BDSM and Kink: What is What

BDSM and Kink: What is What

Written by Paula Brečak for Self Studies

Exploring different tastes, activities, and daring possibilities when it comes to sexuality and intimacy is a dear pastime to many people. In the past decade, all those many curiosities were tickled with the widespread popularization of BDSM. We must not forget it was the queer people who built this culture, as gays and lesbians regularly enjoyed the sensations of leather, bondage, S&M, and other aspects of BDSM during the second half of the 20th century. But it is now that BDSM (albeit together with queerness) is entering into the mainstream and the normative. Kinky gadgets are popping up in sex shops, people are upfront about their kinks on dating apps, and beginners’ kits to BDSM including easy-to-use bondage necessities and light whips are readily available. It seems everyone is into BDSM and kink, but are we all really aware of what these things mean?

As it is often the case when something becomes popular, easy to come by, and overused - it is made simplified. The pillars of BDSM are not nearly as emphasized as they should be. The differences between kink and fetish are disregarded and the two concepts are often used as synonyms (though that is far from the truth). Given that BDSM plays with power, consent, material restriction, and non-material degradation, it is an umbrella of activities that require due attention, definition, and guidelines. When it comes to what is what in BDSM and kink, it is not only about understanding the acronym, but also about understanding that BDSM should be ethical, transparent, and thought through.


What is BDSM?

The acronym BDSM stands for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism. What you do within BDSM can fall under some or multiple of these aspects, but doesn’t have to fall under any of them. In its essence, BDSM is a play of power. That power can be exercised physically or mentally. It can include restricting someone’s movement by tying their hands together or it can include restricting their behavior by forbidding them to do something, for example masturbate or achieve an orgasm. In a BDSM scene, both persons have power and agency, together they decide on what is going to happen and each can withdraw and stop the play at any time.

It is because both (or all) participants have the power, that they can play with it, exchange it, make it take up different shapes and extents. As they play with power, one person surrenders it (without losing it) and the other takes responsibility for it. They embody a submissive and a dominant position. These flexible positions can be expressed through control, care, a parodical embodiment of societal non-flexible power dynamics, or pain. That last one is what BDSM is often equated with in pop culture, but though pain can surely be a part of a BDSM scene, it is more a means than an end. In the same manner, BDSM does not have to be neither physical nor sexual. A BDSM dynamic can be set up in virtual and cyber spaces just the same as in a physical dungeon. It can exist only in words or include all of the physical sensations. Sex is a powerful tool in a scenario of power play. But just like pain, bondage, or verbal humiliation, it is only a tool used to make power play tangible, not the goal in itself. As tools, these help participants settle in and explore the sensations of their positions, whether dominant or submissive.


Is it kink, fetish, or vanilla?

In the dictionary of BDSM, many terms are utilized and explored. A common one is kink, often synonymized with fetish. A straightforward difference is that fetish is about an object, while kink is about a subject. A fetish is a certain part of the body, behavior, or tool that is necessary for one to achieve sexual excitement or pleasure. A kink, however, is a sexual preference or interest that one enjoys, but that is not necessary. Kinks can also be understood as sexual preferences or interests that are somewhat strange and not entirely socially acceptable. But then a question arises - how do we know precisely what is acceptable and what is strange?

On the opposite spectrum of BDSM lies vanilla, a term used to describe anything not kinky or from the BDSM realm, that is - anything that is mainstream, normative, and acceptable. But where vanilla ends and kink begins is difficult to define. For some, a vibrator may be a perfectly  common thing to have on your nightstand, while for others using one might seem incredibly adventurous and kinky. A simple solution to this conundrum could be to make up your mind about yourself and not assume anything about others.


Communication at the heart of everything

Another way to go is to explore concepts and considerations that exist in a BDSM sex relationship and of which a mainstream or vanilla sexual encounter is usually deprived. Communication comes up as a big difference and is something that everyone can and should take from BDSM, even if they don’t engage in any form of kink. Ethical BDSM practitioners discuss what they want their scene to look like, they do not spring anything on their partner. They agree on practices, length, needs and wants, soft and hard limits. 

Soft limits are things a person may be curious about trying but is not entirely sure yet. Maybe it is something they want to work toward or something they want to discuss and workshop further, but without pressure. Hard limits are lines that must not be crossed. They include things a person does not want to try nor discuss further. They may as well change their mind, but this should be brought up by them, not by their partner.

Even when everything is agreed upon beforehand, a situation can always change. For this reason, every well-planned BDSM scene has a safe word. It is a word that stops whatever is going on and checks in with the participants. Some opt for the use of the green-yellow-red method, with which one person signals how they’re feeling. Green would mean everything is perfect, yellow says that things are alright but to tread carefully, and red signals to stop at once.

After the scene is finished, whether through the use of a safe word or it comes to an end as originally planned, a very useful practice of aftercare is utilized. Through aftercare, the dominant partner first takes care of the submissive, making sure they get enough water, a warm shower or a bath, and food. They also tend to their emotional and mental needs. Engaging in power play is a stress put on the mind and the body. A person that has just come through that, whether it be impact play or degradation, requires comfort and reassurance that they are loved and taken care of. Once everyone feels like they are back, partners can check in with each other to see how they each thought the scene went. Maybe someone felt unsure or perhaps there was a particular thing they loved. When engaging in BDSM together, it is crucial that these and every other thing can be communicated without restrain and worry. Only when there is such trust, honesty, and vulnerability, is it possible to to play with power and not misuse it.
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