BDSM 101

With the second 50 Shades of Grey taking the box offices by storm, the world has been filled with cinema-goers who are being confronted with a sexual world which they may never experience, nor understand. Moving past these clichés and misrepresentations, Label brings you the BDSM 101 that explains the ins and outs of this sexual environment.


BDSM can be broken down into BD, DS, and SM. These acronyms attempt to create an umbrella under which a wide variety of activities and lifestyles fall. B/D stands for bondage and discipline, D/S for dominant and submissive. S/M stands for sadism and masochism, though some use the letters to mean slave and master. While there are only four letters, the meaning is different for everyone, and they in no way encompass all that BDSM represents. BDSM is a type of lifestyle or a variety of activities that some people partake in to varying degrees. It sounds ambiguous because, frankly, it is. There is no clear cut definition. Some people prefer to engage in kinky activities only in the bedroom in a purely sexual sense, while others keep their kinky and sex lives separate. Bondage for one person can be using handcuffs while having sex, while for another, it means complex rope suspension. Like most aspects of life, being kinky is different for everyone.

So now let's talk labels (and other important definitions):

The following identifiers are certainly not for everyone, but in the BDSM lifestyle, they can be quite common, and can be very useful when you are first figuring it all out.

A top is the person doing the action to someone else. Sometimes a top also aligns with a power exchange, whereas the Dom is tying up their submissive. In another instance, the top might be the submissive. If a sub is giving someone (their Dom, or another person entirely), for example, a massage, then they are the top in that situation. Tops don't always engage in forms of power play. A top can be dripping wax onto someone else (the bottom), but they aren't in any sort of power play relationship, meaning the top doesn't have power over their partner, and probably isn't giving them orders.

A bottom is the reverse of a top. It is the person receiving the action, whether that be a massage, or a spanking. Just as with a top, a bottom can be engaged in a power exchange, or not.

A dominant is one who takes superior position of power in a power exchange.

A submissive is one who takes the subordinate power position in a power exchange. While a submissive does give power to their dominant, this does not make them weak or inferior, and someone who is a sexual submissive might not be so submissive in other aspects of their life. A submissive is strong in placing a great deal of trust in another person.

A slave is a submissive who is owned by their dominant partner(s). They are essentially their dominant's property. While it has no legal backing, being a slave is just another way of identifying and participating in a certain type of relationship.

A master or mistress can be the dominant whose partner is a slave. This can also be a term of address used by a submissive. This identifier is a bit more ambiguous, but no less important, than others.

A switch is someone who identifies as both a Dom and a sub on different occasions. If it helps, think of it as similar to being bisexual. There is a spectrum on which a switch can identify.

A sadist is someone who likes to torture or inflict pain. This is not someone who necessarily enjoys being cruel or harming someone else.

A masochist is someone who likes to receive pain in some form. This can be by being spanked, being confined tightly, or being flogged. Some are heavy masochists, who find a release of sorts from a lot of pain, while others prefer a more mild activity.

Before playing with someone, there should be a discussion about what you are comfortable and uncomfortable doing: a negotiation. This should include what you expect from your scene and what your partner should know about you, including any injuries or triggers you might have. This is also when you talk about your safe word(s), and any limitations you might have. This can come in the form of a checklist for some, or a discussion for others.

A BDSM checklist is a comprehensive list of activities. There are many different types, and while it probably can't cover everything under the sun, it should outline quite a few possible scenarios. It is your job to mark your comfort level in each activity. This will range from "Very comfortable" to "Hard limit" and "Soft limit." There often will be an option for whether you haven't tried something before.

A hard limit is something you absolutely will not do. There might be activities that you aren't keen on, but you'd be willing to try, but these are not what you would call a hard limit. Hard limits can often be triggers. This doesn't mean that your hard limit is permanent. It is possible that with someone you trust more, your hard limit could become a soft limit, or that in the future you will reassess and discover you are willing to give it a shot. Simply put, a hard limit is something that at that moment you will absolutely not do - and it is not up for negotiation.

A soft limit is something that still does not appeal to you, or that you do not want to do but may talk about and work towards. For someone who panics being confined or tied up, being put in severe rope bondage would be a hard limit, but having one arm restrained could be a soft limit.

Anyone of any gender can identify as the dominant or submissive, top or bottom, or other. There are no prerequisites, it is how you as a person identify. There is also no need to have a fixed identity, or to know how you identify immediately. It is completely acceptable to be exploring.

This is hardly a comprehensive guide to all things kinky. In fact, this barely scratches the surface. In part 2 of this series, I will be looking at consent and safety in the scene.