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Depictions of kink are everywhere in US culture, from SVU episodes to fashion influences to our dating app bios. But for something so ubiquitous in some ways, many of us don’t know much about how it works — BDSM may still feel taboo and exotic, something that you have to be a serious full-time lifestyle devotee to try out. It may also feel intimidating on a material level; we assume you need a dungeon complete with whips and chains. In reality, kink, or power play, is something many “normal” Americans enjoy all the time, and incorporate into their sex lives in ways that are accessible and approachable. If you’ve felt a spark of interest in kink but aren’t sure where to go next, here’s what I think you need to know to begin incorporating kink into your sexual persona.

What is kink?

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It’s tempting to explain what kink is by listing what it’s not. It’s not a way to violate anyone’s consent, or something inherently violent; it’s not a sign that someone is mentally ill, abusive, or has “issues”; it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey (although no shade if you liked it!). 

A lot of us have inherited some alarmist views about kink or BDSM; that’s not your fault, and you may find that it’s something very different than what you assumed. It’s easy to assume kink is about the parts of it that are most visible from the outside: the black leather or latex, the accessories like whips or handcuffs, or the big intimidating set pieces like a St. Andrew’s cross.

Those things certainly are a part of kink for a lot of people and could be for you too, but the most important part of what makes kink distinct from “vanilla” sex is invisible to the naked eye: it’s a power dynamic. Whether you want to use handcuffs or not, what makes sex “kinky” is that the people having it have agreed to some kind of unique power dynamic for the duration of having sex, usually with one person more in control (a “top,” or “dom/me”) and one consenting to give up some control (a “bottom,” or “sub.”) With these elements in place, the stage is set for super hot kinky sex.

But how does the power dynamic — and the whips and handcuffs, if you want them — actually come into play? Let’s dig into the actual practices referred to in the acronym BDSM.

Bondage

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Bondage refers to a wide range of practices that involve physically restraining someone as a means of control. This can be mostly symbolic, like loose, ornamental handcuffs; or functional and immobilizing, like having your limbs tied up tightly in rope. Restraint can be part of other kinds of sex or kink play, like tying someone’s wrists to the headboard before having penetrative sex, or can be the entire point, like shibari bondage. 

Power and control here are literal; one person can move freely, and the other cannot. A top interested in bondage would be interested in tying someone up or restraining them; a bottom interested in bondage would be interested in being restrained.

Get started: With both partners consenting, try lightly grabbing or holding down one partner during sex – pinning their wrists to the bed, for instance, and see how it feels.

Dominance

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This is a broad category but refers mostly to an intentionally psychological differential of power: one person who gives orders or commands, a dominant, and someone else who follows them, a submissive. There might be dynamics of rules, discipline, and honorifics like “daddy” or “good girl.” 

Get started: With prior discussion and consent, try shifting the normal logistical discussions that often happen during vanilla sex — “can you move over a little bit,” or “do you want me to touch you there” — into directions or commands: “move over there” or “I want to touch you here.”

Sadism

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Put simply, a sadist is someone who’s into causing some kind of pain to an enthusiastically consenting sexual partner. This isn’t separate from bondage or dominance — for instance, spanking is an activity that’s about discipline and dominance but is also slightly painful. Sadists find pleasure in the power and control of affecting how their bottom feels, and the ability to impact someone else’s physical experience, as well as the vulnerability of someone submitting to the experience, which creates an intense kind of intimacy.

Get started: Try making an element of sex/foreplay that you already use in your relationship a little rougher and more intense (after discussing it and having both partners opt-in)- if you usually play with someone’s nipples, try pinching them instead, or try quick, sharp tugs of a handful of your partner’s hair close to the root while you’re having sex.

Masochism

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Conversely, masochists enjoy the sensation of pain in sexual situations they’ve consented to: this could be anything from impact, like spanking or whipping, to other kinds of intense sensation. Again, this experience is generally linked to a power dynamic; hair pulling, for example, is mildly painful and also establishes a power dynamic. In addition to the physical sensation, masochists are turned on by surrendering to someone else who’s controlling their physical experience.

Get started: Ask your partner to try the above with you! Or, if single, try pinching or lightly slapping the inside of a thigh while masturbating to see how it feels.

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