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Mainstream media might have you believe that sexual submission is synonymous with “easily coerced virginal, clumsy writer” or “has no boundaries.” (Hi, Anastasia Steele!)

But IRL, sexual submission is far more consensual, collaborative, fun, and sexy.

Typically, the “S” in BDSM — submission — takes place within a kinky context when someone takes on a more (or the only) dominant role and someone else takes on a more (or the only) submissive role, explains Ashley Paige, an NYC-based professional Dominatrix and smut maker.

“It’s when there’s a consensual exchange of power,” Paige says.

Nope! There may be some overlap, but “bottom” generally refers to someone who’s physically on the bottom during sex. (Think: the partner on their back during missionary.)

A person may also identify as a bottom to not only describe their sexual preference, usually one who receives penetration, but to indicate their social role and sexual identity.

“There isn’t necessarily a power exchange when someone is on top and someone else is on bottom,” says Paige.

“Submission is about the giving/receiving of power,” Paige adds.

“Someone who is a submissive can be on top, servicing their partner because they’re skilled at something the Dominant enjoys.”

Generally speaking, in the most traditional form of BDSM play, there’s a submissive who consensually “gives up to control” (note the quotations!) to the Dominant.

But considering almost half of the general population has tried some form of BDSM in their lives, it’s safe to say submission doesn’t have one #lewk.

Moments

A partner pins your arms behind your back during doggy. Or pulls your hair during missionary. Or spits in your mouth. Or spanks your bum. Or calls you “greedy” or “my slut” or “little girl.” Or or or or…

There are thousands of little moments within more “traditional” sex that may invoke elements of submission and dominance or power play.

So long as all partners consent and enjoy these moments, this is A-OK, says Callie Little, a sex and relationships educator and writer.

“Whether or not you count this as being under the BDSM umbrella is up to you,” Little adds.

Scenes

Think of “scene” as the kinkified version of “Sexy Time, from start to finish.”

A scene is a series of pre-negotiated acts/sex acts/BDSM activities that have been fully discussed and agreed upon from beginning to middle to end by all participants.

What a scene will look like is varied as kinksters themselves.

A scene might entail one partner spanking another 10 times, at increasing intensity with the goal of getting to a 7–10 on the pain scale.

Or it may be much more elaborate. Maybe the scene starts with wax play, moves onto nipple torture, and ends with orgasm denial. Or maybe it involves an extended flogging.

Ongoing relationships

Sometimes called 24/7 D/s or Lifestyle D/s in the wonderful world of BDSM, ongoing relationships refer to partnerships where there’s no real break from the power exchange.

Essentially, both the submissive and Dominant are in role the majority of the time.

D/s is often used as shorthand to describe a relationship where someone leads (the Dominant) and someone follows (the submissive).

The “D” is usually capitalized to signify the power of the Dominant’s position, while the “s” is usually in lowercase.

These relationships don’t always involve sexual submission, says Little.

Sometimes they’re just service-based, including acts like giving a massage or manicure or doing chores around the house and acting as a butler.

While, usually, this implies that the pair live together, this isn’t always the case. Neither is it always true that they’re primary partners!

Likely you’ve heard the trope of the workplace “Power Boss” who, after making very important decisions all day long, longs to enter the bedroom (or dungeon) and have someone else take complete control.

“While decision-reprieve is certainly one reason some folks enjoy being submissive, it’s far from the only reason,” says Dominatrix and sex educator Lola Jean.

Some are turned on by the sheer fact of how taboo or ‘wrong’ the play they’re doing is considered in society, Jean says.

Others find satisfaction in serving another individual — in a way that isn’t much different than those who show their romantic partners that they love them through acts of service.

“Some people experience the act of submitting as spiritual or healing,” says Little. “Others simply enjoy it as an adventure and fun experience of physicality and sensation.”

The types of physical sensations we enjoy change — as we age, as our hormones change, as our comfort levels with our partners, playmates, and selves evolve.

If you’re finding yourself interested in submission for the first time, know this is completely normal.

So how do you know if it’s something you want to try?

“Think about how you want to feel,” says Jean. “Think about what arouses you. Think about what turns you on.”

Jean adds: “You can begin to build your kink persona through feelings, rather than actions.

“I also like to ask individuals what their main insecurities and hangups are, as those tend to drive out kinks — either validating or invalidating them via kink [play].”

“An awesome way to establish what you’re into and not into is a Yes/No/Maybe list,” says Little.

