One of the most challenging things that a new kinkster faces is the question of how to bring up and explore kink with their partner. This topic is often poorly covered by both mainstream and BDSM communities for reasons later. Nonetheless, this topic deserves discussion and consideration since for many of us, it’s our first exposure to BDSM.
How the Mainstream Gets Us Wrong
For kinky people, BDSM is not an add-on to good sex; it’s a deep, connected part of our erotic experience- deeply meaningful and necessary for a healthy mental and spiritual state. Not having BDSM in our lives would be like swearing off sex- possible but generally not something we’d enter into by our choosing. And so we choose partners based partially on our kinks and the needs that we have which demand fulfillment.
Mainstream media publications don’t understand our needs as an alternative sexuality. Publications, often women’s magazines, cover BDSM as a way to “spice up your sex life”- an attitude that relegates BDSM not only to sex but to a sort of “dirty little secret of the bedroom”. This view dismisses asexuals or people who engage in BDSM with people other than their primary romantic/sexual partners. And for those of us (like myself) who want an Authority Based Relationship, such articles provide no model or structure for our needs or desires.
Worse still, many articles discuss bringing up or engaging in BDSM in covert ways, such as by surprising your partner with something, or trying an activity during sex and seeing how one’s partner reacts. At best this is poor communication, and at worse, this is advocating for non-consensual activity. In either case, it’s a bad idea.
So instead, I'm presenting a framework for thinking about one’s kinks, as well as bringing them up to your partner.
Thinking About Kink
For most of us, BDSM is something that exists in the back of our minds for years before we act on those impulses. It may manifest to us as explicit interests, born out in pornography or erotic literature, or it may be a vague, amorphous feeling of needing “more intensity”. For some of us, we know the desires we have and keep them on the surface, while for others the internalized shame of society prevents us from even labeling our desires for what they are. In any case, once we jump thinking about our fantasies to wanting to act on them, we have work to do, which is to understand and, as best as possible, accept ourselves.
What are kinks?
In the 1970s, the term “S&M” became a popular term, stemming from sadomasochism, which is the enjoyment of the inflicting or receiving pain. As time went on, S&M became associated with the leather aesthetic (and later, the Leather Lifestyle). In the 1990s, the term S&M was generally replaced with BDSM. In 2018 the term BDSM is still present, but many people are using kink to refer to BDSM, Leather and other non-normative erotic practices, including but not limited to Age Regression, Furry, and ADBL. Many of us prefer the term “kink” as it widens the umbrella and lacks the stigma that the term BDSM has attached to it.
Getting to Acceptance
Society teaches us that kink desires, especially those involving BDSM are wrong. For a man, being a dominant or a sadist conjures up images of being a bully or a misogynist, someone who uses force to take what they want without thought or consideration for others, someone you wouldn’t want around. A submissive or masochistic man may feel that his manhood or self-worth is tied into his ability to dominate others, and thus admitting submissive or masochistic desires is akin to saying that he is less than a person. While for some, the idea of being lesser is appealing, for others it may induce a profound sense of hurt and shame.
Women suffer as well, finding themselves at odds with their desires for submission or domination. A woman who has submissive desires may fear, or even repress them as they threaten her identification as strong and empowered. She may associate submission by choice with submission by force or coercion and see her feelings as shameful. Or she may feel dominant shame around her dominant side- equating it with being “bitchy” or mean in ways that are socially unacceptable for women to act, or even think.
For those who fall out of the traditional binary gender identification, kink may be deeply confusing. A transgender woman may connect with her desire for submission and masochism through identification with “sissy porn” or a transgender man may find their kinky fantasies at odds with their ideas around egalitarianism or even their identification as a feminist. For gender-non-binary or gender fluid individuals, there may be concerns or issues beyond those others as well.
Talking About Everything
Bringing up your kink to your partner can be very scary. When you admit your erotic interests are outside of the norm, you open yourself up to othering, disgust, and ridicule. You risk that your partner may not see you the same way again, or that they may be so disgusted by your interest that they will end the relationship altogether. Being rejected in this way can be painful, even traumatic. We’ll address ways to reduce the chances of this happening, but the first and most important step that you can take is to foster a relationship with excellent communication where each party can bring up both pleasant and unpleasant topics, and the other party hears, understands and is present for the other. I will link to resources on communication at the end of this post, but the fundamental idea is to be fully present for your partner, removing yourself and your ego from the discussion.
When your partner brings up a negative topic, it can be hard not to take it personally. That's especially true when the thing they feel hurt about is a result of your actions, but being fully present for your partner and letting yourself accept their hurt is vital to being able to have free, open and honest discussions about your life and your relationship, including sexuality.
