WHAT IS BDSM: IN-DEPTH BEGINNERS GUIDE & DISCOVER WHY IT’S SO DAM ENJOYABLE!

With a major motion picture in the works and three books that have topped best-seller lists for weeks, 50 Shades of Grey has taken the world by storm. The book and its sequels by E.L. James have been credited for bringing BDSM into the mainstream, but what exactly is BDSM?

what-is-bdsm

You can certainly check out the long, dry version of the history of BDSM in the Wikipedia article, but on the Princess Fantasy we want to keep things light, fun and interesting…so with that in mind, we’re going to sum it up much more quickly for you.

BDSM is an acronym for bondage & discipline, dominance & submission and submission & masochism [1]. It’s an umbrella term that covers a range of activities and roles, some of which include sex and others do not [2, 3].

Find out more about bondage.

Wait a second, what do we mean when we say that activities might not include sex? For some people, BDSM is all about energy and even spirituality. Peter Tupper described in his book, A Lover’s Pinch: A Cultural History of Sadomasochism, how he once attended a suspension event that involved no sex and was open to minors. But participants were experimenting with their pain thresholds in a spiritual way [4, p.7].

HISTORY OF BDSM

Although elements of BDSM have been practiced for hundreds of years, the modern culture evolved from the ‘leather’ movement. The leather scene originated with soldiers returning home to the United States after World War II, many of whom engaged with biker culture. Consisting mostly of gay men and a few women, the leather movement grew in large American cities. Since then, interest in BDSM has spread around the country to people of every gender and sexual orientation, due in large part to the internet [5].

BDSM shows up in mainstream media more frequently now [6]. The hugely popular Fifty Shades of Grey is just one example. However, archaeologists have uncovered erotic representations of BDSM activities from as far back as the 5th century BC [7].

The general idea behind BDSM is that two partners engage in roles where one player is generally a submissive (more on how to be submissive in the bedroom here) who receives pain or is in bondage of some sort or performs services for the other, a person in a dominant role who extends pains and punishment or puts the submissive in bondage or makes the submissive perform services for him/her (more on how to be dominant here)…or it can be a combination of these things.

For many years, interest in BDSM was considered unhealthy or even categorized as a mental illness [8, 9]. However that is no longer the case, and even mental health professionals recognize that BDSM can correlate with higher subjective well-being, interest in it is not unhealthy, and it can be done safely. [1011, 1213, 14]. Some have even come around to the idea that BDSM might be therapeutic.

Similarly, people have viewed an interest in bondage and power exchange as a characteristic of prior abuse or unhealthy relationships, but this is not necessarily the case [15].

Plus, BDSM focuses on consensual and healthy play (more on that below).

BDSM is now often described as an acceptable leisure activity [16].

Often, the person who plays the role of submissive relishes giving up control and not being responsible for the scene. The person who plays the dominant or top might prefer being in control or having an opportunity to take control when it’s not otherwise provided in life.

Common BDSM activities include but aren’t limited to the following:

  • Bondage and restraints (Cuffs, ties, bondage tape, blindfolds, gags, rope knots. breast bondage, and plastic wrap)
  • Impact play (Spanking, paddling, crops, and hitting)
  • Service (Where the submissive performs actions for the dominant)
  • Discipline (Reward or punishment for following or disobeying instructions)
  • Orgasm control — learn about orgasm denial and control
  • Roleplaying (Daddy/daughter, teacher/student et cetera)

Your mind might automatically move to extreme ideas such as total power exchange (more about TPE), but BDSM only has to be as hardcore as you want it to be. For example, you already engage in bondage if you’ve ever placed your partner into fuzzy handcuffs or have been blindfolded. One of the joys of BDSM is figuring out what you’re interested in and potentially even pushing those boundaries, and many couples may practice less intense BDSM activities more frequently than the extreme ones [17].

