What I Wish People Understood About BDSM

BDSM is the acronym people use to refer to a whole variety of erotic practices involving dominance, submission, other forms of roleplay and more. Specifically: the B and D refer to bondage and discipline, and S and M to sadism and masochism. BDSM has attracted a great deal of mainstream interest since 50 Shades of Grey hit the screens. However, there is some woeful misunderstanding about what it is and isn’t.

The misunderstanding that BDSM is necessarily linked to violence or portrayed as acting against someone’s will is dangerous, as it doesn't account for the interpersonal dynamics that make BDSM a consensual practice. And many people are unaware of the playful, consciousness-expanding, and even healing opportunities that BDSM offers. From my coaching work with clients, and from exploring my own identity as a sex-positive woman, I know that BDSM can do a lot more than just add a bit of fun to an otherwise routine roll in the hay.

Here are five things I wish more people understood about BDSM:

1. Fundamentally, BDSM is about sensation and power play.

Many don’t realize it, but BDSM is by its nature not even about "conventional" sex (i.e. involving genitals) — although it often includes play that is erotic. As you may have assumed, BDSM often includes pain (particularly pain-as-play), but it has also come a long way in recent years, and incorporates a vast number of practices that aren't always explicitly about sex.

Sensation is often explored via impact play (such as flogging, spanking, etc.), pushing boundaries around play and pleasure, restraint, blindfolds, and objects. Power dynamics are explored through role play, such as one partner being submissive (bottom) and the other dominant (top). The words "bottom" and "top" refer to sex positions on a literal level; though these identities can also be explored psychologically. BDSM can also be as simple as playing with rope, or as complicated as a drawn out "scene" with lots of props and a scenario that participants act out.

2. You MUST have consent and safety for BDSM.

Consent and an in-depth discussion of boundaries and physical safety are the absolute hallmarks of BDSM. Safety — physical and psychological — is what allows BDSM to be everything it can be: fun, consciousness-shifting, and even healing (see below).

If you’re new to BDSM, or exploring it for the first time with a new partner, it’s absolutely necessary to discuss what you want, what you don’t want, how you will communicate "slow down" or "stop" in the heat of the moment, and how you will do "aftercare" to process it all later. This also means that you must know the signs of physical distress if you're playing with intense sensation.

If you are not given a choice about your part in the dynamic, steer clear. It’s especially important when watching or reading fictional depictions of BDSM to understand that consent marks the unambiguous boundary between erotic play and non-consensual abuse. For this reason, it’s not advisable to dive into BDSM with strangers!

3. It can be playful!

If you’ve ever watched children play, you know that from our earliest years, we humans are drawn to exploring boundaries and roles that involve power: goodies versus baddies, cops and robbers and so on. In adulthood, we have even more options to explore this concept. Eroticism and power play happen to be a good fit.

Likewise, sensation can be an endless source of enjoyable exploration. Not to mention, exploring fantasies with a trusted partner (with discussion and consent) can be wildly entertaining! Even better is the underlying foundation of vulnerability that BDSM requires; the trust that you and your partner build from exploring these new dynamics leads to deep bonding.

4. It can be consciousness-expanding.

As sexuality educator Barbara Carellas emphasizes in her book Urban Tantra, BDSM is, like Tantra, a means of exploring consciousness. Sensation, like impact play or bondage, can leave you feeling that you are out of your body and even connected to something greater.

Surrender is so key to experiencing an expansion of consciousness. So, similarly, the experience of being submissive and just "accepting" can also lead one into an altered state. When you feel safe, and surrender, there are many ways to sink, slip, or expand into the beyond.

5. It can be healing.

Exploring sensation and power is much like a dynamic psychodrama, and one which can lead to self-realization and healing. For example, to finally take the reins of power if you have felt victimized, or to surrender if you are always in control — can be revealing and releasing.

If things go awry, and there is some kind of upset, the compassionate partner who respects boundaries can assume the role of healer. Even the most dominant, flogging, handcuff-wielding pro knows the importance of the well-timed cuddle. All the more reason to take consent and safety seriously from the beginning.

Above all, there is a reason BDSM has been central to the evolution of the sexuality movement, especially as brought to the public by the work of internationally acclaimed sexuality educators like Dossie Easton, Janet Hardy, and Barbara Carellas, for example.

BDSM, in offering such an intense context to explore eroticism, power play, sensation, and your relationship dynamics, is a rich space for personal development … as long as you play by the (agreed upon) rules!

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