Glossary of Kink and BDSM Terms

These terms are things many BDSM community groups would want people to know before they come to a party, or maybe even to a munch. Even if you think you know some of these, if you’re new, give them a read!

This isn’t trying to provide end-all explanations of these terms, but to discuss them from a perspective of harm reduction. Many of these terms mean different things to different people. I feel this is a good overview of how these terms are used by most of the BDSM community. (I wrote this for a group I’m leadership in–you might also see it posted there!)

Table of contents:

What is BDSM?

BDSM is a compound initialism. It stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission (D/s), and sadism and masochism (S&M). It’s an umbrella term for both a large set of activities, and for the BDSM culture.

What is the difference between BDSM and kink?

The difference between BDSM and kink is mostly cultural. Within the BDSM community, kink refers to play or acts, and BDSM refers to a lifestyle or culture that involves bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, or sadism and masochism. People who say BDSM may also be referring to an aspect of power exchange, which kink does not imply. You may frequently see the terms being used interchangeably; and there’s nothing wrong with that, but ask what people mean when they say “they’re kinky” or “into BDSM” and you’ll have better, deeper conversations!

Consent is a huge topic, with an endless amount of resources and discussion to be had.

In our community, we often put qualifying words in front of consent, such as ongoing, enthusiastic, sober, risk aware, affirmative, and freely given.

Ongoing: Consent isn’t giving permission once or at the start of a scene. It’s given in a fluid, ongoing way similar to an emotional headspace, and can be withdrawn or end at any time. Consent is also collaborative, not just coming from one person.

Enthusiastic: Consent isn’t saying “maybe we can try that”–if someone tells you maybe when negotiating or during a scene, take it as them saying no.

Sober: Consent isn’t given without a clear head. You can’t consent while very tired, stressed, emotionally vulnerable, or while anything but completely sober.

Risk aware: Consent requires knowing what you’re signing-up for and consenting to. But this isn’t a legal exchange; in BDSM, there can often be risks or consequences unforeseen by anyone involved. Still, try to be as informed of risks as possible.

Affirmative: Consent isn’t “they didn’t say no”–not saying no isn’t saying yes. Yes is saying yes.

Freely given: Consent isn’t something given under pressure, when afraid or nervous to say no, when there’s a benefit or bribe to say yes, or when power dynamics create imbalance that forces a yes.

So many things can impact ongoing, enthusiastic, risk aware, affirmative, freely given consent, that some modern progressive discourse questions if this ideal consent can truly be achieved. Strive to mitigate issues that may compromise consent, but recognize that all play carries risk. Most of the time when things “go wrong” in BDSM, there was no malicious intent, but the harm and impact is there. Acknowledging this inherent risk is not an excuse to blame someone that is harmed. Play with willingness to accept consequences, and to offer support if things go wrong.

What is CNC?

CNC is Consensual Non-Consent. Some types of activities or play may inherently or intentionally impact those qualifying words about consent (ongoing, enthusiastic, sober, risk aware, affirmative, and freely given). CNC is still ongoing and enthusiastically consensual, but there’s an element of non-consent; The non-consent is “this activity or dynamic inherently compromises or damages usual, properly gained consent and the ongoing affirmative consent is less direct.” The non-consent is not “we didn’t negotiate or agree to this.”

CNC is a complex topic, with a lot to discuss. For more about Consensual Non-Consent, check-out: https://seradeep.com/demystifying-cnc/

What is SSC? What is RACK? What is PRICK?

These are all well-meaning initialisms for thinking about consent. They are incomplete by design–the point is to make people think about consent, not to treat consent as being fully encompassed by any of these terms.

SSC is Safe, Sane, Consensual.
RACK is Risk Aware Consensual Kink.
PRICK is Personal Responsibility Informed Consensual Kink.

The initialisms were coined in the above order, with movements behind each feeling they were filling-in missing gaps or solving issues with the prior. RACK was coined in response to wanting to highlight that most kink is inherently unsafe, and discomfort with judging activities as “sane” or not. PRICK was formed to highlight the importance of everyone involved sharing responsibility for ensuring kink is risk aware, and taking responsibility for your actions and choices. I feel it’s also necessary to highlight that PRICK has strong connections to victim blaming, with a history of being used to put all responsibility onto bottoms, rather than being an innocent statement about collaborative consent.

