photos by Daniela Buvat

I never thought I would find myself searching “BDSM for beginners” on Google, but here I am.

I’m staring at a wall of dildos in every length, girth and color imaginable. As I’m questioning who in the world is fitting that large of an object in any orifice of their body, I turn and face the nipple tassels, edible lube and Ben Wa balls. I’m at the Lion’s Den, an “adult superstore” right off Interstate 80 in Newton, Iowa.  This is my first visit to a sex store, let alone one of this magnitude. I’ve only ever perused the back department of Spencer’s and giggled at the penis shaped macaroni and cheese. I have no idea where to begin.

But I know what I want. I’m here because I want to get kinky, or at least attempt to.

I head for the the aisle of whips and gags, my boyfriend in tow. Our goal: BDSM [short for bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism] a la Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. This is a big move for me. In the bedroom, I’m usually a simple girl with simple needs. And don’t get me wrong, that works great for me. But seeing the rise in awareness of BDSM culture — first through literature and then film to now being considered an almost common aspect of sex — I feel like there has to be something about it that can appeal to even an average girl like me.

Much of this mainstreaming of BDSM can be contributed to the Fifty Shades trilogy. The bestselling books by E.L. James feature steamy sex scenes with Grey and Steele, and sold more than 125 million copies. Unsurprisingly, Christian and Anastasia’s story quickly made its way to the big screen. The first two movies of the planned trilogy made nearly $1 billion at the box office. The third, Fifty Shades Freed, will be out Valentine’s Day of 2018.

But for those within the community, the thing that brought BDSM into the mainstream is almost an insult to the culture. Sarah Smith, a 21-year-old student in Colorado, who requested her real name not be used, says she first heard about BDSM through the Fifty Shades trilogy and was immediately turned off by the depiction — the sex isn’t always consensual or safe throughout the trilogy. Smith says the way BDSM is depicted in Fifty Shades is “the worst representation of BDSM ever created.” Harsh criticism, but hard to disagree with when you better understand what BDSM really is.

Real Kink

First off, BDSM is more than just pulling a whip out. It’s a collection of sexual practices that uses pain, or the threat of it, as well as placing one individual in control while the other is submissive, in hopes of achieving some form of erotic freedom. This can take the form of sensation play, where one of the senses is taken away, like being blindfolded. Or it can be something more drastic, like using restraints: handcuffs, ankle-cuffs, thigh-cuffs, straps, bondage tape, rope and gags are some popular options.

When Smith first tried BDSM, her partner used both a blindfold and her own bondage technique, tying Smith’s arms behind her back with a pillowcase. Smith says her partner made sure she felt comfortable and safe, and assured her she would never force Smith to do anything she didn’t want to. “She proceeded to tease me with her hands and with ice, and then she f****d me,” Smith says. “I could not believe I had been missing out on sex like this for so long. It was the single greatest feeling I had ever experienced.”

But while Smith might have had an incredible experience, others still label it is odd, deviant or even shameful. A lot of people, as Smith says, “kink shame.” There’s certain rhetoric that belittles BDSM and makes those that partake and enjoy it feel like they’re being made fun of for how they live their lives. “I just want to be able to openly talk about my sex life, just like everyone else, without the fear of being told I’m gross or a freak,” Smith says.

Instead, she says she wishes people understood that those who participate in BDSM are not “weird” or “unhealthy.” In fact, it has helped her—and many others—find their identity and more. BDSM has given Smith a community that welcomes her for who she is. “BDSM is an outlet for me to express safety and trust with other people who accept me for all my kinks, fetishes, desires, curiosities and boundaries,” she says.

“I could not believe I had been missing out on sex like this for so long. It was the single greatest feeling I had ever experienced.”

Brad Sagarin, a professor of social psychology at Northern Illinois University, has done research into why people enjoy BDSM and what they get out of the experience psychologically. He says it’s all positive, as long as it is consensual. “BDSM can lead to an increase in intimacy between the people that participate in it, pleasurable altered states of consciousness and decreases in psychological stress,” Sagarin says.

For me, exploring those curiosities was, well, frightening. A Google search for phrases like “dominatrix near me” and “BDSM for beginners” took me down a rabbit hole of sketchy online group chats and erotic photos of women being tied up. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for. An actual BDSM for Beginners, one that didn’t start with sex swings or complicated hogties, would have been great.

