In a world where Gen Z is casually posting bondage and rope play demonstrations on TikTok and where everybody and their mom has delightfully slurped up the Fifty Shades franchise, BDSM can feel like it’s become the norm. Even those who don’t practice it know about it, and curiosity about trying it is on the rise.
One in five people has engaged in BDSM, according to a 2019 review published in the Journal of Sex Research, and somewhere between 40 and 70% of people are interested in it. One study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2015 found 65% of women and 53% of men fantasized about being sexually dominated, and 47% of women and 60% of men fantasized about dominating someone else. As for non-binary folks, the research is frustratingly scarce, but sex researcher Justin Lehmiller’s survey of over 4,000 Americans found non-binary people are more likely to fantasize about certain BDSM acts, such as bondage, discipline, sadism, and humiliation.
Although BDSM—which includes bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, and other related sexual practices—has been around for decades, mainstream interest in it certainly seems new and hotly on the rise. A 2017 survey of 400,000 OkCupid members found people were 23% more likely to say they’re into BDSM than they were in 2013. And there’s significant overlap with the LGBTQ+ community, which has deep historical ties to the kink community: According to a 2019 review in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, more than a third of the BDSM community identifies as LGBTQ+, with 23% specifically identifying as bisexual.
It makes sense that as we continue to become more sexually progressive, pleasure-positive, and inclusive of diverse sexual interests, BDSM is finding its way into the public consciousness. But what exactly does wading into the world of BDSM actually look like for an individual?
I spoke with 10 people who shared how they got into BDSM and what exactly happened during their first-ever experience with it. Here’s what they told me.
“I ended up practicing it with a guy I was hooking up with.”
I first got into BDSM after moving to the Bay Area last year for graduate school. I knew what BDSM was but hadn’t really known what I liked. I was introduced to a few things at the Folsom Street Fair, and I ended up practicing it with a guy I was hooking up with. We practiced D/s or Dom/sub [dominance and submission] scenes, impact play (paddling, flogging, spanking), [and] breath play (ball gags and choking). It felt really great! I was really fascinated with how it felt so good even though I was feeling pain.
[While I was a] little apprehensive and anxious [about trying BDSM], I was excited. During [the act], [I felt a] little more apprehension and excitement, [but] I was definitely starting to feel turned on. Afterward, I was on a bit of an adrenaline rush. I was feeling satisfied in more ways than one. I didn’t have any expectations and I hoped that I would find something I enjoyed. Currently, I practice BDSM in the bedroom and at parties or events, [but I] mostly [do it by myself]. I enjoy learning new things about myself, my sexuality, and my sensuality, and I feel that BDSM has shown me and given me a safe space for that. Free of judgment.
—Womxn, 24, from Oakland, CA
“The entire experience came as a surprise, and we enjoyed it.”
Recently, my partner and I dabbled in the BDSM part. [We] started with the basic hands being tied to [the] bedpost, spanking, using ice, pouring wine and drinking [it] from the body, which escalated into good rough foreplay [and] made her orgasm more than a few times in a go. For her and me, the entire experience came as a surprise, and we enjoyed it. [We’re] looking to take it to the next step soon.
The sole reason why my partner and I tried BDSM was [because we wanted to] try something new and exciting—and honestly, Fifty Shades of Grey was talked about a lot back then. We always [wanted] to give it a go sometime to see if it [was] something that we [would] like and enjoy.
Speaking of feeling, it really felt amazing, as it was a very new thing that we tried in bed [together]. [While] we enjoyed it a lot, it somehow brought us closer to each other. I guess we’re now more aware of each other’s body, physically and even more mentally.
—Hiraj, 24, from Mumbai, India
“I’m glad that I had the chance to experience it and learn from professionals first.”
Originally what got me interested in BDSM was the famous Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. The first movie came out during my freshman year of college, and pretty much everyone in my dorm was talking about it. Eventually, I developed a better understanding of what BDSM is because I started traveling to different sex conferences in America, so naturally, I became more exposed to kink.
