What is kink? An expert sex education guide for beginners

What is Kink?

Here I explain what kink is, why people might like it, why people might not like it, and how it can be done safely and consensually. Quite a few people have been asking me to write about this.

Think of this as a general overview. If you want to do kink you are going to need to do a lot more reading and research than just this article. There are links throughout to other articles here about sex and kink, as well as other resources I would recommend. I’ve included those at the end.

What is kink?

How do people like it?

You don’t actually have to do it

Kink ≠ Sex

Power

Consent

Scenes

Safer BDSM

Disclaimer!

Most articles about kink are for adults and there’s probably a good reason for that. In order to practice kink you need to be pretty good at communicating about sexuality related things. You will also need to find other people who are good at this too and who you can trust. This is harder to do for younger folk. So although this website is for over 14s, I think you need to be quite a bit older to do a lot of this stuff. (Readers here are in their teens and twenties). You will see that it takes a lot of hard work that you just might not be experienced enough to do yet. Though sadly this is true of a lot of adults too. 

This is an explainer. Just as with all sex education, just because I’m explaining it, doesn’t mean I’m encouraging it. You might be someone who is just interested in learning about it and need a trusted source. Perhaps this is something that you think about but aren’t interested in doing with someone else at the moment, or ever. Maybe you have friends who talk about it and it worries you? Or you just want to be a well informed and smart young person of the world. 

There are no sexy pictures below, I’ve tried not to be too graphic, or heavy, and I do try to make my stupid uncle jokes throughout. Okay, on with the article. 

What is kink?

‘Kink’ is a set of pleasurable activities that people choose to do together that in other contexts are not pleasurable or usual. It’s also often called BDSM. BDSM is now just a general term which applies to activities, or fantasies, or scenes, that involve a consensual exchange of power. Where it’s agreed that one person has more power over another person (for a set period of time). What these people do is agreed in advance. It might involve physical control, sensory deprivation, restraint, or pain, humiliation, being told off. All the kinds of things that might usually be deeply unpleasant but in kink can feel wonderful. It’s something that a lot of people just fantasise about.

There’s a lot of overlap with rough sex, but kink is more about creating a scene or a vibe where people play with power. Rough sex is just doing various rough sexual activities together. Anyway, I’ve written about that here.

Often the word ‘vanilla’ is used to describe things that are not kink, or kinky. Vanilla is not boring or worse than kink, it’s just not kink. Sometimes kink is used really broadly to define anything that isn’t penis in vagina sex in a monogamous loving relationship. In this article kink is more about activities that can also be called BDSM.

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How do people like it?

A lot of people like kink, or have kinky thoughts, desires or fantasies. Perhaps most people at one time in their life. Remember kink is a huge range of things with different levels of intensity. Agreeing to be: tickled, or blindfolded, held down, have pain inflicted, be handcuffed, being told off, called a name, be degraded, chased, or held captive are just some of the thousands and thousands of things people can do or fantasise about. A lot of people have thoughts about what they might like to do to (or be done by) James Bond for example. 

It can be playful, funny, joyous, intense, thrilling, scary (in a good way), and deeply intimate. It can be a safe way for people to feel very intense feelings and experiences. They might laugh, cry, growl, zone out, feel helpless, all powerful, or in pleasurable pain. People who: do sport, or rock climbing or parkour, watch scary films, or go to theme parks, or loud music gigs, often report some of these same sensations.

So it’s no wonder that a lot of people either do some form of kink, or fantasise about it. It’s also very popular because it can really help people to figure things out about their non-kink selves too. Whether it’s dealing with past experiences, or thinking about their gender, or sexuality, or just the ability for them to experience an incredibly different mindbody experience that they might usually experience in their everyday lives. 

It’s not for everyone

However, it is really not for everyone. Some people only like to do things with partners that are very mutual, with very small amounts of exchange of power. That’s completely fine and should always be completely fine. 

One of the issues that we have in culture is that people think that we should always be extending ourselves and pushing ourselves to do more. I say no. If anything we should be encouraging each other to do less. Many people are completely put off from doing BDSM because of having something done to them during sex which was BDSM without their consent. 

