Feb 13: Michael Ellsberg On How To Safely Kink Up Your Relationship

Michael Ellsberg

You’re talking about how to inject kink into a previously vanilla relationship this Saturday, is that right?

Yeah, it is my sense that there are a lot of singles and couples who are very curious about getting into [BDSM], especially after the book and movie which shall not be named. It’s daunting to get into it. When I was getting into it, I didn’t quite know where to go. I found the scene overwhelming; there are all these terms that are new, there’s perhaps different shades and flavors of kink that newbies are a little bit alarmed by at first, and so it can be challenging to get into it. So, I want to provide a really safe, beginner-friendly place to get just the absolute basics of kink and BDSM.

If I can get into the personal aspects of it, what was it that you found so overwhelming about the scene at first?

A bunch of things. I didn’t really know what the terms meant at first, so I wasn’t sure — “Okay, what’s the difference between dominance and submission and topping and bottoming, and sadomasochism, and bondage and discipline?” I’m a writer, so words really matter to me, so I felt overwhelmed with all the terminology. Another thing I noticed was that there were a lot of differing opinions on different issues. Like affirmative consent vs. “No means no,” and all kinds of different political debates seemed kind of daunting to me because I didn’t want to offend anyone or step on any toes or make any super-newbie mistakes.

And then, the thing that I think a lot of people go through when they’re just getting into kink is maybe a little bit of shock of the unfamiliar. There’s so many different things. There’s an ethos in the kink community to not judge other people’s kink so long as it’s consensual, but when you’re just getting into it, you may see things that you’ve never seen before, and you’re kind of like, “Whoah! Why would anyone be interested in that?” It can kind of freeze you up. People wonder, for example, “Okay, if I get into this, does that mean that I have to be really into pain?” I think a lot of people are curious about dom/sub dynamics without necessarily wanting to experience a lot of physical pain. So there’s just all these different factors that people are not sure about.

One other factor is “How will this impact my relationship?” So let’s say you’re in some kind of relationship: Maybe one partner’s interested and another isn’t. If I’m interested in this, is my partner going to reject me? If I make a mistake, is it going to fuck up the relationship? There’s so many considerations.

So what do you tell people if they are first approaching kink without any previous experience and they’re in a relationship?

The first thing I do in the workshop is to really go over consent very well and help people understand exactly what it means and to help people understand the whole concept of negotiation. I like to give people kind of a quick-and-dirty guide to some of the things that need to be negotiated. Different types of impact — are they okay or not okay? Different words that might be triggering. What the safewords are going to be, what the safewords mean — like what will happen if someone calls a safeword. Whether the sub is okay with humiliation, whether they’re more in the mood to be a good girl or a good boy or a naughty boy or girl.

And then of course, whether there’s going to be genitals involved; what contact, STD talks, all these things to create what many people call a “container.”

So that’s the first thing that I like to talk about. Then the next thing I like to get into is a bit of the psychology of dominance and submission. In BDSM, I’m mostly in the D/s side. There’s certainly people who know more about the technical aspects of BDSM and rigging and very fancy and exotic forms of impact play, but personally I’m much more interested in the psychological and emotional aspects of dominance and submission. So I like to talk about those. Like: What does it really mean to Dom? What does it mean to sub? Why would somebody want to sub?

Something I talk a lot about — especially if there’s women in the audience — a lot of women are conflicted about their desires to sub. They find it a turn-on, but they wonder, “Well how does this fit with my feminist ideals? How does this fit with the fact that I don’t take shit from anybody at the workplace? How can I then submit to a man in the bedroom?”

So those are kind of the introductory things that I like to talk about.

Could you go into a little more detail about the idea of a container?

Sure. So, one of my kink mentors when I was starting out made this great analogy: If you imagine a box, and then there’s a circle inside of the box, the box is safety. Everything inside the box fundamentally is safe. And then the circle is unsafety. So it’s “unsafety” within “safety.”

Most people are in BDSM because they want to push their edges. They want to know what it’s like to be on the edge. How does it feel erotically when I’m on my edge and unsure of how much farther I can go? That’s intensely erotic to many people. That’s the circle; but then that’s got to be in a square that says “Fundamentally, everything is safe.” Fundamentally, the sub is in power; if the sub calls the safeword, then that’s going to be respected. He or she is not going to be hurt physically or emotionally, there’s going to be aftercare, so that there’s a transition from the scene into day-to-day life. That’s what I see as the container.

