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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

SSIS Question Sex-tion: safe, sane, and sensual sadomasochism

Published: April 27, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

Q: My roommate recently told me that she and her boyfriend practice SM. Some of the things she told me about are pretty weird and they sound dangerous. Is it okay for her to do that stuff?
-Scared Silly

A: SM is an umbrella term for a broad range of erotic play behaviors. It is known for BDSM and more extreme types of play. BDSM stands for three different things: Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sado-Masochism. Some better-known types of play included in BDSM are bondage and flogging.

But SM actually includes a number of activities that are pretty routine in erotic play, such as blindfolding, dressing up, or even tickling. Not all of these activities are sexual. For example, a person might enjoy being flogged just for the physical sensation the same way another person enjoys exercise or a massage. Of course, many times SM play is sexual, and allows people to explore their sexual fantasies through role-playing.

The common factor between all types of SM is that they are completely consensual. Today we use SM instead of S&M since the separation of the terms implies that someone is only sadist or only masochist, and disregards the fact that one cannot be sadist without another being masochistic in a mutually consensual agreement. Before any type of SM play, the participants (usually a top, or dominant person, and a bottom or submissive person) discuss comfort levels and negotiate limits. The bottom is actually the one calling the shots in a SM scene, because it is up to them to decide what their partner can and cant do to them. A top must stay within the pre-arranged parameters in order for the scene to remain consensual.

But even when a top does stay within those parameters, a scene can sometimes become overwhelming or scary. For this reason, “safewords” are an essential part of SM play. A safeword is a word completely unrelated to sex (like window treatment, or just safeword) that is agreed upon by both partners. If either partner feels uncomfortable at any point during the roleplay, or scene, they can say the pre-negotiated safeword and the scene will stop. This is a much better idea than using the word Stop! because that might be something the partners want to say and hear during their scene.

It is easy to buy into the stigma that surrounds SM, mainly that its kinky, deviant, or freaky. Many people envision dark dungeons, chains and whips, or perhaps even sharp metal objects and ball-gags. While this stuff certainly does go on in SM communities, bedrooms, and dungeons, it is important to realize that SM is often quite tame. In fact, you may have already participated in SM without knowing it.

A very real and legitimate part of SM involves sensations, which can sometimes be as light as the tickle of a feather. Not all SM involves pain. Have you ever experimented with feathers, or ice cubes? What about fingernails? What about handcuffs you bought at a dollar store, or perhaps fuzzy novelty ones? Have you ever tied a wrist to a bedpost? Have you ever held someones hands down? Has anyone ever restrained you? Even simple things like this fall under the category of SM.

The other thing that is important to realize is that SM often has nothing to do with sex. In many advanced, dont try this at home types of SM scenes, sex does not take place. The thrill is about power play. Its the high-powered corporate executive who just wants someone else to make the decisions for a change, or maybe the underpaid intern whod like a chance to order other people around.

Its not always acceptable to tell your roommate what to do, or to make someone force you to do things, so for many people, SM is the best way to act out those fantasies. And the rest is just creativity. Have you ever fantasized about being punished by a police officer? How about a sexy teacher, or a nurse? These sexual fantasies are also about power play, and easily fit under the umbrella of SM.

Someday, those cute, pink, furry handcuffs might not do it for you anymore. You might find yourself looking into leather restraints. I mean, what did you think was underneath the fur anyway? Its all part of the same animal. As long as its safe and consensual, SM is a great way to enhance your sex life, so dont let the stigma stop you.

If you are interested in SM play, check out some the resources we have at SSIS, including books, safety guidelines, and consent checklists.