BDSM and meditation are more connected than you’d think

An article by Jess Joho

March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in the time of coronavirus, March doesn’t have to be madness.


Whips, handcuffs, blindfolds, ropes, flogging, spanking. These probably aren’t the kind of activities you associate with meditation and mindfulness, let alone spirituality. 

But if you ask those who practice consensual BDSM (meaning bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism) — along with the researchers who study it and mindful sex — a connection between these seemingly disparate practices actually makes a lot of sense.

Though in its nascent stages, BDSM research is finding similarities between BDSM and mindfulness and other forms of meditation, especially in the context of heightened awareness and relaxing altered states of mind. Evidence is starting to support what many practitioners already innately knew: BDSM can be powerfully meditative, with positive psychological effects that go far beyond just sexual satisfaction. 

To the uninitiated, it’s easy to discount BDSM as salacious, or even deranged and dangerous. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, the general public’s perception of BDSM tends to be ill-informed, reductive, and unhealthy — worlds apart from the reality of a community that embeds enthusiastic consent, trust, and safety into practices that often involve intense but controlled pain. 

Early psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud categorized BDSM as nothing short of a mental illness. But modern research reveals again and again that recreational BDSM practitioners are, psychologically speaking, pretty much the same as those who don’t practice it. If anything, one study found them to have comparatively lower levels of disorders (like depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychological sadism, masochism, borderline pathology, paranoia) and another suggested they were less neurotic and sensitive to rejection, more open to new experiences and conscientiousness. They also rated their own overall well-being higher than non-practitioners.

The more we study the connection between BDSM, mindfulness, other types of meditation, and pain, the clearer the benefits of BDSM become, particularly when it comes to stress and anxiety. Potentially, it can even be a transcendental and spiritual experience for some. 

While the overall BDSM community isn’t tied to any religious ideology, the practice does share an important commonality with some spiritual meditation traditions that involve pain. Both embrace the idea of accepting pain, or even finding peace and pleasure in surrendering to it. 

Don’t yuck someone’s ohmmm

Cara Dunkley, a clinical psychologist from the Sexual Health Laboratory at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is part of a group that has spent decades researching mindfulness-based meditation training as a treatment for various sexual difficulties, from chronic pain with sex to traumatic tiggers and low libido. 

“Mindfulness at its core is the ability to focus, sustain, and shift attention. And that is why it has real benefits with improving mood, depression, anxiety, pain, sexual functioning, all of that,” she said.

Mindful sex specifically can help you shift your attention away from negative thoughts, memories, physical sensations, and painful stimuli through accepting it without reacting to it, so you can then refocus on pleasure instead. General mindfulness-based training has become an increasingly accepted treatment for managing various types of chronic pain. But one UBC study found that teaching patients to apply mindfulness to sex helped with their chronic vaginal pain.

Few groups understand how to turn pain into pleasure better than BDSM practitioners. So Dunkley started researching how they do it, positing multiple theories on the most important facts at play. In 2020, she published the first study ever into whether BDSM actually helps foster mindfulness. The results (though limited in sample size) were promising, showing that the group which practiced BDSM did indeed score higher on most traits associated with everyday mindfulness (which means bringing present-moment awareness to ordinary tasks, like eating, rather than during formal seated meditation).

“Mindfulness is comprised of about five skills: observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judgment, and non-reactivity to your inner experience. Each of those can have useful applications to BDSM,” she said. 

In the BDSM community, the term Bottom describes the person fulfilling a submissive role, who’s on the receiving end of commands and masochistic activities. Conversely, Tops are the ones who role play as dominants in a BDSM scene, doling out the painful stimulation and commands. 

For both roles, exercising the tenets of mindfulness can be crucial for having a positive and safe experience.

“The mindfulness method of observing refers to the ability to attend to internal and external experiences, like sensations, emotions, thoughts. Bottoms must be very aware of their own internal experiences and emotional states in their moment-to-moment response during a BDSM activity, and to physical sensations, because they need to differentiate between safe pain and pain that could be indicative of real harm,” said Dunkley. “Similarly, Tops must be externally attentive to the emotional and physical responses of the Bottom through very controlled focus, and consciously adjusting their actions accordingly to keep it pleasurable.”

