My partner and I are working our way through a show on Hulu called Harlots. One of the main characters, Nancy, runs her own brothel and works as a Dominatrix. In one notable scene we see a harlot and her client approaching Nancy for advice on something. The client is a little intimidated and the harlot says, “It’s not like she’s going to flay you for free!”, implying of course that you’d have to enthusiastically consent to such a beating. During the finale of the first season, we see our Domme teaching a new harlot to be sexually dominant by having her practice with a wooden flogger on a sack of flower she’s hung from the ceiling. I said, “I want clips of this scene for all my classes!” Not only is she wildly sexy and entertaining, Nancy is a beautiful example of safer sex practices in BDSM.
I often try to include tips for safely using new toys or tools included in your Kink Crate*, but this article will cover my top 3 tips for staying safe(r), no matter what sexual activity or BDSM game you’re engaging in: Research, Informed Consent, Practice (RIP).
The first step to risk reduction is awareness. You can’t protect yourself and your partners against something you can’t identify or anticipate. People often think immediately of STls/STDs or pregnancy when we talk about sexual risk, and those are definitely important considerations, but what about other kinds of risk? You’re responsible for protecting yourself and only you can determine how much risk you’re willing to endure. The best way to figure out what that risk will be is to consider the core elements of the experience and what potential impact those may have on you as a person.
I organize categories of risk like this:
These are often the easiest risks to consider and the ones people think of first. This includes risks to life and limb (ex: understanding where to spank someone and where to avoid spanking them to keep from doing damage to internal organs), allergic reactions to materials you may come in contact with (ex: materials in your toys or lube), and spread of illness and infection (ex: not just STIs but things like colds and yeast infections).
- Emotional/mental (and spiritual)
These are risks that folks tend to overlook or underestimate. When you engage with other folks in intimate ways, you become vulnerable to a range of emotional and mental reactions, and, at least to a point, you’re trusting them with that vulnerability. “No strings attached (NSA)” sex is an excellent example of this. You can set clear boundaries on things like your behavior, time, or level of commitment, but most people have little control over their heart and emotions. Agreeing to NSA sex means you risk feeling emotional attachment for someone who isn’t willing/able to be in a relationship with you beyond that moment. Another example from the BDSM community, is “drop” after a scene. BDSM scenes can be quite physically and mentally intense. When they’re over, folks on both sides of the D/s slash can experience a drop in adrenaline and other hormone levels that leaves them feeling down, tired, depressed, and any number of other things.
For folks who are so inclined, this could also include spiritual elements like balancing your religious or spiritual beliefs with your sexual desires and behaviors.
Financial risk might include the costs of traveling to see a partner or shacking up with them – those are risks we consider readily. But what about realizing you have an interest in, for example, rope play. Determining your threshold for financial risk means balancing the cost for quality, reliable products with your experience and expertise level. When you’re new to rope, you don’t need a trunk full of top-of-the-line suspension gear right out of the gate, but if you order the cheapest rope find on Amazon you increase your risk of physical injury by buying a low-quality product.
Social risks are what’s at stake when other people discover your activities or identities. Social risks include the impact things could have on your family situation, your job, your social circles, and other interpersonal relationships and communities you’re involved in. Things to consider include how you interact online and with whom, what photos you allow to be taken and what photos you send to other people, information you share in public and semi-public spaces, and even whether or not you decide to date and play in your home community or go outside your community to play. People are getting better at considering their risk when sending nude selfies or using fake screennames, so let’s take that last item as an example. You may decide that you live in a small town and have a job at a conservative organization, so when you visit dungeons for playtime, you travel a few cities away to do so. You’ll have to balance your desire for anonymity with your threshold for the risk you incur when traveling out of town or playing with folks you don’t interact with every day.
Research is the education part of your sexual safety journey. It involves making a good faith effort to learn what you can about your activity of choice (or toy of choice, or condom of choice, or dungeon of choice, etc.), considering the ways in which you may be exposing yourself to risks (using the above categories can be a useful framework), and then researching how to reduce that risk down to a level that makes you feel comfortable moving ahead with that activity. Research also includes understanding your own body, abilities, and limitations. This includes, but isn’t limited to, knowing your STI status, determining if you have an allergy to latex condoms, visiting your healthcare provider to ask if this new activity will flare up an old injury (Pro tip: asking “how will this impact my sex life” when you’re at your healthcare provider’s office can be a game changer).
