S&M For Beginners: Every Kinky Thing To Know Before You Try It Out

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What Is S&M? What Sadomasochism Means In BDSM Terms

Even if you're not sure what S&M (i.e., sadomasochism) entails in the context of proper BDSM terms, the letters alone probably conjure up vivid images of whips and chains, leather and latex, and a tubby guy named the Gimp tugging on his leash as he hungrily eyes Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction.

It's common to assume people who identify as sadists and masochists are at best unusual or shocking and at worst downright depraved. But are they really? The Gimp certainly seemed to be. Living in a locked crate in the basement of a pawnshop will do that to you.

And anecdotal evidence does suggest enthusiasts of kinky sexual play differ from "normal" vanilla sex loving people in at least a few ways.

As research has found, "People who engaged in BDSM appeared to have a good mental health profile, and compared to control participants were: less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less sensitive to rejection [and] had a higher sense of wellbeing."

What is S&M — and what does the umbrella term of BDSM mean?

BDSM is an acronym for the terms bondage/discipline, Dominant/submissive, and sadism/masochism. As you may have guessed by now, S&M is the sadomasochism part.

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In the most general of definitions, a sadist is "a person who is sexually aroused or gains sexual gratification by inflicting pain, cruelty, or humiliation on others," and a masochist is "an individual who takes pleasure in the experience of physical or emotional pain."

Kinky sex practices are more common than you probably think.

In fact, as journalist Michael Castleman reports, "Indiana University researchers surveyed 2,021 American adults and discovered that many enjoyed elements of BDSM: spanking (30 percent), dominant/submissive role playing (22 percent), restraint (20 percent), and whipping/flogging (13 percent) (Chapter 41). The investigators also found that 43 percent had played sexually in public."

"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," she continues, "can be an exhilarating release from the routine."

Incorporating S&M into your sex life can solidify a strong foundation of trust and honesty in healthy romantic relationships.

And if you think you don't have any interest or experience with BDSM 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.

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The tricky 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, as she brought it up outside the bedroom and 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."

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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 BDSM ideas — role-playing, bondage, "forced" sex (known as consensual nonconsent) — are still a major part of their sex lives.

However, trying out kinky sex ideas is hardly the only part of their bedroom routine.

"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."

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They belong to a local BDSM 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 entree 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.

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A few weeks later 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, 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," 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.

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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 when you think about it. How dirty it can get is up to you.

*All names have been changed for the sake of privacy.

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Ky Henderson is a freelance writer, editor and producer whose work has appeared in Vice, Rolling Stone, Women's Health, and more.

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