You may see arguments about which term is “best,” and you may see groups that say they operate under one of these terms. I value safer kink, risk awareness to all possible extents, and acknowledge that consent is a collaborative effort. But, I don’t hail any of these terms as supreme or the end of discussion about consent.

Terms about Play

What is “play” in BDSM?

Play is a term for doing a BDSM activity, sexual or non-sexual. It could be a scene, or it could be related to verbal play and banter. Play is also used to refer to some types of kinks, such as “pet play” or “impact play.”

The word “play” became popular early in BDSM community history because it’s non-judgmental. No act or type of play is inherently humiliating or shameful.

What’s a scene in kink?

A BDSM scene is a term for doing an activity together after negotiating it. Examples may be giving someone a spanking, or being tied-up.

The term “scene” became popular early in the BDSM community’s history because of the roles “played” of sub and dom, and to make it clear that these acts are never done from a place of anger, frustration, or emotional elevation, but are a planned mutual experience with effort and agency from “both sides.”

What is negotiation?

Negotiation is talking about the scene or activity you’d like to do, and mutually deciding what will happen. To all possible extents, negotiation should be done in a clear headspace, without being under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, and without pressure (acknowledge that if you are at a party or trying something new, you may already be a little outside of your comfort zone!) Negotiation is sometimes used to refer to approaching someone at a play party and asking if they’d be interested in a scene. Negotiation also takes place within relationships–vanilla or kinky–and consciously discussing what you want means safer, better sex and kink.

While negotiation is the popularized term in BDSM, negotiation sounds sort of legal, or adversarial, and this sometimes gives people the wrong impression by thinking that negotiation is about bargaining to “obtain consent.” Negotiation is a mutual discussion deciding what you plan to do together. Negotiate the scope of your play before scenes; Most people advise against negotiating-up at any point during a scene, and not adding new things that weren’t discussed prior to the scene. Of course, negotiating-down by deciding you’ve changed your mind and don’t want to try something you discussed, or that you would like to stop, is always OK!

What is a safeword?

Safewords are a stop-gap, emergency break to be used to end a scene or call for a check-in. Safewords do not replace negotiation, communication, and on-going consent during a scene. People often use the stop light system of: Green (“This is good, keep going!”), Yellow (“Stop what you’re doing, I need a break, come check in with me”), Red (“Stop everything now, scene over”). Unless otherwise explicitly discussed and negotiated, “no” and “stop” are safewords.

Let’s imagine you’re captain of a starship! The safeword is the escape pod, your defenses and preparations are negotiation, communication, and on-going consent.

You’ve just been hit by a photon torpedo!

Now, hopefully, the next thing you’d do isn’t run to the escape pod. Maybe you were prepared and shields were up. Or maybe you can call Yellow and get a repair team to fix it. Or maybe, you had ablative armor installed before you even left spacedock and you’re immune to photon torpedoes! 

Or, just maybe, that photon torpedo actually took the escape pod system offline and you can’t use it, and now you really wish you’d prepared and did have that ablative armor installed.

Play with a safeword. But, safewords cannot be relied on, and shouldn’t be the only thing you’ve done to prepare or consent.

What is Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn?

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn describes a physiological response to pain, fear or trauma. BDSM activities can also trigger these responses.

Within BDSM, Freeze and Fawn are the most common and important to be familiar with. Freeze is feeling unable to speak, move, or act. Fawn is “going along” with what someone says while being in an afraid, uncomfortable state.

Freeze and Fawn relate to an actual, physiological paralysis that can occur, called tonic immobility. Tonic immobility was once thought to only happen in non-human animals, but has been researched to also exist for humans. It may make something like using a safeword impossible, and is one reason why you should not rely on safewords alone.

It’s important to be aware of these responses as a top, and a bottom. Practicing self-awareness of your responses as a bottom by staying aware of what may trigger these for you can help ensure safer kink for you and anyone you play with. Meanwhile as a top, “they didn’t say no” is not consent–check-in while playing and do your best to be aware of how your bottom is doing.

What is aftercare?

Aftercare is support and debriefing given by participants in a scene to one another after the scene. Emotions, adrenaline, and hormones can change during play, and aftercare helps smooth the emotional transition out of a scene. Everyone’s needs for aftercare may vary; it may include eating a snack, drinking water, resting with a blanket, hearing affirmation, or just getting a hug. Both tops and bottoms may need aftercare.

