An Introduction To BDSM

An Introduction To BDSM

BDSM… four little letters, with such a big impact… When you hear them, what comes to mind?

For many people who haven’t explored BDSM, the answers to that question often range from, “Chains and whips,” to, “50 Shades of Grey,” to, “Abuse.” Most of them centre around pain and trauma, and they are likely from depictions of BDSM in popular culture.

However, while enjoying films like 50 Shades isn’t inherently problematic, what is problematic is using the depiction of BDSM that is shown in mainstream media and assuming that all BDSM practises are like them.

What is missing, is a range of examples, that depict healthy and unhealthy BDSM relationships. 50 Shades falls squarely into the latter. BDSM has been historically stigmatised and pathologised and pop culture does little to change that.

According to a recent Science Direct study, almost 50% of the general population have engaged in BDSM-themed activities at least once, and 69% had fantasies about BDSM-related activities.

So, even if BDSM doesn’t appeal to you personally, it’s really worth taking a little time to challenge your existing perception of what it is, especially if your current perception is built on the way it is represented in pop culture. I have been exploring kink and BDSM for over half a decade now, and I can tell you – from personal experience – that it is nothing like 50 Shades of Grey.

This is the first part of a mini-series about BDSM, covering the following:
  • What BDSM actually is
  • Why do people enjoy BDSM?
  • Some of the most common misconceptions about BDSM
  • What the kink and BDSM community would like you to know about BDSM
  • The basic components of healthy BDSM relationships
  • Hard and soft limits, safewords and aftercare

I am going to start at the beginning: by breaking down the acronym itself, and explaining why BDSM really isn’t all chains, whips and Christian Greys.

What BDSM actually is

BDSM is an acronym for 3 separate couplets:
  1. Bondage and Discipline
  2. Dominance and Submission (Dominant/ submissive or D/s)
  3. Sadism and Masochism (sadomasochism or S&M)

Often, when people think about BDSM, they go straight to that last one – the S&M part, the one that’s all about pain. But to the people that practise it, BDSM is so much more than that.

The silent P: Power exchange

Before I go into more detail about what each pair of letters stands for, let’s take a look at the concept that is at the heart of any healthy BDSM practise: consensual power exchange.

Most of us are actually pretty experienced at negotiating power exchanges in our daily lives: in our romantic relationships, at work, with friends, with children. However, most of these exchanges of power are hidden somewhere under the surface, they’re implied – or consciously negotiated – but we rarely talk about them in terms of power.

They are often subtle, and can manifest as an agreement to leave the toilet seat down, or which brand of toothpaste is added to the weekly grocery shop, or even who decides which side of the bed you sleep on.

BDSM creates a space in which power exchanges – sometimes like these, sometimes very different – are explicitly negotiated. These negotiations are always consensual (even if they may not look like it) and, when they are to do with sex, they allow for an element of fantasy that is truly exciting.

In a nutshell then, BDSM is not about pain; it is about power. And I think we can all agree that power, and the exchange of it, is fascinating.

B & D: Bondage and Discipline

Bondage and discipline is the part of BDSM that interests me the most. Of course, it can be physical – ropes and restraints – but it is often more about mental power play.

It can be as simple as following consensually negotiated protocols. As above, these could be agreements about where you sleep, or the toilet lid situation, but it can also go a lot further. It could be agreeing on a self-care routine, responding in certain ways to certain commands, or calling someone by an honorific, such as “Sir”, or “Mistress”.

Discipline, for me, has looked like: sending daily pictures of my work outfit; adhering to an exercise routine; and once, being made to walk – blindfolded – from the door to a chair, and to keep trying until I managed it. Spoiler: it was harder than it sounds and was all sorts of frustrating, but ultimately it was a beautiful lesson in patience and realistic expectations.

Conversely, the sexual side of B&D is absolutely about being physically restrained and this can be using rope, under-the-bed restraints, duct tape, and often includes some level of sensory deprivation too. For me, this is an almost meditative experience in the right setting. Being unable to move, means I have no choice but to relax, and it means I connect with my body in ways I otherwise wouldn’t. If someone else is in charge of the toys, it can open the door to excruciatingly pleasurable experiences like edging and orgasm denial, too. Being blindfolded can help as well, as it heightens my other senses.

D & s: Dominance and Submission

The D&s part is often, but not always, closely related to the B&D element of BDSM. Similarly, it is built around a power exchange, but this time it specifically relates to a dynamic between a Dominant and a submissive. In order to convey the power balance, the “D” is usually capitalised and the “s” is lower case; it is often shortened to D/s. While there are many sub-dynamics within the category of D/s relationships, for sake of simplicity, I am going to talk in general terms.

Basically:
  • The Dominant is the person who does things. They take charge, and initiate activities and actions.
  • The submissive follows directions, mostly receives, and usually has things done to them. The main exception to this is “service”, in which a submissive “serves” their Dominant.
  • People who enjoy both Domming (topping) and subbing (bottoming) are called “switches”.

