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BDSM 101

by KAYLA LORDS
Published: APRIL 30, 2015 | Updated: JUNE 15, 2021
Interested in getting into the BDSM lifestyle? Find out what BDSM means, what it entails, and get some tips on how to get started in the lifestyle.

Looking to get into BDSM? You've come to the right place. Whether you read a sexy book, watched a sexy scene in a movie or porn, or have a partner who is interested in trying it with you, you're probably here because you want to know more. Whether you're here out of sheer curiosity or burning desire doesn't matter. What does matter is that without good knowledge about what BDSM is and an understanding of some best practices, you and your partner could get hurt or be turned off simply because you didn't have all of the information.

This is a guide to help you get started on your journey to learning about a whole new kinky world that you might not have realized even existed. Ready? Let's get started.

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What is BDSM?

BDSM is part lifestyle and part kinky sex. You can play with some elements of BDSM without ever having sex. Yet, you might find that BDSM is an integral part of your sexuality and your relationships. There’s no one right way to "do" BDSM. People in this lifestyle can be male, female, transgender, straight, homosexual, or fall anywhere within the spectrum of human sexuality.

Let's break down the acronym "BDSM" into its multiple parts:

Bondage and Discipline

Bondage and discipline, at first glance, don’t appear to go together. Bondage refers to physical restraint: ropes, handcuffs, belts, you name it. Discipline refers to psychological and mental restraint: following rules and protocols or changing your behavior to suit another person.

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From novelty handcuffs to Shibari and Kinbaku rope play, bondage covers a wide spectrum.

Read: The Ins and Outs of Rope Bondage

Understand this: restraint doesn’t always require toys or rope. Honor bondage is the willingness to hold a position (for example: hands clasped overhead or behind your back) until you are "released." Oddly enough, it takes a lot of discipline to be able and willing to be honor bound in such a way.

Discipline often involves following specific rules or guidelines, either for a small amount of time, such as the duration of a scene, or as part of a long -term relationship or negotiated power exchange. Following specific protocols is also a part of discipline. This could mean always using specific titles such as "Sir" or "Ma'am" or not speaking to someone until you’re given permission.

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People who are new to the BDSM lifestyle often find discipline to be one of the most difficult aspects to learn and follow. Bending to another person’s will or whim isn’t easy. Being told what to eat, where to go, or how to do something, ­ especially if you’re a fairly independent person, ­ requires a great amount of trust and willpower in addition to a desire to please.

Read: 5 Myths About Being in a 24/7 BDSM Relationship

Dominance and Submission

Dominance and submission, commonly referred to as D/s, can occur in any number of ways both online and in the real world. Dominants and submissives are sometimes referred to as tops and bottoms, although the terms aren’t automatically interchangeable. Within a power exchange, someone is on "top" or dominant and someone else is on the "bottom" or submissive to their partner. It’s possible to identify as a top or a bottom without calling yourself a dominant or submissive.

While D/s is often written and depicted as a sexual preference, most people will tell you that it's a lifestyle. The dominant in a relationship or situation is granted a specific and defined amount of control from their submissive. This happens in BDSM scenes between two people who aren’t in a relationship as well as long ­term, loving, committed relationships ­ and everything in between.

The amount of control and power a dominant accepts occurs after plenty of communication and negotiation with a willing submissive partner. Bedroom-only ­or sexual D/s, 24/7 lifestylers, and play partners are all commonly found within D/s. Regardless of how you approach D/s, one thing is always true: all control and power must be agreed upon by both the Dominant and the submissive.

Sadism and Masochism

Sadism and masochism are most often confused by those new to the BDSM lifestyle as a requirement of dominance and submission. You don’t have to be a sadist in order to be dominant or a masochist in order to be submissive.

Sadists find pleasure in giving pain. Masochists find pleasure in receiving it. Pain takes multiple forms. Mental pain is often known as a mindfuck, which involves making the bottom, submissive, and/or masochist believe something is going to happen or is happening that they find painful or scary. A good sadist can make the scene seem so real that you’re convinced the knife really is cutting you, the fire is actually burning you, or the person who’s touching you is a stranger.

Physical pain falls within a wide range from light spankings on the bottom up to acts that draw blood or cause burns. Whatever kind of pain you like or are willing to try, whether as the sadist or the masochist, needs to fall within your personal limits.

