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BDSM not abuse but way to spice up sex life in safe, consensual way: adherents

10/29/2014 06:34 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Fired CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi's admission that he engages in rough sex has Canadians hearing a term that many may be unfamiliar with — BDSM, or bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. So just what does BDSM involve and what draws adherents to this kind of sex?

Members of the so-called BDSM community say there are a lot of misconceptions about what kinky sex entails and about the people who embrace the lifestyle.

"Kinky sex is defined not so much by what it is, but what it's not," says Bernie, a southwestern Ontario entrepreneur in his mid-50s who asked that his full name not be used.

What it's not, he says, is garden-variety sexual foreplay and intercourse, which is known in the community as "vanilla" sex.

"If that's all someone does, then they're not kinky. But anything outside those very narrow boundaries, then they are kinky, whether it's role-playing, whether it's spanking, whether it's tying their partner up, using ice cubes on them, talking dirty to them — all kinds of things are considered kinky."

"It's like a landscape almost. You have all these different areas. If you travel around the kinky countryside, you're going to encounter all kinds of different activities."

The goal of kinky sex is to seriously spice up life in the bedroom — to choose chocolate, strawberry or an exotic-flavoured ice cream over the standard vanilla, says Bernie. That can involve physical play — tying up a partner to the bedposts with silk stockings, for instance — or activities that are more psychological in nature: enjoying the sense of being dominated or being the one who dominates.

"Some people like to struggle during sex, for example," says Bernie. "So from that to bondage is a really small step ... from holding down to tying down and using touch to stimulate."

The image of whips and chains that BDSM conjures up for many people is really a "synonym for any kind of kinky play," though he concedes those sorts of sex toys are certainly on the map for some.

"But a whip is a fairly intense toy. That said, you can use it to gently caress somebody, it doesn't have to be intense. It's how you do things and the intention behind them."

Intention and trust are key elements of BDSM, he says. Partners — whether straight, gay or bisexual; monogamous or not — negotiate their sexual likes and dislikes and mutually agree upon limits, including having a safe word or other signal that says — and means — "stop."

"Each new person has different fantasies and different desires. So you just sit down and negotiate and talk about what works for them, about what works for you, and you find things that work for both of you and you explore those."

"That's another interesting thing about the kinky community: we tend on average to be better communicators because we have more to communicate about," he suggests. "Because the palette we paint with is so much larger in the kinky community, you really have to sit down and talk."

Dr. Ruth Neustifter, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph who specializes in sexual well-being, says it's not known how many North Americans consider themselves part of the kinky sex community. But soaring sales of erotica, sexual toys and BDSM gear, especially following the release of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, suggest a growing number of people are pushing the boundaries of how they get sexual gratification.

"Being able to explore a wider range of human emotion, of physical and intimate sensation, of dynamics in how people can communicate and explore together can add an exciting element to the bedroom," explains Neustifter.

"There's lots of ways to do that. Some people really enjoy the added intensity of having these power-exchange dynamics. But again, this is meant to be a mutually enjoyable, consent-based and well-negotiated situation."

It's often thought the dominant person in the sexual duo — typically called a dom or top — is in control, she says. "But really the way it should be is the person who's in the submissive role (the sub or bottom) really ultimately has the most power. Whatever signal they have that something is wrong should call things to a halt, the person who dominates should be immediately responding to that and seeking to correct the situation, whatever way the submissive partner determines is appropriate"

"When we talk about the power exchange, there's this notion that the dominant person has all the power. But when this is done in a good consensual way, that's not how it is at all."

It is conceivable, however, that some people may go too far, overstepping the bounds of pleasurable pain into what many would consider violence, she agrees.

"When partners are negotiating these more intense activities, it's very important that they are aware of the potential risk involved and that they have shared that awareness with each other, that they have established ongoing consent between all partners."

"If you have someone who is utilizing their power in a situation in a way that isn't in both their own and their partner's best interest, we have a problem ... When those things are happening, whether it's vanilla sex or kinky sex, we have a problem."

In the case of Ghomeshi, the Toronto Star reported that it had approached the "Q" host with allegations from three women who said he was physically violent without their consent during sexual encounters or in the run-up to such encounters. None of the women has filed a police complaint, and Ghomeshi has denied engaging in non-consensual role play or sex and called any suggestion to the contrary defamatory.

Ghomeshi's lawyers filed a lawsuit this week against the CBC, alleging breach of confidence, bad faith and defamation by the public broadcaster, seeking $55 million.

Lynne, a member of the BDSM community who identifies herself as bisexual and polyamorous (has no exclusive partner), says what may be painful for one person can in some cases feel pleasurable to another.

"Something that would be a terrible act of violence against me, I would never consent to it and it would really damage me," says the 55-year-old Toronto woman, who asked that her real name not be used. "To another person, it might roll off their back, literally — like no bruise. They want you to do it even harder."

Still, acts that would constitute assault, such as a punch or kick in the face, are "completely unacceptable," and would result in ostracism by the community of the perpetrating partner.

While she believes many women fantasize about being ravished — hence the popularity of bodice-ripping romance novels — "this in no way indicates a desire for an actual assault to occur ... Actual assault is terrifying and dehumanizing. Fantasy play in this area is about feeling desirable but also about being in charge of everything that happens as a result of negotiating and being with someone who is there because he/she wants to make your fantasies come true."

In fact, she says, "BDSM can be a safe outlet for people who want to be dominated or dominating, or sadistic or masochistic."

While being open-minded about sexual practices, those in the kink community aren't always comfortable about letting their involvement be known outside their intimate circles, says Bernie, who suggested that Ghomeshi's firing has likely put a chill on the notion of being more open.

"In the kinky community right now, we're kind of in the same spot that the gay community was in fairly early on. Some people are coming out, others aren't easy" about the idea because there are so many misconceptions about BDSM, he says.

"I think it will take time for society to realize that kinky sex is not about abuse, it's not about violence. And those two things shouldn't be conflated."

Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.

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