Rihanna and Madonna have sung about it and there’s a blockbuster Hollywood film about S&M based on a best-selling erotic trilogy, but exactly what is S&M?

Fetish wear: leather collar

S&M, or sadomasochism, is simply part of the BDSM spectrum; although, many people use the words interchangeably. However, each element of BDSM – bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism – can be experienced individually. For example, you can try light bondage with your partner even if neither of you really identify as a dominant or submissive. Learn to be submissive with these tips.

Although this article focuses on physical S&M, remember that it does play well with other items under the BDSM umbrella.


The media typically portrays a stereotypical and grandiose version of S&M that may not only be unrealistically and misleading but even deadly. In its most basic form, S&M refers to play, usually sexual in nature, involving sadism and masochism. Wondering what those things are?

Meriam Webster defines sadism as:

enjoyment that someone gets from being violent or cruel or from causing pain; especially : sexual enjoyment from hurting or punishing someone

And you’ll find the following is the definition for masochism:

enjoyment of pain : pleasure that someone gets from being abused or hurt; especially : sexual enjoyment from being hurt or punished

S&M can involve a variety of activities, from impact play including spanking, flogging and caning to knife play, biting, scratching, hitting, branding, clamps and clothespins – more on nipple clamps in this post – cock and ball torture and so much more. It doesn’t even have to be physical, either. Torture and humiliation scenes provide a type of mental “pain” that can be incredibly arousing.

Why would people enjoy receiving pain? There are several theories that range from the endorphin and hormone release during S&M play to being able to control the way and intensity pain is administered. Because masochists tend so often tend to be submissive as well, giving up power in the bedroom can provide a respite to the responsibilities they carry during the rest of the day.

It also stands to reason that you might not understand why some people are sexually sadistic, even if you know you like pain! Sadists often enjoy the control they have during an S&M session, especially if they feel like they have little power in their daily lives. Obviously, inflicting pain is a source of control, and there’s a lot of overlap between sadism and dominance, where you can literally confine and control your partner’s movement. Many sadists/tops/dominants greatly enjoy caring for their partners erotically. This post talks about dominance in depth.

Psychology Today suggests that sadomasochistic sex can help to release energy and emotions that regular sex doesn’t release. Source. S&M dances the delicate line between pain and pleasure, which might not be as big a jump as you think. What S&M is for many people is a good way to relieve everyday stresses by playing a role different than what’s expected of us.

It makes sense that one partner would like dishing out pain, and the other would like receiving it in an S&M relationship. If you can find a partner who complements you, it might be a perfect for for S&M! Although, in some cases, a partner will submit to pain because it pleases her partner, and the opposite may also be true. After all, compromise is what relationships are built on.

Because S&M revolves around the physical, you don’t necessarily need to add the dominance or acts of service that fall under the greater BDSM umbrella. In fact, you can like receiving pain but be dominant, provide physical stimulation without mental role playing or switch between roles if you’d like! Of course, many role play scenarios fit well with S&M. More on that here. Roles that involve punishment make for great BDSM games, too.


S&M may be more common than you think. For example, the Kinsey reports found that almost half of people experienced an erotic response to biting at least some of the time, and around 1/4 of respondents experienced a frequent erotic response to biting. Source. This is just one type of activity that appeals to many people!

Perhaps the easiest way to explain why S&M is appealing to some people might be to explain just what it isn’t. S&M isn’t a free pass to abuse or harm your partner without his or her consent, and you have the same right to consent to activities or not, to end or pause any play that isn’t doing it for you. At any time, you can negotiate the terms of your S&M relationship.

Even the masochist, the person who gets off from pain, retains power in an S&M situation. It might not make sense to you if you’re not a masochist, but there is good/wanted and bad/unwanted pain or stimulation. Knowing when pain will happen and how intense it will be paves the way for wanted pain, but few masochists would enjoy accidentally stubbing their toe!

Unless it’s been previously discussed, S&M doesn’t typically involve any element of surprise. Furthermore, S&M is not abuse because both parties have agreed beforehand. Finally, S&M doesn’t even have to be sexual. While some people enjoy being spanked or even become aroused from it, for example, they may not want any sort of penetration or sexual activity beyond that.

Not only can you pick and choose from the long list of S&M activities, but you can choose how intense play will be. For instance, you can purchase a furry flogger that barely registers as pain if you want to keep it on the light end of the spectrum, or you can go all out and use one with tails made of leather or even the type of ball chain that’s normally reserved for keychains and necklaces. While you might like spanking – more on that in this post – you don’t have to go all the way to caning, which uses a stiff wooden or metal rod and can break the skin and leave serious bruises.