Read: Why Pain Makes Us Horny

As with all other parts of BDSM, the practice of sadomasochism, as it is sometime referred, can occur separately from sexual activities. For some sadists, they find enjoyment in giving spankings or engaging in wax play with people outside of their relationships. Masochists, on the other hand, may play with a sadist who’s not their partner, especially if that partner doesn’t identify as sadistic.

BDSM is a set of practices that can occur in or out of an established relationship. Sex isn’t a requirement or an automatic end result of BDSM play. You don’t have to like every part of BDSM to live the lifestyle. Everything done under the BDSM umbrella, as you will see later in this guide, falls within a spectrum from light to heavy play. There’s no one right way to play or to be kinky. The only real requirement is consent and safety.

Bondage and discipline are two halves of a whole even if they don’t seem like they should go together. Bondage involves restraining the body while discipline restrains the mind. There’s a spectrum for each from light to heavy. Sex may or may not be a part of it. It all comes down to the personal preferences of you and your partner.

Bondage

Bondage is the consensual tying, binding, or restraining of your partner. The purpose of the bindings can be to look nice, create sensations in the body, to be erotic, or some combination of all three. Bondage comes in many forms. It can be as complicated or as simple as you like. Handcuffs and silk scarves are as much a legitimate form of bondage as the more complex options like Shibari.

Forms of Bondage

Regardless of what you use to restrain your partner, the purpose behind the bondage can take several forms. It’s not always about kinky sex.

Erotic Bondage
Any bondage used in sex is erotic bondage. Some people find the act of restraining or being restrained erotic by itself even outside of sex which is also a form of erotic bondage.

Decorative Bondage
This type of bondage doesn’t serve a specific function. It is just pleasing to the eye. You’ll see this most often in photography, but it might also be used in places like at BDSM parties as a way to adorn a bottom who may be serving the party guests or to showcase a bottom as art or furniture during the event. (Yes, this really happens.)

Predicament Bondage
When a bottom is given two choices, both considered painful in some way, and they must choose the lesser of two evils, this is predicament bondage. An example is a bottom who is forced to balance on their tiptoes (which isn’t easy) or stand flat footed and painfully have their hair pulled because it’s bound by rope to a hook in the ceiling. There’s a chance, although it's not a requirement, that in a predicament like that, the top is probably a sadist and the bottom is a masochist.

Read: An Introduction to Predicament Bondage

Torture Bondage
Being tied up or bound in a way that’s painful or difficult to handle is torture bondage. If you’ve ever gone looking on the Internet, you’ve undoubtedly come across images of men and women bound with their arms behind them or their legs over their heads.

Sometimes you’ll see a woman’s breasts bound until they’re purple. It looks painful, and it probably is painful. Sometimes this is part of a sex act, but not always.

Materials and Methods Used in Bondage

Anything you can imagine can be used in bondage if it has the ability to lock, tie, or restrain someone physically. Metal, leather, latex, cloth, or rope are the most common materials. Rope bondage is probably the most popular in erotic photography and the most easily recognized.

Japanese bondage has become more popular over the years. The official practice is known as kinbaku which means to "bind tight." The other term you may be familiar with is shibari, which simply means "to bind." You may see the terms used interchangeably but the term "shibari" is often used for any type of rope bondage, regardless of its purpose. Shibari is purely aesthetic while kinbaku is erotic. Both forms use thin rope made from hemp or jute to create a simple but intricate bondage pattern. Regardless of which term you use, Japanese bondage is probably the most easily recognized type of rope bondage.

Bondage Safety

Safety is paramount in all parts of the BDSM lifestyle but especially in bondage where blood circulation can be impaired or airways can be cut off. There are specific things to do and be mindful of so that everyone stays safe and healthy.

  • Always obtain consent. This is non-­negotiable.
  • Play sober. When you’re drunk or on drugs, your judgment is impaired. You won’t be able to make the best decisions for you or your partner.
  • Don't ever leave your bound partner alone.
  • Change positions at least once every hour to avoid issues with circulation.
  • Keep scissors nearby for a quick release in an emergency.
  • Use a safe word or action (if a gag is used).
  • Practice before play. Learn from others in the BDSM community and practice on stuffed animals or pillows before you engage in bondage on a real person. It is too easy to get hurt or hurt someone else when you don’t know what you’re doing.