A Yes/No/Maybe list is a physical list (mental lists won’t do!) of:

  • things you definitely want to do or try sexually (the “yes” column)
  • things you might want to try with more research and under the right circumstances (the “maybe” column)
  • things that are outside of your comfort zone or triggering to you (the “no” column)

These Yes/No/Maybe inventory lists from Scarleteen and BexTalksSex are both good places to start.

If you’re currently partnered, you and your partner(s) should make one individually and then make one together.

If you’re single, make one on your own. Then, refer back to it the next time you and a sexual partner are communicating your interests and negotiating what’s on or off-limits during a scene.

If you remember one thing from this article, make it this: All play — kinky or otherwise! — must be consensual and pre-negotiated ahead of time.

What are safe words/signals and why are they important?

A safe word is something either partner can use to signal when a mental, physical, or emotional boundary is approaching or has been crossed.

“‘Yellow’ and ‘red’ are standard safe words for anyone engaging in kink professionally,” says Daniel Saynt, founder and chief conspirator of NSFW, a private members club for sex and cannabis-positive millennials.

“Use your yellows when you want the action to slow down or your partner is nearing your pain/humiliation climax,” says Saynt.

“Use reds when you want the action to pause and you need a little aftercare or hydration.”

Can your safe word simply be “stop”? It certainly can!

But for individuals who are in a (again, pre-negotiated) scene based around the Dominant doing something to the sub that the sub “doesn’t want,” the word “stop” may be part of the sub’s “performance.”

In this case, a word like “giraffe” or “eggplant” or something completely unrelated will work better.

Jean also recommends establishing nonverbal cues that’ll halt the scene.

“[Physical] codes are extremely important, because someone may go mute and have a hard time speaking up when they get into a certain physical, mental, or emotional state.”

Here, something like pinching someone’s leg or squeezing someone’s hand for 3-plus seconds may feel like an easier way to advocate for yourself.

Important note: “Safe words and nonverbal cues don’t replace ongoing communication in a scene,” says Saynt.

If you love something, say something. If you aren’t loving something, say something.

“Speak up and make your moans count,” adds Saynt.

How often should you revisit your Yes/No/Maybe lists?

Because every scene should be negotiated ahead of time, you can update and revisit your lists every time you play.

What if I want to try something and my partner doesn’t? Or vice versa?

Even if you and your partner are “The Most Sexually Compatible Couple in the World,” chances are, there’ll be one or two things one of you wants to try that the other doesn’t. That’s OK!

Your desires being different doesn’t mean that one of you is wrong or bad, and the other is right or good.

But, enthusiastic consent from both (BOTH!) parties is a M-U-S-T.

If you’re the one who wants to try something that the other doesn’t, the following steps can help you and your partner talk about it.

Ideally, when you’re fully clothed.

Share the fantasy

Yes, this is vulnerable, but in order for your partner to understand what you want to try, you need to tell them!

Then, dive deeper

Let’s say you want to be pegged while being tied to the bed. What is it exactly about this fantasy that turns you on?

Is it that you want to feel powerless? Is it that you enjoy anal stimulation and therefore think you’ll enjoy this?

Is it that you want to see your partner with a strap-on? Is it that you want to feel dominated?

The answers to these questions will give you clues on other ways you and your partner may invoke the fantasy, without either of you having to step outside your comfort zone.

Affirm your partner’s boundaries

You never want your partner to feel like you’re trying to convince or coerce them into trying something.

Then, ask them questions

Or, ask them to ask themselves some questions about why they’re not interested.

Are they nervous about possible gender dysphoria when wearing a strap-on? Are they worried about hurting you or not being “good” at pegging?

Does it invoke triggering memories of a past experience? Do they have concerns around anal play, generally speaking?

See if you can find a middle ground

Is your partner not wanting to try your fantasy a dealbreaker for you? Well, you have your answer. Otherwise, try to find a middle ground.

Here, that might look like:

  • wearing a butt plug
  • exploring anal masturbation on your own
  • penetrating yourself with a dildo while your partner uses a vibrator
  • having your partner spank you while you’re tied down

Seek additional resources

If you want to explore BDSM and your partner doesn’t (or vice versa), you may seek out a kink-positive sex therapist.

Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt’s “When Someone You Love Is Kinky” is also an excellent resource.

If, for example, you’re a heterosexual woman, someone being a heterosexual man doesn’t automatically make them a good partner for you.