But the link between BDSM, meditation, and pain doesn’t end there. While Dunkley’s research focused on mindfulness as it’s commonly used in western scientific research, others have found evidence that there’s a transcendental or even spiritual appeal to BDSM too, just like there is in other forms of meditation. There are many types of meditation, but only a small sliver, such as mindfulness, have been tested in lab settings (and even then researchers are still calling for more study on various health benefits). 

“There are a variety of reasons people do BDSM,” said Brad Sagarin, a professor of social psychology at Northern Illinois University who also leads The Science of BDSM research group. Some go to BDSM for just your standard sexual arousal. But others seek it out for the sheer thrill and excitement, deeper connections to partners, and even stress release. “Some even pursue BDSM primarily for spiritual reasons. In particular, our research team looked into the altered states of consciousness that BDSM activities can facilitate in both Bottoms and Tops.”

Their study found that both roles can experience unique states of mind during BDSM. Bottoms in particular describe entering a headspace that sounds a lot like what many longtime, spirituality-based meditators experience.

“Colloquially known as subspace, this altered state that Bottoms can achieve during BDSM scenes is described as a pleasurable kind of flying, floating feeling, where they lose the distinction between the self and other people, between the self and the universe, this general sense of peace and oneness,” said Sagarin. Meanwhile, those in topspace (or domspace) can enter what’s known as “flow,” or “a state of deep absorption or extreme focus when performing an activity optimally.” It’s basically the scientific label for what high-level athletes and creatives call being “in the zone.”

For those who’ve never experienced the euphoric peace of subspace or deep connection that can occur between BDSM partners, this might all still sound like a stretch. But throughout much of history and across many cultures, spiritual rituals involving extreme pain (some of which are identical to common BDSM activities) have been used for the express purpose of oneness with a higher power or universal force.

Flagellation (or floggings and beatings, self-inflicted or otherwise) was an accepted practice among medieval Christians for purification, punishment, and redemption. A paper on “sacred pain” describes a ritual called Kutharatheeb, practiced in certain coastal regions of India, where participants are pierced with nails, knives, and sharpened rods to become “heightened into mystical ecstasy… becoming unconscious of their body fully concentrated on making of their soul attached with God.” Sagarin himself observed similarities between sadomasochistic relationships to pain in the psychological and physiological effects of extreme rituals like fire walking and body piercing.

Certain religious practices and philosophies grounded in meditation also intentionally confront pain and suffering. Famously, Buddhist monks who meditate in freezing wintry Tibetan mountains while wearing ice-soaked wrappings were able to raise their own body temperatures.

The meditative brain on BDSM

“What pain can do is focus people on the here and now, put somebody essentially in the present moment, so they’re not necessarily thinking about a deadline that’s coming up next week or any other responsibilities. So it may be that, in a paradoxical way, a normally negative experience of pain can actually in a context of trust and positivity turn into something pleasurable or beneficial,” said Sagarin.

It’s not unlike how meditation lets you escape from the onslaught of day-to-day stresses by enabling you to let go of who you are, what you need to do, and instead just exist as a body in the present moment. While BDSM adds pain to the picture to achieve present moment awareness, it is welcome and intentional pain. That’s a notable difference from the mindfulness-based therapies used for managing chronic pain, since those patients aren’t electing or in control of when or how they experience that pain. Still, both involve developing the skill of noticing, accepting, then letting go of the negative emotions we typically associate with pain.

More research is needed before we can definitively say how Bottoms achieve the floaty, peaceful feeling of subspace. But, “a few different areas of the brain indicate a tie between it and mindfulness,” said Dunkley. 

The most substantiated theory points to what happens in the brain during a runner’s high, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and deep meditation. The hypothesis is basically that, when you’re doing a cognitively demanding activity (like pushing through the pain of long-distance running), other parts of the brain that are less important to it shut down. 

