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BDSM 101: Ethical Play

By CAGE Staff​(staff)     November 11, 2023

On a day-to-day basis, most of us are surrounded by social constructs that are so ingrained in us that we don't even question them. We know it's rude to answer the front door naked. If you see a line for something, you know you're supposed to queue at the end.

All of these social constructs make our interactions, as groups of people, much more pleasant while simultaneously requiring no discussion about what to do. We, as a group, have been trained to follow them since most of us were young.

The same can be said for kink communities and the world of BDSM. There are a whole host of "unwritten" rules to make sure kink play is ethical and safe...but when you're brand new to kink, you probably find yourself a bit overwhelmed by them all.

Even though the kink community, at large, is pretty good about trying to gently introduce newbies to their unwritten customs, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes, the idea of coming across things you don't know can even be enough reason for someone to avoid trying kink in the first place!

Instead of being worried, let's go over some of the most common kink expectations that help make sure you're playing ethically and morally:

Don't "Out" Someone

Despite the progress public perception has made, BDSM still remains illegal and very-heavily stigmatized in most areas. Even if it was fully accepted somewhere, that doesn't mean that Dommly McDomPants wants his mom to know what he does in the bedroom.

That's why it's vital to help other kinky people keep their sex/kink lives and their personal lives private.

Accidentally exposing someone's private personal information is known as "outing" them, and it's surprisingly easy to do unintentionally.

If you see a fellow play party attendee at the grocery store from last Friday's party, your first instinct might be to go say hello. After all, that's what's standard in a lot of hobby communities, and ignoring them might actually seem rude.

However, that's the WRONG approach for kink. If you go say hi, even if you never mention anything kinky, an association is made. If their kids, who were running to grab a candy bar from down the aisle, ask who you are and how you both met, you place the person in an uncomfortable, on-the-spot position of having to make up a lie - and then remembering that lie.

If you ever see a familiar kinky person outside of the dungeon or kink spaces, ignore them entirely. You can make eye contact, and if they return eye contact with a welcoming motion, feel free to approach. But as a general rule, do not approach anyone you've seen in kink outside of the kink spaces you see them in.

This privacy boundary also includes questions during early conversations with someone. Your usual "go-to" topics of conversation, like what someone does for work or what their family looks like, might be entirely off-limits. Some kinksters don't even like to use their real, driver's license name. There are kinky friends who have known each other for years and don't even know each other's first names!

Be aware that some kinky people may just politely decline any request for personal information - especially from someone they just met - and some may find it uncomfortable to even have been asked.

Make Sure Your Partner Consents

Just like vanilla sex, it's vital that your partner consents to whatever you're doing.

If your partner isn't a "fuck yes, let's do this!", they may not be fully consenting. Pressure to do an activity or indecision about doing an activity isn't full consent.

(We all compromise for people we care about. Sometimes this looks like doing activities we're not super into because someone we care about wants to do it. In that case, your partner probably isn't "fuck yes!" about the activity, but we certainly want them to be "fuck yes!" about doing it to put a smile on your face.)

Make Sure Your Partner Knows the Risks

Like we've covered in the past in our discussions about RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink), you can't consent to things you don't fully understand.

If someone offers you a million dollars, you'd probably say "Hell yeah!".

But if someone neglects to tell you that accepting the million dollars means you'll die 20 years sooner, you've been manipulated. You never had the full information available to understand what you were agreeing to.

That's the case in kink too. Being hung from the ceiling in intricate, sexy knots sounds erotic as hell, but if someone doesn't know about the risks of nerve damage and death before they agree, they can't properly consent.

As always, though, we don't know what we don't know, so you always have to use your best judgment with this one. Try to learn as much as possible, and be as thorough as possible in your negotiations. Encourage anyone you're playing with to look into the kinks themselves to have a better understanding of the safety and risk profile.

Playing safely and ethically means doing your best to disclose all potential risks ahead of time to any play partner. This might even include transient risks - like the fact that you're feeling a bit distracted after a full 10 hour work day.

Make Sure Committed Partners Consent

There's an argument to be made that it's impossible to ethically have sex with someone you know is hiding things from other people they're devoted to.

It's not your responsibility to disclose your partner's activities to anyone they're committed to, but it's within your responsibility to choose whether or not to engage with someone who you know is actively hiding things from people they've promised to be monogamous with.

No, they don't need to tell their Mom that they found a new Dominatrix, but if someone would be really, really emotionally hurt and betrayed if they found out about this activity with you, that's a sign that that person may need to be informed before the activity takes place.

There's nothing wrong with non-monogamy; as long as everyone involved is aware (at the level they want to be!) and consenting, have at it!

While some people definitely disagree, there's a level of "ethical play" that's impossible to achieve if it's all being done while an unaware, monogamous wife or husband waits at home.

Make Sure ALL Participants and Bystanders Consent

While public play can be hot as heck, it's vital that all people who can see or hear your scene consent to your scene.

