This page continues the introduction to basic BDSM terms and concepts. To return to the About BDSM menu, click here.
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Words like "pain," "sadist," and "masochist" ring warning bells with many newcomers to BDSM. People see these words and immediately think of abusive, nonconsensual situations. Remember, though: BDSM refers to consensual activity. This does not mean that no one who does BDSM is abusive or ever gets abused, but simply that for a wide range of people, S&M is fun, pleasurable, thoughtfully engaged-in, and rewarding. The difference between abuse and consensual activity is a constant area of concern in BDSM, whether one is considering one's own situation, that of one's partner(s), or that of complete outsiders over whom one has no control.
What draws individuals to BDSM varies from person to person. Many folks daydream about it from childhood on and only discover it is feasible to find commensurate partners much later in life. Others
An appeal of submission
It is an open question whether those who are drawn to BDSM have, on average, more frequent histories of traumatic childhood or lifetime experiences than folks who have no interest in BDSM. There does not seem to be any direct evidence suggesting this, although the question occurs to almost everyone to wonder about.
The statistical evidence that attraction to BDSM is a problem or is associated with difficulty functioning in everyday life is inconclusive. Consequently, for several years now, the psychology profession has not classified BDSM per se as aberrant behavior. (For more information, see the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV.)
List of Kink-Aware
It is certainly the case that there are folks who do BDSM who have been abused or raped in their lives. Whether the incidence of such histories is greater amongst those who do BDSM than in the vanilla population is unknown. Figuring this out is complicated by two factors.
First, the psychology profession often has as its main sample primarily those who are troubled enough to ask for help.
The Sadomasochism of
Everyday Life: A Review
A second important complication in comparing statistics prepared by those of the psychology profession with the actual experience of BDSM is that those who engage in BDSM often are or gradually become unusually open and forthright about their histories. Playing with a partner without letting on to such a history can risk stumbling on a frightening recollection in the middle of a scene. That is, people who do BDSM may have an incentive to be more forthright on average about embarrassing or sad things in their past than those who do vanilla sex. Thus, studies that compare BDSM to vanilla activities might be biased by the fact that those who do BDSM are more likely to report forthrightly any abusive histories they do have than vanillas.
The first rule of thumb when it comes to emotional safety is: When it comes to you, do only what you want to do. If pain is not for you, don't do it! If submission is not for you, don't do it! If topping or domming is not for you, don't do it! The same goes for all aspects of BDSM, including bondage, humiliation, suspension, electrical play, whatever.... If you don't enjoy it, then don't do it. It's that simple. What you do is your responsibility. If your partner wants you to do it and you cannot, it is your responsibility to speak honestly for yourself. You are not ready to play, much less to worry about others, if you do not have the strength to evaluate and set your own standards for yourself. And yes, life is complicated, not black and white and not always trivial. But it is your job to take the final responsibility for yourself.
The flip side of this observation is to have some faith that people other than yourself who choose to engage in BDSM are also responsible adults, even if they differ in astonishing ways from you! You will be surprised to find that the people who do BDSM grapple with such questions all the time. The religious, social, family, and friendship taboos associating BDSM with abuse are so pervasive that almost no one does BDSM without eventually wondering in some way about the possible negative consequences or motivations behind what they are doing. It's healthy to wonder, but in the end too much to be attacked to the point that you are ashamed because of incessant social mores about what you have chosen as an informed adult to do.
If someone has thought carefully about these issues, it is insulting to challenge that person endlessly. On the other hand, to not challenge someone to consider these issues can feel irresponsible. There is no uniform answer to how to handle situations where you are unsure how much the other party knows about the distinction between abuse and consent. You just do the best you can to wend your way between respect and concern.
BDSM is risky. It can be emotionally risky, physically risky, or both. The main questions are: how much risk do you personally want to take, and what kinds of risks do you personally want to take?
It is eye-opening just how much there is to learn in terms of safety. The more you
other safety issues
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Tops often practice new skills on themselves before trying them out on
Wax Safety Caution
to the Chateau
Tops also sometimes take on a lot of responsibility with regard to their bottoms' emotional lives. While most tops do not want to engage in therapy that may be better left to qualified counselors and psychologists, tops and bottoms are usually caring partners who are not living in a vacuum when they interact. In most relationships, vanilla and BDSM alike, partners care for each other and help each other with emotional trauma if it is encountered. Scenes can be very intense, and as such can sometimes touch the bottom's (or the top's!) emotional buttons. Experienced players know that they may encounter surprises or lasting recuperations from extreme scenes; and bottoms and tops all need to understand that BDSM entails not only physical risks, but emotional risks as well. You should not be playing if you do not understand the risks you are taking, both physical and emotional. For more discussion about complex emotional issues in BDSM, see Part 3 and Part 4. In addition, The Topping Book, has some excellent discussions about emotional issues and care.
