Navigating Kink Through a Feminist Lens- web version

Navigating Kink through a

Feminist lens


Cuff Me, Spank Me, and Call me

a Feminist!

Trigger warning- This brochure contains frank discussions of BDSM and kink theories, non-explicit references to abuse, and other sexually related topics. While there are no explicit descriptions of sex acts, please take care of yourself and your triggers.

When trying any new practice, please take responsible precautions for your own physical, mental, and emotional safety.

What is BDSM?

BDSM could be more accurately written as BD DS SM, which stands for

  • Bondage- the use of restraints
  • Discipline- punishment or correction
  • Dominance- occupying the “top” or dominant position in a power exchange
  • Submission- occupying the “bottom” or submissive position in a power exchange
  • Sadism- the eroticism and enjoyment of administering pain in a consensual relationship
  • Masochism- the eroticism and enjoyment of experiencing pain when occurring in a consensual relationship

BDSM is a big tent, encompassing everything from playing with silk scarves on a whim to full time dominance and submission play, and everything in between. BDSM and kink practitioners may engage in one or more of these activities, but will not necessarily engage in them all. Some BDSM and kink practitioners may find the practices of others under the big tent distasteful or even abhorrent.

This guide is meant as an introduction to the basic terminology and theories of BDSM and kink. As such, terms like dominant and top, submissive and bottom, and BDSM and kink are used interchangeably. In some kink and BDSM communities these words have more specific and detailed meanings, so discussions like “when I say I’m a submissive, by that I mean…” are very useful.

Common Terms

Kink- non-normative sexual behavior, including BDSM, fetishes, and other practices. The precise definition of kink will vary due to time, place, and cultural norms

WIITWD- Yet another acronym, meaning What It Is That We Do, often used in place of the term BDSM

Vanilla– to engage in sexual contact that does not include BDSM or kink. Often used within kink circles to differentiate between different types of sexual contact.

SSC (Safe, Sane, and Consensual)- a philosophy of BDSM practice

  • Safe- all attempts should be made to identify and prevent risks
  • Sane- all parties are engaging intentionally and can gauge the effects of their actions
  • Consensual- all parties have consented to this activity, with the understanding that consent can be withdrawn by any party at any time

Power Exchange– the consensual giving up of control by the bottom or submissive and accepting of control by the top or dominant

Play– to engage in BDSM or kink behavior activities, which may or may not include sexual contact

RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink)- related to SSC, but attempts to address the fact no activity (kink related or not) is completely without risk.

  • Risk-Aware: Both or all partners are well-informed of the risks involved in the proposed activity.
  • Consensual: In light of those risks, both or all partners have, of sound mind, offered preliminary consent to engage in said activity.
  • Kink: Said activity can be classified as alternative/non-normative sex

Scene– a short-term encounter or session of play including BDSM and/or kink.

Switch- a person who enjoys occupying both the “top” and “bottom” role (likely at different times)

After care– the time immediately after the end of a scene, a transition from play back to “normal” life. The makeup of after care varies widely from person to person and scene to scene

Safe Word/ Signal– a pre-determined word or signal which, when uttered by any of the participants in a scene, ends all activity immediately. This could be a word, physical gesture, or other method of communication. Safe words can be uttered by both the bottom/sub or top/dom

Limits– Sometimes also referred to boundaries. Often there are hard limits, consisting of things a person does not want to do at all, and soft limits, which they are willing to do under a pre-determined set of circumstances.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do people engage in BDSM and or kink?

This answer will vary wildly from person to person. For me personally, BDSM is a fun and sexy element in (some of) my sexual relationships, a powerful healing modality in my recovery from emotional and sexual abuse, and enriched my understanding of own mental and emotional motivations.

What about abuse?

Abuse can happen in even the most liberal and enlightened communities, and the BDSM community is no different. Philosophies like SSC and RACK were designed in part to help BDSM and kink practitioners (and their loved ones) differentiate voluntary, consensual interactions from those which are not. The vast majority of BDSM and kink practitioners have overt, frank discussions of consent, boundaries, and limits with those they engage in these practices with. Keep reading for some good details on differentiating BDSM from abuse, as well as how to get help if you’re in an abusive relationship.

How does “no means no” fit together with safe words?

