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Bow Down

Lessons from Dominatrixes on How to Be a Boss in Life, Love, and Work

*One of Glamour’s Best Books of 2020*

Popular podcast host and personal finance expert Lindsay Goldwert explores what professional dominatrixes can teach us about confidence, power, and happiness.

Imagine, for a moment, a world where the usual power dynamic is turned on its head. Where women not only stop apologizing, but seize—and enjoy—control. This is the quickly mainstreaming world of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism)—and it has a lot to teach women about empowerment, negotiation, open-mindedness, and more. Journalist Lindsay Goldwert, intrigued by this seismic cultural shift, traveled across the United States to meet the stars of the subculture, who spoke frankly with her about their lives and work.

In this “lively, funny, thoughtful channeling of wisdom” (Sara Benincasa, author of Real Artists Have Day Jobs), these Alpha women show you how you can reset the power dynamic in any situation to get what you want—whether it’s from a husband, a boss, or partner. They share strategies for revolutionizing not only your sex life, but your career, your relationships, and most importantly, your inner foundations.

With bondage gear popping up on the big screen, the runway, the red carpet, and in celebrity lingerie lines, BDSM is officially moving out of the dungeon and into the sun. Let Bow Down help you learn how to use it. “Whether your fantasies lie in the bedroom or the boardroom, Lindsay will give you the courage to go forth and dominate.” (Sarah Cooper, author of How to Be Successful without Hurting Men’s Feelings).

Lesson #1: Kinky Words Are Life Words LESSON #1
KINKY WORDS ARE LIFE WORDS

Kink and BDSM are playfulness with the sexual privileges of adulthood.

—TINA HORN1

This is a book about power dynamics and how we can filter our communications and interactions through the tenets of BDSM. But in order to play responsibly during kinky sex (and in life), it all needs to be filtered through the framework of consent, negotiation, boundaries, safe words, and respect.

Later in the book, I’ll talk about how BDSM is a great lens to examine our work lives, home lives, as well as our sex lives. But first, before we get there, we need to get down and dirty.

Let’s define some terms, shall we?
WHAT IS KINK AND BDSM?
“Kink” is an umbrella term that can encompass almost anything that’s seen as outside the norm of “vanilla” sex.

What’s vanilla sex? There’s no one definition, but one way to think about it is the kind of sex two people have in mainstream, R-rated movies. This can include the standard male/female positions and, some may argue, oral sex. Some may define vanilla sex as normative sex between two straight people. Others sum it up by saying it doesn’t matter who is doing it; if it doesn’t involve BDSM, it’s vanilla. There’s nothing wrong with vanilla sex! Like the ice cream, it can be sweet, delicious, and wonderful. For a lot of us, it can be the perfect way for you and your partner to express sexual desire and intimacy.

Kinky people take a whole different view of sex and sensuality. For example, not everyone believes that the whole point of sex is for both people to have an orgasm. After all, we have wonderful brains that conjure wild and wicked fantasies, and billions of nerve endings (everywhere) that beg to be stroked and teased. Who among us doesn’t love ice cream? But some people, kinky people, want some sprinkles on their vanilla ice cream. Or they want rocky road with all the toppings. Or they just want to drip the ice cream down the backs of their partners and watch them squirm while they enjoy the sharp and crunchy cone. I’m losing the metaphor here, but the point is, not everyone likes to have sex in the missionary position.

BDSM isn’t just whips and chains (although whips and chains can definitely be part of it). The “B” stands for “bondage.” The “D” stands for “discipline.” The “S” stands for “sadism.” The “M” stands for “masochism.” People have been playing with power dynamics for millennia, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that “BDSM” became the mainstream, go-to term. Before that it was “B&D” or “S&M.”

