What Is BDSM? Fundamentals, Types and Roles, Safety Rules, and More

If you’ve ever fantasized about getting kinky in the bedroom, you’re not alone. The runaway success of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy of books — the three top-selling print and e-books in the United States between 2010 and 2019 — not to mention the sales of the movies they generated, prove that interest in BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism) is anything but rare. (1)

5 Common Forms of BDSM

BDSM can involve role playing, sensory manipulation, and more. Here are a few popular ways enthusiasts like to get kinky!
5 Common Forms of BDSM

Prevalence: How Many People Practice BDSM?

Further proof: Nearly 47 percent of women and 60 percent of men have fantasized about dominating someone sexually, while slightly more women and less men are aroused by the idea of being dominated, according to a 2016 study. (2) The same study also found that almost 47 percent adults would like to participate in at least one nontraditional type of sexual activity, and 34 percent said that they’d done so at least once in the past. No wonder if you search the phrase “BDSM” on Google it will return more than 500 million results. (The phrase “missionary sex” returns about 163 million results.) 

The History of BDSM: Not So New

Explore a little more and you’ll also discover that BDSM is nothing new. Among BDSM’s historical high points:

  • Art and texts from ancient Greece and Rome show physical pain being used as an erotic stimulus, per the book An Illustrated History of the Rod, by William M. Cooper, first published in 1868. (3)
  • The Kama Sutra, the revered Sanskrit text on sexuality written in India about 2,000 years ago, describes six appropriate places to strike a person with passion and four ways to do it. It also has chapters titled “Scratching,” “Biting,” and “Reversing Roles.” (4)
  • The Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat who lived from 1740 to 1814, wrote a variety of erotic novels and short stories involving being beaten and beating others. Eventually the author’s name gave rise to the term “sadism.”
  • Similarly, the term “masochism” is derived from the name of Austrian nobleman and author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose 1870 novel Venus in Furs describes a dominant-submissive relationship. (5)
  • Back in 1953, a Kinsey Institute study found that 55 percent of women and 50 percent of men were aroused by being bitten. (6)
  • And even pre-Fifty Shades of Grey, 36 percent of U.S. adults reported having had sex using masks, blindfolds, or other forms of bondage. (7)

Is BDSM Still Considered a Medical Disorder?

At one time, mental health experts were dubious about whether those who practiced BDSM were mentally healthy. But the American Psychiatric Association took a huge step in destigmatizing kink with the release of the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. For the first time ever, the guidelines drew a clear distinction between consenting adults who engage in sexual behaviors outside the mainstream, such as BDSM, and those who force others to engage in those behaviors without consent. (8)

That means simply experimenting with, say, whips and chains, is no longer a sign of mental illness that by itself “justifies or requires clinical intervention,” the manual states.

There are true sexual disorders that are similar in theme. Sexual sadism disorder, for instance, involves inflicting physical or psychological pain on another for the purpose of sexual pleasure. And sexual masochism disorder involves deliberately involving yourself in a situation in which you are humiliated, beaten, or abused for the purpose of sexual excitement.

The difference between these two disorders and BDSM is consent, in the case of sexual sadism disorder, and that BDSM does not go to the degree of causing significant distress or impairing function, in the case of sexual masochism disorder.

RELATED: Could Owning a Cat Be a Gateway to BDSM?

The Psychology of BDSM: Why Are People Drawn to It?

Most of the available evidence shows that the majority of BDSM enthusiasts are mentally healthy and typical in every respect except that they find traditional (“vanilla”) intimacy unfulfilling and want something more intense.

“People always ask if it’s normal to be interested in BDSM,” says Michal Daveed, a spokeswoman for The Eulenspiegal Society, a nonprofit organization in New York City that describes itself as the “oldest and largest BDSM support and education group” in the country.

“Normal is a funny word to describe a really widespread and diverse humanity. If your definition of normal is how many people are doing this, it’s way more people than you may think,” says Daveed. “And if your definition of normal is ordinary, the BDSM world is full of ordinary people whose sexuality happens to be hardwired a particular way.”

