A Beginner’s Guide To BDSM, With Tips From A Sex Therapist
Few things in life are as misunderstood as BDSM. The sex practice gets a bad rap as one that’s physically or mentally harmful, one that only survivors of abuse embrace, and one that’s abnormally kinky. But it’s actually none of those things.
At its most basic, BDSM is an umbrella term for three categories: bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism (more details on those in a minute). They might each sound scary in their own right, but because they rely on a judgement-free zone where communication about your desires and boundaries come first, BDSM can actually be the safest (and most fun) kind of sex you can have, says Dr Holly Richmond, a somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist.
“So much of our life is controlled, so for a lot of people, it’s nice to be let off the hook,” Richmond explains. Think about it: Your work schedule, rent payments, and (ugh) taxes are all set by external forces. BDSM offers a world of freedom to play, experiment, and allow someone else to take the reins — at your consent. Or on the flip side, if you’re the one who likes to do the controlling, you get to call the shots for once.
If you’re just starting out, it can be tough to imagine BDSM as anything but a Red Room (thanks, Fifty Shades) with chains and whips to excite you (à la Rihanna). And though the practice typically does involve props, they don’t make an appearance right off the bat. Instead, as a beginner, you’ll want to take things slowly until you figure out what BDSM looks like for you and your partner(s), since someone else’s methods won’t necessarily get you going.
Below is everything you need to know if you’re thinking about trying your hand at BDSM so that the sexual encounter will leave you pleasured and empowered. As it should.
1. Educate yourself.
Besides oftentimes being inaccurate, the portrayals of BDSM you’ve seen in film (or porn) are probably not going to work for you (they tend to be a tad…extreme). Richmond recommends reading up on BDSM, taking a class to learn about moves and scenarios you can play out with your partner, and bringing in a sex therapist if need be, so that you can figure out what your version of the practice looks like.
But to get a better grasp on what each of three categories mean, here’s a quick primer, from Richmond:
- Bondage and discipline: Bondage is a form of sex play that focuses on restraint. Having another person control your pleasure is central here, and it can involve props such as handcuffs, ropes, blindfolds, or a range of restraints. Discipline is the practice of training a “submissive” to obey, follow rules, or perform certain acts. Discipline is almost always present in the relationship between a dominant partner and a submissive one.
- Dominance and submission: This describes the practice of giving power or control (submission) to another who then takes it (dominance). Dominance and submission can be emotional, physical, or both, and the dynamic can be played out in sexual acts—or through acts of being in control/acts of service. For some, the roles are full-time (including outside the bedroom), while for others, the roles are only taken on at predetermined times of erotic encounter.
- Sadism and masochism: The acts of sadism and masochism are performed by people who derive pleasure from pain. The sadist enjoys inflicting pain on someone else, while the masochist enjoys receiving pain. Remember: This is pleasurable and one of the safest forms of sex because of the significant amount of work put into boundary-setting and open communication. Most people who engage in sadism or masochism enjoy a sense of empowerment from enduring something difficult.
P.S. Your experience doesn’t have to involve all three categories, or even both roles within a category. You might discover, for example, that you’re naturally dominant or submissive, or someone who can switch back and forth between both. Or you might even realise that while you like being tied down (bondage), you don’t particularly enjoy going under the whip (discipline).
2. Talk it out.
Sit down with your partner and have an honest conversation about your desires, what turns you on, and what your boundaries are. Richmond stresses that this convo, which is incredibly important before trying any type of BDSM (or any sex act, really) must be done face-to-face, since “eye contact is how we communicate empathy.”
Because BDSM typically involves surrendering control, trust and communication is everything. It’s extremely important that you’re as specific as possible with your partner about what you want and don’t want, as they should be with you. For example, let them know if the idea of being blindfolded excites you but having your hands cuffed makes you anxious. Similarly, hear them out if they tell you they never want to be in a submissive role.
From there, the two of you will be able to better negotiate consent and identify your limits to make sure that you’re both comfortable throughout the process.