Ass Play &
Piss Play Safety
An overview of recommended safety procedures for cleaning wounds and toys exposed to bodily fluids can be found in Part 6: Cleaning and Disinfecting.
Being under the influence of alcohol while playing -- even as little as a glass of wine -- is widely viewed as an unsafe practice. Alcohol slows reaction times and dulls sensitivity to pain. Most tops pride themselves on being able to stop or redirect the throw of a whip or flogger on a dime if they are safeworded mid-stroke. (We'll have more to say about safeword below; it's just an agreed-on code word the bottom can call out to stop the action in an emergency.) A bottom who has been drinking might not recognize or react quickly enough to indicate to the top pain that is not "good pain." Drinking and playing are so widely viewed as dangerous that a common rule at playparties (parties allowing play; see Part 5) is "No Alcohol." Most drugs fall in a similar category (though a few drugs have long histories of being used during play), and are viewed as not to mix with play if safety is the goal.
A common refrain in BDSM is that BDSM activities should be Safe, Sane, and Consensual (or SSC). While this makes for a catchy phrase, the first two concepts are surprisingly slippery to define. Crossing the street each day is not 100% safe, and it is self-deceiving to pretend that BDSM is any safer when in fact BDSM is often much riskier. The relevant concept here is that the partners' goals are minimally to take no risks that can easily be avoided. That certainly means finding out as much as is common knowledge about safe techniques and safety concerns associated with any given activity.
Similarly, "sane" is simply not a term that can be objectively defined, unless one means by that activities which are within two standard deviations of the average in the population. Since no one has done careful studies, it is fairly difficult to know if any particular BDSM activity falls outside the two-standard-deviation range, much less whether that is a meaningful definition of "sane."
Another Perspective on SSC
No matter what you want to do, someone has done it before you and has learned something from the experience. There is even a saying in BDSM, called Ugol's Lawafter the ever-pithy Harry Ugol: The answer to the question "Am I the only one who does X?" is always "No." No matter what you have done, want to do, or think about, you are not alone. Why not learn from what others also experience? There are people who have pushed the boundaries beyond where you dream; and often they are delighted to share experiences. Up-to-date resources are available in books, through web links, on the Internet, and through educational/social groups your local Scene community.
The Internet has become a common meeting ground, and thus a way for people to "try out" BDSM. This is a great opportunity for many people! Why stick to just those you live near in meeting others, especially when it comes to BDSM, where people who are "out" about it are relatively rare unless you are in a very big city? Using the Internet can expand your horizons, your friendships, your life, and your loves.
However, there are some mistakes that even the most educated, thoughtful, cautious, and careful people frequently make. Here are four common mistakes that you can avoid or at least be aware of in advance.
One mistake is not realizing how painful it can be to discover the love of your life only to be separated by thousands of miles, with neither of you willing to give up the job/school/family/friends near you that you also love. Many long distance relationships end in a move. Others end with the poignant resolution of the people realizing this will never work out for them because the difficulties of making it work out are just too great to overcome.
Second: It's a sad fact, but listen up: People on the Internet lie. A lot. More than you think even if you consider yourself a savvy person who has learned from having been lied to before. To be fair, sometimes it starts as an innocent statement that isn't accurate, perhaps to protect one's privacy or just in fun. But more often than in real life encounters, it is outright intention to use the anonymity and long-distance aspects of the net to deceive.
Educated people who are used to being excellent judges of character in their everyday lives often do not always realize how different the net is. The usual clues we are not even aware of using when judging people face-to-face are simply not there on the net. It is also easy on the net for otherwise honorable people to fall into patterns of deception -- about jobs, marital or relationship status, time and financial availability, and easiest of all: about everyday personalities.
caryl's BDSM Page:
Net vs. Real Life Experiences
And worse: some people think of the net as a game and do not relate to someone else's taking it very seriously at the other end. But if you are the believing person at the other end of the line, the discovery that you were someone else's game or deception can be a scarring discovery.
One of the most common examples of this sort of deception is cheating on existing relationships. Many people are drawn to using the Internet for sexual flirtation outside of committed real-life relationships, without stopping to think about how involved the net relationship might become. The argument seems to be: "Since I am not actually planning on meeting this person or culminating this sexual act in person, I'm not cheating even if I don't tell my spouse or primary lover." Alternatively, they may or may not tell the person they are flirting with on the net that they have such prior commitments. There are people who carry on dozens of relationships at once, with none of the partners knowing the other ones exist.
