Can BDSM Be Healthy?

By Melissa, a Hotline advocate

bdsmHere at The Hotline, we hear from quite a few people who have questions about BDSM (which encompasses a variety of erotic practices or activities that may involve bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and/or sadism and masochism). They might be wondering if it’s healthy, or they may have concerns about a current relationship in which they’re practicing BDSM with a partner.

A lot of stigma is attached to certain sexual appetites and desires, but we want to be very clear that BDSM is not inherently or automatically abusive. It’s possible to have healthy BDSM relationships, and they require just as much–if not more–of the same things that healthy “vanilla” relationships do: trust, honesty, respect and equality.

Abuse is about one partner gaining and maintaining power and control over another, whereas healthy BDSM relationships revolve around a consensual power exchange. Abusive people will not be seeking consent, respecting boundaries or engaging in fantasies for mutual benefit. If you feel pressured to engage in any kind of sexual activity, kinky or vanilla, to “prove” your love/devotion/connection/submission etc. to your partner, that’s a huge red flag for sexual coercion and sexual abuse. If you don’t have the room to comfortably and freely say no, you don’t have the space to say yes. Consent is sober, informed, uncoerced, enthusiastic and can always be revoked.

BDSM vs. Abuse

With any type of partnered sex, it’s important to separate fantasy from reality. If you want to do something kinky, chances are it’s not going to have that instant gratification element that it does in movies and books. There are logistics to consider, such as personal feelings, appropriate conditions, consenting parties and more. Like any relationship, BDSM involves some level of mitigated risk and can, in some cases, reasonably lead to accident, injury, hurt feelings and otherwise uncomfortable scenarios. This makes excellent communication, a willingness to take personal responsibility for one’s choices, crisis management skills and a strong and healthy understanding of consent paramount in all BDSM interactions. If everyone involved is not comfortable communicating, taking responsibility, and ensuring consent at all times, that may mean it is not the right time for them to engage in BDSM or even to pursue a sexual relationship at all. And if BDSM is not for you, that’s okay. Everyone is different, and not everyone will enjoy and appreciate all aspects of BDSM.

Equality in BDSM Relationships

With regards to equality, healthy BDSM relationships are based on the premise that both partners are equals and that one person consensually agrees to submit in a way that is mutually beneficial for them both. This submission is something that the bottom/submissive gives to the Dominant, and they have the right to take it back and walk away at any time. If someone is domineering, makes demands that are not agreed upon or are uncomfortable for the submissive, or treats the submissive in a way that makes them feel like they are less than a person and that they do not have a right to speak up for themselves, then it is not healthy. Be wary of anyone who solely dictates the rules of the relationship or does not allow community involvement and education – isolation is a common tactic of abuse.

Communication & Boundaries

Before you jump into anything kinky, it’s important to sit down with your partner(s) and talk about what kind of relationship everyone wants and what each person’s boundaries, expectations and limits are. Then talk about it some more. And then talk about it even more!

What people may not realize is how much communication goes into any type of BDSM relationship, whether that’s just in the bedroom or a 24/7 dynamic. Understanding even small things, like differences in terminology, is what keeps the encounter or arrangement safe and enjoyable for everyone. Communication with your partner(s) should be very open and ongoing. If you don’t feel like you can be honest with someone about every single detail of your fantasies, including what you want and what you don’t want, then you may want to re-evaluate your relationship with that person.

Safety Considerations

When practicing BDSM, it’s important to consider safety at all times. Below are some tips and important things to keep in mind for BDSM relationships:

  • In BDSM play, safe words are necessary. Beware of anyone who says they “don’t use” a safe word or who requires it only to be used in emergencies. A safe word is for the safety of the bottom/submissive and should be used any time they feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or just need the scene to stop. In cases where a safe word cannot be verbalized, then a safe signal should be agreed upon. A Top/Dominant should also be aware of what physical signs to look for to ensure a bottom’s/submissive’s safety, i.e. shallow breathing, breath holding, hyperventilation, cold hands and feet, losing consciousness, etc. This is necessary to keep a scene safe and enjoyable for all parties. Even if a bottom fails to call a safe word, the Top is still responsible for their well-being, and it’s important they keep a constant monitor on the reaction time and reactivity of the bottom. This is not a sign of a ‘weak’ Dominant, but one who respects their play partner. It’s also common for Tops to check in regularly with their bottom to ensure they are still agreeable with what is happening.
  • It’s important to recognize and agree to off-limit areas on the body (such as the neck or spinal column and kidneys) and agree on off-limit practices. It can also help to have a first-aid kit handy, as well as training in First Aid or CPR. Don’t be afraid to ask for documentation of this and a very recent STI report from a potential play partner.
  • If you’re meeting someone for the first time, consider using Circle of 6 or Kitestring so you can quickly let people in your support system know if you’re in danger.
  • It can be tempting to want to jump right into all the fun, kinky stuff you’re discovering with your equally enthusiastic partner(s), but it’s important to add new things slowly and not all at once. It can be overwhelming to try a lot of new things if you or your partner(s) don’t know how you will respond to them yet.
  • Red flags in a BDSM relationship can include moving too quickly for your comfort; pressuring you into things you are unsure of; inappropriate attitudes, comments or questions that make you uncomfortable; unwillingness to follow safety guidelines; lack of communication or an unwillingness to communicate. If someone ignores a safe word or signal, or gives you attitude about any hard limit you have set, those are signs they do not and will not respect your boundaries and body. Always trust your gut instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

If you have questions or concerns about your relationship, Hotline advocates are available 24/7 by calling 1-800-799-7233, or you can chat online here on our website from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Central time. Chat en Español esta disponible de 12 p.m. a 6 p.m. Hora Central.

