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When you hear the term “BDSM,” chances are, you immediately think of Christian and Ana from Fifty Shades of Grey or a scene out of your favorite spicy novel. Remember when Rihanna sang about how chains and whips excite her? Yes, that too. Since BDSM is frequently referenced in pop culture, you might be wondering: What is BDSM, exactly? And what does the acronym refer to? 

According to a 2019 systematic review published in Sexual Medicine, BDSM is an abbreviation for “bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism, and masochism” and refers to a “physical, psychological, and sexual role-play involving power exchange between consensual participants.” BDSM can include a range of sexual experiences that look different for every person and depending on how you practice, BDSM can provide both a physical and psychological thrill.

Like all things sex and relationships, BDSM isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience, and it’s important to find what feels good for you. It’s also crucial to practice active consent, which involves an affirmative, honest, voluntary, conscious, sober, and ongoing agreement to participate in sexual activity. When consent is at the core of your experience, BDSM can feel fun, empowering, and exciting. If you’re curious to learn more, here’s what BDSM stands for, what you need to know about it, and BDSM tips for beginners, according to sex therapists.

When trying BDSM for the first time, move at your own pace and comfort level.

According to Silva Depanian, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, BDSM is all about discovering what you’re comfortable with and isn’t always necessarily what you see depicted in pop culture. While BDSM may seem intimidating and even “dark” at first, remember: As a beginner, you have a say in the type of experience you want to have.

“The concept of BDSM is often perceived as taboo or intense, involving elaborate ‘scenes’ that incorporate chains, whips, and kinky sex,” Depanian tells Her Campus. “While that image may be accurate for some practitioners, it's completely up to you to decide how far you want to go.” 

Leah Carey, a sex and intimacy coach and host of podcast Good Girls Talk About Sex, adds that although BDSM encompasses different types of sexual play, there’s a range of options for what you can try, and they don’t necessarily occur together. “Just because you play in one area [of BDSM] doesn’t mean you are required to play in others,” she tells Her Campus. “These are separate activities that need to be negotiated separately.” Depanian says that BDSM doesn’t even have to involve sex or touching since the power exchange dynamic can be psychological in nature (i.e., teasing, making someone “wait” for sex, or building anticipation). 

When starting out, you may find that you're more comfortable with some areas of BDSM than others; maybe you generally enjoy being tied up but aren’t comfortable feeling entirely restrained, or you love dirty talk, but verbal degradation goes too far. Depanian says that no matter your preferences, keeping your BDSM experience “safe” and “consensual” is key. Communicate with your partner(s) about what you’re cool with and what you aren’t, and don’t be afraid to set boundaries, especially at the beginner stage. 

Remember that while BDSM may seem like an intimidating topic to bring up, your consent should be at the forefront of any sexual experience. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), consent is “an agreement between participants to engage in a sexual activity” and involves the “ongoing process of discussing boundaries and what you’re comfortable with.”

If you’re not sure how to initiate the convo with your partner, Carey recommends finding a story from a book, TV, or movie that depicts different aspects of BDSM, asking your partner what they think about the story. This can be a simple, low-stakes way to explore what you might be interested in. You can even take a quiz, research beginner-friendly BDSM ideas, or ask your partner outright what they enjoy or don’t enjoy. 

Bondage & Discipline

“[Bondage] is the world of restraints,” Carey says. This form of sex play is all about having another person control your pleasure — with consent, of course. Bondage and discipline may include props like handcuffs, ropes, blindfolds, chains, gags, and more, depending on your comfort level and preferences. Bondage can generate sexual excitement and anticipation, and many practitioners find the vulnerability and intensity of the experience to be stimulating.

According to Depanian, “discipline” refers to “rules set for a scene,” where occasionally a form of “punishment” can be doled out if the rules are broken. For example, discipline play can involve one person telling another to “obey” their predetermined rules, whereas another partner is deriving pleasure from being at the “will” of their partner. Discipline can refer to both physical and psychological restraint, with common activities being spanking, role-playing, and situations in which one person is “trained” to follow another person’s rules during the scene. 

Dominance & Submission

According to Carey, dominance and submission can be thought of as “the world of structured power dynamics.” In these instances, one person is typically in “control” (usually referred to as a “dominant”) and another person is following directions (the “submissive”). Carey adds that while intentional power dynamics are at play here, you always have the power to say “no” and dictate what’s comfortable for you.

Depanian adds, “It is up to the individuals in the partnership to agree upon the length of time this power exchange will last when they're with each other — for example, just for the night, or all day, every day.” 

When exploring BDSM, you may find that you identify more with a “dom” or “sub role” within your relationship, but you can also identify as a “switch” — which, according to the Journal of Sexual Medicine, is “an individual who shifts between both the dominant and submissive roles, depending on the context and play partner.” 

When agreeing upon guidelines for dominance and submission, Depanian says it can often help to create a written contract or use “safewords” to make sure your boundaries aren’t crossed (more on that later). 

Sadism & Masochism

Many BDSM beginners assume that the entire experience is “all about pain,” when in actuality, it is about the exchange of power and pleasure. However, with the “S&M” part of BDSM, pain does play a role.

