Handcuffs and Paddles and Whips -- Oh, My!

Playing Safe While Working the Kinks Out

by the EHBC group

It used to be something that was only discussed in hushed tones at the back of a private club. It was something to be kept hidden, something to be ashamed of. It was the sort of thing that lots of people did, but nobody ever talked about.

Now, suddenly, it's everywhere -- in books, in movies, in song lyrics and even in television commercials. The "it" we're talking about is what was once known only as "kinky sex": bondage and discipline, domination and submission.

Even the words themselves are disturbing to some people, and so are the images that those words can conjure up. However, most of those images are based on popular misconceptions that have very little to do with the reality of kink, and many people seem to have an inaccurate view of what these activities are really all about.

In this article we hope to dispel a lot of the myths and misconceptions surrounding the basics of erotic power exchange: domination and submission. We're going to explain what these activities are, what they are not, and why so many people seem to really, really enjoy them.

Even if you never plan to try any of these things yourself, you might want to take the time to become familiar with the concepts. If nothing else, it'll make it easier for you to accept those who "come out" and tell you that they're into something just a little bit... different.

Safe, Sane and Consensual

Before even starting to explore this subject, it's essential to introduce the "mantra" of the kink community: that all the activities are intended to be Safe, Sane and Consensual. Safe means more than just safe sex -- it also means that both partners are being careful not to cause serious or permanent physical or emotional harm. It also means checking and double-checking the safety factors before getting involved in these activities.

Sane means that both partners are in a stable, healthy mental state, and are not affected by the influence of drugs or alcohol. Anything which impairs someone's judgement is potentially dangerous, and should be avoided.

Consensual means that both partners are participating of their own free will. They are there because they want to be, not because they're being forced or coerced or bullied into it. Consensuality is the essence of all healthy kink.

It's absolutely essential that both partners completely trust each other. Everyone has limits that should be discussed before playing, and if you don't trust your partner enough to respect those limits or to act in a safe and sane manner, then don't play with them.

Playing in a safe, sane and consensual way is the key to having positive experiences.

You Do What For Fun???

When someone says they're "into kink", the first question most people ask is "What do you mean by kink?". That's actually a fairly complicated question, and is best answered by defining a few basic terms.

The most common term for kink these days is BDSM, which is a clever three-way acronym. The BD stand for Bondage and Discipline, the SM stands for Sadism and Masochism, and the middle DS stands for Domination and Submission. Let's tackle each of those individually.

Bondage and Discipline are exactly what they sound like. Bondage refers to restraining someone's freedom of movement in some way. This can be as gentle as a silk scarf around your partner's wrists, or as elaborate as a suspension harness hanging from specially-installed eyebolts in the ceiling. Many people find that bondage gives them a real sense of helplessness that makes them feel sexy and vulnerable.

Bondage is probably the most accessible of the kinky practices. Most people at some time or another have tried holding their partner down during lovemaking, and in doing so they're exploring some of the same sensations that bondage provides.

Discipline, like bondage, is something many people have played with even if they've never thought of themselves as "kinky". A gentle smack on your partner's bottom during foreplay is a mild form of discipline. It's not hard to see how it might escalate from a single smack to four or five, and before you know it a full-fledged spanking is underway. Welcome to the world of erotic discipline!

Related activities include pinching, poking, prodding and perhaps even biting your partner. Yes, they're all painful sensations -- but if they turn both you and your partner on, then they're painful in a good way!

Exchanging Power

Domination and Submission are another form of kink. Unlike bondage and discipline, which are often done simply for the physical stimulation they produce, domination and submission involve a formal exchange of personal power between the partners.

Domination involves taking charge, being the one in control, making decisions and taking the initiative. Submission involves surrendering responsibility, and simply carrying out the instructions one is given. A D/s (or Dominant/submissive) relationship is not necessarily sexual in nature, and many people find the giving and taking of power is exciting and satisfying in itself.

For example, many people whose daily lives involve giving up power will relish being able to wield it in the context of a D/s relationship. And people who have responsibility foisted on them in their daily lives are often eager to give it up in the D/s side of their lives. Those two needs balance each other, and can produce some very healthy and very loving relationships based on a transfer of power between two people who care about each other.

SM, or Sado-Masochism, is at the far end of the kink spectrum. In some respects, SM is like a more extreme form of Bondage and Discipline, in that it involves physical stimulation rather than a pure exchange of power. However, the sensations that practitioners of SM enjoy are often very strong. Watching people involved in sado-masochistic activities is often quite intimidating, since it appears they're doing things that are actually very, very painful.

As it turns out, there's a physiological explanation for why people enjoy that kind of intense stimulation. The arousal engendered by pain play is essentially the same as the arousal brought about by conventional love-making - both are the product of a heady mix of adrenalin and endorphins, the same chemicals produced by the body during a strenuous aerobic workout. These chemicals produce a natural and desirable "high" that participants respond to in a very positive fashion.

Who's On Top?

At this point, we should offer a quick glossary of terms which apply to the people who play these games. Four of the most widely-used tags which one will hear bandied about by those in the kink scene are "dom", "sub", "top", and "bottom".

