If you’ve watched TV or been on the internet over the past few years, you’ve probably seen some reference to the Fifty Shades series. While the series claims to be about a BDSM relationship, Fifty Shades is wrought with inaccuracies and instead gives plenty of examples of how not to have a healthy BDSM relationship.

BDSM is not some big, bad wolf only used by damaged people. Instead, BDSM is a practice that emphasizes consent, communication, and experimentation with power and boundaries within a relationship. If you are interested in experimenting with BDSM, being a submissive, or simply knowing the basics of how it works, look no further. 

What is BDSM?

So what exactly does BDSM stand for? In the most technical of terms, BDSM is a series of erotic practices that play with notions of power dynamics within a relationship between two or more consenting parties. The acronym itself stands for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. The D/s subset of BDSM is the most visible subset of BDSM in popular culture. A Submissive (or Sub) takes the role of one that submits to their Dominant (Dom or Domme) in a specific BDSM scene or in their everyday lifestyle.

Some of the most beginner-friendly BDSM sex toys include Restraints and Handcuffs.

Submissive and Dominant Relationships in BDSM

There are many different ways in which one can engage in BDSM or play. There isn’t one “right” way to be a sub. It’s important to know that your kinks are normal and healthy, experimentation is encouraged, and communication is the key to any successful BDSM interaction. Some folks prefer to experience BDSM play in small doses in clubs, dungeons, or with a partner. These BDSM interactions often referred to as “sessions” have a designated started and end; the interactions within these sessions are called “scenes.” While some prefer to play in limited sessions others called lifestylers live day to day in a D/s dynamic.

Lifestyle play can often include day to day routines like getting outfits approved by a Dom or edge play (masturbation without orgasm.) Those in a lifestyle D/s dynamic often feel that their relationship is strengthened by play as the routines satisfy the needs of both parties. Subs are often “collared” by their Doms (called Masters, Owners, or Daddy in this dynamic.) Collared subs wear a literal collar or symbolic jewelry to represent their relationship dynamic and express to other lifestylers that they are owned.

Types of BDSM Play

Everyone’s kinks are a bit different and the BDSM community is full of specific niches. Types of play range from impact play (striking a partner with a hand or foreign object like a flogger, paddle, or cane), sensation play (hair pulling, teasing, ice), to breathplay (choking). Scenes are specific encounters where one or more person engages in a type of BDSM play that may or may not lead to sexual activity. For some, control and denial can be a non-sexual way to play. This generally entails having a Dom control daily aspects of your life like food intake, exercise, and sleep schedule. It can be as general as eating five servings of vegetables a day or as specific as eating 39 peas with your meal (as seen in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, 2002.)

Having someone else in charge of day-to-day minutia in your life can help manage stress and anxiety. Knowing you’ll receive a punishment from someone who cares about you if you don’t take care of yourself can provide a feeling of safety for a sub. For those with eating disorders, self harm issues, or other mental health problems a dom can be supplemental (not replacement) to therapy. 

How to be Safe in BDSM?

Being a good submissive means making sure that you’re playing with a dom who is trained and knows the ins and outs of BDSM safety. For different types of play there are different kinds of safety practices. The most universal type of safety in BDSM play is sobriety. All parties involved must be fully sober to maintain safe play. It’s important that you and your dom and educated in these safety nuances before starting a scene.

For example, for wax play you need to buy a specific kind of wax that will not burn your skin and for bondage scenes it’s important to have a pair of safety shears at the ready in case a bind needs to be broken in a rush. BDSM can be fun and exciting but safety precautions are what keep it that way. 

What is a Safeword in BDSM?

A good submissive has a safe word and knows when to use them. A safe word is a word or a phrase that means “stop what you are doing immediately.” No further explanation is necessary. For some a safeword can be part of a series of phrases for checking in during intense scenes like green (I’m enjoying what is going on), yellow (I’m near my limit and/or something needs to be adjusted), and red (Stop! Now! I’m done).

A safeword must be discussed before a scene so that both parties are aware of what it is. You wouldn’t just yell a safeword that hasn’t been discussed. A Dom might be confused as to why you’re yelling “pineapple” when you’ve never used that as a safeword. If your ability to speak is hindered in a scene negotiate other ways to tap out of a scene if necessary like tapping a Dom on the arm during breathplay, raising your arm, or snapping. It is extremely important to a healthy BDSM relationship to have boundaries, express them, and know when to say no. If a scene makes you the slightest bit uncomfortable, the submissive should have the power to stop the scene. 

