism is everywhere--from Versace billboards to at least a dozen college campuses where SM support groups have been established--but somehow it remains unseen and unspoken, just beyond the edge of respectability.
Given the silence, measuring SM's popularity is not a precise business, especially since it blurs into the larger category of BDSM, or bondage-discipline-sadomasochism. A 1990 Kinsey Institute report said researchers estimate that 5% to 10% of Americans occasionally engage in SM sex. "The lighter end of BDSM is penetrating bedrooms across America. It's restraint on bedposts, it's spanking, it's fantasy play--and it's all fairly common," says Barnaby Barratt, president-elect of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. In his quarter-century of private practice as a therapist in southeastern Michigan, Barratt says, "hundreds, if not thousands" of married couples have told him they want to bind, paddle or play teacher/pupil with each other.