Sometimes the female-specific terms "mistress", "domme" or "dominatrix" are used to describe a dominant woman, instead of the gender-neutral term "dom".Individuals who can change between top/dominant and bottom/submissive roles—whether from relationship to relationship or within a given relationship—are known as switches.Participants usually derive pleasure from this, even though many of the practices—such as inflicting pain or humiliation or being restrained — would be unpleasant under other circumstances.

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Activities and relationships within a BDSM context are often characterized by the participants taking on complementary, but unequal roles; thus, the idea of informed consent of both the partners is essential.

The terms "submissive" and "dominant" are often used to distinguish these roles: the dominant partner ("dom") takes psychological control over the submissive ("sub").

The interaction between tops and bottoms—where physical or mental control of the bottom is surrendered to the top—is sometimes known as "power exchange", whether in the context of an encounter or a relationship.

BDSM actions can often take place during a specific period of time agreed to by both parties, referred to as "play", a "scene", or a "session".

RACK may be seen as focusing primarily upon awareness and informed consent, rather than accepted safe practices. The consent and compliance for a sadomasochistic situation can be granted only by people who can judge the potential results.

For their consent, they must have relevant information (extent to which the scene will go, potential risks, if a safeword will be used, what that is, and so on) at hand and the necessary mental capacity to judge.

BDSM is now used as a catch-all phrase covering a wide range of activities, forms of interpersonal relationships, and distinct subcultures.

BDSM communities generally welcome anyone with a non-normative streak who identifies with the community; this may include cross-dressers, body modification enthusiasts, animal roleplayers, rubber fetishists, and others.

Such explicit sexual interaction is, for legal reasons, seen only rarely in public play spaces, and it is sometimes specifically banned by the rules of a party or playspace.

Whether it is a public "playspace"—ranging from a party at an established community dungeon to a hosted play "zone" at a nightclub or social event—the parameters of allowance can vary.

For the medical condition in which pain/humiliation is required for sexual arousal and causes distress or impairment, see Sexual masochism disorder.