For a large portion of the population (including 62% of women), power exchange role play makes an appearance in our sexual fantasies. These power exchange fantasies—aka “rape fantasies”—can bring shame and confusion, making discussion of them taboo and actually exploring them out of the question. But the reasons for our carnal desires often aren’t as simple as we think, and exploring fantasy doesn’t have to feel shameful.
Rape is defined as “unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception.” And while none of that should evoke sexy vibes, many find pleasure in a safe and planned power-shift fantasy with another consenting adult—which, of course, isn’t rape at all. Here are some things to consider when deciding when and how to explore your own power exchange fantasy.
Why power fantasies?
Lifehacker spoke with Certified Lisa Thomas, a licensed social worker and clinical sex therapist, about why many of us crave power fantasies and how we can engage in role play in consensual, safe ways.
“Women don’t want to be raped, but there are some consistent themes that better explain why people have this fantasy,” she explains, noting people are often drawn to it for three reasons: the release of giving up the fight and giving into desire, using it as a way to determine how much desire their partners have for them, and building up the level of trust within the relationship.
She also explained that for a vast majority of women, sexual blame avoidance is a massive factor in role play. This theory argues that some women cope with guilt or shame around sexual activity by engaging in a fantasy of being “forced” to do something they don’t want to do, which takes the sexual responsibility off of their shoulders. For some who have been assaulted, role play is also a way they might participate in their own systematic desensitization and face their trauma in more productive ways.
How to safely engage in role play
There’s no shame in having a power fantasy—or, at least, there shouldn’t be—but taking action on that fantasy should include some knowledge on how to engage in role play to ensure it is a safe, consensual, and positive experience.
Use a BDSM checklist
Those in the BDSM community are likely familiar with the BDSM checklist, which helps your partner understand your sexual history and learn what sexual experiences you’re open to having. If you’re newer to this kind of sex play, become familiar with the rationale behind these lists and how they can help remove ambiguity around your limits and expectations. Your preferences can be perfectly organized in a spreadsheet, and it’s a great jumping off point for discussing them with your partner.
For example, maybe you have an aversion to the use of rope due to a negative experience with that material in the past. The checklist is incredibly detailed when it comes to specific restraints, so you can indicate that although you are cool with metal or leather, you aren’t comfortable with rope. Depending on the lists you use, they are generally categorized from “hard limit” to “love,” which allows you to dive into an open tolerance discussion with your partner. When addressing BDSM, it’s important to be detailed in your preferences; a checklist leaves little wiggle room.
When chatting with James A., 42, about using the checklist, he advised “With partners that I have been specifically with for BDSM play, we are all very clear about what we like and what our soft and hard limits are. In some cases, I have used versions of the checklist, but I have generally found that clear, candid communication works well with my partners.”
In contrast, Crystal R., 33, stated, “I make everyone sign an NDA and complete the full checklist before we participate in any type of play. It’s important for my safety and the safety of those I interact with. It may seem like a lot, but I’m not going to throw caution to the wind when it comes to my future.”
Be thoughtful of your setting
Setting is a detail often overlooked by newbies, but it’s essential to an enjoyable experience. Setting can include lighting, smells, dress, temperature, and more, so think carefully about what you want to associate the experience and choose your location accordingly. You might prefer to be at a hotel or in your partner’s home instead of your own, or you might prefer the familiarity of your own space. Whatever you choose, focus on making sure you feel safe and comfortable.
“Setting is so important,” says Maria G., 31, when asked about how setting has affected her experience of role play in the past. “I dated a woman who wore this super flowery perfume that reminded me of my grandmother, and after we really started exploring gag play, I had to ask her to stop wearing it. She’d shove the panties in my mouth and visions of my nana would come to my head. It was traumatizing! After that it took time for me to be cool with the scenario again, but after a couple more times, I relaxed.”
Establish your limits
The duration of the fantasy may change, but Thomas suggests that you place a flexible time limit on the experience so it’s not too overwhelming physically or psychologically. If you’re having a blast, you can throw the allotted time out the door, but make sure you renegotiate the terms before continuing. It’s often comforting to know the duration and frequency of your play; if you decide it should be a one-off experience, you can make that preference clear.
“My boyfriend had a naughty teacher whip-him-with-a -ruler kind of thing, and it was fun the first couple of times, but then it got boring and started making me feel some sort of way,” shares Adam D., 41, about communicating limits with his own partner. “So I sat him down and we decided we’d only do it like a couple times a year. It’s not weird anymore and I got to change my character to [better] suit my desires.”
Sometimes, limits also speak to a partner’s need for variety. “Nobody wants to dress up like a naughty nurse every Friday night,” says Nicole F., 33. “You have to put a time limit on that shit.”
Create an aftercare routine
If you never participated in aftercare, it’s time to start. Aftercare doesn’t mean the standard asks—“did you come?” or “do you want water?”—but a more direct, thoughtful, and intentional approach to address the “drop” people often feel after the endorphins start to fade (which, by the way, can persist for days after play ends). Checking in with both ourselves and partners is essential after engaging in physically and emotionally draining sex play.
One of my favorite suggestions from the BDSM community is to put together an aftercare kit for your person, which can include personalized, soothing items you and your partner can eat, drink, or snuggle up with.
“I always bring snacks and Gatorade Zero,” shares Bree S., 54. “It seems kind of weird when I say it, but sex is exhausting and reaching in my bag to pull out a yummy drink and a granola bar makes my partners feel cared for.”
And although some might worry about ruining the fantasy by over-planning, you can rest easy: Planning doesn’t take the fun out of sex. Instead, it ensures that everyone has a good time, no one is left feeling violated, and helps take the trauma and shame out of what should be a natural and safe fantasy experience.
And while we’re focused on improving our natural and safe fantasies, we can also begin to rebrand. Thomas suggests we can start by calling it a “Power Exchange Fantasy” rather than “rape fantasy,” focusing on a consensual give and take of power rather than reflecting one of the worst things that can happen to a person. If we can begin to shift the narrative towards a consensual fantasy that we act out together, our sex play will build trust as we have the experiences we want. The goal here is to share your desires with those whom you trust and value, and who trust and value you in return. And if you throw in an orgasm? Perfection.