The Facts About Sexual Exploration
Sexual exploration doesn't have to always be whips and chains (and Rihanna songs), but if you’re someone who’s new to spicing things up in the bedroom, that may be exactly what you need. After years of dating, things can get a bit dry. Maybe you're trying to be more experimental in a new relationship. Or solo-play is something you've never tried. Regardless what path you're taking, the journey can seem daunting at first.
Starting at the basics, exploring in the bedroom can be as simple as switching up positions. For example, maybe face-sitting hasn't been your thing in the past, or you're interested in trying 69 for the first time. If you want to get kinkier, introducing ropes to tie a partner up or a blindfold to shield someone's vision are easy items to implement into the bedroom and can also touch on roleplay, where you take on a new character for the night. Kink is in the eye of the beholder, and even changes like these can be a great way to incorporate more of it into your sex life. That brings us to the ultimate exploration: finding what your kink is.
Kink is more common than you might assume. EdenFantasys, a sex toy website, conducted a 2018 survey where 40 percent of Americans consider themselves “kinky.” But what is kink exactly? David Singer, a Los Angeles–based licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in kink and polyamory, considers it to be “anything that's not in a straight line,” and likens it to a piece of rope because it can twist, bend, bind and be just about anything you want it to be.
Activities that fall under kink can run the gamut. From virtual sex and orgasm control—which a 2020 survey by KinkD, a dating app, found among the most popular kinky activities in lockdown—to Shibari rope bondage, roleplay and many other types of sex.
Within the kink community, safety is crucial and there are a couple of guiding principles that help to ensure it. And safety should be something that extends beyond kinky communities. Safety in bed is essential.
RACK, also known as Risk-Aware Consensual Kink, is based on the idea that while kink can be performed safely, it’s not entirely risk-free. It differs in this way from SSC, which stands for Safe, Sane, Consensual, which was a philosophy that developed in the 1980s within queer, kinky and urban communities to help deal with issues around security and consent.
SSC suggests all good kink is safe kink, and can only be consented to when all parties are totally sober and approaching it realistically. RACK is similar, but acknowledges that no kinky deed is entirely devoid of risk. Either way, anyone engaging in kink is encouraged to be aware of the potential risks involved and proactive about trying to mitigate them. And above all else, consent must be affirmative, enthusiastic and freely given.
Essential terms you should know
Aftercare: This term refers to the period of time directly following a BDSM scene wherein one partner prioritizes the other’s emotional, physical and psychological needs. However, aftercare can be used with any sexual encounter. After sex, cuddling and taking care of one another is crucial. In one 2014 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, people who spend time cuddling, kissing, spooning or expressing affection to one another, found more satisfied with their sex life and their partner.
Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism (BDSM): The acronym BDSM is a combination of the abbreviations B/D, which stands for bondage (meaning rope or other restraints used in a sexual manner) and discipline, and S/M, which stands for sadism (meaning pleasure derived from inflicting pain on others) and masochism (meaning pleasure derived from receiving pain). It can also be used to describe power exchange, which includes domination and submission.
BDSM contract: Also known as an agreement, a BDSM contract is a big component of RACK and is a living document between a Dominant and submissive partner that outlines specific sexual acts, preferences, rules and/or boundaries between partners following a negotiation. While it’s not a legally binding contract, it can help partners feel more supported during BDSM scenes and helps to ensure mutual consent has been given.
BDSM scene: A BDSM scene is a setting or pre-planned space where BDSM activities take place for a mutually agreed-upon period of time. It may refer to the physical location (i.e., a club), or it may be used colloquially to describe the activities themselves. For example: “I just did a rope scene last night.”
Dominant: A Dominant (often capitalized to reflect dominance), sometimes known as a “Dom” or “Femdom,” is an individual who derives sexual pleasure from assuming a leadership or control role over a submissive partner within an intimate (or D/s) relationship. This individual may exercise control through bondage (rope, collars, etc.), impact play (spanking, flogging, etc.), power exchange, or other mutually consented and negotiated sexual activities.
Fetish: Unlike kink, which usually describes sexual activity between more than one person, a fetish is a type of kink that can be enjoyed solo and usually involves attraction to an inanimate object or part of the body not typically considered sexual in nature. For example, someone who is physically aroused by feet may describe themselves as having a “foot fetish.”
There are many different types of fetishes, but some of the most common include wearing certain types of clothing for sexual arousal, such as lingerie or attire made from leather or latex; watching others have sex (known as “voyeurism”) or being watched during sex by other people (known as “exhibitionism”); having sex in public places (ex., outdoors, in bathrooms, etc.); urinating or being urinated on by a partner (known as “watersports”); and many others.
Negotiation: A negotiation is a major part of RACK, and is a period of time wherein all partners involved discuss sexual preferences, boundaries, responsibilities and/or needs. It may relate to a specific BDSM scene or to a relationship overall, and what is mutually consented to can be used in a BDSM contract. During a negotiation, all partners are considered equal and D/s dynamics are not encouraged.