Let me make one thing simple, for starters: It's still cheating if you are taking time or emotional energy from any partner without that partner's knowledge and consent. And it's just as immoral to be the person at the other end of someone else's cheating. The Internet has given new life to the concept of being "the other woman" (or, in modern terms, "the other man").
There are a few practical alarms for figuring out if someone is deceiving you in this regard. If someone you are flirting with declines even after months of intense on-line or phone scenes to give you a home phone number, or if someone is only willing to meet you when away on business trips, it should obviously trigger alarms! It is, however, an astonishing fact of the Internet that many, many people set aside listening to such obvious internal warning bells out of desire to believe in the person who seems so wonderful to them.
It is possible, and more common than you may think, to arrange relationships to be forthright about multiple partners. You might want to read about polyamory before you get yourself involved with someone who is or might lead you down a path of lying or cheating on someone.
Third: Even if you find a wonderful, honest net partner, "trying out" d/s on the net is not an accurate indicator of what the face-to-face experience is about. People playing on the net often forget the power of bare words -- a power that we are used to compartmentalizing when we read novels, but somehow forget to keep compartmentalized on the net.
The Draw of Submission
But it is the very bareness of the words that lets the reader or listener fill in everything that is left out according to his or her desires or hottest fantasies. Unfortunately, six months of fantasizing about how perfect playing with someone is does not always bear out in real life. It can be either much better or much worse than you dream. In the best of all worlds, even a bad encounter that results in a person's realizing that that particular partner was not a good match still leaves behind the realization that face-to-face play was what he or she did long for. If you want to be open to such positive silver linings if things go wrong, it is useful before meeting someone to remind yourself to be a little realistic. Rein in your imagination in favor of practicality: then you will be less likely to be disappointed. More specifically still, be prepared for the following: Whether or not that particular net relationship works out, "real life" D/s is so substantively different from the net version that it often becomes impossible to conceive of returning to playing (and sometimes even courtship) on the net.
The very fact that the experiences are different doesn't mean that playing on the net is not wonderful, intense, or just as real and valid an experience as the face-to-face experience of BDSM. But you are foolish to not listen to the fact that, based on the experiences of thousands of others before you, net or phone D/s is not usually an accurate indicator or way to "try out" what D/s might be like for you to experience it face-to-face. There is some information in trying it out on the net, but that information is minimal and seems to vary a lot from person to person.
Fourth: When it actually comes to meeting someone, no matter how in love you are and no matter how sure you think you are of this other person, it helps to take a minute to remember some safety basics. If the person is who he or she says he is, he'll bend over backwards to want to make you feel safe enough: and it is your definition of "safe enough" that matters.
Is It Safe to Meet a Dom in Real Life?
One rule of thumb you know already: Any time you meet a new prospective partner, be it vanilla or BDSM, it makes sense to do so in a public location, like a restaurant or mall. Do not forget this just because you have been talking to someone on the net for six months and you are sure the person is safe enough for you! With the advent of the Internet as a method of making dates with people who are not known even a little bit from work or through a friend, this precaution has become even more critical. Another well-known and recommended precaution for making dates with complete strangers is to let a friend know you are meeting someone new and where, and to make an arrangement with your friend such that if you do not call in by a certain time, the friend will do whatever is necessary to find you, including calling the police.
Here is what you may not know is common, though. BDSM activities potentially go so far beyond vanilla sex that additional customs and safety precautions have evolved. The most common additional custom in BDSM is for experienced tops and doms to offer references. This custom is so surprising to newcomers that it takes some getting used to. Ordinary social behavior does not include going to a former or current partner of one's vanilla lover to ask if that person is safe. But in BDSM, asking a prospective top or dom for references and then following through and speaking to those references is the norm. In fact, if you are talking to a prospective top or dom who does not volunteer or even refuses to let you speak to any former or current partners, it should set off warning bells. Think about it: do you want to go to a hotel room with someone who is going to tie you up without getting some kind of reference?
Unfortunately, nothing can protect you but your own self from the emotional harms that can happen by falling for someone who is not what he or she says he is. Or the harm you can do others if you get sucked into dissembling, lying, or cheating. The number of variants of these sad occurrences is beyond count. But the net does not have to be this way: Just don't be na´ve. Males and females alike get hurt, and often keep their hurts to themselves in their embarrassment. You are not alone if it happens to you. You can guard against its happening to you if you listen to the experiences of others. Great net relationships do happen; and if you keep your expectations realistic, they might happen for you.