“So BDSM scenes involving pain might increase the need for additional blood flow to more critical areas of the brain. That results in blood being directed away from areas of the brain in less high demand, like the part that’s basically in charge of selfhood. So it can suspend self-related thoughts and emotions, potentially producing these alterations in consciousness,” said Dunkley. 

If the part of the brain that’s responsible for the executive functioning we need to complete everyday tasks shuts down during BDSM, then it makes sense that Bottoms describe subspace as a pleasurable loss of time, reality, inhibition. It also aligns with another theory believed to explain all the cognitive benefits people get from submissive BDSM roleplay: Simply put, it gives you a break from the burdens of being a person for a little while.

“BDSM can give Bottoms a temporary relief from the stresses of selfhood. Descriptions of it sound like just a wonderful escape from, you know, the kind of higher-level processing that we do all the time as people,” said Sagarin. “The fact that somebody is a top executive or a mother, all the different roles that weigh a person with a lot of responsibilities… These temporary reliefs can actually potentially lead to better functioning at other times.”

While the connection between BDSM and meditation is clearest with subspace, topspace still engages different aspects of mindfulness and spiritual rituals.

“Tops really need to keep their wits and abilities about them, so that they can make sure what they’re doing is being done with appropriate care and safety,” said Sagarin. 

Yet the flow state that was evident in the ritual body piercers and Tops in topspace observed by Sagarin still require being very present in the moment. Just think of whenever you’re at peak performance while performing an activity you’ve mastered, whether that’s a video game or your job or creative passion. Everything else in the world fades away, so all that’s left is you and the task at hand.

“Evidence suggests this complimentary topspace is a mental state involving challenge and the utilization of skills, intense concentration, altered sense of time, loss of self-consciousness. And it can be achieved by Tops during BDSM scenes requiring intense mental focus or concentration. Bottom’s might experience a bit of it as well, but as a result of, for example, intense rhythmic pain sensations,” said Dunkley.

Both parties are “mastering” pain through these states that exist outside the normal circumstances of everyday life, but they’re doing it in very different ways. One does it by reaching a headspace that allows them to give in completely, and thus experience physical suffering as depersonalized or even pleasurable. The other enters a headspace by being so hyper-focused on helping the other navigate that experience of pain. 

Despite appearances, Tops aren’t actually “conquering” a Bottom, either, since the Bottom is always in charge and can immediately end the activity with a safe word. Instead, Tops are conquering the unique challenge of being the Bottom’s guide through pain as pleasure.

Pain without pleasure

To be clear, there are a myriad of other aspects to BDSM with less correlation to mindfulness and meditation that also likely contribute to reaching these pleasurable states.

“Prior to the experience of pain in BDSM, there’s a pre-existing condition involving emotional and interpersonal relationships, a sense of control and volition, memories of past experiences, likely positive ones with that partner or activity, and a sense of security,” said Dunkley. “The many factors around BDSM that come together — a positive emotional and interpersonal context, a possible change in neuro-chemistry from sexual arousal that releases dopamine and oxytocin, positive anticipation of pain rather than negative anticipation —itmay all be what leads to these altered states of consciousness or mindfulness, which then impacts the extent to which pain is perceived as pleasurable.”

Regardless of how it’s achieved, though, the takeaway here is that people find avenues for achieving transcendence and inner peace in very different ways. Spiritual fulfillment is everywhere, and can take shapes that may seem strange to you personally. So who are we to judge a method like BDSM or ritual body piercing, when BDSM practitioners report many of the same cognitive benefits that meditators get, like stress reduction, improvement in mood, and pain relief.

At the same time, it’s important to exercise caution and really consider what it takes to responsibly participate in pain as a vehicle for stress relief or spiritual ascendence. Both Sagarin and Dunkley agreed that — without the context of consent, strict negotiation of boundaries, and other safety protocols — the activities of BDSM can look like self-harm or even torture. In particular, people who self-harm through cutting describe similar types of psychological relief and escape from negative emotions through pain, though no psychologist would ever recommend doing it.

