People who participate in BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism) enjoy playing with consensual power dynamics where one person has power and control over another. Such exchanges occur in carefully choreographed encounters called “scenes.” As with any type of sexual play, power exchange exists on a spectrum: Some enjoy more intense play, with more involved equipment, toys, and gear, BDSM punishments, hard-line defined roles, and even BDSM contracts. Others might enjoy gentler play every once in a while for some fun sexual exploration, using beginner gear like furry handcuffs, and involving light impact play or dirty talk. Some participants limit power exchange to a BDSM scene or a sexual role play, while others live these dynamics 24/7 and hand over complete control to their partner. Understanding what’s involved in power exchange, and the different ways you can experience these sexual dynamics is an important first step before trying it out.
Roles in power exchange
The person with power in a BDSM scene is called by various names: dominant, dom, domme (feminine), master, mistress, or top, while the powerless participant is a submissive, sub, slave, or bottom. Some people enjoy being “switches” and alternating between the role of dom and sub. Not all power exchanges involve a sexual component as they can be acted out in everyday scenarios. For example, a sub might enjoy cleaning their dom’s house while being humiliated for not doing a good enough job. This scenario may or may not involve a sexual reward or punishment in the process.
3 Types of Power Exchange
There are three main types of power exchange and each exists on a spectrum.
- Bondage and Discipline is an exchange of control
- Dominance and submission is an exchange of authority
- while Sadism and Masochism is an exchange of sensation
Stefani Goerlich, award-winning author of The Leather Couch: Clinical Practice with Kinky Clients, says, “Every individual and every partnership will negotiate their own specialized blend of these three that feels best for them- physically, emotionally, and relationally.”
1. Bondage and Discipline or B/D
This is an exchange of control between participants. Bondage involves restraining your partner in some way. According to Mistress Couple in The Ultimate Guide to Bondage, the control can be mental or physical. For example, you could tie your partner up, or require them to hold certain positions for a given length of time.
- Bondage: When most of us think of bondage, we think of physical restraints. There are many methods and devices to bind your partner: they can be handcuffed to a bed or bound to a stationary object like a staircase. You can place a spreader bar on your partner, bind their arms together, or put them in a straight jacket. Blindfolds and gags can be used to take away their ability to see or speak. Some people immobilize their partners by wrapping them in layers of cloth or plastic wrap — a practice referred to as mummification.
- Discipline: This is used for both punishment and training. Discipline often occurs during bondage, but it can also occur whether the bottom is bound or not. Discipline can mean pain and impact play (e.g., spanking or whipping), but it can also mean withholding a reward (as in orgasm denial). As with bondage, discipline can be performed in a lighter, gentler way or it can happen in more extreme forms.
Why some people enjoy B/D
For the bottom, the experience of being bound and disciplined creates a feeling of vulnerability that can be very arousing. The top may feel turned on by holding power and having a partner at their mercy. According to Mistress Couple, restraint can also be very soothing for some.
2. Dominance and Submission or D/s
D/s relationships are based on a hierarchy where the submissive obeys the dominant’s authority and commands, which are arbitrary and mutually agreed upon by the participants. A submissive may be ordered to give their master a blow job, walk a foot behind them, wash their partner’s clothes, or call them master or mistress.
Many people limit D/s to scenes, but some practice total power exchange (TPE), where the D/s relationship is continued 24/7. This power exchange is consensual with agreed-upon terms and conditions. The Dom typically controls significant areas of the sub's life, like picking out their clothes, telling them what to eat, how to spend their money, etc. These types of relationships can take many forms, like Daddy’s little girl (DD/lg) or Master/slave.
- Dominant: The dominant leads, directs and takes responsibility for the scene. And in a 24/7 relationship, they are in charge of their submissive. Some people may practice this role professionally as a Dom or Dominatrix and charge subs for their services. A dominant may consensually administer pain or humiliation to their partner, according to what has been agreed upon by the participants. During a scene, a Dom will check to see how their sub is doing and will respect their established limits.
- Submissive: The submissive follows the directions of their dominant and services their partner in a variety of ways. Some make themselves available at all times sexually, while others do their partner’s bidding outside the bedroom as well. During a scene, the sub has more control than might be assumed at first glance since they are the boundary-setters of a scene.
