BDSM 101: What & Why?


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Hello lovelies, Shiv here again. I hope you all had a lovely week, what with April Fool’s and something about… Trans Visibility? I’ll write on that later. Ideally you all had a tolerable Easter, too. One can dream. My breakup went from “bad” to “I can’t even,” so I apologize if I’m already slipping on my publication schedule!

Today’s topic is an introduction to BDSM, and what I think needs to be in place for the practice to be considered ethical.

 

What is BDSM?

 

BDSM is an initialism that combines Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, and Sadomasochism (or Sadism & Masochism) into an umbrella, catch-all term for “what kinksters do.”

I start this way only so that you know what the initialism literally means, but my actual definition is as follows:

“A series of practices which involve expressing and exploring interests that may be seen as unconventional through a system of rigorous ethics which conscientiously acknowledges and mitigates physical and emotional risks.”

Again, this is my definition, but I’d like to unpack it to show why it’s reasonably functional.

For starters, a series of practices describes the fact that BDSM isn’t any one activity. BDSM can involve anything from rope bondage to erotic massage to orgasm control to fire play to chastity to ballbusting. There isn’t any one activity that defines BDSM in my opinion, but there absolutely is a way to differentiate between BDSM and say, abuse. That is, both parties are conscientious of the methods and intentions within the practice.

The activities in question may be seen as unconventional. Generally, well practiced kinksters aren’t going to be surprised when you confess an interest in something that you thought was completely unfathomable. For someone like me, who was raised in a reasonably sexually liberated household, concepts like rope bondage and sensation play were super easy to grasp. But for someone with a strict Christian upbringing, as an example, it can feel wrong to even want to tie a partner up–regardless of how enthusiastically said partner encourages you to do so. Kink is not concerned about what interests you hold, no matter how outlandish they may seem–but it is absolutely concerned with the way you conduct yourself in expressing and exploring said interests. In that sense, BDSM is a useful framework, even if your interests look tame in comparison to the rest of the community.

Enter the system of rigorous ethics. Experienced kinksters are the best negotiators in the world, bar none. Better than salesfolk, business owners, CEOs, diplomats–you name it. There are a few ways to introduce “The System,” typically involving an acronym or initialism like SSC (“Safe, Sane, Consensual”), to RACK (“Risk Aware Consensual Kink”), to PRICK (“Personal Responsibility In Consensual Kink”). Those are decent starting points for getting you used to this system of ethics where people give more shits about how you do something than what you’re doing, but that’s all they are. Your personal code should incorporate subtleties from all three and eventually develop into something more complex than what can be described by an initialism or acronym.

Notice the common theme across all systems: consent.

And thus we hit the last component, mitigating physical and emotional risks. SSC, RACK, and PRICK are all tools to achieve this goal. We “mitigate” risks rather than “eliminate” them because most BDSM practices always have some kind of irreducible risk. We recognize that some of the risks involve injuries of the body and some involve aggravating emotional land mines. We spend a lot–and I do mean a lot–of energy figuring out what risks can be reduced, how they can be reduced, and what to do if they happen regardless. Reducing physical risk generally involves acquiring a working knowledge of anatomy, whereas reducing emotional risk involves not only a working knowledge of psychology and consent but also how those principles might apply to you.

The next step to mitigating risk is, of course, to develop the communication skills that enable you to convey the specifics as they apply to you. That’s the best part about this system: it doesn’t prescribe your preferences or assume your emotional needs, except to say that you need to be at least somewhat self-aware and that you need to be able to communicate them with potential partners. Because that’s the #1 activity of any kinkster: talking. We do a lot of fucking talking. Some of my relationships, including this last one that blew up in my face, had about six weeks (with around 40+ hours over those six weeks) where all we did was negotiate extensively.

I further define anyone who subscribes to this system of ethics as a “practitioner of BDSM,” more colloquially a “kinkster.”

Now, my definition is exactly that. Mine. What does that mean for the participants of the kinky community who miss some (or all) of my requirements to be “a kinkster”? I do not possess any authority to literally strip someone of whatever titles they may claim, but I contextualize my safety by saying “I only play with kinksters.” People who know what they want and more importantly, why they want it. People who know how and when to communicate that. People who take both physical and emotional risks seriously. People who take consent seriously. And, of course, people who happen to share at least some of my interests. For people who lack these qualities? Aspiring kinksters, or people with no interest in actual BDSM, since to me that implies a strong ethical conduct. They could just be incompatible if we don’t have enough fetishes in common. They could be clueless, or irresponsible, or predatory–the distinction doesn’t always matter when the questions I need to answer are “am I going to play with this person? Am I entering a kinky relationship with this person where we are conscientiously exploring and possibly manipulating our psychological structures? Do I trust this person to do so responsibly, in a manner that will leave us empowered and not harmed?”