Additional Reading:

  • We’ve linked to a lot of articles on Scarleteen in this post because it’s an excellent resource for young people and adults alike! Check them out for more information about sex and sexuality.
  • If you are experiencing sexual abuse in any kind of relationship, it can be helpful to create a safety plan.
8 replies
  1. Elle says:

    Thank you for this post. As a BDSM participant I came to the website looking for advice on how to help a friend get out of an abusive relationship. I saw the title of this post and braced myself for the torch and pitchfork waving “BDSM is abuse!!” I am so delighted to read such an honest, open-minded post that very well explains the key tenants of BDSM and contrasts that with abuse.

    Sadly, my friend was in a “vanilla” relationship and the abusive partner has convinced my friend to have a BDSM relationship – with no knowledge of what that means. The abuser has basically told my friend it means having no choice, doing anything ordered without question, and shames and humiliates relentlessly. It is everything abuse is and BDSM is not. I keep trying to explain the difference and impress on my friend that this is NOT ok. It is abuse. And my friend is utterly torn and confused, and completely TERRIFIED to say no or not follow orders. I don’t know what to do.

    Reply
    • The Hotline says:

      Hi Elle,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! First of all, we’re glad you found this post validating and informative. We’re so sorry to hear about your friend; it sounds like some very concerning things are happening in her relationship. We encourage you to forward her this post (if you believe she can read it safely). You are also welcome to call or chat with us anytime – we’d be happy to help you come up with some options for your friend. Call 1-800-799-7233 (24/7) or chat here on our website from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Central time.

      Reply
  2. Velma says:

    [Admin note: This comment has been modified for safety per our community guidelines]

    I have been married for 44 years. I feel trapped in this marriage. I am retired and only receive SS. I have diabetes and high blood pressure. I am on Medicare. My medications cost approx $500 a month. I am buy groceries and my credit card bills, which leaves me with little funds available to every expensive. My husband get a good pension and SS. He pays all the household bills. But he has triple the income I have. So I have rely on my husband to purchase some my medicine. I want to leave him but I can’t afford to pay for my medical care without his help. He get very angry about having to help me. I am afraid to leave because of my fears to survive without him. He doesn’t hit but constantly state things about my character that is unsure and mean. He won’t discuss why he states these things when we have been married 44 years without anything ever happening th sggest why he accuses me of such. When I ask him why he says I have done something before and when he can’t state anything he get anger with me for bringing it up. I own a home in the country that mom left me. That is an option.
    But again that still won’t allow to care of other expenses. What do you advise?

    Reply
    • The Hotline says:

      Hi Velma,

      Thank you for sharing some of your story with our community. We’re so sorry to hear that your husband treats you this way. You do not deserve to be verbally or financially abused, for any reason. We’d like to help in any way we can. Please contact us by calling 1-800-799-7233 (24/7) or you can chat here on our website by clicking the “Chat Now” button anytime between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. Central. We hope to hear from you soon.

      Reply
    • Melissa says:

      Velma,

      I was reading your post that you posted a month ago and even though I’m not a counselor, I’d like to give you my “two cents worth” if that’s okay. First I’d like to mention if you haven’t already, I do honestly advise you to call the number this website provides since these people really do know how to help people going through domestic abuse. The other thing I wanted to add is, I seriously would suggest to move out of your husband’s home when he’s not around and just take your essentials with you. Either move into your mother’s old house she gave you, or move in with friend/family member you trust for a little while and simply figure out things as they go along. I know that’s easier said than done, but that’s all we can do in life sometimes – take one day at a time. If that’s not feasable, I would highly recommend to either ask the people from this website or the police that you need to go to a domestic abuse shelter for a while. They will be able to help you. I know mentioning to talk to the police might sound “scary” but many of them are good people and will be able to help you out. Also, if your husband is violent, I would sincerely recommend you not move into your mother’s old home since he knows where that is, but like I mentioned, to a near by domestic abuse shelter. Also, about your medical bills/medication… I know it’s easier said than done, but all we can do is take one day a time and Tackle one Issue at a time. The first step to get out of your abusive relationship is always the hardest but it must be done. Once you get past that first step, you take another step, and then another. One day at time, Velma. I do wish you luck!!
      ~M.

      Reply
      • The Hotline says:

        Hi Melissa!

        Thank you for your encouraging words. We are certainly here to help anyone who may be in an abusive situation find options and a path to safety. While you make some good suggestions, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s situation is different, and what may seem like the best choice for one person may not be an option for someone else. Creating a safety plan that addresses one’s needs in the moment can be very helpful, and our advocates can always assist. Thanks again for reading and commenting!

        Reply
  3. Vile woods says:

    We live a 24/7 M’s relationship. We have been together 5 yrs married for 4. We have yet to have a argument.
    I have a story to prove how stable a BDSM relationship can be if you care to hear about it.
    Vile

    Reply
    • The Hotline says:

      Hi Vile woods,

      Thanks so much for your comment. We’re glad to hear that you have created a healthy BDSM relationship that works for everyone involved. We appreciate you being part of our online community!

      Reply

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