What Is BDSM? A Sex Expert Reveals Exactly What It Means

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When most of us hear the letters "BDSM," we think of Rihanna singing about whips and chains or Fifty Shades' Christian Grey saying "Laters, baby," right? And while it's no secret that the BDSM community is, er, not all that fond of the Fifty Shades franchise, there's no denying that the series has put the kink in the spotlight. But what is BDSM, really? I chatted with sex educator, instructor, and coach Lola Jean to find out.

"BDSM is broken into three subcategories: Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism," Jean explains. "This is the overall umbrella where most kinks fall. It can contain all elements or only one, BDSM holds no judgment."

Now, if associating words like "submission," "sadism," and "masochism" with sex is new to you, I totally get it. To many — especially those of us whose knowledge of BDSM stems purely from films like Fifty Shades — the practice sounds like a warped power dynamic or even abuse. But it is possible to combine sex, power, and even pain in a healthy fashion, Jean says, as long as two adults are communicative and have explicitly given their consent.

When asked how she felt Fifty Shades portrayed this kind of relationship, Jean held no punches. "To be honest, I’ve stopped paying attention to Fifty Shades," she says. "It’s so horrendous and makes me angry. From what I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication between the partners or proper aftercare."

"Aftercare" refers to the time and attention two partners spend together after an intense sexual experience, built around discussing how you both felt about what just took place and ensuring each partner feels appreciated and cared for. It differs from couple to couple based on your own wants and needs (for some, it might include cuddling; for others, a conversation about exactly what was going through your mind during sex), but aftercare is a way to touch base and ensure you both feel safe and comfortable. And no, it's not something that Fifty Shades seems to portray at all.

Even beyond this franchise, BDSM is largely misrepresented in the entertainment industry — and, consequently, largely misunderstood. Below, Jean dispels three major myths and offers suggestions for beginners looking to ease their way into a BDSM relationship.

1. BDSM isn't code for physical violence.

"When people hear BDSM, they tend to associate it with 'being mean,' aggressive behavior, and general sadism," says Jean. "BDSM can, in fact, be sweet, fulfilling, and creative. What gets lost is the understanding, effort, and responsibility that comes with being a Dominant, or the simultaneous control and vulnerability that comes with being a submissive."

In a healthy BDSM relationship, both partners aim to please the other. The submissive sets boundaries and has ultimate control over what happens in the relationship. Further, as Jean notes, there's a huge difference between sadism/masochism and uninvited physical abuse. To use her words, "Physical abuse is impact that is unwanted and nonconsensual, not just painful."

It's important to remember that BDSM isn't just about tying a person up and calling it a day — the relationship is built on fulfilling your partner's needs, providing them pleasure, and constantly communicating to ensure you're doing both well. It's yet another reason why aftercare is so critical — not only because it's imperative that both partners feel safe and cared for, but because both must have a deep understanding of the other's boundaries, comfort levels, and sexual interests.

2. Dominance is not about barking orders.

From those on the outside looking in, Doms appear to be calling the shots, regardless of what the submissive does or does not want to be doing. But BDSM relationships rarely start at this point, and the submissive is never truly out of control.

"Many people assume that a Dominant makes demands and orders at all times," says Jean. "Yes, this may happen once the relationship has been established and there is understanding within the dynamic. [But] there is a large element of trust that needs to be built within a relationship with a power dynamic. Even when 'forced' to do something, it should be on the submissive's own free will. There should always be an out, exit, or safe words available."

BDSM is all about placing your trust in another person. Submissives often take on that role for the sake of surrendering control, of giving themselves largely to another person. That said, in a healthy relationship, they will be the ones who ultimately decide when to start and stop. The relationship doesn't work unless the submissive truly has control and agency.

3. It's not an "all or nothing" situation.

Arguably, the greatest challenge the BDSM community has faced is their own misrepresentation in films and television. We see "BDSM" as whips, chains, and uncomfortable leather ensembles — no more, and certainly no less. In actuality, there are plenty of ways that couples can (and, if interested, should) ease into a BDSM dynamic.

"I highly recommend incorporating it into dirty talk or sexting prior to doing anything in a sexual setting," says Jean. "You may not know how you will react to a certain scenario or phrase in the heat of the moment. Better not to leave it to chance and use this time to test the waters [and] figure out your likes and dislikes. Doesn’t hurt that it can provide for some good spank bank material, either."

It's also important to note that BDSM is about pushing your limits — not exceeding them. As in all forms of sexual activity, if you're unsure or uncomfortable with something, say no or ask to stop.

"[Ask yourself questions like] What are the goals of each of you in this BDSM relationship. Is it 24/7? Is it habitual? Are you both aware and respecting of your boundaries and intentions? Have you communicated your needs before and after play or scenes?" advises Jean. "There are many things to think about before you dive head first into a power dynamic relationship. The control — or lack of control — can be intoxicating, though it comes with much responsibility."

(Oh, and for the record, subs aren't really called Hoagies in Philly. But man, I wish they were!)

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