Finally, it’s fine if you want more intense play during some sessions but prefer to stick to activities that produce less pain at others. You can view it as a lifestyle and get involved in your local community or simply enjoy occasional spanking and biting. There’s no right or wrong with S&M. Any S&M for beginners resource that makes you feel any different isn’t one you need to listen to. With that in mind, safety is certainly a concern when it comes to S&M.


You should never engage in S&M or any BDSM activities with a partner whom you do not know well enough to trust, especially if you’re the masochist and giving someone the power to severely injury or even kill you! Being involved in your local kink community gives you the chance to check out a potential partner’s reputation.

Next, go slower than you think you need to. For example, you might start with spanking and add a blindfold in later. Trying both at once for the first time might be overwhelming, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Start with a lightweight flogger and don’t swing with all your might to test the waters. Cover a paddle or your hand in some a mitt to dull the pain before moving to direct skin or paddle contact. Start with any clamps on the loosest setting, so on and so forth.

Even if you’re not engaging in hardcore S&M, safety should still come first! Before you do anything, consider a safe word or signal to let each other know if you need to slow down or stop all together. Read more about safe words and BDSM contracts. Do not be afraid to use your safe word. You can always resume a scene, but neither of you will want to deal with the physical or emotional consequences of not using a safe word!

Be prepared with a first aid kit, a charged phone and a scissors that can cut through any cuffs, chains or other bondage item with ease. Paramedic scissors are especially usefully because they’re angled so you won’t be cut when they’re used against skin. Stay away from silk or other materials that can tighten when the person who is bound struggled against them. Metal cuffs can chafe uncomfortably, so look for nylon or leather cuffs for longer scenes.

Starting slow helps to work your body up to more intense pain and also gives you the opportunity to halt or slow down stimulation before you might accidentally cause serious damage. When it comes to S&M specific activities such as impact play, you’ll want to aim for parts of the body such as the backs of thighs or the fleshiest part of the butt. Hitting internal organs such as the kidneys can have serious effects. You’ll find more BDSM safety advice here.

After a session, even it if seems rather tame, one or both of you might need some time for aftercare, a word that refers to paying attention to emotional and physical needs. Food, water, a blanket, cuddling or a massage may all be part of aftercare. Rubbing soothing balm onto skin that’s been spanked, applying ice or treating open wounds that result of S&M can also be parts of aftercare. Depending upon your activities, you may need more or less aftercare.

Checking in the next morning or a few days down the road can be beneficial, especially if the bottom experiences a severe drop in hormones that may not happen immediately after the session ends.


So you’ve made is thus far, and you think you might be into S&M. Perhaps you’ve experienced it with a prior partner or you want to try it out after reading a popular novel with a monochromatic theme. How do you bring it up to your partner? Here’s some advice:

  • Tell your man you’ve been reading about S&M. Perhaps show him this post. Ask what he thinks.
  • Leave a book such as S&M 101 out on the coffee table for your lover to “find.”
  • Buy some light S&M gear such as a rabbit fur flogger and leave it on the bed.
  • Discuss your S&M fantasies as dirty talk in the bedroom. Get comfortable with dirty talk using this advice.
  • Create a profile on a site such as FetLife where you can meet new folks who like S&M. If you’re attached, your man can create a profile, and the two of you can check off your interests.
  • Try biting, scratching or holding down your man’s arms during sex. These light S&M activities help gauge his interest. If he doesn’t take the bait, he may not be into S&M.
  • Read him a bit of BDSM-inspired erotic or watch some porn involving S&M.
  • Ask him about specific activities you’d like to try rather than just saying S&M to ease his fear.

There’s no right way to approach S&M with your partner, but don’t be afraid to talk to him about it directly. This guide to sexual communication can help make the talk easier. You know your partner better than anyone, which is why it’s important for you to take your knowledge of him into consideration when broaching the subject.

The talk may be easier than you anticipate, however. If he’s engaged in behavior that falls into the S&M spectrum in the past, it might be a good bet he’d will willing to explore more! Even if you’re both ready to go, communicating about your needs and desires, expectations and goals is important. For example, it’s easy to make a misstep if you don’t discuss what types of activities you like or how far you can go in a humiliation scene, for example.

Just like you should start more slowly thank you think you’ll need to, you should talk more than you think is necessary. Imagine what could go wrong and how you would handle it to ensure trying S&M doesn’t cause permanent damage to your body or relationship. Talk about what happens if one of you want to play more intensely or if one of you no longer has an interest in S&M. You may find that your interest in S&M helps to strengthen communication within your relationship after all this talking!

You can have a lot of fun when venturing into BDSM. From buying or even making sexy accessories such as cuffs and collars, picking out your outfits and even setting the mood with music or lighting, you can create an intense S&M experience down to the details. Of course, if you simply want to add a few S&M-inspired activities into your normal bedroom routine, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Remember, be safe and have fun!

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