Well, the same goes for submissives and Dominants. Not every Dominant is a Dominant you want to get down with!

Beyond the classic “got a bad gut feeling” and “we just don’t vibe,” there are some real reasons to get out of dodge (er, dungeon) quick.

“If someone is very demanding and uses language like you have to act this way, says things like ‘a real Dom/sub does or doesn’t do this,’ or is shaming/pressuring you into moving too fast or doing something you’re uncomfortable with, it’s a good idea to walk away,” says Jean.

Other red flags:

  • They insist on playing without a safe word.
  • They rush a consent or restriction/boundary conversation.
  • They humiliate, belittle, or undermine you outside of play space.
  • They speak with shame about their own desires or shame you for yours.
  • They disregard the pre-established safer-sex protocols or won’t have a conversation about them.
  • Other members of the BDSM community can’t “vouch” for them as a Dominant.
  • They have a substance-use disorder or insist on getting high or drunk before a scene.

Saynt adds: “If you already have a partner who’s disrespected you in the past, this isn’t the best person to explore submission with.”

According to Paige, before you and your partner start a scene, you should establish or talk about the following:

  • boundaries, including soft and hard limits
  • verbal and nonverbal safe words and cues
  • any physical limitations, injuries, or relevant allergies
  • what you’d like to get out of the scene
  • what your aftercare needs are/might be

“You should also prepare yourself on your own through a solo ritual,” says Little. “That can include affirmations, wearing something sexy, masturbating, bathing, etc.”

“There are many different ways sexual submission can look,” says Saynt. For example:

  • Do you want to be hit or choked?
  • Do you want to be spit on?
  • Do you want to be humiliated?
  • Do you want to be called derogatory things?
  • Do you want to be tied up and blindfolded?
  • Do you want to be treated like a princess, a brat, or a slut, to name a few possibilities?

While most people begin exploring BDSM through (hopefully pleasurable) pain, Jean calls out that there are other ways to explore new sensations.

“You might apply a blindfold to your partner, possibly restrain them, and then use feathers, metal, ice, fabric, or fur to explore their entire body.”

You might also think about whether there are particular ‘real world’ power-based roles, such as teacher/student, cop/robber, or pirate/captive, that turn you on, says Paige.

You can use these as inspiration for kinky role-playing.

Another option: Watch some kinky porn.

“[This] can be helpful for figuring out what you want to try, so long as you understand that porn isn’t educational, just inspirational,” says Paige.

Or, read some kinky erotica on sites like SugarButch Chronicles, Bellesa, Remittance Girl, and BDSM Cafe.

“After a particularly long or physically, mentally, or emotionally draining scene, you may experience a chemical and hormonal crash, a low, or a comedown after a play,” explains Paige. “Sometimes this is called sub-drop or top-drop.”

Aftercare — sometimes called pillow talk, postgame analysis, post-sex play, or cuddles — refers to the time after sex or a scene when everyone involved takes care of, or expresses appreciation for, each other.

“It might involve talking or showering together,” says Paige. “It might involve smoking a blunt or eating. It might involve cuddling or a really long hug.”

Once more for the people in the back! All play should be safe, sane, mostly sober, and consensual.

Research the activity before you do it

“When it comes to BDSM, education is everything,” says Paige. “Take time to figure out what you want and how to make it happen.”

That may be using classic research tools like guides and books, but “research may also include going to kink parties or events, hiring a Dominatrix or sex worker to teach you, or talking to folks in the kink community.”

Have a kit with essentials nearby

There’s a saying in kink that goes: Plan for the worst, expect the best.

Because things like rope bondage, knife play, impact play, and more can break skin, cause bruising, or result in rope burn, you should have a first aid kit nearby just in case.

Little adds: “Shopping for kit goodies together could be an intimate part of the experience.”

Safe words/signals can and should be used freely

“When you’re first starting to explore submission, be forgiving, and be fine with f*cking up… but reduce f*cking up unnecessarily,” says Paige.

One way to do that, she says, is by using safe words like “yellow” or “red” or pain scales like “1 to 10.”

Submission can be taken back at any time

Consent! must! be! enthusiastic! and! ongoing! The second it’s revoked, the scene is over.

At just under 3,000 words, this article is far from being comprehensive. Luckily, there are lots of book-length guides including:

You can also check out the following online communities and resources:


Gabrielle Kassel is a New York–based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.