BDSM VS. ABUSE

Before we get any further, we want to clarify that BDSM is not abuse. The key difference is consent. BDSM activities might include hurting someone, but they’re desired and consented to by both parties [18]. And both parties benefit from it [19]. While a submissive may appear powerless, this isn’t the case as he or she can use a safe word at any time to halt a scene.

BDSM isn’t just about a top or dominant using a submissive for their pleasure; although, it can sometimes look that way from the outside. A dominant has responsibility for their submissive’s safety. In fact, some people stress that a scene that involves hurting someone should not harm them in either the short or long-term [20]. Safety and mutual consent are central to the BDSM community [21].

In most cases, consent is apparent well before any BDSM scene begins. Negotiation often includes safe words, which you’ll learn about later, and activities that you’re not interested in. A person who refuses to negotiate or ignores those agreements might be an abuser, but abuse is not an element of BDSM in general. Fortunately, those people in BDSM often look out for each other and provide guidance and, in some situations, protections from people like that [22].

THE APPEAL OF BDSM

Even though BDSM might not be abuse, it still might not be something that appeals to you, so why are people into it?

Sex researcher Justin Lehmiller posited that BDSM and the roles played might be a form of escapism in his book Tell Me What You Want [23, p.122]. His survey of Americans and their fantasies uncovered that while some people do relish giving up control and responsibility from their daily lives to be a submissive [24], this stereotype is not as founded as you might expect. People do seem to fantasize about BDSM as a way to escape their sense of self, however.

We’ve already debunked the stereotype of BDSM being only for the dominant. Similarly, people once believed that S&M was something that mostly men were interested in and women simply went along with. Some argued that BDSM had the potential to be misogynistic by nature of the roles [25]. We know now this lack of interest amongst women is a myth as well [26]. Certainly, the resounding popularity of the erotica series Fifty Shades of Grey (and the success of the Hollywood portrayals that followed) prove that women can be just as into BDSM as men.

Other reasons people might be attracted to BDSM include exchanging power [21], experimenting with novelty, and experiencing more intense sex. Some people believe that BDSM can increase connection [27], which may spell good news for your romantic and/or sexual relationship. Other experience a sense of freedom from their BDSM activities [28].

Plus, BDSM involves the same chemical cocktail of sex. Dopamine, oxytocin, and adrenaline all play a role. As you’ll see when we discuss the science of BDSM, hormones such as cortisol and endorphins play specific roles when a couple is themselves role playing in the bedroom.

BDSM may provide you with physical and psychological skills to enable you to feel more competent as a lover and partner. One study found that “[t]his effort thus provides a backdrop for feelings of technical, psychological, and emotional competence through play” [29].

It’s important to remember that the experiences during a BDSM scene are also not exactly like those during an abusive encounter. Getting spanked when you’re aroused is a far different experience than someone hitting you during a fight or even stubbing your toe on the coffee table. Context is key.

Some people feel as though they are wired for BDSM [30].

There may be as many reasons that BDSM is appealing as there are people who find themselves desiring a sadomasochistic sexual experience. You might be surprised who is into BDSM as practitioners are typically functioning members of society [31]. But it’s incredibly common — Dr. Lehmiller found that a majority of people fantasized about BDSM themes and another study found that nearly half of all people had ever experimented with it [32] — and can be quite healthy.

This is good news if you do find BDSM attractive.

HOW TO INTRODUCE BDSM TO YOUR RELATIONSHIP

When introducing the idea of it to your partner and explain what BDSM is, you may be hesitant. It’s best to be specific about the type of activities, such as spanking (more on spanking here), biting or handcuffs, that interest you. This ensures that the two of you are on the same page. The same goes for when you are introducing new sex positions like these into the bedroom

Generally, you’ll want to bring up the topic before you’re in the bedroom so you can discuss any expectations the two of you might have. This might include the societal opinion about what BDSM is or past experiences that either of you may have, some of which may have been negative. Never pressure your partner into BDSM or physically force them to participate.

