Photo via Alex Pappajohn/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

Turns out ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ isn’t the best source on kink after all.

Warning: This article contains sexually explicit material.

You might be familiar with BDSM through the book and movie series Fifty Shades of Grey. The franchise features college graduate Anastasia Steele engaging in a BDSM relationship with businessman Christian Grey. Fifty Shades of Grey opened up a wide range of BDSM fetishism–such as rope play, light bondage, and whipping–to new fans, many of which were straight women in their 30s through 50s. But the series has major problems, often depicting emotional abuse as BDSM and showing a fantastical version of kink that disregards Anastasia’s safety and consent.

The real world of kink is consensual, safe, and responsible. It cares for both partners’ physical well-being and creates clear boundaries between the real world and play time. It’s a space where women can spank each other and cuddle afterward, or men can dominate women and take a bath together once their play scene is all done. And that makes BDSM one of the sexiest ways lovers can come together and embrace each others’ bodies.

If you’re still wondering what is BDSM, what it stands for, or how to get started, here’s everything you need to know.

What does BDSM stand for?

Bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Those three phrases make up the term “BDSM,” an umbrella of sexual activities involving consensual power plays between two or more partners.

what does bdsm stand for Screengrab via @sagex420/Instagram

What is BDSM?

Over the years, kink and sex educators have come up with a few definitions for BDSM. In The New Topping Book, co-author Janet W. Hardy describes BDSM as “an activity in which the participants eroticize sensations or emotions that would be unpleasant in a non-erotic context.”

Hardy stresses that BDSM is both erotic and consensual: Pain becomes pleasure during BDSM. What’s going on may seem non-consensual without context, but both partners are engaging in play that they’re enjoying—no matter how humiliating it may seem from the outside.

Meanwhile, Psychology Today‘s Michael Castleman stresses that BDSM is about trust and affection. “Many people consider BDSM perverted, dehumanizing, or worse. But aficionados call it the most loving, nurturing, intimate form of human contact and play,” he writes. “In BDSM, the players always arrange things in advance with clear, intimate communication, which creates a special erotic bond.”

BDSM is ultimately about two or more people trusting and caring for one another via erotic power plays. That’s why BDSM is so attractive: All the pain, degradation, and humiliation in BDSM is done in a way that breeds intimacy between players.

BDSM is a range of practices

Generally speaking, most forms of BDSM have two roles: a dominant (or dom) and a submissive (or sub). The dominant holds power and responsibility over a submissive. They may ask for demands, like a foot massage, or proceed to spank and tie up their sub. Meanwhile, the sub receives the dom’s pain and pleasure. They’re the ones getting whipped, beaten, and forced into those foot massages. And they secretly (or perhaps not-so-secretly) enjoy it.

There’s a variety of terms to describe the dom/sub relationship, and every community has its own words. Dominant women are often described as a “domme,” “dominatrix,” or “femdom.” Queer kink communities use “top” and “bottom” in reference to the dom and sub, adhering to age-old roles from the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities. Specific fetishes have terms to describe the dominant and submissive relationship as well. In age play, the dominant is often referred to as a “daddy dom” or “mommy domme,” and the submissive is called the “little.”

bdsm meaning Screengrab via @corsetclub/Instagram

There’s also a wide variety of kinks and techniques that fall into bondage and discipline play, and they can often be found throughout dom and sub relationships. There’s rope play, which involves a dom restraining a sub with rope. There’s also whipping and spanking, which is relatively self-explanatory: A dom hits a sub for erotic pleasure. There are kinks such as edging, where a dominant brings a submissive onto the precipice of an orgasm and refuses release. And there’s forced orgasms, where a dominant makes a submissive orgasm against their will.

Any and all of these forms of play are considered BDSM. Not every BDSM practitioner will play around with them, of course. But they’re important parts of the BDSM umbrella, which goes to show just how diverse play can be.

BDSM is always consensual

what is bdsm Photo via Hendrik Wieduwilt/Flickr (CC-BY)

There’s one core fact to remember about BDSM: It’s all consensual.

Dominant and submissive relationships happen inside something called a play scene or play space, where two or more play partners get together to enact scenes. Like role play, players discuss the scene ahead of time and go through options that a dominant can engage in as well as ones they want to avoid.

It is understood that both the dom and the sub must adhere to those boundaries. Doms can be bossy, domineering, and powerful, but if a sub doesn’t want to be spanked, then spanking is off the table. Likewise, if a dom does not want to have any form of genital contact during play, then it’s the sub’s job to honor that boundary. This is the difference between BDSM and sexual assault. A sub who wants to be spanked and groped in a scene is engaging in consensual BDSM play. A sub that does not want to be spanked should not be spanked because that’s a violent crime.

BDSM’s fun comes from the fact that there are boundaries. At any time, a play partner can say a safe word and stop play, fix a problem, or talk about why a situation violated their consent. There’s nothing hotter than getting whipped, spanked, and degraded by your lover when you want it more than anything in the world.

Play takes skill

what is bdsm Photo via Quinn Dombrowski (CC-BY-SA)

Like most things sex-related, it takes time and practice to learn how to sub or dom. In Autostraddle’s article on tying up other people, Carolyn Yates points out a wide range of safety tips that doms need to keep in mind to tie up their subs. And as it turns out, there’s a lot to know when restraining your lover.