Trying A New Flavor

I don’t have to beg my boyfriend to agree to having a ton of sex for a week or two. I figure it wouldn’t hurt to try a little bit of everything in the name of experimentation, though it still does end up hurting a little…

We started with the simple stuff: tying my wrists to the bed, using a shirt to cover my eyes and ice cubes to heat things up. And all that was fine, nothing earth shattering. So we quickly decided to up our game and head right for the Lion’s Den.

As expected, there’s a section dedicated to toys from the Fifty Shades trilogy right next to other bondage and fetish items. I take a quick look at them, but they’re way beyond my price range, so I stick with the generic brand ropes and flogs. After a lot of contemplation and pacing back and forth, my boyfriend and I leave with Ben Wa balls and a two-in-one flogger and feather tickler.

Getting Ballsy

bondage lifestyle

We start with the Ben Wa balls. They’re two spheres, about an inch wide, connected by a cord that has a long loop on one end for retrieval. When the balls are in place, slight movements of the hips or thighs should cause them to roll or make contact with one another, producing a pleasant vibration.

Sticking a foreign object up my vagina is not necessarily my idea of a sexy time, especially when a lot of sources give you tips on how to get them out if they become stuck. Fully prepared to bear down if needed, I insert the balls with the help of my boyfriend. Once they’re in, I start to wiggle around. I stand up, sit down, and move my hips and butt back and forth. Nothing. My boyfriend rubs and massages my thighs and butt to see if they’ll move around. Nada.

A little disappointed, we remove them — they come out with ease, thank the Lord. Hopefully some flogging will cause a little more excitement.

bondage lifestyle

My boyfriend starts out nice and easy with the feather tickler along my sides, which is effective due to the fact that I am intensely ticklish. Then, when I least expect it, he uses the flog end. The flog we bought is small, so each slap stings for only a moment, then quickly goes away. The tails of the flog actually feel nice when slowly dragged across my body, but as soon as I calm down after a slap and start to enjoy the gentle touch, my boyfriend coils back for another light flogging.

Although I still feel pretty foolish and way out of my element, the whole act feels fun and sort of mischievous. It helps me understand the excitement and pleasure of doing something people consider to be so taboo.

Future Dominatrix?

An important disclaimer: what I’ve done is hardly real BDSM. I merely tested the waters, feeling too out of my element to dive headfirst into it. But, after my experience with BDSM and all the research I did, I have a better understanding of it.

Sagarin explains there is yet to be one explanation as to why certain people enjoy BDSM more than others. “I think different people develop their sexual taste and preferences from a variety of different sources,” he says. “It’s based on whatever arouses them.” Unlike what most seem to believe, Sagarin refutes the idea that the majority of those who participate in BDSM have any psychological deformities.

“I wish more people understood that BDSM can be one of the best tools for creating a safe, consensual and healthy space for sex,” Smith says. “Recognize that as long as sex is consensual and safe, it doesn’t really matter what kinds of acts people choose to partake in with each other.”

That doesn’t mean everyone is as accepting of her kinks—or kink in general. The stigma surrounding BDSM still prevents people like Smith from feeling comfortable enough to share their experiences with sex and be accepted. She feels comfortable talking to me about BDSM, but she still isn’t willing to have her real name published in this story.

“BDSM can be one of the best tools for creating a safe, consensual and healthy space for sex.”

While BDSM is having a moment in pop culture, it still predominantly hides in between the sheets. And I think we should pull those sheets back and have a real conversation about it, one that accepts people and their desires rather than ostracizes them.  

My boyfriend and I attempted to get kinky, but I highly doubt I will continue to experiment. For the most part, BDSM makes me feel uncomfortable, silly and — ironically — longing for my vanilla sex life.

Regardless, people shouldn’t feel “kink shamed” for doing what they like. If you like to tie people up, or be tied up, or if you enjoy the sting of a flog or like to have your nipples clamped, then that’s your prerogative. I, on the other hand, will probably continue to be a simple girl with simple needs.

“BDSM is not for everyone,” Smith says, “and if people only want to have vanilla sex, then they definitely should.”