Beyond "50 Shades of Grey"
Whether you are a fan of "50 Shades of Grey" or not, I'm sure by now you're aware of all the hype. With the movie coming out on Valentine's Day, interest will swell even further. Obviously, there is something about that book that has captured the hearts, minds, and desires of a very large segment of the mainstream population. The popularity of this book has manifested in increased memberships to fetish groups and events and increased numbers of sales of various BDSM related toys. In the case of the former, joining groups and discussions is a great way to learn some very important safety practices and etiquette around applying kinky play into your real life. However, if the "50 Shades of Grey" trilogy is your only window into this lifestyle, there is still a lot to learn (and perhaps unlearn). Fortunately, there is a wealth of information out there. Tristan Taormino's "50 Shades of Kink" is a great starting place for beginners and is a very quick read. There are many other great books going into greater detail about general BDSM practices or specific aspects of it, and you can find many of them at your local reputable sexuality resource center (eh hem).
While I have your attention, though, I'll go ahead and summarize some basic concepts and safety tips regarding BDSM play. Even if you haven't read or have and dislike the book, you may still be interested in exploring kink and various forms of erotic play. If this is the case, this should come in handy as a basic but useful primer.
What is BDSM?
Without drowning you in the etymology of the various acronyms, simply put, BDSM is an umbrella term for many "alternative" forms of consensual erotic encounters and relational lifestyles. This includes, but is not limited to: bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, sensation play or sensory deprivation, various fetishes, role playing, etc, etc. Many of these involve some sort of consensual "power exchange"—where one individual (the "submissive" or "sub") physically and/or psychologically surrenders themselves over to the control of another individual (the "dominant" or the "dom"/"domme"). Sometimes, there is no interest in an exchange of power, but simply a desire to receive or inflict various intense sensations that oftentimes involve various levels and qualities of pain, such as flogging, nipple clamps, hot wax, electro-stimulation, etc. This would fall under "sadomasochism".
There's a lot of overlap and so desires may be a combination of psychological submission along with pain play. An example of this would be having your mistress bend you over her lap, paddling your buttocks red, while she reprimands you for being such a bad boy. One can also enjoy being dominant or submissive while not necessarily giving or receiving physical pain. A role-playing example of this could be a "student" teasing and tormenting her "teacher," punishing him by bringing him to heightened states of arousal and withholding any form of release while calling him names and humiliating him. In this case, the "student" is the "dominant" and the "teacher" is the "submissive." These roles can easily be reversed, and many individuals identify as "switches." This means that they sometimes enjoy being in the dominant role and sometimes they enjoy being the submissive. There can even be role-playing scenarios where there is no dominant or submissive. Pretending to be two wild leopards having wild leopard sex would be an example of this.
What about fetish? Fetishes are more object or specific activity oriented—a fixation or devotion to a part of the body or a type of lingerie, for example. Foot fetishes are relatively common. This can manifest as arousal around everything that has to do with feet or maybe just certain feet in certain types of shoes. Again, this can be related to dominant and submissive roles where the foot fetishist loves "worshipping" at the feet and boots of others, or this may be unrelated to any power exchange and be purely about the eroticism of caressing your lover's foot with your hands and your mouth and every other body part imaginable.
Safe, Sane and Consensual
Really, there are countless BDSM dynamics, games, desires, fetishes, and subcultures—too many to give them any fair play in a single article. However, the common denominator is safety, consent, and respect. "Safe, sane, and consensual" is a popular motto in most BDSM communities. It's not just a motto, though. It is a basic tenet. And one that needs to be understood.
Let's start with "consent." True consent goes way beyond a simple "yes." It is an enthusiastic "yes." It is not true consent if any person feels coerced, manipulated or pressured. Consent begins in the discussion before the enactment of any BDSM encounter. This is the stage where people talk about activities, sensations, and roles that they enjoy or want to try or ones that they absolutely do not want to enact or maybe there are things that one is willing to try but it just depends. For example, one can consent to being tied up, spanked and called a slut, but not be okay with being slapped in the face and called a cow because that may be triggering of earlier abuse. Maybe they love having their hair pulled but only by dominants that have experience on how to do it properly. Obviously, it's difficult to plan for every aspect of a scene and to predict how everyone will respond when it really gets down to the heat and passion of the moment. This is where "safe words" come in really handy, and they are essential.
"Safe words" are a word or signal to indicate to your play partner that you want them to stop or to slow down. A safe word should not be "no" because, frequently, shouting "no" is part of the fantasy of resistance. That is, if you have a "rape" fantasy, part of the game is screaming and shouting "no" and "help." However, what if the scene gets too intense and uncomfortable for you? A popular safe word is "red." This tells your partner that you want the scene to stop. "Yellow" could mean that you don't necessarily want the scene to stop, but you want them to slow down or back off a bit. If you or your partner is gagged and unable to speak, it is important to come up with a non-verbal signal- rapidly clenching your fist, for example.
Moving on to "sanity." This is directly correlated to "consent." You cannot truly consent if you are not "sane." This is not a simple issue. I would put inebriation or being under the influence of hard drugs under the category of not being of sound mind. Just like you should not operate heavy machinery while intoxicated, you should not be wielding a bullwhip, riding crop, or any bondage equipment while in a chemically induced altered state of mind. This is dangerous. On the same hand, your understanding of your own and others' physical boundaries are significantly hindered while inebriated, therefore you are not in a state of mind to give consent or be mindful of important signaling from your partner.
There is a lot of responsibility that goes along with being a "top" or a "dominant." Part of this responsibility is being sensitive to the state of mind of your submissive. Be aware of their physical and psychological limits and check in with them consistently. Many submissives may withhold saying their safe word because they want to please their dominant partners so badly. If you sense this, as a top, you need not break out of the scene, but can gracefully transition to a different or less intense activity. Keep in mind, that as a "top" you also have your own boundaries and comfort levels. Respect that, too.
"Safety" involves consent, sanity, sobriety, but also much more. It involves knowledge, experience, and conscientiousness. For example, any time you engage in bondage, you should always have curb tipped medical scissors in the vicinity. Most likely, you will never need to use them, but what if the partner who is tied up has a panic attack or seizure or anything else while they are tied up in beautiful but intricately weaved rope bondage? Those scissors can save a lot of crucial time. Speaking of bondage, are you aware that you can cause nerve damage if tied up incorrectly and/or for too long? There needs to be enough space between the wrist/ankles and cuffs to fit a couple of fingers. Even then, one needs to consistently check in with their partners to ask about any numbness. This safety checklist goes on of course, but the main point is to do some research and play to your level of experience. There is much less to consider if you're tying your lover up to the bedposts with silk scarves then if you are trying to suspend them in deliciously exposed poses from the ceiling beams.
Everybody who is curious about BDSM has got to take a first step sometime. That first step may be exactly the level where you are happy to stay—some light bondage and spanking as foreplay and then on to some comforting lovemaking. If you are drawn to explore the depths of erotic play further, however, there are so many great resources out there. There are so many great books: "Sensuous Magic: A Guide for Adventurous Couples," by Patrick Califia and "SM 101: A Realistic Introduction," by Jay Wiseman are just a couple. There are workshops and classes that are regularly going on around town.
Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St., will be having a discussion-based intro to BDSM workshop on Sunday, Feb.8, 6 p.m. just to name one. And there are websites where you can safely meet other locals and groups with similar interests. If you are really not interested in any of this, thanks for reading this all the way through anyway.
Ally Booker is a pleasure activist. She is passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her milling around her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St., (888) 874-6588.