One landmark 2008 study backs Daveed up. (9) It found that people who engaged in BDSM were more likely to have experienced oral sex or anal sex, to have had more than one partner in the previous year, to have had sex with someone other than their regular partner, and to have taken part in phone sex, visited an internet sex site, viewed an X-rated film or video, used a sex toy, had group sex, or taken part in manual stimulation of the anus, fisting, or rimming.

However, they were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious. Indeed, men who had engaged in BDSM scored significantly lower on a scale of psychological distress than other men. 

“Our findings support the idea that BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, and for most participants not a pathological symptom of past abuse or difficulty with ‘normal’ sex,” the researchers concluded.

“BDSM is a healthy expression of sexuality,” says Filippo M. Nimbi, PhD, a researcher at the Institute of Clinical Sexology and in the department of dynamic and clinical psychology at Sapienza University, both in Rome.

Dr. Nimbi is also the coauthor of a study that compared 266 consensual BDSM practitioners to 200 control subjects who described their sex lives as traditional. (10) Echoing the earlier study, the researchers found that the BDSM group tended to report fewer sexual problems than the general population.

People engaging in BDSM are usually people who have thought a lot about their sexuality,” Nimbi said. “They have explored and faced their sexual boundaries. Basically, they know what they like, and they do it. This has a positive outcome on their sexual experiences and on the overall quality of their lives.”

Many people think it’s a pathology or a perversion to, say, want to be spanked hard and to be happy about that, he added. “We each develop our erotic fantasies from our different tastes, experiences, and curiosities, beginning in childhood and lasting until the end of our lives. Everyone is different. We can develop the same fantasy from different stories, and we can develop different fantasies from the same stories. Some people find in BDSM a way to be free, to get wild, to let go, and to play a different role from their everyday lives. And if they get satisfaction and respect the ‘rules,’ why should it be abnormal?”

The Physicality of BDSM: Why Does It Feel Good?

Patti Britton, PhD, MPH, cofounder of the credentialing and training institute Sex Coach U and a past president of the American Association for Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), as well as other experts are quick to point out that seeking the pain-pleasure connection is not unique to the BDSM community. Think of athletes who push past physical comfort to experience a “runner’s high,” or people who chase thrills by engaging in dangerous extreme sports, like skydiving. Think of the bliss that aficionados of super spicy food experience when biting into a pepper sets their mouth on fire, or the rush of fear that riding a roller-coaster or watching a horror movie can bring.

“The same chemical cocktail of endorphins, dopamine, and other hormones that make those experiences pleasurable to some makes BDSM actually quite wonderful to others,” says clinical sexologist Francesca Gentille, coeditor of The Marriage of Sex & Spirit, and host of the podcast Sex: Tantra & Kama Sutra. “I like to compare sexual preferences to taste in food. Most of us don’t like bland food, but we have a range of how spicy we like it.”

Common Questions & Answers

What does BDSM stand for?
BDSM is an acronym that stands for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism.
Why do people like BDSM?
In the past, it was thought that BDSM might be a sign of unhealthy sexuality. But increasingly, even medical professionals say that BDSM is a healthy expression of sexuality. Erotic fantasies that fall into this category develop from different tastes, experiences, and curiosities that develop in childhood.
What is a rigger in BDSM?
A rigger is someone who, in engaging in BDSM play, ties rope for bondage purposes.
What is a brat in BDSM?
A brat, in the context of BDSM, is someone who misbehaves toward the dominant party in the BDSM scene being played out.
Is BDSM illegal?
BDSM occupies murky territory, legally. The foundation of BDSM “play” is consent between the parties engaging in it. However, you cannot legally consent to be tortured or assaulted. And what seems to be “play” to some may appear differently to others.

Roleplaying and BDSM: The Variety Is Endless

Doctor and patient. Teacher and student. Roleplaying is a common aspect of BDSM “play.” It may involve two or more people who “act out” a particular scene or fantasy. BDSM roleplay can happen in person or virtually. It almost always involves at least one individual being dominant and another being submissive. It may be simple, or it may be complicated enough to require a script. And actual sex is not the focus.

