BDSM Contracts Really Exist — I'm A Sexual Submissive And Here's How 'Fifty Shades' Got Them Wrong

Fifty Shades of Grey might have gotten a lot wrong about the BDSM experience, but there’s one thing it got very right: The presence of a BDSM contract when a couple is negotiating the particulars of their relationship. Before he had so much as seen her naked, Christian Grey pulled out a stack of papers for Anastasia Steele to fill out, outlining the terms of their agreement — everything from when they would spend time together to what they each would and wouldn’t do sexually. 

The contract wasn’t just a figment of author E. L. James’ imagination. In BDSM communities, these kinds of contracts help dominants and submissives play with each other safely, both emotionally and physically. By establishing ground rules, each partner knows what’s expected of them. It also makes issues of consent — which is crucial when power exchange and pain are involved — crystal clear. The contracts are sometimes verbal, with details ironed out during conversation rather than in text, but no matter the medium, partners will almost always discuss their experience levels, hard limits, and safe words before “playing” together.

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I’m a straight-ish female submissive who has been exploring my kinky side in the San Francisco BDSM community for the last year. Submitting to a dominant has been a simultaneously comforting and erotic experience for me, as it is for many people. It’s a relief to give up control, by choice, to someone I trust. It harkens back to childhood, when others called the shots. There is a simplicity to it that helps me connect to sexual sensations and receive pleasure.

I’ve had fantasies about being dominated for most of my adult life. Even as a young teenager I remember getting excited at the idea of being grabbed and taken by a guy I had a crush on. These fantasies didn’t and still don’t align with my feminist values. Why was I craving something that would be traumatic and terrible if it actually happened in real life? Although I have no interest in letting a man dictate my career or personal life, letting him do it in the bedroom titillates me. And, as Emily McCombs wrote for xojane, “my orgasms are a politics-free zone.

Eventually I’ve learned that the salient term when letting him take charge in the bedrooom is the “letting him.” It’s my choice to submit to a dom in this way or any other way. That’s the key distinction separating dom-sub relationships from slavery, rape, or abuse. There is nothing wrong with craving these experiences, and consent is emphasized again and again in kink communities. 

That’s where the contract comes in. As I wrote about earlier, one of the biggest problems in Fifty Shades of Grey is the way Christian manipulates Ana. He doesn’t wait for her to sign the contract before he starts dominating her, and he pressures her with ultimatums. That’s decidedly against kink best practices, and it borders on abusive.

I’m still a newbie as far as submissive people go, but I’ve negotiated scenes and relationships with several doms at play parties and in the privacy of our homes. In the interest of educating people about how this stuff works, I reached out to my BDSM community, got my hands on such a dom-sub contract, and filled it out with the answers I’d give a dom. 

Typically, my partner and I would go over these questions to decide what would take place in the “scene,” which is the term for our interaction together. This contract itself by no means encompasses all types of BDSM partnerships, nor are my answers representative of the entire community, but this will give you a sense of what one of these looks like. Perhaps Christian and Anastasia should have taken closer note.

As you'll see, real BDSM contracts are little more scandalous than the kink-lite 50 Shades version.

1. I stick with easy safe words that I won’t have trouble recalling if I want to slow down or end a scene. A good dom doesn’t only rely on a safeword for knowing when to stop. They pay close attention to their sub’s physical responses, navigating exactly how far to push them.

Sometimes, subs can be reluctant to utter their safewords — it can feel like an admission of defeat or of disappointing your dom. Since BDSM is about testing your own personal limits, it’s hard to know in the moment whether it’s right to end the scene when it becomes uncomfortable. We see that at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey. Ana doesn’t say her safe word despite the fact that she was crying, scared, and in pain. If Christian had been in tune with her, he would’ve known he had gone too far.

2. Names are important because they help you get into your own submissive or dominant head space. Depending on the relationship between the dom and sub names could range from “my little pet” to “king of my world.” "Daddy" or "mommy" is a popular term for doms, although I’ve never been able to get into that. 

