I can’t recall the first time I engaged in any form of bondage, but it was likely an unintended moment during sex. Maybe my partner pulled my ponytail or held me down, but whatever scenario sparked my interest in BDSM, it was like getting the key to an inner world wherein I could explore the precarious lines of pain and pleasure and their fantastic gifts. Over the years, the practice has peppered my intimate life and given me room to play and explore the shadow side of my sexual longings in a structured and safer way than any casual encounters might have provided. Oh, and it’s just plain hot, too.
An acronym for bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism and masochism, BDSM is a form of sex play (aka kink) in which people use a variety of methods to explore physical and emotional release through inflicting or receiving exchanges of power in, ideally, a structured and controlled environment. There are recognizable hallmarks that have been stereotyped in media (cue 50 Shades of Bullshit), but BDSM is a rich and vibrant practice that encompasses many aspects, including creative positioning, foreplay and non-traditional emotional connections.
Bondage, for example, is used to heighten sexual stimulation by restraining movement in practices like Shibari (literally “to bind”), the Japanese art of intricate and patterned knot-tying used for restricting movement and suspension, with the designated roles of “rigger” (rope tier) and “bunny” (the recipient). Discipline encompasses a set of rules that, when broken, are met with predetermined “punishments.” It sounds restrictive to be tied up, but I enjoy the freedom afforded me when I don’t have to be in control or even an active participant and can fully have space to receive whatever pleasure or punishment comes my way. One of my goals for 2023, in fact, is to find an outlet to learn Shibari and other specific sects of rope-tying art. You should try it.
With dominance/submission, the dynamic involves a “dominant” partner (dom) whose role is to explore and fulfill the desires of the “submissive” (sub), who, ironically, holds the most power. I enjoy both roles, depending on circumstance or mood, which makes me a “switch.” This last form lends well to fantasy play and costuming; gratification is only limited by the imagination. Whether it’s donning a dominatrix corset, or taking it back to my pleated skirts days from Catholic school, I love the theatrical element of suspending who I am and my everyday existence to let my inner child play.
Those who enjoy sadism, meanwhile, take pleasure in inflicting pain, whereas the masochist lives to endure it. This practice can include devices that produce sweet agony, such as whips, clamps, paddles and electric stimulation—or manual methods, such as asphyxiation and spanking. On an emotional level, acts of verbal and physical humiliation can be part of the exploration. Even though I enjoy moving between both of these methods, the masochist in me longs to get my hair pulled (at the crown, not the back of the head, please) and my absolute favorite is contrasting melting wax with ice for delicious waves of burning hot and frigid cold—particularly if bondage is incorporated.
These are the basic forms, and they certainly co-mingle, but there are myriad philosophies in BDSM communities surrounding how to engage in these practices. The tenet “SSC,” for example, covers three questions: Is it Safe? Sane? Consenting? Risk-Aware Consensual Kink, or RACK, acknowledges the risks of the activity, consent to participate and an understanding of the chosen activity. Lastly, some refer to themselves as a PRICK, where Personal Responsibility and Informed, Consensual Kink puts the onus on each individual to comprehend and consent to what they are about to enjoy.
No matter the acronym, the hallmarks of kink participation are always consent, deliberate communication, clear boundaries, safety and knowing the benefits/risks. Communication is the foundation, and without transparency and honesty, it’s difficult to provide the consent so desperately needed for effective and enjoyable BDSM. When trust is violated, when emotional safety is compromised, fulfillment and partnership suffer in turn. Safety is, of course, a priority, and sound practices such as agreeing upon safe words—ideally one for when approaching limits and one when they are reached—allow participants to enjoy themselves without the mental worry of interruption or disappointment. Maintaining clear boundaries is integral to a successful practice; understanding the benefits of the engagement, such as the kind of stimulation and expanded arousal it could provide, are as important as knowing any risks, which can include physical and emotional trauma.
But how do you know if BDSM would be a good sexual fit for you? Here are some possible indicators:
- The act of tattooing feels sensual
- You fantasize about role playing or sex that involves specific acts
- Temperature changes are a turn on
- You enjoy surrendering control—or being in control
- Pain and pleasure are similar for you
Curious, but not sure where to start? Being tied up in various positions can be a low-stakes exploration of bondage, assuming trust with a partner; costumed role-playing can provide an experience of dominance and submissiveness; light spanking or increased pressure along body parts rich in nerve communication, such as nipples, can allow for a taste of sadomasochism.
For the tepid who aren’t ready for more physical play, I recommend the book Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliot, a philosophic take on how we mentally torture ourselves through our patterns of thinking and feeling, and the ways we can release such subconscious thoughts by recognizing our intellectual kinks and acknowledging we get off through a form of mental BDSM.
Some might still wonder why I would desire to feel pain or powerlessness during sex when we are fed a social norm of intercourse as an act of benign romanticism. Although research is still fairly limited when it comes to BDSM, there are indicators that practicing this sexual art lowers stress, enhances communication in relationships and fosters increased trust between partners. Due to the nature of required consent and detailed communication, BDSM provides incredible structure while allowing for a deep vulnerability. By honoring our authentic selves, by grabbing as much bliss as we can in a world and society wherein most of us are non-consensual submissives to begin with, we can dictate a healthier approach to pleasure autonomy, our bodies and those with whom we share these connections.
I manage so much in my career and personal life that sexual surrender can give me room to breathe, whereas dominance helps release frustrations over what I can’t control. BDSM keeps me more aligned with my self-worth and more picky about who I engage sexually—an incredible act of radical self-love in a world that constantly tells us who to be, how to behave or how and whom we should love and fuck.
In the words of John Cougar Mellencamp, “Sink your teeth right through my bones, baby/sometimes love don’t feel like it should/you make it hurt so good.”
Holly Lovejoy is a Santa Fe artivist, wordsmith, intimacy coach, orgastronomist and queer, unapologetic badass in search of her Shibari sado. She dishes about love and relationships on the podcast Shadow of Love, and blogs about the intersection of food and sex at hollylovejoy.com.