Christian Grey should not be your only source for this.
By Zahra Barnes
Hello and welcome to almost 2017, a time when millions of people have pledged their hearts (and vaginas) to a fictional character named Christian Grey who likes to engage in BDSM. Although the 50 Shades of Grey fervor is alive and well, especially as the second movie’s premiere approaches, tons of myths about BDSM persist.
“‘BDSM’ is a catch-all term involving three different groupings,” Michael Aaron, Ph.D., a sex therapist in New York City and author of Modern Sexuality, tells SELF. First up, BD, aka bondage and discipline. Bondage and discipline include activities like tying people up and restraining them, along with setting rules and meting out punishments, Aaron explains. Then there’s DS, or dominance and submission. “Dominance and submission are more about power dynamics,” Aaron explains. Basically, one person will give the other power over them, whether it’s physical, emotional, or both. Bringing up the rear, SM is a nod to sadism, or liking to inflict pain, and masochism, liking to receive it. It’s often shortened to “sadomasochism” to make things easier.
Got it? Good. Now, a deep dive into 9 things everyone gets wrong about BDSM.
1. Myth: BDSM is a freaky fringe thing most people aren’t into.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how common this is,” Aaron says. “A lot of people may think just a small minority has these desires.” But sex experts see an interest in BDSM all the time, and a 2014 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine also suggests it isn’t unusual. Over 65 percent of women polled fantasized about being dominated, 47 percent fantasized about dominating someone else, and 52 percent fantasized about being tied up.
“It’s 100 percent natural and normal [to fantasize about BDSM], but some people come and see me with shame,” certified sex coach Stephanie Hunter Jones, Ph.D., tells SELF. There’s no need for that. “It’s a healthy fantasy to have and one that should be explored,” Jones says.
2. Myth: BDSM is always about sex.
Sex isn’t a necessary part of the action. “BDSM doesn’t have to be sexual in nature—some people like it for the power only,” Jones says. It’s possible to play around with BDSM without involving sex, but for some people, incorporating it into sex ratchets things way up.
3. Myth: You can spot a BDSM fan from a distance.
All sorts of people like BDSM, including those who seem straitlaced. For them, it can actually be especially appealing because it offers a chance to exercise different parts of their personalities. “Some of the most conservative-seeming individuals are into BDSM,” Jones says.
4. Myth: If you’re into BDSM, your past must be one big emotional dumpster fire.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that people do BDSM because of some sort of trauma in their background,” Aaron says. People who engage in BDSM aren’t automatically disturbed—a 2013 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine actually found that BDSM proponents were as mentally sound, if not more so, than people who weren’t into it. “We conclude that BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes,” the study authors wrote.
5. Myth: BDSM is emotionally damaging.
When done properly, BDSM can be the exact opposite. “I often use BDSM as a healing tool for my ‘vanilla’ couples,” or couples that don’t typically engage in kink, Jones says. She finds it especially helpful for people who struggle with control and power dynamics.
To help couples dig themselves out of that hole, Jones will assign sexual exercises for them to complete at home. Whoever feels like they have less power in the relationship gets the power during the role play. “This has saved relationships,” Jones says, by helping people explore what it feels like to assume and relinquish control first in the bedroom, then in other parts of the relationship.
6. Myth: The dominant person is always in charge.
When it comes to dominance and submission, there are plenty of terms people may use to describe themselves and their partners. Top/bottom, dom (or domme, for women)/sub, and master (or mistress)/slave are a few popular ones. These identities are fluid; some people are “switches,” so they alternate between being submissive and dominant depending on the situation, Jones explains.
Contrary to popular opinion, the dominant person doesn’t really run the show. “In a healthy scene [period of BDSM sexual play], the submissive person is always the one in control because they have the safeword,” Jones says. A safeword is an agreed upon term either person can say if they need to put on the brakes. Because a submissive is under someone else’s control, they’re more likely to need or want to use it. “Whenever the safeword is given, the scene stops—no questions asked,” Jones says.
7. Myth: You need a Christian Grey-esque Red Room to participate in BDSM.
Christian should have saved his money. Sure, you can buy BDSM supplies, like furry blindfolds, handcuffs, whips, paddles, floggers, and rope. But there’s a lot you can do with just your own body, Jones explains: “You can use fingers to tickle, you can use hands to spank.” You can also use things around the house, like scarves, neckties, and stockings for tying each other up, wooden spoons for spanking, and so on. Plus, since your mind is the ultimate playground, you may not need any other toys at all.
8. Myth: If your partner is into BDSM, that’s the only kind of sex you can have.
When you’re new to BDSM but your partner isn’t, you might feel like you need to just dive in. But you don’t have to rush—people who are into BDSM can also like non-kinky sex, and it can take some time to work up to trying BDSM together. And much like your weekly meals, BDSM is better when planned. “BDSM should never be done spontaneously,” Jones says. Unless you’ve been with your partner for a long time and you two are absolutely sure you’re on the same page, it’s always best to discuss exactly what you each want and don’t want to happen, both before the scene happens and as it actually plays out.
9. Myth: BDSM is dangerous.
The BDSM community actually prides itself on physical and emotional safety. “A number of discussions around consent are integral to individuals in the community—people have negotiations around what they’re going to do,” Aaron says. People in the community use a couple of acronyms to emphasize what good BDSM is: SSC, or Safe, Sane, and Consensual, and RACK, or Risk-Aware Consensual Kink.
Of course, sometimes it’s still a gamble. “A number of things people do have some danger—boxing, skydiving, and bungee jumping are all legal—but it’s about trying to be as safe as possible while understanding that there’s some inherent risk,” Aaron says. It’s up to each person to set parameters that allow everyone involved to enjoy what’s going on without overstepping boundaries.
If you’re interested in trying BDSM, don’t feel overwhelmed—you can take baby steps.
“There are a number of entry points for people,” Aaron says. One is FetLife, a social media website for people with various kinks. You can also look into Kink Academy, which offers educational videos for different payment plans starting at $20 a month. Another option is Googling for “munches,” or non-sexual meet-and-greets for kinky people in your area, along with searching for kink-related organizations in your city—most big cities have at least one major resource. They usually go by different names, like TES in New York City and Black Rose in D.C., Aaron explains, but when you find yours, you may be on the road to opening up your sex life in a pretty exciting way.
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