The definition of “kink” and all those who contributed to its many aspects and contributions to our culture could fill several volumes. For me to attempt to do so in just a few paragraphs would be doing a great disservice to those who have dedicated their life to studying its history. Kink has Eastern and Western roots, from aspects of the Kama Sutra to orgies, partner swapping, and voyeurism in the Roman tale Satyricon. From the dawn of Christianity, artists have eroticized its rites and rituals, including flogging and submission. The Victorians may have been having sex for procreation at home, but with sex workers, both male and female, they explored other pleasures, such as oral and anal sex, spanking, cross-dressing and other kinds of gender bending, erotic death obsession, and some pretty wild written and visual erotica. Under the complex and draconian Comstock Laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men with a penchant for photos or magazines where women posed in high-heeled, thigh-high boots risked being charged with sending and receiving obscene material in the mail.

“Leather” is another term for a certain kind of kink. The term gained popularity in the 1950s in gay male biker clubs and has continued to be used today, especially in LGBTQ communities, to let others know their kink fetishes and identity.2

But when it comes to this book, which is really the intro-to-the-intro to kinky thinking, I believe that it’s best to keep it simple.

“Kink and BDSM are playfulness with the sexual privileges of adulthood,” said Tina Horn,3 journalist and host of the sex podcast Why Are People Into That?!

People like to say that kink and BDSM are everywhere now, and are totally mainstream. And to some extent that’s true. When perusing Rihanna’s lingerie site, I discovered I could purchase a riding crop along with a sensible T-shirt bra. Kinky fashion was on display at the 2019 Met Ball. Celebrities wore latex and harnesses and braided their hair to resemble whips. The filmmaker Lena Dunham and the actress Jemima Kirke wore dresses with the words “Rubberist” and “Looner” on them. (A “looner” is a person with a balloon fetish, who gets more and more aroused as the balloon becomes inflated and then, depending on his or her preference, gets off on the pop). The Showtime drama Billions features BDSM as a core story line, in the marriage of an attorney general and a corporate psychologist. Lifestyle magazines and online sites like Glamour, Refinery29, and Cosmopolitan now write frankly and enthusiastically about fetishes, floggers, dildos, and pegging.

So yes, I’d say that a lot more people are talking about, writing about, and thinking about kinky sex. You can buy a ball gag on Amazon and have it shipped to you in the same box as your cat litter (ew). You can log on to any porn site, type in a few key words, and see things that you never thought you’d see (or may never want to see again).

And yet, many aspects of kink and BDSM are not at all mainstream, to the delight and relief of the people who partake in them. This can include (but are not limited to) extreme role-play, zoophilia, 24/7 master/slave relationship dynamics, the reveling in bodily fluids of all kinds, tickling, wrestling, objectification, consensual gang bangs, consensual dehumanization and sexual torment. At the same time, kink can be sensual. Kink can be thoughtful. It can involve whips and chains, it can involve nothing more than two or more human beings with wild imaginations and descriptive vocabularies. Kinks are like fingerprints, no two are exactly alike—but we all have them. It’s a state of mind and an exciting and often breathtaking way to feed our desires.

Kink can allow us to explore the darker sides of ourselves. Maybe you’re looking to explore new and exciting sensations, whether it’s a feather down your spine, a vibrator held against your clit, or the pull of rope tightening against your partner’s wrists. Maybe you want to get into role-play, give up control, or take control from your partner. All these things may be considered kinky but there’s so much more than just objects you can purchase or hold in your hand.

]But none of this tells you why people do it. What do they get out of it? And really, what’s the point of receiving a ball gag in the mail if you don’t know why you want to use it?
WHY BE KINKY?
I don’t know, why breathe air? Why have adventure? Why explore all the wildest recesses of our minds while we’re still here on Earth? Why imagine yourself in a position of power that may lead you to believe that you deserve more of it in your daily life? Why explore new sensations and feelings that may turn your idea of desire—and satisfaction—on its head?

Remember these words; you’ll be hearing them a lot throughout this book: consent, negotiation, boundaries, safe words, and respect. They form the lens through which we’ll be examining the way we interact with the world—how we deserve to be treated, and how we should treat others.

