The building blocks of BDSM relationships (and how they relate to everyone)

The building blocks of BDSM relationships (and how they relate to everyone)

In my previous articles in this mini-series (An Introduction to BDSM and Misconceptions about BDSM) I gave an overview of some of the main aspects of BDSM, and attempted to clarify a few of the most common misconceptions people have about it, often based on misrepresentations in popular culture.

I wrote, in some depth, about three foundations of BDSM as I understand them: trust, communication, and consent. In this final article, I am going to look at the three main building blocks – that rely heavily on these foundations – in a bit more detail, and explain why I think they are relevant to everyone, not just people that practise kink or BDSM.

These three building blocks are:
  • Hard and Soft Limits
  • Safe words
  • Aftercare

Limits

In a nutshell, limits are things you don’t want to do. They can be sexual, but often they’re not. We all have our limits and they are most commonly known as boundaries outside of BDSM. As individuals, we can find it easier or harder to make and maintain our personal boundaries depending on a whole host of factors.

Where BDSM is specifically concerned, sharing a list of limits is common practise both early on and throughout a relationship.

Limits can include, but are definitely not limited to:
  • Specific activities: “I like impact play, but I do not want you to use a cane on me.
  • Agreements about sexual health: the use of contraception and barriers, especially in nonmonogamous relationships.
  • Language: not using certain words or phrases, like, “I don’t want to be called Daddy when I’m in a Dom role.
  • Agreements about communication: these might require negotiation, but people communicate differently. It might be, “I will text you to say good morning when I wake up,” or, “I need some thinking time when we are talking about something serious, so I would prefer to use text or voicenotes so I can really consider my response and then follow up with a discussion in-person.
  • Body parts: “I really like it when you restrain me with rope, but I don’t like it around my neck.
  • Types of play: such as, impact play, rope play, pet play, race play or age play
  • Alcohol/ drugs: how much (if any) you will drink before engaging in BDSM activities (see also: Consent is Sexy), “If we drink more than two glasses of wine each, I’d prefer not to do any S & M tonight.
  • Personal preferences that – in theory – have nothing to do with BDSM at all: “Please don’t tickle me.
  • Ethical choices: “I don’t use animal products, please use my vegan impact toys rather than yours, if they are leather.

Generally, limits are placed into one of two categories: soft and hard. But before we talk limits, let’s talk ‘enthusiastic yeses’. Because BDSM has given me an entire language to communicate not only my sexual limits and boundaries, but also my desires.

Enthusiastic Yeses

This is the baseline for a healthy BDSM relationship. It’s important to spend time learning what turns you ON as well as thinking about what turns you off. And yes, I mean sexually, but I also mean emotionally and mentally.

Enthusiastic yeses are the things that you generally enjoy. Mine include: cuddles, light spanking, hair pulling, kisses (and getting “lines” as a “punishment”).

However, as with everything else, consent is always ongoing. Even enthusiastic yeses aren’t always enthusiastic or yeses so it’s important to note that anyone – the Dom or the sub – can say, “No,” to anything at any time.

Soft limits

Soft limits are effectively flexible boundaries.

They might be things you’re only comfortable doing when a certain level of trust has been built up (which, for me, is most things). They might be the things you haven’t tried yet, but are intrigued about and could see yourself enjoying in a certain situation. They are the things that you might choose to do on one day, but not another; the things that have caveats or conditions.

To give you some ideas, mine include: anal play, which I will only do with trusted partners and when I’m prepared; rope, which, again, I will only do with trusted partners; and having my face slapped, which I simply have to be in the mood for (the trust part is implied). Verbal humiliation and degradation, like being called a “slut”, is also a soft limit; I enjoy it under the right circumstances, but I need to know my partner well enough to know they are role playing and not putting their real, derogatory feelings about me on display.

Hard limits

And so, on the other side, we have hard limits. These are your rigid boundaries: the things you have zero interest in trying, or things you might have tried and decided you didn’t want to do again.

Mine include: orgasm denial; someone controlling when I’m allowed to use the loo (a common rule in 24/7 dynamics); being called a “bitch”; and anything to do with animal products, so no leather, no silk, vegan lubes etc.etc. “Time outs” as a punishment are also a hard limit for me: I know myself and my abandonment issues well enough to know that if I am ignored my anxiety is too hard for me to manage.

How do you define your limits?

How you define your limits is such a personal journey. For me, it started when a Dom asked me what my limits were and I couldn’t answer. In response, he gave me a list of BDSM terms and asked me to categorise them into three groups: Yes, Maybe/ Discuss, and No.

So I did what any discerning kinkster would do: I made a spreadsheet.