“The core of BDSM is the psychological part,” explains Mistress Damiana Chi, a dominatrix in Los Angeles who holds a PhD in clinical psychology. (She asked that her real name not be used, citing privacy concerns.) “For BDSM to be real, it has to involve an exchange of power with a lot of trust and respect. The couple has to decide which role they want to play, the dominant one or the submissive, and it’s that dynamic that creates erotic intensity.”

Common themes for BDSM role play include:

  • Kidnapper and victim
  • Law enforcement and prisoner
  • Owner and pet
  • Royal and commoner

Learn More About BDSM Roleplaying

While chains and whips might excite Rihanna (as she proclaims in the hit song ”S&M), it’s wrong to think all manifestations of BDSM involve inflicting extreme pain. The range of erotic expressions that fit under its umbrella is huge.

At one end there’s “light” BDSM, which includes activities like tickling, using a blindfold, tying your partner to the bedposts with silk scarves, slapping their rear playfully, and making verbal demands, such as “Call me Sir” or “Call me Madam.” No pain. No force. Just playful and pleasurable.

At the other end of the spectrum is “hardcore” BDSM. This can include whipping, caning, binding with ropes, dripping hot wax directly on the skin, and hundreds more forms of erotic expression, many of which you might find impossible to imagine.

“There are universal themes, but I’ve seen things that have shocked even me, not because they were unsafe, but because they were so infinitely creative,” says Dr. Britton.

Asking to have clothespins attached to your tongue. Being mummified with plastic wrap so that you’re completely immobilized. Living as a submissive wearing a leather collar while serving a dominant partner. Yes, there are people who choose these activities — the key word being “choose.”

“There are two essential things to know about BDSM,” explains Britton. “It is always voluntary, and the reason people do it is because it feels good. There’s something about transcending pain that can be almost a spiritual experience,” she adds. “It releases the self from the body. I’ve had people tell me, ‘the more my body is restrained, the freer I feel.’”

Common forms of BDSM play include:

  • Bondage (restraint or restriction)
  • Wax (dripping hot wax on the skin)
  • Impact (spanking, slapping, caning, flogging)
  • Sensation (using tools such as feathers, a paddle, burlap, on the skin)
  • Sensory deprivation (blindfolds, earmuffs, ear plugs)

The Importance of Communication, Consent, and Using Safe Words

How can having someone strike you, perhaps to the point that you cry out in pain, not be abuse? “Consent is the magic word,” says Nimbi.

While mainstream sexual encounters also stress the importance of consent, consent often takes the form of an unstated, implicit assumption based on perceived behavioral displays of interest or willingness,” note University of British Columbia psychologists Cara Dunkley, PhD, and Lori A. Brotto, PhD in a 2019 paper. (11) “The BDSM community takes consent further, demanding explicit rather than tacit consent.”

In a dominant-submissive “scene,” for instance one in which one person is going to be flogged, it’s standard practice for the “dom” or “top” and the “sub” or “bottom” to first negotiate at length and then contract, often in writing, what the sub is definitely willing to do, what he or she might be willing to do, and what is absolutely off-limits before they begin to “play.”

They also must agree on a safe word or gesture that the sub can use at any time to stop the action. That means that if there’s any potential for pain, both players are aware of the rules and of their own limits. Ironically, it also means that the sub actually has more control of the scene than the dom, since he or she defines the parameters and has the power to stop the action at any time, for any reason.

“There is no community on the planet more committed to the concept of consent than the BDSM community,” says Valerie White, a lawyer and founder of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit advocacy and education group based in Sharon, Massachusetts. “Of course, you can come across a rogue, just as you can in any group. But if anyone crosses the line, they are cast out so quickly it would make your head spin to see it.”

Common safe words include:

  • Red
  • Pineapple
  • Banana
  • Peach

Safe and Risk-Aware Kink: How to Try It Safely at Home

If you’re planning on trying kink at home, experts advise going to a class, reading a book, listening to a podcast, or checking out informational videos on YouTube before trying anything other than light BDSM at home to see and learn how to engage in this type of erotic expression safely.

