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What Is BDSM Sex?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 28, 2021

BDSM is a term used to describe aspects of sex that involve dominance, submission, and control. The practice typically involves one partner taking on a more dominant role during sex, while the other is more submissive. The acronym BDSM can be divided into these categories: 

  • Bondage: Restricting a partner’s freedom of movement, for example, with ropes, handcuffs, or other restraints 
  • Discipline: Agreed upon rules and punishments for a dominant partner to exert control over a submissive partner
  • Dominance: The act of showing dominance over a physical partner, either during sex or outside of the bedroom
  • Submission: The act of showing submission to the dominant partner's actions and wishes
  • Sadism and Masochism (or Sadomasochism): Pleasure that a partner may feel from either inflicting pain (sadism) or receiving pain (masochism), either physical or emotional

While these are the broader categories, there is no one way to practice BDSM — different types can include power play, role-playing, pain play, bondage, wax play, edging, sensory deprivation, or humiliation. 

According to a 2016 study, nearly 47% of women and 60% of men have fantasized about dominating someone in a sexual context. The same study found that BDSM sex was slightly more prevalent in couples on the LGBTQ spectrum, but researchers otherwise determined that BDSM sex was practiced across different ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. 

How BDSM Sex Works in Relationships

Practicing BDSM sex in a relationship can be enjoyable for both people. Many people who engage in BDSM see it as a form of release, an exploration of trust, or a space to act out fantasies of submission, vulnerability, and control.

One small study found that participating in a BDSM dynamic may reduce stress and improve mood. Other research found that participating in healthy BDSM scenes fostered feelings of intimacy between partners.  

In a relationship with two partners, one will typically play the dominant role, while the other will play the submissive role. A “switch” is an individual who shifts between the dominant and submissive roles, depending on the partner and the context. This dominant and submissive dynamic is often referred to as a top/bottom dynamic. While the dominant partner or top is typically the one taking control in spanking, bonding, whipping, or other sexual scenarios, the submissive may also maintain control by demanding the top perform certain roles or insist on switching roles. 

Safety Advice and Special Considerations

The most important part of BDSM sex is the act of consent. Partners should always make sure everyone gives enthusiastic consent and outlines clear boundaries. These boundaries can be laid out in a formal contract, a verbal agreement, or a more casual conversation about desires and limits. 

Due to the intense nature of some BDSM scenes, it is also important to introduce a safe word. If one partner becomes uncomfortable with any part of the experience, they can speak the word to stop the current act — or stop the sex altogether. 

Another way to negotiate boundaries is through the traffic light system. Each color communicates how a partner is feeling and what they want. Red means they want the partner to stop what they’re doing immediately. Yellow means they want their partner to slow down, either due to physical discomfort or reaching a limit. Green means they like what the partner is doing, they feel comfortable, and they want the act to continue.

Before you engage in more intense forms of erotic play—like the use of whips, advanced bondage techniques, or sex toys—it’s a good idea to educate yourself on these practices first, through classes, books, or instructional online content.

Finally, partners participating in BDSM sex can practice what is known as aftercare. This is when partners take care of one another after a scene, including cuddling, hydrating, bathing together, or another calming activity. It can also include a discussion about what worked, what didn't, and how each partner is feeling. This post-sex debriefing can help protect all participants physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

How to Explore BDSM Sex

If you’re interested in trying BDSM sex, there are some “light” BDSM practices that may be a good starting point for beginners. These can include: 

  • Hair pulling
  • Handcuffs 
  • Scarf or tie bondage 
  • Blindfolds
  • Light spanking 
  • Role-playing 

Most importantly, communicate with your partner about your desires. BDSM includes a wide range of sexual activities and dynamics, and each person will approach BDSM sex differently. Be honest with your partner about what you’re looking for and what you’re comfortable with. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES: 

BDSM Organization: “Aftercare.”

The Journal of Sex Research: "The Prevalence of Paraphilic Interests and Behaviors in the General Population: A Provincial Survey"

Northern Illinois University: "Sadomasochism without Sex? Exploring the Parallels between BDSM and Extreme Rituals

Psychology of Consciousness: "Consensual BDSM Facilitates Role-Specific Altered States of Consciousness: A Preliminary Study."

UCSB Campus Advocacy Resources & Education Center: “Communicating Consent.”

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