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What is BDSM? The What is, Should You, and How to Guide

BDSM is actually a lot more common than you might think. Turns out, a lot of people have some sort of BDSM fantasy.

Zachary Zane
Columnist, sex expert, and activist whose work focuses on sexuality, lifestyle, culture, and the LGBTQ community

por Zachary Zane 10 min lectura

Say what you like about 50 Shades of Gray, but this one book brought something into the mainstream that has actually been a common component in sex for centuries: BDSM.

Spanking, ropes, hair-pulling, blindfolds, handcuffs, safe words—some would call all this kinky sex.

Some would call it incredibly fun!

BDSM may be a bit risque and is often assumed to be taboo, but this kind of sexual interaction is far more common than most know.

Some studies have shown 40 to 70 percent of men and women fantasize about BDSM-related play and 20 percent engage in BDSM.

40-70% of people have some sort of BDSM fantasy. Another 20% of people actively act them out.

Whether you think you would like bondage and discipline in the bedroom in a submissive role or secretly find inflicting pain arousing, opening up the topic of BDSM with your partner could be sex-life-changing.

Quick FAQs

BDSM is an acronym used to describe the different groups that make up BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, and Sadism)

When getting started with BDSM, it's best to start slow. There are several light BDSM practices that won't seem so extreme to someone just getting started.

Yes, there are some things like breath play for example that can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. So again start slow. Establish boundaries and it's a good idea to use a safe word.

Actually, studies have shown that people that participate in BDSM activities have lower anxiety, higher confidence, and view their relationships overall as more secure than people that don't play with BDSM.

What is BDSM?

Woman on bed about to engage in BDSM

BDSM is a diverse but related collection of sexual activities and interests usually involving dominant and submissive roles, bondage discipline, and potentially sadism and masochism.

While BDSM is often perceived to involve everything from nipple clamping to tight restraints, not all BDSM activities are the same or involve all elements of BDSM.

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For example, some couples may do some light BDSM with bondage and role-playing, but their play won't involve giving or receiving pain.

Thanks to books and movies like Fifty Shades, the BDSM community has grown.

Not only is this form of erotic play discussed more between average men and women or couples, dating apps and websites geared toward BDSM enthusiasts now exist.

What Does BDSM Stand For?

BDSM: Bondage, Discipline, Submission, Sadism / Masochism, or Sadomachism

BDSM is an acronym used to describe sexual acts that fall into one of these groups:

  • Bondage - Restriction of movement, such as with handcuffs, ties, or ropes
  • Discipline - Rule-governed actions and punishments used by the dominant to control the submissive
  • Dominance - Exerting control over a more submissive partner and their experience during play or sex
  • Submission - Relinquishing control to a partner; submitting control to a dominant partner
  • Sadism and Masochism (Sadomasochism) - Finding pleasure in giving (sadism) or receiving (masochism) pain; pain may be physical or emotional

The Dominant and Submissive Roles Explained

In short, the dominant exerts power over the submissive.

The dominant in BDSM is the one performing the whipping, bonding, pegging, or other act.

This role-player may also be referred to as the "top," and is generally leading the actions taking place.

The submissive, by contrast, is the "bottom" role player who generally submits control to their dominant partner.

In a sense, the submissive lover sets the boundaries for the encounter; this party is relinquishing control over what happens and to what extent, but only within their own defined parameters.

Illustration of the top and bottom roles of BDSM

In a top/bottom situation, the bottom may also maintain some level of control by demanding certain actions from the top.

While you may start out thinking you want to play the dominant or the submissive, it can actually be really important for both partners to get to experience both.

The interchange allows both people to experience both roles and explore which parts of each role they enjoy the most.

Another note, a "switch" is someone who alternates between being submissive and dominant.

While some people find they prefer to always be submissive or vice versa, some find both roles to be enjoyable and don't mind shifting depending on their partner's preferences or the situation.

How Do I Get Started?

Banana with chain wrapped around it to represent BDSM

Feeling a little fifty-shades, but not sure where to get the party started?

BDSM is not really something you can just jump into without taking the proper precautions.

Here's a bit of guidance to get you started.

Establish Consent and Boundaries

Before you and your partner grab the rope and flogger and jump right in, laying down some ground rules in advance is a good idea.

Sit down with your partner and discuss BDSM beforehand.

Be candid, be explicit, and be open with your partner about:

  • Perceptions of BDSM or types of BDSM
  • Expectations involved
  • Prior experience with BDSM
  • Hard limits

This session may be necessary as a precursor but doesn't have to be mundane or boring.

