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BDSM Safety Rules: Expert Advice on Safer Play

Published: JULY 6, 2023
BDSM can be a wonderful way to explore and engage your sexuality. However, many of the activities through which it is commonly expressed come with inherent safety risks. Understanding these risks and taking steps to mitigate them is paramount.

BDSM is a beautiful thing.

How humans can use our bodies and minds to make other people's bodies and minds feel any combination of vulnerable, resilient, soft, strong, coveted, protected, capable, disparaged, worthy and satisfied is, to use scientific terms, f*cking sick.

If you agree, you're far from the only one: A 2017 study published in the journal "PLOS ONE" revealed the following statistics about "alternative" sexual behavior:

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Another interesting finding from this study, in the words of Kinsey Institute Research fellow Dr. Justin Lehmiller, is that "BDSM interest appears to be quite a bit more common than BDSM behavior."

That sounds like a job for Kinkly!

READ: BDSM 101

I sat down with experts to itemize some go-to safety ground rules for common BDSM practices. Here's what they had to say:

BDSM Safety Rules

Regardless of the type of BDSM play in which you're interested in engaging, there are a few universal safety rules you can apply. They are:

1. Consent is Key

"First and foremost, consent is crucial and should be obtained from everyone involved," said Rhiannon John, a certified sexologist with Bedbible.com who received a master's degree in sexology from Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

If you're an avid Kinkly reader, you're probably familiar with safewords and signals, but John says consent goes beyond those. "To ensure true consent, it's important to reflect on and challenge any attitudes or values that perpetuate objectification, inequality, or coercion," they explain.

"Instead," John continues, "promote mutual respect, communication, enthusiastic participation, and acknowledge individual boundaries and autonomy."

READ: The Basics of BDSM Negotiation

2. Consider Power Dynamics

Many types of BDSM involve some sort of power exchange: a consensual surrendering of power from one partner to another, either 24/7 or for the duration of a scene.

Taking this into consideration is another essential aspect of BDSM safety, according to John.

Moreover, participants in BDSM activities may have power imbalances that go beyond D/s dynamics. John encourages partners to "reflect on imbalances in age, gender, race, social class, or financial status. The individuals with more power should strive to create an environment where others feel free to say 'no' or 'yes' without fear or coercion."

In short, creating an environment in which all participants feel empowered to set and maintain their limits is key to safer BDSM.

Speaking of which...

3. Set and Respect Your Boundaries

"Reflecting on your own boundaries is also crucial," says John. "Establishing clear boundaries helps you make informed choices about what activities you're open to and which you prefer to avoid."

The best way to do this? John recommends the traffic light system. They say to create a "green list" for things you'd like to try, a "red list" for things you wouldn't, and an "orange list" for things you're open to but want to attempt with caution.

On top of categorizing specific activities, safer BDSM play should always involve lengthy, continued communication. "Discuss desires, boundaries, power inequalities, safer sex practices, safety plans, and how each person would like to receive aftercare," John says.

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4. Take it Slow

I get it: That bondage scene you've been planning is hotter than the sidewalk in July. But don't get carried away!

"Taking things slow and progressing gradually is important when starting your BDSM journey," John commented. "For example, if [you're] curious about spanking, start with light, gentle spanks using your hand on the buttocks to build trust and gauge comfort levels. Progress at a pace that feels right for all individuals involved, ensuring a safe and enjoyable exploration."

READ: Safe, Sexy Spanking Tips for Two.

5. Practice Aftercare

Any good trainer will tell you the cool-down is one of the most important parts of a good workout. That's true for BDSM too - aftercare isn't optional!

Essentially, aftercare involves ensuring everyone involved in sexual exploration feels safe and cared for post-play. John says this can include "reassurance, addressing physical and emotional needs, and nurturing the emotional bond between partners."

READ: 5 Tips For Practicing Intentional Aftercare

6. Educate Yourself

Finally, John encourages those interested in trying BDSM to use online resources to learn about different sex acts, challenge societal stigma, and promote safe and respectful sex. "Educating yourself allows for an exploration of desires while prioritizing safety and respect," John said.

*Cough, cough* Kinkly.com *Cough, cough.*

BDSM Safety Items

The next step in ensuring safe BDSM is coming (cumming?) prepared. That means having a well-stocked arsenal of BDSM safety items on-hand.

