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Some Basic Sex Terms You’ll Need to Watch 50 Shades of Grey

As the world anxiously awaits the release of 50 Shades of Grey, I thought we might take a look at some of the basic sex terms–some of which you’ll hear in relationship to the movie. It can be confusing, when reading about sex, to understand what the writer means when he/she uses these acronyms. If you’re like me, some of these letters just don’t seem to make any sense. For example, it took me a while to figure out that NSFW means Not Safe for Work.

Some Basic Sex Terms You'll Need to Watch 50 Shades of Grey

Here’s a very basic primer on sex-related terms you might find on the internet. My disclaimer: There are many definitions and nuances to sex terms; what you find here is a loosely compiled list of definitions. I am not claiming to be the authority or to having done extensive research in making this list. has one of the most comprehensive sex term lists I’ve ever seen if you want to explore.

BDSM: Bondage, Discipline/Domination, Sadism, Masochism. When you see the letters D/s it refers to the dominant/submissive power dynamic. As for defining BDSM, it means different things to different people-it general it refers to kink or power play. BDSM practices might range from the use of a pretty silky scarf as a blindfold to more involved and orchestrated practices involving spanking, using flogs/paddles and handcuffs, or role-playing, for example.

Kink: Kink refers to sex that’s outside of the norm. Of course we don’t really have a ‘norm’ unless you want to consider the standard missionary position intercourse. Kink might be wanting to wear latex or always having sex with blindfolds. It’s a term that encompasses many sexual preferences.

Sexual Agency: This is a great term that I’m seeing with more frequency lately. Sexual agency refers to the ability to make individual choices about the kind of sex you want, free of coercion. I find it an empowering term.

Consent: We tend to think of consent in connection with the Just Say No campaign used by colleges. It’s the understanding that both parties need to be willing and consenting. I think we can use the word consent to go deeper. To have conversations about exactly what you want to do and why. Saying, “well if you want to” isn’t really the level of consent you want in any aspect of life, certainly not in mutually enjoyable sex.

Top: With the buzz around 50 Shades of Grey you’re probably hearing more words that related to BDSM. Top is one of those. To top refers to an act, or role, in power play where the Dom, or dominant partner, taking the lead.  “She’s the Top to my sub.”

Sub: The one who is subservient or submissive to the dominant in a sexual power play.

Vanilla: The flip side of ‘Kink”–this is the straight up traditional approach to sex–missionary, lights out, conventional, etc. Deemed to be a little boring! You might enjoy, When is Sex Like Ice Cream? Are You the Vanilla Type or Dark Chocolate?

Poly: Someone who identifies as ‘poly’ is referring to their polyamory lifestyle–in short people who have more than one partner, often a ‘primary’ partner and one or two or more lovers/romantic interests. The focus is on romantic love, not just having sex with lots of people!

Maybe these aren’t the words you think you need at this point in life, and then again….maybe you’re going to step out into a new world of sexual pleasure. So if you do, these brief terms might help! Being informed is always a good thing. At the very least, the next time you see the letters NSFW you’ll know not to open the page unless you’re in a safe, discreet spot!


Walker Thornton

We are delighted to have Walker Thornton as our Women’s Sexual Health columnist. After working for over 10 years in the field of sexual violence against women, Walker is now enjoying a new career as a freelance writer, public speaker, and sex educator with an emphasis on midlife women. Her blog, was ranked #5 by in their top 100 Sex Blogging Superheroes of 2014. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter For questions about sexual health, write her at

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