Kink can allow you to explore different parts of yourself and your sexuality without having to lock anything in, without commitment. You can play as you want, explore all your different selves, forage through all your fantasies, while embracing or abandoning fetish or lifestyle “labels.”

You can go on a vision quest and come back to who you are afterward. That’s pretty cool.

With the right partner or partners, it can be freeing, cathartic, transformative, and hot beyond our wildest dreams. We can show sides of ourselves that we’ve never dared to show before. We can allow ourselves to be choked, gagged, hit, tied up, humiliated. We can have cocks; we can see what it’s like to fuck someone from a completely different perspective. We can choke, gag, hit, tie someone up, humiliate. We can “force” someone to have sex with us; we can explore the fantasy of being “forced.”

We can spit on someone; we can be spit on. We can control someone’s orgasm; a person can control ours. We can be sex objects; we can objectify others. We can be goddesses, governesses, or mistresses. We can be subs, slaves, or property. We can explore aspects of pain and pleasure; we can inflict them on others.

We can do all this and then return to our regular selves afterward. That’s magic.
COULD I BE KINKY?
You may already be, and not even know it.

Maybe one night, while you were having sex doggy style, your partner held your hands behind your back. And you gasped and came extra hard. Or you got on top of your partner, held his arms down, and rode him until you exploded. It’s all good, clean, consensual fun, but, newsflash, all that is wading tippy-toe into the banks of Lake Kink. This is because you were getting off on the power dynamic of it all. By letting your partner hold your arms behind your back, you were allowing him to take control. By pinning him down, you were flipping the normative power dynamic and putting your pleasure first.

Many activities and feelings associated with kink may seem scary, but here’s the thing—we already harness these concepts in our daily lives. We’re already using what’s between our ears to bring us to heightened states. If you practice yoga or meditation, you’re already accessing these feelings. We follow ritual. We tune into ourselves to bring ourselves to an altered state.

We also know how pain can dissolve into pleasure. A deep tissue massage can hurt, but oh, it can hurt so good. Pushing through a tough workout can have ecstatic rewards. Let’s not forget the rush we get from confronting and overcoming fear. The feeling you get after a terrifying bungee jump or successfully completing a grueling exam after months of study can only be described as euphoric.

It’s not so strange. After all, pleasure and pain are both tied to the interacting dopamine and opioid systems in the brain. The “high” experienced by people who find extreme sensations sexually arousing is similar to what athletes experience when they push their bodies to the limit.

Mistress Couple, author of The Ultimate Guide to Bondage: Creating Intimacy Through the Art of Restraint, is a New York–based dominatrix. She’s also the former innkeeper at La Domaine Esemar, a luxurious BDSM training château and “bed and dungeon.” In between high-intensity sessions with men, women, and couples, she juggled appointment books, planned events, and coordinated workshops with the internationally renowned kink legends who visit La Domaine to teach their special brand of discipline and desire.

“A lot of people wonder why anyone would want to experience pain or enjoy masochism. Most masochists just have a higher pain tolerance than other people,” said Mistress Couple. “Martial artists and marathoners are already aware of this, but it’s very similar to the feeling that runners get, where you start cramping and you feel like you can’t continue, and then you break through that wall and you get that runner’s high, that rush, that feeling of satisfaction.”4

Taking the leap from enjoying intense sensation outside the bedroom to allowing yourself to access it in your sex life—that’s kinky. Also kinky? Bringing feelings of sexual power out of the bedroom and into the world.

This doesn’t mean showing up to work in full latex and ordering your colleagues to do your work. You can’t physically punish a boss for being disrespectful, or demand a raise because you are a Goddess. All of that sounds fantastic, don’t get me wrong. But we don’t have to be so literal to use kinky tenets to get what we want on the job, at home, and in our relationships.

