What is S&M? Your guide to the pain and pleasure of sadomasochism

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” Rihanna once told the world, “but chains and whips excite me.” She was right, for the record. And her hit single “S&M” certainly awakened something kinky in many millennials. Before 50 Shades of Grey introduced stay-at-home mothers to bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism (or BDSM), Rihanna was turning on awkwardly grinding teens at junior prom.

Of course, S&M is a little different than what 50 Shades implies. The term is short for “sadism and masochism” and at times is interchangeable with “sadomasochism.” It’s half of the term “BDSM,” although not all practitioners of BDSM are particularly interested in sadism and masochism, nor are all S&M practitioners fans of Domination and submission (D/s).

What do you need to know if you’re interested in S&M? Well, read on.

What is sadism and masochism?

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Simply put, S&M “refers to the combination of sadism (inflicting pain) and masochism (receiving pain) to derive pleasure and sexual gratification,” according to Kinkly. “It can include the infliction of or submitting to physical or emotional pain.” But that’s just a textbook definition. To better understand what S&M involves, the Daily Dot talked to an expert in sadism.

Mistress Snow is a professional dominatrix and professor who recently wrote about her experience coming out as a sex worker to her mentor in graduate school. She told the Daily Dot that S&M is distinct from D/s; as a client expressed recently, submission and masochism aren’t mutually exclusive.

“He was interested in heavy pain—[cock and ball torture], [nipple torture], wax play, flogging, paddling, you name it—but not submission, and he made it very clear that he was a masochist but not a sub,” Snow told the Daily Dot. “I think that illustrates well the philosophies behind submission and masochism: Though they may have the same relationship to pain, submission is about giving your power to someone else and their hurting you, versus masochism, which is about inflicting pain on yourself. Likewise with domination versus sadism.”

While S&M is best known as a sexual practice, Snow says that it actually “has many uses,” including therapeutic, meditative, sexual, a combination of those three, or “just fun.” And of course, S&M can also be a form of sex work. Professional dominants provide sadomasochistic services in exchange for pay.

Is S&M healthy?

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The short answer is yes, S&M is healthy.

Enjoying sadism and masochism is like enjoying food, games, reading, movies, vanilla sex, porn, or just about any other pleasurable activity. What makes it healthy or harmful is whether it positively or negatively impacts your quality of life. For instance, relying on S&M to avoid painful emotions about a breakup isn’t necessarily helpful. But using S&M as a way to become more intimate with another person and build trust is a powerful and rewarding experience.

Additionally, healthy S&M has strong, communicated boundaries, and there are safety measures like safewords to stop scenes that are going too far. Experienced BDSM practitioners know this and watch carefully for signs to stop, whether those are verbally communicated or otherwise. And importantly, the kink community rejects the idea that S&M is merely some reflection of a person’s tortured mental state.

“The most pervasive myth I see is that women use sadomasochism to work through their trauma, regain agency, and/or express anger,” Snow told the Daily Dot. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lot of violenc e in my life, but S&M is the absolute last place I want to explore it. I don’t want my trauma to have anything to do with the consensual sex, play, or work in which I engage now.”

What should I know before I get started with S&M?

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Like extreme sports, urban exploration, or pretty much any hobby that involves rigorous physical activity, S&M fundamentally comes with risk. Improper S&M play can lead to serious injury, including death. Not all injuries are physical, either. Ignoring a safeword can be traumatizing, as can using slurs without permission during play scenes.

As part of the larger BDSM community, S&M practitioners regularly preach RACK: risk-aware consensual kink. Leather spaces take this risk very seriously, and irresponsible practitioners can quickly find themselves without play partners. But no matter how many fail-safes are in the room, S&M play fundamentally comes with some level of risk for even the most risk-aware. Play means putting your life into another person’s hands, and these are hands that you should trust deeply to know what they’re doing technically and emotionally.

There are many ways to do S&M. Some people enjoy heavy pain, while others prefer the occasional spanking and slap across the face. In some cases, S&M is best enjoyed through emotional pain, not physical, like degrading someone, humiliating them, or making them feel small and weak. A person’s relationship with S&M may vary from subject to subject; some women prefer sadism with men and masochism with other women. In Snow’s case, she enjoys masochism but only trusts sadists who are trans men, cis and trans women, or femme nonbinary and gender nonconforming folks.

“My own relationship to S&M is very long and complicated. The Sparknotes version: I enjoy masochism as a tool to intimidate. I have a higher pain tolerance than anyone I’ve met in the scene, at work, or in the real world, save for one other domme at the dungeon. She recently lit herself on fire during a scene… nope. She wins,” Snow said. “I like to demonstrate that I’m unbreakable.”

And like other kink communities, Snow’s advice for queer folks who want to see a professional dominatrix? Go for it! Seeing a diverse range of clients helps professional dommes “play with aspects of sadomasochism with which we may not engage otherwise,” she said.

“Omg PLEASE! Many if not most of the dommes I know are queer, and we are ELATED when someone who isn’t a cis man [walks] in,” Snow said. “The pleasure I get from dominating women isn’t only because I like to see them in pain. I want to help them drop the defenses we’re all forced to build around ourselves by making them, well, defenseless.”

So don’t be afraid to partake in a little S&M. Just be ready to learn the ropes (no pun intended) and know how to communicate what you want from play. “TL;DR: Get thee to a dungeon, fellow queers!” Snow said. “Preferably mine.”