FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
Chuck Zlotnick—Focus Features/courtesy Everett
By Samantha Cooney
February 10, 2017

While 50 Shades of Grey has brought BDSM into the mainstream, many couples regularly practice the lifestyle, which refers to sex practices including domination, bondage and sadomasochism. But is it healthy to add a little spanking and submission into your sex life?

Dr. Stephanie Hunter Jones, a certified sex therapist, works with couples to introduce BDSM into their bedrooms — and she told Motto that she’s seen the practice completely revive partnerships. “It definitely makes a difference for damaged relationships,” Dr. Jones said.

Dr. Jones spoke with Motto about her work, what impact BDSM can have on relationships and how “vanilla” couples can start getting a little kinky.

Motto: What impact can BDSM have on relationships?

Jones: For couples already involved in it, they’re no different from any other couple. They have the same concerns. BDSM is an expression of one’s uniqueness of their sexuality, and I always find that our BDSM couples are very blessed because they’ve found a partner that is a good fit for them.

But I also help vanilla couples introduce BDSM into their relationships, sometimes, in a bid to save their unions. I recently had a couple come in recently and the wife was in tears. She said she wasn’t attracted to her husband anymore and that she thought their marriage was over. They had been married for about ten years. So I met with them individually and found that their relationship was a total power struggle. He was totally dominating her in the relationship. So I gave them assignments where she would “dom” him in the bedroom. And it totally saved their marriage. And they’ve become lifestylers.

I often prescribe BDSM for power struggles or control issues. Or, if one partner had a bad sexual experience in the past, I prescribe it as a way to give that partner back some feeling of control.

So, how can a couple that’s never tried BDSM before organically introduce it into their relationship?

There’s lots of videos available online. I would check those out and do some research. I also frequently refer my clients to doms, and let the doms show them the safe way to play. You can have a session with a dom, who will demonstrate the ropes and different types of exercises you can do in the bedroom.

Here’s one scenario: one person — playing the dom (the person in power) can pretend to be the CEO of a company and the submissive can be an employee.

There’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of when it comes to BDSM. People think it equals pain. But, in reality, BDSM covers everything from playful role-playing to spanking to tying up your partner and teasing them with a feather. You can go as heavy as you want — as long as it’s consensual. But you don’t need to, either. You can always just dip your toe in — and that will still add a level of erotic energy to sex play with your partner.

How can couples stay safe — and consensual — while trying out BDSM?

BDSM play is always consensual. I work with the couples to create a safe word — meaning whenever one of them says that word, what’s going on must stop. No questions asked.

They also are supposed to talk beforehand. The scene played out shouldn’t be organic until they’ve done it enough so they know each other’s limits. When they’re just starting out, they must discuss the scene in advance and lay out what’s going to happen.

How should one partner broach the subject of trying out BDSM?

I’d recommend going to a sex-positive sex therapist and talking it out there. Or if you feel comfortable enough, I would just talk to your partner — and recommend starting out small. Say: “I’m interested in getting a little bit more playful in the bedroom — maybe some role playing or spanking.”

I’m a big advocate for getting help outside the bedroom. I think sex therapists are incredibly helpful. They can really help you get off to a good start.

Have you ever seen any negative effects of introducing BDSM into your relationship?

If a partner is using BDSM to hurt themselves or someone else, that’s not your traditional BDSM relationship. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s any harm introducing it whatsoever.

Some of my more mature couples initially giggle when I give them BDSM exercises to do, but when they report back to me, they love the experience. They say they felt like they were in high school again. They felt it was something new and unique to do in the bedroom, and it’s playful and fun.

Don’t be afraid to get outside your comfort zone. You and your partner can totally transform your relationship.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Write to Samantha Cooney at samantha.cooney@time.com.

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