There are important differences, between self-harm and consensual BDSM, namely the motivations and after-effects of doing them.

“Unlike non-suicidal self-injury, people engage in BDSM when they’re in positive mood states and feel good about themselves after too. So somebody engaging in BDSM as a recreational leisure activity is more akin to, like, blowing off steam at the gym or going for a jog, rather than doing it to regulate severe negative emotional states. Recreational sado-masochism is almost like a deep tissue massage, where it’s kind of painful but still feels good and relaxing,” said Dunkley.

In proper BDSM protocol, there’s a step called “aftercare,” where partners who participated in a scene together check in on one another emotionally, often with cuddling and hugging, talking about how it made them feel, if they’re OK now, whether they liked everything that happened, what they didn’t like — or any other emotions that came up. In contrast, people who seek relief from self-harm often report feeling negative about themselves and what they’ve done.

Still, the stakes are high when you mix stress relief, spirituality, and pleasure with intentional pain. It’s likely no coincidence, then, that these activities — whether in spiritual traditions or BDSM — are often very grounded in strong communities with strict rules.

There are a lot of important questions that remain unanswered when it comes to BDSM’s connection to mindfulness, and meditation’s relationship to pain in general. 

But what’s clear is that you can find mediative peace anywhere: whether sitting cross-legged in the wintry Himalayan mountains, drinking coffee in your office chair between meetings, or hanging from bondage ropes on the ceiling of a BDSM dungeon.

Original article found at: https://mashable.com/article/bdsm-mindful-sex-meditation-spirituality/

More BDSM Psychology

The article shared below can also be found HERE.

The Surprising Psychology of BDSM

Who does it, what do they do, and how does it affect them?

Posted Feb 05, 2015

By Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., guest contributor

 “A pervert is anybody kinkier than you are.” (Wiseman, 1996, p. 23).

The novel Fifty Shades of Grey introduced BDSM into polite public discourse. Since its publication, hallowed papers such as The New York Times have published articles on bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Harvard University now hosts a student group for undergraduates interested in consensual S&M. And Cosmo’s sex tips have taken a distinctly kinky turn.

With the Fifty Shades movie now coming to theaters, it seems like a good time to take stock of what we know, scientifically, about BDSM: Who does this stuff? What do they do? And what effects do these activities have on the people who do them?

VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

1. How many people are into S&M?

According to researchers, the number likely falls somewhere between 2 percent and 62 percent. That’s right: Somewhere between 2 percent and 62 percent. A pollster who published numbers like that should be looking for a new job. But when you’re asking people about their sex habits, the wording of the question makes all the difference.

On the low end, Juliet Richters and colleagues (2008) asked a large sample of Australians whether they had “been involved in B&D or S&M” in the past 12 months. Only 1.3 percent of women and 2.2 percent of men said yes.

On the high end, Christian Joyal and colleagues (2015) asked over 1,500 women and men about their sexual fantasies. 64.6 percent of women and 53.3 percent of men reported fantasies about being dominated sexually—and 46.7 percent of women and 59.6 percent of men reported fantasies about dominating someone sexually. Overall, we can probably conclude that a substantial minority of women and men do fantasize about or engage in BDSM.

2. Are they sick?

For Freud, the answer was a clear yes: Anyone interested in S&M was in need of treatment—treatment that, by fine coincidence, he and his contemporaries were qualified to provide.

But recent research tells a different story.

Pamela Connolly compared BDSM practitioners to published norms on 10 psychological disorders. Compared to the normative samples, BDSM practitioners had lower levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychological sadism, psychological masochism, borderline pathology, and paranoia. (They showed equal levels of obsessive-compulsive disorder and higher levels of dissociation and narcissism.)

Similarly, Andreas Wismeijer and Marcel van Assen compared BDSM practitioners to non-BDSM-practitioners on major personality traits. Their results showed that in comparison to non-practitioners, BDSM practitioners exhibited higher levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and subjective well-being. Practitioners also showed lower levels of neuroticism and rejection sensitivity. The one negative trait that emerged? BDSM practitioners showed lower levels of agreeableness than non-practitioners.