Couples usually find the BDSM discussion sesh to be quite intimate and erotic.

You can even negotiate a little to come to mutual ground if the two of you have conflicting ideas.

For example, if you really want to try using a ball-tie position, but your partner doesn't feel comfortable with that, you may be able to negotiate something a bit less restrictive like a shrimp-tie position.

Ball-Tie Position:

Illustration of the ball-tie-poistion for BDSM

Shrimp-Tie Position:

BDSM Shrimp Tie Position

If neither of you has BDSM experience, do some "research," watch some "educational" videos, and discuss what you like and don't or what you want to try and want to avoid.

You could even experiment a little, have some fun, and assess some bondage-style sex toys you want to try.

Beginner BDSM Things to Get You Started

BDSM should start light—ease your way into the experience with your partner with a few of the low-key forms of play that don't get too risque or intimidating.

A few things to try include:

  • Sensory deprivation - Blindfold to deprive sight, apply female arousal gel and deprive her of touch
  • Light bondage - Try loose or soft wrist restraints or simply securing only the ankles to the bed in a preferred position
  • Hair pulling - Tug on the hair on the head or pubic area to guide or direct movements
  • Handcuffs - Secure your partner's wrists behind their back or one arm to a bedpost, to you, or to a chair
  • Breathplay - Practice with controlled or slightly restricted breathing
  • Light spanking - Spank or get spanked with a leather paddle, belt, or flog
  • Role reversal - Switch up typical sexual roles (e.g. man on all fours with a female wearing a strap-on)

BDSM play is kind of on a spectrum.

You'll definitely find some acts to be just a step beyond "vanilla" in terms of kink or even pain.

For example, mildly degrading dirty talk, blindfolding, nipple clamps, or wax dripping are on the lower end.

Illustration of common BDSM gear and toys

On the other end of the spectrum, you'll find far more kink, possibly more risk, and more pain.

Whipping, hogtying, and erotic asphyxiation would be at the more intense end of the scale.

Most couples find some level of BDSM they find exciting or enjoyable.

BUT it is rare for two people to be completely on the same page with what they enjoy, which is why consent is such an important part of this kind of sexual activity.

What About Safety?

BDSM can be oh-so-erotic and a lot of fun, but can also come along with risks.

Consent, safety, and communication are a must to keep everything in check even when playtime gets hot and heavy.

BDSM play is not for everyone.

Some people like the idea of bondage, pain play, or even sensory deprivation but won't feel comfortable when they experience it for themselves.

This is why open communication is critical.

You are bound to hit some points during your play that one of you is uncomfortable with, and that should be perfectly OK with both of you.

Establish Safe Words

A safe word is a pre-established word that can be spoken at any point during BDSM play to immediately stop what is taking place.

Safe words can be anything and can be totally unrelated to sex or eroticism, such as "unicorn" or "peach."

The word doesn't matter.

What matters is, both parties know the word and understand what the word implies.

Try the Traffic Light System

The traffic light system is commonly used in bdsm to express consent or willingness, or not

The traffic light system is easy for anyone to use, and some couples prefer this over a unique safe word.

In short, traffic light colors are used to communicate feelings or wants:

  • Red - Stop. Red is spoken when you are not comfortable, feeling overwhelmed, or don't consent.
  • Yellow - Slow down. You're near your limit, you want your partner to scale it back or slow things down. Maybe you're at the edge of discomfort.
  • Green - Go. It's all good, and you want your partner to keep going. You're comfortable.

Responding to "Stop" or a Safe Word

Saying "stop" or "no" doesn't come easy for some people in a submissive role.

If you are acting as a dominant and reach a "stop" point, accept that openly and with understanding.

If you show resistance or even frustration when you have to stop, this can mean your partner will feel less comfortable about being open about their limits.

You could violate your partner's trust by proceeding.

If your partner gets uncomfortable about sharing their own limitations, they may not speak up next time, which means you may continue doing something to violate them unintentionally.

You don't want that.

Safety with Bondage Toys

Bondage gear for BDSM

Speaking of sex toys, you can find everything from gear and clothing to toys and spanking devices.

All of these should be used with safety in mind.

For example, toys used in discipline bondage for spanking or whipping can cause some serious pain and significant injuries if you use too much force.

Likewise, some restraints can be movement-restrictive or hinder proper breathing if used improperly or for too long.

Whatever BDSM sex toys you bring into the equation, make sure you fully understand the risks involved, how to use the toy properly, and your partner's limits.