Boundaries in BDSM

While BDSM plays with power and boundaries within a relationship, the true power lies with the submissive during play. Submission is an expression of trust held with another individual. Trust means safety and safety is power. Being a submissive means you have all the power. A submissive is in control of the type of play, the intensity of the scenes, and how long it lasts.

Being a good submissive means knowing your wants and needs are valuable and that you are entitled to express those needs. A good sub must not participate in an act solely for the pleasure of their play partner, they must do so because they want to. In BDSM play you can always say no, use your safeword, or end a scene. You are not obligated to engage in an act that you don’t want to because you feel like you have to, or a lack of participation would disappoint some. 

Subspace and Aftercare in BDSM

For many, BDSM can be a sort of catharsis. The high intensity of the scenes can leave subs with various thoughts and feelings after the fact. This state of mind is often referred to as subspace. To be a good sub, you need to be comfortable with expressing your needs after a scene or aftercare. Aftercare is just as important as safety planning before a scene and the scene itself.

For some, aftercare can be a good cry, an intense talk, or simply being cuddled. It’s important to engage in aftercare to remind yourself that an intense scene is not that status quo of your relationship. Debriefing a scene is an important and essential step to a healthy BDSM relationship. 

Communication in BDSM

Communication is by far one of the most important aspects of healthy BDSM play. Before a scene even starts, it’s important to create a verbal or written contract with your dominant explaining what you are and are not comfortable doing. Hard limits are things you absolutely will not do, have no intention of doing, and do not want to be asked about.

Soft limits are things that you are open to doing but are very cautious about trying. Soft limits are something you are open to trying but in doing so may find you do not like. Boundaries are healthy and okay. To be a good submissive, you must be comfortable with drawing a line when a scene crosses your boundaries. 

Consent in BDSM

Consent is the most important aspect of a BDSM dynamic. To clarify, consent is an agreement to participate in an act. It must be given sober, freely, and voluntarily. Being a submissive does not mean that one lacks power within a relationship. Your consent must be given for any play to occur and can always be retracted by use of a safeword.

If you do not consent to an act, it will not happen. If your partner attempts to push your boundaries when you have not given your consent or specifically asked not to do it, they can no longer be your play partner. BDSM revolves around the respect of an individual’s right to consent. Safe and healthy play and relationships value consent above all else. 

Myths About BDSM

In popular media BDSM is often misrepresented. Participants in BDSM are often depicted as broken, damaged, and self-hating. It is rare that a D/s relationship is anything like the depictions in popular culture. Folks in the BDSM scene aren’t damaged and they don’t hate themselves.

There is no “normal” way to have sex and relationships. BDSM can be an aspect of the focus of a relationship, there is no right or wrong way to experiment or participate in BDSM as long as consent, communication, and boundaries are expressed and respected. Books like The Bottoming Book are a great resource for those interested in submission. 

Finding BDSM Partners

To find a Dom, a sub can join Fetlife (think Facebook for kinksters), visit a local dungeon, or explore a D/s dynamic within your existing romantic relationship. In many cities there are Munches, or meet and greet type parties, for those in or interested in the local BDSM community.

If you’re single, remember that you don’t have to be in a relationship to play. BDSM communities are typically open-minded and welcoming. Kinksters are eager to teach newbies and grow their local scene. 

Why Try BDSM?

Why do people like BDSM? BDSM is a great way to explore boundaries and test power dynamics within a relationship. It is an expression of trust and vulnerability between two or more parties. For many, BDSM play can be a cathartic release for stress and tension. Submission is a way to temporarily relinquish power while remaining in full control of a situation. Subs enjoy the expression of trust and the thrill of exploration that occurs in BDSM play. When control is given to another party, subs can lose themselves in a scene without the stress of outside responsibility.

It’s a little hard to think about your car payment when you’re hog tied and covered in hot wax. With BDSM you can lose yourself in a moment and fully immerse yourself in the present by focusing on each sensation during a scene. Scenes are a good way to experience the sensation of pain without self-harming and self-contained, consenting control instead of an abusive partner.

Instead, pain can be felt in a healthy, consensual way. Human sexuality is full of nuances and intricacies, and the better we understand them, the better we can understand ourselves. Now get out there, explore, be safe, and have some kinky fun!