 

So why do people practice BDSM?

 

One of the things that a party needs to be aware of in BDSM is the concept of a headspace. All BDSM is “mental” BDSM in my opinion–we are expressing an interest which we don’t usually have another context to explore, and the sorts of discoveries we make during this process inevitably shape our psychology. But even if you don’t like the “softer” principles of psychology, there’s one “hard” aspect to headspaces that absolutely needs to be understood to manipulate and invoke those emotional states safely: All headspaces are physiological, too.

If someone is under pain, their brain is being loaded with endorphins. If the Top is skilled and knows how to pace their bottom, you can sometimes activate multiple cycles of endorphin release over a long period of time. If there’s consensual, negotiated fear play, you’re combining endorphins with adrenaline. If you’re attracted to your play partner, there will be dopamine and oxytocin. You’re taking all the best parts of the best sex you’ve had in your life and combining them with the best work out of your life. The resulting brain cocktail is often called a headspace. Subspace for submissives, Topspace or Domspace for Dom/mes, etc. It can manifest as a very pleasant high, an acute hyper-aware rush, and an all around pleasant experience when managed correctly. These headspaces can be especially vulnerable for some people, which is why staying involved with a partner during aftercare and the subsequent withdrawal symptoms can be an incredibly gratifying bonding exercise, one you don’t normally get in vanilla contexts. Deepening relationships with this method is usually one of the main reasons people get into BDSM.

The contrast being that, when managed incorrectly, you now have a person trying to deal with a withdrawal of every happy chemical under the sun. This is where understanding what you need out of aftercare comes in. You need to know whether you need cuddles, blankets, a certain type of music, a certain type of snack, alone time or social time, a nap, a smoke, a jog. It doesn’t matter what your aftercare needs are, but it absolutely does matter that you communicate it clearly with your play partners. Because the consequences of leaving a person to deal with the withdrawal on their own–sometimes dubbed “drop” (subdrop, topdrop, etc.)–often means condemning them to an aggressive episode of depression and anxiety. These symptoms are a gazillion times worse in established relationships, because the level of trust is often deeper and so boundaries are often pushed in pursuit of that amazing high that comes with headspace. It is our responsibility as ethical kinksters to be involved in managing that, assuming we have any interest in not leaving behind a trail of emotionally devastated partners.

Now I know I can manage subdrop on my own, but why the fuck would I want to repeatedly rip scabs off my mental scars to play with someone? This is why my negotiation is very insistent on my aftercare. In my case, I need my Top’s physical presence for a short period of one-on-one time, and I prefer they be emotionally available for a check-in 48-72 hours later. The check-in can be a 10 minute phone call. The one-on-one aftercare can be 15 minutes of cuddling. I don’t think 25 minutes spread over two days is a lot to ask. When I have these things, subspace is great, and subdrop practically nonexistent. When I don’t, subspace is terrifying, and the subsequent withdrawal usually results in me relapsing on my depression and anxiety. With me, if you don’t have time for aftercare, you don’t have time for play. Not every kinky person will require any/all of what I just listed, but regardless of what a person’s needs are, you really need to pay attention when they’re talking about it.

You have options if your aftercare needs don’t match your partner’s. But you need to take them. Don’t drop the ball on aftercare, for the love of His Noodliness. If you’re a Top, you don’t want your partner to end up dazed and confused, brought to a vulnerable state only to be kicked out of the car in the dead of winter, shivering all by her lonesome on the snowy roadside. If nothing else, it reflects poorly on your reputation.

But, ideally, decent people care more about their partner’s wellbeing than they do on how good their partner makes them look.

So that concludes my take on BDSM 101. Food for thought on what kink is and why people might do it.

Stay safe and stay curious my lovelies!

-Shiv

 

Comments

  1. Dr Sarah says

    Hi, Shiv, thanks for this! I didn’t know all of this, and it’s interesting even though I’m not involved in BDSM. Anyway, I mostly just wanted to offer my sympathies and virtual hugs for the whole breakup thing, which sounds very sucky.

  2. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    Withdrawal never even occurred to me as an issue (I’m also not involved in BDSM). Thanks for expanding my awareness.

  3. Siobhan says

    #3, Golgafrinchan Captain:

    Withdrawal never even occurred to me as an issue (I’m also not involved in BDSM). Thanks for expanding my awareness.

    Hurray! ^_^

    If you know any endurance athletes, or anyone who is a performer of strenuous physical activity, they might tell you about a “drop” that occurs after their intense activities, too. This is the same idea.

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