Lifestyle

Safe, Sane & Consensual: Your Everything Guide to BDSM


Fifty Shades of Grey may have catapulted BDSM into the mainstream, opening up conversations about dominance and submission, but was it an accurate representation of how the experience goes down in real life? Hardly. In fact, most players (BDSM practitioners) would consider E.L. James’s depiction to be woefully inaccurate, especially where Christian Grey’s character is concerned. Despite the stigma and stereotypes attached to the BDSM community, there is nothing inherently wrong with people if they’re into it – you don’t need to have had a ‘dark’ or sexually abusive past to get off on dominance and submission. Beyond the cliches and misconceptions, there’s a world of Safe, Sane and Consensual sex, and this is the cornerstone of any BDSM encounter. 

There’s so much more to the lifestyle than just Red Rooms and nipple clamps. In reality, BDSM, which stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism, covers a range of practices, including but not limited to bondage (handcuffs, blindfolds, rope), impact play (spanking, caning) and role-play, all of which rely upon emotional connection,pre-determined boundaries and consent. 

BDSM isn’t a monolith for rough, deviant sex, rather it encompasses a whole spectrum of experiences from the vanilla through to the alternative and the downright artistic – no two BDSM relationships look the same!

From how to introduce BDSM in your relationship to safe words and aftercare, We spoke to Lohani Noor, renowned relational psychotherapist with a specialism in psychosexual therapies and author of 12 Steps to Sexual Connection, to find out everything you need to know about BDSM.

What is BDSM?

“Many of you will have heard of the term BDSM, even if you are not aware of exactly what it is. The letters themselves have multiple meanings. The ‘B’ and ‘D’ traditionally stand for bondage and discipline, which includes activities related to restraining and feeling extreme sensations in the form of punishment meted out by a partner. The ‘D’ and ‘S’ stand for dominance and submission and refers to the psychological aspects of control in which one person hands over authority to the other.

This often takes place with a written social contract, and this contract may outline protocols, expectations, limits and boundaries. The ‘S’ and ‘M’ stands for sadism and masochism, more commonly referred to as SM or sadomasochism, which is the giving or receiving of pleasure, often sexual, from acts involving the infliction or receiving (or both) of pain and/or humiliation. Finally, the ‘M’ and ‘S’ stands for master and slave. This relates to a relationship dynamic between two consenting adults, where one assumes authority, power and responsibility over a willing partner. 

Physical activities included in BDSM may include bondage, spanking (otherwise known as percussive practices), penetration, and obedience and/or service to a master or mistress or dominant partner. Fantasy and role play are an intrinsic part of these practices.

Lohani Noor

“When people engage in BDSM, they refer to it as ‘playing’ or having a ‘scene’, and while many people practise BDSM in private, others prefer public spaces such as dungeons or BDSM clubs or parties, either for reasons of exhibitionism or for safety when playing with a new or unknown partner. The activities represented by BDSM fall along a continuum ranging from mutual sensation play, represented by bondage and domination, to total authority exchange, as in the master-slave relationship, which may or may not include sensation play or fetishist activities.

Classes and events are held across the country by BDSM support groups who teach these skillsLohani Noor

“Many BDSM practices require great skill and knowledge, making each activity a unique craft that must be learned, honed and developed so it can be practised safely and without permanent damage or unintended consequences. Classes and events are held across the country by BDSM support groups who teach these skills, and if you are interested to explore further, an internet search for your area should throw up some good leads.”

How to Know If BDSM Is For You

For newcomers, BDSM can feel intimidating but it doesn’t have to be. The key is communication and education. Discover what elements of BDSM make you tick and talk at length with a partner about your boundaries and expectations before any encounters. 

Lohani says, “You might want to take a moment to think about any activities you and your partner have introduced into your sex life that are outside of what is known as ‘vanilla’ sex.”

• Do you like your partner to dominate in certain scenarios? 

• Do you like to be dominant? 

• What kinds of fantasies have you had? 

• Have you ever broached these with your partner? 

• Does the idea of being restrained appeal to you?

• How about extreme sensations or role play?

• Perhaps you secretly want to submit to another person but want to feel safe in doing so?

“These are just a few questions to consider in determining your sexual orientation. Many people who participate in a BDSM lifestyle claim that aspects of BDSM represent their sexuality and are not a choice but defined in their DNA much like the sexual desires of the heteronormative.

“If you just have an interest in sexual play, you may be inclined to act out some low-level fetishistic behaviours with a willing partner. However, people who consider BDSM as a part of their personal and sexual identity are more likely to identify and affiliate with a common BDSM community and frequently practise BDSM activities. 