This is not to say that everyone into sadism or masochism is doing so for psychologically healthy reasons. The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) still includes Sexual Sadism Disorder and Sexual Masochism Disorder as potential diagnoses. But a diagnosis now requires the interest or activities to cause “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (or to be done with a non-consenting partner). BDSM between consenting adults that “does not cause the participants distress” no longer qualifies.

3. What do they do?

Both researchers and practitioners (Wiseman, 1996) have developed categories of BDSM activities. For example, Alison and colleagues have categories for physical restriction (bondage, handcuffs, chains); administration of pain (spanking, caning, putting clothespins on the skin); humiliation (gags, verbal humiliation); and a category related to sexual behavior.

4. What effect does BDSM have on the people who do it?

This is one of the central questions my research team has been investigating. In a BDSM scene, the person who is bound, receiving stimulation and/or following orders is called the bottom. The person providing the stimulation, orders or structure is called the top. We measured a range of physiological and psychological variables in bottoms and tops before and after their scenes.

Both bottoms and tops reported increases in relationship closeness and decreases in psychological stress from before to after their scenes, but bottoms also showed increases in physiological stress as measured by the hormone cortisol. We found this disconnect between psychological stress and physiological stress to be very interesting, and we wondered whether it might indicate that bottoms have entered an altered state of consciousness.

To test this theory, we ran a study in which we randomly assigned switches (BDSM practitioners who sometimes take on the top role and sometimes take on the bottom role) to be the top or the bottom in a scene. The results revealed that both bottoms and tops entered altered states of consciousness, but they entered different altered states.

Bottoms entered an altered state called “transient hypofrontality”, which is associated with reductions in pain, feelings of floating, feelings of peacefulness, feelings of living in the here and now and time distortions. Tops, in contrast, entered the altered state known as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991), which is associated with focused attention, a loss of self-consciousness and optimal performance of a task. We believe that these pleasurable altered states of consciousness might be one of the motivations that people have for engaging in BDSM activities.

Resources

  • Human sexuality journals such as Archives of Sexual Behavior and the Journal of Sex Research
  • Organizations such as the Kinsey Institute, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) and the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexuality (CARAS)
  • Web sites such as www.scienceofbdsm.com (my own site)
  • Advocacy organizations such as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF)
  • Community organizations such as the Society of Janus and the Arizona Power Exchange
  • Books such as Jay Wiseman’s SM 101: A Realistic Introduction
  • … Or you could simply Google “BDSM” and see what comes up, but I wouldn’t try it at work.

Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. He teaches courses on evolutionary psychology, attitude change and statistics. His research interests include social influence, resistance to persuasion, deception, jealousy, and infidelity, human sexuality and research methods.

References

Alison, L., Santtila, P., Sandnabba, N. K., & Nordling, N. (2001). Sadomasochistically-oriented behavior: Diversity in practice and meaning. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 30, 1–12. Ambler, J. K., Lee, E. M., Klement, K., R., Loewald, T., Comber, E., Hanson, S. A., Cutler, B., Cutler, N. & Sagarin, B. J. (under review). Sadomasochism as a path to altered states of consciousness. Connolly, P. H. (2006). Psychological functioning of bondage/domination/sado-masochism (BDSM) practitioners. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 18, 79-120. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins. Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 12, 231-256. Joyal, C. C., Cossette, A., & Lapierre, V. (2015). What exactly is an unusual sexual fantasy? Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12, 328-340. Moser, C., & Levitt, E. E. (1987). An exploratory-descriptive study of a sadomasochistically oriented sample. Journal of Sex Research, 23, 322–337. Richters, J., de Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. A. (2008). Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660-1668. Sagarin, B. J., Cutler, B., Cutler, N., Lawler-Sagarin, K. A., & Matuszewich, L. (2009). Hormonal changes and couple bonding in consensual sadomasochistic activity. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 186-200. Wiseman, J. (1996). SM 101: A realistic introduction. San Francisco: Greenery Press. Wismeijer, A. A. J. & van Assen, M. A. L. M. (2013). Psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10, 1943-1952.

