The ‘SM’ in BDSM: Why Are People Into Sadomasochism?

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If I had to speculate – I’d guess the main reason you clicked on this blog post was that you were wondering why the hell anyone would get off on getting the sh*t kicked out of them (or kicking the sh*t out of someone). Or, maybe you’re wondering if your secret desire to receive or give pain is weird and makes you a pervert. Either way, here’s what you need to know about sadomasochism and sexual desire.

The mainstream me

Media is awash with representations of BDSM – from Bonding, to Sex Lives, to Secretary to Fifty Shades, it’s basically everywhere. With all of this (sometimes good, sometimes bad) theatrical kink out there, understanding where bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism aligns with consent, safety, and IRL practice can be a bit muddled.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in pain play.

Why would someone willingly be flogged? Why would someone enjoy smacking someone with a cane until they scream? How can you want to be spanked, or whipped, or punished? How does the person inflicting all this pain feel? How do you say yes or no?

What is the deal with SM sex?

Distilling the ‘SM’ out of BDSM’

What becomes particularly hazy, misconstrued, and downright incorrect is the way people think of the “SM” in BDSM. I’m talking about sadomasochism: The giving and receiving of pain from which one derives sexual pleasure.

Kenneth Play, an International Educator and Sex Hacker, and Creator of the Sex Hacker Pro Series tells me that the sadomasochistic element in BDSM is different than the bondage, domination, and submission parts – although it is part of the same group (hence the umbrella term ‘BDSM’ in the first place). “While it might seem intuitive that the person who is dominant would be the one inflicting pain (sadism) and the submissive would be the one receiving it (masochism), this dynamic can actually be inverted. For instance, the dominant person can tell the submissive person exactly how they would like for them to inflict pain, effectively ‘topping from the bottom’ as is the saying in BDSM communities,” he says. “Bondage is a separate act from the above four, which involves restraining and being restrained in various ways.”

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Why people love SM sex

There are, like all things sexually related, a ton of reasons why someone may be into the things they’re into. Our sexual desires are a makeup of biological, social, and psychological factors that are rooted in our past and present life circumstances and experiences.

“Human beings enjoy a vast array of genres of movies and video games. We can derive pleasure from watching the most gruesome of scenes in a horror movie and find enjoyment from the most terrifying of psychological thrillers. Kink is a form of entertainment and enjoyment, a genre if you will, that some people enjoy. Good kink allows us a space to play pretend and live out our fantasies,” Play explains. “So, instead of watching those characters on the big screen, we live it out and feel it in our own bodies.”

In sum: People love SM sex because it’s super fun for them. People like what they like and that’s a part of being a human being.

Not taken lightly: To have SM sex, you first need trust and consent

SM (and all BDSM) play should only be tried with someone with whom you’ve developed a trusting relationship. When it comes to the sadomasochistic, skill is extremely crucial. Scenes should be discussed thoroughly beforehand, and between partners who know what they are doing — You should not be smacking someone with a switch if you don’t know what you’re doing.

If you want to use a crop on your partner, you must have a thorough understanding of the boundaries. You have to ask if your partner is fine with it. Pain play is not about harming the other person in a way that they don’t enjoy. Everyone needs to be completely on board.

This also means not engaging in SM sex in order to simply please or placate another person. You should only engage in a sexual act if you feel comfortable doing it. In fact, you should only engage in a sexual act if you’re SUPER into it. If it’s isn’t a ‘HELL YES,’ it’s a ‘No.’


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Educate yourself

“Educate yourself on consent and negotiation practices. The BDSM culture has an extensive [list of] different protocols for people to engage in this type of activity. With high risk comes high responsibility,” Plays says.

Go to a workshop – or take a few online. Research the tools you want to use and where to buy them. Becoming literate in human anatomy, SM safety, and gaining a solid understanding of how to engage in this play safely is hugely important. If you just go forth and try to figure it out, you might wind up hurting yourself or your partner in a way that lands you in ER or in therapy. That is not the goal of SM play.

SM sex is about mutual gratification wherein we use pain (or fear … or both) as a tool. Don’t get it twisted.

SM sex is accessible to anyone

SM sex may seem scary, but loads of people are into it. When we’re turned on, the part of our brain that registers fear lights up. They’re essentially the same biological reaction. That’s why people love roller coasters and scary movies. As Play pointed out above: Fear gets us going.

Trust me, if you’re into giving and receiving pain for sexual reasons, you’re far from alone.

Play says that one of the biggest misconceptions about SM sex is that people think it’s some dark and scary thing that only sickos want to engage in. That’s just not the case! SM is for everyone. If you’re willing to learn, you can play, too.

Gigi Engle is a Womanizer sexpert, certified sexologist, and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @GigiEngle.

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Gigi Engle is a sexologist, certified sex coach, and feminist author. She teaches about pleasure-based sex education, masturbation, and the magical wonders that are sex toys. Engle's work has appeared in many publications her articles have been shared over 50 million times. She also writes a popular advice column called Ask Gigi, and her first book, All The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life, debuts in January 2020. She has a degree in both English and Journalism from Fordham University College at Lincoln Center. Engle is an original member of The Women of Sex Tech and a certified member the World Association of Sex Coaches.