The first two are obvious derivations of domination and submission: a "dom" is the dominant partner in the game, and a "sub" is the submissive or subservient partner. Although Doms and subs may use physical sensations when they play, the essence of what they do is psychological stimulation.

By contrast, "top" and "bottom" commonly refer to people who engage in BDSM mostly for the physical sensations; a "top" is the partner applying the stimulation, and the "bottom" is the person receiving it.

It's worth noting that the exact definitions of these terms seem to vary somewhat from place to place and from one coast to the other; in particular, some places use "top" and "dom" interchangeably, and "bottom" and "sub" interchangeably. The definitions presented above are the most widely-used ones, but not the only ones.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things...

Now that you've got some information on who's playing these games, and a little bit about why people play them, its time to look at some of the games themselves. Brace yourself -- we're about to get into the nitty-gritty details of what it is that we do.

As we've already mentioned, many people already explore some basic kinky games in the context of conventional lovemaking: spanking, biting, pinning one partner down, even light-weight bondage.

From there, adventurous lovers might explore such things as fetish clothing - dressing in leather, PVC, vinyl, etc. They might use high-heeled boots and shoes, cross-dressing, and other types of costuming for sexual purposes. They may also start exploring the possibilities of specialized toys, such as paddles, riding crops, floggers, or even a simple hairbrush or leather belt. Toys don't even need to be custom contraptions of terror - the inglorious kitchen spatula is a handy-dandy implement for producing all sorts of interesting skin sensations.

Another common activity to which people exploring kink are often attracted is role-playing. Each partner assumes a recognized role, such as "guard and prisoner", or "school teacher and misbehaving pupil". These roles can sometimes be assisted by props and costumes as described above.

Some people aren't into the whole dress-up aspect of BDSM, and prefer exploring simpler ways of demonstrating subservience such as kneeling, using strict forms of address, and performing menial tasks as instructed.

Then there's the entire aspect of public play, an interest which can be met through a number of well-established fetish clubs and societies. These groups, which are becoming very easy to find in most major cities, are open to people interested in kink whether they're there to play in public, or just to socialize and meet others with similar interests. If there's a bit of an exhibitionist in you, or a bit of a voyeur, those clubs are the places to be.

Some people are into "body modification", all the way from simple things such as shaving, to more permanent things such as tatooing, piercing and even branding. These things certainly aren't for everyone, but some people view them as very much an expression of their surrendering of control to another person, even to the point of letting that person alter their body in some way.

But... WHY?

"Why on earth would anyone want to do these things?". That's a fair question. After all, most people think kink is all about pain (which it isn't, necessarily) and pain is something that the average human tries to avoid. As for the idea of voluntarily submitting to another person -- well, that's just not something that intelligent, self-respecting people do. Or is it?

Let's start with the first misconception. Kink is not about pain. Yes, pain is a source of pleasure for some people, but there's much more to these activities than that. Yes, some people enjoy strong physical sensations. What one person might find excruciating, another finds pleasantly stimulating. And what a particular person might find very painful under ordinary circumstances becomes quite pleasurable while engaged in BDSM play. Context is everything. The act of offering one's body to another, or the act of accepting that offer, is what draws most players to BDSM in the first place. Pain and pleasure, at that point, are only tools used to achieve an exchange of power between those people.

Some people play these BDSM games because they eroticize certain elements such as the pain, or the role-playing. Others play simply because they enjoy exploring new territory in personal expressions or physical sensations. And some people are simply looking to add a new twist or flavour to their love-making repetoire. There are as many reasons why people play as there are people who actually play.

Playing Safe

We mentioned this up at the top of this article, but it's worth saying again. The keywords for a healthy, kinky lifestyle are the mantra we introduced above: "Safe, Sane, and Consensual". It's important to be aware of those three words when playing BDSM games, because people who are uninformed often take things out of context and create the misconceptions which have given kink the bad rap it has held for so long and is now trying to shed.

Consenusality is particularly important: the difference between consensual kinky play and violent abuse is the same as the difference between lovemaking and rape. Whatever our reasons for choosing to do these things may be, the point is that it's a choice. It's never imposed on anyone.

Learning More

We've tried to cover some of the basics in this article, but there's lots more to learn if you want to actually start trying some of these things. There are a number of organizations, from the local-city level on up to international societies, which work hard to offer education and support.

Among the better-known groups are the NLA (National Leather Association), the Eulenspiegel Society, the Society of Janus and the AIDS Committee of Toronto's Safer SM Education Project.

There are also a number of excellent books, and you don't have to go to some grimy little bookstore to find them (unless of course, that's what you want!). You can find them in the Sexuality section of The World's Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto. There are also a number of magazines; one local one that's worth checking out is "Boudoir Noir", a quarterly magazine containing feature articles on various aspects of the BDSM scene.

If you're based in Southwestern Ontario, there's an organization that meets once a month to share information and ideas about BDSM. The group is called EHBC, and they can be reached on the Internet at www.ehbc.ca or by email at ehbc@ehbc.ca. And yes, we're the ones who have prepared this article, so feel free to contact us if you want to learn more.

And remember: Play Safe!