If you’ve seen Normal People, and more importantly, read my Sex Ed guide to it, you’ll know that Marianne becomes kinkier as the show goes on. Connell was horrified by this. Different people like different things. If you don’t like kink you shouldn’t shame people who do. To quote feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin 

“Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere.” 

Gayle Rubin, Thinking Sex, 1984

There is no evidence that people are harmed from kink than from any sexual activity that people do together. It’s not less consensual, doesn’t cause more emotional harm or mental ill-health. There’s no evidence that people who are into it are ‘damaged’ more or less than anyone else.

You don’t actually have to do it

A lot of people fantasise about kink but might not be up for actually doing it in real life, either now, or forever. It’s the same as sex, you might have fantasies that you would never want to do, or can’t do, but that doesn’t make them any less hot. Fantasising about something is entirely different from doing something. 

We live in a culture where we are told that we have to act out our fantasies because of FOMO, but that is total rubbish. It’s important to remember that often when people try to put their fantasies into action it’s often rubbish. Fantasies about kink (or kinky things) are really common and it’s totally okay to have them and it’s totally okay not to do anything about them. 

Kink ≠ Sex

Whether kink is sex is up to the people doing it, but it’s really important to remember that kink is not sex for everyone. It’s common for people not to experience orgasms, or genital arousal, or ejaculation when they do kink. Some do, some don’t. There might be a bit of overlap or that they might do things that are more sexual before or after a kink scene. This all means that ace folk (asexual) can and do practice kink or have kink fantasies. 

This blurring of kink and sex is fine, but I also think it’s important to make it clear which is which sometimes. For example, porn often shows activities which have what a lot of people would consider kink – things like spanking, or choking, or pinning people down or restraining them. 

Sometimes they might subtly show how these things are done consensually. So they might say: things like ‘you want this don’t you’ or they might put their hand on someone’s bum before spanking it. Maybe one of the actors nods their head and establishes eye contact while being restrained or held by the neck. However a lot of the time porn doesn’t clearly show this stuff. Another example of porn not being a great source of education about sex – but you knew that right? Some would argue that this feeds into the cultural view about what sex is, more on this below.

Power

I’ve written about Tops and Bottoms so I don’t want to repeat myself too much. In kink and BDSM there is usually some kind of playing with power. It could be that one person plays the role of being in charge (dominant) throughout a whole scene, or the other person is submissive throughout, or you could choose to switch. This depends on how you feel about how this fits your personality. But you need to talk about this first. How are you going to do a kink scene if you are both doms, or subs for example? What do you want to get out of it? Is there a feeling you want to experience during it?

It’s a role

Kink is a way of trying out different ways of doing you in an entirely different context. It’s a bit of a cliche about the ‘high powered politician*’ being a submissive in a kink scene but it does give you an idea of how kink works for some people. If someone spends their time caring for other people all day they might really enjoy spending some time being totally and utterly helpless. Perhaps someone who is hesitant and cautious in their day to day might really enjoy feeling all powerful and godlike as a dom. 

The most important bit is talking about it though. It has to be as consensual as possible. You’re not playing the role of a nasty growly person if you don’t talk about it first, you are just being a nasty growly person. Even more than that, talking about it makes it happen. To do kink, or BDSM, is to be intentional and very different, that’s the point. It’s about creating contexts where you are able to do things that are not usual. So if you’re not talking about it, are you really doing kink?

(*this is one of the storylines of the TV show Billions – it’s great). 

The most important thing about anything we do is that it is consensual. That we are freely choosing to agree to do various things. This is also true for BDSM and kink. Without consent, kink and BDSM is violence and abuse. It is completely different to violence or abuse in relationships which is not agreed to in advance. In the same way that any sexual acts done without consent is sexual violence. 

We’ve talked about how with sex there are lots of ‘should stories’, or ‘societal scripts’ of how to do it. You know, kissing, ‘foreplay’, and then entry sex in exactly three different positions until orgasm. Often, instead of talking about what they actually want, people just follow this script. So they have some idea of what is going to happen even if they don’t talk about it. 

