A Beginner’s Guide To BDSM

The real ’50 Shades of Grey’

If you're new to BDSM and haven’t already googled those four special letters, I’m going to ask that you don’t. Not because of anything negative you might find, but for those who are BDSM-beginners, it's possible to get confused and even scared by what you might find when you do an unfiltered internet search. As with pretty much all sex-related topics, it's best not to go through your first exploratory stages as if you were fumbling around in the dark; and as with pretty much all things in life, knowledge is power, and it's nice to get guided along your educational path. That's what we want to do here, anyway. Consider this your crash course in all things BDSM.

Let's start at the beginning: What even is BDSM? Unlike essentially every other acronym, the four letters of BDSM actually stand for a combination of phrases: bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.

Bondage refers to the restraint of a partner to increase sexual pleasure; everything from rope, straps, scarves, leather, or chains (among other things) can be used. Blindfolding is also considered to be a form of bondage. Fuzzy handcuffs? Bondage. Straight jacket with your ankles tied to opposing bed posts? Bondage! It doesn’t even necessarily need to be all that restraining. Bondage can also be tying for stimulation as opposed to purely for restraint, like rope over the nipples.

Discipline is the use of directions or rules to exercise control and offer sexual punishment or reward (which, in some cases, are essentially the same thing). This can be something simple, like setting a plan for the submissive partner to be on the bed waiting naked when the dominant partner gets home, or it could be something, uh, simple, like enduring 10 minutes of consecutive spanking.

Dominance and submission refer to relationships centered on sexual power exchange. Of the three concepts of BDSM, this D/S is known to be the most emotional and can be participated in with little to no physical contact. The roles of a dominant and submissive (dom and sub for short) are usually pretty clearly laid out, indicating that the dominant person is comfortable having control as their partner is submitting to it. If you’ve ever role played during sex before and conceived of a situation wherein one partner is in more control than the other (for example, teacher and student), you’ve dabbled in dominance and submission. 

Sadism and masochism are the most physical of the concepts, and subsequently, probably the most misunderstood by those unfamiliar with the pleasures of BDSM. Similar to all of the aforementioned categories, S&M is consensual infliction or receipt of pain and/or humiliation. It's named after two European writers, Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who practiced and wrote extensively about pain for pleasure. S&M can be as rudimentary as rough sex to something much more advanced like paddling, flogging, choking, or even needle play. 

There is one main commonality in all of BDSM sex, and that is this important motto: safe, sane, consensual. As with anything that pushes at (and pushes past) boundaries, BDSM has a required series of checks and balances. Clearly communicating desires and wishes is instrumental to the negotiating process between all parties involved. Additionally, things like intensity and frequency should be taken into consideration and discussed. Someone may want to be choked, but they may not want it to be to the point of passing out, while others actually might desire that. 

For this particular reason, safe words are important. A common, flexible, and easy to remember safe word is a huge part of BDSM play. The safe word system is modeled after a stoplight. “Green” would indicate everything is going well and to continue, while “yellow” communicates to use caution or check with with the person as they are anxious or hesitant, and “red” would mean to stop.

Another extremely important part of BDSM is aftercare. A sexual encounter within the realm of BDSM is referred to as a scene or session. Aftercare is the time following a scene where participants unwind, discuss the session, and come back to reality. This is essential for those participants who need to feel like they've been released from their roles. Aftercare often includes cuddling, spooning, and verbal and physical affection, but talk with your partner about their specific needs.

Considering there's misinformation about even the simplest, biological aspects of sex (like the location and even existence of G-spots, somehow), there are naturally common misconceptions around BDSM. Sex and relationships educator Kate McCombs says people unfamiliar with kink believe BDSM has to involve pain. 

“Many practices have nothing to do with pain at all,” she explains. “One of the biggest misconceptions people have about BDSM is that it's all hard-core master/slave relationships and elaborate dungeons. Sure, many people are into those aspects of it, but I'd say the majority of practitioners are incorporating things like bondage, sensation, and explorations of power in their sex play.”

McCombs also offered insight on how to start a dialogue about incorporating BDSM into your sex life. This can be more difficult if you don’t talk that openly about sex with your partner. But don't worry, there are some easy ways to begin the conversation.

“If you haven't already started doing it, talk about interesting sex articles you've read, cool sex ed YouTube videos you've seen, or discuss an intriguing sex scene from a show you watch together,” McCombs offers. 

A good conversation starter could be: "Hey, I read this thing about bondage increasing in popularity after 50 Shades [of Grey] hit the stands. What do you think about that?" 

For slightly more advanced and committed couples, McCombs recommends a sex Trello. “Trello is a kind of online bulletin board where multiple users can add items to various lists. Most people use it for productivity and projects, but it's great for building a more varied sex life. For couples exploring BDSM, it's a way of brainstorming scene ideas and consolidating them in one place.”

Whether or not you’re now ready to build your own at-home dungeon, the key to all good sex—BDSM or otherwise—is in remembering that research and communication are crucial. McCombs recommends an online quiz for beginners at MojoUpgrade, the online resource Kink Academy, and Tristan Taormino’s book 50 Shades of Kink

Now, go catch up on your reading and consider staying in for Valentine’s Day this year.