This guide isn’t going to be exhaustive, or it would be book-length. And, in fact, there are some great books about how to get started in BDSM. For starters, I recommend checking out

But what you’ll find below should give you some great starting points and some things to consider as you explore (or entertain exploring) BDSM from an intersectional feminist perspective.

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Let’s make sure we’re on the same page by starting with some terms.

What is BDSM?

BDSM is a rather complex acronym with the letters meaning different things depending on their pairing. B and D stand for Bondage and Discipline; D and s stand for Dominance and submission; and S and M stand for Sadism and Masochism.

But what does all of that mean?

You probably have ideas in your head about what BDSM looks like: leather-clad Dominatrixes and naked submissives wearing collars, dimly lit dungeons where people are tied up and hit with things. And all of this is true and (for some) intriguing. But let’s flesh out that vision, a little. 

For starters, BDSM can be something you do. For instance, if you tie up a partner or spank them with a paddle, that’s participating in BDSM.

But BDSM can also be a mindset; a way of defining roles in a relationship; a framework through which you express your desires and limits with a partner; and a community of people interested in alternative expressions of sexuality, intimacy, and power.

BDSM often involves an exchange of power between two or more people: someone in a Dominant or top role and someone in a submissive or bottom role. The person submitting gives the person(s) dominating them permission to take control over the situation. This power dynamic can last over a particular period of time (or a scene) or be ongoing in a relationship.

What I love about BDSM and kink is that your creativity is the limit to what you can do with it. In their New Bottoming Book, Dossie and Janet define S/M as “play, theater, communication, intimacy, sexuality. It combines the child’s urge for make-believe with the adult’s ability to take responsibility and the adult’s privilege of sexual reward.”

That definition can encompass a whole lot of types of activities, right? Not only getting blindfolded and flogged or whatever first comes to mind.

If you’re looking for places to start, besides what you fantasize about, consider signing up for workshops sponsored by a local group or online. Check out organizations like Kinky Kollege or workshops by Midori.

So what about kink?

What is Kink?

Kink is a very, very vague term. And many people use kink and BDSM interchangeably which, unless you’re a really old-school Dominant or Master, is perfectly fine. Because, as we saw above, BDSM can mean a lot of things, as well.

But, where BDSM has at least a set of terms (Bondage, dominance, etc) that help define what it is, kink doesn’t.

In Playing Well With Others, Williams and Harrington define kink as shorthand for:

The great big world of sexual adventure, including, but not limited to, voyeurism, exhibitionism, fetishism, fantasy role-playing, cross-dressing, power exchange, swinging, leather identity, erotic restraint, consensual non-monogamy, ‘naughty sex’ and BDSM between consenting adults. In short, the realm of sexuality perceived to be outside the mainstream.”

Folks often describe themselves as being “kinky” or “into kink” when they’re interested in exploring things considered sexually deviant which, once again, can be about anything.

A good way of looking at it is that you may want to use the word kink in a conversation if you want to explain your interested in exploring (sex, relationships, etc) in ways that are out of the norm. Just be prepared for someone else to have totally different assumptions about what you mean.

Is BDSM Inherently Feminist?

The short answer is no. But BDSM, as well as other kinky activities, has to potential to fit nicely within a feminist value system.

There’s a newish trend for separating ethical non-monogamy from non-monogamy, in general. So someone who is open about dating multiple people at once or being in an open marriage might say they’re ethically non-monogamous.

Similarly, let’s assume that what we’re describing in this article is a way of participating in “ethical BDSM.”

And when I say feminist, I mean: Requiring equity in one’s relationships, actions, and communities for all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religious background, physical ability, age, race, and other identity components while being aare of and celebrating those differences.

The most common objections to BDSM are that BDSM is just an excuse to support patriarchal gender roles or to enable abuse. 

Some feminists consider BDSM just another “system of oppression” that encourages violence against women and other gender minorities and takes away their agency.

One reason for these objections is that it’s considerably more common in cisgender heterosexual relationships for the woman to be in the submissive role. In a study published by the Journal of Sexual Medicine, over half of the women surveyed reported desires about being submissive.

But for many women exploring their submissiveness, what makes it a feminist act is their ability to choose what they want to explore. This choice is the foundation of their agency. BDSM also provides a structure for exploring this power dynamic that prioritizes consent.

Kink also isn’t inherently inclusive. Many kink events do a horrible job of being accessible. Kink communities can be transphobic, ageist, racist.

Safety 101

From tying someone up to participating in a power dynamic, much of BDSM or kink involves physical and/or emotional risk. 

Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK)

There is a framework that many BDSM practitioners use to practice kink and BDSM ethically. This is RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink). Risk-aware means understanding the risks of a given activity before participating in it: essentially doing one’s homework. For many types of play, such as bondage and impact play, such as whips, floggers, and canes, I strongly recommend taking classes to learn the physical risks and how to do things safely.

Risk-awareness is also an acknowledgment that the level of risk any two people are willing to assume is different and that’s ok.

Now, consent in a power dynamic can get trickier. So how does one truly give consent when giving someone control over their body or actions? That’s where negotiation comes in.

Negotiation is Key

Before one participates in kinky play, negotiation is so important. Here are some things to discuss (at the very minimum):

  • What is going to happen (it won’t ruin the fun to talk it out)
  • Any boundaries and limits
  • How to determine when play should stop if something goes wrong
  • What both parties need afterward to ground themselves (otherwise known as aftercare)
  • If there are any physical injuries or emotional trauma that might come up

Here are some other resources on negotiation to get you started:

The benefits of red and yellow

Instead of some random safeword that you might have a hard time remembering, many kinksters use red and yellow, which are easy to remember. Red tends to mean “full stop,” and yellow means “I’m approaching my limit” or “pause.”

When you’re deciding on which terms to use, you should also discuss what they mean to everyone involved. For instance, does saying red mean the scene should end right then and there or does it mean you take a break and discuss? Do you prefer to say yellow as a way of saying you want to discuss what’s happening or to ask the top to move on from a particular body part or action?

It can also be important to know what someone means when they say “no” during a scene. Don’t make assumptions — talk it through beforehand.

BDSM Roles

For some, the idea of submitting to someone else is as unattractive as doing one’s taxes. For others, being in a dominant position comes with the same anxiety as talking in public. And then there are folks, often referred to as switches, who desire both. Whether they feel like topping or bottoming might depend on how they relate or interact to a given person or the person’s gender or the season.

Folks can be a self-identified dominant, top, submissive, bottom, or switch. Or it can simply be a role they assume in a given scene.

In fact, in an interview with Rebellious, sex educator, performer, and Shibari expert, Midori explains that she sees these roles more as verbs than nouns:

“A person is not ‘a dominant.’ A person is a person. A person engages in dominance. Or hungers for dominance or hungers for submission. So when we say a person is a top, a bottom, a dominant, a submissive, I think we engage in the subconscious reduction and objectification of the self, and that is not good. It’s a counter to feminism and it’s counter to humanism.

“Now, I understand if we’re using this as shorthand. Let’s say you and I are playmates and I say, “I’m your bottom.” Then that’s kind of romantic. But that’s coming from a place of understanding complexity.”

After reading this interview, I started making it a habit to tell folks “I switch,” as opposed to “I am a switch.”

Beyond the basics, there are many, many roles one can take in a kinky relationship. One can be a daddy or mommy, a boi, a big. little, brat, leather sibling, pony, puppy, owner, master, slave, mistress, and so on. As you explore, you’ll learn what these roles mean (to others and possibly to you). Being able to assume a new role with someone can help you expand or define your unique relationship and what you want out of it. To learn more about various roles, I recommend exploring Fetlife. If a term intrigues you, search for a group about that role.

How to Approach Fetlife

So where do you meet other fellow kinky folks? The best place to go is Fetlife, which is a bit like Facebook for Kinksters. Please keep in mind it is very not safe for work! 

But I’d like to offer a couple of tips on how to approach the site because it can be a bit overwhelming.

Most people don’t want to hear from strangers. 

Many folks use Fetlife as a dating site and look for cuties in their area. Sometimes this works well. In fact, I wound up in a great relationship with someone I randomly messaged. But for the most part, people don’t want to get random, impersonal “Hey you’re cute, can I get to know you?” messages. 

If you really like what someone has on their profile, then at the very least, send more personal messages if you want to get to know someone. But also please check to see if they have something on their profile about not wanting to hear from randos.

You’re better off getting involved in forums and community events to build an organic connection. And, in fact, there are many dating forums where you can post or respond to folks that are specifically looking for someone.

If you’re shy or nervous, reach out to an event organizer

If you want to get involved, but you’re nervous about it, look for an event you’re interested in, then find the person in charge of the event. These are generally people that have taken an interest in building the BDSM community and will be happy to help.

6 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started

  1. It’s OK To Speak Up For Yourself When Bottoming

When I was getting started, I thought that being a good submissive meant accepting whatever the Dominant wanted, which isn’t even remotely true. Thankfully I was lucky enough to work with some experienced, thoughtful tops who negotiated well and were communicative as we played. 

