Content note: This blog post contains a wide variety of one-sentence-long examples of various kinds of BDSM play, of different sexual acts, and of combinations of the two. It also mentions both polyamory/non-monogamy and sex work, equally briefly. And it has very short references to depression and unspecified trauma. If you need more specific info, please try searching this post or let me know what you need a note for so I can tell you whether it appears in here and add more detailed notes in the future.
I promised you kinky nerdery, so here we go…
Inspired by a conversation I had on Twitter yesterday, and the vague annoyance and alienation I tend to feel when “everyone” “always” seems to automatically combine BDSM with sex in their imaginations, I decided it was time to write about the connection (or lack thereof) between BDSM and sex and make a post that shows the many different ways the two can be combined — or not! I even drew a bunch of diagrams for all my fellow visual thinkers! (Note for people using screen-readers: The alt-text image descriptions are very short, but I will explain the idea of every illustration in the text below the respective image.)
A few remarks about my language use first, so you all know what I’m talking about (yay, definitions!):
- I use BDSM and kink interchangeably. In this text, either of these words means everything that happens consensually and contains elements of bondage, domination/submission (D/S), sadism/masochism (S/M), role play, fetishes, and related activities and dynamics that focus on restraints, power differences, pain, alternate personas, or uncommon sources of pleasure.
- I use sex as an umbrella term for everything that happens consensually and involves at least one person’s genitals and/or that is meant to create sexual arousal. These activities include the stimulation and/or penetration of all kinds of genitals and/or anuses (assholes) with someone’s mouth, tongue, teeth, fingers, hands, toys/objects, flesh-and-blood and/or silicone cocks. Or, if you like these more confusing terms: manual sex, oral sex, anal sex, and vaginal sex. For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming that sex involves at least two people, even when they’re not in the same room (so phone sex and online sex with direct interaction counts, but being alone and jerking off while watching porn doesn’t).
- I use the term top to refer to everyone who identifies or plays as a dominant, sadist, owner, d-type, mistress, daddy, handler, etc. — that is, for the person(s) running the show and/or giving the stimulation. Likewise, I use the word bottom to refer to everyone who identifies or plays as a masochist, submissive, pet, little, servant, s-type, property, etc. — that is, for the person(s) following the other’s direction and/or receiving the stimulation. Please identify with whatever bits speak to you in my little example snippets below, adapt the ones you like so they fit the language you use, and assume that all the other examples are talking about people who simply aren’t you.
I would also like to note that the different versions of combining (or not combining) BDSM and sex I explain below can apply to different people, or they can apply to the same person at different times in their life. This post is not meant to create fixed identity categories, but intends to offer a way to understand and describe different and changeable patterns of behavior. The concepts below can be used to either describe how things are for someone right now, or how they would like things to be in the future (or how they were in the past). Some of them can also be used to describe a single sexy or kinky interaction. They are ordered in a way that lets me build on previous ones as I go through the list. I have absolutely no data about how common each of these versions are. I just know that they are all equally valid and okay.
Alright, let’s start with the diagrams!
#1: BDSM and sex are completely separate
In this case, BDSM and sex are completely separate activities for the person. They exclusively have vanilla sex (that is, sex without any element of BDSM) and they do BDSM, but never with any elements of sex. For example, they may enjoy doing rope bondage (shibari) for the artistic or meditative aspects and not because it turns them on. Or perhaps they love giving or receiving floggings that are more like a deep-tissue massage or a painful ordeal than a source of sexual arousal. Or maybe they are a pro-dom(me) or pro-sub who is entirely vanilla in their private life, and who doesn’t offer any genital stimulation during the time they spend with their clients. Or they might be a person who is in a vanilla relationship with one person and practices their BDSM with other people, but only without genital contact. Or they may just find it hard to combine BDSM and sex in the same scene and prefer to engage in these activities separately. In short: They both do BDSM and have sex, but never combine the two.
This person may spend the same amount of time or energy doing BDSM and sex, or they may do more of one than the other, as indicated by the differently-sized circles in the diagrams.
#2: BDSM and sex overlap partly (and to different degrees)
For other people, BDSM and sex partly overlap. Like the person above, they do BDSM without sex and have (vanilla) sex without BDSM, but they also combine BDSM and sex sometimes. They may be into alternating spanking and wiggling around a butt plug in someone’s ass. Or they may like to follow a warm-up flogging with an intermission of clit-sucking and then move on to the caning crescendo of their scene. Or they may enjoy having any kind of sex while one partner is tied up or blindfolded. Or they may like framing any kind of sex as a service interaction or as a power exchange. Perhaps they also have different partners (and/or clients) for vanilla sex, BDSM without sex, and a combination of the two. Or maybe they only have vanilla sex (and BDSM without noisy impact play) at home because of the kids/pets/neighbors, but really like to go to a play party where they have enough room to swing their bullwhip or where they can find an appreciative audience for a nice paddling-and-fingering scene.