“You have to learn this,” says Britton. “You don’t just go to Home Depot and buy a rope and tie your husband up. BDSM play is not random. It’s not built on spontaneity. It’s built on anticipating a set of behaviors that are negotiated beforehand.”

“People playing at home without training is dangerous,” says Gentille, who spent four years as a collared submissive at home with a dominant partner in a relationship. “You can’t, for example, just leave a person alone in a room, tied up and gagged, and expect it to go well.”

Social Etiquette and BDSM

It might sound contrary, but there’s most definitely a code of behavior with regard to practicing BDSM properly. If you’re thinking about trying BDSM at a social gathering, often dubbed a “play party,” which can be an informal gathering hosted by someone or an organized event, you’ll need to do some prepping beforehand about the social mores. Can you touch someone else’s toys? How do you handle consent? Can everybody play? Learning the ropes before you go will ensure that you have a good time.

The BDSM Terms You Need to Know

BDSM also has its own language to describe who takes part, how they take part, and how things work. Among common terms you’ll encounter in this world are:

  • Bondage and discipline
  • Dominance and submission
  • Male dominance
  • Male submission
  • Female dominance
  • Female submission
  • Sadism and masochism

Learn More About BDSM Terms You Need to Know

BDSM and the Law: What You Need to Know

The legality behind BDSM is murky. Legally, for instance, you cannot consent to be tortured or assaulted. And, to the outside eye, some BDSM activities can appear to fall into that category. So, for example, if police raid a BDSM event and see activities that they object to, they can charge the participants even if there is consent. While it’s unlikely you’ll encounter a problem, especially in the confines of your own home, it’s good to know the lay of the land, legally. And there are special cases — like custody battles — where people need to know how this kind of information can be used in court.

BDSM: Beyond Taboo

Of course, while BDSM is not for everyone (Britton herself identifies more as vanilla than kink), there is more and more recognition that it is 100 percent normal to fantasize about it. What’s more, given the reclassification of BDSM and related behaviors in the DSM-V and the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, it’s easier than ever to explore those fantasies in real life without shame, if one desires to.

One sure sign that kink is becoming less and less taboo: The Harvard College Munch, which brings together students with interested in kinky sex, is now recognized by the university as an official campus group. (12)

“It’s very out in the culture right now, but it’s not fully out of the shadows yet,” says Gentille. “People are still embarrassed to talk about sex. What they discover when they dive a little deeper into it is that in BDSM you actually get to talk about what you like, what you’re curious about, and what is a definite ’No.’ It’s clear, overt, and collaborative and that can feel delightful. And if you like it, if you have control over what happens, it’s all good fun.”

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.

  1. Best-Selling Print Books and E-Books in the United States from 2010 to 2019, By Unit Sales (in Millions). Statista. June 7, 2021.
  2. Joyal C, Carpentier J. The Prevalence of Paraphilic Interests and Behaviors in the General Population: A Provincial Survey. The Journal of Sex Research. March 3, 2016.
  3. Cooper WM. An Illustrated History of the Rod. May 22, 2014.
  4. Burton R. The Kama Sutra of Vatsayana. Sacred-Texts.com.
  5. von Sacher-Masoch LR. Venus in FursGutenberg.org. February 2, 2003.
  6. Bancroft J. Sexual Variations. Human Sexuality and Its Problems. 2009.
  7. The Face of Global Sex 2005 [PDF]. Durex Network.
  8. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. American Psychiatric Association. May 18, 2013.
  9. Richters J, De Visser RO, Rissel CE, et al. Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in Bondage and Discipline, “Sadomasochism,” or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data From a National Survey. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. July 1, 2008.
  10. Botto D, Nimbi FM, Tripodi F, et al. Are Role and Gender Related to Sexual Function and Satisfaction in Men and Women Practicing BDSM? The Journal of Sexual Medicine. March 1, 2019.
  11. Dunkley CR, Brotto LA. The Role of Consent in the Context of BDSM. Sexual Abuse. April 22, 2019.
  12. College Approves BDSM Group. The Harvard Crimson. November 29, 2012.
Show Less