With kink and BDSM, we don’t have that. It can involve so many things, done in so many different ways, that we can’t just rely on following a script for how it’s done. In my view, we shouldn’t do that for sex either. Consent and communication is just as important in BDSM as it is in sex. We just that we don’t treat sex and consent as seriously as we should. 

Good consensual practice (as I’ve written about a lot on here,oh and in this book) are about paying attention to the before, during, and after. This means that (just like with sex, or watching a film with someone) you need to be able to communicate. 

Before

Before you do any kink activities with anyone else it’s really important to talk about the things that you want to do, what you might want to do but are unsure about, or the things you definitely don’t want to do. Just as I’ve advised you to do here for if you are working out what kinds of sex you might want to do. 

Think of all the different kinds of kinky activities you could do and make a list. I think it’s always a good idea to come up with your own, so just wordstorm everything you can think of and write them down, whether you are into it or not. There are lists of kinky activities on the internet you can go and find and there are some good ones here at Love Uncommon. 

Some of the broad categories of things to think about are how you might like to be/or do:

  • Restraint
  • Pain
  • Marked / mark
  • Serve / served
  • Discipline
  • Humiliation 
  • Controlled / be controlled

If you do go googling for things, there might be stuff that you might not like to see or even think about (also there are so many complex names for everything). So you might want to just check out the links at Love Uncommon, or use your imagination to come up with your own lists. 

Working out what you might like

Go through each one and either go tick, question mark, or cross. Or give each one a mark out of 10 from -10 ——— 0 ———— 10+  If you are new to kink you might not know exactly what you do want, but you might know what you don’t want. 

There might be some things that you know straight away that you don’t want. Things that go on the no list could be, anything that you know might trigger a trauma response in you (eg words you might get called), or might make you hyperventilate (eg being tickled), or if there’s a particular part of your body that is off limits. This is also a good point at which you should talk about your needs (which we should all be doing anyway). 

When you are doing these before chats it’s also a good idea to talk about what kind of emotional states you might be interested in experiencing. For example, do you want to feel elated, afraid, suffering, a release, serving someone, or being served, or the feeling of being intensely cared/caring?

During

Just as with sex, it’s important to remember that consent needs to be on-going and a scene can very quickly go from consensual to non-consensual. So talk about what kinds of communication strategies you are going to rely on during a kink scene. Remember that some of these might not be available to you, for example you can’t establish eye contact with someone who is blindfolded. Someone might not be able to speak if you have put a rolled up pair of socks in their mouth (clean or dirty, your choice). So you are going to have to talk about how you do on-going communication. Perhaps you might tap each other (like in wrestling, kinky af), or squeeze each others hands? 

If you are the person taking control in a scene it’s on you to be doing check-ins. So find ways of creating pauses throughout where you stop and ask. You can find ways to do it in character, you just have to use your imagination. 

Slow it down

One thing that often makes kink a little different from sex is that things can be a lot slower. There are often pauses while people arrange each other, or get tied to things, or about to be spanked. Rather than ‘killing the mood’ doing these things deliberately can actually increase the tension and the feeling. This also means there’s more room for checking in and doing something consensually.

If you are the dominant one, or the top, you can and should use these moments to make sure it’s okay. Using your words to explain what’s going to happen and why. Or starting off a bit slower or lighter to give them a chance to get used to it. Maybe slowly placing your hand on them very lightly so they know what is going to happen next (and can change their mind if they want to). 

People get really into safewords, as if this is the only thing to think about when doing kink. Lol. The reason that this is an issue is that for some kink scenes someone saying ‘no’ might be part of it. So if this is likely, you could have another word to communicate, or another set of words. Red, amber, green is very popular. Red = stop; amber = ease up a bit; green = this is all gravy (sometimes literally). Don’t choose something that might be difficult to say, or remember, like pamplemouse. Also if someone is saying no, and you’re not sure, assume it’s a no until they tell you otherwise. If someone says to you that you aren’t allowed to use your safeword, they are doing abuse and not kink.

