What Is BDSM Sex?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on August 16, 2023
4 min read

BDSM is a term used to describe sex that involves dominance, submission, and control. The practice typically involves one partner taking on a more dominant role during sex, while the other is more submissive. 

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. 

What is light BDSM?

Some “light” BDSM practices may be a good starting point for beginners. These can include: 

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

What is a dom and a sub?

In a relationship with two partners, one will typically play the dominant (dom) role, while the other will play the submissive (sub) role. 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, or bottom, may also keep control by demanding the top perform certain roles or insist on switching roles. 

What is a switch?

A “switch” is a person who shifts between the dominant and submissive roles, depending on the partner and the context.

Using its abbreviation, BDSM can be divided into these categories: 

Bondage

This involves limiting a partner’s freedom of movement, with, for example, ropes, handcuffs, or other restraints. 

Discipline

Through agreed-upon rules and punishments, a dominant partner can exercise control over a submissive partner.

Dominance

This is showing authority over a physical partner, either during sex or outside of the bedroom.

Submission

A partner shows obedience to the dominant partner's actions and wishes.

Sadism and masochism (or sadomasochism)

This involves 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. 

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 taking part in a BDSM dynamic may reduce stress and improve mood. Other research found that use of healthy BDSM scenes fostered feelings of intimacy between partners.  

  

Consent

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. 

Safe words

Because of 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 because of physical discomfort or reaching a limit. Green means they like what the partner is doing, they feel comfortable, and they want  to keep going.

Before you take part 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.

 

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.  

Partners having BDSM sex can practice what is known as aftercare. This is when partners take care of each another after a scene. It can include 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 communication can help protect you and your partner physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

BDSM is a way of having sex in which one partner plays a dominant role, while the other is more submissive. In some cases, this can involve role-paying or the use of sex toys. In other cases, one partner may restrain the other (with rope, handcuffs, or other ties) or cause physical pain. 

  • Communication is important in BDSM sex to make sure it is safe. One key part of that is consent.
  • Another part of BDSM sex is having a safe word. If the experience gets too intense for one partner, they can say the word to stop what's going on or stop sex all together.
  • Many people who have BDSM sex see the importance of a calming activity afterward. This can help uphold the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of the partners.