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A very, very beginner’s guide to understanding BDSM, according to a sexologist

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisMay 23, 2020

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Even as BDSM comes to popular light via media portrayals and increased openness about intimate habits and preferences, much about the sexual practice remains misunderstood and incorrectly presumed to be negative and abusive—especially in those media portrayals. This is perhaps most recently depicted in that degrading scene in Hulu’s Normal People, when protagonist Marianne asks her sexual partner—who had bound her wrists and was taking naked photos of her—to stop, and he refuses, reminding her “you asked for this.”

Despite vignettes like those that mischaracterize the intended nature of the sexual act practiced by a dedicated community, fact remains that BDSM can absolutely be a satisfying, safe, consensual, and healthy component of a fulfilling sex life. But if you’re curious about learning more about what it actually entail and perhaps experimenting with it yourself, knowing where to start can be daunting. To break down BDSM for beginners, Jess O’Reilly, PhD, sexologist and host of the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast, says the basic definitions are most important to learn first. And we’re talking absolute basics, beginning with what it actually means.

“While BDSM encompasses a wide range of sexual activities, practitioners tend to play complementary roles that involve some degree of power differentials,” says Dr. O’Reilly, referencing roles of “dominant” and “submissive.” “Activities are underscored by the consent of all parties involved, and BDSM can be a part of healthy, normal, and safe sex play.”

To help you learn the ropes of the sexual practice before you break out the literal ropes, Dr. O’Reilly shares her four components of the BDSM for beginners below. Whether you’re curious to give it a try yourself or simply want to know more, you’re going to want to take notes.

BDSM for beginners: 4 basics ground rules everyone should know.

1. Know what BDSM stands for

BDSM describes sexual play that involves some exchange of power or pain, with different people involved subscribing to different roles and dynamics within the scope of the session. Broken into its singular letters, BDSM stands for individualized terms: “bondage,” “dominance” or “discipline,” “sadism” or “submission,” and “masochism.” Sometimes the terms are grouped together in pairs, with BD referring to bondage and discipline, DS standing for dominance and submission, and SM referring to sadomasochism.

2. Know the meaning of R.A.C.K.

R.A.C.K. stands for risk-aware, consensual kink. This basic phrase outlines two of the essential components of kink while still recognizing that there is some risk inherent to all sex play. For instance, if you’re interested in trying wax play with your partner, you don’t want to just take a jar candle named Lilac Breeze, light it, and go to town. Rather, you want to get consent for the activity, outlining together how to execute it as safely as possible, and noting the risks involved that you are both fully aware of. Because even unintentionally giving your partner a third-degree burn or ripping off chunks of their body hair will almost certainly take you both out of the experience.

“For kinky sex to be considered risk-aware, all parties involved must understand and acknowledge the potential negative outcomes of the proposed activity.” —sexologist Jess O’Reilly, PhD

“For kinky sex to be considered risk-aware, all parties involved must understand and acknowledge the potential negative outcomes of the proposed activity,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “These risks should be discussed ahead of time—not in the heat of the moment when sexual tension is already building. It is important to address the measures you plan to take to minimize risk when your mind is clear and your judgment isn’t clouded by desire or other distractions.”

3. Consent in BDSM is paramount

Before engaging in sexual activity of any kind, you always, always need consent. “To be considered consensualall parties involved must be capable of expressing their explicit and informed consent,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “The absence of protestation does not amount to consent, and the clearest way to secure consent is to ask. Similarly, the most straightforward way to provide consent is to offer an enthusiastic and genuine ‘Yes!'”

Dr. O’Reilly adds that an important component of BDSM beginners should know is that consent is the cornerstone of all kinky activities, and it needs to be granted before and throughout every individual session. “Do not assume that because a lover wanted to be tied up and rough-handled last Saturday night, that they also want to be bound and spanked next Thursday morning,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “You always have the right to withdraw your consent at any time without explanation, regardless of what you may have agreed upon in the past.” This is precisely what Normal People got wrong about BDSM in the case of Marianne’s incorrectly assumed consent.

4. It’s important to check in on safety

Even if elements of distress are an intentional component of a consensual BDSM scenario, you absolutely want to check the emotional and physical safety of your partner(s) and yourself throughout the experience, continually confirming comfort on both fronts. An “are you okay?” can suffice, but you can also establish a safety word or non-verbal cue to communicate your status.

“For instance, two light taps can reassure your lover that you’re feeling good,” Dr. O’Reilly. “You’ll also want to check in to establish that your partner’s physical safety is secured. If you’ve tied them up, you should check the skin under the bondage equipment to ensure that their circulation isn’t obstructed. If you’ve been spanking them, you’ll want to check in and make sure that the pressure isn’t too much for them to handle.”

And, remember, no matter whether you intend to put these basic foundational guidelines about BDSM for beginners into any kind of action or not, simply knowing about them is key for destigmatizing the sexual practice for those who do. And that alone is helpful in perpetuating a more inclusive understanding about pleasure and how we each experience it.

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