First, it is possible to participate in BDSM within “no means no” agreements. While some practitioners use safe words as a replacement for “no” (and similar words), others use them in addition to “no means no.” Many BDSM practitioners also use “go words”, such as wiggling of fingers or repeating back a phrase or word. If the check in gesture or word is not repeated, the scene stops immediately.

BDSM and Feminism

One of my core feminist beliefs is that the actions which women take are generally less important than their reasons and motivations for those actions. From this angle, working in the corporate sphere is not inherently more feminist than staying home and raising children. Access, opportunity, and agency are important factors in differentiating how a particular act or social movement supports (or detracts) from the goal of gender equality.

Feminism and sexuality have traveled an interesting road together. Some portions of the “Second Wave” feminist movement believed that any male/female penetrative sex was inherently coercive, and that even the use of penetrative toys between female partners was a sign that the patriarchy was still proscribing sexual acts which women engaged in. In more recent years feminists have clashed over pornography, sex work, gender identity, and BDSM, with strong feelings and well-supported arguments on all sides.

Feminism is especially interesting when discussing situations involving a male dominant and female submissive. While to an observer the female sub is the one being acted upon and dominated, she actually holds the power in this scenario- she determines if, when, and for how long she will be submissive to the dom, and what practices and activities she is willing to engage in with him. Her boundaries draw the lines of what the dominant is permitted to do with and to her. While he is not obligated to try everything which lies within her boundaries, he is not permitted to try anything which lies outside of them. If her boundaries change, or she no longer wants to participate in the power exchange, she can say NO (or use her safe word or signal), and the interaction will stop. These underlying cultural beliefs and norms in the BDSM community, as well as the frequent and frank discussions of boundaries and desires, can be translated well to sexual relationships which are “vanilla.”

From a feminist perspective, the idea that those engaging in kink practices are in some way unenlightened or bad feminists is a problematic one for me. It sounds far too close to the views of men who declare that lesbians would be hetero if they were only taught properly, or the distasteful “ex-gay” movement’s views that same sex attraction is a disease to be cured. It’s equally problematic, on the other hand, to tell feminists who are critical of kink practices that their deeply held and long-considered beliefs of the harmfulness of kink are wrong. Feminism, like BDSM, is a big tent. Some in the tent I agree completely with, some I disagree completely with, and most fall somewhere in the middle.

Feminists have many different views on BDSM, and it doesn’t appear we’ll be coming to a consensus on this any time soon. From this feminists perspective, the key to engaging healthily with kink in a feminist way is to understand how culture and socialization shapes us and our desires, to engage with my partners in a respectful and compassionate manner, and to minimize the impact my practices have on those who are triggered or otherwise negatively impacted by them.

Best Practices

If you are interested in engaging in BDSM or any kink practice, these are good guidelines to start with, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Read as much as possible, from a number of different sources.
  • Get active in your local BDSM/kink community. Most moderately sized cities will have at least one group, and most groups have monthly “munches”- a group meeting at a restaurant to socialize and meet new members.
  • Get active online- join a forum, online community, or other digital group.
  • Ease into kink, just as you would any new activity, relationship, or even a new sport.
  • Be aware that some fantasies are best left as fantasies, and recognize that you’ll probably try one of those anyway.
  • Understand that engaging in BDSM/kink practices can be both emotionally rewarding and emotionally draining.
  • Think about what you are and aren’t willing to try.There’s no medal for being the most submissive sub, the most dominant dom, or the most sadistic sadist.
  • Be transparent to potential partners about your limits, boundaries, and possible triggers.
  • Recognize that your boundaries may shift (in any direction), and that this is understood and accepted in the BDSM community.
  • Ask for references- this is common practice in the BDSM community when making a new connection. Be wary of potential partners who refuse, especially if they speak badly of all their former partners.
  • Take precautions when dating or meeting up with potential new partners, just as you would when dating- meet in a public place, make sure a friend knows where you are if you meet up with them alone, and build trust before delving into kink.
  • Be extremely wary of anyone who says their version/practice of BDSM is the “one true way,” or that “real doms/subs/other” do things in a particular way.
  • Recognize not everyone will agree with or understand kink, and be sensitive and respectful of the impact of your behavior on others.

