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Failure to honor a safeword is considered serious misconduct and could even change the sexual consent situation into a crime, depending on the relevant law, since the bottom or top has explicitly revoked his or her consent to any actions that follow the use of the safeword (see Legal status).

For other scenes, particularly in established relationships, a safeword may be agreed to signify a warning ("this is getting too intense") rather than explicit withdrawal of consent; and a few choose not to use a safeword at all.

There are distinct subcultures under this umbrella term.

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".

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.

Top and dominant are widely used for those partner(s) in the relationship or activity who are, respectively, the physically active or controlling participants.