In a sexual sense, role-play is a term encompassing any sexual act that involves an element of “pretend,” fantasy, or make-believe for the sake of pleasure, according to Carol Queen, PhD, staff sexologist at sex-toy company Good Vibrations. To name just a few examples, sexy role-play can involve faking an accent, putting on a costume, using a thematic prop, going by a different name, pretending to be somebody else entirely, or acting out a particular power dynamic, she explains.
At a basic level, role-play can function as a way to infuse a little something new into your sex life, much like using a new vibrator might, says sex educator Searah Deysach, owner of education-focused sex shop Early to Bed, in Chicago. For some, however, role-play is also a gateway into BDSM, says Dr. Queen. “Roles can offer real context for BDSM [set-ups] that, without the roles, might seem hard to get into,” she says. Consider, for instance, how a dominant and submissive power dynamic might be easier to adopt if the person who’s going to be dominant takes on a teacher role, and the submissive acts as the student.
“Some people [can access] more pleasure when they shed their day-to-day persona and become the kind of person they imagine has the hot...sex they want to have deep down.” —Searah Deysach, sex educator
There’s also an element of role-play that can unlock more carefree sex, particularly if you’re someone who struggles to see yourself in a sexual light. “Some people [can access] more pleasure when they shed their day-to-day persona and become the kind of person they imagine has the hot, raunchy, or kinky sex they want to have deep down,” says Deysach.
No matter why you’re curious to try role-play or how it might serve your sexual goals, it can be tough to go from wanting it or imagining it to actually, well, doing it with a sexual partner(s). Below, sex educators break down how to turn any role-play fantasy into your sexual reality.
How to add role-play into your sex life with confidence, according to sex educators
1. Figure out your fantasy
If you’re reading this because you have a fully fleshed-out fantasy that you want to act out but just don’t know where to start, skip ahead to step two. But if you just think role-play could be a fun way to jazz up your bedroom activities and haven’t given it much dedicated thought beyond that, you’ll want to start by noodling on the kind of role you’d like to, well, play.
For inspiration, consider your recent porn search history, movie scenes you find particularly sexy, favorite erotica novels, or the kinds of audio erotica that really get you going, suggests Deysach.
Drawing a blank? Spend a few minutes rolling the below popular role-play ideas around in your brain and body. If you feel a little tingle or jolt thinking about any of these, that could be a sign that you’ve found something you want to try.
- Massage therapist/client
- Plumber/stay-at-home parent
- Firefighter/person in need of rescuing
- Savior/damsel (or dame) in distress
2. Talk about sex, generally speaking
It will be tough to strike up a conversation about sexual role-play with a partner if you don’t really talk about sex, period. That’s why Dr. Queen suggests first fostering a culture of open communication about sex with any sexual partner, more generally.
“Start by adding sex talk wherever you can,” says Dr. Queen. This can be simple—for instance, telling a partner, “I really liked when you did x last night” the morning after a pleasure-filled romp. Or, you can ask a question to get a sex conversation going, like, “Do you have any sexual fantasies that you'd like to try?” And if you’re not getting much in the way of a response, consider volunteering your own fantasies by asking, “Want to hear mine?” Leading with vulnerability can spark vulnerability in return.
If talking openly about your own sex life just feels too intimidating, start by discussing sex when it appears in the news, or by talking about celebrity relationships, Dr. Queen suggests. “Once you get comfortable chatting about the kind of sex you imagine, say, Pete Davidson and whomever he is currently dating have, you may feel more confident talking about your own sex life,” she says.
3. Make a “Yes/No/Maybe” list with a partner
When you’re comfortable with sex talk, level up to sex activities. To start, Dr. Queen suggests making a date night out of writing a sexual “Yes/No/Maybe” list with a partner. Just like it sounds, this list involves placing any number of different sexual acts, fantasies, toys, and positions into a “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” column based on your interest (or lack thereof) in trying them.