We’ll dive deeper into all of this in later chapters, but asserting dominance, speaking with authority, demanding consent, holding yourself and others to high standards, and highlighting what makes you exceptional versus trying to be like everyone else—these are the keys to becoming a better, smarter, and more powerful you.

Looking at life through a kinky lens means finding satisfaction not by blending in but by embracing all the aspects of what makes you unique and wonderfully weird. When you think kinky, you’re embracing a life that’s out of the ordinary and creating the rules which you choose to live your life by.
WHAT KIND OF KINKY PERSON AM I?
Back to the bedroom. There’s no one way to be kinky.

“Something that I teach a lot in my work is that, whatever your preconception is about BDSM or kink, you have to find your own style. It’s the same way you may have a cooking style or a genre of books that you like to read or whatever your craft or your hobby might be,” said Tina Horn.

If you’ve got a sense of humor, for instance, you don’t have to lock it away. There’s no one way to dominate or submit. There’s no one costume, personality, or sensibility. You only have to bring yourself. If you’re playful, be playful. If you’re meticulous, be meticulous. If you’re into fashion, you can let what you wear drive you. Otherwise it can risk feeling alien or wooden—like you’re reading from a script rather than acting out a fantasy.

“I myself am an extremely campy dominatrix, and if I’m playing with someone and they want me to be strict and severe and restrained, I can totally do that and even enjoy it, but on the inside, I’m thinking, ‘This is hilarious,’?” said Horn. “But I can be laughing like that, but then at the drop of a dime, I can be like, ‘Get down on your fucking knees.’?”

It’s kind of like theater. While some actors feel more comfortable playing a certain kind of character, others may be able to slip into others with ease. But the best actors bring themselves to their role. Meryl Streep can play any role in the world, but she’s always Meryl Streep.

“Being able to move around so much and be such a chameleon, that shifting quality makes me feel powerful, because it keeps people on their toes,” said Horn. “People may not expect that I contain multitudes and that I have these other characters or archetypes within me. Seeing the look on someone’s face when they’re like, ‘Oh shit. I was not expecting to be scared of this person’ is a lot of fun.”

Maybe you love the shiny toys, the feel of luxury leather, shivery suede, having something customized just for you. If that’s your thing, there’s no end to the wild accessories you can amass.

“Some people show up to kink events with their bag and they open up it up and they have all these instruments, and that’s part of their ritual,” said Horn. “They have this kind of braided whip for this kind of thing and this bull hide flogger, but oh, this one is heavier, and so on. They like comparing notes like, ‘Oh, I had this custom-made,’ or ‘My friend has been making these special rainbow glittered whips’ or whatever.

“That may be your thing, but it’s cool if it’s not. I’m very anti-materialist and more of a cerebral and conceptual person in general. I’m just not really a gearhead. But that’s not a judgment of people who are.”

I, for one, love the fashion and style. I die for the corsets, the accessories, the latex, how it all hugs and shapes the female body. I love the high heels and dramatic makeup, and the cinematic power that it all projects.

]“I definitely know people who are into BDSM for the clothes,” said Horn. “I used to even act derisive about that, like, ‘Oh, that’s just superficial. But it’s not superficial. It’s about the embodiment of the whole thing, it’s how they express it. It’s about taste, the same way that being a foodie is about taste.”

You can be game. You can be giving. But you have to feel good about what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re not being kinky; you’re just doing what another person wants you to do.

Say your partner wants you to say horrible things to him, demean his genitals, and hit him with a hairbrush. And you’re game! You want to try new things; you want to make him happy. But if it ultimately doesn’t do anything for you, it’s going to feel forced. You’ll run out of things to say. You’ll dread it. But maybe you can talk about it and come up with a compromise that you can both feel good about.

Hence, the most important rule when finding your kink style: Know thyself.

