It goes beyond Fifty Shades of Grey.

By Ashley Mateo
March 14, 2019

S&M practically become a household term after Christian Grey’s kinks hit the big screen a few years ago in Fifty Shades of Grey. But if what you know about S&M is limited to what happened in his red room of pain, then you need a reeducation.

What is S&M, exactly?

Let’s start with the basics: S&M means sadism and masochism. “Literally translated, those terms mean taking pleasure in inflicting pain and taking pleasure in experiencing pain,” Michele Lisenbury Christensen, a certified sex coach based in Seattle, tells Health.

S&M is part of the broader term BDSM: bondage, dominance/submission or discipline, sadism, and masochism. “Bondage and dominance/submission are part of the psychological play of S&M,” Mayla Green, sex expert for TheAdultToyShop.com, tells Health. “For effective role playing in S&M, one partner assumes the role of the dominant, the other takes the role of the submissive. They are very closely tied." (No pun intended, honestly.)

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Just to be clear, S&M is not about harming your partner. While it’s sometimes thought of as dirty, disrespectful, or depraved, people who enjoy violent or painful S&M are actually in the minority, says Green. “And I'm not an advocate of this forceful play, because it can be dangerous. The last thing you want to do is visit to the emergency room because sex got too rough!”

Instead, “BDSM is really all about play, and like any other form of play, the fun is in improvising together and in sharing the power, quite deliberately, with your own full consent,” says Christensen. There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of BDSM; restraining your hands with your husband’s tie might be enough for you, while someone else might before getting flogged with a leather riding crop. And that’s OK. Experimenting with even a little S&M play in your sex life can help you get kinky without leaving a mark or feeling a sting.

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Why you should try S&M

If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking that your formerly smoking sex life is now a little lukewarm, you might be open to choices that seem a little kinkier. “Studies show that novelty is part of what drives turn­-on,” says Christensen. “So when we can introduce a little bit of the unexpected ­within safe boundaries, we can rekindle some of that lost passion.”

Consensual S&M can also be very healthy. ”A healthy sex life means you're willing to try new things and experiment together, and S&M play is certainly in the realm of new ideas that couples often try,” says Green. “You may not like it, or you may think it's highly erotic, but at least you've crossed something off your sexual bucket list."

S&M has physical and emotional benefits, too. “S&M can increase arousal, leading to more orgasms,” says Christensen. “It can motivate us to have more sex or more active sex, which can be good exercise; it can increase our heart rate, alertness, and energy levels throughout the day, in anticipation of something more exciting to come; and it can improve the quality of communication and intimacy between partners.”

Science even backs this up. S&M could reduce psychological stress and its negative effects, researchers at Northern Illinois University found—apparently, it can put your brain in a flow state, where it’s at its most productive and creative.

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How to get started

S&M isn’t all whips and flogging. If you think back to Fifty Shades, there were plenty of other instances of S&M, like when Christian licked ice cream off Anastasia, spanked her, and blindfolded her.

“Some elements of S&M can be quite intense for newbies, so my best suggestion for first-timers is to practice sensory deprivation,” says Green. “The concept is that when we remove one of the senses, the others are heightened to make up for the lost one.”

This is as easy as blindfolding one partner, then having the other tickle, touch, and tease them with, say, a feather; you can contrast that light touch with nibbles using teeth or a firm kiss. “The anticipation builds because one partner doesn't know what part of the body the other partner will target next,” says Green. Plus, the act of dominance and control over the submissive (the blindfolded partner) is a key element to S&M play.

Once you’re comfortable with a blindfold, you can try other S&M elements like tying one partner’s wrists or ankles, playing servant/master games, spanking, pinching, scratching, and asking permission to use whips or paddles.

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S&M guidelines to keep in mind

With S&M, consent is everything. “Anything can be fun and pleasurable if it’s been agreed to,” says Christensen. “Being called terrible names, spanked, and made to scrub the floor might be exactly what you (or your partner) signed on for. If so, the experience can be a turn-­on and a lot of fun.” But once the play has ended, you return to your more customary roles and ways of treating one another.

You should also always have a safe word to ensure consent—and agree that consent be revoked at any time. “Every couple should have safe word, in case something is happening that makes you feel too uncomfortable,” says Green. “Your safe word is a code that tells your partner to stop what they're doing.” Choose a word that would never come up otherwise so there can be no mistaking your intention. If something hurts or feels unsafe, you can say your safe word and the play ends there.

But be willing to explore your edges, says Christensen. “Time and again, I see people find pleasure in things they didn't know they’d be into,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you need to do anything that feels bad to even think about, but it means we can go places that feel like ‘not me’ and find new facets of ourselves." Start with activities you both very much agree will be fun, no matter how small and tame, and then go from there.

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