What Is S&M? A Guide for Beginners

S&M stands for sadism and masochism or sadomasochism and is part of a broader kink term BDSM. Here’s what you need to know for fun and safe play.

If you’re curious about how to dial up erotic play in the bedroom but aren’t sure if and how BDSM is right for you, fear not. There are many ways to explore BDSM, and S&M is just one of the ways to start.

S&M, which stands for sadism and masochism, or sadomasochism altogether, is part of the broader bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM) term. All of these sexual activities and behaviors involve some type of power exchange between partners and may use pain to generate sexual pleasure. 

S&M is a form of sexual expression – often called kink – that can involve physical and psychological role-play with an exchange of power between you and your partner(s).

People usually enjoy S&M if they get pleasure from giving up or taking control and consensually giving or receiving pain. A core component of all of these kinks is consent between partners.

Sadism is a type of kink where someone gets sexual pleasure from inflicting pain on another person. 

Masochism, on the other hand, is a type of kink where someone gets sexual pleasure from receiving pain. 

Sadomasochism is the term used for those who get sexual pleasure from both giving and receiving pain.

BDSM is a broader term to represent sexual kinks such as bondage and discipline (BD), domination and submission (DS), and sadomasochism (SM). 

Why People Practice S&M

You may want to practice S&M because you're curious or looking to expand your sex life and experience some new feelings and sensations with your partner(s).

S&M requires a lot of communication and, depending on the activity, a great deal of trust or vulnerability. Exploring these kinks can lead to getting to know your partner(s) on a deeper level. Couples in long-term relationships might try S&M to mix up a routine and learn new things about each other's sexual desires.

"These practices can not only lead to an increase in pleasure but also an increase in intimacy and connection, and potentially a new shared interest," Courtney R. Padjen, Ph.D., LAMFT, owner, director, and sex and relationship therapist at Centre for Sexual Wellness told Health.

Why S&M Might Feel Good

There might also be a biological reason why S&M activities can be pleasurable. The pain and pleasure centers in our brains are very close and can release similar chemicals, such as dopamine, that can lead to a pleasurable response to pain.

During S&M, people can experience something referred to as subspace. According to Padjen, some describe subspace as feeling as though you are in a transcendental euphoria that can last a few minutes to several hours. 

Some studies support the idea that BDSM can be considered an alternative form of leisure that helps people feel empowered and achieve a state of personal freedom and relaxation.

How Can You Explore S&M?

If you've never tried S&M before, you may not be familiar with some of the terms or the safety protocols that come with using props and toys.

For example, "regular handcuffs are designed to damage the wrists if you struggle, and leather cuffs with buckles won't do that," Rebecca Blanton, a sex educator and co-host of the Fat Chicks on Top podcast, told Health.

Sharing your interest and inviting your partner to learn with you can help get things started. There are online classes you can take, or you can try visiting an adult store to ask questions and see some props and toys up close. 

Once you've learned more about practicing S&M, have a conversation with your partner about what you'd like to try. Consent is key, so make sure you're both clear on what's okay, what's not, and how you'll communicate if someone wants to stop.

Rachel Sommer, PhD, a clinical sexologist, recommends starting with less extreme elements, like sensory deprivation and sensation play, when you're new to S&M. Sensory deprivation means taking away one of the senses, like blindfolding your partner, so they have to focus on other senses, like touch or smell.

"Starting with blindfolds and then using a feather or your teeth to stimulate or tickle your partner helps build the anticipation for your next move," Sommer told Health.

Some other elements of S&M Sommer recommends for beginners include impact play, such as spanking, whipping, and pinching.

How Can You Keep S&M Safe?

S&M is meant to be safe when done right. Communication and consent are the cornerstones to practicing S&M safely. Two mantras are commonly used in the kink community: Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK) and Safe, Sane, and Consensual (SSC). Informed consent means everyone involved understands what they're agreeing to and any potential risks.

Before you start anything, you and your play partner(s) should have a full discussion about what you want to do, what might be okay in certain situations, and what is totally out of the question. These are boundaries that you both will agree to respect.

Some partners may write this down or have a contract of sorts, but these agreements aren't legally binding.

If someone ignores your boundaries and doesn't stop when asked, that's nonconsensual and can be classified as sexual assault.

It's also okay to ask to stop during S&M play if you don't like something. According to Blanton, the most common method to communicate while in the act is the Stoplight Method. 

"Green means you are great; keep going. Yellow means slow down or change up what you are doing. Red means stop what you are doing immediately," said Blanton.. You can communicate this verbally, or choose hand signals to correspond to each color if you're gagged or can't speak.

You may also want to choose a safe word to stop the play if needed. You should pick a word that isn’t sex-related and wouldn’t come up during play. 

Fantasies may not always be the same as the reality of play. "Things feel different when you actually do them. You may have unanticipated emotional or physical reactions to certain activities," Blanton said. 

Stop what you're doing if it doesn't feel right, and have a conversation with your partner about what went right and what went wrong.

A Quick Review

S&M is a form of sexual expression that involves a power exchange, usually with one partner giving pain and the other receiving it. It can be a great way to deepen your connection with your partner and explore new sexual interests and sensations. 

Remember that communication and consent are essential to keep the experience safe and pleasurable, so talk with your partner first. Discussing what excites you and what you'd like to try can be a fun way to bond and explore the world of kink.

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4 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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