“If you don’t even know yourself, and who you are and what you like, how can you possibly play with somebody on that level?” said Mistress Ava Zhang, a New York City–based pro-domme and writer. “I mean, if you can’t even control your emotions and your actions, how can you possibly try to control someone else?”
WHAT IS CONSENT?
“Consent” is an essential term in kink. It means that you and your partner are all in for whatever is going to happen in a scene (the accepted BDSM term for a play session). Anything that’s been agreed on beforehand is fair game. This can be anything from spanking to degrading words, dark fantasy exploration, bondage, or anything else two or more wonderfully pervy partners can cook up between them.

Let’s say you and your partner want to get into some filthy fun. You’re both down to explore sensory deprivation (a blindfold, for example), but one of you isn’t into choking or pain. The blindfold is a go but the choking or pain, at least for the partner who says it’s a hard no, is strictly off-limits. It would be a hideous violation of consent to go out of these agreed-on boundaries.

This is how people have a lot of fun in bed, because there’s trust. If the rules of consent are respected, then everyone gets what they want. That trust must be earned, but in an ideal situation, there’s no end to the sensual and erotic possibilities that two (or more) people can experience.

People who practice BDSM must abide by the rules of consent, but you don’t have to be kinky to demand it from others. Consent is black and white. If we’ve been drinking too much, we cannot consent to sex. Or if someone slips something in our drink, we cannot consent to sex. Or if we’ve consented to sex in the past but on one particular night can’t, or don’t, no one is entitled to our bodies.

Yet politicians and mass media coverage insist that consent is a blurry and confusing issue. In 2019, former vice president Joe Biden grossed out a lot of women by blowing off complaints about his overzealous hugging. Instead of attempting to understand where women were coming from, he made a “joke”5 onstage about asking “permission” to hug Lonnie Stephenson, the male president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union.6 Of course, the audience of mostly men laughed. Ha ha ha.

Here’s how I once explained consent to a guy who just didn’t get it. “Imagine we are both in bed, naked. Suddenly, you come down with horrible diarrhea or the flu. But I kept climbing on top of you and pressing down on your stomach, insisting that you fuck me, even though you’re sweaty and sick. And I kept breathing beer breath in your face, trying to push your limp dick inside me while you’re desperate to get to the bathroom.” The guy grabbed his stomach and said, “Ugh, that sounds horrible. What kind of a monster would do that?”

If only someone slipped a pamphlet explaining “diarrhea” consent to every frat boy, university president, government official, and judge in the world. But consent is not a slippery slope in sex, love, or business. And it fucking sucks that we have to constantly lay down the law.

Our consent and space are violated every day. Back to hugging. If you’re a nice person, you may just sigh and deal with it. I am a hugger. And yet, I do not like to hug people I do not feel like hugging. When I started doing stand-up comedy and was thrilled to be making new like-minded weirdo friends, a male comic, mid-hug, took it upon himself to slide his hands under my shirt and knead my muffin-top.

Kindergartners know what a hug is; it’s not a new and stunning concept. My hugs say, “I’m happy to see you.” To assholes, it means, “I’m happy to touch you.”

After-work drinks can be a minefield. How many times have you stood uncomfortably when a drunk coworker or boss “went in for a hug” when you didn’t feel like having his parts pressed against you? We brush these occurrences off as simply “awkward” or “gross,” but really, they’re a violation of your consent. Is your boss a sex criminal? Jesus, let’s hope not. But you should be in control of who gets to touch you.

Don’t feel like bobbing and weaving to avoid a hug? Handshakes may seem awkward, but a high five followed by a quick exit has worked for me. It also works with a boss who may be clueless about boundaries. “How’s it going,?” “How’s it going, friend?” gets the message across to a coworker that you’re happy to greet them with your words versus their hands. Happy hour can be a very unhappy hour if you ever felt obligated to humor an inebriated jerk who got handsy after tossing back a few.

Demanding consent means never having to say, “I didn’t want to make it awkward.”