Discipline

While it might not seem to go together with bondage, discipline is a form of mental restraint and can take many forms. Discipline requires a certain amount of training, self-control, obedience, willingness to follow rules, and acceptance of authority. Both partners have a role to play in this, and it’s not always easy to do.

Bottoms or submissives must be willing to do what they’re told, without question, when they’re given a command. They also have to be willing to follow implicit commands because they already know what’s expected of them based on previously established rules and expectations.

Failure to show discipline and obedience results in consequences, often in the form of punishment. If you’re a bottom or submissive, this might seem easy to do during kinky sex and become harder outside of the bedroom. Discipline, from your perspective, means you’re willing to follow rules and cede control of daily functions or actions to your partner. For tops or Dominants, the responsibility in discipline can be hard to bear. Consistency is the key to making sure rules are followed and consequences are doled out when they aren’t. Only you can decide if you can maintain discipline even when the rest of your life gets crazy and you aren’t sure if you have the time to devote to it.

Examples of Discipline

Discipline can take a variety of forms and be as simple or as complex as you choose to negotiate for your specific situation. It can be sexual, service-oriented, or a combination.

Mental bondage is the ability to assume a physical position and maintain it for a set amount of time or until released. Human furniture or art displays are examples of mental bondage. This can also be applied to something as simple as maintaining a specific position during kinky play, such as a spanking. This is harder than you think.

Rules are a form of discipline often created to nurture and care for a bottom or to help achieve personal goals or even a sense of empowerment. When to go to bed, what to wear and how to address other people in the BDSM community are examples of rules that could be put in place.

Protocol is a manner of behavior to follow in specific situations like calling your Dominant "Sir" or not speaking without permission. In the local BDSM community, some protocols are followed when you first meet. At a munch or in the club, you may find that Dominants will not speak to a claimed submissive without permission or that all Dominants are to be addressed by a specific title, regardless of their relationship to you. Some people don’t care much about protocol, but some care very deeply and consider the use of proper protocol a sign of respect.

Consequences and Punishment

Just as with anything in BDSM, discipline and how it will work in your relationship must be agreed upon from the beginning. The same is true for the consequences. You must give your consent to any and all activities ­ good or bad. If a possible consequence is a hard limit for you, it must be respected. Consequences for disobeying a top vary from person to person.

Some examples include:

  • Kneeling in the corner
  • Having your mouth washed out with soap
  • Not speaking to one another for a set amount of time
  • Removal of privileges
  • Spankings ­ for those who don't enjoy pain
  • Lack of spankings ­ for those who do enjoy it

Consequences are meant to be a deterrent from future bad behavior. They should be fairly unpleasant but never cause permanent damage or harm. The idea is that the rules will be followed to avoid the consequences or that one taste of a punishment will keep someone from breaking the rules in the future. It’s not unlike parenting, except that as an adult, you may be able to enjoy some kinky sex or a glass of wine after dealing with the consequences.

The way you play with bondage or discipline will look different than the next kinkster, and that’s OK. If you only like handcuffs or asking permission for orgasms during sex and no other time, you’re just as much into bondage and discipline as someone who will spend hours tying intricate knots and requiring their partner to ask permission to use the bathroom. The levels of play may vary, but as long as you have the full consent of your partner, nothing else matters.

There's are quite a lot of misconceptions about Dominance and submission known as D/s or Ds. One assumption is that D/s is misogyny at its worst with female submissives being abused and/or brainwashed. Another misconception is that men are always Dominant and never submissive in a relationship. Another is that D/s always involves sex. Let's clear up the inaccuracies and explain Dominance and submission in greater detail.

Dominance and Submission (D/s)

Power Exchange

At the heart of any D/s relationship, ­ sexual or not, ­ is a consensual power exchange. One person, the Dominant, is given control while the submissive grants control. Notice I didn't say control is taken. Taking control without consent has no place in BDSM, especially in Dominance and submission, and is abuse, pure and simple. Consent is granted after communication and trust have been established and limits and desires discussed and negotiated.

