The term is sometimes thrown around willy-nilly, without much real meaning attached. Often, it is the first thing people seem to mention when anything refers to anything kinky… and depending on who you talk to, responses to those four letters can invoke reactions from horror to shock to amazement. But what exactly IS BDSM? What do those letters mean? What do you do if you want to try it? What should you try first?
These are common questions asked about BDSM, and they’re questions that I myself asked. Like many in the modern day and age, I got my first real intro into BDSM through my reading of 50 Shades of Grey. Although not an accurate, nor fair depiction of the not-so-underground sexual practices, it did pique my interest and make me ask questions about my own sexual preferences.
I’ve decided to share some of the most frequently asked questions with you, along with some helpful, researched answers. Please feel free to chime into the comments with more if you still have things you’d like to know! And remember, when you’re exploring new things like this, there are no wrong questions.
Ready? Let’s do this…
What does each of the letters mean?
BDSM is an acronym of various sexual practices that fall under a similar umbrella. Also, note that some letters stand for multiple things.
The B stands for bondage… When you practice bondage during sex, you’re being tied up in some way, shape, or form (or are doing the tying). There are blindfolds to tie around your eyes, ropes or restraints to tie around various body parts, or handcuffs to cuff your hands. Some people really get off on dungeon scenes, like being chained to a wall or a table. My fiance and I like to play with a BDSM cradle, and there’s specific furniture like spanking benches for certain BDSM scenes.
The D stands for discipline… When you practice discipline during sex, you’re generally finding pleasure by being ‘disciplined’ or doing the disciplining. This means your partner might discipline you by smacking you with everything from the palm of their hands to a whip or crop or a paddle board.
The D can also stand for dominance… When you bring in the dominance part in BDSM, that means you either get off dominating someone (this usually means you boss them around, discipline them, tie them up, et cetera) or you get off by being dominated (see ‘submissive’).
The S stands for submission… When you have a dominant, you also have to have a submissive. It’s like the yang to the yin of the dominant (i.e. The Dom or Domme). As stated in the second D, being a submissive normally means you like being submissive in bed or get off on being totally controlled or tied up or commanded to do things you don’t ordinarily do.
The S can also stand for sado-masochism (notice the M comes into play here, too)… When you practice sado-masochism, it means you derive pleasure from either giving or receiving “unnecessary” pain.
Although BDSM encompasses a lot of different aspects of play, that does not mean that you have to incorporate every element into your play session. BDSM play is as unique as the individuals participating, so make it a point to try a couple things, mix it up, or stick with old favorites. The journey is yours!
Okay, I got confused when you were talking about Dominance and submission. Are those like roles you play?
In a sense, yes! Here’s the breakdown about the roles inherent in the Dominance/submission relationship I was discussing earlier. In each BDSM encounter, there’s usually at least one Dominant and one submissive (though sometimes, there’s more!).
Contrary to popular belief, Doms in the bedroom do not necessarily have dominant personalities in real life – and submissives are not always submissive in real life. Either can come from all different walks of life, whether a submissive be a high-powered CEO, or a Dom be shy and quiet in public!
Similarly, Doms and subs do not have to adhere to stereotypical gender roles. There are a ton of female Dominatrixes or Dommes, and many male submissives that enjoy them being in charge. It is generally adduced that Doms are men or male-favoring, but this is not the case.
Dominant: (i.e. Dom, Domme, Master, or top). The dominant can be male, female, or any other sexual or gender orientation. The dominant is the person that gives the pain or discipline. They take pleasure in ‘giving’ pain, in doling out whippings or beatings, in tying up hands or feet or breasts or genitalia.
Though, the best Doms are not the ones that just do whatever they want for their own pleasure (looking at you, Christian Grey!). Doms in many ways, have to be incredibly responsible and responsive to their partners (subs) to make sure that the sub is enjoying him or herself and is not suffering any emotional, mental, or physical pain from whatever play they choose to engage in. There is a great amount of checking in and care throughout and after play.