If a relationship with a coworker or boss becomes awkward because you’ve chosen not to accept a close-body embrace, that’s a major red flag and something you should start making notes on so you can begin to make a case for yourself with your human resources department.

It may feel unnatural at first. We may not “want to cause a scene” or “make a big thing out of it,” but by getting used to the concept of consent, by incorporating it into our way of life, we can shove back the full force of our beings. You can push back against a dude who presses up against you on public transit. When consent is part of what you demand from daily encounters, you can throw the hammer when a date starts to whine about using a condom because you do not and will not consent to unprotected sex.

And consent prompts you to examine the ways you interact with people too. Maybe you aren’t as considerate of other people’s boundaries as you think you are. I once had a female friend who loved to get drunk and grab my boobs at parties. I laughed it off, but it was actually pretty embarrassing. When she’d shout, “Nice tits!” other people would turn to look. Then it really wasn’t so funny.

Consenting to sex once doesn’t give someone an all-access pass from now into perpetuity. Just because you consent one night doesn’t mean you ever have to do it the next. It’s your prerogative to change your mind. There are cases in life when we have no control over who gets to touch us, and those can be horrible and traumatizing. But there are moments in our everyday lives that we can and must use our voices to take control of who gets to touch us and when.
WHAT IS NEGOTIATION?
Say you and your partner consent to have sex with each other. Nice! So, what do you want to do?

So many of us just hop into the sheets and let it unfold the way one person wants it to go—which is fine, until you wonder why one of you thinks the night went well and the other one is left wanting. You may not want to do a certain position, or be put on the spot about whether you want to have anal or oral sex. Maybe you’re just looking to be kissed and held, or maybe you want to throw down and have the most wild, uninhibited night of your life. No wonder two people can be in the same bed with completely different ideas of what hot sex is.

This is where negotiation comes in.

Rather than rolling the dice, you can just start off by asking, “What are you into?” Or you can take the wheel and start by saying, “Okay, here’s what I’m into.” A good and attentive partner will be excited and relieved. After all, no one is a mind reader. And it’s hot! Telling your partner what turns you on makes it clear that you know what you like and you’re comfortable asking for it. Even better: “Here’s what I’m into in general; here’s what I’m down to do tonight.”

Then, it’s up to you to listen to what your partner has to say. We can all have great sex with ourselves, but great sex with others requires listening, empathy, and communication. Once you say what you want, make sure you’re clear on what your partner wants.

Negotiation is a key tenet of BDSM. It’s what allows people to safely dive into new roles, sensations, and scenarios. “Negotiation ensures that all bases are covered—that everything that could come into play in the scene is discussed beforehand and the boundaries of consent are very clear,” writes Mistress Couple in The Ultimate Guide to Bondage: Creating Intimacy Through the Art of Restraint.7 “Moreover, a thorough negotiation gives participants in a scene more of an opportunity to understand and empathize with each other beforehand, which can be very helpful in facilitating in-scene connection.”

Empathy is essential to great sex, whether kinky or vanilla. How can you explore each other’s desires without really understanding where they’re coming from? These are the things that bring us closer together. Negotiation lets you put it all out on the table so that nothing (literally or metaphorically) comes out of nowhere to ruin anyone’s good time or, worse, cause harm.

Negotiation is the time to lay out your rules regarding safe sex. To use or not use a condom shouldn’t be an anxious battle of will he or won’t he in the heat of the moment. This should absolutely be established before the encounter so that everyone is clear.

Negotiation isn’t about confrontation. It’s about communication, expectations, courtesy, and respect.

This isn’t just a tool to ensure better communication in bed. It can also help you in the workplace.

You have the right to know what is expected of you, just as your boss has the right to give you more or less responsibility. A good managerial relationship allows for conflicts, and resolves them in a way that keeps everyone productive and doing their best work. If you’re unclear about what you’re supposed to be doing during the day or you’re unsure about what task to perform first, a good manager should be available for a gut check so you can both prioritize and make sure your time is being used productively. This way, you both know at the outset what needs to get done without any question or confusion.

