Fit to be Tied: Symbols

By Kalitena BDSM, like any subculture, has its own symbols. These may allow members to recognize each other without drawing the attention of the vanilla, or non-BDSM, world. They...
By Kalitena

BDSM, like any subculture, has its own symbols. These may allow members to recognize each other without drawing the attention of the vanilla, or non-BDSM, world. They may indicate a person’s preference or status within the community. Not every group uses them, and, as with any large and diverse group, not everyone defines them in the same way, but for those who recognize them, they are a quick and subtle means of communication.

The BDSMblem ( originated in the 1990s with members of an AOL online board dedicated to BDSM who wanted a way to recognize others without outing themselves to the public at large. Steve Quagmyr volunteered to head the creation of a symbol for the purpose. He set out three guidelines: The symbol had to be something that wasn’t going to be co-opted by other alternative groups, it had to be subtle enough not to draw attention to itself outside the community, and it had be easily recognizable. What they eventually decided on was loosely based on the triskele symbol described by Pauline Reage in The Story of O, a French erotic novel that became a classic piece of BDSM literature, but different enough to retain its own meaning and origin story. Because it also bears resemblance to other triskele-based symbols, the BDSMblem was created with specific details that should always be included in the design. The rims and spokes must be metallic or a color that represents metal, and they must be the same width, rotating clockwise. The inner field must be black, and the holes in it must actually be holes, not dots. The three inner fields represent B&D, D&S, and S&M; Safe, Sane, and Consensual; and Tops, Bottoms, and Switches. The holes stand for the connection required by BDSM, the incompleteness of an individual within BDSM without their corresponding dynamic. The circle itself represents community.

There are three variations which Quagmyr acknowledges, two of which have particular meanings. One, with its green, yellow, and red inner fields, represents the Safe, Sane, and Consensual mantra of BDSM, the other is rainbow-backed and represents queer BDSM specifically.

The Leather Pride flag ( has ties to the gay community as well as to BDSM. It was designed in 1989, and while its use has spread to the wider subculture it is still most commonly displayed by a high-protocol S&M subset that grew out of gay biker culture in the 1940s. Other flags based on it include the Puppy Pride flag, the Pony Pride flag, the BDSM Rights flag, the Master/slave and Dom/sub flag, and the BDSM Emblem flag.

Recently, a set of symbols denoting Dominant or submissive preference has been gaining some attention. In this set, a shield outline denotes a Dominant, with an arrow or a cross inside showing the gender, and a circle or open square signifies a submissive, with the former meaning a collared or owned sub and the latter meaning the submissive is single. It is worth noting, however, that these symbols came out of the Ownership and Possession subculture, which is a form of  the 24/7 lifestyle in which submissives are possessions and the goal is to ingrain submission to the point that submissives become slaves. This may be something to consider before wearing the symbols, or any others. If you don’t know what something means, check it out. It’s unlikely that wearing an unknown symbol will be anything worse than embarrassing, but if you don’t want to give someone the wrong idea about who you are or what you support, it’s a good idea to do a little reading.