This is all going to feel really different to a lot of things that you’ve done before. It’s different and you don’t know how it’s going to go exactly. That means there is no excuse not to be doing really good consent work. So either learn to get good at this, or don’t do kink (or anything else for that matter. Don’t. Do. Anything.)

After

Just like sex, going on a rollercoaster, eating a Hawaiian pizza, or watching Derby County, kink puts people in a very different mood at the end than when you began. Be really aware of that at the end and allow some time to decompress. Things can get really intense when you are playing around with restraint, deprivation, humiliation and power. Make sure that you make time for this at the end and factor that into your timings. 

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Scenes

A term used with people who do kink is that they have a ‘scene’. Just like a play or a film will have a scene where something dramatic happens. I think a scene is a useful idea because it reinforces this idea that is has a start, middle, and end. Some couples or play partners do actually extend the power play they have with each other beyond the ‘scene’ time. But if you are doing anything which is quite intense it’s good to think of a start middle and end. 

I also think that we should do this for sex too (you might have spotted a pattern here). You could use this resource of mine which is all about making first time sex good and do that for kink. Another thing to think about with the scene is to think about how noisy it might be. If you live with other people do you really want them hearing thwacking or squealing? 

Safer BDSM

Just as with sex, it’s really important to think about how to make things safer. There are different kinds of safety measures we need to think about with BDSM because we can cause different kinds of harms. I’m not going to go into all the detail about all of the things that you need to do (because I’ll be here forever), but there are some basic general ideas that you should be aware of. 

Tying people up

Famously in Fifty Shades of Grey the worst dom in the world Christian Grey used a cable tie on Ana. No no no. That can have sharp edges and also it is narrow so it is more likely to cause damage. They are also difficult to take off without using scissors. Use something more like the tie of a bathrobe, or a T shirt pulled over their heads, an old pair of legging, or some cheap cling film maybe. It might be more comfortable for the person being tied to have something between each part that is tied together. So something between the wrists. After you do it, check it’s okay. 

Spanking

Spanking (or impact play) is much safer when it’s done on a very fleshy part of someone’s body. For example their bum, or upper thigh. Be very very careful about anywhere else. Definitely avoid areas where there are organs, particularly the kidneys in the lower back.

If you are going to use an object because they want it to feel harder, make sure you both choose something which doesn’t have sharp edges and is generally smooth. Something wide and flat is good, possibly also with a bit of flex. These are known as paddles and it’s a good idea to get one from a sex shop. Sometimes people might also use canes or whips for this kind of thing too. It’s best to get those from a shop selling reputable kink stuff.

Before doing this you might also want to talk about any marks that you might leave on them. There might be many good reasons why someone doesn’t want their body to be marked, so talk about this beforehand. This also goes for restraining people, which can also  leave bruises.

Restraining

If you are going to put your hands on someone’s body to restrain them, start really slowly and lightly. You could practice this on your own body, or talk about how you are going to do this before the scene starts. If you do it slowly and lightly you are giving them the opportunity to shake their head, or say no, or amber or red, or whatever. So if you are putting your hands on their hands, or wrists, or arms, or legs, or grabbing their hair, just slowly increase the grip rather than doing it suddenly. Particularly if you are new to this. 

‘Choking’

Another form of this that people are talking about a lot at the moment is choking. That is when someone puts their hand on the other person’s neck. It’s important to make sure that you are not actually choking them. Restricting someone’s breathing is incredibly dangerous. People do practice what is known as ‘breath play’ but that is strictly for people who know what they are doing. Even then it can still be really dangerous. 

If you are both really into doing this, start very lightly and gently. This gives the person being held the chance to tell you how it feels. The hand should not be pressing on the windpipe heavily, if at all. It might be safer just under the jaw, or on the chin, or at the back of the head. 

For other practices like this and how they can be done more safely and consensually check out the What is Sex article. 

Other resources

Love Uncommon has some really nice guides to kink and sexuality

My mate Meg-John Barker is an expert on this and has written some BDSM 101 guides about Fifty Shades.

Also try reading The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.

© Justin Hancock, 2021

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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. Find out more about Justin here

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