Role Play

Updated: JULY 28, 2023
Reviewed by Dr. Laura McGuire
on July 26, 2023

Sexual role play is a consensual and pre-negotiated activity that involves intentionally adopting the behaviors, mannerisms, and/or appearance of an alternate character or persona. This is done for the purpose of fulfilling fantasies, deepening intimacy with partners, exploring diverse realms of pleasure, and/or providing an escape from everyday reality.

By assuming different roles, individuals can explore their desires and engage in consensual, imaginative scenarios that enhance their sexual experiences and emotional connections with their partners. This form of role play can add excitement, novelty and a sense of adventure to intimate relationships, creating a safe and enjoyable space to explore fantasies and desires together.

What is role play in sex?

Sexual role play encompasses a wide range of creative scenarios and expressions. One familiar form is BDSM, distinguished by clear roles of dominant and submissive. However, role play in the realm of sex goes beyond this, involving the invention of alternate characters and situations to evoke arousal and sexual gratification. It is worth noting that the erotic element can be potent even if the role play does not directly involve sexual touch or stimulation. The allure lies in the power of imagination and the freedom to explore various desires and fantasies within a consensual and safe space.

What is role play in BDSM?

In the context of BDSM, role play allows participants to take on specific roles or personas to explore power dynamics, fetishes and various other scenarios within a controlled environment.

Role play in BDSM can involve different roles, such as Dominant/submissive, Master/slave, Teacher/student, or Doctor/patient, among others.

During BDSM role play, participants assume their chosen roles and act out scenarios with agreed-upon boundaries and limits. The roles and activities can vary widely, ranging from gentle and playful to intense and highly structured, depending on the preferences and comfort levels of the participants involved.

Communication and trust are essential in BDSM role play to ensure that all participants feel safe and respected throughout the experience. Pre-negotiation, aftercare, and a clear understanding of each person's boundaries are vital components to engage in healthy and consensual BDSM role play.

It's crucial that all parties involved have a mutual understanding of the role play dynamics and have a safe word or signal to stop the activity if needed.

How do fetishes fit into sexual role play?

Fetishes can play a significant role in enriching sex role play experiences when they are integrated into scenes. For instance, if you and your partner decide to embark on a Doctor/patient role play, and the partner taking on the Doctor role has a foot fetish, they could artfully incorporate this preference by using the doctor persona to "assess," "medically examine" and “treat” their patient's feet as part of the role play scenario.

By integrating fetishes into the role play, participants can explore their desires in a safe and consensual context, adding an extra layer of excitement and fulfillment to their intimate encounters.

How popular or common is sexual role play?

Although determining the exact popularity of role play as a sexual activity is challenging, one of the largest studies of the prevalence of BDSM was conducted by Danish and Norwegian researchers and sheds some light on its prevalence. According to the study, 34% of surveyed adults expressed an interest in BDSM; 25% had actually tried it.

The purpose of the survey was to gain insights into the interest and impact of BDSM in relationships. Remarkably, the researchers received responses from 4,148 individuals (52% men, 47% women).

The respondents represented a diverse group, with an average age of 47, and 94% identifying as heterosexual. Three-quarters of the participants were involved in relationships, and 60% had college degrees. It's essential to recognize that BDSM and role play activities have historically faced stigmatization, potentially leading to underreporting in surveys. Therefore, the author highlights that the actual figures of engagement in role play are likely greater than the reported percentages.

The survey further revealed the breakdown of specific role play activities among the participants:

  • Dom/sub role play (master/slave, teacher/student) was expressed as an interest by 17% of respondents.
  • Consensual dom/sub intense sensation (i.e., pain) was expressed as an interest by 16% of participants.
  • Other role play scenarios, such as doctor/patient, was expressed as an interest by 14% of respondents; 11% had tried it.
  • Bondage play, another common aspect of role play, was expressed as an interest by 10% of the surveyed adults.

