Someone said to me recently, "I kinda understand BDSM stuff when there's sex involved. You tie a girl up, or she spanks you, or whatever, and then you fuck. That's cool, if you like that. But I've seen people doing BDSM without sex, and I don't get that. What's the point?"
I'm not surprised he's puzzled—even if you ask people who are in the BDSM community, opinions vary. My friend Greg put it to me thus: "Doing a scene without sex is like going to the movies, but leaving after the previews are over." But other people see it differently. "Or-gasm is not the only deeply fulfilling physical experience you can have with another human," said Lorraine. And Steve's reply was, "If you still have the energy to move, let alone fuck, after I play with you, I obviously didn't play with you hard enough."
I can go either way, so let me try to explain. Even if you see BDSM only as an expression of sexuality, have you never just made out with someone, without intending to go further? Surely one can take pleasure dipping one's toes into sexual waters, without having to immediately plunge in? For two people who've never played before, a non- sexual scene—especially at a party—might be a test drive, to see if they'd like to go further. Or they might be in the early stages of a BDSM relationship that will eventually include sex, but they're still being cautious about pushing their intimacy too far, too fast.
BDSM that doesn't involve traditional sex can also be a way for the sexually monogamous to have a limited type of intimate connection with other people. This school of thought is summed up by the Dolly Parton quote, "It don't matter where you work up your appetite, as long as you eat at home." It's like couples going to a strip club and buying lap dances for each other.
Some dominants who withhold sex from a submissive are employing what I call "the bonsai strategy." Erotic dominant/submissive role-play requires tension and mystery. By encouraging sexual attraction but denying its release, the dominant restricts the relationship at a certain stage of emotional growth and thus prolongs the arc of the submissive's infatuation and idealization of the dominant.
And there's also a set of people who just prefer to enjoy the endorphin buzz of purely physical BDSM with a trusted platonic friend. "It's like hugging—with an edge," says Alyson.
Of course, there are many ways to experience pleasure. Doing BDSM is emotionally and mentally pleasurable to me, and I feel that pleasure in my body. But I'm not usually results-oriented about it. Being open to unusual pathways of pleasure is what got me here in the first place, so I don't place many restrictions on how it has to look now.