A Glossary of Power Exchange

One of the most confusing things for novice kinksters when they get into BDSM is just figuring out the vocabulary. There are lots of different terms for different things, and the terms aren’t fully standardized. Some kinksters will certainly disagree with the exact boundaries of different terms, and there are variations from one community or region to another, but I think most kinksters will roughly agree with the definitions that I’m going to provide here.

Note: this glossary will not attempt to describe all the forms of possible play and fetishes. There are just too many for this post. The terms I’m going to give here are ones that I think novices might frequently run in to.

General Terms

Abuse: 1) A common term for pain play, humiliation, and verbal abuse when employed for erotic purposes. Although pleasurable, these things may be framed as cruel. “I gave my boy some really good abuse last night.” 2) Improper or non-consensual use of things like pain play, humiliation, and verbal abuse in a genuine domestic abuse situation. Used in this sense, the term stands in contrast to BDSM, which is consensual.

Aftercare: Care-taking activities performed by a dom for the sub after a Scene has ended. Aftercare may involve snuggling, pillow-talk, wrapping the sub in a warm blanket or bathrobe, providing the sub with a hot or sugary beverage, or just the sub needing to nap or being alone and reflective. These things help some subs recover from the stress of a Scene and process the experience.

Bondage: a form of sexual activity in which one partner is restrained in some fashion using ropes, chains, handcuffs, leather straps, hoods, blindfolds, straight-jackets, cages, and so on.

BDSM: Broadly speaking, BDSM is any sort of non-standard sexual play that involves power exchange. The word is a combination of three pairs of acronyms: bondage & discipline, dominance & submission, and sadism & masochism.

CBT: Cock and ball torture. A sex act in which a dom torments a submissive male’s penis and testicles through things such as a slapping, electro play, sounding, and bondage.

Chastity: Denying a submissive man the ability to masturbate or orgasm. Sometimes this is purely by command, in which case the sub has to beg for permission to use his penis. Sometimes this is done through wearing a chastity device of some sort.

CNC: Consensual Non-Consent: An alternative standard to SSC. Consensual non-consent emphasizes that the sub has agreed to a form of play that mimics non-consensual play, for example, a kidnapping or rape scene. While the sub has agreed in advance to the scene, during the scene, the sub may protest and resist and may in some sense want to stop the play but not be permitted to. This is the most extreme standard for kink play because it borders on being non-consensual.

Collar: An item of clothing, usually worn around the neck, that symbolizes a dom’s authority over the sub. Most commonly, this is a leather collar/choker, but it may also be a chain or, for those trying to be discreet, a necklace/pendant of some sort. Some kinksters distinguishing play collars (a collar worn for a specific scene to help set the mood), training collars (a collar given to the sub to indicate that the dom has a serious interest in or on-going relationship with the sub, equivalent to wearing a vanilla partner’s class ring or similar love token) and a commitment collar (indicating an essentially permanent relationship, equivalent to a wedding ring). A collaring ceremony may be conducted to provide a social declaration of the relationship.

Consent: The bedrock of BDSM for most kinksters (although CNC makes this a gray area). Consent means that the sub agrees to engage in a particular form of play with a specific partner in a specific situation. Without consent, much of what a dom does is both immoral and illegal. This means that the sub ultimately sets the limits for what play can happen.

Discipline: Forms of bondage and pain play that are intended to be pleasurable and to help the partners push the limits of their abilities. Often conflated with Punishment. Sometimes called Play Punishment.

Domdrop: An emotional state experienced by some doms in the aftermath of a Scene. It may occur just an hour or two afterward, up to 48+ hours. It is characterized by feelings of moodiness, depression, guilt, shame, or anger, or sometimes just a loss of the heightened reality of submission and the return to ‘normal life’.

Domination/Dominance: The act of exerting control over a receptive partner, through things such as bondage, verbal commands, insults, and so on.

Dominant: the partner who is exercising control and authority in a particular scene. ‘Dom’ for short (‘Domme’ is a common female variation). There are many different flavors of dominant, which will discussed in a separate post. Note: ‘Dominant’ is an adjective (“the dominant partner’) that kinksters use as a noun (“I am Bill’s dominant”). The corresponding verb is ‘dominate’. Do not call yourself or someone else a ‘dominate’. That typically sets an experienced kinkster’s teeth on edge and marks you out as an extreme novice.

Dungeon: Any space that has been set aside or prepared for use in a Scene. Dungeons are most commonly in basements or attics, but can be any space that is equipped with kinky furniture such as a spanking bench, a St. Andrew’s Cross, or a cage.