Surprising unsuspecting people with kink activities is extremely unethical. If taken in another context, it'd be like walking into a coffee shop and finding a couple fucking on the front dining table. A lot of kinky people consider kink a nuanced, lifestyle thing that may be separate from sex, but remember that most of the world considers a blindfold or spanking paddle to be a sex toy. BDSM is sex to them!

Playing ethically ensures that anyone who may encounter your scene has consented to what's going to happen in the scene.

This ethical quandary has a whole host of grey areas, though. If you're playing in a hotel room, what if the maid walks in? If you're playing in the safety of your home, what if a crack in the curtains lets the mail carrier see what's going on?

That's why it's important to use your best judgment to play ethically. Ensure that anyone who is probably going to see your scene has consented, and do your best to keep unexpected bystanders from getting involved. Just like everything in kink, it isn't a black-and-white situation. But it's something that we have to try our best to manage, ethically, while still enjoying ourselves during our scene.

If public play is high on your "desires" list, consider taking any potential scenes to your local BDSM dungeon and play parties. You can get your public play fix while simultaneously ensuring everyone who sees your scene is a willing, excited participant.

Make Sure Your Partners Know Everything Important, Health-Wise

Talking about some of our most-personal health conditions isn't always fun - especially to a hot date we're trying to impress - but playing ethically requires ensuring your partner knows everything that could be applicable during a scene.

Telling your partner about your depression might make you feel like you're disappointing them, but if you have an episode after scene drop sets in, your partner doesn't have all of the info to help you unless you tell them ahead of time.

The same can be said about physical conditions, too - whether they're temporary or permanent. Avoiding play near an often-injured area can be the difference between another injury and having a fantastic, pain-free scene. Adding a condom before penetration can be the difference between a UTI and just having a lot of great orgasms.

Ensure you disclose everything about yourself that might be applicable to the scene. If you're uncomfortable with that discussion, you may want to take activities off the table with this person that require those disclosures. Don't worry; you can always add them back in at a later date!

If you know that simple butt spankings tend to go great, and they don't interact with anything about your mental and physical health, they might be a great place to start when playing with new partners. As you get to know and trust this person more, you might want to add in new and different kinks, disclosing more about yourself as you go.

Your Toys Should Be Sterilized - or Disclosed

Leather is a kinky favorite in the BDSM community, but it has one major problem: it's hard to sterilize. Unlike fully sealed wood, silicone, or acrylic, leather is a soft material with a lot of "hiding spaces" for bacteria and infections to hide. Add that to the fact that leather is a sensitive (and usually expensive!) material that can be damaged by harsh cleansers, and it can be difficult to fully sterilize a paddle between partners.

Different grains and materials of leather can also require different cleansing procedures, making it evenharder to fully sterilize anything leather.

As paddles and other impact play toys are regularly used for spanking near bodily fluids and blood, however, it's vital to ensure that your toys are sterilized between partners. Nothing from a "previous partner" should remain on the paddle when you go to use it with someone else; you could give someone an infection.

This is the case with all toys - whether they're spanking toys, gags, dildos, or anything else.

That's why it's important to know what materials can be sterilized and how to sterilize them. This may look like buying specific toys for one specific partner if the items can't be sterilized, or this may look like picking up a few toys that, specifically, can be sterilized between partners for public play.

If you can't guarantee, with almost 100% certainty, that the item is sterilized and free of bacteria and infections, this information needs to be disclosed to anyone you plan on using the toy with. They may have questions about the upkeep and previous use of the item to determine whether it's within their risk profile to include it in your playtime.

Unless previously disclosed, any partner will assume that they're playing with sterilized and clean toys during your scene. Ethically, you need to make that happen or disclose that the items aren't.

Never Renegotiate Mid-Scene

You know that negotiation is important, and you were a good kinkster and had a long talk before your scene.

But mid-scene, an awesome idea pops into your head. You check in with your partner, and they're a "go".

Unfortunately, renegotiating mid-scene is generally considered unethical. A lot of the mental states we play with in kink (like lots of arousal and endorphins!) can leave someone in an altered headspace. People in that state, it's argued, can't truly consent to any further changes because they're not in a clear state of mind to make those choices.

You've probably experienced some version of this yourself at some point in the vanilla world. You and a partner are going hot and heavy, and you're extremely turned on. When it's all over, you're left going "Oh, huh, I really didn't think about or want to do that today."

Ask Questions First

Those are some of the basic "rules" of ethical play in the kink world - but it isn't an exhaustive list.

As a general rule, to avoid accidentally crossing boundaries or ethical dilemmas, consider asking questions about things you're unsure of. The kink community is usually very welcoming when you have a genuine curiosity and interest in reducing harm. (It's kinda their thing!)

If you're nervous, kink communities like The Cage will allow you to post online or make an anonymous account to avoid associating your questions with your usual profile. Remember, though: not taking steps to ensure you're playing ethically because you're worried about your ego is just as unethical as whatever you were worried you'd do.

Mistress Kay lives in the world of sexuality and kink. With a house that's quickly running out of space for things that aren't sex books and sex toys, she spends what free time she has writing femdom help articles (, trying the latest and greatest in sex toys, and exploring the sexual universe with her partners. She can be reached at Kinky World (