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What is BDSM? Edmonton enthusiasts say it’s all about communication and consent

WATCH ABOVE:  Shallima Maharaj speaks with members of Edmonton’s BDSM community who clarify what it is and what it isn’t.

EDMONTON – Fired radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s admission on Facebook that he enjoys rough sex is stoking curiosity about BDSM.

The term includes bondage, domination, discipline, sadism, submission and masochism, said Nikki Collins, 26, who’s been an member of Edmonton’s BDSM community for nearly eight years.  “But there are also other aspects to it, such as fetishism.”

Members say BDSM goes beyond garden-variety sexual foreplay and intercourse, which they describe as “vanilla” sex.

So just what does BDSM involve and what draws adherents to this kind of sex?

“It is not abuse. Again, it is not abuse at all,” said Collins.

“There’s always consent involved there. When someone is playing with a new partner or an old partner, generally speaking, if something new is going to be introduced, it’s always discussed.”

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Other members agree that there is a fine line between pleasure and pain.

“You can harm someone and not hurt them. But when you harm them, there’s a line right there,” said Nika, who has practised BDSM for 13 years and asked Global Edmonton not to publish her full name because she has a background in law enforcement.

The goal of kinky sex is to spice up life in the bedroom. It can be physical— tying a partner to the bedposts with scarves, or even more rough play like nipple pinching and spanking, for instance — or more psychological in nature: enjoying the sense of being dominated or being the one who dominates. No matter what happens, communication with your partner and trust are of the utmost importance.

Key to that trust is a “safeword” – a signal that the current activity is beyond the participants comfort zone.The safeword is agreed upon in advance and often something that wouldn’t be said during sex –for example, “bubble” or “potato”. It allows participants to say “no” or “stop” and pretend as much as they want, while still having a safe way of indicating when they are uncomfortable.

The exotic nature of BDSM means it can be easily misunderstood. “Because it is private and in people’s bedrooms, it’s easy to sensationalize,” said Nika.

“People have kids, they have lives, they have birthday parties to go to, trick-or-treating and all those things,” said Collins, who has seen the community grow since she joined it. “They don’t live the lifestyle 24/7, 365 [days a year].”
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Dr. Ruth Neustifter, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph who specializes in sexual well-being, said it’s not known how many North Americans consider themselves part of the kinky sex community. But soaring sales of erotica, sexual toys and BDSM gear, especially following the release of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, suggest a growing number of people are pushing the boundaries of how they get sexual gratification.

“Being able to explore a wider range of human emotion, of physical and intimate sensation, of dynamics in how people can communicate and explore together can add an exciting element to the bedroom,” explained Neustifter, who also stressed the importance of consent and communication.

It’s often thought the dominant person in the sexual duo — typically called a dom or top — is in control, she said. “But really the way it should be is the person who’s in the submissive role (the sub or bottom) really ultimately has the most power. Whatever signal they have that something is wrong should call things to a halt, the person who dominates should be immediately responding to that.”

“There’s this notion that the dominant person has all the power. But when this is done in a good consensual way, that’s not how it is at all.”

It is conceivable, however, that some people may go too far, overstepping the bounds of pleasurable pain into what many would consider violence, she said.

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“When partners are negotiating these more intense activities, it’s very important that they are aware of the potential risk involved.”

“If you have someone who is utilizing their power in a situation in a way that isn’t in both their own and their partner’s best interest, we have a problem … When those things are happening, whether it’s vanilla sex or kinky sex, we have a problem.”

In the case of Ghomeshi, the Toronto Star reported that it had approached the CBC Radio host with allegations from three women who said he was physically violent without their consent during sexual encounters or in the run-up to such encounters. None of the women has filed a police complaint, and Ghomeshi has denied engaging in non-consensual role play or sex and called any suggestion to the contrary defamatory.

READ MORE: Actor Lucy DeCoutere steps forward with allegations against Jian Ghomeshi

Ghomeshi’s lawyers filed a lawsuit this week against the CBC, alleging breach of confidence, bad faith and defamation by the public broadcaster, seeking $55 million.

READ MORE: Jian Ghomeshi’s $55M suit ‘a joke’ says labour lawyer

Those who engage in BDSM say acts that would constitute assault, such as a punch or kick in the face, are “completely unacceptable,” and would result in ostracism by the community of the perpetrating partner.

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“You cannot consent to being hit – even if you want to be, even if you’re consenting to a play with someone. If at the end of it you go, ‘I don’t really like them, they hurt my feelings. I’m going to get them in trouble.’ You can. Even if they were in the right and you consented to everything, they can still charge you,” said Nika.

READ MORE: Can rough consensual sex lead to criminal convictions?

Lynne, a member of the Ontario BDSM community, says what may be painful for one person can in some cases feel pleasurable to another.

While she believes many women fantasize about being ravished — hence the popularity of bodice-ripping romance novels — “this in no way indicates a desire for an actual assault to occur … Actual assault is terrifying and dehumanizing. Fantasy play in this area is about feeling desirable but also about being in charge of everything that happens as a result of negotiating and being with someone who is there because he/she wants to make your fantasies come true.”

READ MORE: Bondage, submission common sexual fantasy themes: Montreal study

In fact, she said, “BDSM can be a safe outlet for people who want to be dominated or dominating, or sadistic or masochistic.”

While being open-minded about sexual practices, those in the kink community aren’t always comfortable about letting their involvement be known outside their intimate circles. Some suggested that Ghomeshi’s firing has likely put a chill on the notion of being more open.

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“ As soon as [Ghomeshi] said ‘BDSM,’ that was it,” said Nika. “The fire storm started. There was a judgement that oh, ‘he’s one of them.’ And that’s a little frightening because it makes everyone else have to be that much more careful with who we play with.”

“It’s like any other normal relationship except usually there’s one partner that’s leading the relationship and one partner that’s following, but you see that in normal relationships too,” said Collins.

Both women want people to understand that BDSM players come from all walks of life.

“Please don’t demonize us for what we do behind closed doors because of a few really bad people out there,”said Nika.

“There are predators in every single walk of life, no matter what we do. But to immediately judge because you hear that word, that’s really not fair.”

Sheryl Ubelacker with The Canadian Press contributed to this post. To see her full story, click here.

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