Negotiation can also translate into a way to keep the peace at home.

Think about the division of labor in your household. Who does the chores? Who buys the groceries? Are you satisfied with your partner’s contribution? Outline it all (on paper) and try to come up with a balance that works for both of you. If something comes up, and it needs to be changed, that’s fine. But one person can’t just let their obligations slide and leave the other person holding the bag. By adopting the BDSM model of negotiation in the rest of our lives, we can ensure that everyone gets to speak their minds and explain what’s working (and not working) for them, and how things can go smoothly if one person does X and the other one does Y. The best part: Things can always be renegotiated later on.

Kink is also about accountability. Everyone has to stick to what’s been agreed on, or else there’s no trust. And if there’s no trust, it won’t work.
WHAT ARE SAFE WORDS?
“Imagine that you have a fantasy of being submissive, of surrendering, of being captive, of being someone’s pet, of being someone’s plaything, being someone’s toy,” said Horn. “Or you have a fantasy of taking control of someone who wants to feel that physical, kinetic energy of force or a psychological fantasy of force. That can be really hot.”

But if any of the above were to happen without consent, negotiation, and respect for limits, boundaries, and safe words, it goes from dark or transgressive exploration to sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, rape, and/or battery. Hitting someone, fucking someone, restraining someone, or humiliating someone without their consent or after they’ve stopped consenting is a crime.

Safe words are how kinky people stop a scene when things become too much. It’s a way to bring things back to earth for a hard reset. They are also what prevent kinky sex (or any kind of sex) from becoming emotional or physical abuse or assault.

We all have dark sides to our subconscious, and wading into them requires a lot of trust and self-knowledge. That’s why BDSM requires safe words, so that no one’s consent is violated. If you invoke your safe word, everything stops. Partners check in with each other immediately and address the issue. It’s a way to dive into our depths with a lifeline.

The best safe words are simple and easy to say. In the kink community, it’s popular to abide by the traffic light system. Yellow means “I’m reaching my limit. This is okay but I can’t take much more.” Red means “stop the scene, right now.” To not respect “red” is to cross the line from intense consensual sexual experience to assault.

Whatever word you choose, it has to be clear to all parties and easy to remember and say in the heat of an intense moment. A safe word can be one word; a simple, clear, and effective way to say, “I need this to stop, I don’t like what’s happening.” Sometimes, if you’re in the middle of a hot scene and your partner is consensually “forcing you,” the word “stop” may not be an effective safe word. Because maybe you don’t actually want the other person to stop; it’s part of the fantasy. Sensation play can be emotional; it can bring tears. But if those tears are cathartic, the tears aren’t a good “safe word.”

Safe words shouldn’t just be reserved for kinky sex. Consensual vanilla sex can also go from “oh baby” to “I really hate this.” How many of us have silently wished sex would just end already, gritted our teeth, or just disassociated, rather than speaking up about physical or emotional discomfort? It’s hard to find the words in the moment to express why we’re suddenly feeling uncomfortable or unhappy or freaked out in the middle of sex. It’s so often a mix of feelings—enjoying the intimacy but not enjoying a certain position, feeling pressure to have an orgasm because your partner is down there on a mission, or feeling resentful when you’re not really in the mood.

A safe word can put the situation on pause so you and your partner can check in, stat. Once you’re back on the same page, you can either get back to it or call it a night. Either way, you never have to grin and bear it (ever) and your partner is crystal clear on what not to do next time.

Here are examples of safe words that are not effective, if you are engaging in any kind of consensual sex or sensual play with a lover:
  • “I’m feeling weird.”
  • “I don’t know about this.”
  • “I’m okay, I think.”
  • “Could you not?”
  • “It’s fine.”