My first BDSM experience just so happened to be at one of those conferences, EXXXOTICA. There was a section called “the dungeon experience” in which attendees could learn more about the fetish lifestyle and participate in various kink-related activities with BDSM practitioners in a laid back and controlled setting. I thought it’d be pretty cool to be suspended so I went to the area with a bunch of rope to get tied up and hung from a metal cage. It felt a lot more relaxing than it probably looked. The rush of endorphins and adrenaline inside my body made me feel as though I was floating, and I mean that in the best way possible. It was like an out-of-body experience. I’m glad I had the chance to experience it and learn from professionals first because it influenced the way I incorporate BDSM into my sexual life today. I’m better with sexual communication and more cognizant of body language. I make sure to address safe words before play, and I’ve been able to utilize and teach proper techniques for certain acts like temperature play, edge play, and impact play rather than just attempting to be like the way I see in mainstream media and calling it BDSM.
—Tatyannah, 24, from Durham, North Carolina
“BDSM grew out of an exploration of my sexuality.”
I’ve always been what I call “kink adjacent,” [which means] that most of my closest friends are involved in BDSM. One of my oldest friends was a leather daddy in the Castro District and shared his experiences freely with me. He brought me to Folsom Street Fair in 2001, which was the first time I actually saw impact play, but I was still in denial that it was something I wanted and didn’t have any personal experience until a few years ago.
BDSM grew out of an exploration of my sexuality. I’d always known I was bi, but being married to a cishet guy since I was 25, it wasn’t a major factor in my life until I decided to come out publicly in 2017. As I explored what being bi means to me and learning to be more fully engaged with my sexuality, my spouse and I began to explore BDSM. As he points out, we’d engaged in some rough play/wrestling when we were younger and been fascinated with my friend’s experiences, so it wasn’t a big surprise that BDSM had an appeal.
We’re lucky that we live in San Francisco where the kink community is large and active and have dedicated spaces for safe exploration and play. Our first experience was two years ago at a small workshop at The Citadel where the workshop leader, an experienced Dom, provided instruction on proper techniques to avoid injury as well as which toys for us to try out. We started with floggers, which I loved, but I was also curious about caning, so we asked the workshop leader if he would cane me. It hurt a lot more than I expected, so much that I felt nauseated, but then the endorphins hit. After four strokes, I was in subspace for the first time, and that was wonderful. Floaty and mellow, I pretty much curled up next to my spouse and purred for the rest of the session.
Since then, we’ve acquired a pretty substantial toy chest—floggers, paddles, canes, pinwheels and cat claws, bondage cuffs and restraints, spanking gloves, clothespins—we’re exploring a full-time D/s relationship.
One of the things I love about kink and BDSM is that, because we do things that can cause injury, communication is absolutely essential. Intentionality is important, so we talk about what kind of experience we want beforehand—am I looking for pain or sensuality or sensation? Does anything hurt? Is anything off-limits? Do I want to be in a subspace when we’re done? Has my mind been spinning a thousand miles an hour and I need to let go for a bit? What are my limits? I think this is one aspect of BDSM most people don’t understand: how much communication goes into a successful experience. Affirmative, informed consent is absolutely paramount, and it’s sexy as hell—knowing what my partner is going to do to me, knowing how it’s going to make me feel…that’s part of the fun.
—Raven, 54, from San Francisco
“The only thing that felt wrong was that I was engaging in BDSM with a man instead of a woman.”
I had started watching BDSM porn and I thought it may be something fun to try. I’m a fairly sexually experienced person, but it was something I had never done [before]. I met a man on Tinder, we discussed BDSM, and we scheduled a drink date for that weekend. We got drinks, charged for hours, and then got into sex. We both went into the encounter knowing BDSM was desired, so he slowly eased me into it, making me feel comfortable and cared for. There was a lot of trial and error, but he was much more experienced in BDSM than me. This was someone I met on a dating app, who I sought out specifically because his profile mentioned BDSM, and I was really into the idea of the kink.
[We did] hair pulling, handcuffs, blindfolds, and impact play. I think I was a bit indifferent to it at the moment. I was enjoying it, but not really thinking about it other than to enjoy it. Afterward, it felt a little strange, like when you reflect on something you’re not sure about. But ultimately, I decided it did feel good. I’m not someone who connects sex with emotions normally, so I didn’t feel anything really too emotional after it, other than maybe exhausted. I was nervous leading up to the encounter, but mostly just due to inexperience.
