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Since the 1980s, many practitioners and organizations have adopted the motto (originally from the statement of purpose of GMSMA—a gay SM activist organization) "safe, sane and consensual", commonly abbreviated as "SSC", which means that everything is based on safe activities, that all participants be of sufficiently sound/sane mind to consent, and that all participants do consent.Some BDSM practitioners prefer a code of behavior that differs from "SSC" and is described as "risk-aware consensual kink" (RACK), indicating a preference for a style in which the individual responsibility of the involved parties is emphasized more strongly, with each participant being responsible for his or her own well-being.Despite the bottom performing the action and the top receiving they have not necessarily switched roles.The abbreviations "sub" and "dom" are frequently used instead of "submissive" and "dominant".Top and dominant are widely used for those partner(s) in the relationship or activity who are, respectively, the physically active or controlling participants.Bottom and submissive are widely used for those partner(s) in the relationship or activity who are, respectively, the physically receptive or controlled participants.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".

The fundamental principles for the exercise of BDSM require that it should be performed with the informed consent of all involved parties.

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

BDSM is a variety of often erotic practices or roleplaying involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, and other related interpersonal dynamics.

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.