BDSM Basics – A Beginner’s Guide

We are hierarchical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place, perhaps less palatable than the first. There are hierarchies in nature and alternate hierarchies in society. In nature, brute force is the law, a survival of the fittest. In society, there are protections for the weak. Society is our frail barrier against nature. When the prestige of state and religion is low, men are free, but they find freedom intolerable and seek new ways to enslave themselves, through drugs or depression. My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism [BDSM] will not be far behind. – Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

If you haven’t already read 50 Shades of Grey, no doubt you’ve heard of it. Everyone is talking about BDSM – it has been a long time coming. But what is it, really? BDSM refers to B&D (Bondage and Discipline), D&S (Dominance and Submission) and S&M (Sadism and Masochism). It can involve power play, role-play, restraint, sexual contraptions, and sex toys to invoke intense sensory stimulation and emotional highs. Some people may engage in BDSM during just one experience, others consider it a lifestyle that they engage in 24/7. Up until recent years, BDSM was a seemingly small subculture but it is becoming more visible in the mainstream. Still, it remains a taboo topic for many.

At first glance, a BDSM scene can look like at least one person involved does not want to be there or is not enjoying themselves. Despite what it seems, these situations exist between consenting individuals who are aroused by what is going on. Before the experience even begins, people’s boundaries and expectations are discussed and made clear, and a “safe” word is chosen that everyone will respond to that will pause or end the experience. (Note: safe words would not be words that someone might shout out in pleasure or pain, like “yes!” or “stop!” Rather, safe words are arbitrary words, like “blue” or “mustard,” that have nothing to do with the sexual experience.) There can be a fine line between “good” pain and “bad” pain. Since much of BDSM revolves around the eroticizing of pain, humiliation, denial of immediate physical pleasure, and restraint, communication is key, and safety and consent are paramount. Read more about how to tell the difference between kink and abuse here.

In general, there are 3 kinds of roles people assume:

  • Dominant / Top: the person that controls the activity. The Dom (male title), Domme or Dominatrix (female title) appears only to be concerned with his or her own pleasure during play, but cherishes their sub because it is from the sub that they derive their pleasure. Note: this role is also referred to as Master / Mistress – who often call their submissive partner a slave. Other related Dom types include: Daddy / Mommy – a gentler, parental figure who shows more kindness to their sub (little), Mentor – someone very experienced in the BDSM world who shares their knowledge with those just starting out, and Rigger – someone who prefers to top during rope bondage.
  • submissive / bottom: the person that is controlled and obeys the rules they have negotiated with the Dominant. Subs have varying degrees of submission and can endure varying degrees of pain, which helps determine what kinds of “training,” discipline, and situations are appropriate. Note the different sub types: slave – an extreme submissive, little – someone who takes on the submissive role with childlike tendencies, rope bunny – someone who prefers being on the bottom during rope bondage, sissy – a man who is aroused by forced feminism, and pet – someone who assumes the role of an animal.
  • Switch: Someone that takes the dominant role in some situations, and the submissive role in other situations. Sometimes people recognize only two types of roles (Dominant and submissive) and do not recognize switches as a separate role.

There are also several kinds of play in BDSM. Play allows people to explore both physical BDSM, which is an umbrella for all kinky activities that are expressed physically, and psychological BDSM, which are verbal activities intended to make a mental impression, evoke confusion or involve a “mind fuck,” sometimes without a physical aspect. All types of BDSM play give participants the opportunity to experience different roles, levels of control, vulnerability, arousal, and develop another level of trust with their partner.

To give a few examples of how this might look:

  • Sensation play: use of hands or toys to go beyond the normal range of physical sensation, like bondage, flogging, or spanking. Learn more about erotic spanking here. Sensation play can range from light to heavy, and many of the activities are not focused on pain or even involve it.
  • Power play: involves an intentional power exchange where each partner takes a different role: one person is Dominant and the other is submissive. The Dominant person takes command and most of the responsibility as far as safety and comfort goes, while the submissive person obeys the Dominant person’s orders. Power play often involves physical sensation and an emotional component.
  • Trans play: an alternative state of consciousness that happens when endorphins are released from intense stimulation.

The ladies at Pleasure Mechanics give a great introduction to what BDSM is and how to get started in their podcast, which you can listen to here. In essence, they describe BDSM as an erotic game in which all the “players” involved have agreed to follow a certain set of rules within the game. The setting of the game is negotiated, behaviors within the game are discussed, even the time frame of the game is set, so partners can get in the mind set of the game when it is happening and are not taken off-guard because all people involved are aware of when the experience is finished.

After the experience it is important to remember to take part in aftercare: making sure all parties involved attend to each other’s emotional, psychological, and physiological needs and anything else that may have come up for them during the experience.

Interested in learning more? Below is a selection of films that offer insights into different BDSM scenarios and lifestyles:

    • The Notorious Bettie Page, about the 1950s pin-up girl whose racy (at the time) sadomasochistic photos made her the subject of a censorship investigation. It is a well-balanced film that gives insight into Bettie’s life and how censorship laws have changed over the years.
    • The Secretary, a quirky film with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, depicting the relationship between a sexually dominant man and his submissive secretary.
    • Fetishes, made in 1996 about one of New York City’s professional BDSM studios, Pandora’s Box (still in existence). Many reviewers criticize the interviewer’s style and the editing, though if you’re curious about what is out there you get to see professional dominatrixes and people with a wide variety of fetishes on camera explaining why they do what they do and why certain behaviors turn them on.
    • Maitresse, starring Gérard Depardieu and Bulle Ogier (no, it’s not a porn flick, but it does include some hardcore S&M scenes). This 1973 movie was banned in France till the 80s; it’s actually somewhat of a romantic comedy.

Below is a selection of articles and books that may be useful depending on what you’d like to explore:

– Nikita

Featured image courtesy of Adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos

Further reading: What To Expect On Your First Trip To A Sex Shop

Pleasure From Pain – Endorphin “Highs” And The Subspace


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