An Interesting Article I’d Like to Share

There is so much confusion and misinformation regarding BDSM. So, when I ran across this article, I thought it might be prudent to share. Article below. Enjoy! ~Mistress Portia

25 Facts About BDSM That You Won’t Learn In “Fifty Shades Of Grey”

Forget Fifty Shades of Grey. Here’s your real primer on all things kink.Posted on February 12, 2015, at 2:51 p.m.

Casey Gueren

Casey GuerenBuzzFeed Staff

1. First things first: Here’s what BDSM actually stands for:

BDSM includes bondage and discipline (B&D), dominance and submission (D&S), and sadism & masochism (S&M). The terms are lumped together that way because BDSM can be a lot of different things to different people with different preferences, BDSM writer and educator Clarisse Thorn, author of The S&M Feminist, tells BuzzFeed Life. Most of the time, a person’s interests fall into one or two of those categories, rather than all of them.

2. It doesn’t always involve sex, but it can.

Most people think BDSM is always tied to sex, and while it can be for some people, others draw a hard line between the two. “Both are bodily experiences that are very intense and sensual and cause a lot of very strong feelings in people who practice them, but they’re not the same thing,” says Thorn. The metaphor she uses for it: a massage. Sometimes a massage, however sensual it feels, is just a massage. For others, a rubdown pretty much always leads to sex. It’s kind of similar with BDSM; it’s a matter of personal and sexual preference.

3. There is nothing inherently wrong or damaged with people if they’re into it.

This is one of the most common and frustrating misconceptions about BDSM, says Thorn. BDSM isn’t something that emerges from abuse or domestic violence, and engaging in it does not mean that you enjoy abuse or abusing.

Instead, enjoying BDSM is just one facet of someone’s sexuality and lifestyle. “It’s just regular people who happen to get off that way,” sex expert Gloria Brame, Ph.D., author of Different Loving, tells BuzzFeed Life. “It’s your neighbors and your teachers and the people bagging your groceries. The biggest myth is that you need this special set of circumstances. It’s regular people who have a need for that to be their intimate dynamic.”

4. Know that you can always say no.

“A lot of people starting out think it’s ‘all or nothing,’ especially if you’ve only been with one partner,” says Thorn. For instance, you might think that because you enjoyed being submissive under certain circumstances, that means you must agree to a whole host of submissive or masochistic behaviors that you’re not necessarily into.

But that’s absolutely wrong. You can — and should — pick and choose which BDSM activities you are and are not interested in, says Thorn. And that can vary depending on the situation, the partner, or even the day. Just remember that consent is a requirement in BDSM, and it’s possible to consent to one thing while still objecting to another.

5. BDSMers are just as stable as people who prefer vanilla sex.

“In my experience, it’s easier for people to get into BDSM if they don’t have a history of abuse, people who are in a more stable place in their lives,” says Thorn. A 2008 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that people who had engaged in BDSM in the past year were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity and were no more likely to be unhappy or anxious than those who didn’t do BDSM. And actually, men who engaged in BDSM had lower scores of psychological distress than other men.

That said, BDSMers do not judge people who aren’t into it, explains Thorn. The term “vanilla” isn’t meant to be derogatory, just to refer to non-BDSM sexual acts or people who aren’t interested in kink.

6. Fifty Shades of Grey is considered very cringeworthy in the BDSM community.

If you ever find yourself at a BDSM meet-up or dungeon, don’t mention any shade of grey. While some people appreciate that the books spurred more interest in kink and may have made it less stigmatized, others take issue with the abusive, unhealthy relationship it portrays and the seriously unrealistic scenes. All in all, it is not an accurate representation of the BDSM community.

7. It’s not all whips and chains all the time — or ever, if that’s not your thing.

Sure, some S&M enthusiasts might have these in their arsenal, but it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of kink. “Some people go for what’s called ‘sensual dominance,’ which is where there might be some toys or play but no pain involved at all,” says Brame. “It’s more like one partner agrees to do everything the other person asks. BDSM doesn’t have to follow any pattern, and there is no one model for what a BDSM relationship can be.”