If you imagine a glass jar, you can have water in the jar and shake it up in every direction; the water is going everywhere in the jar and it’s bubbling and it’s completely chaotic. Then you can put the jar down — the container — and none of it got on anybody. None of it leaked out after the scene. If the container’s not good, then the water leaks out into the rest of the scene and then you’ve got to clean it up.

And that allows people to differentiate between enjoying play that may have troubling aspects and “I want to do these troubling things in real life.”

Right. Exactly. So many people will address taboo topics in their play, so it might be some kind of incest taboo or words that they would never consent to being called outside of the play, or even consensual non-consent and rape fantasies. That’s probably the classic example; many women are turned on by the idea of a rape roleplay, or some kind of fantasy involving forced sex, but obviously they would never want that to happen outside of the container.

It’s like this magical border, where once you cross the border into the scene, everything that you’ve negotiated is okay and safe. But then when you step back across the border into your day-to-day life, all of that is left in the scene. Unless you’re in a 24/7 relationship, which is a whole different animal.

Say for instance, you have a couple where one couple is kinky — either from previous experience or just starting to explore — and they want to breach that with their more vanilla partner. How do you recommend they go about doing that?

My recommendation is to start by steps. If one partner’s vanilla, it might be overwhelming to say “Hey, Cindy, I have this fantasy and I really want to tie you up and spit on you and call you a slutty bitch and cane you until you bleed.” If Cindy is vanilla, she’s going to instantly freeze up and feel unsafe and probably reject the entire proposition — and maybe reject you as a partner.

So, a much better way to bring it up is to say “Have you ever been curious about…?”

In my experience, I find spanking to be the easiest onramp. And here’s why: Most vanilla sex includes a little bit of spanking. Most people, if they’re having vanilla sex, it’s not that unusual to have a good smack on the ass. At least one or two. Most people have already experienced a little spanking in their vanilla sex, so it’s a really easy on-ramp: “Hey, would you be curious about exploring that a little more?”

From spanking, it’s not that much of a step to go to using a spanker tool, and then from using a spanker tool, it’s not that much of a step to using a flogger. Then once that person is bent over and being flogged, it’s not that much of a step to go to having a collar and leash on. Maybe it’s best just to add one element per play scene instead of doing it all at once.

The other thing I’ve found is really important when introducing someone who’s more vanilla to play is to make it super-clear that they can stop at any time. For example, someone who’s vanilla may not be really familiar with the concept of a safeword. They may not know what that means, and they may not have ever used one in their sexuality. So if you say, “Listen, when you say ‘red light,’ everything stops and we talk about it,” that’s really important to reassure the newbies.

You were saying that when you came into the scene, you found it overwhelming. Do you think that the scene still has those same issues for newcomers, or do you think that there are different issues now?

I do see a lot more outreach and classes. Like Stockroom University is clearly a very beginner-friendly place and I really applaud you for having these workshops and introducing people. And I think like any scene, the BDSM scene has mixed feelings about newcomers. On the one hand, there’s a certain flattery: “Hey, this thing that we’re really into, it’s finally starting to get some recognition.” That’s really exciting, and people are happy about that.

On the other hand, you get people who might be in it for the wrong reasons. A lot of people who might be taking it as kind of a joke or some kind of novelty, without the seriousness that it requires. The main issue is I think people don’t realize how easy it is to hurt someone physically or emotionally through this kind of play. So they might get in over their heads and start doing some really intense scene with their partner and end up hurting somebody. It’s a full-contact sport, and you have to have a lot of attention on safety. That’s why I think overall it’s a good thing that there’s a lot more beginner classes, because a good beginner class will start with safety and consent.

Be My Kinky Valentine with Michael Ellsberg

Saturday, February 13
2:30 – 5:00
2811 W. Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA

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1 comment to Feb 13: Michael Ellsberg On How To Safely Kink Up Your Relationship

  • R. Hill

    I love the interview with Michael Ellsberg on “How to Safely Kink …” it was a great read. I learned so many things that I feel will comfort me and inspire me when I begin planing my FIRST scene … YES I did say my first scene.

    If this thing I’ve started with this guy (who is exp BDSM) actually ever happens, I will have some tools in my pocket – at least enough to get a good kink scene conversation started. I freeze up every time he begins kinky sexting (I’ve never done kink at all and I’ve never seated before now). But I find that I LOVE it and I don’t want to ever go back to vanilla, but he’s gonna leave me behind soon if I don’t step up my game. I’m just so nervous about saying or doing the wrong things.

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