Fetish: 1) In general usage, a specific type of kink that someone engages in because they enjoy it. “Piss play is one of my favorite fetishes.” 2) In strict usage among psychologists, a fetish is an act or object that a person requires for sexual gratification. In this sense, someone with a cigar fetish will struggle to enjoy sex unless cigars or similar objects are involved, and may not be able to orgasm without them.

Findomming: A form of power exchange in which a sub gives a dom money or gifts as a form of sexual activity. A slave giving a master a birthday present, for example, is not in most cases findomming. It is a form of play often done over the internet, although meeting in person can sometimes happen. Some kinksters do not consider this a legitimate form of BDSM because of the potential for abuse.

Hard Limit: A type of play that a sub chooses to put completely off-limits. “Unprotected sex is a hard limit for me.” Hard limits are generally things that a sub is not intending to move past except possibly with a lot of discussion beforehand. Over time a hard limit may become a soft limit, but it may also remain a hard limit throughout a relationship. Attempting to introduce a form of play that a sub has set a hard limit on during a scene is a violation of the sub’s consent and therefore unethical.

Kink: Any non-standard sexual activity that involves some degree of power exchange between the participants. This term is sometimes used as a catch-all (“I’ve gotten into kink lately”), but it can also be used to refer to specific types of play or sexual interests (“what kinks are you into?”). It’s also commonly a synonym for BDSM. The opposite of kink is ‘vanilla’.

Kinkster: One who practices some form of Kink.

Leather: 1) Leather clothing worn by Kinksters for erotic purposes, such as jackets, chaps, shirts, and boots, and associated forms of play, such as hyper-masculine performance, piss play, bondage, and erotic torture. 2) Among older gay Kinksters, a general term for Kink/BDSM.

Masochism: The reception of pain, either physical or emotional, for sexual gratification. One who enjoys receiving pain is a Masochist.

Munch: A social gathering of kinksters, usually conducted in a public place such as a restaurant or mall food-court, and typically done in street clothes. The purpose of a munch is to socialize, meet prospective play partners in a safe space, and discuss various topics. Sex is generally not a part of munches; that is what play parties are for. Munches are more common among straight kinksters than gay ones.

Old Guard, the: A semi-mythical group of gay Leatherman who theoretically operated in the period before the AIDS Crisis. The Old Guard are conceived of as having strict rules about their social hierarchy and how subs were treated. Research strongly suggests that there was so much variation in pre-AIDS gay Leather society that such a group never truly existed. Those who describe themselves as Old Guard today broadly mean that they maintain strict rules and protocols.

Pain Play: Sex acts in which a dominant inflicts pain on a submissive, such as spanking, cropping, caning, flogging, paddling, tit torture, and so on. Also ‘erotic torture’.

Play Party: A private gathering of kinksters for purposes of having kinky sex. Play parties may be simple, minimally-organized events (essentially just kinky orgies), or highly-structured ones with standing rules about dress, behavior, enforcement monitors, and what sex acts are acceptable. Before attending a play party, find out the rules and follow them.

Power Exchange: Originally this term referred to the energy that flowed between dom and sub during sex; the sub’s submission encourages the dom to be more aggressive, and the dom’s aggression encourages the sub to be more submissive. More recently, however, it has become a term for the surrender of control and authority that a sub gives to a dom, either during a scene or in the context of a relationship. Power exchange implies inequality. Thus, broadly speaking, vanilla people do not engage in power exchange even if one partner may have more control over, for example, financial or parenting decisions. In power exchange relationships, inequalities are explicitly discussed, negotiated, and agreed upon.

Protocol: A standing rule about how a sub (typically a slave) is supposed to behave. A slave may have a protocol to always walk two paces behind their master or to greet their master by kneeling and kissing their feet.

Punishment: 1) Forms of bondage and pain play that are intended to be pleasurable but which are framed as punishments for role-playing purposes. “You’ve been a very naughty girl. I’m going to have to spank you.” The same thing as Discipline. 2) Harsh activities, such as spanking or paddling, intended as genuine punishment for a sub’s improper behaviors in a relationship.

RACK: Risk-Aware Consensual Kink. An alternative standard to SSC. It emphasizes that those involved in a form of play are aware of the risks of the form of play they are doing (such as flogging or temporary piercing), accept those risks, and mutually consent to the activity.

Run: An event organized by a gay motorcycle or Leather club for purposes of sex and kinky activity. Runs typically are weekend- or week-long events in rural spaces such as campgrounds. Essentially, a Run is a multi-day Play Party.

Sadism: The inflicting of pain, either physical or emotional, for sexual gratification. One who enjoys inflicting pain is a Sadist.