Talking About Kink
Bringing this back from the theoretical to the practical- do you and your partner discuss sexuality and intimacy? Do you talk about the things you enjoy in the bedroom? Do you bring up things that they did in the past that worked for you, or things that you didn't enjoy? For example, maybe your partner said something that turned you on, and you’d like to experience again. Do you tell them that the next day? If they touched you in a way that you didn’t enjoy, can you bring it up in a way that’s honest, but doesn’t shame them? Are you both able to have those conversations while leaving your egos aside, or do the discussions end in an argument where everyone’s feelings are hurt?
There is no easy, foolproof way to talk about kink to your partner. Every method has risks associated with it, and there's no way to know with complete certainty how your significant other will react. I'm presenting three approaches that are solid, honest ways to bring up the issue of kink to your partner.
The Direct Approach
There are many ways to have “the talk,” and the most difficult but possibly most satisfying is the direct approach. The direct approach involves sitting your partner down and bearing your soul to them. Of the three suggestions for bringing up kink, this one is the most difficult- both because it’s hard to know where to start and because it’s so vulnerable. Despite or maybe because they are so raw and vulnerable if these conversations go well they can be intense and deeply connecting. Most everyone has some secret sexual fantasy that they want to share and hearing your partner open up to you about theirs can bring out topics that may have been hidden away in the back of one's psyche for years, waiting to come out.
My suggestions for having this conversation is that you focus as much as possible on the emotional aspects of it rather than a specific act. This can be difficult if you don’t have experience in the activity, or if your interest is purely in the physical aspect and not emotional at all, but in that second case, it may be possible to bring up that interest in isolation of others. For example, if you want to be spanked, that singular act may be something your partner could be into. I also strongly recommend listening to your partner’s reactions and desires and, if possible, collaborating on a fantasy together. For example, if you bring up spanking and your partner smiles slyly asking “Because you’ve been bad?” then work from there. Maybe the punishment aspect isn’t something that works for you, but it’s a common ground that you can use to build something together.
The direct approach is the most honest, and in my view the most connecting. While I’ve never had to have “the talk” with someone I was already in an established relationship with, I’ve had this talk many times with people I’ve recently met who expressed interest in kink but weren’t entirely sure what that meant or entailed. These conversations often touch on and connect with the deepest parts of both parties and when it works, have left me feeling profoundly connected with the other person.
There are downsides to being direct The first being that if it fails, it fails spectacularly and in the worst case, may be the catalyst for the relationship to end. The second downside to being direct is that this can sometimes lead to a situation where there’s no obvious next step, and both parties ask themselves “Now what?” We’ll cover that later in this article.
Mainstream Media Taste
Another approach to bringing up kink is to find some mainstream media portrayal of your interest and share it with your partner. Famous examples of this would be the film Secretary or 9 1/2 Weeks or even 50 Shades of Grey. These films explore BDSM themes in a way that, while erotic, isn’t explicitly pornographic. This approach has less vulnerability in it than the direct approach, but watching the film together may act as a springboard for a conversation afterward where you can discuss your interest in the movie as well as other themes in it.
At the same time, the film approach has some pitfalls of its own. Firstly, like the direct approach, your partner may not like the film or may be turned off by something tangential to the themes you want to explore. Furthermore, they may not even know that the movie is about your fantasies and may say something negative that you might interpret as being about you when it's just criticism of the film itself.
Another way to tackle bringing up the kinks you’re into is to suggest one, or at least a modified one, as a bedroom activity. Bringing up a single act as “something fun to try” can help breach the topic of other interests you may have, or present a framework for thinking and talking about your desires.
The upside to this approach is that it moves the conversation from a theoretical idea of kink to a real one, bypassing many of the usual pitfalls of over-discussion. It also taps directly into the kink itself, and opens the door for more experimentation.
The downsides of this approach are similar to the ones we’ve discussed previously. Bringing up an activity you might enjoy may turn off your partner. Even if they agree to what you have in mind, what they imagine may not have the same emotional flavor that you’re going for. As an example, you may want to be spanked because it feels good to you, or as a reward, where your partner may see it only as a means of punishment or humiliation. A BDSM activity that goes wrong in this way can sometimes be difficult to get over. Or it’s possible for it to go well, but then a few minutes, or even a few days later, you may feel depressed, depleted or worse. We call this “drop,” and while no one can entirely prevent it, the chances of it happening can be reduced through planning
People involved in BDSM have a term for these discussions- negotiation. In negotiation two (or more) parties discuss the activity (called a “scene") they’re going to do in a variety of ways, including from the physical perspective as well as the emotional one. They discuss limits of the scene, means of communication during the scene, as well as care for their needs afterward, called aftercare. No negotiation can entirely negate any physical or psychological risks of BDSM, but a good negotiation can reduce the chances of a problematic situation or reduce its severity. Doing BDSM without the skills of a good negotiation is possible, but negotiation is an essential part of BDSM, especially if you’re new to it or are engaging with a new partner.