I had to Google many of the terms, and many of those I did know I had no experience of, so it was largely theoretical. But a learning experience nonetheless. It gave me a good jumping off point.

I’ve since updated my spreadsheet numerous times. Things that used to be hard limits have crept their way down into my soft limits (or yes) category, and things that used to be soft limits have become hard limits. I’ve learned so much about myself through this process.

I now use a 0-5 scale to indicate how enthusiastic I fee about something, and it serves me well. I rarely share the entire spreadsheet with anyone, but it gives me a really good understanding of myself.

How are limits relevant outside of BDSM?

Every relationship has boundaries. BDSM gave me a language to communicate mine more confidently. It started out with me communicating my sexual desires and limits, but has absolutely moved into every aspect of my life.

Explicitly knowing your own and your partner/s’ limits is simply having conversations that outline what you both like and dislike. In my experience, too much of this is left up to trial and error in non-kink relationships, and not enough space is left for saying, “No,” or communicating what each individual actively enjoys.

I would say that everyone who has sex should take the time to really consider their enthusiastic yeses as well as their hard and soft limits in (and out of) the bedroom. But be aware that the sands can shift over time: this is one of the best things about humans in my humble opinion, but it can also be a little scary. Remaining open-minded can be challenging if a partner approaches you and asks you how you feel about something they might be curious about but, when we meet their curiosity with our own, great things can happen.

Safe words

Once your limits are defined (for now!) the next thing to establish is a safe word.

A safe word is a “hard stop”. It can be used by anyone, at any time, for any reason. Yes, even the Dom. And yes… even because you ate too much dinner…

Some genuine reasons people in the BDSM community have used their safe word:
  • Not in right headspace/ felt emotional
  • To end a scene
  • Reached pain limit
  • Over stimulation after orgasm
  • Started not enjoying it (BDSM should be fun!)
  • Felt ill
  • When subbing with a new partner to test their reaction
  • Alcohol
  • Ate too much pre-scene
  • Need a break
  • Cramp
  • Head got stuck in a weird position

It’s important to note that safe words are not trophies. You (or your sub) should not be using it every time you play, or even half the time.

In seven years, I have used my safeword three times and I can remember why I used it on each occasion. This is largely because my limits were defined and communicated, and the people I chose to engage in BDSM with have taken the time and effort to understand both them and me. That said, things do happen that may be no one’s fault and that’s why practising PRICK (personal responsibility, informed, consensual kink) is important.

Choosing a safe word

A safe word should be easy to remember and, if you are incorporating sex into your BDSM play, not a word you would normally say during sex. For example, ‘No’ and ‘Stop’ are terrible safe words for me personally, as I might roleplay saying these (when I most definitely do not want someone to stop).

Some examples of safe words are:
  • An animal, such as Star Fish or Kangaroo
  • Food, such as Cinnamon or Apple
  • A place, like Cambridge
  • Tango
  • Safeword
  • Pineapple is – for some reason – a very popular one
  • Red/ Amber/ Green
  • Scale (1-10)

Some people prefer to negotiate a safe word at the beginning of each scene even if they are with the same, and many have a word that they use as a “pause” button and a second to use as a “hard stop”. The traffic light system is great for this and can be used pro-actively to gauge how someone is feeling. Especially when doing impact play, regularly asking the bottom to rate pain on a scale of 1-10, or asking them if they’re at red, amber or green, is a great way to make sure they are still having fun. If they are unable to answer, for whatever reason, that should also be taken immediately as a safeword.

Nonverbal safe words

However, in some BDSM scenes, a submissive may consent to not be able to speak. This may be because they are gagged, or simply because they are told not to. It is important to have a nonverbal “safe gesture” in these situations. The one you choose will depend entirely on what the bottom is able to physically do, and what the top is guaranteed to notice.

Some examples:
  • Finger clicks
  • Foot/ leg shakes
  • Dropping an object that will make a sound (but not break!)
  • Blinking
  • Nods/ head shakes

What happens after a safe word is used?

The first thing that should happen after a safe word is used is that everything stops. If someone doesn’t stop the safeword (or gesture) should be repeated until things do stop and a question needs to be asked as to why they did not stop. For me, someone ignoring my safe word is a huge red flag and grounds for not seeing them again.

With new partners, I will often test out their response by using our established safeword well before I need to, just to gauge their reaction.

What happens next depends heavily on the situation but it will involve communicating openly and honestly.

As a top, it will generally involve putting your ego to one side. It might be that the first thing you need to do is untie, or ungag, your sub. It might simply be that they need to pause. It might be that they need a cuddle, or a drink. How you respond to your partner’s safe word is unbelievably important but, if you have negotiated limits, and have a trusting and respectful relationship with your sub, you need to remember that it is not about you.

