What Is BDSM and What Are Its Benefits?

Tips for safely engaging in BDSM

Verywell / Laura Porter

What Is BDSM?

BDSM is an acronym for consensual sexual practices that involve:

  • Bondage: physically restraining a partner during sex, such as with handcuffs, cords, or some type of ties
  • Dominance: exerting power or control over a partner during a sexual experience
  • Submission: being dominated during sex, or willingly submitting to the power or control of a sexual partner
  • Sadomasochism: deriving sexual gratification from either inflicting or receiving physical pain or humiliation

BDSM usually involves partners taking on specific roles in which one is dominant and the other is submissive. The person who is dominant is sometimes referred to as the Dominant, Master, or Top. The person who is submissive is referred to as the Submissive, Slave, or Bottom.

It's important to note that both partners must consent to this dominant-submissive roleplay, making it different than a sexual assault. In fact, a common phrase used in the BDSM community is "safe, sane, and consensual" or SSC, reinforcing that any type of play must be all three.

While often portrayed as deviant or taboo, research has shown that BSM is a common sexual fantasy and practice for many individuals and couples.

Types of BDSM

There are several types of play that can occur during BDSM. They include:

  • Age play: pretending that you are a different age than you are, whether younger or older
  • Breath play: controlling one's breath during the sexual experience, such as by holding your breath or through choking
  • Edge play: BDSM activities deemed as being more dangerous, pushing the "edge" of whether the action is SSC
  • Gender play: pretending to be a different gender than you are
  • Impact play: striking the body with some type of instrument, such as a hand, whip, or cane
  • Role play: pretending to have a different identity during a sexual experience

BDSM participants can also engage in a play party. This is a social gathering in which the guests participate in BDSM activities.

Common BDSM Terms

Before learning more about what BDSM safety and benefits, it can be helpful to understand a few commonly used terms. These terms include:

  • Aftercare: offering mental and physical care to your partner after BDSM
  • Drop: feeling of being mentally or physically exhausted after BDSM
  • Dungeon: the location in which BDSM takes place
  • Fetish: deriving sexual pleasure from a body part, object, or specific experience
  • Hard limit: what a partner absolutely will not do during BDSM
  • Kink: any sexual practice that is non-conventional
  • Munch: an often-public party where people interested in BDSM can meet
  • Protocol: the rules that sexual partners agree to follow during BDSM
  • Scene: a term used to describe the BDSM encounter
  • Soft limit: a behavior or action the partner is hesitant to do but may try
  • Switch: changing dominant and submissive positions during BDSM

Engaging in Safe BDSM Play

Since BDSM may involve the use of pain and humiliation or roleplaying characterized by dominance and submission, it requires the use of safety precautions. This helps ensure that neither party's sexual boundaries are violated.

Consent

Consent from both parties is critical when engaging in BDSM practices. Implied consent isn't enough. If you think that your partner agrees to participate in these activities and they don't, you could potentially be charged with sexual assault.

To ensure that consent exists, talk with your partner before engaging in BDSM. Discuss what each of you would enjoy sexually, also sharing your limits or boundaries. This helps ensure that you both have a positive experience within your individual comfort zones.

Pre-Sex Negotiations

Before engaging in a BDSM scene, talk with your partner about what you will and won't do. Decide who will be dominant and who will be submissive, or if you will switch, and what type of play you will engage in. By negotiating this in advance, you'll both know what to expect during the experience.

Safe Words

A safe word is a predetermined word that a person can use when they reach a point where they are no longer comfortable and need to stop. Set your safe word in advance and share it with your partner. If either of you says your safe word during BDSM, all actions are to end immediately.

Green-Yellow-Red System

Some BDSM partners choose to follow a green-yellow-red system. Just like with a traffic light, green means go, yellow means slow down, and red means stop. Using this type of system allows you to communicate with your partner during BDSM, letting them know if you're okay with the actions taking place or if they need to slow down or stop.

How to Get Into BDSM

If you are interested in giving BDSM a try, there are a number of light BDSM practices that can be a good starting point for beginners. This includes such things as:

  • Hair pulling
  • Blindfolds
  • Light spanking
  • Scarf or tie bondage
  • Roleplaying

For more intense forms of erotic play, you could take a class, read a book, or watch instructional videos. Some practices can be dangerous and lead to injury without taking proper precautions. And, as previously mentioned, BDSM activities need to be carefully pre-negotiated so that each party understands what will happen.