Mak Adikami, co-founder of Lustyboy.com, recommends keeping the following nearby when engaging in BDSM:

  1. A first aid kit. "Accidents can happen during BDSM play, so it's always a good idea to have a first aid kit nearby," says Adikami. "Make sure it includes items such as bandages, antiseptic wipes and ice packs."
  2. Condoms. If your BDSM scene involves penetrative intercourse, whether with a penis or a sex toy, Adikami underscores how condoms can "provide protection against sexually transmitted infections and can also prevent unwanted pregnancy."
  3. Lubricant. Lube is "essential for any type of sexual activity and can prevent discomfort or pain during BDSM play," Adikami explains. "Make sure to choose a lubricant that is compatible with any sex toys or equipment being used."
  4. Safety scissors. Calling riggers and rope bunnies! Adikami stresses the importance of having safety shears on-hand for play involving rope. "These scissors are designed to safely cut through rope without injuring the person being tied up," he says.
  5. Cleaning supplies. "It's important to make sure that all toys and equipment are cleaned and sanitized before and after use," says Adikami. "Having the right cleaning supplies on-hand, such as soap, water, and disinfectant spray, can help ensure that you and your partner(s) stay safe and healthy."
  6. Aftercare items. You never know when you might need to stop a scene short, so Adikami says it's a good idea to have aftercare items such as "blankets, water, and snacks" readily available.

Now, let's dive into some more specific advice for some common forms of BDSM play.

Bondage Safety

Yes, bondage is the "B" in "BDSM," but it's also a world unto itself. That's why Lzarus Redmayne, founder of TheDuchy.com, recommends familiarizing yourself with the rope bondage community before diving in.

Universal BDSM safety best practices apply to bondage too: "Vet your potential play partner to confirm if you do, in fact, want to scene with them" and "negotiate together to find common interests and agree on what will happen in that scene," Redmayne advises.

There are, however, some safety precautions unique to scenes involving rope bondage. Redmayne summarizes them succinctly on TheDuchy.com:

  • Stick to non-collapsing knots. Non-collapsing knots don't get tighter when placed under pressure; collapsing knots do. Sticking to the former can help prevent nerve damage, which, Redmayne notes, "can take weeks or months to heal, and in severe cases, may never fully heal, resulting in a permanent loss of sensation or function."
  • Pay attention to where knots sit on the body. For example, says Redmayne, "Don’t put a hard knot in middle of your partner’s spine if you’re going to lay them on their back on a firm surface." Redmayne also advises against putting knots in a partner's armpit or putting uncontrolled pressure on the front and sides of the neck.
  • Assess your rope before play. Does it fray? Is it dirty? "Body fluids can accumulate on rope," explains Redmayne, "so wash your rope and/or have a set of rope dedicated for use on a given regular partner."
  • Minimize position changes. "Changing the bottom’s position after the tie can change muscle tightness. What was an acceptable tightness in one position, may be way too tight if you then move the person into a different position. It is best to have your partner generally in the desired end position as you are tying them," Redmayne said.
  • Learn your ties. Different types of bondage knots come with different risks, so Redmayne says it's important to "pay attention to the risks of a specific tie and manage those risks."

READ: How to Tie Bondage Knots: A Guide for Beginners

Impact Play Safety

Impact play involves - you guessed it - impact. That encompasses things like spanking, flogging, caning, cropping and paddling.

READ: The Ultimate Guide to Impact Play

As you might have also guessed, hitting and being hit isn't without its risks. Sarah Melancon, PhD, sexuality and relationships expert for Sex Toy Collective, says the risks of this type of play include physical injury, emotional and psychological effects, particularly for those with a trauma history, consent violations and problems with communication.

However, Melancon also has some pragmatic suggestions for safely getting your slap on.

First, Melancon says to "Practice within the '4 Cs' of BDSM: consent, communication, care and caution." As touched on in the introduction, this applies to all forms of BDSM play.

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When it comes to impact play specifically, Melancon recommends limiting your strikes to "areas with greater muscle and flesh, such as the thighs or buttocks, which can better handle the impact." She also says not to spank the abdomen or lower back, as these areas house high concentration of vital organs. Also steer clear of bones and joints.

Next, if your scene involves spanking implements - such as a paddle or flogger - Melancon advises you ensure they are free of contaminants and, crucially, designed for impact play. "Household items may have sharp edges or break as they are not designed to handle impact," she says.

"Don’t go from 0 to 100," Melancon continues. "Increase blood flow and ease the nervous systemin by beginning with touching, massage, or very mild (painless) spanking."

Finally, as with all forms of BDSM play, Melancon stresses that agreeing upon a safe word/signal and practicing aftercare are crucial for impact play.

Choking/Breath Play Safety

More people are into sexual choking than you might think. Sarah Melancon, PhD, sexuality and relationships expert for Sex Toy Collective, notes that "in a study of over 4,000 undergraduate students, 6.6% of men, 26.5% of women and 22.5% of trans and non-binary students were choked in their last sexual encounter."

However, this type of BDSM play carries serious health risks and should never be approached willy-nilly.