As a bottom, using your safe word can be anything from annoying to embarrassing to terrifying. Submissives are often keen to please their Dominant, so feeling like you’ve “failed” can be soul destroying. However, using a safe word isn’t a failure. In fact, it’s pretty much the most empowering thing you can do.

Take as long as you need to process the scene, including what went right as well as what went wrong, and think about how you migh tneed to modify things going forward.

I can be in a rush to get back to it after I’ve used my safe word, but I’m getting much better at taking time to regroup; I need a lot of reassurance, and a lot of TLC.

How are safe words relevant outside of BDSM?

Safe words – a hard stop – are such a great idea in general. Saying, “No,” can feel embarrassing (especially during sex), and is also something that people can ignore or attempt to turn into a yes.

Establishing a safe word can give you or your partner a way to stop whatever it is that is going on. It might be something sexual, or it might be a way to take a breather from an argument. Either way, having a word that means, “No,” can be incredibly powerful.

Aftercare

Aftercare is exactly what it says on the tin: care that comes after a scene. It is imperative that all parties involved get aftercare, whatever that may look like for them.

While many people need cuddles and closeness following a scene – especially one that might involve pain or humiliation – some people need time alone. There is no right or wrong way to give or receive aftercare, and the likelihood is your needs with change depending on who you’re with, what you did, and the way the wind blows.

What is right, though, is that you communicate aftercare needs to one another. You may have a list of things you know you like, or it may be a conversation you have after the scene has ended.

However, self-knowledge is important here: if one person needs intimacy, and the other needs space, something is going to have to give and you may need to negotiate.

Some things people might need (or want) after a scene:
  • Intimacy: cuddles, kisses, strokes
  • Water
  • A bath or shower – together or separately
  • Music/ a movie
  • A blanket
  • Words of affirmation
  • Talking through the scene
  • Time alone/ peace and quiet
  • Food, although it is worth noting that sugar isn’t always the best thing to eat post-scene, even if your body is craving it. Sugar simply maintains your dopamine levels and can lead to a huge crash (aka “drop”) once all the happy hormones have left your system.

Aftercare needs may change in the hours or days following a scene. You may need space straight away and then find yourself craving closeness later on (or the other way around). You may think you’re ok, but then find you’re not quite as ok as you thought (I have a habit of leaving bags on public transport if I am left unattended too soon after an intense scene and adapt my aftercare requirements to take this into account!)

To this end, aftercare doesn’t necessarily finish once a quick cuddle has been had. Some people need very little in the way of aftercare, others need a few days to process a scene. Communicating needs around how long you want aftercare to continue (for those that don’t live together checking in via text or phone for a few days can be really helpful).

Why is aftercare necessary?

There are a few reasons why aftercare is so important:
  • After a BDSM scene (or any intensely pleasurable experience) you may “drop” as the “happy hormones” that are produced (namely dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins) leave your body. When it’s done well, aftercare can help to alleviate some of the low feelings you might get.
  • If your scene involves impact play or pushing yourself physically, aftercare should involve looking after your body. Rest it. Soak in a bath. Stretch out your muscles and joints. And use arnica to treat bruises. Having someone else rub it in is especially lovely.
  • If your scene involves humiliation or degradation, aftercare can mean showing each other you care. Roleplay is a lot of fun, but it can also take its toll mentally if it isn’t followed by loving words if required.

How is aftercare relevant outside of BDSM?

The concept of aftercare can be used explicitly following any intense experience: after an argument; after sex; after time apart. Talking to loved ones about what you all need following a passionate encounter can truly strengthen a bond.

In conclusion

  • Limits, safewords and aftercare are really great concepts to use with partners in everyday life.
  • Spend time considering your enthusiastic yeses, your soft limits and your hard limits and communicate these with your partners as relevant.
  • Limits – yours and other people’s change over time – this is absolutely normal.
  • A safe word is a “hard stop”. It can be used by anyone, at any time, for any reason.
  • A safe word should be easy to remember (and, if you are incorporating sex into your BDSM play, not a word you would normally say during sex).
  • If a safeword is used, everything should stop immediately. What happens next will depend on the situation.
  • Safewords are not a badge of honour; they should be used rarely.
  • Aftercare is care that comes after something intense, and it is absolutely imperative.
  • There is no right or wrong way to give or receive aftercare, but discussing it with a partner is the key.

BDSM has truly given me, personally, a voice and a vocabulary that allows me to communicate my desires, wants, needs and boundaries. It isn’t for everyone (according to Durex around 20% of people worldwide practise it) but the core principles it based on – trust, communication, consent, limits, safe words, and aftercare) really are.

See also An Introduction to BDSM and Misconceptions about BDSM