These words may be conveying how you feel, but they’re not effectively communicating your desire to stop what’s happening because you’re not comfortable.

If you don’t want to use a safe word, it’s essential to use action words (and say them loud) to tell your partner that you need things to end. No matter what word or words you choose, they should be negotiated beforehand so everyone knows exactly what they mean.

Safe words can keep everyone on the same page during sex, but more importantly, they protect your safety, feelings, and physical well-being.

Safe words are something to think about outside the bedroom too. You can use them to inform your partner, friends, and others that you have limits, and that you want to be able to communicate them quickly and clearly.

Say you’re out with friends and you suddenly feel too drunk to make a responsible decision about getting behind the wheel, going home with a stranger, or continuing to drink. Just say the words and your friends will know that you are in distress and need help, now.

The gym is a place where we can feel pushed past our limit. Fitness experts and personal trainers like to shout at us to “push past the pain,” but I know the difference between feeling the burn and feeling like I’m going to faint or puke. A safe word puts you back in control of your body and your emotions. As someone who has both thrown up and fainted at the gym, I wish now I’d had the courage to speak up instead of blaming myself for being “out of shape” or “weak.”

Safe words are also a great way to communicate to the people we’re with that something that sounded fun at the time has suddenly become a very bad idea. This can include a hike that has ventured too far into the woods, a threesome, or a social situation where you feel endangered due to your gender, religion, sexual orientation, or race.

This is a great lesson to teach our kids, nieces, or nephews. If their peers are about to do something dangerous, like steal, buy drugs, or engage in violence, they can utter their safe word to their closest friend and know that they have an ally. If they don’t have a friend close enough to share their safe word with, it may be a sign that they’re not hanging out with the right people.

Safe words give us permission to comprehend that we’re at our limit and that we need to stop trying to solve things on our own. It can be a way to “break the emergency glass” in our minds and tell ourselves that it’s okay to stop and ask for what we need.
YOUR WORDS, YOUR POWER
Here’s what BDSM is not: nonconsensual sex.

This is so important.

There is nothing more devastating than allowing yourself to be vulnerable with someone who violates your trust. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a kinky relationship or a vanilla relationship, your consent can be violated.

This is a life lesson. Throughout this book, we’ll be talking about how we can speak up for ourselves and make consent and boundaries part of our everyday lives. Yes, we’ll be talking about sex, but more importantly, it’s about flipping the whole power dynamic in our favor.

No one deserves to feel powerless.

No one deserves to have their consent violated.

No one deserves to be hurt or victimized.

You deserve the right to live and love and express your sexuality as you choose.

Maybe one day, all the assholes of the world will bow down to us. But until then, we must keep working to ask for what we want and need, and never accept less from others than we would ask of ourselves.
Photograph by Mindy Tucker

Lindsay Goldwert is the editor in chief of the online love and money magazine Money Date. She’s a journalist and the host of Spent, a money-themed storytelling podcast praised as “unique” by The A.V. Club and “funny and human” by The Globe and Mail (Toronto). She is the former editorial director of the personal-finance app Stash and hosted the Teach Me How to Money podcast. Her writing has appeared in New York magazine, The New York Daily News, ABCNews.com, Quartz, Refinery29Fast CompanyRedbookSlate, and many other publications. She lives in Queens, New York.

"Lindsay Goldwert goes where many of us haven't gone before! After reading her lively, funny, thoughtful channeling of wisdom from BDSM workers across the nation, your life will be a little less vanilla. Gentle reader, prepare for armchair travel at its naughtiest and most illuminating. And get ready to have a hell of a lot of fun."

—Sara Benincasa, author of Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom and Real Artists Have Day Jobs

"If you're like me and consider yourself a total prude, this book will make you realize how much you've been missing. Whether your fantasies lie in the bedroom or the boardroom, Lindsay will give you the courage to go forth and dominate."

—Sarah Cooper, author of How to Be Successful without Hurting Men's Feelings