I actually first tried BDSM with a man, so it did affect [the experience] a bit. I identified as bisexual then, but I remember thinking about the act after and realizing that the only thing that felt wrong was that I was engaging in BDSM with a man instead of a woman. Now, fully knowing I’m interested in only women, it’s always a satisfying experience. It’s often something I seek out in a sexual partner now—or at least the willingness to try. It’s a big part of what gets me off, but I want to be sure they enjoy it too!
—Isabelle, 23, from New York
“I knew I was kinky since I started reading fanfic.”
I got into the [BDSM] scene through a discussion group at my college’s LGBTQ center. I knew I was kinky since I started reading fanfic, but that was my first experience actually interacting with the community. I ended up going to a play party with some people from the group at one of their apartments. It was a really enjoyable experience for me. I ended up getting tied up with rope, which is still one of my top kinks and also got to do a bit of domming (which is something I’m still exploring to this day). Overall, I felt good about how it went. That community was a big help for me as I was in a toxic situation with someone [who was] not a part of the group, and it was really nice to have clear boundaries and expectations in the BDSM community.
I was definitely nervous the first time [I did it], but everyone I was with made me feel really comfortable and did a good job of negotiating, and I still look back on those experiences very fondly, and honestly, as a bright point in my life. Nowadays, BDSM is a really big part of my life. I have three partners, all of who are also kinky. I honestly find that I enjoy kink more than vanilla sex, and I’m totally happy to just do a rope scene or sensation play and not have any kind of intercourse. I’m going to a community event in the new year with all my partners, and I’m really excited to be able to explore all of our dynamics interacting. BDSM really has helped me with [my] relationships overall, and I love the emphasis on communication and not having any assumptions about boundaries or desires.
—Genderqueer person, 22, from Boston
“We planned our first session for perhaps a couple of months.”
I got out of a five-and-a-half-year sexless (but loving) relationship in April and pretty much immediately went on Tinder to make up for lost time. I initially just wanted to have a lot of sex, but I met a guy I clicked with and ended up in a relationship with. He was aware of my unintentional celibacy and, being a fairly sexual person himself, we had a lot of conversations about what I wanted from my sex life. BDSM was something we were both interested in. He had a little more experience than I did, so I took a lot of cues from him when we were talking about it beforehand. He taught me a lot of things I didn’t know at the time—how regimented sessions can be, the fact that there are distinct “parts” to a session, before care and aftercare, etc.
We planned our first session for perhaps a couple of months. I bought a crop and a collar, and we talked about our boundaries. We decided that I should dom first, even though I’m probably a natural sub and he’s more of a dom. I have trouble with vulnerability in the bedroom, and we had this idea that “in order to sub, you first have to dom.” I think what we meant by that was that to truly understand how vulnerable you have to be as a sub, you might need to experience it through someone else first.
I also read The New Topping Book—which was recommended to me by someone in a BDSM Facebook group I joined—and which I would recommend to absolutely everyone looking to embark on a BDSM relationship.
I was a little nervous going in, particularly because I was taking on the dom role—one I never thought I would inhabit. It helped that he was a bit more experienced, so at least one of us could guide the other through things beforehand. However, when the session began, I was suddenly calm and trusted that we would communicate well. Things flowed pretty smoothly after that. I think I enjoyed taking on the role more than I thought I would.
I thought I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously (and I think he thought that too, because he impressed upon me the importance of me not breaking character a lot beforehand). But it wasn’t funny. It was, however, fun, and caring and arousing. I thought I might feel a bit silly, but the fact that he was getting a lot out of it meant that I did too. I didn’t know I’d feel so powerful and that I would enjoy that a lot.
Before [we did BDSM], I was quite nervous, and I might have drank a bit too much. He was very patient and calm, though, which helped. I don’t know how it would have gone if we’d both been new to the experience. I would probably never have initiated the idea of BDSM, so perhaps I’d still be wondering.
We’ve since had one more session. I was the sub, and I think those roles fit us both a bit better. We are planning to do it more and explore the scene further to try different things each time. I’d like to take things a bit further, perhaps with more extended sessions. It also opened us up to exploring our other fetishes (i.e. sploshing and loss of control).
—Erica, 34, from Edinburgh, Scotland
“She looked up at me and said, ‘Can you please drag me by my hair while I suck your cock?’”
