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BDSM defined: what’s involved in a dominant/submissive relationship?

As a result of the mainstream popularity of such books as 50 Shades of Grey, people have a misinformed view of BDSM. BDSM through the media’s lens is often portrayed as negative, often associating it with violence, danger, abuse, madness and criminality. And while some BDSM acts can seem confusing from the outside, they are more complex than most assume. That’s why we want to clear the air about the various aspects of BDSM, and recognize that it is not made up of just one fetish or kink or one type of dom/sub relationship. Rather, it’s a complex world that is in constant flux but always anchored by consent.

The Definition of BDSM

BDSM stands for and includes Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission and Sadism and Masochism. (It also is often referred to as “kink.”) Though not a completely straightforward acronym, these terms are grouped this way because BDSM means different things to different people with different preferences. And most of the time, people are into one or two of the categories, instead of all of them. BDSM can involve tying a partner up, using things in bed like paddles, nipple clamps or hot wax, or more extreme acts like needle or electro-play.

Common Myths about BDSM

1. BDSM is a Violent Fad

The starkest myth that needs dispelling is that BDSM is not a violent fad acted out by maladjusted individuals. Rather research has shown that people who are into BDSM commonly have the same emotional well-being and upbringings as their vanilla counterparts.

2. BDSM is Spontaneous

Like the violent misconception, spontaneity is also uncommon, meaning that mutual consent, trust and negotiation are built before any BDSM goes down. Most people meet up with potential partners to discuss boundaries, safe words and health conditions. Which means if there are control/dominance scenes and/or pain inflicted, it’s only because there was a previous discussion and consent was given.

3. You Choose One or the Other

Another misconception is that you are either dominant or submissive. In reality, you can choose either or be a “switch,” which just means you can take on whatever role you choose depending on mood or situation.

4. Dominance Means in Control

While it looks like and makes sense that the dom or “top” is the one in control, it’s actually not the case. In reality, the dom is acting to please their sub or “bottom.” Which explains why some subs have the nickname of “bossy bottom.”

5. There’s Something Wrong With You if You’re Into It

BDSM isn’t something that emerges from abuse or domestic violence. And being into BDSM doesn’t mean you are into abuse. Rather, look at it as something that regular people might just be into. It’s a facet of someone’s sexuality and that’s it. As Gloria Brame, a sex expert and former therapist, puts it, “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.”

Definition of a Dominant and Submissive Relationship

If someone identifies as having a D/s relationship, then they include power play in their sex life, and perhaps in other aspects of their relationship. It also means that they identify as dominant, submissive or switch. Though not always, D/s is distinguished from SM because it’s mostly about power relations in scenes where one partner has power over the other. Usually, the people that prefer D/s are excited by power dynamics when it comes to sex.

BDSM can be very intense, so it’s common to have aftercare to debrief the scene, talk about emotions that came up, and nurture each other. This is a powerful bonding experience for partners and will strengthen the D/s relationship over time. While BDSM is not for everyone, when practiced with respect and consent, it can be an exciting, powerful sexual experience.