Read: Dominance, Discipline and Abuse: Where to Draw the Line

You might wonder how Dominants and submissives are different from tops and bottoms. Anyone can be a top or a bottom in a BDSM scene or sexual situation. Dominants and submissives internalize those power exchange roles as a part of who they are as people. In other words, BDSM is the physical act while D/s is the relationship between two (or more) people. When a Dominant has control, they also assume a certain amount of responsibility for their submissive.

Dominant's must look after the submissive's physical, mental and emotional well-being, ­whether that's during a single BDSM scene or in the midst of a long­-term relationship. In a scene, this is important in order to make sure no one is harmed since play can get extreme from time to time. In a relationship that's based on mutual care, appreciation and respect, this responsibility is often simply part of a Dominant's inherent nature.

Submissives can grant as much or as little control as they want ­ and that their Dominant is willing to accept. Many submissives have professional lives that require them to exert authority and control. Submissives are also parents and caregivers. ­ They must be in charge and in command at all times. For many, being dominated is a relief from the day-­to­-day stress of life.

At its heart, though, D/s is a negotiated, consensual power exchange. One person is in charge, and the other person isn't. The amount of control varies from relationship to relationship. No two relationships will ever look identical.

BDSM Is Not Always About Sex

Dominant and submissive acts are not always sexual. I know one "couple" that plays hard in the dungeon. They're best friends, but nothing sexual exists between them. She's a single bi­sexual woman and the Dominant. He's a single gay man and her submissive. Their relationship is one of friendship first, and power and control second. Ask a submissive what they get from D/s, and rarely is it all about the kinky sex, forced orgasms, and other more erotic parts of the dynamic. They'll tell you they can finally quiet the noise in their mind, focus, and depend on someone they trust to look after their own best interests ­ even when they won't.

Think about it. How many times have you told yourself you won't eat the junk food, you'll go to the gym, and you'll get more sleep at night? We know we should do these things, but for any number of reasons, we don't. In a D/s relationship, a Dominant can set a bedtime, send their submissive to the gym, and require their sub to ask permission before eating certain foods. If you notice, none of it's sexual, and the submissive reaps most of the benefits. A good Dominant does not think only of themselves, although it can seem this way when you're on the outside looking in. You may hear them say, "I'm going to take what's mine," and assume the submissive exists only for the pleasure of their Dominant. Look closer. Both are engaged in a scene or a sex act that they both enjoy. At any time, a safeword should be available to stop the moment or the scene when there's fear, pain, or concern.

Dominants and submissives come from all walks of life. They're rich and poor, educated or not, married, or single. They can be male, female, transgender, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and anything else on the gender and sexuality spectrum. Despite what you read, not all D/s pairings are between a billionaire alpha male and his reluctant, headstrong, soon-­to­-be submissive.

D/s Safety Tips

Because D/s is the relationship aspect of BDSM and can exist without kinky sex, just as you can enjoy BDSM without considering yourself a Dominant or a submissive, there are many aspects of safety to consider. Most advice is geared towards submissives as they are the ones who hand over control to Dominants and place themselves in potential danger. A safe word should definitely be in play, especially in new relationships.

When meeting someone new for the first time, make sure you tell trusted friends where you're going and who you'll be with. Set up a safe call. This is a call that you will make at a certain time in order to let your friends know you're OK. If they don't receive your call on time, they should call you. In the worst-case scenario, if they don't get a hold of you, they should be able to get to you or call the local police to let them know you may be in danger.

As a submissive, if a Dominant approaches you, online or in the real world, and makes demands upon you without getting to know you, you are free to, and should, tell the person that you don't appreciate their behavior. Ttell them no, leave the situation, or dowhatever you need to do. You are under no obligation to submit to a Dominant simply because you're submissive. Dominance is earned, never taken. You do not have to consent to any type of play, scene, or sexual act that makes you uncomfortable. If you consider something a hard limit or something you're unwilling to try, you are under no obligation to do it. Anyone who violates your consent or ignores a safe word is not safe to play with and is abusive. Put distance between you as soon as possible. If necessary, call the authorities.