“You and your partner(s) can each make your own list, then compare lists to figure out what you might want to add to your sex lives,” says Dr. Queen. If both of your lists slot “role-play” in either the “Yes” or “Maybe” column, you can use that as a stepping stone to talk about what elements of sexual role-play intrigue you and why, and to share role-play fantasies.
4. Discuss role-playing in more detail
There’s a B-I-G difference between dirty talking in a fake British accent and greeting a partner in bed with a stethoscope around your neck and latex gloves sheathing your hands. In other words, agreeing to role-play with a partner isn’t enough to get started; you need to get specific about who, why, and when you’ll be role-playing, says Dr. Queen.
To do so, consider asking each other the below questions:
- What are some names you do (or do not) want to be called?
- What are some costumes or outfits you want to wear (or take off me)?
- What tone of voice do you want to use (or hear)?
- When is the scene over?
- How will you signal if you want to exit the scene early?
- What aftercare practices should we implement after trying this?
“As with any new sexy thing that you want to try, being direct and honest with your lover is usually the best approach,” says Deysach. Let them know what you want to experience, and give them an opportunity to share their desires, too.
If they express hesitation, avoid pressuring them to say “yes,” but don’t give up all hope, either, says Deysach. “You might instead offer [role-play] as something to think about and then plan to revisit it in the future.”
5. Get educated on safe role-play practices
If your role-play fantasy veers into BDSM territory—for example, involving power imbalance, consensual non-consent, choking, breath restriction, or the like—you’d be wise to spend some time learning about how to safely explore these kinks before acting, says Dr. Queen.
The book The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge by Tristan Taormino and the podcast Why Are People Into That?! with Tina Horn are good starting points. You might also look into taking an online or in-person workshop on the topic of role-play or BDSM from a sex-positive sex education brand like Babeland, Hacienda, or Velvet Lips, or from sex therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT.
6. Order any on-theme props you might need (or want)
No, you don’t need to drop coin on a sexy costume, nor do you need to order an on-theme dildo to match your role-play fantasy. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that these detail-oriented additions can certainly add to the overall experience, taking it from cerebral to corporeal. So, if you have rainy-day savings, fund your fantasy by ordering, for example, a tentacle dildo or a nurse get-up.
7. Keep it simple
If you want your sexual role-play experience to be as elaborate as, say, a Games of Thrones set, go for it. But it’s also important to acknowledge that it doesn’t have to be. Phew. “You and your partner can have a role-play experience where you do not change anything from your typical sexual encounter except what you wear or what you call each other,” says Dr. Queen.
For your first time, in particular, it may be useful to remove the pressure of setting the scene or deviating drastically from your typical sexual setup, and just keep it simple, instead, says Dr. Queen. This can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed (which is not exactly a sexy emotion).
8. Start digitally
Virtual sex isn’t just a good option for when you’re navigating a positive COVID test or just being COVID-conscious; it’s also a great medium for experimenting with role-play for the first time.
“Many may find that slipping into a new role in the digital realm can be very fulfilling,” says Deysach. Text, in particular, can be a good modality for role-play beginners because it gives everyone involved the gift of time between responses to craft a scene and dialogue that feels hot and well-aligned with the roles in question. Just make sure you and a partner agree on when you'll be starting the virtual role-play ahead of time so that they know what is going on when they start receiving texts from a new persona, Deysach adds.
9. Consider working with a sex professional
Single? Polyamous but don’t have a partner who is game for role-play? Consider hiring a sexuality professional, suggests Deysach. Phone-sex operators, virtual doms/dommes, and in-person sex workers are very skilled at role playing and can help facilitate the role-play scene of your dreams, she says.
A professional is a particularly sound option for individuals who have a very specific fantasy they want to act out, as well as those who want to make love to a very particular character, adds Deysach. After all, so long as it respects the sex professional’s boundaries, the scene you enact doesn’t have to align with their sexual tastes in the way that it would with those of a sexual partner.
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