“Keep the rope loose enough that you can work two fingers between the rope and your activity partner’s skin,” Yates says. “The goal is to restrain, not to cut off circulation. If the rope might get wet (it’s really hot and you’re both sweating, for example), leave it even looser.”

Rope-tying is one of many BDSM activities that requires a lot of knowledge and reading before acting out. That’s because rope play flirts with risk. Without leaving two fingers’ width between the rope and the partner’s body, rope can cut off circulation, which can lead to nerve damage in serious cases. For new play partners who have very little experience with rope-tying, risk increases. And sloppy tying can lead to a higher chance of a sub getting hurt.


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Rope-tying isn’t the only thing that budding doms and subs have to learn. They have to prepare for emergencies, like a sub shrinking too far into themselves to communicate, or a dom feeling overwhelmed by a scene and needing to stop.

If it takes more than a few play sessions for things to really click between you and your partner, that’s pretty normal. Just remember to do your research before jumping in, and never try anything new without studying it, practicing it, and creating a backup plan if something goes wrong.

How to get started in BDSM

what does bdsm mean Photo via istolethetv/Flickr (CC-BY)

1. Think about what you want

If you want to get into the world of domination and bondage, then you need to think about what you want from BDSM. Do you want to be a submissive who’s spanked and whipped by your dom? Do you want to be a top who hooks up with bottoms? Maybe a bit of both?

Before diving in, sit down and make a list of what you want and what you don’t want. In The New Bottoming Book, authors Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy recommend making a list with three categories: “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe” (F-List is a great online resource that allows you to do just that). Then, add all the kinks, roleplays, positions, and sexual experiences you can think of under these categories. This can be a great way to understand what you want in a sexual relationship, and what you’d rather pass on.

From there, look at your list, and think about what kind of role you want to take on during BDSM. If you like being in control or inflicting pain (and pleasure), you might just be a top. On the other hand, if you want to receive all of that humiliating control from a powerful presence, you may be a bottom. And if you want a little bit of both, then you’re a switch. That means you get to play with different roles depending on your partner (or the scene at hand). Some play partners even switch up their dominant and submissive roles, allowing the dom to occasionally become a sub and vice-versa.

BDSM is pretty versatile. But it’s important to do some soul searching and figure out what role you want to try out before hopping in. It’s never fun to be topping mid-scene and realize that you actually want to bottom.

2. Practice, practice, practice

what does bdsm stand for Screengrab via Rope Baby/YouTube

BDSM is geeky. It’s a sexual practice based on plenty of research and fine-tuning. Whether it’s tying that perfect knot, slapping a sub at just the right speed and position, or figuring out your favorite position to be dominated, improving as a top or bottom is all about studying and working for it. And when it comes to more risky play, that means spending plenty of time planning beforehand.

If you want to learn the basics of BDSM play, go to a 101 workshop in your nearby area. In New York City and Seattle, feminist sex shop Babeland regularly hosts introductory BDSM sessions. Meetup can be a great way for finding groups that focus on kink exploration and education, too.

Also, pick up some books on BDSM while you’re at it. The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book are both great resources for learning more about taking on topping and bottoming roles. There’s also Clarisse Thorn’s The S&M Feminist, which looks at BDSM from a sex-positive feminist perspective.

Books that specialize in certain forms of sex or sexuality are often great resources, too, and can round out BDSM play by bringing on larger aspects of sex. Girl Sex 101 by Allison Moon and kd diamond provides an enormous encyclopedia of information about girls and their bodies, with a particular focus on trans women. For anyone and everyone who has an interest in play with women, then Girl Sex 101 is a definitive read to giving pleasure.

3. Find play partners

bdsm meaning Photo via Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

One of the hardest parts of BDSM is finding people to play around with. Sex is already taboo in the United States—never mind BDSM. There are some options to find doms, subs, and kinksters to play with, though.

For one, if you’re currently in a relationship, talk to your partner about BDSM. They may have experience of their own with kink, or they may be interested in experimenting with dom and sub roles. Plus, a romantic or sexual partner is a great tag along for any local workshops and events, and having your significant other by your side at parties can help calm beginners’ nerves.


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If you’re single or in an open relationship, there’s plenty of other ways to find play partners. Usually, interested kinksters can attend a munch, where interested and veteran BDSM players alike get together and get to know each other. Play isn’t permitted here; it’s simply a social gathering for people to learn more about BDSM. There are also sloshes, where kinksters can meet up in a lounge or bar and grab a drink under similar circumstances.

Online, the MALL Directory is a great way to find munches and sloshes. Meetup also hosts plenty of BDSM groups around the world. And if you want to learn more about what to expect at a munch, check out this write-up on Caryl’s BDSM Page.

Once you’re a bit more seasoned, local newsletters and online groups can help clue kinksters into events happening in their nearby community. The Wink, for example, hosts a weekly list of events in the New York City area to join, like play parties and leather nights. The BDSM Events Page runs a calendar listing conventions throughout the year, too, serving as a great resource for tracking kink events nationwide.

Taking the first step into the world of kink can be scary. Everyone is a little nervous during their first munch or play scene. But soon enough, those initial fears fade and apprehension turns into excitement. So don’t hold back. Enjoy yourself, even if it hurts a little. And embrace the bottom or top (or switch) that you were always meant to be.

Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance. 

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