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BDSM 101: The Essentials for a Healthy Practice

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Kink is an umbrella term for a wide range of consensual erotic and intimate behaviors, fantasies, relationships, and identities that differ from the dominant culture. It includes atypical sexual erotic, pleasurable, fun, intimate, and/or self-expressive interests and behaviors including but not limited to: eroticizing intense sensations (pain, tickling, warm, cold, edging, etcetera), eroticizing interpersonal power dynamics (such as dominating and/or subjugating), and arousal with specific sensory stimuli (such as fetish, role play, and erotic activities that may heighten or alter states of consciousness).

Studies have found that approximately 45%-60% of the population report having fantasies that involve dominance and submission, and approximately 30% of these involved whipping or spanking. It is estimated that approximately 10% of the general population has engaged in kink behaviors at least once in their lives. People of all genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations engage in kink and BDSM. It is important to note that what is characterized as "kink" vs "normal" (or vanilla) is dependent on cultural and individual contexts, the line between the two is arbitrary and varies from person to person at different times.


What is BDSM?

Bondage and discipline: restraining and punishing another person through mechanisms (such as handcuffs, rope-tying, whipping, spanking, and other physical control and impact).

Sadism: a tendency to enjoy or feel sexual gratification from inflicting and/or seeing others suffering.

Masochism: a tendency to enjoy or feel sexual gratification from suffering (such as humiliation or physical pain).

BDSM is any consensual activity that involves bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Typically, this includes playing with power dynamics. Note that BDSM doesn't necessarily involve sexual acts. Generally speaking, these roles are about giving and/or receiving sensations and are not limited to the examples presented in this writing. A popular guideline is: "Sane, Sane, and Consensual", this denotes taking measures to prevent risks, not engaging in BDSM under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and having the full consent of all parties before entering into play (which also has to recognized consent can be withdrawn from any participant at any point during play as well). Another model is PRICK, Personal Responsibility Informed Consensual Kink, each person is responsible to be informed about the activities they are going to participate in and each should do diligent research, follow-up questions, and special considerations regarding the personal safety of each participant as well as the space the scene will take place at; additionally, have in mind the pre-care needed to engage in such activities such as eating, drinking water, and being in a healthy space to appropriately consent (and withdrawn consent if needed). Consent, communication, negotiation, and aftercare are central to BDSM practice.


Why do people do it?

First of all, because they want to. There are as many reasons to practice BDSM as individuals who practice it. As with all aspects of human sexuality, BDSM is a spectrum, not an all-or-nothing practice. Play can vary from light to hardcore. You can enjoy both BDSM and intimate, gentle, or vanilla sex. For some, BDSM is an alternative way to explore their sexuality, for many, this is a lifestyle. Within the many reasons people engage in BDSM, you might find they feel trust, pleasure, joy, intimacy, sexual desire, and satisfaction are enhanced; sensations may be perceived differently when aroused and some enjoy playing with power dynamics.

Kink-identified individuals report their experiences have led them to heal, personal growth, and empowerment. Scenes can be used in conscious, creative, and life-affirming ways that foster self-actualization, autonomy, and mastery. It has also been described as a way to "temporarily escape from the burdens of selfhood" (Baumeister, 1988). Some studies have found it can alter the state of consciousness for both dominant and submissive roles, although in different ways.


Consent:

"All sex is good sex as long as it is consensual and pleasurable." -Dr. Holly Richmond

Consent is a paramount concept in human relationships. It can be defined as "an informed, voluntary agreement by two or more people to engage in a particular activity or to enter into a relationship.". Consent is an ongoing process, it can be withdrawn at any time. To learn more about consent in the kink context, visit the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.


Other important concepts in BDSM

Roles - BDSM practitioners might identify as dominants (dom), tops, masters, mistresses, or sadists; those who take on passive roles may identify as submissives (sub), bottom, masochists, boys, and girls, or slaves. The basic form of these roles are:

Dominant (dom/domme) - exerts control over a submissive and may direct them to complete tasks, behave a certain way, obey commands, or practice sadomasochism.

Submissive (sub) - voluntarily and willfully submits with explicit consent, surrenders control complies with commands, and finds fulfillment in pleasing, serving, and caring for the dominant (it is important to note that although in reality, it is the sub who has the most power, they are setting the limits and can stop at any time; they find pleasure in giving away their control and being able to take it back whenever they want is empowering).

Service Top (top) - this role is similar to the dominant role but it is time-limited. Once the scene is done, the role concludes.

Service Bottom (bottom) - like the top, the bottom takes the sub role during the negotiated time period.

Switch - individuals who might enjoy more than one role.