Dominance and submission is not for everyone even if you enjoy kinky sex. There are responsibilities and expectations for both Doms and subs that must be met in order for the dynamic to be successful. Open and honest communication is an absolute must. Trust and respect will follow if honest communication is present. Once those three elements are in place, you can create the D/s dynamic that works best for you and your partner, whether you're married with three children, asexual and single, or looking for the right one. No matter what, though, your relationship will be unique to you and your partner and only has to meet one requirement: it has to be consensual.

Sadism and Masochism (S/M)

Whether you call it sadism and masochism, sadomasochism, or S&M (I'm looking at you, Rihanna), this branch of BDSM is possibly the most misunderstood element. Deemed a psychiatric disease by Sigmund Freud in 1905 with its name derived from the Marquis de Sade, a man seemingly uninterested in consent, sadomasochism can be the most violent of all BDSM activities and is fraught with the most danger.

Sadists and masochists derive sexual pleasure from pain, either physical or emotional. The sadist enjoys giving pain, while the masochist enjoys receiving it. Typically sadists are the tops (or Dominants in D/s), and masochists are bottoms (or submissives). Contrary to popular belief, not all sadomasochism play ends in sex,­ even though it's a turn­-on for the players. In fact, sex is not a "requirement" in D/s relationships.

If you're a sadist, you might enjoy dishing out pain, degradation, humiliation, or anything to cause the suffering of your willing and consenting masochist. As a masochist, you might enjoy feeling physical pain, being humiliated, or simply suffering for your top or Dominant. For outsiders looking in, sadomasochism can be hard to take. Tears, bruises and marks are common. Many masochists (myself included) see the bruises or marks as trophies and badges of honor of having both enjoyed and endured something difficult.

Different Types of S/M Play

Sadomasochism can involve physical or emotional pain. Physical pain is most common and ranges along a wide spectrum of activities:

  • Nipple and clitoral clamps
  • Cock and ball torture
  • Wax play
  • Knife play, which may or may not involve blood being drawn
  • Bondage in order to cause pain. ­Breast bondage is a classic example. The breasts are bound tightly, causing blood to pool. When the bonds are released, the returning circulation can be excruciating;
  • Forced orgasms. One orgasm is nice, two are better, but multiple orgasms from sensitive genitalia can be painful; or
  • Spankings. For some in the BDSM lifestyle, spankings are an element of punishment and discipline for bad behavior, but in sadomasochism, they serve another purpose entirely.

If it causes pain, and you and your partner enjoy it, you can add it to the physical sadomasochist column, even if you don't find it on common lists.

On the other side of things, humiliation and degradation are a form of emotional S&M play. A sadist may use derogatory language towards the masochist such as ­ "fat," "stupid," "ugly." Other forms include begging, being treated like an animal or piece of furniture, slapping of the face, kissing or licking feet, and much, much more. If a person finds it humiliating, it may be included, even if a casual observer wouldn't recognize it as such.

Consent and Safety in Sadomasochism

What separates the sadist from an abuser who belongs in jail is one word: consent. Like all elements of BDSM, full communication and disclosure are a requirement for safe S&M play. A safeword should be available for use at all times, and when a bottom or submissive is unable to communicate verbally (most common with gagging), a hand signal or some other device should be used. Sadomasochism has the potential for both physical and emotional injury and should not be entered into lightly.

For those new to S&M, no activity should begin without some prior knowledge or training. For example, if you've never used a flogger, your partner's bottom or back are not the first place to try it out. Meet with local people in the lifestyle at a BDSM club, watch videos online, and practice on a pillow before you ever try something out on a person.

Responsible sadists in the BDSM lifestyle understand the importance of consent and do not engage in any activity without it. Masochists have a responsibility to bring forth their concerns and/or medical history so that they are not unintentionally harmed by the physical or emotional pain that's being inflicted. Someone with past abuse who finds themselves triggered in certain situations will need to disclose that so that their top doesn't engage in anything that could trigger an episode.

It's good for anyone in BDSM, but especially sadists and masochists, to become certified in first aid and CPR. Even with excellent preparation, plenty of communication, and extensive knowledge, things can and do go wrong during playtime or a scene. Knowing what to do in an emergency can save a person's life.

Although bruises and marks are a badge of honor for many masochists and rough, physical play often becomes loud and sounds angry, do not think your consent will be accepted in a local courtroom or by the police. Be mindful of when and where you play. If you've got nosy neighbors or thin walls, and they think abuse is happening, they might call the cops. Depending on where you live, even the appearance of abuse could land you in jail. Play safe and smart.