One way to get your partner to be a bit more receptive is to bring up the idea of something you’d like to try when you’re aroused. Arousal can lower our disgust responses and make us more receptive to sexual suggestions.

We also suggest starting with baby steps. For example, you might request a spanking rather than jumping to using a whip. Or you might add heels before donning a full dominatrix outfit. Regarding bondage and blindfolds, it might be overwhelming to add both at once. Instead, try having sex while one of you is tied up and then having sex with one person blinded before you combine the two.

Jay Wiseman, author of Sm 101: A Realistic Introduction, cautions folks to start lighter than light and to build up slower than slow [33, p.172]. This gives you plenty of time to get accustomed and acclimated to the activities you’re doing.

Knowing that you’ll be trying things step-by-step instead of all at once can reassure a reluctant partner. Discussing with your partner how you both can remain safe while exploring your boundaries might also help overcome reluctance to engaging in BDSM. You can also stress how the two of you will have a safe word, which you’ll learn about later, to keep safe during a scene.

HOW TO ENGAGE IN BDSM SAFELY

No matter who you’re playing with or whether sex is part of your playtime; there are some guidelines to follow that can help ensure that your BDSM activities are healthy. In fact, one of the tenets of what BDSM is is the concept of safe, sane and consensual. To maintain a healthy BDSM relationship, all three ideals should always be present, and this is something that 50 Shades does a poor job of explaining.

The concept of consent is also represented in the ideology behind RACK, which stands for “risk aware, consensual, kink“. Some people prefer RACK to SSC because it highlights that no matter what steps you take to play safely, there is always an element of risk in BDSM. Whichever idea you follow, safety is nonnegotiable.

Related: 8 Vital BDSM Rules

BDSM activities typically take place within a scene, which has a designated start and end point; although, you might add some aspects of BDSM to your normal sex life. Discussion of the scene before and after ensures that you and your partner know what to expect and provides a way for you to connect and heal after a scene, which may be intense both physically and emotionally.

NEGOTIATION AND BDSM CONTRACTS

The idea of consent is one that may not be obvious to the casual observer, but safe, sane and consensual practitioners agree to limits – what they are and aren’t willing to do – before the scene. While a submissive might be experiencing pain that appears to push them to the limits, a good dominant will understand what those limits are, and the two will have discussed what to expect beforehand.

This is a crucial element to a functioning BDSM relationship.

Negotiating your scene doesn’t have to be super formal. It might consist of you simply saying to your partner “By the way, I am not a big fan of ball gags” and mentioning your safe word, which we’ll touch on below. You might explain that paddles are okay, but you’re not ready for canes. In BDSM, things you never want to try are known as hard limits while things you might eventually want to try or want to try cautiously are known as soft limits.

A tool to consider is a BDSM checklist. You can use it to express interest — and disinterest — in BDSM activities and figure out where your interests overlap with your partner. You could even use the checklist as a guide for things you’re willing to allow your partner to do or vice versa during a scene.

In this post, we’ve created an example BDSM checklist along with advice to use it.

For some people, negotiation includes signing a contract. The idea of a contract might sound overly formal or even silly, but some people like them. Depending on your contract, you agree to play with a partner for a period. Some people use temporary contracts for a single play session while others sign them for years (with the caveat that they periodically revisit the contract).

Your contract might include mentions of your safe word, nicknames or titles you’ll use during the scene, any limits, and pertinent health information. For example, you might list any STIs, allergies or injuries or conditions (think arthritis, anxiety or low blood pressure) that might affect how you play.

Click here for examples of simple and complex BDSM contracts.

Of course, you don’t need a contract to specify some of those things, especially for more simple or casual scenes. But contracts and checklists are tools you can use if you do find yourself wanting to establish more firm protocols and plan in-depth before your scenes.