Negotiation - each scene is discussed before starting. People engage in careful discussions about their boundaries (what you want to do, what they may be open to doing, in what circumstances, and what they'd absolutely not do). The boundaries, limits, and sensitivities of each participant are discussed. The play scene is planned; including the safety words and gestures. This is the time to set responsibilities, preferences, and carefully listen to the needs, wants, dos, and don'ts of your partner and use your voice to communicate effectively.

Safe words and gestures - you'd agree upon safe words and gestures during the negotiation period. All participants have the right to slow down or end the scene immediately (even if what is being done is part of the negotiation). An example is using "yellow" to slow down and "red" to stop or a double-tap if gagged. Doms are also encouraged to check in from time to time. (Note: especially for people who have been through trauma, and might not have the ability to communicate they need to stop or slow down. Sometimes consent is withdrawn through non-verbal communication. You can discuss this with your partner when creating the scene and help them recognize the signs in your body if you aren't unable to use the safewords, periodically checking in is a good practice to take care of each other.)

Aftercare - aftercare is a crucial period after the scene and it might be good to also check in the next day after the scene. This is a period to take care of the partner, especially the sub or bottom. During this time, participants can debrief their partner(s) about their physical, psychological, and emotional experiences. Surveys have indicated that individuals give to aftercare at least 1/3 of the time that was spent in the scene (if a scene lasted 45 minutes, they dedicate 15 minutes afterward to aftercare).

Scene - the actual activities or encounters

Here is a fun A to Z vocabulary for BDSM beginners: click here.


BDSM vs Abuse

Being kinky does not make abuse OK. There is a fine but clear distinction between kink/BDSM and abuse. You cannot say "YES!" to sex if you can't say "No!", and this stands true for any practice within the BDSM umbrella. At all times, participants should intrinsically feel respected and supported, and their boundaries untouchable. The Submissive Guide has many articles to help define BDSM vs Abuse, the fundamentals of BDSM, and much more:

In BDSM, all participants consent to engage in activities and have the power to slow down or stop at any time. Prior to engaging in play, they engage in negotiations, while in play, they continue with an underlying respect for the other's wants and needs, as well as their boundaries. They immediately slow down or stop as requested by the other and from time to time check in with their partners. Precautions to prevent risks, including areas where you prefer not to have a bruise, are taken and respected. After the scene, the sub enjoys aftercare (the ways in which the dom will take care of the sub are discussed during the negotiations) and each participant can discuss what they liked or disliked from the scene, giving an opportunity to voice any concerns (without negative repercussion) and reevaluate boundaries.

Conclusion

BDSM is not new, it can be traced back to ancient cultures as shown in Sanskrit Texts, ancient Greek and Roman Art, and erotic French novels. BDSM is normal and can be welcomed into a healthy sexual repertoire. Kink culture thrives on acceptance, communication, trust, empowerment, and fulfillment. The cornerstones of kink practices include radical honesty, candid communication, expressed consent, safety practices, trust, knowledge, and disclosure of risk. General startup guidelines are:

  • Don't make assumptions. Everyone has their own preferences and assigns their own meanings. Make sure all participants have expressed and understood each other's and take time for thoughtful and thorough negotiation.

  • Set clear boundaries.

  • All participants have the right to say no at any time.

  • All participants have the responsibility to respect the other's requests


Resources:

Yates, S. M., & Neuer-Colburn, A. A. (2019). Counseling the Kink Community: What Clinicians Need to Know. Journal of Counseling

Sexology & Sexual Wellness: Research, Practice, and Education, 1 (1). https://doi.org/10.34296/01011007

https://www.o.school/article/what-is-bdsm-and-kink

https://www.gq.com/story/bdsm-a-to-z

https://mylatherapy.com/bdsm-kink-friendly-therapy/

https://www.them.us/story/kink-101-bdsm-and-consent

http://societyforpsychotherapy.org/an-introduction-to-bdsm-for-psychotherapists/

https://submissiveguide.com/dsrelationships,%20safety,%20personalgrowth,%20fundamentals/series/series-bdsm-vs-abuse



Thaina Cordero is a Certified Sexologist and Care Coordinator at Cypress Wellness Center. She has an MS in Educational Psychology, is a trauma-informed yoga teacher, and doctoral student of Clinical Sexology at Modern Sex Therapy Institute. She has completed Levels 1 and 2 of Clinical Foundations in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. She helps individuals and couples explore their sexual expression, needs, fantasies, preferences, curiosities, and difficulties as they create more pleasurable, satisfying, and fulfilling sex life and relationships. Click here to request an appointment.

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