Your everything guide to what BDSM actually is — and isn't.

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50 Shades of Grey. Cardi B's hit song WAP. Rhianna's S&M Video. We've read and listened to messaging around BDSM, and yet, it's still misunderstood and misinterpreted by the general population. But BDSM is more common than you probably think — one study found 47% of participants had participated in at least one BDSM activity. Another 2014 study found that 65% of female participants and 53% of male participants have fantasized about being sexually dominated — and that the majority of the male participants (60%) and nearly half of female participants (47%) have fantasized about sexually dominating someone else.

If you're curious about giving it a try yourself, this BDSM 101 guide will cover the basics, the extremes, and all the in-betweens (plus some resources if you want to continue learning!). 

What Is BDSM?
Credit: Getty Images

What Is BDSM?

First things first, before jumping into the statistics, what is BDSM? BDSM stands for bondage and discipline (B&D), dominance and submission (D&S), and sadism and masochism (S&M).

The term kink in human sexuality refers to using non-conventional sexual, sensual, or intimate practices, concepts, or fantasies. BDSM is one form of kink. Basically (like anything else), both kink and BDSM specifically are practices specific to each and every consenting human involved — and that's the magic of it. 

"Kinky folks [often] create and build intimacy through power exchange and/or sadism and masochism. We're all aiming for the same goal — human connection — we just go about it in different ways," says Cory Bush, a sex educator and full-spectrum doula

Now, let's be very clear here: BDSM is not abuse. "Abuse is a non-consensual power exchange in which the person being abused has no power to change the nature of or leave the relationship. It is based on control that was nonconsensually taken, whereas BDSM is based on control that is consensually gifted for a negotiated period of time," Bush explains. 

Ruth Neustifter, Ph.D. an associate professor of couples and family therapy at the University of Guelph in Ontario, defines BDSM as "a wide, expansive area of sexual and/or sensual play that ranges in intensity and complexity. It's a collection of ways to explore intimacy, vulnerability, communication, ourselves, and our partners. Much like being playful, it's designed to help us try different and creative ways of being ourselves (or being someone else) and being with each other."

BDSM Terms to Know

Scene

A scene is a previously negotiated, planned, consented to, communicated BDSM event. Basically, the scene is the main event, when all the talk gets put into action. When it comes to setting up a scene, there is quite a bit of planning involved (more on that later) to make sure everyone feels comfortable.

Safe words

It's important to set up safe words ahead of time before a scene begins. This is so important for so many reasons! One main reason is that scenes can be very intense. They can bring up tears, a lot of emotion, screaming — you name it. And a lot of the time, these things are good and help add to the scene's intensity. Having safe words allows people to feel truly safe, knowing that if it ever goes too far they will always have a way to end the scene while also leaving space for wanted intensity. For doms, this is also helpful, so they know the limits of their sub. I recommend having a green/yellow/red system AND a safe word so that there are two ways to stop and two ways to keep going. (Ex: Yellow means "I'm close to this being too much, but it's good right now.")

Top and Bottom

The term top can be used in many ways. However, in terms of BDSM, the top is usually the human in the giving role. Meaning, they are the ones who apply stimulation to another and (in a previously consented to conversation) guides their bottom through a scene. 

Similarly, the word bottom has different meanings in different contexts, but in BDSM, a bottom is usually on the receiving end of all the scene goodness — pain, humiliation — you name it! Generally, in a scene, it's the bottom's job to appease the tops (once again, all of this consented ahead of time, and safe words are ready and available). 

Aftercare

Because of the intense nature of BDSM, it's important to prioritize and check in on each other. Aftercare is the intentional time after a scene when the people involved do what they need to do to take care of any wounds, get grounded, or "come down." This can look like applying ice packs, cuddling together and talking, taking some time to yourself, smoking a joint, eating a big snack — it will be different and specific for everyone and may change depending on what took place inside your BDSM container. Aftercare isn't an option or suggestion— it's a must. Also, remember that aftercare isn't just necessary for bottoms or submissives — a scene can be just as emotionally intense for doms.

Pre-scene consultation or negotiation, safewords, and aftercare are all in place in a healthy BDSM dynamic. 

BDSM Stigmas and Myths (And Why They Aren't True)

One of the most common misconceptions about the BDSM community and those who practice BDSM is that it's just random pain or violence inflicted on someone else. The reality is that there is a miraculous amount of intentional planning, intricate communication, and trust that goes into any BDSM scene.

Another stigma we see so often in the media is that anyone who is sexually confident is also irresponsible and often lacking a deep connection to themselves and others. This stigma couldn't be more untrue when it comes to folks who partake in BDSM. In fact, so many people find BDSM not only healing but one of the safest forms of self-expression; self-expression that requires ample amounts of consent, communication, and attention from and towards partners. This is one of the stigmas that pisses me off the most because to have incredible sex, we actually have to be so in-tune with ourselves and our partners — and we can't be afraid to talk about the hard things. This is never portrayed accurately in movies, which is why our society is so critical of sexually confident individuals. Okay, rant over (for now)!

Another stigma surrounding BDSM is the judgment of pain, dominance, and submission in sexual expression. Dr. Neustifer reminds us that pain isn't fun for pain's sake and that for the pain to be pleasurable, it needs to have context — to fit into a scenario that person finds arousing and exciting. Then, and usually, only then, it can "amplify and intensify sensation and arousal." Some folks experience pain in this context as pleasure, and some won't, and that's what makes the world go round. If someone likes something sexually that you don't, that's fine, and we don't need to say why we don't like it; we can simply let them enjoy it! (Basically, don't yuck someone else's yum.) 