Forcing or tricking a partner into engaging in an unwanted activity or relationship situation are looked upon by folks who do BDSM as "Not Ok" -- that is, potentially abusive, unethical, or undesirable. Some common tools and customs to avoid falling into such an undesirable situation that we will discuss below are:
"Communication, communication, communication." You will hear this over and over again as you get to know more about BDSM. Communication occurs before, during, and after scenes; it occurs as part of the entire relationship between the partners.
The extent of communication between folks who are drawn to BDSM often astonishes newcomers. Much to the surprise of many, sharing one's fantasies does not typically ruin them, but often draws the partners closer together and makes for scenes more powerful than either partner dreamed. Communication about what one fantasizes, whether or not the partners actually want to carry it out, can be the start of creative, exciting, intriguing play and new insights. For some excellent ideas on how to begin to communicate with your partner about BDSM fantasies and ideas, check out the widely-read book, Sensuous Magic, by Pat Califia.
Communication does not stop during scenes -- bottoms and tops can and do talk to each other mid-scene. Tops also become quite expert at reading the bottom's body language. Communication continues after scenes and in every aspect of the partners' relationship.
Communication after scenes is part of what is called aftercare. Aftercare is a time when the partners typically cuddle, decompress, and eventually talk about the good and bad parts of the scene. The importance of quality aftercare cannot be stressed enough. Most people do aftercare naturally, with both partners enjoying it as part of the entire BDSM experience.
Immediate aftercare typically consists of half an hour or so of quiet cuddling followed by which the partners either drift to sleep or feel lively again. The top makes sure the bottom is comfortable, warm, and has some water available to drink during this time. Sometimes aftercare is the time for sexual interaction -- the scene itself may have been a kind of foreplay. Often the partners feel like they are floating together, and enjoy prolonging the feeling. There are commonly feelings of protection, caring, gratefulness, and profound mutual understanding shared by the partners.
Good aftercare does not end with the immediate relaxation following a scene. In my experience, tops typically return to a fully alert state before bottoms. If the bottom needs any bandaging or a snack, that gets taken care of promptly. The partners usually start to talk about the scene after a while. It is a good idea for the top to follow the bottom's lead in starting this discussion. While someone is drifting in serene ecstasy is not the best time for the enthusiastic top to start asking, "So, how was it? Did you like when I told you to count backwards while I was flogging you at the end of the scene?" Some bottoms do better if these kinds of questions are delayed as much as a few days.
Even when bottoms appear to be fully recovered, they still often want more aftercare, even if it is just a question of the top's checking in an hour later to ask how they are doing. It is often hard for a bottom to ask for still more aftercare after the top worked hard on the scene and continued to be protective and attentive afterwards. On the other hand, tops also have desires. It is not uncommon for tops to feel some restlessness or desire to walk around and stretch out a bit alone once the partners come to. And smothering the bottom with solicitous attentiveness can also be counterproductive.
Ongoing aftercare typically consists of the partners continuing to talk periodically about any scene that was difficult. Sometimes that conversation is completed by talking for just a few minutes beginning with
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One of the most common tools of communication within a scene is called safeword. A safeword is any word, phrase, or action that the bottom (or sometimes the top) can utter or do that causes whatever is going on in the scene to stop or pause. You can think of it as a more adult form of calling "Uncle!" during a bout of tickling, in which case the tickler is honor-bound to stop. Safeword is a courteous, time-honored mechanism for the bottom to stop or pause a scene without giving the top a direct order and without having to give a long-winded explanation at a moment when words may not come easily. Agreed-upon safewords are taken so seriously that for a top to ignore or fail to abide by safeword is considered a heinous and unethical act, tantamount to rape.
What safewords you use and what they mean are up to the partners to decide. Common safewords include the single word "safeword," the word "mercy," and also the two-word pair "red" (meaning "Stop the scene completely Now!") and "yellow" (meaning "What you are doing is not so great and you should probably switch to another activity unless you want me to say `red' in another minute"). If the bottom cannot speak during the scene (say, because the bottom is gagged), a common safeword mechanism is for the top to give the bottom a jingly cat toy or ball the bottom can drop if there is a problem. A safeword for a scene that involves tussling can be two or three sharp taps, similar to "tapping out" in wrestling and martial arts. Sometimes people also use "inverse safewords": for example, the top puts a finger in the bottom's hand and ends the scene if the bottom does not squeeze the finger promptly.
The word "No!" is also used by some as a safeword; but others would find using the word "no" to be counterproductive, since it might be uttered by the bottom when what the bottom really means is "Yes, yes!" It is not unusual for a top to pause and ask a bottom who says "No!" convincingly if that was a safeword.