I first got into BDSM when I was casually hooking up with this girl, and this one time, we were talking about each other’s biggest turn-ons. She was shy and submissive and told me she really likes it when a guy pulls on her hair. And I said, “Sure, I am down for that.” But then she said she wanted me to pull really hard. At that point, I pulled on her hair and said, “like this?” She said, “No, I like it pulled harder.” At that point I thought to myself I just pulled her hair pretty hard, and she wants it harder? I was somewhat worried. I didn’t want to hurt her.
I remember I was sitting on the edge of the bed, and she walked over to me and started giving me head. She asked me if I could stand up for a while for a better position. I obliged. She then took my hands and put it on her head and told me to pull her hair. I pulled on it pretty hard. She told me that was good, but she wants it harder. At that point, I thought to myself, how much harder does she want it? Then she starts sucking my balls as she was looking up at me and said, “Can you please drag me by my hair while I suck your cock?”
At that point, I was excited and turned on, but at the same time [I was] worried [because] I didn’t want to hurt her. So I took a few steps backward with both of my hands still on her hair and I dragged her towards me and I could tell she was really turned on. I felt power and control, and it was an amazing feeling that I wanted to experience over and over again. I dragged her several more times until I ended up orgasming while she was deep-throating me.
After that experience, we started to explore other BDSM activities. We experimented with me restraining her to the bed and punishing her which involved choking her, slapping her, and having full control of her. We did have some limitations which we discussed ahead of time, but almost everything was on the table except not bruising her to the point of her bleeding.
That’s how I got into BDSM, and I am glad I did!
—Marcus, 30, from Toronto, Canada
“He bought me a pair of handcuffs at 13.”
My first serious high school boyfriend introduced me to BDSM. He bought me a pair of handcuffs at 13 (he was 15). We used to go mountain biking in a state park near our homes and would get back up into the hills. He would handcuff me and we would engage in oral sex, fisting, and other sex acts. At the time I was not aware this was neither completely common nor was that it was considered BDSM. It was the late 1980s, and without the internet or access to many books on sexuality in the library or local book store, I couldn’t contextualize my behavior. For me, public sex, exhibitionism, bondage, and fisting were all just fun parts of sex.
By the age of 15, I had become very active in the local queer community. Meeting older lesbian and gay men in the San Francisco Bay Area, I discovered the leather community. Through them, I learned about what leather was, what kink was, and that there were actually books to learn about this stuff. I found a local gay bookstore in San Jose, CA, and picked up books about BDSM and erotica. I learned about consent, setting boundaries, and various activities that make up kink.
It was wonderful to learn that what I did and what I liked had a name and an entire community which embraced it as normal. Having BDSM as part of my experience of becoming sexual deeply ingrained the practices of talking about sexual needs, boundaries, and establishing consent. Growing into my sexuality parallel with my kinks in a time where the only people who really knew what I was doing were also kinksters helped limit the shame or apprehension around exploration that so many other folks have.
—Rebecca, 45, from Grass City, California
“It was a deeply bonding experience.”
My husband Adam and I first tried BDSM for about five years into our marriage. Things were getting stale, and we had heard a lot about it. We started by talking about it—what we did and did not want, why we wanted it, etc. We started by him tying me up (blindfolded). After foreplay, we slowly moved into sex (it was hard not to simply turn this into tied up but otherwise normal sex). He eventually got more aggressive, almost primal, reading my cues. We also had a candle burning, and he poured a few drops of the wax (after asking my permission) on my breast. Being blindfolded, it’s as if all the energy that goes into your vision is sent to heighten other senses like touch. This made the sensations during foreplay and sex so much more intense. It also made the wax feel amazing when it was poured on my body, but the burn that came a few seconds afterward was too much, so I asked him to stop. Overall, it was a deeply bonding experience—partly because your partner is taking you into unknown territory, which requires trust that he kept the entire time. It’s both thrilling and deeply bonding—something I didn’t expect.
Today, we enjoy other aspects like toys and groups more, so BDSM isn’t central, but it’s something we engage in about five times a year—usually when we’re feeling extra frisky. It’s difficult because it requires pre-sex discussion and alignment, which means it isn’t something we can jump into right before or in the middle of sex.
—Sally, 37, from Washington, D.C.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.