The last concern I have about bedroom experimentation is that it has at its core the idea that BDSM is a sexual activity. While BDSM and sex often go together, they don’t need to, and for some people, they may be entirely separate. Some people enjoy BDSM without sex, some people are asexual and don’t participate in sex, while others like myself sometimes enjoy mixing BDSM with sex, and other times enjoy one without the other. A helpful analogy here is to think of chocolate and ice cream. Many people enjoy chocolate on their ice cream, but sometimes one may want chocolate without ice cream, or a flavor of ice cream that doesn’t go well with chocolate. BDSM is a galaxy of activities on its own, and while sex is fun, the two don’t need to be related.
Once the topic of kink or BDSM has been breached, there are many possible reactions your partner may have. There’s no way to address the spectrum of possible responses that someone may have to hearing the news that their partner is kinky, but in my own life, as well as talking to others, I’ve found the responses tend to fall into five categories.
The Relieved Partner
The best scenario that you can get is that of the relieved partner, someone who has had similar, or compatible fantasies or desires and now, because of you, feels open to exploring them. If you get this reaction, it will undoubtedly bring you closer and help strengthen your bond as a couple. If this happens to you, you are very lucky and are likely in for a lot of fun.
The Repulsed Partner
The polar opposite of the relieved partner is the repulsed partner, one who finds your desires to not only be uninteresting, but finds themselves disgusted by them, and possibly by you for bringing them up. This reaction is sadly common, and before bringing up BDSM to your partner, you should be ready for it.
If you do get rejection or repulsion from your partner, I recommend taking a few steps for self-care so that you can proceed safely and thoughtfully. First, recognize that your partner’s reaction, especially if it entails disgust, is not about you. Having kinky desires and fantasies is incredibly common. Expressing those interests to someone else takes courage and strength, so no matter what your partner has said, you should be commended for taking the risk. If the reaction your partner had included shaming words, it may connect back to internalized feelings of shame or embarrassment that you had earlier, which can be difficult to accept. Having a negative experience around bearing your soul can be devastating and bring on even more shame. If you find yourself in this position, try to remember that there are thousands, if not millions of people who share the same kinds of fantasies and desires that you have and your partner’s reaction may have as much to do with their societal programming or even a response to their own feelings as it does to what you said.
The next step for you is deciding what you will do now. There are three options, only two of which I feel are legitimate. The first is deciding to leave. The second is to stay in the relationship despite knowing your desires won’t get met, and the third is to cheat on your partner.
In my view and the view of many in the BDSM community, cheating is not an option. BDSM requires honesty with oneself and consent with others. If someone else doesn’t have the full truth, they can’t consent. That applies both to new partners you may have, as well as your existing relationship. In a community that demands raw honesty and vulnerability, cheating is not an acceptable option.
This leaves you with the options to stay or to end the relationship, and this is a difficult choice. I have met dozens of people who made the decision to stay with their partner even after they found out that their partner wasn’t interested in their kink. Most eventually realized they were unhappy and left years later, but a few remained and tried to repress their desires. This often leaves people feeling “empty” or that “something is missing,” and that is that their intimacy or kink needs aren’t being met, and for a kinky person, those needs can be as strong as most people’s need for physical intimacy through sex. While it’s possible to live without having those needs met, for most people, living without sexual intimacy leaves them feeling incomplete. For a kinky person, a life without kink leaves them feeling the same way, even if they’re unable to label their need.
The Cautious, Curious Partner
The second best case for an outcome is a cautious, but curious partner. Maybe they don’t share your particular interests, but they have some of their own, or may not have considered your kink but now that it’s on the table, expresses possible interest.
My recommendation with this kind of partner is to start slow. It can be easy to overwhelm someone with too much at once. Help your partner feel comfortable and try to find areas of common interest. Just as importantly, accept that they may not end up having the same interests as you, and you’ll need to consider this in your decision making as well.
The Neutral, or Neutral/Supportive Partner
Another outcome is for you to have a partner who is neutral about your kinks but is otherwise supportive of you getting your needs met. They may thank you for telling them about your fantasies or desires, but suggest that you get those needs met somewhere outside the relationship.