Why some people enjoy D/s
For submissive people, it can feel freeing to hand control over to someone else. Many tops enjoy having power over a partner. Goerlich tells O.school that people participate in kinky play for numerous reasons. “Some enjoy the occasional kinky scene because it's novel and adds variety to their otherwise "vanilla" sex life. For them, BDSM is sexual. Others structure their entire relationship dynamic to be an exchange of power, both in and out of the bedroom. For these folks? BDSM is relational”
3. Sadomasochism or S/M
S/M (sadomasochism) is an exchange of sensations involving the giving and receiving of pain. A sadist inflicts pain, while a masochist happily receives it. Pain is created in a variety of ways during BDSM play: flogging, wax play, cock and ball torture, and nipple clamps are just some of the methods that have been used to torture disobedient masochists.
- Sadism: Named after the notorious Marquis de Sade, the French nobleman imprisoned for sexual infamy, sadism is the enjoyment of inflicting pain on another person. The pain can be either mental or physical. During kinky play, a sadist enjoys beating, berating, or whipping their partner.
- Masochism: Named after the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, masochists enjoy receiving pain such as being spanked, humiliated, or even branded during a scene. Sadism and masochism isn’t always sexual in nature, but much of the time it does contains a sexual component.
Why some people enjoy S/M
Some studies have found that BDSM is associated with altered states of consciousness. Dominance and submission require intense focus, and both are associated with "flow" states (experiences of mental absorption in an activity). Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has done extensive research on masochism and believes that one of its key benefits is that it allows a masochist to let go of the need to be a responsible adult. According to Baumeister, “Masochism is a set of techniques for escaping from self-awareness, that is, for temporarily putting the individual into a state in which his or her normal identity is forgotten.”
How to engage in meaningful, safe and sexy power exchange
BDSM can be intense and there are potential risks involved. There is a lot of focus in the kink world on reducing the risks to make this kind of play safe, sane, and consensual. Here are some of the things you can do to ensure you have a safe, positive experience.
1. Establish consent. BDSM and kink play requires a great amount of boundary-setting, negotiation, established consent, and safe words. Playing sober is recommended so your faculties aren’t compromised, and you can stay in tune with your partner’s verbal and nonverbal cues.
2. Create a BDSM contract. One of the most common ways to enhance safety is to create a contract with your partner. Contracts provide information on mutual expectations and are used to guide the participants during a scene. Contracts can be especially important if you plan to incorporate power exchange in your everyday life. Typical topics to include in a contract are:
- The length of the BDSM relationship
- Participant responsibilities and rights
- Sub veto power
- How to end play
- Soft limits/hard limits
- Safe words
3. Do your research. Beyond having established consent and boundaries, BDSM isn’t something you do on the fly. It takes a lot of planning to play safely with power and pain, toys, and gears. Be prepared before play by buying the right equipment, and knowing how to safely use it with a partner. It’s also important to understand how to care for any wounds that may occur and to know the signs when extra care, or even a hospital visit, might be needed. If you’re new to this type of play, look through a number of resources for kink and BDSM beginners first.
4. Check-in and communicate before, during, and after a scene
Boundaries may change over time, or even in the middle of the scene, so it’s important partners check in with each other continuously. For some people, verbal check-ins might taint the authenticity of the scene. It’s still important to establish beforehand how you and partner(s) will communicate whether a boundary is being approached or crossed.
5. Aftercare. After completing a scene, practice some BDSM aftercare activities to re-balance the power dynamic. Aftercare can involve tending to any physical wounds that may have occurred during play, or emotionally comforting a partner with words of affirmation and love and/or cuddles.
The bottom line
Power exchange can be an exciting form of BDSM play. It can be limited to scenes or carried into the participant’s day to day world. There are many reasons why people engage in power play and many variations of this dynamic. It isn’t always sexual and doesn’t have to be painful, rough or extreme. You can do kink your way. It’s not a one size fits all kind of thing. However, whatever you decide to do, you need to research thoroughly and plan with your partner about how you will handle the risks involved. Have fun and always play safe.