Safe call: A safety precaution some subs employ when meeting a new dom. A Safe Call involves telling a third party exactly who the sub will be meeting and where they will be during play. The safe caller calls the sub at a preset time (perhaps an hour into the scheduled scene). If the safe caller cannot reach the sub (or if the sub uses a special code word), the safe caller calls the police, tells them what the situation is, and asks the police to check on the sub’s safety.

Safe Word (or Safeword): A code word that a sub can use to stop a scene if they are unhappy or physically distressed. A good Safe Word is easy to remember and say, but unlikely to occur during the scene, meaning that it is an unambiguous way for the sub to call a halt. Because a sub has a Safe Word, the sub can protest and resist without indicating that they actually want to stop. In scenes where the sub may not be able to speak (because they are muzzled, for example), they may use a Safe Gesture or hold onto a Safe Toy (which they drop if they want the scene to stop).

Scene: A discrete (not discreet) sexual encounter in which Power Exchange or Kink occurs, although actual penetrative sex may not necessarily occur. Thus Kinksters talk about doing “a fisting scene” or “a heavy pain play scene”.

Soft Limit: A type of play that a sub is reluctant to engage in, but is willing to allow the dom to ‘push’ under some circumstances, usually after the pair has developed some trust. “I know that bondage is a soft limit for you, but today I want to push that by using a blindfold.” Soft limits are understood to be things that a sub may grow to overcome with a dom’s guidance.

SSC: Safe, sane, and consensual. The term was first used by the late david stein in a pamphlet, and came to be used as a general term for healthy kink activity. It emphasizes that play should be safe physically and psychologically, that reasonable limits and safeguards are employed, and that all parties involve agree to play. As time has gone on, some kinksters have argued that the term is too subjective (no sex is 100% safe; what seems sane to one person may seem insane to another). But the term has become the most widely used metric for appropriate kink play.

Stoplight Colors: The most common Safe Word system. ‘Green’ means “things are good, I’m enjoying myself, keep going.” ‘Yellow’ means “slow down, I’m approaching a limit, I might need a quick break.” ‘Red’ means “stop the play. I’m unhappy, I need help, or I’ve reached a limit.’ During play, subs may simply say ‘Red’ or ‘Yellow’, or the dom may give a Stoplight Check as a way to ask the sub how they are doing.

Subdrop: An emotional state experienced by some subs in the aftermath of a Scene. It may occur just an hour or two afterward, up to 48+ hours. It is characterized by feelings of moodiness, depression, guilt, shame, or anger, or sometimes just a loss of the heightened reality of submission and the return to ‘normal life’.

Submission: The act of yielding control and power to a dominant partner to receive things such as bondage, pain play, humiliation, and the like.

Submissive: The partner who is surrendering power and receiving some form of control, authority, or aggression from a dominant. It is an adjective that kinksters use as a noun. (“I am Rebecca’s submissive.”) ‘Sub’ for short. There are many different flavors of dominant, which will be discussed in a separate post.

Subspace: A state that some Subs enter into, most commonly during Pain Play, in which they feel detached from their bodies in some way. This may feel like floating or flying, or a trance of some sort. Subspace has both psychological and physiological components to it. Not all subs are able to achieve Subspace.

Training: Generally speaking, the activity that goes on during a scene. In some cases, training is meant to shape the way a sub behaves long-term or to push a slave’s ability to tolerate certain forms of play.

TPE: Total Power Exchange. A type of kinky relationship in which the sub strives to surrender complete control to their dom. Roughly speaking, this is a synonym for slavery, particularly extreme slavery.

Vanilla: Traditional, mainstream sexual activity in which the partners are essentially interacting as equals (although gender dynamics often mean that a male partner has a bit more control than a female partner). While some forms of vanilla sex might occasion a bit of giggling or disapproval when discussed in casual conversation, vanilla sex is broadly socially acceptable. This means that exactly what is vanilla will differ from one community to another. Anal sex is completely vanilla in the gay community but among Christian Evangelicals, it’s still kinky.

24/7: A kinky relationship in which dom and sub are ideally exchanging power at all times, not just when they are having sex. Roughly speaking, this is a synonym for slavery.

50s Household: A relationship in which a Dominant man and a Submissive female recreate the traditional gender dynamics of the 1950s. The Dominant controls the finances and the Submissive manages the household. There may be some pain play or bondage, particularly spanking and light bondage, but the relationship is affectionate.

There are lots of other terms, particularly for specific sex acts, but I think this covers most of the general terms a novice might encounter and the most common way that these terms are employed. My next post will tackle the terms used for different types of kinkster.

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