8. BDSM encounters are called “scenes.”

Again, since it isn’t always about intercourse, you wouldn’t necessarily say that you “had sex” or “hooked up” with someone after a BDSM experience. Instead, these are called scenes (like, you scened with someone or you had a scene).

“It’s an evolution from a time where, if you did S&M, you might only do it with a professional for an hour, or you might just see it performed at a BDSM club,” says Brame. “Now people have much more organic relationships, but they still call it a scene — the time when we bring out the toys or get into that headspace.”

9. There are dominants, submissives, tops, and bottoms.

So you’ve probably heard about dominants and submissives (if not, the dominant enjoys being in charge, while the submissive enjoys receiving orders). But BDSMers may also use the terms “tops” and “bottoms” to describe themselves. A top could refer to a dominant or a sadist (someone who enjoys inflicting pain), while a bottom could refer to a submissive or a masochist (someone who enjoys receiving pain). This allows you to have a blanket term for those who generally like being on either the giving or receiving end in a BDSM encounter. And there’s no rule that says you can’t be both dominant and submissive in different circumstances or with different partners.

10. It can be as simple or as technical as you want.

Maybe the thought of being tied up excites you, or you enjoy spanking or being spanked. Or maybe you’re more interested in leather masks and nipple clamps and hot wax. All of that (and obviously a lot more) is within the realm of BDSM. Basically, you can still be into kink without actually ever going to a dungeon.

11. Before you go past the VERY basics, do your research.

Using a blindfold or an ice cube or fuzzy handcuffs you got at a bachelorette party are all relatively harmless beginner behaviors if you’re into them. But before you play around with some of the trickier tools, you need to learn how to do so safely. Even a rope or a whip can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Hell, you can even mess up with your own hands (think: fisting): “[Some people] think they can clench a fist and stick it inside somebody,” says Brame. “That’s a good way to really injure someone and send them to the hospital.” (Instead, she suggests an “enormous amount of lubricant” and starting with two or three fingers, then slowly and carefully building up to the whole hand.)

12. Seriously, BDSM involves A LOT of reading and learning.

If you’re one of those people who throws away the directions and tries to build the bookshelf on intuition alone, BDSM is probably not for you. “I would say the vast majority of what we call BDSM education is how to maximize ecstasy and minimize risk,” says Brame. “How to do all the things you fantasized about doing and to do them safely.”

While there’s no one required reading list, there seem to be a few favorites that are often recommended to beginners, like SM 101 by Jay Wiseman, Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns, by Phillip Miller and Molly Devon, and The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton. [Editor’s note: Have others you’d suggest? Please add them in the comments!]

Classes, conferences, and meet-ups are also helpful for learning specific techniques, says Thorn. Another popular resource is FetLife.com, a Facebook-like network for the kink community, which can connect you with message boards, groups, and classes in your area.

13. It’s important to get your information from a variety of sources.

One mistake many people make when first experimenting with BDSM is relying on one person to show them the way. Even if they do have your best interest at heart (and they might not), it can be limiting to only have one perspective on something that is so multidimensional, says Thorn. Instead, seek out books, workshops, meet-ups, mentors, friends, message boards, and more to find a safe place to explore your interests.

“When you can’t talk about what’s happening and you can’t make sense of your experience with like-minded people, that’s way more dangerous than the variety of activities you might fantasize about,” says Thorn.

14. Safe words are definitely a thing.

It might sound cheesy, but it’s a well-established norm in BDSM. (And hey, your safe word couldactually be “cheesy” if you want. You do you.) “Safe words are probably one of the most important norms that have spread across the community, even if people use them in different ways,” says Thorn. For instance, not everyone uses safe words all the time after a while, but it’s important to start out with them. They can essentially be anything you want, as long as it’s something that you wouldn’t normally say during sex. You can find more info about safe words here.