For those of us who enjoy it, sadism and masochism heighten sexual pleasure. Understand, though, just because we like kinky pain doesn't mean we enjoy other forms of pain. Personally, I love a good spanking, flogging, smack on the cheek, and nipple pinch. I will cry like a baby if I step on a Lego in the middle of the night or stub my toe on the corner of the couch. It's not the same kind of pain at all. With that, I leave you with one last thought ­ a classic S&M joke:

"Hurt me, hurt me!" cries the masochist.

The sadist replies, "No."

I know of no better description of sadism and masochism than that.

The Importance of Communication in BDSM

Communication is the single most important aspect in BDSM. I don't care if you're only into spankings by strangers or you're in a 24/7 Master/slave relationship. Nothing in BDSM should ever happen without plenty of communication first.

What does communication look and sound like?

"I really don't like it when you touch me there."

"I'm not interested in [fill in the blank with your most hated activity or fetish]."

"I liked it when you kissed my neck, but when you bit me. It hurt, and I didn't like it."

"I'm allergic to latex."

"I have asthma."

The philosophy that you need to tell your partner everything isn't just hype. This isn't just about building a strong relationship or finding the love of your life (although both are certainly byproducts of good communication). Speaking up and sharing details about yourself, your likes, your dislikes, what you think, and your health impact your experience in BDSM.

If you're thinking that some details are simply too personal to share, remember that this person will most likely see you completely naked while you're drooling, sweating, writhing and screaming. How much more personal can you get than that?

This topic is worth reading more about. Here are a few more resources on consent and BDSM:

Communicating Your Needs

Both sides, top and bottom, Dominant and submissive, must be able to communicate their needs to one another. This lets you know if you're compatible. A sadist needs to know if the other person is a masochist. Before you tie someone up with rope, you should know if your partner has poor circulation or any type of anxiety when they can't move freely.

Sometimes the result of this communication is that you learn you don't want to play with that person at all. Sometimes the result is that you decide to do other activities together. BDSM is not a one-sided event. Two (or more) people are involved and every one should have their needs met, but no one can magically know what you need and what you want.

Put aside your concern about hurting your partner's feelings. As long as you treat the other person with respect while you tell them what worked or didn't, a mature person will be able to handle it. The only way for both people to enjoy what's happening is to know what gets you off ­ and, when something new is tried, what doesn't.

Communicating Your Boundaries

There are just some things people don't like. Me? I don't like rocky road ice cream (I know, some of you are gasping in shock). So when it's time to pick a flavor, I tell people. If not, I might get handed a cone of rocky road and be miserable. That's a simplified comparison, but if you've ever been offered ice cream and then found out it wasn't a flavor you like, you know the disappointment.

I don't like golden showers or scat play. Body fluids gross me out. So, before I engage in BDSM activities with a new partner, I tell them. If I don't make it clear that I don't like that kind of play, I might be in for a big surprise at some point ­ and not find it sexy, erotic, or satisfying. Who wants kinky sex or BDSM play that's unsatisfying? What would be the point? Yet, that's what you get when you don't tell someone about your hard limits.

The good thing about communication in BDSM, ­ especially when you set limits, ­ is that you can always go back later and change your mind. If you're consistently communicating with your partner, you can tell them that you've given a previous hard limit, say ball gags, further thought, and you would like to try it. Simply because you've set a limit at one point doesn't mean you can't change your mind about it later. ­ You simply have to communicate with your partner about it.

Trust and Intimacy

What does communication get you other than fun and kinky BDSM play? It builds trust and intimacy between you and your partner. When you're talking to one another in a meaningful way about your wants, your needs, your desires, what worked, what didn’t work, and your boundaries, you learn more about each other than you ever thought possible.

Baring your soul to another human being is empowering and uplifting. It brings you closer to that person. Knowing that they are communicating in the same way and sharing the smallest details of who they are brings you together. Not everyone who engages in BDSM play is looking for a love connection or a long­-term partnership, but the effects are the same whether you're communicating with your spouse, your significant other, or your favorite kinkster at the local club. You've built a strong bond between you that you might not experience with anyone else in your life.