The BDSM Test offers a great online test to help you determine what kind of kink suits you best.Lohani Noor

“A bit of self-knowledge is key. The BDSM Test offers a great online test to help you determine what kind of kink suits you best: are you dominant or submissive? Are you more likely to want to role play as a furry, or are you really looking for a little extreme sensation, pain even? If you are looking for a variety of quizzes regarding sex and intimacy, head to marriage.com for a selection of fun and useful resources.”

Talking to Your Partner About Your Fantasies 

“If you feel okay to do so, simply ask your partner what they like in the bedroom – ask if they have ever had any fantasies. Their preference may not always be about acting out a fantasy scene; sometimes it’s about a little physical stimulation – perhaps one of you would like to bite or nibble the other? Or perhaps you like it when you are scratched or spanked? 

“I would open up the conversation away from the bedroom and, if it feels good and you are on the same page, go ahead and try out some of these sensory experiences, communicating all the time during new interactions to be sure that you are both okay with the intensity. You will hear me say this time and time again… if you can’t say the words, should you really be doing the deed?”

Introducing BDSM Into Your Relationship 

“It’s worth noting that fantasy means it is not real, and so some fantasies are best kept as a fantasy. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t act out some fantasies, so long as you remember to ensure you and your partner are okay. If you harbour a rape fantasy, acting it out involves pretending with a consenting adult with predetermined limits and a safe word. It doesn’t mean raping your partner. 

Role play is a great way to start exploring kink, as you get to act out being someone else, so you can defer some of the anxiety of doing the things you secretly want to do.Lohani Noor

“If you have never tried anything diverse, you might just want to start with simple sensation experiences. Agree to be more conscious in your next sexual encounter. Don’t drink or take drugs or do anything at all to alter your alertness. Give yourself permission to see your partner and be seen. Role play is a great way to start exploring kink, as you get to act out being someone else, so you can defer some of the anxiety of doing the things you secretly want to do.”

Some examples of role-play would be

• Being a stripper – male or female.

• Being paid or paying for sex. 

• Being a police officer, vicar or teacher, where the sex is essentially off-limits but a person is eventually seduced.

• Being a complete stranger.

• Having sex with a superhero or heroine.

• Animalistic sex, with one or both of you being the animal.

• Master-slave sex.

“If you would like to take your sexual experience up a notch and try out a BDSM scene, then all the communication skills you’ve learned to date will be really important. My advice is to talk, talk and then talk some more. Plan as you would do any sexual encounter, but be even more mindful that you have built trust in your relationship. If you are unsure about boundaries or the experience itself, think about visiting a sex-positive therapist who is confident and informed on all things sexual, look online for videos, or join a BDSM forum or community who can guide you. Remember, you and your partner must set limits, and determine a safe word before beginning.”

It’s Ok If Your Wants & Needs Change 

“Many couples engage in some form of BDSM, even if they don’t recognise it as such. Tying each other to the bed, using handcuffs, or spanking all form part of the BDSM repertoire and, nowadays, these activities are considered relatively mainstream. Walk into any high street sex shop and it will sell a range of BDSM paraphernalia, whether it’s a riding crop, leather gloves or a collar and lead. 

Our sexual sense of ourselves changes constantly as does our sense of ourselves in the world. Lohani Noor

Our sexual sense of ourselves changes constantly as does our sense of ourselves in the world. We progress through developmental life stages and as such it’s ok to let ourselves change our lifestyles, wants and needs to account for our developing self. Hold your idea of your sexual self loosely, what is ok today may not be tomorrow, and visa versa.  As such, check in with yourself often and check in with your partner too. Is the sex you are having reflective of where you are at in your life. Do you need anything to be different? Keep talking and keep practising bringing more of your authentic self to the sexual dynamic, whatever it may look like.”

Myths & Misconceptions: Everything BDSM Is NOT

“BDSM is an emerging phenomenon in mainstream society and is becoming more prevalent in the media. However, the publication of material like Fifty Shades of Grey is one example of how unreliable sources lead to profound confusion and controversy. In the novel, the main character, Christian Grey, exerts power over Anastasia Steele and, at times, subjugates her against her will and with manipulation. However, as I’ve discussed, BDSM is not about this. It is about the collaboration of two or more people to create a mutual experience where each person maintains their power, only one or more may choose to temporarily hand over authority to the other within agreed settings. 