Submissive: (i.e. sub, slave, servant, or bottom). The submissive can be either male or female or any other sexual or gender orientation. The submissive is the person that receives the pain or discipline. They take pleasure in receiving pain, receiving whippings or beatings or being tied up or gagged, led around on a chain, etc.
Just because you’re a submissive in the bedroom (or in a particular BDSM play session), does not mean that you’re submissive in real life. It does not mean that you’re a doormat, or that you don’t stand up for yourself. In fact, the best subs to play with tend to be incredibly communicative. They know their limits, they know what they will or won’t try, and they’re not afraid to say it. They will communicate with the Dom all the way through the play session and are open about using safewords and signals to let the Dom know when to slow down, keep going, or stop completely.
You keep using the words ‘play session’. What do those mean?
Oh! Play session is one of the ways in which BDSM practitioners refer to their encounters. Because so many different tools, toys, and roles are involved, it often feels like you’re playing. Not to mention, a lot of BDSM sessions involve different types of scenarios… “Would you like to play in the dungeon today? Or should we ravish you on the pirate ship, today?” See what I mean?
Also, not all BDSM scenarios have sexual activity involved. Although there is often a sexual element, some people enjoy the power exchange or pain exchange elements more than any sexual element.
If I was curious about trying it out, how would I get started?
I hope that this guide will be a good starting point for you. I will be talking about more BDSM topics in future posts, but I would start out by doing some reflecting. Let your brain run wild…. If you’ve ever had fantasies about being tied up or being dominated or by having someone begging to do your bidding or being chained in a dungeon or overtaken by a sexy pirate… Then BDSM is probably for you!
I knew that I wanted to try it out when I realized that I always had sexy thoughts about being completely powerless. In my brain, I’d find myself ravished on the ground, tied up in a dirty alleyway, or chained to a dungeon wall or things of that nature.
If you haven’t spent a lot of time digging into your fantasies, it’s a good thing to do. Start now! You can also get started by checking out erotica short stories, the BDSM/bondage sections of porn sites, BDSM and fetish sites and communities, or kink-themed magazines. You’ll start to see certain themes run together, and you’ll be better able to narrow down what specific types of play interest you.
What kind of things do I need to practice BDSM? Is it expensive?
It’s a common misconception that in order to practice BDSM, we need to be loaded… I mean, look at Christian Grey… He had a whole Red Room of Pain, so it’s no wonder that we were as amazed as Ana was when we first read about that in the book.
But you really don’t need to spend a lot of money to get the basics, and if you’re just starting out, you definitely don’t need to spend any money at all. You can try BDSM using simple items from your home, to try it and see if it really gets you off. When my partner and I were first starting out, we experimented with bondage by simply tying my hands to the bed posts with a couple scarves. I think I blindfolded myself with a sock. He smacked me with his hand.
If you find it turns you on, you can always upgrade to the basics, then invest in some higher-quality toys. Here’s a guide to the essentials for a BDSM closet. If you want to purchase something small… a faux leather blindfold is always fun and super sexy. Some fuzzy handcuffs are also fun to play around with. Or, you can step it up a notch with some under the bed restraints. Check out all of our favorite BDSM toys here.
Will I hurt my partner if we try this together?
It’s easy to see why this would be such a common question. I mean, BDSM is basically deriving pleasure from pain. But how far is too far? It’s all about communicating, connecting, and regularly checking in.
Before my fiance and I got into BDSM play, we did a lot of research about setting limits and using safewords. This is what we learned.
What are limits?
In BDSM, there are hard limits and soft limits.
Hard limits often take into account people’s moral or religious ideologies (i.e. nothing with animals, nothing with children, nothing with family members), but they also might be more related to extreme personal preferences, like nothing with blood or guts or operating tables or things of that nature. Hard limits are things you are never willing to cross or compromise on. They are on your firm no-go list. They are not up for discussion.
Soft limits are things that you’re not particularly keen on doing at this point in time, but may be more flexible on in the future (i.e. I’m not a huge fan of anal, but that’s okay). With more comfort, trust, communication, and practice – soft limits may be more open to being explored but are off limits for right now. Soft limits might change, but it’s unlikely that hard limits will.