If you’re having trouble educating yourself on one area or another, consider enlisting the help of a professional sex educator or consultant (that’s what we’re here for, after all).
You can’t give informed consent without having done step one – the research step. If you don’t have the information, then how will you know what you’re saying “yes” to? This also means having a conversation with your partner(s) about the activities you’ll be doing together and gaining their consent as well. The length, duration, and detail of this conversation will depend entirely upon each of you, your experience level with the activity, and the activity itself. If you’re on PrEP and using a condom, you may feel comfortable having anonymous sex in the bathroom at your favorite club with almost no conversation at all. However you may decide more conversation is needed if, for example, you discover one of you doesn’t have a condom. This is not about quizzing partner(s) to make sure they’re experts in blow jobs before you whip your dick out. This is about establishing a mutual level of comfort and enthusiasm before moving ahead. Only you and your partner(s) can determine what that mutual level is. Communicate what you understand the risks to be and the information you have about reducing it (or not reducing it) and encourage your partner to do the same. Maybe you have herpes simplex 1 (commonly occurs as cold sores), so together you decide that you’re both comfortable having condomless oral sex as long as you’re not experiencing a flare up, even if that leaves your partner slightly exposed. Perhaps you have a longtime partner who you do not typically use condoms with – they are on birth control pills and you both get tested for STIs annually. They come to you and tell you they are taking antibiotics and then together you decide to use condoms until next month when they’re off antibiotics and on a new pack of birth control pills. You can’t make these decisions without having the information you need. Do the research, share the information, gain consent.
This step is one of the most important. Remember our harlot with the flogger and the sack of flour? If she’d practiced on a client instead of the
flour, she may have accidentally caused him serious bodily harm. The more complicated or unfamiliar the new activity is, the more you will want to practice. Practice doesn’t just include new skills like rope and impact play. Practice can include things like integrating condom use into your sex life in a way that doesn’t break the flow of the moment. Practice opening them, unrolling them, putting them on or taking them off. If you’ve got a vagina and are using internal condoms, practice using one a few times alone before using one with a partner. Same goes for folks with a penis using traditional, external condoms. One of my favorite skills to suggest to folks is integrating condoms into their oral sex! With practice, you can do this without even using your hands! I learned with a bag of flavored condoms and a dildo.
Practice also includes communication. It may feel awkward to ask a partner about their testing status, their level of comfort taking charge in bed, or the last time they used a butt plug. But if you can’t talk about your wants, needs, desires, and dislikes, you won’t be able to give your best level of enthusiastic and informed consent. Practice these conversations in a mirror or with a trusted friend.
Depending on the activity and your comfort level, you may consider visiting a workshop in your local play space or seeing an educator or consultant one-on-one. You can also find a variety of how-to videos and blogs online. I suggest seeking out educators and not porn. Learning to have sex by watching porn is like learning to drive by watching The Fast and The Furious. That being said, there are many porn stars and sex workers who also do amazing work as educators.
The amount of practice you’ll need will change with each new partner and each new activity. Ask your partner how familiar they are with a new skill and enjoy the process of learning together!
These tips are meant to be a general overview; things for you to consider as you move through your journey as a sexual being. This is not everything you need to know about risk, but it will hopefully give you a good jumping off point to creating your own risk profile and engaging in your own personal risk management. I encourage you to keep notes! My intention is for this information to feel empowering, not scary. We say safer sex, not safe sex, but sex is never completely risk free. Actually, my favorite term is Risk Aware Sex, because that’s the best you can hope for. Everyone’s comfort with risk is different, and there’s no right or wrong when it comes to determining your own personal risk threshold. Do your best (which will change over time) to empower yourself with the information you need to have sex and relationships that feel secure, safe, and comfortable to you.
*Originally written for the Kink Crate handbook. Check out Kink Crate here.