But many of my experiences could’ve been better if I’d known it was ok to speak up more about what I wanted. Now, these dynamics can work in many ways. Perhaps a submissive wants to give up control completely to a Dominant during a scene — which is fine if it’s well negotiated. But it doesn’t need to be that way. It’s also okay to speak up in the middle of a scene and say, “This isn’t working, can we try something else?” or stop the scene completely, etc. And all submissives need to know that you’re not failing or being bad when you speak up. 

For more, check out Julia Swann’s three-part series on Self-Advocacy as a Bottom.

  1. Pain thresholds aren’t a competition

When it comes to lots of types of kinky play, I have a low pain threshold compared to others. I am not what is known as a “pain slut.” I like just enough pain or discomfort to keep me in the moment and give me that adrenaline rush.

I am not the right play partner for many Dominants/Sadists who want their bottom to take as much pain as they can dish out. Nope! Not for me!

Many submissives can feel pressured (either by themselves or by a top) into taking more pain than they want. Which is dumb. And I think it has to do with the competitive nature of our culture.

BDSM allows you to play with one’s pain threshold which has a number of benefits, such as exploring your physical and emotional limits, achieving a sense of mindfulness, achieving “subspace” — a blissful headspace that can feel like a high, build new self-knowledge, go through something challenging with another person. Unless you’re intentionally specifically looking to be competitive with another person, you don’t need to take more pain to achieve these benefits.

  1. You don’t need pain AT ALL for a fun scene

Fun kinky play doesn’t need to involve pain at all. It can be an emotional journey, a sensual journey, and so much more. In other words, you don’t have to be a masochist: someone that takes pleasure from pain.

Remember, your imagination is the limit of what you can do using a kink framework: establishing a power dynamic, negotiation, etc.

To me, the primary point of kinky activities is how to nurture connection, both with the person(s) you’re playing with and with yourself. And the best way to kink is however best nurtures that connection, with lots of pain, a moderate amount, or no pain at all. And if you and a potential play partner can’t agree on this, you’re probably not a good match.

  1. BDSM doesn’t need to involve sex

When I got involved in the kink community, I had the opportunity to play with all sorts of people. Some of them I was sexually attracted to, but many I wasn’t. I learned quickly that this was okay. Not all kinky play needs to be sexual in nature and, in fact, we get to define what sexual means to us!

For me, play is often more “sensual,” than “sexual.” I feel more alive in my body when I play, but I don’t always feel aroused. And rarely do I involve my genitals in kinky scenes.

For some, kink is always foreplay, and that’s okay too. 

This is another way that you get to decide who you want to play with and how.

  1. Know your responses to trauma or trauma-inducing event

When you’re participating in BDSM, you’re often pushing physical and emotional limits in a way that can trigger past trauma or even create new trauma. Especially when you’re playing with new people or intentionally playing with actions you know you have trauma around, it’s super, super important to know how you respond to trauma and explain it to the person you’re playing with. (Note, tops can also have trauma responses — this isn’t just for bottoms).

Once, when I was bottoming for someone who ended up not being a very emotionally safe person, afterwards, I curled up in a ball on his bed. This, I found out, is one of my physical responses during a traumatic event.

On the other hand, the only time I’ve ever cried during a scene, I left wondering if I’d gone too far. I spoke to a mentor who asked me how I felt afterward. Exhilarated. Eager to have another scene with this person. 

She asked me how I’d felt when things had gone wrong before, and I thought back to that time when I curled up in a ball: anxious, depressed.

I now know what to look for when I’m heading into dangerous territory, and I can tell anyone I’m playing with what to look for, as well. 

It’s also really important to know whether you are able to verbally communicate when you’re triggered. If you tend to go non-verbal this is something you should tell your partners (and it’s something we should always be asking before a scene).

For more on trauma and play, check out:

  1. If someone isn’t interested in negotiating, they’re not safe

There are soooo many self-identified dominant individuals on dating websites who are looking for new people to play with. Many tout that they’re experienced, and when you’re eager to explore BDSM, it can feel very exciting to come across such a person.

But many of these people (usually cisgender men) aren’t safe to play with. They’re generally looking for inexperienced women who don’t know what to look out for. So how can you tell whether they’re worth getting to know? 

I tend to ask people to describe how they negotiate a scene. If they don’t have a good answer, then they’re not safe. 

Another thing to do is say no to simple things, such as whether we can exchange phone numbers or another request. If they ever, ever get pushy about anything, they’re not safe.

Approaching BDSM or Kink as a Feminist

I hope this guide gives you some starting ways to approach BDSM or kink as a feminist. For me, some of the keys are encouraging inclusivity, prioritizing enthusiastic consent, using BDSM or kink as a means of empowering myself and others, and challenging societal norms.

Featured image by Warm Orange on Unsplash

Jera Brown

Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them...