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Barratt and other therapists say that couples often hope that role playing or nipple clamps or quick-release bondage will rev up their sex lives. "Many people have this as part of reciprocal, consensual love relationships, and in those cases, we assure them it's not a problem," says Eli Coleman, director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota. He also makes the point that "there's an element of domination or submission or pain involved in almost any sexual interaction. What sadomasochism does is take these elements of eroticism further toward their extreme."
Some couples experiment a few times but return to what serious SM-ers call "vanilla" sex. Others become more deeply involved in the SM scene; they use SM props or fantasies every time they have sex. The scene has become so large and varied that it encompasses the rich farrago of coupling practices known as BDSM, which includes not only SM--the erotic enjoyment of inflicting and/or receiving pain--but also BD (bondage/discipline) and DS (domination/submission). BD usually involves physical restraint and a punishment/reward setup (say, Nurse Ratched with a patient). DS relationships are often as emotional as they are carnal. Submissives relish transferring authority over aspects of their lives to others; the submissive might allow the dominant not only to tie her up but even to tell her when she must go to sleep.
A common misperception is that most DS relationships involve dominant women--dominatrices, in the parlance--ordering around submissive men. (As a result, some feminists have come to see BDSM lifestyles as not only transgressive but progressive.) And, indeed, among the many prostitutes who offer BDSM services, more are dominant than submissive, says Dr. Paul Federoff, a University of Ottawa psychiatrist who has studied sadomasochists. "You also might see a lot of dominant women at a BDSM nightclub," he says, but "although it's not the politically correct answer, more women in the scene are choosing the submissive role." In a study Federoff co-authored last year, he found that among 1,320 self-identified BDSM practitioners who anonymously completed a Web survey, 79% of women reported being "always or usually submissive"; only 35% of men did.
In one sense, then, "Doc" and "Surri" aren't so unusual. Married in July, they live in Clayton, N.C., in a just renovated home that--when I visited in November--had been overtaken by Christmas decorations. ("I'm a Christmas freak," says Surri.) She is Doc's wife, but she also thinks of herself as his "slave," and although she sometimes says the word just like that--using her fingers to create quotation marks in the air--their master/slave arrangement directs almost every aspect of their lives. Doc tells Surri what she can and can't wear every day, and when the three of us arrived at a steak house for dinner, Doc ordered: "She'll have a white Zinfandel and a glass of water." (Surri did choose the Robert Mondavi over the Sutter Home on her own.)