Safeword: A safeword is a term or series of terms used by those practicing RACK to ensure both partners feel comfortable and secure within a negotiated BDSM scene. A safeword can be used by either a Dominant or a submissive at any time, and is often included within a BDSM contract. It may be used to stop a BDSM scene that has become too intense or to request that activities slow down. The most commonly used safewords in the kink community are red (which means “stop”), green (which means “go”), and yellow (which means “slow down”).
Submissive: A submissive (often lowercase to reflect submission), sometimes known as a “sub,” is an individual who consensually yields their power to a Dominant partner within an intimate (or D/s) relationship, and derives sexual pleasure from doing so. This individual may enjoy bondage (being tied up, being collared, etc.), impact play (being spanked, flogging, etc.), receiving verbal, emotional, and/or physical humiliation, or other mutually consented and negotiated sexual activities.
Switch: A switch is an individual who engages in BDSM and who can be either Dominant or submissive, and derives sexual pleasure from assuming either role within a mutually consented and negotiated BDSM scene.
Subdrop: Subdrop describes the physical and emotional effects of a BDSM scene on a submissive person after it’s finished. It can include feelings like physical fatigue, guilt, depression, dissociation and/or insomnia, and is usually attributed to the spike in adrenaline and endorphins brought on by BDSM activities. It can also be experienced by Dominant partners, and is usually referred to as topdrop.
Myths about being kinky
Although the kink community has gotten more mainstream attention over the last several years, the truth is, there are still a lot of misconceptions about it. Below are some of the biggest myths and stereotypes that exist about kink.
Myth 1: All kink is BDSM.
Not all sex involves physical contact, and not all kink involves BDSM. While some kinky folks might love bondage or be interested in power exchange through D/s relationships, it’s not a requirement. Kink is subjective—one person’s kink can easily be someone else’s vanilla sex, and vice versa—and you don’t have to be interested in BDSM to be part of the community.
Myth 2: All BDSM is dangerous.
This one is tricky. When done in a caring, consensual way, BDSM can be immensely satisfying for all parties involved and can feel safe. However, there can be an element of physical and/or emotional risk attached to many BDSM activities, which is why practicing RACK is important and open communication between partners is essential.
Myth 3: All kinky people are promiscuous and/or have past trauma.
Sexuality is complex, and so is mental health. People can explore kink for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with past trauma or promiscuity, and taking pleasure in it does not mean someone has mental health issues or is inherently hypersexual, problematic, or addicted to sex. Stigmas such as these are harmful and not sex-positive, and important to dispel.
Myth 4: All men are Dominant, all women are submissive.
Gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and the same is true for D/s dynamics. While plenty of cisgendered men might prefer a Dominant role, it’s by no means their natural right to assume that power in BDSM. The same is true for submissive roles—many cisgendered women might enjoy being subservient to Dominant male partners, but there are plenty who don’t. It’s all about personal preference and consent.
Myth 5: Doms have all the power and subs have to do whatever they say all the time.
This is one of the single biggest myths that persists about BDSM and it’s completely untrue. In the groundbreaking work The New Topping Book (as well as its companion piece, The New Bottoming Book), authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy stress that while Dominant partners do have control within a BDSM scene, they’re also responsible for making sure their submissive partners feel safe and cared for. In this way, it’s actually submissives who hold all the true power in a D/s dynamic, and should be respected as such.
When practiced safely, kink can be a healthy and joyful way to express one’s sexuality. However, it can be a deeply vulnerable space to inhabit, too, and it’s important to keep that in mind when exploring it.
Certain kinky activities like rope play (which is when rope is used to restrain or physically limit a partner’s movements for pleasure) or specifically, Shibari (a Japanese rope bondage technique wherein rope is used to also create intricate patterns on a partner’s body), can be physically hazardous if done incorrectly. Breath control, which involves restriction of airflow for erotic purposes and is most often done through consensually choking a partner, is another kink that that can be extremely dangerous if not done carefully.
Beyond literal physical risks, there are emotional issues that can arise between people who aren’t practicing kink responsibly. For instance, someone who doesn’t know about subdrop or topdrop—or a newcomer who does a scene with a partner who doesn’t responsibly educate them about it or practice aftercare—might struggle with feelings of grief, self-loathing or depression surrounding what they did, which can have long-lasting and harmful effects on their mental health.
Tips for beginners
If you’re new to kink and ready to embrace this part of your sexuality, you might be tempted to just launch full steam ahead into intimate activities that you’ve always fantasized about, but you may want to hit pause on that, at least until you’ve educated yourself more and connected with the community.
Another important way to learn about kink safely is to connect with educators in your area. FetLife, a social media platform for the BDSM, kink and fetish community, can be an accessible way to find community and to discover classes and munches, which are casual (non-sexual) gatherings held in public places where people in the kink community gather, socialize, and get to know newcomers.
No matter how you approach kink or fetishes in your personal life, safety is crucial, but so is self-love and acceptance. So long as you’re staying ethical and only engaging in kinky activities with partners who can safely and legally give consent, there’s absolutely no reason not to embrace this part of yourself and freak what you feel.