I can't stress this enough: In a 2019 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, nearly 7% of respondents described feeling scared during sex because their partner tried to choke them unexpectedly. That's 7% too many. Melancon implores those interested in trying breath play to "communicate in depth about your fantasies, turn-ons and turn-offs related to choking" prior to engaging in it.

READ: Edgeplay: Exploring the Outer Reaches of BDSM.

Assuming all participants are on board and have consented to taking the inherent risks involved in choking, Melancon offered some practical tips for the act itself.

"Keep choking mild and infrequent," Melancon begins, noting that "this may be challenging for those who are aroused by more intense choking."

Moreover, Melancon stresses the importance of non-verbal safewords for choking play. "Because it will be impossible to use a safe word, using a signal - such as tapping a partner three times on the arm - can help to communicate if it is too much, uncomfortable, or if the partner being choked needs to stop or take a break for any reason," she says.

What if safe signals aren't enough and someone passes out? "Stop choking immediately and cease all sexual behavior until they return to consciousness and feel grounded again," advises Melancon, emphasizing that "some may prefer to stop altogether at this point."

"Occasional intense choking is likely safer than frequent choking, but because we currently aren’t clear on the short- and long-term consequences, proceed with caution," Melancon said.

Finally, Melancon returns to the importance of communication throughout all stages of a breath play scene: "Both partners need to approach the act with respect and err on the side of caution. If either partner perceives something isn’t right, the action needs to stop right away."

Roleplay Safety

Role play is an umbrella term that encompasses myriad types of play, including, but not limited to, pony play, age play and family play. I've grouped them together because roleplay subtypes have in common the desire to explore something taboo in a safe and consensual way.

And speaking of consent, it's "your absolute cornerstone" for engaging in role play safely, according to AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Melissa Cook of FunwithFeet.

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"A roleplay must be a shared voyage, with every party enthusiastically on board," Cook says. "Not only is this a question of mutual respect, but clear agreement also ensures that everyone involved is comfortable with the play and is fully aware of the ins and outs of the proposed scenario. Remember, consent is not static, it's a continuous dialogue. You have the right to change your mind at any moment."

Negotiation is a key foundation of all types of BDSM play, and roleplay is no exception. Cook recommends sitting down with your partner(s) before beginning a scene to discuss fantasies, boundaries and expectations.

So, OK, you've had a chat; you're on the same page; now what? Cook has a few suggestions:

  1. Learn how to use any BDSM gear you plan to incorporate. "If your role play is stepping into more elaborate territories that involve specific gear or methods, take the time to educate yourselves. A little knowledge can prevent accidental harm."
  2. Keep health top-of-mind. Especially if your desired role play will involve a high degree of physical exertion (looking at you, naughty schoolgirls who need a spanking), Cook says to "Never ignore any health concerns in the pursuit of pleasure. Your well-being should always be your priority."
  3. Check in often. Health isn't just physical! "Role plays can often summon unexpected emotions, and it's essential to handle these responsibly," says Cook. "Regular check-ins with your partner are a must, ensuring they are comfortable and enjoying the shared experience."
  4. Discuss confidentiality. Cook says, "If your roleplay involves elements that might be misinterpreted by the uninitiated, make sure you have a private, secure space to enjoy your fantasies." Confidentiality is also a good point to include in your pre-role play discussion.
  5. Prioritize safer sex. During roleplay and beyond, using protection ensures intercourse is as safe as possible. Cook says, "No roleplay scenario should ever risk your sexual health."

Now that you know how to role play safely, on with the show!

What to Do in a BDSM Emergency

Sometimes you do everything in your power to keep yourself and your partners safe but something still goes wrong. Don't panic!

A BDSM emergency is like any other type of emergency: The first step is ensuring any urgent care needs are addressed.

"It's important that you remain calm and quickly evaluate the situation," says John. Ask yourself:

  • What happened?
  • Who's hurt?
  • What are their immediate care needs?

Next, John says, "Immediately cease the activity and administer first aid if needed. If the injury is severe, seek professional medical assistance."

Once the acute crisis has been addressed, John recommends taking some time to "document the incident and offer emotional support to the injured individual." This might involve journaling about the event to identify steps you can take to prevent something similar from occurring in the future, spending quality time with the individual(s) affected and dedicating extra energy to future BDSM negotiations.

Conclusion

Bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism can all be wonderful ways to explore and engage your sexuality, whether alone or with other people.

However, many of the activities through which they are commonly expressed come with inherent safety risks. Understanding these risks and taking steps before, during and after play to mitigate them is paramount.

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Photo for Gabby Dumonceaux
Gabby Dumonceaux

Gabby Dumonceaux is a writer and editor with bylines in Kinkly, IGNITE and Techopedia and is passionate about taking the taboo out of talking about sex.

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