Benefits of BDSM

Recent studies devoted to understanding BDSM and its effects on the body have shown surprising results. Researchers have found that these practices may offer a number of health benefits.

Improved Mental Health

In one study, researchers looked at personality traits, relationship attachment styles, and the general well-being of individuals who engaged in BDSM. Contrary to many popular stereotypes, the study found that those who engaged in these sexual practices were actually, on average, better adjusted than their non-BDSM practicing counterparts.

Those in the BDSM group:

Reduced Stress

Research has found that BDSM participants enter an altered level of consciousness similar to the meditative state yoga practitioners experience or the marathoner’s “runner's high.” It is commonly known these activities can benefit health by helping lower our levels of the hormone cortisol. Participation in BDSM may have the same effects.

For example, one series of studies found that partners in dominant roles had decreased cortisol levels after a BDSM session. Cortisol is known as the "stress hormone" and may be associated with a range of health issues including high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, and insulin resistance.

Researchers have also found that some participants regard BDSM as a spiritual experience.

Better Relationships

Researchers have also determined that participating in successful sadomasochistic scenes increases the feeling of connectedness and intimacy with partners. While the exact reasons for this are not entirely clear, research has shown that doing novel things with romantic partners, rather than the same routine activities, increases intimacy.

This has been supported by looking at how the brain responds when doing something new. Brain scans of married couples reveal that sharing novel activities triggers the brain's reward system and floods it with dopamine and other feel-good chemicals.

Tips and Tricks for Practicing BDSM

The world of BDSM has its own distinct subcultures and terminology. It can be intimidating for beginners, but there are some tips and tricks that may help you explore.

  • Remember that communication is critical. Before you even begin, you need to talk about your interests and boundaries. If you are engaging in something as part of a BDSM scene, it needs to be something that each partner has talked about—and agreed to—beforehand.
  • Start slowly. Light BDSM practices are a good starting point for figuring out what you like and what you are comfortable with. Roleplaying sexy scenes or engaging in dirty talk, for example, can help you explore your fantasies.
  • Set the scene. Engage all your senses when setting up a BDSM scene. Mood lighting, scented candles, soft music, and erotic clothing can all help create the right mood for your BDSM play.
  • Have a safe word and don't be afraid to use it. BDSM should be fun for everyone involved. So, if something isn't working for you or is too much for you to handle, there's no shame in saying so and trying something else.

Potential Pitfalls of BDSM

While BDSM can be fun and safe, it is important that you follow safety precautions. Always know how to safely use any clothing, gear, or toys that you want to try. Bondage and pain play, for example, can cause injury if you aren't careful or don't use the equipment properly.

You may find that taking a class or watching instructional videos can help you learn how to engage in BDSM practices safely.

It's also important to remember that BDSM is not for everyone. Many people fantasize about BDSM-related practices but don't necessarily enjoy actually engaging in these activities. Some people may prefer reading about or watching BDSM scenes without exploring those practices in real life.

History of BDSM

Mainstream culture often represents BDSM as reckless, dangerous, and unhealthy. Take Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance. Christian Grey’s reasons for enjoying kink stems from his childhood abuse. Television crime dramas often portray fetishists as seedy, unethical lawbreakers. It isn't just the media that frames BDSM this way.

Prior to the release of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013, participation in fetishism and sadomasochism was actually considered a mental disorder by health professionals. Attitudes about kinky sex have shifted. Pop culture didn’t make kink the latest fad, however. Humans have always had a penchant for adventurous sex.

A 2005 Durex Global Sex Survey found that 20% of adults admitted to using some form of bondage during lovemaking. Even back in 1956, a ​Kinsey Institute Study revealed that 50% of people enjoyed erotic biting. We may not be having kinky sex much more than we always have, but we’re certainly talking about it more.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sunny Megatron
Sunny Megatron is a sex educator, relationship coach, podcaster, and writer. She's a regular columnist for Sexual Health Magazine