Please be warned: similar media messages about BDSM as a device to ‘liven up your sex life’ may lead to experimenting with an alternative sexuality without much forethought or understanding of essential concepts relating to your own, or your partner’s, psychological and physical safety. For this reason, I want you to be very clear on the difference between SM and abuse. Abuse is any violent or aggressive behaviour within the home or between a couple, often involving abuse of an intimate partner, spouse or individual unable to care for themselves (for example, a dependent elder). Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behaviour, actions or threats of actions that influence another person in any relationship that is intimate or sexual in nature, and is used by one partner to gain and/or maintain power and control over another. Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, economical or psychological.”

Here’s a useful list of BDSM scenarios versus abusive scenarios to illustrate the difference:

• A BDSM scene is controlled. 

• Abuse is out of control.

• Negotiation occurs before a scene to determine what will or will not happen. 

• Abuse is when one person determines what will happen.

• Knowledgeable consent is given by all parties. 

• Abuse happens when no consent is requested or given.          

• The ‘bottom or submissive’ has a safe word that allows him or her to stop the scene at any time for any reason. 

• Abuse is when the person being abused cannot stop what is happening. 

• Everyone involved in an SM scene is concerned about the needs, desires and limits of others. 

• Abuse happens when no concern is given to the needs, desires and/or limits of the person being abused. 

• People in a BDSM scene ensure they are not impaired by alcohol or drugs during a scene. 

• Abuse often happens when alcohol or drugs are used before and/or after abuse. 

• After a BDSM scene, the people involved feel good. 

• After an episode of abuse, the people involved feel bad. 

“So, the key elements in BDSM dynamics are those of control and informed, consensually negotiated situations, where everyone involved cares about each other’s needs and limits. Specifically, informed consent requires that all parties are fully aware of the impact of the specific type or method of play that will take place during a scene or relationship and the skill or level of ability needed. By contrast, abusive relationships are out-of-control, non-consensual situations where there are no agreements in place, or any concern about meeting each other’s needs or limits. Abusive situations lack meaning – for example, they lack the ritual or community involvement that I’ve talked about. Most importantly, after a consensual SM scene, the people involved feel good. It is well documented that, afterwards, individuals experience a reduction in the physiological stress hormone cortisol and report feeling closer to their partner or group. 

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the more rules there are in the bedroom, the more freedom you can experience.Lohani Noor

“It may sound counter-intuitive, but the more rules there are in the bedroom, the more freedom you can experience. Communication is key to understanding each other’s boundaries, and this can lead to great pleasure. Core values generally considered by many BDSM communities to nourish healthy relationships include honour, mutual respect, integrity and responsibility. Healthy BDSM relationships demonstrate trust, care, and an ongoing commitment to mutual growth, which are also all valid indicators of any positive mainstream relationship.

“Community support is essential to healthy BDSM relationships; not only to learn safe techniques but also to combat shame. BDSM communities are known to devote a great deal of time and effort to educational workshops and community forums for people to engage, learn, build community, and find support with one another. These core values, principles and social frameworks all indicate that the practice of BDSM operates within safe and ethical limits. As such, it is defined and upheld by the individuals in the relationship and agreed limits of the community. Generally speaking, safety involves not inflicting permanent damage or unexpected/unintended outcomes. This involves the participants knowing the limits of their capabilities with any given scene, ritual, or play. 

“As I mentioned, in long-term BDSM relationships, there are often contracts that involve considerable negotiation and forethought. Therefore, people who practise BDSM tend to be more introspective and thoughtful regarding what is important to them: what they want, and what they do not want. To negotiate a sexual scene related to their fantasies, they require strong, intact personal boundaries. As it happens, a recent finding from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom survey found that people who practise BDSM generally tend to have a higher level of self-esteem, are healthier than the average person, and have better than average communication skills, imagination, and self-awareness. 

Many people perceive the submissive as utterly powerless, but this is not true.Lohani Noor

“There are also many misconceptions around dominant and submissive play. Many people perceive the submissive as utterly powerless, but this is not true. Although passive, the submissive actually holds significant power. He or she negotiates terms with the dominant and, at any time during the activity, can stop proceedings by using a predetermined safe word.”

Kink vs BDSM 

“Kink comes under the umbrella of BDSM, it is a broad colloquial term for non-normative sexual behaviour. These general behaviours may include fetishistic interests – for example, an intense sexualised interest in feet or hair or some other body part. Then there are fetishes that may include wearing rubber, or animal role play.