“Sadism is when a person enjoys giving pain, while masochism is when a person enjoys receiving it,” Depanian says. And, according to Carey, this can often involve “heavy impact play” and purposefully inflicting pain to derive pleasure. 

Another common misconception about BDSM is that it’s abusive in nature. However, clinical sexologist and sex educator Diana Nadim says this is not true. “Let us be crystal clear: BDSM is not abuse,” she tells Her Campus. “Abuse is a non-consensual exchange of power in which the abused party cannot alter the character of the relationship or quit it. Abuse is predicated on non-consensual acquisition of control, whereas BDSM is predicated on consensual control for a predetermined period.” 

Regardless of what aspect of BDSM you explore, remember that your personal safety is paramount. BDSM should feel exciting and pleasurable, not harmful or violating. If you’re engaging in a sexual activity that doesn’t feel good for you — whether physical, emotional, or mental, or something simply feels off about it — do not feel pressured to engage in something you’re uncomfortable with. Give yourself permission to set a boundary, and know that you do not need an explanation. This goes for non-BDSM relationships, too: no partnership should veer into harm or abuse. 

Consent, safety, and clear communication are key.

Engaging in BDSM typically involves stretching your comfort level and taking risks, so consent, safety, and clear communication are key throughout your experience. BDSM has even been used as an educational tool to teach about consent on college campuses and can be a powerful way to identify and explore your fantasies, boundaries, and practice speaking up. 

“Wholehearted sober consent given by each participant for every action taken is of utmost importance during a BDSM scene,” says Depanian. “Otherwise, the situation can quickly move away from being safe, sane, and consensual, and instead become unsafe and dangerous, both physically and mentally.” 

To that end, she recommends agreeing upon “safe words” to use in sessions to ensure your physical, mental, and emotional safety are prioritized. 

“Agree on safe words to use to check in during your scene or indicate if you need to end the scene,” she says. “Examples of this include choosing a single word to end a scene immediately — like saying ‘bubbles’ when spanking gets way too rough —  or using a stop-light system, such as green for, ‘Go ahead,’ yellow for ‘I'm uncomfortable and need to slow down,’ and red for ‘Stop immediately and end the scene.’ Checking in, and giving as well as getting consent throughout the scene is very important to maintain everyone's mental and physical safety.” 

If you're new to bdsm, discuss it with your partner(s) first.

“Have a conversation with your partner about likes and dislikes before any activities even begin,” Depanian suggests. “This can be as straightforward as saying, ‘I would really like to try having my hands tied up the next time we're together, but I really don't want you to say anything mean or humiliating to me while I'm in that position. That would feel too vulnerable.’”

As a BDSM beginner, it’s important to be open and honest about what you’re experiencing, both before, during, and after a scene. Depanian says if you’re not sure if you’re okay with something, it’s okay to take time to think about it — and occasionally, watching porn can help you explore fantasies and learn what you enjoy (and what you don’t). 

Don’t forget about aftercare.

If you’re exploring BDSM for the first time, Depanian says that “aftercare,” the practice of being present with your partner(s) after a session, is a crucial element of the experience. 

“Aftercare is the time taken together by partners after scenes have ended to check in with each other and wind down,” she says. “BDSM scenes can give you a rush of endorphins and even adrenaline depending on the activities you choose. As wonderful as those feelings might be in the moment, coming down from them can be harsh. Cuddling, cleaning up, and just reflecting on the experience can help mitigate that crash.”

BDSM isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience, and it’s up to you to determine what feels exciting and enjoyable. Have a conversation with your partner(s) or someone you trust, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and experiment with new activities that feel good for you. Remember: Exploring your pleasure should be exciting and fun! Just don’t forget to assert boundaries where you need to, and put your safety first.

Additional reporting by Tianna Soto.

Experts
Leah Carey, Sex Therapist & host of Good Girls Talk About Sex
Silva Depanian, LMFT, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Diana Nadim, Clinical Sexologist & Sex Educator

References
Bezreh, T., Weinberg, T. S., & Edgar, T. (2012). BDSM disclosure and stigma management: Identifying opportunities for sex education. American journal of sexuality education, 7(1), 37-61.

De Neef, N., Coppens, V., Huys, W., & Morrens, M. (2019). Bondage-discipline, dominance-submission and sadomasochism (BDSM) from an integrative biopsychosocial perspective: A systematic review. Sexual Medicine, 7(2), 129-144.

Eastman-Mueller, H., Oswalt, S. B., & Nevers, J. M. (2021). Sexual diversity on college campuses: using a BDSM framework to discuss consent. Journal of American college health, 1-5. 

Turley, E. (2018). Leading and following? Understanding the power dynamics in consensual BDSM. In Leadership and Sexuality. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Willis, M., Murray, K. N., & Jozkowski, K. N. (2021). Sexual Consent in Committed Relationships: A Dyadic Study. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 47(7), 669-686.

A self proclaimed pizza making princess. Amanda enjoys eating foods that will possibly take years off her life and cats.
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