To contact the author of this booklet with suggestions or questions, email

BDSM vs Abuse

BDSM is not the same as abuse. This list breaks down some of the major differences between abuse and BDSM. It is a good tool for both those concerned about a friend or engaged in BDSM/kink practices themselves

  • S/M play is consensual; abuse is not.
  • S/M play is negotiated and agreed upon ahead of time, abuse never is.
  • S/M play has responsible safety rules and limits. Abuse has no rules or limits. There are no safe words in abusive relationships.
  • S/M play is fun, erotic and loving. Abuse is none of these things.
  • S/M encourages communication. Abuse does not.
  • S/M play is enjoyed by both. The victim of abuse does not enjoy it.
  • S/M play can be stopped at any time by either partner. Abuse cannot be stopped by the victim.
  • In S/M, the dominant partner maintains control through agreed upon boundaries. In abuse, the abuser controls the victim and does not respect boundaries.
  • S/M is never done with the intent to harm or damage. In abuse, the abuser harms and damages the victim.
  • S/M may be done in a supportive, informed community. Abuse is often hidden and the survivor isolated.
  • S/M play creates a bond of trust. Abuse destroys trust.


If you are in an abusive relationship and want help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is a good resource, and can refer you to a survivors support group or advocate in your area. They are accessible at 1-800-799-SAFE, on TTY at 1-800-787-3224, and online at .

If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, or know someone who has, you can talk to someone and/or find help in your area by calling RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) call 1-800-656-HOPE, or contact them online at .

(More information on differentiating abuse from BDSM, as well as the list on the previous page, can be found at )

Over-view of a scene, aka

What does BDSM look like?

Generally speaking, scenes consist of 4 phases: negotiation, play, after-care, and debriefing.

Negotiation/Discussion– involves a discussion of hard boundaries, soft boundaries, must-haves, and would like to haves, as well as time, place, who will be involved, etc. Often, especially with new partners, it is useful to use a written checklist to determine these items, and to write down a scene outline. Examples of these checklists are outline forms are available in the Resources section at the end of this book. This discussion also covers any physical or emotional issues any of the participants have, safe sex agreements, safe words, etc.

Play- The “doing” part of BDSM, where the scene which was negotiated is played out. The scene may end at any time for any reason if any of the participants involved use their safe-word.

Aftercare– Transitioning from the mental, emotional, and physical space of the scene. This could involve cuddling, talking, eating, physical care, etc. Good after-care is (almost always) vital to a good scene- be wary of any partners who seem unwilling to support the other scene participants in after-care.

Debriefing– May occur immediately following after-care, or at another agreed upon time. This generally consists of a discussion of what went well, what didn’t work, what was on the edge, what was surprising, etc. Quality debriefing, especially within the context of an ongoing relationship, helps to build trust and give all parties involved helpful information for the creation of the next scene.

In a new or short-term relationship these steps are sometimes more rigid and drawn out. In a longer term relationship, the process could be quite simple and organic. An example of what that might look like is on the next page.

Dominant: Do you want to play tonight? I’d like to do {this thing}

Submissive: I’d like to play tonight, and I’m up for {that thing}. My hard limits are all the same, I don’t want to push any of my soft limits, and I don’t want to have penetrative sex. My safe word is still “no”.

Dominant: I understand and agree to not having penetrative sex, that your hard and soft limits remain the same, and that your safe word is “no”. My safe word is still “red”.

[Kinky play ensues, within the agreed upon boundaries]

[After play consisting of cuddling, some water for both parties, and a nap]

Submissive: I enjoyed doing {that thing}, and I’d like to try it again. I’m finding that I no long like doing {thing that I used to enjoy} and I’m going to put it on my hard limits list.

Dominant: I understand that {thing you used to enjoy} is now on your hard limits list, and I’ll add it to the written list we keep in the nightstand. The entire scene was good for me, and in the future I think I’d like to try doing {that thing} more frequently.

Submissive: I’d like that as well.


These are some resources I’ve personally used, and the internet has a wealth of information.

SM 101 by Jay Wiseman (available through Amazon)

The New Topping Book by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy

The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy

A huge list of BDSM and kink terms and definitions

Let Them Eat Pro-SM Feminist Safe Space

An excellent pro-BDSM feminist blog

Yes means Yes- Visions of female sexual power & a world without rape

An excellent sex positive, feminist blog discussing sexual empowerment, rape culture, and kink, with some interesting posts by a cis-male submissive

An exhaustive and specific questionnaire for general boundary discussion

An excellent and exhaustive form for mapping out a specific scene.

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