As before, they may spend about the same amount of time or energy on BDSM and sex, or they may do more of one than the other (again indicated by the differently-sized circles in the illustration).
The amount of overlap area can also vary. Maybe that person combines BDSM and sex almost every time and only sometimes has either vanilla sex or BDSM without sex (left column). Or they may only very rarely do a combination of BDSM and sex and keep the two separate most of the time (right column).
#3: There is no sex outside of BDSM
The next possibility is a person who never has sex outside of BDSM, so no vanilla sex at all. This person always combines sex with BDSM but may also engage in BDSM without genital stimulation or an aim towards arousal/orgasm. For example, they may be into serving tea to their top or into receiving foot massages from their bottom, but none of them gets turned on by that activity. Or they may be into a round of friendly, non-sexual needle-play between friends. At other times, they may enjoy being mercilessly sucked off by their top while wearing a whole bag of clothespins clamped all over their body. Or they may be into being obediently fisted by their submissive while telling them exactly how and praising them for their skill. Or they may like to masturbate for their top’s viewing pleasure and be called lots of dirty, humiliating names by them. Or perhaps they’re sex workers who do BDSM without sex with their clients and BDSM in combination with sex with their private partners. Or they are a polyamorous person who only has one partner they share both kink and sex with and additional BDSM play partners with whom they don’t engage in genital play or play that focuses on sexual arousal.
As you can see by the relations between the differently-sized circles above, there may be very little BDSM that doesn’t contain an element of sex, or about half of it, or quite a lot.
#4: There is no BDSM outside of sex
This also works the other way round. This version would be a person who only does BDSM as a part of their sex, but who also has vanilla sex without any BDSM elements. This could be a person who sometimes/about half of the time/often likes their sex to be entirely vanilla, but who also enjoys adding elements of BDSM from time to time. Maybe they always get so turned on by being intensely hurt or intensely hurting someone that they just have to have sex right after, preferably with some poking of the fresh bruises. Maybe they are the proverbial “spicy-vanilla” owners of a pair of fake-fur handcuffs who are trying a bit of kink with their sex for the first time. Maybe they like to get out the costumes and dress up for some role play sex (just once a year for Halloween or pretty much every Thursday) and are happily vanilla the rest of the time. Or maybe they have both vanilla and kinky partners and have sex with all of them (and no BDSM without sex).
As in the previous version, the amount of BDSM contained in the general amount of sex can vary from a lot, to about half of it, to just a little (as indicated by the differently-sized circles).
#5: BDSM and sex overlap completely
For other people, BDSM and sex may be completely overlapping. Whenever they have sex, it has BDSM elements to it, and whenever they have sex, it has aspects of BDSM. They never engage in vanilla sex and never do BDSM without any sexual elements. Please see above for more specific examples of ways to combine BDSM and sex.
#6: BDSM only, no sex
In the next case, the person does BDSM, but engages in no sexual acts whatsoever (with or without kink). They may be temporarily or permanently sexually celibate (by choice or by circumstance) but still enjoy giving or receiving pain or service or like playing with power exchange, with one or multiple partners (and/or clients). They may just not have any libido (sex drive), due to medication or age or depression or unknown causes, and may therefore skip all the sex stuff but be absolutely into bootblacking, boot worship and trampling. Or perhaps they are asexual and experience no sexual attraction (and also have no other reasons for participating in sex) and that is why they prefer to focus on expanding their skills in giving an excellent full-body massage, or in making pretty patterns out of dozens of needles on their bottom’s backs. Maybe they just don’t like sharing sex with anyone for any other reason and save all their sexual activity for solo fun, but they have a steady rope bondage buddy or a knack for meeting cuties at play parties for pick-up BDSM scenes without sexual elements.
#7: Sex only, no BDSM
If it is the other way around, and they only have sex but no BDSM, we have found ourselves what is often known as a vanilla person. Maybe they just haven’t discovered their kinky interests, yet, or they are still working up their courage to make their BDSM fantasies a reality. They may be BDSM-celibate for now or forever (by choice or by circumstance) and only engage in sexual acts without any kink elements with their partner(s) and/or clients. Or they may just not be attracted to playing with pain or power dynamics and also feel absolutely no urge to ever play around with a strand of rope or three.
#8: Neither BDSM nor sex
And of course it’s also possible to engage in neither BDSM nor any kind of sex. Maybe this is a full-on celibacy (by choice or by circumstance, temporary or permanent). Maybe they’re too depressed to care about either of these things or so sick or traumatized that they spend all of their energy on simply surviving until the next day. Or maybe they just spend all their time doing other delightful and/or important things (doing social justice activism? writing code for their newest project? reading or writing erotic novels or fanfiction? sailing across the Atlantic? caring for a newborn? perfecting their challah recipe? repairing their house?), and are perfectly happy just the way they are.
And with this I have reached the last of my diagrams!