Discuss what sort of aftercare needs you have when negotiating a scene. Talk about what you will do, or need, after the scene. It’s usually expected that you provide agreed upon aftercare–if you are unable, unwilling, or don’t have time to provide expressed aftercare needs, consider not having the scene.

What is subdrop?

Dropping after play (commonly called subdrop, topdrop, domdrop, or just drop) is an uncomfortable state that many people experience after going from the highs of a scene or party back to “normal life.” It may feel like a depressive state, a fugue, anxiety, or something else. It may happen regardless of if aftercare needs are met. If you experience drop every time you play, and that’s not desirable, you may wish to examine the ways that you negotiate, scene, and do aftercare. Drop may happen immediately after a scene, or several days later.

Check-in with your play partners the next day after a scene and ask how they’re doing! It can mean a lot to people if they’re feeling down.

Terms about spaces and events

What is a safer space?

A safer space is a group or community moderated with the approaches of harm prevention and reduction. This leads to many concepts such as prioritizing the impact of actions over their intent, believing and being open to consent reports of things that happened in or outside of the space, and not tolerating misinformation or bigotry expressed in or outside of the space. Read about some of my values at: Sera Deep Values and Mission Statement- Minneapolis Erotic Hypnotist & Kink Educator

What is a munch?

A munch is a social mixer event for adults in the BDSM community, usually held at a restaurant or similar casual setting.

Most munches are public, non-play events. You don’t need to have already met a moderator to go to a munch. Munches are where you meet a mod so you can attend parties, meet other members of the community, network, and learn about upcoming events.

What is a play party?

A play party is a private event, typically held in a host’s home. I sometimes affectionately describe play parties as a “kinky potluck.” There’s a social space to have delicious food brought by everyone attending, and a separate play space or dungeon for scenes. Keep conversation to the social space and play to the dungeon space. Don’t interrupt on-going scenes, don’t ask to join a scene, and don’t approach anyone participating in a scene during or just after. There are no drugs or alcohol at nearly all BDSM parties.

Play parties are invite-only events–even if you know where a play party is, you don’t show up if you are not invited. Anything that happens at a play party stays there. “Outing” is sharing any details such as the location, the participants, or the activities at the party to anyone who was not present at the party without the express permission of the person(s) involved.

What is outing in BDSM?

Outing can include:

  • Calling people by scene/fet names in public settings, or using real names without permission in community spaces. This extends to the use of traditional vs. kink social media.
  • Sharing the location of a party with someone who hasn’t received an invitation.
  • Discussing events or attendees of a party or munch using identifying details with someone who wasn’t present at the party or munch.
  • Exposing without consent someone’s medical or STI statuses.
  • Tagging someone in pictures without permission, or posting pictures without express consent.
  • Sharing the locations of party host homes or the names of our hosts.
  • Discussing or flagging kink or sexuality in public spaces in a way that could be overheard or observed by outside parties.
  • Outing someone for having once presented as a different gender identity without permission.

Outing is taken extremely seriously within BDSM; if you out someone and it results in harm to that person, you will be banned from future events.

Terms about BDSM, and BDSM culture and history

What is leather culture?

Leather is a broad subculture term referring to parts of both biker culture and BDSM. It’s a style of D/s based on respect for one another, and following roles. Leather culture in America largely originated from the gay and progressive communities in San Francisco getting an infusion of military veterans after WWII. (Think of the cool biker club that escorts the kid who was getting bullied to school and gives them a jacket.) You may also see “Old Guard” or “OG” used to refer to leather culture or this style of BDSM. Sometimes the term “Old Guard” is used derogatorily by today’s progressive movements, towards conservative ideologies unwilling to change–but there are many within leather/OG culture that have “kept-up with the times” and are as progressive by today’s standards as they were by the standards of their generation. There’s also plenty of new, younger people interested in this style of BDSM.

This is a deep, complex topic, with plenty more to read and say.

What does top and bottom mean in BDSM?

These words mean different things to different people; within most of BDSM, top refers to the person doing or giving an action, and bottom is the person receiving the action.

For some kinky and sexual examples:
A top spanks a bottom. A bottom receives a flogging.
A bottom is face-fucked by a top. A top gives a blowjob to a bottom.

These words do not refer to any sort of power exchange. Topping for something doesn’t mean you’re a dom, and bottoming doesn’t make you a sub–you can be a sub and climb on top of someone, or a dom and be penetrated. Not every scene has a sub and a dom involved. Top and bottom are sometimes used interchangeably with dom and sub, but be mindful of that as it can cause confusion to do so.