Safewords and Control

For anyone new to the BDSM lifestyle, you might be surprised to know that bottoms and submissives actually have more control than you realize. A good Dominant or top will never violate a hard limit that has been communicated to them. They also won't engage in new activities until they've talked to their bottom or submissive about them.

Communicating boundaries and hard limits is one aspect of the control a submissive has; the other is the use of safewords. A safeword is a word or phrase that, when used, means all play should stop immediately. Some people use a color system. Green means keep going; yellow means slow down; and red means stop. Other people use words and phrases that don't make sense in the context of the scene, like "pineapple," "purple elephant," or "rocky road ice cream." ­ Your safeword can be anything you want it to be. Just make sure everyone in the scene knows it. If a submissive or bottom will be unable to verbally communicate during a scene, a hand signal of some sort should be in place.

Safewords help communicate a feeling of danger, unpleasant pain, or other feelings and sensations that mean the play or scene needs to immediately stop. Dominants and tops watch their play partners closely during a scene in order to avoid going too far or causing pain and distress. It can still happen. Using a safe word is not something to be ashamed of and no one should ever be made to feel bad for needing to use it. If a safe word is used repeatedly in scenes and other play, you need to talk to each other about what the underlying problem may be ­whether it's a physical pain, a fear, a worry, or a hard limit you didn't know about.

If consent is the key to BDSM in general, ­ then communication is the essential first step. You cannot consent to anything without first talking about it in some way. Throughout a scene, kinky play, or a relationship, you must continue to communicate so that no one ever questions whether there's consent for an activity or not. If you don't like something, you have a responsibility to tell your partner. No one is a mind reader, and you will only get out of BDSM what you put into it. Set aside your fears of rejection and ridicule and openly discuss what you enjoy, what interests you, your fantasies, your desires, your needs, your wants, and yes, the things you really don't like, are afraid of, or consider outside of your boundaries. Only then can you experience the full beauty and eroticism of BDSM.

SSC Vs. RACK

Consent and communication are the two most important factors in BDSM. The reality is that some of the practices and play can be dangerous to a person's physical, mental, or emotional well­-being. People in the BDSM lifestyle have different methods of classifying whether an activity is safe and OK to do. Some people use Safe, Sane, and Consensual (SSC) while others follow Risk­ Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). Both share a similar underlying concept ­ of consent and safety from harm. Deciding which principle to follow is a personal decision, ­ as is everything in BDSM, ­ but it helps to have a basic understanding of each.

Safe, Sane and Consensual

The three parts of this concept are pretty self explanatory. Keep it safe. Don't try a new activity - say suspension bondage, for example - without learning and practicing first. Don't use a flogger for the first time on a person; ­ use a pillow until you get used to the motions and the feeling. Ask questions of fellow kinksters who know more about an activity than you do. Learn by reading, watching, and talking to people. Oh, and practice, practice, practice before you try it on your partner.

Keep it sane. Be sensible in the activities you choose. A sense of danger can be sexy and erotic, but real danger can land someone in the hospital. Don't do something that has a real risk of injury unless both of you are a trained in how to do it and know how to handle emergencies. If you're going to try something dangerous anyway, make sure you're certified in first aid and CPR.

Keep it consensual. Whether it's by using a safe word or communicating hard limits and boundaries, don't do anything without the full consent of your partner. When in doubt, stop and ask. Yes, even in the middle of a scene. Asking, "Do you want me to continue?" can be erotic ­but even if it's not, ask the question anyway.

Risk­ Aware, Consensual Kink

RACK is used most often by those who worry that SSC is too vague and broad. One person's idea of sane might be different from someone else. Risk­-aware means making sure everyone involved is fully aware of the risks. Knife play holds the risk of blood being drawn. Fire play can result in burns. Breath control can lead to asphyxiation. Before you try it, you need to know the real risks.

Consensual. There's that word again ­ consensual. Have you discussed what you want to do together? Do you know the safeword? Is it within your limits? If you can't answer these questions, it might not be consensual. Stop and talk about it first, then play and have kinky fun.

If it's out of the "mainstream," it's probably kinky. However, one person's kinky is another person's vanilla. Here's the way to know if you need RACK. ­ Do you consider what you're about to do kinky? If the answer is yes, then you need RACK.

