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 Dear Sexpert,

I am thinking of trying out BDSM with my partner for the first time, but I am really curious about maintaining agency and empowerment when it comes to submissive roles in BDSM relationships. Will being in a submissive role negate my equal standing with my partner outside of the relationship? How should I engage in something like that without fear of being degraded by my partner?

~ Curious Sub

Dear Curious Sub,

It is great that you are thinking of exploring your sexual interests and your comfort zone with your partner. It is reasonable (and smart!) to consider these questions before engaging in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Domination, Submission, Sadism and Masochism), as these practices are only fun and sexy when they are safe for all partners. With enough prior research and a clear line of communication established between you and your partner, you should be able to enjoy BDSM without the fear that your relationship will become unbalanced or unhealthy.

First, wanting to be in a submissive role during a sexual encounter does not imply that a similar dynamic will be extended to your relationship. In fact, a crucial aspect of BDSM is that all partners need to acknowledge that the power dynamic during the session/scene is limited to those circumstances, or else fun can easily morph into abuse. To maintain an equal, mutually-respectful relationship outside of the session, you can begin with building a healthy relationship during the BDSM sessions themselves. Here are some tips that may be helpful:

1) Set limits: To prevent any BDSM session from going too far (i.e., beyond your limits or challenging feelings of safety), you should set both soft and hard limits on the types of activities you are willing to engage in. Soft limits are limits that may be flexible, depending on the mood and experience you have with the activity, while hard limits are absolute boundaries by which both you and your partner should abide. 

2) Use safe words: To let your partner know that you continue to have agency even during submissive scenarios, use safe words (words not typically spoken in the bedroom) to immediately stop the scene. For example, you can use the traffic light system, where saying red indicates “stop,” yellow indicates “slow down,” and green indicates your continual enthusiasm. 

3) Check in: To ensure that you and your partner are comfortable throughout the BDSM session, checking in with each other — asking them if they feel okay and would like to continue — is important. It will remind your partner that you two are having a fun experience but care about each other’s well-beings, even during a scenario where the power dynamic is drastically different. 

4) Practice aftercare: After each BDSM session, you and your partner should care for each other both physically and emotionally and debrief what you each enjoyed and disliked. Physical intimacy, such as giving each other massages or cuddling, can help to remind you and your partner that you are resuming your identities as equal partners. 

In short, safety, consent, and limiting the dominant/submissive dynamic to sex sessions are critical aspects of good BDSM practice. Therefore, you and your partner should be cautious about being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, since substance use can affect your inhibition and render either of you unable to give consent (or unable to accurately assess affirmative consent from your partner). 

With clear communication, boundary-setting, and care for each other, you and your partner should be able to maintain a healthy, respectful relationship without fear of degradation of any partner’s dignity. If your partner does show signs of abuse in carrying over BDSM dynamics into your day-to-day relationship, you may want to have a serious discussion with them about whether you two can continue the practice. You can also consider talking with an advocate from the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education office about any concerns you have about power dynamics.

~ The Sexpert

Information retrieved from Submissive Guide, Go Ask Alice, and GoodTherapy.org.

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