3. Consider making it a group affair.
If you realise that you’re willing and wanting to go further than your partner, you might even discuss bringing an additional person into the mix. A third party whose boundaries better match up with yours can ensure that you all have fulfilling experiences — as long as, of course, your partner is on board.
If they’re not, try to talk to your partner about what they might be comfortable with trying at least once with you, to see how they truly feel about it. If they absolutely can’t get behind experimenting with some of your fantasies, Richmond notes that it’s common for couples to agree that “when there’s one partner who wants to do more, they will go to sex party or a dungeon.” Again, not as scary as it sounds!
4. Write it down.
Remember how Christian Grey and Anastasia had a written contract? It actually wasn’t a horrible idea. Since BDSM is all about communication, communication, and communication, it might be helpful to write down what you and your partner discuss in a contract of sorts — even if you’re dating or married.
This way you’ll have something to refer to when you need a refresher on your partner’s boundaries, says Richmond. As you get more comfortable with BDSM and want to take it further, you can come back to your contract, renegotiate, and make amendments. P.S. This can be kind of fun — not weird or transactional — because it ups the excitement for what’s to come (emphasis on come).
5. Pick a setting.
Part of a BDSM game plan is picking a spot to do the deed, says Richmond. That might be a hotel on your next vacation (where it might be easier to tap into a different persona), a room reserved for power-play sex, or just your boring old bedroom. As long as it’s a place you feel safe, you’re good to go.
6. Come up with a safe word.
Speaking of safety, if things go too far and you or your partner cross a boundary you didn’t anticipate, decide on a word you’ll both say (and obviously listen to) if that time comes. Richmond suggests picking something totally random that you wouldn’t normally say in the bedroom, such as “milkshake” or “turtleneck.”
Once you hear or say the safe word, everything should stop immediately. BDSM only works when it’s mutual pleasure for everyone involved — so as soon as it’s clear things have pushed too far, game over. Ask your partner if they’re okay, stay by their side until they’ve expressed what it is that called for the safe word, and then ask them what they’ll need from that moment forward, says Richmond.
7. Go shopping.
BDSM is exciting in its own right, but bringing in toys and props can take the fun up a notch, says Richmond. Head to a sex store with your partner and let your imagination run wild. You might load up on restraints, chain nipple clamps, vibrators, paddles, anal beads, and/or lube to help you better lean into your agreed-upon roles.
“This is all about pleasure,” says Richmond so stock up on anything that will make you and your partner feel good.
8. Dress up.
The same way props and toys can bring out your dominant side or the masochist in you, dressing the part can be just as helpful in setting the scene. For example, if you’re the submissive during the experience, you might try a choker — or a cat mask and tail — to represent your willingness to obey your “owner” during the session.
Have fun with it! You don’t need to go all-out Halloween-style, but if a little costume or accessory helps you channel your inner sex goddess, wear it proudly.
9. Go slowly.
“You can talk and plan all you want to, but most of the time, in the moment, there will be a little tripping point,” says Richmond. This makes going slowly essential. You can familiarize yourself with which moves might be too rough for you or your partner and decide whether or not you actually enjoy, say, having your hair pulled during doggy.
Whether you’re just getting into BDSM or you’re a seasoned pro, the practice will always be “an experiential process where the more you do, the more you’ll know,” says Richmond. She assures she’s “very rarely heard of someone getting hurt beyond what was agreed upon,” but you still have your partner to think about. Taking your time helps ensure that you don’t cross their boundaries, either — because once you do, they might not want to give BDSM another go.
10. Save time for “aftercare.”
“The conversation you have after the experience is just as much a part of sex as the acts themselves,” says Richmond. This conversation, typically called “aftercare,” is a chance to debrief by asking your partner about what they enjoyed most and what they were thinking when you, say, lightly spanked them.
The verbal intimacy and vulnerability expressed after the BDSM experience will strengthen the bond you have with your partner. And that’s a whole other type of bondage worth getting behind.