If you are in a polyamorous relationship, this may already fall into the kinds of discussions you and your partner have. If not, then if the two of you want to keep the relationship going, you’ll need to discuss how this change will happen and what it means in regards to your relationship.
You may be able to find people to engage with you about your desires, either professionals or people within the BDSM community. If the people you play with end up as long-term fixtures in your life, you will need to have many deep, honest conversations with your partner about what these people in your life mean to you. There is no requirement that someone you play with has to be a relationship or fixture in your life, but if your goal is to have someone as your actual dominant or full time submissive, then clearly this represents a significant presence in your life, and this demands an evaluation of your relationship and its limits. You will also need to have similar conversations with your play or kink partners to ensure that the relationship is able to meet their needs as well.
If you have a background in polyamory, this can be an excellent place to start, thinking about these kink relationships as other partners. If not, then whether or not your intent for the kink relationships is sexual or romantic, having a background in polyamory can be helpful in giving tools for thinking about and discussing the various needs of everyone in the relationship and how to best ensure that there’s an honest flow of communication in all directions, which is essential for long-term success. I’ll be listing a few polyamory resources in the last section of this article.
The Guilty Partner
While society remains shameful of kinky interests, we have seen there be a change in acceptance of non-normative sexual interests culminating with the idea that to be a “good” partner, one must be accepting of their partner’s sexual interests even if they aren’t shared. This can lead to a very problematic situation as someone’s guilt can lead them to agree to situations that they don’t like or may even find distasteful.
Just as no one should be pressured into any sexual act, no one should be pressured into any kink act or relationship configuration. Unfortunately, this can happen for any number of reasons, from internalized guilt to unintended pressure, to the way that one’s interests are presented. Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal that one can do to entirely prevent this, especially if the absence of kink might signal the end of the relationship. Threatening to end the relationship could be seen a presenting an ultimatum and make your partner feel coerced. Nonetheless, people who feel guilted into doing something will ultimately feel resentment, and those feelings will spill out to the relationship over time. If this happens, it may require evaluating the communication in your relationship, as well as the role of kink in it.
Here I need to state that unequivocally that if you, the person wanting kink, are using guilt or other means of coercion with your partner to get them to do something they don't want to do, you are an abuser. There is no room in BDSM for trying to use tricks, threats, force or guilt to get someone to do something they don't want to do. Doing so is not consensual. It's not BDSM. It's abuse.
The Journey and Next Steps
Once you have breached the topic with your partner, you may be wondering what the next step is. The next steps you take will depend on your geography, accessibility to BDSM events, etc. but I will offer three pieces of advice.
The first step I recommend is for both you and your partner to read some of the books listed in the Resources section of this article. Use them as an opportunity to explore together.
If your partner is not part of this journey, read them on your own and use this knowledge to inform your understanding of yourself and your desires.
Once you have that, I recommend trying to find a kink resource near you. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with a BDSM community, there are thousands of groups that meet up around the world offering a community of support and skillsharing. I recommend joining Fetlife, a social media site for kinksters, to find events in your area. In addition to general BDSM and kink, you may also find kink specific groups, such as Femdom, Rope Bondage, or Erotic Hypnosis. Each group runs events that you can attend. There are also excellent online resources, some of which include instructional videos on how to safely practice many kink activities.
Whether you take the journey into kink alone, or in a relationship, you are in for a potentially wonderful and rewarding time. If you do so with a partner, the two of have the opportunity to go on an incredibly powerful, rewarding journey together and take your relationship to new heights of intimacy. If you take the journey alone you have the opportunity to start fresh, explore yourself and build from there, including the possibility of building the new relationship of your dreams. In either case, the lessons you will learn will work for you no matter what your future holds. I wish you luck!
- Active Listening - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_listening
- Non-Violent Communication – https://www.cnvc.org/
- Leader Effectiveness Training (L.E.T.) - http://www.gordontraining.com/leader-effectiveness-training-l-e-t/
Starting Off In Kink
- The Wikipedia Article on BDSM (a great starting place!) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BDSM
- The New Bottoming Book – Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy
- The Loving Dominant - John Warren and Libby Warren
- New Topping Book - Dossie Easton and Janet
- Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns: The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism – Philip Miller and Molly Devon
- Playing Well with Others: Your Field Guide to Discovering, Exploring and Navigating the Kink, Leather and BDSM Communities - Lee Harrington
- FetLife - https://fetlife.com
- The Ethical Slut, Third Edition: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love Paperback – Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton
- More than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory - Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert
- Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships - Tristan Taormino