I’m embarrassed to admit that the term I like for myself as a sub is “slut.” In theory, it goes against all my feminist ideals, but I’ve found that reappropriating the repressive word in an erotic space — by my own choice — is a way to heal and experience it in a new way.

3. Safety first! Asthma could be fatal if players are using a gag; claustrophobia could be traumatic in a bondage scenario; low blood sugar could cause fainting if you’re upside down too long. The list of potential calamities is endless. One dom taught me that I should never let someone tie me up who doesn’t own a giant pair of safety shears — imagine getting a cramp when you’re all trussed up!

4. A lot of times people will work through traumas or sensitivities from their past in BDSM. Someone who has experienced racism might want to roleplay a slave-master scenario, for example. But these can trigger intense emotional reactions and both partners need to know each others’ backgrounds so they can understand what they’re getting into and play safely.

5. Although you might think that if you submit to someone else, it’s all about their enjoyment, that’s not really the case. The submissive is the center of attention in many ways, and their fantasies and desires are just as important as the dominant person’s. Both parties need to make sure that their needs and kinks correlate. If you’re a submissive who hates cunnilingus or fellatio, well then you won’t work well with a dominant who loves them and vice versa.

6. In the kink community a “brat” is a submissive who talks back, teases, and treats their dominants cheekily. Not all dominants want a bratty sub, but some people like it.

7. There’s a whole range of play intensities and people who are more experienced at kink can play very very hard. We’re talking bruises covering entire limbs, needle piercings in intricate patterns, and in some extreme cases even branding….the cattle rod kind.

8. A lot of kinky encounters are playful. They’re spaces to explore new sides of yourself, experiment with new identities, and put on a role that might be in total conflict with your everyday life. For example, I’m a feminist but I’ve had rape fantasies (as have a notable percentage of the female population) my entire life. My BDSM partners give me a safe place to try these — a place where I’ve consented to the experience and therefore it’s not actually rape (a crucial difference). Other really popular roles people play are daddy/mommy, baby girl/baby boy, pet/owner, and slave/master.

9/10. Many people in BDSM, especially the dominant person, will plan out their scenes in advance. They'll decide what roles, if any, the participants will take on, what will be worn, what toys and instruments will be used, and what the goal will be. This isn't always the case, but it can help when acting out specific fantasies.

11. Although someone might identify as a sub with one partner, with other partners they might be dominant. This becomes relevant if a dom and sub play with other people. The sub, for example, might dominate another sub who joins the scene. Likewise, some people identify as “switches” and like being both a dom and a sub depending on the situation.

12. Some BDSM experiences, even though they might be painful, are rewarding for a sub. Others are not, and those can be used as punishment in the event a sub disobeys. For example, one of my doms punished me for ignoring his texts by having sex with me for a long time. I don’t like doing that because it makes me sore, but he “wanted me to have to think about what we had done” the next day. Punishment might sound like abuse, but it occurs with consent and for some dom-sub relationships it’s a key part of a previously-agreed-to interaction. Conversely, I like when he slaps me in the face, so that’s a reward, not a punishment. Counterintuitive, I know. It causes an endorphin rush and feels exhilarating. Doms and subs decide together what constitutes punishment versus pleasure, since the lines are ambiguous in BDSM.

13. In the Fifty Shades of Grey contract, Christian asks Ana for her hard limits and soft limits, namely the BDSM acts she would never want to do and the ones she could be persuaded into. Since she has never had sex before, she has no idea what to tell him and goes searching on the Internet for the answers. The number of potential kinky acts is so big the two characters barely covered any of them in their discussion. A detailed dom-sub contract would include a list like the following, allowing each partner to disclose their likes and dislikes on a continuum, down to kinks as specific as corset wearing and lectures for misbehaving. As you'll see from my answers, I register on the fairly tame end of kinky predilections. 




If you're interested in exploring your kinky side further, check out The Society of Janus, an education organization in San Francisco that offers online resources and in-person events.

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