What does dom and sub mean in BDSM?

These words mean different things to different people; within most of BDSM, these are words relating to power exchange–someone giving orders and someone providing service. They are deeply important words to many, and this description acknowledges that but strives to stay succinct.

These terms are independent of top and bottom–they are not about who is doing what, but about power exchange or service. A sub may bring a dom coffee. A dom may provide rules to follow like taking a walk every day. A sub might provide service just by following a rule as well.

Both subs and doms are on “equal footing.” Many people enjoy exploring feelings of humiliation or degradation, or even just feeling flustered or teased, and that may be part of their dynamic or play. However, being a sub is not inherently shameful or lesser, and doms are not inherently superior or better. Each role is equally worthy of respect; this also means that each role is responsible for communication, negotiation, and consent.

Sub and dom are not gendered terms. Domme, pronounced the same as dom, is used by some and refers to a fem dom.

What is a switch in BDSM?

Within D/s, a switch is someone that switches between dom and sub, interested in both having rules and structure provided and facilitating that for others. One may switch within the same relationship, or between different partners.

Within the BDSM community, switch is frequently used to relate to activities as well as power exchange. The term switch is used to refer to those who both top and bottom for kink scenes like bondage, impact, electrical, verbal play, or anything one may be a top or a bottom for.

Don’t contribute to “switch erasure!” A switch isn’t someone who “doesn’t know what they want yet”–it’s a valid role. Depending on the context of your personal journey, terms like experimentalist may better communicate your interest in trying-out both topping and bottoming. Depending on culture, versatile may be more communicative of the same idea of both topping and bottoming.

What is a brat?

A brat is a bottom or sub that teases their top or dom. Just as many subs and bottoms may enjoy exploring feelings of humiliation, degradation, or being flustered and teased, some doms and tops enjoy those feelings, too, or may enjoy seeing playful resistance.

Bratting is, essentially, a type of switching. Doms and tops are not consenting to being verbally humiliated or insulted during a scene just because they agreed to play with you and “you’re a brat.” Negotiate and discuss bratting behaviors; depending on what you do without negotiation and the impact it has, it may be disrespectful and rude and make someone dislike you, or it may be considered a violation of consent.

What is an honorific?

An honorific is a term or title used by, or when speaking to, a dominant. These may include Sir, Miss, Daddy, and others.

Do not engage in verbal role-play, honorifics or name-calling unless you have express permission. For example, don’t use honorifics like “sir” or “miss” or titles like “slave,” “mistress,” or “daddy” to refer to yourself during a scene or to refer to others unless you have negotiated consent to use them.

What is D/s? What is M/s? What is Lifestyle BDSM? What is TPE? What is 24/7?

D/s is shorthand for “dom/sub.” M/s is shorthand for “master/slave.” TPE is “total power exchange.”

D/s, M/s, Lifestyle, 24/7, and TPE are different ways to refer to an ongoing power exchange relationship, beyond the context of a single scene or act. These terms and the differences between them are, for many, deeply important to their relationships and sense of identity, and this description acknowledges that but strives to stay succinct.

D/s involves an exchange of power–rules or orders being given, service being provided, facilitating a sense of safety built on on-going communication.

D/s can provide structure. It can be a safety net. It can even provide strength. But it’s not a solution to your life’s problems, a replacement for therapy, or excuse from responsibilities.

What is roleplaying in BDSM?

Roleplaying is taking-on roles for the purpose of a performance, a scene, or kink play. It can be obvious like “doctor-patient” roleplaying, or more subtle such as for those who view D/s roles as roleplaying.

Some people say that D/s, and/or all kink, is role-playing. Others do not. Some say role-playing “isn’t real” or is “fake.” Others do not.

As roles are a part of personal identity for many, this tends to be a real hot-button issue with a lot of immediate emotional response towards people who are on the “other side.” Some people who view it as role-playing see those who do not as inherently problematic or dangerous, and some people who don’t see it as role-playing act elitist towards the people who do.

Talk about this topic with your partner–Do you see this as role-playing? Why or why not? Discussing this can lead to valuable insights!

Regardless of how you feel on this topic, all actions are real in their effects. Kink can have psychological effects. Role-playing or not, “real” or not. Acknowledging this is critical for risk aware kink.