SAFE WORDS

One aspect of communication and safety, in particular, is the safe word, a word or phrase that a submissive will use if the scene becomes too intense. Some people will say that the submissive actually calls the shots and has the power because of their ability to halt play, but it’s important to communicative effectively if you want to ensure both you and your man get the most out of BDSM. You’ll find that great communication is great for other things too, like figuring out what kinds of dirty talk you enjoy (more on dirty talk here) or when you want your man to keep his hands off your head during a blow job (more on giving great oral sex here).

A safe word should be short so that it’s easy to remember and say during an intense scene, but it should not be “Stop” or “No” because those words might be used when you’re playing a role in a scene and you don’t actually want to stop. Some people like the traffic light system where green means good ahead, yellow means slow down or pause, and red means stop. 

Keeping your safe word easy to remember is crucial during your BDSM scene. For some submissives, they achieve a sort of high through being the bottom in a scene. This is known as “sub space,” and you may lose the ability to talk if you’re in it. Aside from only playing with a top that you trust, you might consider a safe action such as dropping a ball in place of the safe word, which can also be helpful if you can’t speak because you’re gagged.

Read MoreBDSM Subspace – The Good, The Dangers & Aftercare

Occasionally, someone might say that a safe word is unnecessary, but we would advise against playing with anyone who says this if you’re not already familiar with them. Although you may not feel the need to use a safe word, especially when you’re with a longterm partner, but you should always have the option.

Setting up a safe word also benefits you if you’re the dominant. How? You can breathe easy knowing that if anything isn’t working for your submissive partner, he’ll speak up. Thus, you can worry less about potentially hurting him or doing something wrong. This may be especially reassuring for new dommes, but it’s beneficial no matter how experienced you are.

PHYSICAL SAFETY

Safety, both physical and emotional, is of the utmost importance in a BDSM scene, where there is the possibility of drawing blood, cutting off circulation along with any other potential bodily harm. It’s recommended that you always have an easy way out of a scene in event of an emergency. The key to cuffs should be nearby, and paramedic scissors are always helpful. Never bind something with silk, which can tighten and cut off circulation.

If you play with multiple partners, be sure to sterilize toys and implements. Organic materials such as leather are porous and can harbor bacteria for months. This creates the potential to spread diseases when used on multiple partners. However, glass, steel, plastic, and silicone are among the materials that you can safely sterilize to use with multiple partners.

Common impact toys such as floggers and whips can draw blood. Not only should you worry about transmitting diseases, but you should also consider that you can do real damage to a person if you aim for a location on the body without enough padding. The butt and backs of thighs make an excellent target while aiming for the lower back can cause damage to the kidneys. 

Never bind someone’s neck, which could cause asphyxiation (the cause of death for actor David Carradine, who was apparently into autoerotic asphyxiation).

Open wounds must be treated immediately. Although some people like bruises, extreme bruising of buttocks can make it difficult to sit after a scene.

SUB DROP

Subspace can lead to a condition known as sub drop. After a scene ends, all of the chemicals that were swirling in your brain to create sub space settle down. Your body is able to leave its heightened state of arousal and flow, and you may find yourself quite exhausted. Sub drop may include feeling “sadness, remorse or guilt, physical shaking or chills, crying and simple but profound exhaustion” [34].

Learn more in this post about sub drop.

Sub drop may not always happen, just like you may not always find yourself in sub space. However, it may be more likely to happen if a scene suddenly ends for any reason. Aftercare can minimize the effects of sub drop, however.

AFTERCARE

Another element of safety is aftercare. Aftercare refers to any activities that help you reconnect after a scene and safely ease back into the “sober” world. Aftercare can also make sub drop feel less intense.

Cuddling is a common form of aftercare, as is having a snack and drink. Some people provide sports drinks for their partners to help replenish electrolytes. A warm blanket or your favorite movie might be your ideal type of aftercare. Focus on activities that help to soothe your mind and body after a scene.

Related: The Complete BDSM Aftercare Guide

While people often focus on aftercare for the submissive/bottom as performed by the top, aftercare can also benefit the top. Don’t forget about yourself if you’re the top.

