BDSM may seem like a relatively new phenomenon. The term was only coined in 1969 as part of an essay by Kinsey collaborator Paul Gebhard titled "Fetishism and Sadomasochism." Yet traces of such kinky behavior stretch much further back in time. Many ancient cultures depicted sexual acts with submissive or sadomasochistic elements. Even the very first civilization inscribed tales that alluded to BDSM! Let’s dig deeper into the archaeological finds and ancient records that suggest history is a lot steamier than you realized.

The Mesopotamian Goddess Who Dominated All With Her Whip

Mesopotamia, located in and around modern-day Iraq, was humanity’s first advanced civilization. Dating back over 12,000 years, it was where cities, writing and the wheel were invented. Some of the very first stories ever put into writing involve sexual acts of dominance and submission, mainly concerning a powerful goddess named Inanna.

Anne Nomis, author of "The History & Arts of the Dominatrix," describes cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia depicting ritual fetishization in worship of Inanna (also called Ishtar), the region’s main female deity. Goddess of passion, fertility and warfare, many myths involve her triumphantly invading the domains of other deities. Inanna worshiped her own vagina. She forced men to bow to her in submission. She whipped her subjects as they danced for her, enticing them into sexual frenzies. One hymn about Inanna mentions acts like cross dressing, altered states of consciousness, and rituals "imbued with pain and ecstasy.”

I was introduced to this myth during a live kinbaku performance - a woman dressed as Innana was tied up by a rigger dressed as Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld and Inanna’s older sister. This just goes to show stories that enthralled ancient peoples still titillate us today.

Flagellation and Flogging Abounded in Ancient Greece and Rome

We tend to think of ancient Greece and Rome as major sources of modern Western philosophy, politics, science and art. But BDSM? Turns out it was everywhere ... if you know where to look.

In her book, Anne Nomis mentions ritual flagellation in ancient Greece. During the ninth century, a religious cult in Sparta dedicated to the goddess Artemis Orthia used whipping as an initiation rite. Priestesses would oversee the flagellation of young men. The cult was very religious, so we can’t say for certain they enjoyed it, but it sounds fun!

More sexually explicit imagery is on display in Italy’s "Tomb of The Floggings." Built around the fifth century BCE, the tomb is believed to be dedicated to Dionysus, a god associated with debauchery. A wall painting inside depicts a woman getting whipped by two men during an erotic tryst.

In Pompeii, wall frescos inside the sexy-sounding “Villa of Mysteries” show a winged woman or “Whipstress.” Supposedly, this angelic figure initiated women into the secret cult of “Mysteries” through techniques like bondage and flagellation.

All this suggests whipping was more than just an act of punishment, but a sacred or even sexual act in these ancient times.

The Indian Kama Sutra Was about a Lot More Than Weird Sex Positions

Here’s one you’ve likely heard of - the infamous Kama Sutra, one of the oldest books about sex and how to have it. Written in Sanskrit sometime between 400 BCE and 300 CE, the Kama Sutra continues to captivate today. Yet, there’s a lot you may not know about it.

The Kama Sutra is an overarching guide to existence and happiness, much of which is related to sexuality and eroticism. The text is made up of philosophical ideas about life and love detailed using poetry and prose. It includes advice about flirting, relationships (gay and straight), power dynamics in marriage and, of course, lots of sex positions.

There are also sections thoughtfully explaining how to partake in what we would call BDSM. Sexual bites, scratches, slaps and screams are all mentioned. There’s a chapter called "Types of Scratching with the Nails" and another on consensual erotic slapping. The latter features four types of hitting permissible during lovemaking, but cautions these should only be used on people who find such activities “joyful.”

These allusions to impact play and consent make the Kama Sutra the oldest known guide to ethically incorporating torture into sex. It’s also the first known text to distinguish between people who enjoy pain and those who don’t.

Japan Created an Entire Martial Art Centered Around Bondage & Humiliation

Japan was largely isolated from much of the rest of the world until the mid-1800s. As a consequence, one of the things it missed out on was metalworking. This led to the creation of an incredibly creative martial art called hojojitsu sometime in the 1500s. Hojojitsu was the art of rope restraint. When capturing or punishing criminals, samurai or other law enforcement would bind prisoners using elaborate rope configurations and secret knots in order to prevent escape.

These bonds were about more than just restraint, however. A lot of consideration also went into the aesthetics of hojojitsu. A major tenet of the practice declared that in addition to restricting movement, the ties must be pleasing to the eye. This led to many innovative arrangements that remained guarded secretly by individual clans.

Prisoners were often publicly humiliated by being paraded around while bound. I’m sure those of you whose pulse increased while reading this have already realized hojojitsu is the precursor to shibariorkinbaku, Japanese erotic rope bondage. Today, bondage is also used to humiliate (except now with consent) as well as arouse.

While rope bondage wasn’t sexualized in Japan until the early 20th century, current practices continue to take inspiration from ancient hojojitsu ties. So, while the art of hojojitsu sadly faded away (Japan was eventually introduced to handcuffs), the art lives on in a new form.

Humanity’s interest in non-normative sexual practices and the erotic exchange of power dynamics extends as far back in time as we can trace. The next time some naysayer tells you kinky people are nothing but freaks, you can point out that BDSM has actually been cool since the advent of writing itself. The rest is history.