Limits are different for everyone. It’s always a good idea to go over a BDSM activities checklist with yourself and your partner before engaging in play. My partner and I knew each other so well by this point we basically knew each other’s limits, but more conversation doesn’t hurt. Use a checklist like this to explore and open the conversation with your partner.
What are safe words?
Okay, now onto safewords. So, let’s say you’ve looked at the limits, you’ve decided on yours, you’ve talked to your partner about yours and theirs, and you’re both feeling pretty good. But here’s the thing about sex… Sometimes you start and everything’s fine and then you lose yourself in the moment. In vanilla sex, losing yourself in the moment normally doesn’t get anyone hurt. In BDSM, it’s a different story.
Check-ins throughout the play are used as a way to gauge the pleasure/pain threshold, to make sure you’re still feeling good about what you’ve decided, to make sure it’s not too hard, and to slow down or stop if absolutely necessary.
Communication is key in BDSM play. Choosing good safewords is part of this communication. Commonly used safewords include the light system (i.e. “Green = go,” “Yellow= slow down,” and “Red= stop”). Other people use random nouns like “elephant” or “goat” to denote slowing down or stopping.
What if I’m single. Can I still practice BDSM?
Of course, you can! The great thing about the Internet is that it’s super easy to find meet-ups in your area or chat rooms online where the primary purpose is to think, talk, and practice BDSM with matched playmates.
There are a ton of groups to join… For newbies, I’d recommend the Novices and Newbies group, as well as the Under 35 group. You can find out more information in our earlier post: Are You Kinky?
You said 50 Shades of Grey is a bad representation of BDSM. Why?
To start, the relationship represented in 50 Shades of Grey is not a healthy one. It has all the red flags of an abusive, controlling relationship. Anastasia is a virgin, she’s taken advantage of emotionally, and manipulated into signing a contract which contains things that she doesn’t even know the details of until its too late.
Secondly, the BDSM portrayed is also dangerous and controlling. There is no use of safewords throughout any of their play. And Christian Grey engages in absolutely no aftercare. To be blunt: BDSM does not end right after the scene is over. This is where the emotional part of the relationship is fostered; where people are cuddled or hugged or washed after it’s over.
Am I normal to like BDSM?
Absolutely! Sure, the vanilla community has it painted that we’re freaks if we’re into being chained up, whipped, or gagged, but those in the vanilla community also often get caught in the trap of having sex the same way over and over again until they’re bored, don’t have fun, and then completely stop having sex.
Not to say that vanilla sex can’t be totally enjoyable and intimate. I love a good round of vanilla sex. But if you’re not into it at all or you like to add some sprinkles or chocolate sauce or even have a completely different flavor of ice cream, that’s totally fine, too.
In fact… Researchers have found that those that prefer the ball gags, whips, and chains tend to be: “less neurotic, anxious or paranoid, and more extraverted, conscientious and open to new experiences than that of the general public.” So, next time someone tells you you’re weird, then tell them they’re just being paranoid.
People also often loop in how ‘normal’ they are in real life, and how they aren’t violent or sadistic people in real life. So, isn’t it weird if they like to be hit with a paddle? And I get it. Meeting me outside of my sexy extracurriculars, you would never guess that I absolutely love being tied up and smacked with a riding crop while my partner takes me from behind. But, regardless of how you are outside of the bedroom, it’s entirely normal to feel differently in the bedroom!
What if it’s fun, but I can’t orgasm doing it?
Okay, so remember that scene in 50 Shades of Grey where Ana orgasms at Christian’s command? Well, that’s a real thing, but it’s also not usually a beginner’s thing.
If you’ve never experienced an orgasm, or only orgasm once in a while, or just can’t get off being slapped all the way to orgasm… That’s OK. To be honest, I haven’t gotten to the point where my partner can snap his fingers and say, “Come,” and I just fall to pieces, though I do want to work on this…
But if that seems weird to you, or you’re just not there yet, don’t worry. Plenty of people combine BDSM play with some vanilla sex as well, and it’s no big deal.