Finally, you might want to check in with your partner a few days down the road. Scenes can go well but still produce intense feelings, and those emotions may not always appear right away. Asking your play partner out for ice cream a few days after an intense scene might be an appreciated form of aftercare!

As you can see, safely engaging in BDSM, especially more extreme versions, requires communication. However, talking about sex can be quite difficult. Get tips for talking about sex.

Communication is important in any traditional romantic or sexual relationship, but it may be even more significant when you’re talking about BDSM. Kinksters learn to emphasize consent and communication One study even found that people within the BDSM community have fewer “rape-supportive” beliefs than the general population [35]. This level of communication and consent might be something vanilla folks can learn from!

By the time you’re in a scene, you should have discussed limits and perhaps negotiated boundaries (or potentially realized that this person isn’t taking safety seriously and called it off). You may have a very good idea of what will happen; although, that is not always the case. Not only do you have the reassurance of being able to use a safe word (or that your partner will use one should the need arise) but you know that aftercare will follow, so you’ll both be happy once the scene ends.

HOW TO BE SUBMISSIVE IN A BDSM SCENE

While many people who practice BDSM lean strongly toward one side of the spectrum, like only the dominant and sadistic or submissive and masochistic sides, there are still many other flavors.

A person can be dominant, and a bit masochistic, or a submissive might enjoy serving a dominant but dislike pain. A person might like playing both roles. This type of person is known as a switch.

Get more tips for being submissive in bed.

There is no right way to be submissive, and for many people, there is no way to “force” those feelings if they don’t come naturally. This means that you might play the dominant or “top” role with your partner who identifies as a submissive, but you don’t naturally want to engage in those roles. You can’t teach someone how to feel submissive if those feelings just don’t exist.

For some people, a partner who is willing but who doesn’t feel strongly about those roles may not adequately fill the role. 

In some situations, you might find yourself looking for a BDSM partner outside of your romantic relationship (check out this post about Dom/sub relationships). It’s important to note that while bondage and discipline can include sex or your sex can include elements of BDSM, that the two aren’t mutually inclusive. For some couples, an arrangement like this can be beneficial because both partners are able to fully express themselves.

It helps some people to adopt names in their scene. Then, once you and your partner use those names, you’re playing your roles. However, that’s not everyone’s style, especially if you’re just trying out some bedroom BDSM and not considering an actual D/s relationship.

As a submissive, you’ll comply with your partner’s demands and try to fulfill those wishes to the best of your ability. You partner may prefer that you ask for permission (to touch him or yourself, to orgasm, etc.) But being submissive isn’t all work; it can be quite rewarding, and there are times when you can do nothing but wait in aroused anticipation for what your partner does to you.

Don’t forget that using your safe word when you’re reaching your limit is part of your responsibility as a submissive.

HOW TO BE DOMINANT IN A BDSM SCENE

Just like there’s no correct way to be a submissive, there’s no right way to be a dominant, shortened to “domme” for women. There are many stereotypical femdom roles such as teacher and student, which your partner might enjoy. Check out these femdom ideas. Feel free to deviate from the script where it doesn’t fit, however.

It might feel a little awkward to step into your dominant role, which is why man recommend trying out a title such as “Ma’am” or “Mistress” during your scene to establish roles [36, p.153]. Wearing the right costume can also help you get into the dominant headspace, but it’s definitely not a requirement.

The dominant takes on a lot of responsibility, and compassion and care-taking is necessary to be a domme [37]. You’re designing and acting out the scene, which means taking into consideration your partner’s desires and limits and heeding a safe word should they decide to use it. Use the advice from above to keep things safe, and take your time. This is absolutely a case of “better safe than sorry.”

Practice with your tools to get the feel of them before you use them on a partner. Many kinksters recommend honing your aim with impact play objects on a pillow before using them on your play partner. When you are using something on a partner, whether it be a flogger, paddle, cane, whip, or something else, Wiseman’s advice again applies: start lighter than light and proceed slower than slow. Even when you have more experience, a few warmup swats are advised.