For instance, people who might identify as ‘furries’ escape into a world where animals are anthropomorphised, be it a wolf or a cartoonish character such as Mickey Mouse. Dressage Involves equine role play, and puppy play draws on a similar theme, only with participants taking on the persona of a young dog. Leather-sex culture and age play includes ‘little play’ where one or both partners play the role of someone not their own age.”

The Dos and Don’ts of BDSM Parties

Some general rules applied at BDSM parties are:

  • Don’t touch anyone or anything (such as another person’s toys) without permission.
  • Don’t assume that anyone you meet is single or available.
  • Don’t interrupt anyone else’s “scene.”
  • Don’t perform acts of “play” or nudity, except in designated areas.
  • Guns or illegal drugs are not permitted.
  • Don’t take pictures or videos unless you know it’s allowed.
  • Don’t smoke unless it’s a designated smoking area.
  • Don’t open closed doors. They may be off limits.
  • Don’t engage in sexual penetration of any kind.
  • Don’t discuss details of the party after it’s over. A good rule of thumb: “What happens at a play party stays at a play party.”
  • Follow the dress code (if there is one).
  • Negotiate your role in a scene before entering it.
  • Make sure play is safe and consensual.
  • Clean up after yourself.
  • Follow any additional rules that the organiser specifies or posts.
  • Thank the host before you leave.
  • Be polite to everyone you encounter.
  • If you choose to play, observe designated safe words.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) offers guidelines to help protect hosts who choose to organize BDSM events. Political activists, religious extremists, or law enforcement officials can sometimes disrupt a planned gathering.

For larger events, the NCSF recommends the following:

  • Before the party, contact law enforcement and alert them about the upcoming event. This will also give you the opportunity to ask questions about specific laws that guests will need to observe at the party.
  • Be careful about what you post online. Many hosts choose to password protect their websites, so only those who have registered and paid can gain access to information about the event.
  • Designate an event spokesperson who can speak to your community on behalf of your group (if needed).
  • Protect your event by keeping it private. That means only registered attendees can enter at the door.
  • Observe a strict age policy. Many groups require that attendees be 21 or older.
  • Enact a “no photography” policy at the event.
  • If your event is targeted by religious or political groups, post a blurb on your website so that the media can contact the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom for more information.

How to Deal With Kink-Shamers and Judgement 

“Contrary to some beliefs, research does not support the notion that clients with BDSM have a greater history of past abuse or trauma that predisposes them to this form of sexual or relationship expression. 

Do speak up, if it is safe to do so, challenge the person attempting to shame you. Ask them to explain their thinking.Lohani Noor

“Talk about kink-shaming experiences with someone you can trust. Doing this will help you process the situation and find a safe and effective way to deal with it. Do speak up, if it is safe to do so, challenge the person attempting to shame you. Ask them to explain their thinking. This will hopefully stop the person attempting to shame you from progressing their hurtful narrative. Look after yourself always and be sure to keep good emotional boundaries. You don’t have to disclose anything at all about yourself or explain your behaviours to anyone.” 

6 Tips for Beginners:

  • Communication is absolutely key for any BDSM activity. 
  • Educate yourself, the world of BDSM is detailed and nuanced, give it the respect it (and you) deserves by understanding its limits.
  • Use a safe word and absolutely honour it. Safety is not just about the physical but also the emotional and psychological, so if your partner uses the safe word honour it, you might not be able to see what your partner is experiencing psychologically or emotionally.
  • Don’t rush, there is plenty of time to experience all your desires. As you gain confidence and learn to communicate, your capacity to experience will get deeper and deeper.  
  • Understand consent. According to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, consent is an informed, voluntary agreement by two or more people to engage in a particular BDSM activity or to enter into a BDSM, dominant-submissive or master-slave relationship. In the realm of BDSM, consent can also only be given between adults at or above the legal age of consent, which in the UK is 16. In practice, it is not coerced or fanatical and is revocable, which means it can be withdrawn, by any party, at any time during the activity. No legal court will uphold BDSM lifestyle contracts, and so maintenance of these contracts requires the continued consent of the submissive, be it throughout a shorter experience or a longer-term agreement. Claiming that the submissive consented is not a viable excuse to abuse another person. The boundary is simply adhering to the communicated and agreed experience. However, let’s be clear: maintaining a submissive role for extended periods of time could detrimentally affect your internal sense of self. In other words, your beliefs about your actual freedoms and what you can and can’t do might blur.
  • After care is such a key part of the BDSM experience. Take time to process the experience, talk about the details, what you both felt, when and how. The verbal intimacy and vulnerability expressed after the BDSM experience will strengthen the bond you have with your partner

Your BDSM Starter Kit

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