D/s relationships can be 24/7 and reliant on Total Power Exchange (TPE). This means that the agreed roles are a lifestyle choice for both parties that they alway adhere to. Often it is these dynamics that are shown in popular culture, perhaps because they provide the largest shock value for those watching. The truth is that very few dynamics are actually 24/7; for most couples, the D/s dynamic is simply one part of their relationship.

D/s relationships can be enjoyed by anyone, and a healthy dynamic is borne out of trust, communication and consent. They do not rely upon any of the following: an age gap; a wealth gap; pain; or the Dominant party being male and the submissive being female. They may or may not include a written contract. And the part that most people don’t realise, is that the agreed protocol is actually dictated by the limits of the submissive, not the demands of the Dominant. This means that the ultimate power is usually held by the sub, but the beauty of the dynamic is in how this power passes hands in different ways.

Sadism and Masochism

BDSM is not reliant on pain, but S&M can form a healthy (yes, really) part of a BDSM relationship.

So what is it?
  • Sadomasochism is when someone derives pleasure – often sexual – from inflicting or receiving physical or emotional pain.
  • A sadist is someone who enjoys inflicting pain, intense feelings or discomfort onto someone else.
  • A masochist is someone who enjoys receiving pain, being made to feel uncomfortable, or being ‘forced’ to do something they don’t enjoy.

It’s important to note here, that Dominance and submission are not interchangeable with sadists and masochists. While many Dominants (Dom/mes or Tops) would also identify as sadists, and many submissives (subs, or bottoms) would also identify as masochists, you can absolutely be a Dominant and not a sadist, and a submissive and not a masochist. It’s also possible – but much rarer – to be a masochistic Dominant or a sadistic submissive.

Again, the S&M is a form of power exchange, and it hinges on trust, consent and communication. It can involve: light spanking by hand (gloves can also feel nice); impact tools like canes (that produce a “stingy” pain) and paddles (that are more “thuddy”); or other types of pain like candle wax and (my personal nemesis) clothes pegs. It can take time to figure out what you love, what you hate, and… what you love to hate.

And, if you are new to S&M it’s important to start slowly and gently. My pain threshold changes over time. If I haven’t engaged in any pain play for a while, it can be incredibly low, but if I am doing it regularly I can enjoy a lot more. I also find I am much more sensitive around my period.

Non-consensual pain is not BDSM. In a dynamic that includes pain, the following are imperative. Prior to playing, you need to:
  • Discuss and agree on any hard limits (for example, many people will avoid anything that results in permanent marks, breaking the skin, or marks to the face). These limits are always set by the masochist.
  • Agree on a safe word or safe signal (in case you are unable to speak). If either party says this word (yes, tops can use a safeword, too) play stops immediately and you take stock of the situation.
  • Agree on aftercare expectations. S&M can be demanding – physically and emotionally – for both parties; you need to know how you are going to manage this afterwards, while remaining aware that needs can change. You both need to be on board with this.

S&M can also involve emotional pain, like humiliation and degradation. The above still apply: are there any words you don’t want used? Any lines you don’t want crossed? And how are you going to differentiate between fantasy and reality?

Why do people enjoy BDSM?

Hmmmm… this is a tricky one. Why do people enjoy anything? Ask ten people this question, and you will get ten different answers.

Frustratingly, depictions like 50 Shades, rely on the idea that engagement in BDSM is intrinsically linked to trauma, or abuse. This is simply not true.

Sadly, BDSM can be an opportunity for abusers to take advantage of vulnerable people. And this is why consent and communication are so important, as well as an understanding of the risks of some BDSM practises. Kink and BDSM have provided me with an entire network of people, with whom I can discuss my concerns about my own thoughts and feelings, as well as the behaviours of those I meet.

And, while some people will stumble across kink in an attempt to understand and process past trauma, for many the two are not connected at all. However, BDSM can provide a safe space to push oneself and face into difficult feelings and can be an incredibly healthy way to do it. But people like what they like, and that is absolutely ok. In fact, it’s more than ok, it’s the beauty of being human.

What is dangerous, is when people link BDSM with trauma and abuse and judge others for what they do in their private lives. The most important thing for anyone engaging in BDSM is to understand what healthy and unhealthy BDSM looks like, and this cannot be done by watching 50 Shades of Grey.

In conclusion

It is almost impossible to discuss all the nuances of BDSM in one article, but to summarise:
  • BDSM is about power (not pain)
  • Because the submissive/ bottom dictates the limits, the power ultimately lies with them (regardless of how it might look from the outside)
  • BDSM relies on consent, first and foremost
  • Trust and communication are imperative
  • It’s important that people who engage in BDSM understand what healthy and unhealthy examples look like
  • Perceptions of BDSM should not simply be based on watching 50 Shades of Grey