Of course none of the examples for activities I gave are exclusive to the concept below which they are mentioned. They are also not the only examples that are possible to illustrate said concept. I tried to cover a wide range and many angles throughout the post, but I’m sure I’ve still missed things — please add a comment if you think of anything that is important to you.
I hope me picking apart the possible relations between BDSM and sex is useful for you to understand where you’ve been, where you are right now, and where you may go in the future in these areas. Or maybe you’ve stayed the same all your life (also interesting!)? Perhaps this post also helps you have a better idea of the way other people live their kink and their sex (or either, or neither) in different ways from you.
Finally: If anything I said is unclear, please don’t hesitate to ask and I’ll do my best to clarify (or simplify). Or perhaps you have thoughts of your own to add to mine? The comments and my contact form are open!
 ↑ To see what I mean, just scroll through the #Kinktober hashtag on Twitter or Tumblr and count the images that do and don’t depict genital sex — or even just look at how many obviously genital-involving activities are part of the #Kinktober prompt list I’m using (6 out of 31 = almost 20%) when that is explicitly a kink-centered project.
 ↑ For the purpose of this post, it just matters that there is a line between BDSM and sex somewhere. It’s fine if it’s not in the same place for everyone. And it’s also fine if there are cases where BDSM and sex melt into each other, for example when a caning is given with the explicit intent of causing an orgasm in the top or bottom but no one’s genitals are directly touched. (I have diagrams for those cases, too.)
That said, if you have strong feelings about what is sex and what isn’t, you can take this post either way: If you define sex as everything that involves genital stimulation for at least one person involved, the concepts still work. If you define sex as everything that leads to sexual arousal and perhaps orgasm for at least one person involved, the concept also works. And if you define sex as everything that either involves genital stimulation or that leads to sexual arousal and perhaps orgasm for at least one person involved, the concept works, too. If, however, you define sex solely as a flesh-and-blood cock penetrating a flesh-and-blood vagina, I strongly recommend that you examine the anti-gay sentiment implicit in this definition. In that case, you’re still welcome to stay around and learn, but you need to be aware that I’m writing this entire blog based on a different understanding of human sexuality, so you may have to question a lot of your assumptions before things make sense to you.
 ↑ Because really, is rimming anal sex or oral sex or both? If I stimulate a clit with a vibrator I hold in my hand, is that still “manual” sex? What if I rub a vulva (the outside parts — outer lips, inner lips, clit) with a cock but it never enters the vagina (the inside part)? That can’t possibly be “vaginal sex,” right? What about all the different ways someone can rub their genitals on someone else’s non-genital body parts or all the ways we can rub their genitals with body parts that are not our hands? Do we even have a widely-known umbrella term for all of that? And what if our genitals or those of our partners don’t neatly fit into the “either it’s a dick or it’s a clit” binary, never mind the rest of what’s there “down there”? Can you see why I find these “manual/ oral/ anal/ vaginal sex” categories so confusing?!
 ↑ This is not to say that solo sex (masturbation) and/or solo BDSM are any less valid than partnered sex and/or BDSM. But this post is long enough as it is, so I decided to not include solo sex/BDSM. That said, while my examples assume the presence of at least one partner, the concepts as such should still work for solo sex and/or BDSM.
 ↑ For the record: The person beating someone’s ass or tying someone up could also be a switch, service top, or a submissive sadist, and the recipient of the beating or the one who gets tied up could be another switch, a masochistic dominant, or anyone else who doesn’t neatly fit into either of these categories. The giver of a blowjob can be a top as well as a bottom, and the person receiving the blowjob can be a woman (cis or trans), non-binary person, or man (cis or trans). And so on.
 ↑ Some people may dislike my inclusion of sex work in these examples because they don’t consider the activities of sex workers “actual sex” or “actual BDSM” and prefer saving those terms for private activities. I obviously don’t intend to tell anyone how they should define their own lives, but I did want to be clear that my thinking is inclusive of sex workers and sex worker clients. Sex work (including no-sex pro-BDSM) is just a part of the reality of circumstances in which sexual acts and acts of BDSM take place — and this post focuses on consensual activities, not on feelings about them.
 ↑ I know the overlap of the example in the middle row here and in the following illustration doesn’t really amount to 50%, so I hope all you math nerds will forgive me for prioritizing the visual “feel” rather than geometrical accuracy here.
 ↑ In which case I hope they don’t use their faux-fur handcuffs to actually pull on them with any force because the narrow metal can easily hurt someone’s wrists (and the nerves that run along it). They also tend to break easily because they’re usually produced very cheaply and in an awful quality. A safer alternative (that is still fairly cheap) is a set of wider, adjustable cuffs made out of textile that closes with velcro or buckles. That’s the kind you can actually pull against with a lot less risk of hurting yourself. They also tend to be much more comfortable, which means you can wear them for a longer time.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons (pencil), all other graphics and diagrams © kinky & nerdy