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“You want to make sure that you narrate what is going to be happening,” a blond woman in a skintight nurse’s costume said. She had just demonstrated how to safely, and consensually, stick a willing partner with hypodermic needles.

The subject of her class was “medical play,” and the crowd was standing-room-only. The event was hosted by the Eulenspiegel Society in Manhattan, which describes itself as the “oldest and largest BDSM support and education group” in the US.

Those who practice bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM) have rules for protecting boundaries, safety and consent. But the line between BDSM and abuse has been in the news after two US politicians were accused of abusing their sexual partners.

“There is a difference between abuse and BDSM,” said Gigi, a spokesperson for the The Eulenspiegel Society. “That difference is consent.”

What Is ‘Safe, Sane and Consensual’?

BDSM practitioners use the catchphrase “safe, sane and consensual” to summarize best practices for sexual encounters that mix with violence. Extensive conversations, negotiated checklists and safe words are tools for navigating consent.

READ: How bondage has gripped the nation

Setting time constraints is also important, Thorn said, because most BDSM enthusiasts are not constantly “on.” She provided an example of how time limits can be established: “We’re going to do a scene right now,” she said, referring to an episode of role play. “We’ll demarcate that with one person wearing a collar and calling the other person ‘sir,’ and we’ll do it this evening and when it’s done, it’s done.”

The key, said Mollena Williams, a self-described submissive and author of “Playing Well With Others,” is to “make a list of things that you absolutely need to have in order to feel safe, in order to feel heard, and then make a list of things that would be great if they happened.”

‘It’s Almost Like a Choose-Your-Own Adventure’ 

Lola Jean, a sex educator and mental health professional, said it is important to tailor each experience to individual preferences and not assume that there is any one-size-fits-all approach to BDSM. “It’s almost like a choose-your-own adventure,” she said.

Participants have to know - and be able to describe and set - their own limits. “I can take a lot of punching and kicking, but for whatever reason, if you slap my face, I go emotionally to pieces,” said a longtime BDSM practitioner who goes by the name Ninja Juicer.

“It used to be you had a mentor,” said Cassandra Moon, a Brooklynite who has long identified as a dominant woman. “Someone you go and hang out with and they would play with their partners and you would watch them do so.”

Now, someone interested in BDSM might also go to a “munch,” a plainclothes gathering where people with different sexual interests meet and mingle. Dungeons provide another space for people to interact and explore their desires. Those spaces have rules and safety monitors, often dressed in bright orange vests, who are on alert for the use of safe words.

“Within the scene, the person receiving always has an out, a safe word,” Moon said. “If a safe word is used, then you stop everything immediately.”

‘You Do Not Bring a Mystery In’

Safe words don’t work for everyone. Other practices include making checklists in advance and nonverbal gestures, such as a pinch of the knee. Some checklists “have 1 to 5 scales for how into something you are,” Thorn said. “If your partner is a 5 on being tied up and a 0 on face slapping, you can engage in BDSM while knowing very granular information about their boundaries.”

Some BDSM practitioners criticize the use of contracts or apps that codify an agreement. Preferences change, they say, and no one should feel locked into agreements when their boundaries may change over time.

“You shouldn’t bring in something that someone hasn’t discussed with you,” Moon said. “That’s so important in this thing. You do not bring a mystery in.”

‘We Just Really Like to Be Adventurous With Our Sexuality’

Legally, though, people can’t consent to just anything.

The New York Times