The study highlights that role play, particularly in the context of BDSM, is a prevalent and diverse sexual activity that is appreciated by a considerable portion of the surveyed population. However, it's crucial to acknowledge that sexual behaviors are highly personal and may not be openly disclosed in research surveys due to privacy concerns or societal judgments. As such, the reported percentages may not fully capture the full spectrum of individuals engaging in role play. Nonetheless, the survey offers valuable insights into the prevalence and diversity of role play activities within the BDSM community - at least in Norway! A 2015 survey of more than 2,000 American adults found that 22% had engaged in role play.

More About Role Play

  • Engaging in sexual activities that excite you and bring pleasure can have a myriad of significant benefits, extending beyond the bedroom. These advantages include:
  1. Increased self-confidence and assertiveness: Exploring one's desires and fantasies necessitates self-reflection, self-awareness, and the ability to express needs and preferences. This newfound assertiveness can positively impact interactions both inside and outside of intimate relationships.
  2. Enhanced communication and trust: Engaging in sexual activities that require open communication and explicit consent fosters emotional safety and security within the relationship. This trust and openness can strengthen the bond between partners.
  3. Empowering language surrounding sexuality: The process of seeking and obtaining explicit consent helps participants engage in critical discussions about sexuality, pleasure, and boundaries, promoting a healthier and more conscious sexual experience.
  4. Long-term desire and excitement: Novelty and exploration in sexual activities can lead to increased desire and excitement over time, preventing the stagnation that might occur in repetitive routines.
  5. Stress reduction: Role-playing and relinquishing or assuming power or responsibility during sexual activities offer a brief escape from the pressures of the real world. This break from daily stressors can be rejuvenating and revitalizing.

How to Get Started With Sexual Role Play

When it comes to exploring sex role play, effective communication forms the foundation for a fulfilling and enjoyable experience. However, initiating such discussions can be intimidating, particularly if it's not a topic you and your partner(s) frequently broach. To ease into these conversations, consider trying the following approach during a scheduled date night:

Begin by suggesting a fun and sexy game to your partner. Gather paper and pens for each of you. Individually, write down an equal number of fantasies on separate pieces of paper (we recommend a minimum of five each). After writing each fantasy, fold the paper and place it in a cup positioned between you both. Once you've both contributed five fantasies, take turns drawing from the cup and reading them aloud. The partner who didn't submit that particular fantasy should choose one of three options:

  • Place it in the "I'm disinterested in this fantasy - hard limit" pile
  • Place it in the "I could be interested in this fantasy - let's talk more" pile
  • Place it in the "I'm down with this fantasy - let's talk and plan this!" pile

After sorting all the fantasies, remove pile A: "I'm disinterested." Then, discuss pile B:

  • What aspects of this fantasy turn you on?
  • What boundaries do each of you have around this fantasy?
  • How can you transform this fantasy from "I may be interested" to "Let's do this!"

During the discussion, if any of the pile B fantasies have evolved into either pile A or C fantasies, re-sort them accordingly. This ensures that the exploration process remains fluid and accommodates any shifts in comfort levels or interests that may arise during the open conversation.

After thorough discussions (and resorting) about each fantasy in pile B, move on to pile C, and discuss:

  • What aspects of this fantasy turn you on?
  • How do you envision it playing out?
  • What needs to be discussed before pursuing it to ensure everyone feels comfortable?
  • What is the first step you can take (if any) to explore this fantasy further?

Congratulations! By engaging in this process, you and your partner have just had a comprehensive and open discussion about role play and fantasies. This game offers a lighthearted and non-threatening way to explore each other's desires, establish boundaries, and create a deeper sense of intimacy and trust in your relationship. This is similar to a Yes, No, Maybe list, which many people use for negotiating various sex acts with a partner.

Common Role Play Scenarios and Ideas

Role play offers a diverse array of possibilities, encompassing numerous forms of imaginative exploration. Below is an extensive (but not exhaustive!) list of sex role play ideas that you and your partner(s) can delight in exploring together:

Note that some types of role play have the potential to cause psychological harm, particularly more intense scenes such as rape play, slave play or incest/family play. In can be helpful to consult with a licensed sex therapist in cases where a desire for these types of play is causing distress or problems in a relationship.


Latest Sex Positions

View More Positions More Icon