Neither SSC or RACK are perfect and include every single possible variation or situation. Some kinky play has a true element of danger to it (that's part of the appeal for some people). Don't try a new activity with your partner until you've researched it, learned about it, asked questions, and practiced on an inanimate object, if possible. Doing this can reduce the potential dangers. Whichever you pick, SSC or RACK, follow them, use them, and be smart about your kinky activities. There's little fun to be had when you're sitting in the emergency room explaining a third degree burn or a deep cut.

Your Kink Isn't My Kink (but Your Kink Is OK)

In the kinky world of BDSM, you may see an extremely long, slightly strange acronym from time to time: YKINMKBYKIOK (or some variation). Looks crazy, doesn't it? It stands for a simple concept:

You kink isn't my kink, but your kink is OK.

Let me clarify by saying that this pre­supposes that none of the kinky activities are illegal, involve minors or animals, and that everyone involved consents to them.

An Open and Welcoming Community

This is the real world where not everyone likes everyone else for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, too many people dislike others because of their skin color, gender, sexuality, culture, and yes, even their kinks. Kinksters know what it feels like to hide their desires, worry about legal problems, and deal with rejection from friends and family. Because of this, the BDSM community, for the most part, is an open and accepting group. Even if we aren't into the same kinks, we know exactly how it feels to be kinky in a vanilla world.


That being said, in any group you will find people who don't always follow this idea of acceptance. Don't be one of those people. It's OK not to enjoy or even want certain fetishes and kinky play. It's OK to tell your partner that some forms of play are hard limits. It's never OK to judge someone because they play differently than you do.

Remember the Golden Rule

The best line I ever read about kink­ shaming is pretty simple. "Don't yuck my yum." It’s like the golden rule for kinksters.


Remember, all that matters in BDSM is safety, consent and communication. What happens between consenting adults is between them. Outside opinions are not needed or wanted. Feel free to express your dislike or discomfort for an act or a scene. That's your right. Don't attempt to make someone feel bad for enjoying something you find distasteful.

Think about this: as someone who is interested in exploring BDSM, you may find that friends and family wonder about your sanity, your morals and your ethics because, unfortunately, kinksters are often looked upon as sexual deviants. Don’t treat a fellow kinkster the same way simply because they're into scat play, golden showers, or some other fetish or kink you don't like or understand. Treat others as you wish to be treated worked when you were younger, and it works now.

For the most part, people in the BDSM community will welcome you with open arms regardless of your personal kinks. Make sure you extend the same courtesy to others.

A Recap of What We've Learned

There's a lot of information to take in about BDSM, whether you're into light spankings or full-­on leather gear, whips and chains. There are only a few true rules in BDSM:

  • Consent is everything. Without consent, it's not BDSM or kinky; ­ it's abuse.
  • BDSM requires open and honest communication or it won't work.
  • Be safe and understand the risks when you try new things.
  • There is no one right way to do BDSM. Everyone has different tastes and wants something different.
Let's recap a bit of what you've learned and read:


  • Sex is not a requirement in BDSM.
  • You can be a top, a bottom, or a switch. This can change with different partners.
  • Dominance and submission (D/s) is a relationship status within BDSM, whether that relationship is sexual or not.
  • You can reserve BDSM for the bedroom only or, as with D/s, make it a part of your daily life.
  • The kinks you like today may be different over time.
  • Everyone should have a safe word to use, ­ at least in the beginning.
  • All BDSM activities are on a spectrum from light to heavy, and all are legitimate acts of BDSM.
If you remember nothing else, always remember this: your kink isn't my kink, but your kink is OK.

What consenting adults do with and to each other is between them alone, and doesn't affect your kinky play. Do what you enjoy, always remember the rules, and figure out who you are and what you like in the big, fun, and kinky world of BDSM.

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Photo for Kayla Lords
Kayla Lords

Professional writer, sex blogger, erotic author, sexual submissive, and kinkster, Kayla writes more than is probably healthy over at A Sexual Being and overshares about the kinky and mundane side of her BDSM relationship. Her mission: to make BDSM, specifically Dominance and submission, less scary, less weird, and much more real and attainable for anyone willing to learn more.


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