Lastly, contrary to popular belief, BDSM isn't just about intense sexual experiences and doesn't always include whips, paddles, cuffs, and leather. It definitely can include those things, but it isn't what defines BDSM. In fact, BDSM doesn't just have to pertain to sex. Many people find the dynamics of domination and submission exhilarating to play around with in everyday life scenarios that aren't inherently sexual. For example, there are D/s relationships based around exercise, lifestyle, or even clothing choices.

How to Plan a BDSM Scene

Because of the intensity of some scenes and the vulnerability needed to make them possible, it's essential to make sure each person involved feels comfortable and can fully express their desires, limits, boundaries, and anything else they feel important to share.

Scene negotiations are really like a consultation to prepare for the main event. When going into a scene, it's so important to communicate, communicate, communicate! And then, communicate some more. Talking about boundaries, expectations, desires, likes/dislikes, and non-negotiables will make your scene experience a million times more satisfying. 

For more intense scenes that include pain, it's crucial for all people involved to feel comfortable going in and with a general idea of what to expect. Providing this space to talk beforehand allows everyone involved to vouch for themselves and their comfort levels. It always creates trust, which is an absolute BDSM necessity!

Before the scene actually begins, it's vital to discover what helps you "collect yourself" best. If you need alone time to get in the zone, or you need to be around people who make you feel safe and happy, or you need to exercise and get your body moving — take time to discover what makes you feel the best and most relaxed. BDSM is all about listening to our bodies and our partners— preparing for a scene is absolutely no different. 

Mental Health, Trauma Healing, and BDSM 

One of the magic possibilities of BDSM is its ability, within a safe, trusting environment, to help heal past traumas. There is something so powerful about healing sexual trauma through sex, and BDSM can present a safe space to do just that. 

Our bodies hold trauma inside, and sometimes the best way to let it out is to rewrite trauma with positive, empowering sexual encounters. If you find yourself wanting to explore this, let people in. Tell a friend you are entering a trauma healing scene, so you have someone to talk to afterward. Be aware of your body during a scene and that you don't dissociate— and don't forget your safe word! 

Additionally, BDSM can be incredibly useful while working to reclaim some power in your life. While some argue that you can't be a submissive and be a feminist, Bush argues the opposite: "I would argue that you MUST be a feminist and realize the power you hold within yourself in order to give it to someone else."

BDSM can also have very real mental health benefits. A 2016 study found that 91.4% of BDSM practitioners surveyed associated BDSM with relaxation or decreased stress most or nearly all of the time. Another survey from 2013 found that BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extroverted, less rejection sensitive, and had higher subjective well-being. BDSM provides opportunities to play, let go of our inhibitions, and explore new possibilities with ourselves and other people. With anything in life, when we fully submit to letting ourselves explore, our confidence is boosted because we allow ourselves to just be

It can also help boost your relationship, if you're in one. A study from 2009 found that couples that engaged in positive, consensual BDSM and kink had lower levels of the harmful stress hormone cortisol and reported greater feelings of relationship closeness and intimacy after their play. There could be many reasons for this, but the main one is definitely the ability to be fully vulnerable with someone and allow each other the freedom to express their sexualities together

Also, remember, for a BDSM scene to feel truly fulfilling, we have to allow ourselves to feel present. Being and feeling present can look so different for everyone, and everyone might have a different idea of what being present looks like — and that's beautiful. Find what helps you feel most present in your body, and don't be afraid to ask your partners what their present looks like, too.

BDSM Resources to Get Started

BDSM might feel out of reach or scary, but it doesn't need to be — unless that's what you like!.  "If you want to buy a formal latex and leather outfit, take an intensive training to build skills, and build a tricked-out full dungeon in your home, then, by all means, go for it! And if you and your lovers want to cover each other in sparkly stickers, bark, and meow cutely, and feed each other bowls of rainbow frosting, then that's great, too," Dr. Neustifter says. 

Again, this is about finding what you like — not getting it "right." The only thing that must be "right" is the consent piece, understanding limits, and respecting your partner(s). Use BDSM as a way to tap into yourself, your sexuality, relationships, vulnerability, and so much more. 

Recommended Books on BDSM

  • The New Topping Book by Dossie Easton
  • The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton
  • Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliott
  • Kink: Stories edited by R.O. Kwon
  • Playing Well with Others: Your Field Guide to Discovering, Exploring and Navigating the Kink, Leather and BDSM Communities by Lee Harrington
  • Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness: Life, History, and Culture in the Leather/BDSM/Fetish Community by Steve Lenius

Recommended Blogs on BDSM

  • Kinkly.com has an entire dictionary of kink and BDSM definitions on the website that's great for beginners. 
  • Bound-Together covers the basics: communication, dominance, submission, research, and rope. 
  • Loving BDSM is a BDSM couple who has a blog, Instagram, and podcast. Their blog covers BDSM from a couple's perspective with educational and personal essays. 
  • Coffee And Kink Blog has educational pieces, personal essays, and opinion pieces.
  • The Blak Syn focuses primarily on opinion pieces regarding kink instead of educational content. 
  • Dame Swell has an article on how to explore BDSM by yourself, which I think is a really powerful resource.

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Rachel Wright, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, sex educator, and relationship expert based in New York City.