BDSM 101: The Basics of Play and Identity by Betty Butch

Researching BDSM as a newly interested kinkster can be an overwhelming task. You don’t know what you’re into, what kind of role you may want to play, and what the abundance of community-specific words even mean. What is degradation? Do you have to be a dom or a sub? Is there a word to describe wanting to purr and bite your partner during play?

One possible starting point is the BDSM Test, an old and oft-referenced test that endeavours to label you a percentage score for various BDSM-related identities. The test is far from perfect – it has a very rigid perception of each identity, and presents its questions in extremes that don’t acknowledge the importance of negotiation, consent, and risk-awareness – but it has a long history as many kinksters’ first foray into considering their BDSM interests.

As long as you use the test as a nudge in the general direction of where to start your research – as opposed to a definitive roadmap – it can be useful.

But before you launch into a sliding scale assessment of your potential interests, how about an introduction to the concepts the test will be quizzing you on?

BDSM

BDSM is a consensual form of play between risk-aware adults; every act should be thoroughly researched and negotiated before participants ever take a knee or brandish a crop. Despite outward appearances, BDSM doesn’t have to be an inflexibly defined experience: like a buffet, BDSM can be enjoyed selectively, with participants pursuing the forms of play that appeal to them. Some people regularly engage in kink without ever playing with whips, chains, or dominance and submission.

Likewise, while many kinksters consider their BDSM play to be part of their identity, it is also possible to engage in the practice in a casual or temporary capacity. Every form of play and identifier can be expressed in ways that suit individual persons; there is no one true way to engage in any aspect of BDSM, besides consensually.

Humiliation & Degradation

Humiliation and degradation are a venn diagram of kink play, wherein participants engage in acts or headspaces that cause feelings of shame, embarrassment, or dehumanization. You don’t have to endure humiliation to be degraded – and vice versa – but they often go hand-in-hand. This kind of play allows people to experience and explore these feelings in a safe, consensual space, and can often feel uniquely exciting and even cathartic. Degradation (being made to feel subservient) and humiliation (being made to feel mortified) can manifest as anything from being told to wear something showy and uncomfortable, to being spoken to in a blatantly disrespectful manner, to being positioned as lesser (such as being a pet.)

Labels for people who especially enjoy and identify with these activities include Emotional Sadists/Masochists and Degraders/Degradees, but these interests often dovetail with other identities like Submissives and Handlers.     

Power Exchange

Power exchange is when parties have negotiated an intentional power imbalance, either temporarily for a play session, or as a core part of their relationship dynamic (ie Total Power Exchange.) This imbalance can take many forms, and can vary widely in style, tone, and intention. Some Daddy Doms, for example, take on a tender, nurturing role, and dole out rewards and punishments based on their partner’s behavior. Pets may wish to be treated as subservient, there to be pretty and to please the other player through playful sexual service and following commands. Brats are usually submissives who don’t obey without incentive. Implementations of power exchange are as diverse as the people who practice it.  

Some kinksters – often called Switches – are versatile and can identify as either depending on situation, mood, or need.

Power exchange can be set in stone (within consented limits, of course) or can be grappled for (such as play wrestling to earn/achieve dominance.) Further, the power being negotiated can cover various aspects of one’s agency, not just who “calls the shots” in bed. (In fact, for many, there is no overlap between BDSM and sex.)

Identities relating to power exchange are perhaps the most commonly associated with BDSM; if used at all, honorifics are chosen based on people’s roles and preferences, and may be unique to the person, or chosen based on perceived definition. Dominants may be called Dom(me), Mistress, Owner/Handler, Mxtress, Goddess, Sir, etc. Submissives may be titled Kitten, Boy, Sub, Slut, Toy…

Bondage

Bondage is the practice of having someone restrained. The restraining can be done with all kinds of gear – leather cuffs, elaborate rope harnesses, stockades, etc – but participants can also make pervy use of household items like scarves and zipties. Bondage is appealing for a number of reasons, some of which include safely induced feelings of helplessness, having something to struggle against, or being held in a position you would otherwise fall out of.

For some, bondage is a dedicated craft in addition to an interest. Rope Tops (sometimes called Riggers) are people who hone their tying and suspension abilities; Rope Bottoms (sometimes called Bunnies) are players for whom being tied is particularly appealing and becomes well-practiced. Despite the use of ‘Top’ and ‘Bottom,’ bondage does not have to involve power dynamics, though it is often used to reinforce them.

Impact & Sensation Play

Impact play is using implements – such as paddles, floggers, wooden spoons, or your bare hand – to menace or inflict pain on someone who has consented to the activity. Sensation play is creating unique sensory experiences, whether that’s by denying a sense (ie wearing a blindfold or headphones), using a sensation to stimulate (ie using a tickler or sucker), or using a tool or product to heighten sensitivity.

While anyone can engage in these types of play, Sadists (people who enjoy causing consenting partners pain) and Masochists (people who enjoy receiving pain in a controlled setting) are folks for whom the exchange of pain is a significant identifier.

Role Play

Role play is the act of performing or embodying a particular concept, character, or position. In BDSM, role playing is often a foundational aspect of a scene (as in a BDSM session), relationship dynamic, or even someone’s identity. Roles – even ones feigned for play – can allow participants to experience different perspectives and explore new aspects of themselves or their partners. Roles adopted/embraced as lifestyles can give folks the room express the fullness of their personalities.

For example, “sub” can be a social position occupied for a scene, a temporary state of being induced by play, or it can be a personal identifier. In the same vein, Primal players (people for whom sex and/or BDSM is ruled by instinctual, often animalistic drives) may consider being Predator or Prey just a brief indulgence in baser urges, while others feel the role is a reflection of who they are at their core.  

Role play based identities are infinite, but commonly referenced ones include Littles (sometimes called “Ageplayers,” though there are varied interpretations/definitions for both), animal and animal-adjacent concepts (such as Pups or Hucows), and D/s-specific roles like “Master.”



Betty Butch is a queer, sex-positive blogger who reviews pleasure products and writes about identity and kink at bettybutch.com. You can find her on Twitter via @betty_butch.


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