Benefits of BDSM

BDSM practices add some spunk and spice to bedroom endeavors, but this sexual play may also have some proven benefits.

Practicing BDSM gives two people in an intimate relationship the chance to explore trust, act out fantasies, and better understand sexual boundaries.

In a sense, BDSM is a rule-governed space where people are free to exert desires to be vulnerable or in control, which may not be possible in day-to-day life.

Some people even find BDSM to be freeing and open up new lines of intimacy within a relationship.

Couple with a renewed relationship thanks to BDSM

Not a lot of medically reviewed research is available where things like dominance and submission or masochism and bondage are concerned.

However, a few research efforts have shown noteworthy benefits of BDSM.

One small study found couples participating in certain types of BDSM scenes felt more connected and intimate.

In a second study, people who engaged in BDSM sex:

  • Had lower anxiety
  • Were less inclined to care what others think of them
  • Felt open to new experiences in life
  • Were more outspoken
  • Felt more conscientious of what others were feeling
  • Viewed their relationships as more secure
  • Had a better sense of personal well-being

BDSM may also mediate stress levels.

People who were allowed to take on dominant roles during dominance submission play had decreased stress hormones in their blood.

Some even claim that BDSM alters your state of consciousness almost like yoga or even feels like a spiritual experience.

Myths About BDSM

Bondage, sexual dominance, sadism, and other components of BDSM come along with their own negative connotations.

As it goes, this also means a lot of myths are out there to mislead perceptions.

Woman dressing for BDSM session

Myth #1: People who enjoy masochistic submission and sadism have mental issues.

This particular myth stems from the fact that BDSM interests were once thought to stem from some level of past trauma related to sex.

However, the Journal of Sex Research clearly outlines that mental illness rates are not higher among people who practice BDSM.

As it always goes with sex and erotic activity, why people enjoy what they do is highly ambiguous and multifaceted.

Myth #2: BDSM glorifies sexual abuse or assault.

Consensual BDSM is not at all glorifying sexual abuse.

True BDSM is all about informed consent and safety.

Both the dominant and submissive partners go into these encounters mutually with an understanding of limits and boundaries.

All levels of abuse are forced; BDSM is not.

Myth #3: Women should be the submissive partner, while men should dominate.

The only rules in BDSM are mutual consent and safety. No gender-specific roles or expectations apply.

Seriously, that meek barista at the coffee shop may be an expert with a whip and thoroughly enjoy inflicting pain.

That overbearing dude demanding a refund for his too-weak black coffee may enjoy getting gagged, blindfolded, and spanked.

Myth #4: Dominant/submissive roles in sex carry over into real life.

Happy couple that keeps BDSM in the bedroom only

While you may experience newfound confidence or contentment in everyday life if you enjoy BDSM with your partner, these roles you play in the bedroom don't have to be who you are in real life.

Some couples enjoy the dom/sub dynamic so much they live it 24/7.

If that's you and yours, go for it if that's a mutual desire.

But taking on a sexually submissive role doesn't mean open permission for your partner to use you, control you, or otherwise in any other way.

BDSM Sex: Takeaways to Remember

BDSM may be one of the more taboo forms of foreplay or sexual play, but much of the people in the general population practice some level of BDSM behind closed doors.

At the core of any sexual play involving submission and sadism, discipline dominance, or fifty-shade-style BDSM practices must be consent and safety.

Not everyone loves it, but most people love some aspect of it.

The key is figuring out where you and your partner fall on the proverbial spectrum.

With a pre-established set of ground rules and some safe words in place, you are bound to discover a few new aspects of you and your partner's sexuality.

Those discoveries could have serious benefits that positively affect you in your life and within your relationship.

Whether you want to play the dominant or assume more submissive roles, the entire encounter can be extremely erotic and arousing.

If you're worried the excitement may be too much as a man, pick up some Promescent Delay Spray along with your zip ties and flogger—you may need it.

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Zachary Zane
Zachary Zane

Zachary Zane is a Brooklyn-based columnist, sex expert, and activist whose work focuses on sexuality, lifestyle, culture, and the LGBTQ community. He currently has a sex advice column at Men's Health titled "Sexplain It" and a relationship column at Queer Majority titled "Zach and the City." His work has been published in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, GQ, Playboy, Slate, NBC, Cosmo, and many others. He also has a weekly newsletter, BOYSLUT, where he writes erotic essays detailing his wildest and raunchiest personal sex stories.


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