You can also get guidance from a more experience dominant who acts as a mentor (submissives can seek a similar relationship within their local community or online).

If you’re unsure where to start, try these BDSM games. Some of them involve tying someone up (try some bondage positions), using impact play or other sensations, and playing specific roles as a couple. You might don a strap-on and fuck your partner (known as pegging) or try figging. More on figging.

Want more tips? Check out this podcast, which includes practical tips for exploring BDSM.

As the dominant, you can deal out rewards and punishments as you deem fit and use your partner for your (shared) pleasure.

Read More: 16 BDSM Punishments for Effective Behavior Training

Part of your responsibility as a dominant is to deal with any issues when things don’t go as planned. This could mean that your partner gets hurt, passes out, or even that your building’s fire alarm goes off in the middle of your scene.

Have handcuff keys or a safety shears nearby to get anyone out of bondage. Keep a phone within reach should you need to call an emergency number. A first aid kit helps you deal with cuts, bruises, or burns, and can minimize damage while you’re waiting for the EMTs.

Remain calm, both for yourself and your partner. You need to be able to think clearly. Otherwise, a minor incident might become a major emergency. Simply preparing for the worst lends you the reassurance that you can handle it and that it won’t be catastrophic.

Get more advice for being dominant in bed.

After a scene, even one that goes well, aftercare is essential. This might involve a little cuddling or a back massage. It all depends on what you and your partner need.

The beauty of a BDSM interaction is that there’s no one way to be submissive or dominant.

You can experience both sides of the coin if you’re a switch, and you may get different benefits when you play with different partners. BDSM can be exciting in and of its own, but you might also find that light elements of bondage and discipline bring something new into your sex life if it’s gotten stale.

WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS

You might be surprised to learn how much the scientific and medical community has looked into BDSM. However, they have! Most studies investigated the people who participate in BDSM and their psychological states.

It’s important to note that, for many years, BDSM was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a mental disorder [12, 38, 39], a definition that could result in BDSM interest being used against someone in legal and civil proceedings or a discriminatory way [404142, 43, 44, 45], even though many people did not agree that patients who practice BDSM are pathological [46, 47]. However, the 2013 release of the DSM-5 changed consensual kinky activities to atypical sexual interests which are not necessarily classified as psychiatric disorders [48]. This means that medical professionals no longer identify interest in BDSM as unhealthy.

Several of the studies into BDSM investigated mental health. One found that BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extroverted, better at dealing with rejection and more open to new experiences than the control group [49]. Another survey of kinksters found less distress in sexual functioning for men in BDSM contexts [50]. Men who participate in BDSM may even experience less psychological distress than other men according to one study [51].

Additional studies revealed that couples who practice BDSM are as satisfied with their relationships as those who do not [52]. People in 24/7 D/s relationships also report relationship satisfaction [53]. Finally, one 2006 survey found that people into BDSM are no more likely to suffer from clinical or personality disorders than the general population [54].

Some studies have been done on the effects of a BDSM scene specifically. One study of a group of kinksters found that the scene raised physical stress (via cortisol) while simultaneously reducing psychological distress [55], which was anticipated because previous studies indicated that extreme rituals could increase physiological arousal (i.e., cortisol) [56, 57]. Although, another study found that when a scene went well, cortisol decreased (but a poor scene resulted in less closeness between the couple) [58]. Testosterone can also increase during a BDSM scene.

Although it hasn’t been studied specifically, BDSM may encourage endorphin production [31]. Some people believe endorphins are responsible for sub space.

Finally, one survey found that both tops and bottoms experienced differing levels of flow during scenes [59]. Flow is the word that describes a person’s state of mind when they’re fully immersed in an enjoyable activity [60, 61] that can prioritize focus on the activity and away from other drives [62, 63].


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