A Beginner’s Guide to BDSM.
Sex education

A Beginner’s Guide to BDSM.

Published
Sep 14, 2022
Author
Davey Davis

 

Defining what it means and knowing where to start. 

BDSM has an awkward reputation for being both scary and corny at the same time. For those interested in dipping their toes into its dark waters, misconceptions about BDSM—from what the acronym means to what people are really getting up to—can make navigating a brand-new subculture all the more confusing.

But as general interest in getting kinky in the sheets (and elsewhere) continues to rise, opportunities to educate yourself have gotten easier to find. With the right resources, you can explore the world of BDSM in a smart, safe way. Consider this your BDSM guide for beginners. 

What does BDSM mean?

Here’s your basic BDSM meaning: It’s an umbrella for power exchange and sensation exploration, under which are many additional terms that communicate desires, activities, and relationships to other players. And what does BDSM stand for? The acronym itself is complex, meaning, alternately and simultaneously: “bondage and discipline,” “Dominance and submission,” and “sadism and masochism.” 

The building blocks

BDSM’s most basic interpersonal dynamics are your building blocks to all things kinky: There are tops and bottoms, dominants and submissives, and sadists and masochists. Tops are the doers and bottoms are the people things are done to. (In the context of queer sex, tops can also be the active parties and/or the penetrators, while bottoms are the passive parties and/or the penetrated). Dominants and tops have control, while submissives and bottoms relinquish it. Sadists enjoy inflicting pain, and masochists enjoy receiving it. 

Then there are switches, who can be either a top or bottom, dominant or submissive. Like “top” and “bottom,” “switch” applies both to sexuality and to BDSM, activities that often—but don’t always—go hand in hand. While some of these labels are mutually exclusive (you can’t top and bottom at the same time), many are often combined to describe situational or static identities, like “dominant top” or “submissive-leaning switch.”

How do I get involved?

The world of BDSM encompasses countless subcultures based on fetishes and political affiliations, as well as identities like race, gender, and sexual orientation. There’s no standard BDSM guide you can follow, but rather, it’s something that you can learn more about from your own exploration, and from other people—whether they’re your own sexual partners, or not. The vibrant communities that form around common interests are a big part of what draws people to BDSM.

As with any other kind of community, building a network of other BDSM players takes time and a willingness to put yourself out there. Use social media sites like Instagram and Fetlife to find local munches (which are casual social gatherings for kinksters to get to know each other), classes and workshops, and BDSM-themed nights at bars. 

How do I stay safe?

Knowledge is power. Whether you’re doing your homework with books like The New Topping Book by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy Tens or building relationships with trusted mentors in your local scene, learning BDSM history and safety practices is just as important as trying that new scene idea you’ve fantasized about. 

Most importantly, however, is to know yourself. Think hard about what you’re interested in, and what you’d rather avoid. Just like in the vanilla dating world, knowing what your boundaries are and enforcing them are important to keeping yourself and others safe. 

Different practices can help you and your partner(s) to establish your boundaries in the realm of BDSM—and if there’s anything critical to add to a BDSM starter guide, it’s the importance of informed consent. Some practitioners of BDSM practice a kind of consent known as safe, sane, and consensual (abbreviated to SSC). It means that everyone involved actively consents to the activities, which are deemed to be safe. Other people prefer a standard called RACK (risk-aware consensual kink), which some consider more “realistic” than SSC because it acknowledges that some BDSM activities may be dangerous, although all parties involved are aware of their risks.

People involved in BDSM also commonly use safe words as a way of letting their partners know that they need to stop or pause. It’s crucial to establish a safe word ahead of time, and for everyone to agree that, when it’s spoken, the action stops immediately.

Traffic light system

In addition to using a standard safe word, some people like to use the traffic light system. It’s fairly straightforward: You say the name of the color that best communicates your wants and needs. “Red” means stop—so it can double as a safe word. “Yellow” means slow it down. It can be used when you don’t necessarily want your partner to fully stop, but you could use a breather—or you feel like you’re reaching your limit, especially when physical pain is a consideration. Green—just as you’d expect—is an enthusiastic “go.”

How to respond to “no”

At any time a partner sets a sexual boundary or tells you “stop” or “no”—you need to respect them. Trust is a hugely important part of BDSM, and it’s important to understand that it can be very hard for a person to say “no” at the moment. Showing immediate acceptance and gratitude for your partner’s honesty will help to strengthen the truth between you, in addition to simply being the right thing to do, given the importance of consent. Remember that intimacy of any kind is deeply vulnerable, and that consent can be withdrawn at any time, with no explanation necessary. That goes both ways, too—remember that “no” is a full sentence. 

Aftercare

BDSM can get very intense, which is why aftercare is non-negotiable for everyone involved. It’s the practice of setting aside some time to take care of one another, and it depends heavily on each person’s needs. So, aftercare can look different for everyone. It might involve cuddling, taking a shower, applying ice packs after particularly rigorous activity, or eating some food. Aftercare can even be highly beneficial for people who aren’t involved in BDSM; taking some time to cool down and connect after sex can be great for intimacy.

BDSM myths that aren’t true

To some people, BDSM can seem quite scary—words like “sadist” conjure the illusion of a person who likes to inflict violence on others, just because. But some people indeed find pain—giving or receiving—sexually pleasurable in the specific context of BDSM. And what’s important to remember is that consent and community are integral parts of BDSM. It requires a great deal of trust and vulnerability amongst everyone involved. 

And that’s also why the stereotype that people who are into BDSM are emotionally detached just isn’t true, either. Many people who partake in BDSM find it freeing and healing precisely because it requires so much communication and consent in the process. 

The way that a person partakes in BDSM can also look very different from the way another person does; not everyone wears head-to-toe leather and chains, not everyone has a riding crop in their closet, and not everyone has a pair of handcuffs in their nightstand. BDSM, for some people, isn’t even about sex—but rather about the power play of dominance and submission.  

There’s no one way to define BDSM, but it is a practice that many people find sexually fulfilling and freeing. And with the right research, ample amounts of communication and consent, and community-building, you may find that it’s a space where you feel free to explore your sexuality and sense of intimacy, too.

A Beginner’s Guide to BDSM.

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