15. And at some public events, there are even safety monitors on duty.

“Dungeon monitors will kick out people who don’t look like they’re playing safely,” says Brame. This can be anything from ignoring safe words to using a whip incorrectly. Seriously, did we mention that safety is paramount here? In fact, the acronym SSC (safe, sane, consensual) is one of the most common pillars of the practice.

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16. It’s not as spontaneous as Hollywood movies or porn make it out to be.

Getting swept up in the moment and accidentally stumbling into a millionaire’s red room (where you’ll have multiple orgasms) is probably not going to happen to you ever. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “The sexual fantasy makes everything look so easy,” says Brame. “People who actually do this stuff are very cautious about it. It has to be the right place and right time and right equipment. And you have to know you can get the person out [of whatever bondage] if there’s an emergency. You have to feel you can trust the person.” So there’s a lot that goes into one scene, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less satisfying for those who enjoy it.

17. There’s also probably way more talking involved than there is with (most) vanilla sex.

Whenever people question the role of consent in BDSM, they should consider the enormous amount of communication that occurs before, during, and after the scenes. “We talk about it hugely before we ever do it,” says Brame. “We talk about what we want to do, what we’re going to do, what our fantasies are… that’s part of negotiating a good relationship as a BDSMer.”

18. There’s actually a pre-negotiation period, where the partners discuss what they like, what they don’t like, and what they absolutely will not tolerate.

Think of this as the primer before the scene. “It’s a way of discussing the experience ahead of time that can increase emotional security,” says Thorn. This can involve anything from scripts and checklists to a more informal discussion of what each person’s expectations are for the scene, what they want and don’t want, and any words or actions that are completely off-limits.

19. And then comes aftercare, the debriefing period that happens once the scene ends.

Since BDSM can be an incredibly intense and emotional experience for some, most experts strongly suggest this wrap-up step, where the partners can discuss the scene and any reactions they had to it. “People are extremely vulnerable during aftercare,” says Thorn. “It can be really weird to have a scene without it.” This can also be a strong bonding experience between the partners.

20. BDSMers can be monogamous, polyamorous, or whatever the hell they want.

Not everyone who’s interested in BDSM has multiple sexual or relationship partners. “It used to be a popular perception that we don’t form long-term relationships,” says Brame. “A lot of BDSMers are just monogamous people. A lot of people just want to do it with their partner or play with the big toys at clubs.”

21. There are so many different types of whips.

This is not a one-size-fits-all kink. There are light floggers, leather whips, whips with single tails, whips with multiple tails that are flat and wide, the list goes on, says Thorn. But because certain types can be harsher than others, you really need to learn how to use them properly (again, workshops are crucial). “People practicing with a single-tail whip will often start with a pillow or some distant small object, like a light switch,” she says.

22. And there are some places that you definitely don’t want to whip.

Like, um, the eyes, obviously. Or the kidney area. “The skin is thin there and you have vital organs under there. You can bruise your kidneys,” explains Brame.

23. If you want to bring it up in your current relationship, absolutely do it.

“There are plenty of stories out there of people who were too nervous to bring it up and then found out that their partner had the same fantasy,” says Thorn. If you’re nervous about it, ask if they’d be interested in checking out a particular book or workshop you heard about. Or just talk about it in the context of sexual fantasies by asking your partner if they’ve ever tried anything like BDSM or if they’ve ever wanted to. If you think about it, you’re only risking one awkward conversation, and the payoff can be huge if this is something you want in your life.

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24. There is an immensely helpful list of kink-aware professionals so you can find a doctor or therapist who uniquely understands your lifestyle.

Maybe you’re worried that your gynecologist or your lawyer won’t be sensitive to your lifestyle or doesn’t allow you to feel comfortable talking about it. Check out the Kink Aware Professionals Directory from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom to find someone who will be more accepting.

25. Basically, it’s way different than most people expect.

Between stereotypes, porn, and Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s a lot of misconceptions about BDSM. Short of attending a workshop or visiting a dominatrix, the best way to learn more about it is to do some research. “Just like with regular sex, if you want to be good at it, you really have to learn about what’s going on when this stuff is happening,” says Brame.


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