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What We Mean When We Talk About Power Exchange

BDSM dynamics look quite different depending upon who and how you're playing.

Key points

  • BDSM includes three separate and distinct forms of power exchange that can be practiced independently or blended together.
  • Pain, like pleasure, is highly subjective. Only you can know what feels right for you.
  • Tools and props can be enjoyable enhancements to your BDSM practice, but they are not necessary to successful BDSM play.

When the second season of the Netflix series Bonding debuted back in January, folks were optimistic that this time, they would do a better job representing the BDSM community. After the series debut was poorly received by community members as being both condescending and utterly incorrect in its portrayal of kink, the producers hired a consultant and tried again. The show’s messaging around consent and ethics certainly improved, but its portrayal of BDSM still caused confusion for my clients. Thanks to media like Bonding and Fifty Shades, I’ve had so many clients tell me:

“We don’t wear leather and latex. We can’t afford all the fancy equipment. And we wouldn’t ever want to go to a public dungeon, even if we did know how to find one! Does that mean we’re doing something wrong? Are we bad at BDSM?”

 Anna Shvets/Pexels
The abundance of tools and toys available to BDSM players can feel overwhelming.
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

The truth is, all the trappings and pageantry of leather life that these shows portray are fun... but far from necessary. So what do you need to have in order to engage in BDSM “the right way?” Is there even a “right way?”

You need to have a clear idea of what you and your partner mean when you say you want to incorporate BDSM into your relationship. BDSM is, at its core, a negotiated exchange of power between partners. And this power can take many forms! Bondage and Discipline, for example, focuses on an exchange of control. Control of movement, control of behavior, control of speech. All of these elements can be played with, without ever touching (or even being physically present with) the other person. Ropes and cuffs and wooden paddles are great fun, certainly. But they are not necessary. Control can be claimed with a single word or phrase.

Likewise, Dominance and submission are about exchanging authority. Submissives negotiate specific conditions under which they will cede some of their personal autonomy and independence over to their Dominant partner. A Domme might never tie up her slave, and a Master might never flog his submissive … the absence of these behaviors in no way diminishes the authority the Dominants have over the daily lives of their submissive partners. Perhaps they manage all of the household finances. Perhaps they select their submissive partner's clothing each morning. Maybe, they just claim the right to decide where, when, and how the partners will have sex. The key element is D/s is the fact that decision-making authority (over whatever life domains this has been negotiated to include) lies with the person on the left side of that slash.

Finally, SM, or Sadomasochism, is about exchanging sensation. Masochists crave intense physical sensation and Sadists enjoy dispensing these sensations and watching the physical and emotional reactions they evoke. Sometimes this sensation takes the form of pain, but the variety of sensations and the subjectivity of pain itself makes it tricky for us to reduce all SM to simply playing with pain.

For one person, holding an ice cube in the palm of their hand might be profoundly uncomfortable. It might make them wiggle, and tense up, and beg to be allowed to put the ice down. For another, getting this same response might take a dozen strikes from a thick, leather, bullwhip. One type of sensation certainly can cause more physical damage than the other. But can we say that one *hurts* more than the other? Research shows us that Sadomasochists aren’t interested in, or aiming towards, actual injury. Being able to clearly and effectively communicate exactly what sensations you want, and what kind of reactions to these sensations you enjoy, is the hallmark of safe SM play.

Source: Helen Thomas/Unsplash
You do not need ropes or restraints to exercise discipline or exert dominance.
Source: Helen Thomas/Unsplash

When we watch shows like Bonding, or Fifty Shades, we start to assume that BDSM requires gear: vinyl catsuits, leather caps, red rooms of pain. And sure—it’s great fun to accessorize our sexuality! But power exchange doesn’t need any of these things to be incredibly hot. Kink doesn't require vinyl, only voices.

All you need to enact an effective, engaging, and erotic power exchange scene is a partner interested in trading control, authority, and sensation with you. Explore these three elements together, or any combination of the three. Check in to discuss how the ceding or receiving of each feels for those involved. Play with this knowledge to deepen and enhance your next encounter. This is the heart of BDSM. Everything else is just decoration.

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