Even if you're not sure what S&M actually entails, the letters alone probably conjure up vivid images: Whips and chains, leather and latex, a tubby guy named The Gimp tugging on his leash as he hungrily eyes Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction. It's common to assume that sadism-and-masochism enthusiasts are at best unusual or shocking and at worst downright depraved. But are they really? Well, The Gimp certainly is — living in a locked crate in the basement of a pawnshop will do that to you. And anecdotal evidence does suggest that S&M enthusiasts differ from"normal" people in two ways: They have higher levels of education and tend to be very creative. S&M is also more common than you probably think; experts estimate one in five couples dabble, and one in 20 engage in very serious play.
"Couples enjoy S&M in part because it lets them explore new roles and visit different places with each other," says Dr. Pam Spurr, author of Naughty Tricks & Sexy Tips: A Couple's Guide to Uninhibited Erotic Pleasure. "Pushing the boundaries as far as you want can be an exhilarating release from the routine."
It also can solidify a strong foundation of trust and honest. And if you think you have little interest in S&M yourself, take a closer look at your sex life. Pinning your partner's wrists against the bed, tugging on hair, or biting a shoulder are simply milder ways of expressing desires that eventually lead some people to devote closet space to studded leather. The trick part is figuring out how — and if — you want to take it to the next level.
After Steven Lilla* and his girlfriend, Rebecca Simon, had been dating for a few months, she told him that S&M play typically had been an important part of her sex life. He was surprised, but not uncomfortable; she brought it up outside the bedroom, and she didn't put pressure on Steven to indulge her. Still, he had to confront a belief drilled into his head since he was old enough to smack toy-hugging playmates. "Most American males are raised to think it's never OK to be rough with a woman," says Steven, a 32-year-old martial arts instructor from Los Angeles. "That was something I had to overcome. But after learning more about S&M and taking some baby steps, I ended up really liking it."
They went slowly, sitting together — fully clothed, without sex playing any part — and practiced using ropes and chains so that neither of them experienced unwanted discomfort. Their toys, kept in a locked chest, only emerged when Rebecca's daughter wasn't home. Nine years later, Steven and Rebecca are still together, and S&M — role-playing, bondage, "forced" sex — is still a major part of their sex lives. But it's hardly the only part. "A big fallacy is that if you're into it, it's all you're into," says Rebecca, a 34-year-old who works at a museum. "But we very much enjoy regular vanilla sex."
They belong to a local club — there are dozens nationwide, easily found by an Internet search — with classes on safe ways to explore kinks, and parties where couples can play in front of other members. ("There's music and food like any other party," Steven says. "Except there are spanking noises in the background.") There's also an outreach program for law and psychology students and police officers, to help them differentiate between consensual and criminal sex. Of course, when cops need assistance sorting out sexual practice from crime, bringing up that practice with your partner can be more than a little daunting.
Paula Myers was lucky enough to find an entrée in casual conversation when her boyfriend told her she needed a spanking for being grumpy. "That really got me excited," says Paula, a 40-year-old from Seattle. A few weeks latheer, when he offered to give her a back rub, "I told him what I really wanted was for him to spank me, and not stop even if I asked him to." That Christmas, without prior discussion, she bought him a flogger, and he bought her a paddle. (Paging Mr. O. Henry...).
One way to take the pressure off is to let a movie introduce the subject. With the relatively low-impact play in 9 1/2 Weeks or the more involved kinkiness in Secretary (not to mention 50 Shades Of Grey, which is coming out next year), you can broach your desires by first discussing the action on screen. Point out what you think is sexy, then gauge the response. "Drop hints whenever the chance arises, " Spurr suggests. "Ask your partner to let you tie his tie, then mention it'd be fun to put it to another use sometime."
In other words, you don't need to sport latex underwear and handle a whip like Indiana Jones to start exploring. Begin with spanking or simple role-playing; look for substitute sex toys around the house. "Clothespins can pinch, say, a breast in a way that, when you're already aroused, can be intensely pleasurable," explains Rachel Venning, co-founder of the sex shop, Toys in Babeland. "And you can have a lot of fun spanking someone with a wooden spoon." Building trust, disciplining loved ones, using cooking utensils — S&M is actually pretty wholesome. How dirty it gets is up to you.
Ky Henderson is a writer in New York City.
*All names have been changed.
Number of Players: 2 or more
Review: Body Bingo is simple, straightforward and easy to play in bed. Spin the spinner, find the corresponding body part on your game board, then kiss, massage and tickle your partner as commanded. A "bingo" yields a special reward from a stack of cards, like a hot date or a massage. Grandma would be so proud!
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