Safewords are merely a shorthand form of communication. They augment but do not fully replace conversation. Tops are not mindreaders, and it can be helpful for the top to know quickly if something unanticipated has suddenly happened for the bottom. Many tops find they are able to take more risks and move more quickly into exciting play with a new partner when they are confident the bottom will safeword them if an unexpected emergency arises. In this sense, safeword is sometimes a learning tool between partners, allowing the partners to find out what works on the fly instead of in elaborate prior discussions. As partners get to know each other better, the top learns which activities or intensities result in safeword and avoids them. In turn, the bottom learns to trust that the top values and respects the bottom's physical and emotional concerns.
There are, however, several ongoing controversies surrounding the use of safewords in BDSM, chief among which is the occasional vehement claim that letting the bottom have a safeword means letting the bottom control the scene. Obviously, the ability to stop the scene or impose on the top to check in is not complete control. It is control over only one aspect of the play, intended to be used only in an emergency. Even so, if that kind of control makes the play less than enjoyable for you, then safeword may not be the right kind of tool for you.
However, one important warning to consider when talking to a prospective partner is that a top who insists that a bottom may not ever safeword might be a poor choice for a novice bottom. BDSM is a risky activity, and a top who courts a bottom heatedly and then refuses to allow the bottom any way out, no matter how miserable the bottom is during the experience, may be forcing the bottom into a nonconsensual situation. Many tops play safely and well with no safewords; but if a top or dom insists on no safeword, it is sensible to be extremely wary.
Sometimes bottoms or submissives simply cannot bring themselves to safeword. The most troubling such events are when the bottom gets into states called flashbacks (sudden very realistic memories of very traumatic life experiences, such as rape, incest, or assault), or going away (states that are so distant and lacking in affect that the bottom does not respond to the top and appears to be in another world). Not all flashbacks or periods of going away are unhappy experiences for bottoms -- a few bottoms aim for such occurrences and enjoy having had them. However, undesirable circumstances do occur, and since the bottom cannot signal the problem, responsibility often falls on the top. Tops learn to go slowly when working with a new partner lest the bottom be pushed into a state that is bad and from which the bottom cannot safeword or otherwise signal that things have gone too far.
Probably the most common reason that bottoms and submissives hesitate to safeword is fear of disappointing the top by calling a sudden halt to some activity. This fear is particularly common for novice bottoms. Many tops are thus careful to reassure their bottoms that they want the bottom to let them know if there is a serious problem. If the bottom does safeword, the top should certainly investigate later why the safeword occurred. But also, it is important for the top to avoid discouraging safeword by showing distaste or disappointment that the activity or scene were curtailed. To discourage the use of safeword is to risk bending consent and to risk damaging the bottom's precious trust. That is, safewords are generally "no-fault."
Some people cannot bring themselves to safeword because they are challenging themselves to see what they can endure. Obviously this risks self-damage. Responsible tops suspecting this usually work to assess the bottom's goals and motives, and talk frankly with the bottom so that both partners understand their responsibilities if emotional or physical harm should occur as a result. This kind of play does sometimes occur consensually, with both parties agreeing to the risks in order to see where things go. Sometimes the goal of such play is to push the bottom to the point where the bottom does finally safeword. Experienced tops can in fact often find ways to push someone that hard with relative safety, but doing so without both partners understanding the risks is inadvisable. For more on pushing the bottom's limits, see the next section on Negotiations and Limits, and Part 3.
People who do BDSM often engage in prior and ongoing negotiations. "Negotiation" here does not mean haggling about details of what a person will and won't do, but instead is a term that covers all manner of discussion and flirtation about what each partner actively enjoys, will tolerate, and absolutely will not tolerate. It is a fact that BDSM often involves activities that are unusual in vanilla sex. Clearing some matters up in advance can mean the difference between having a great time and leaving yourself open for disaster right when things are most promising.
What Should a Negotiation Cover?
A primary goal of negotiation is that activities that are off-limits are commonly asked about by the top or volunteered by the bottom prior to play. For a top to violate intentionally a bottom's stated limits or boundaries is nonconsensual and unethical.
Limits can be anything a person wants them to be. A surprisingly common limit is "No tickling!" Other common limits include "No drawing blood," "No permanent damage," "No blindfolding me," "No tying me up," "No oral sex without a condom," "No humiliation," " No sex with anyone not of my preferred gender," etc. Limits can be as arbitrary as you want. Tops also have limits and often state them during negotiations! Dashed expectations are no fun for anyone.
Sometimes limits change as partners get to know each other. Occasionally, the bottom simply offers to remove a limit. Other times the top, with the bottom's consent, pushes a limit by approaching it, threatening it, or otherwise convincing the bottom to accept it in scene, if only for a moment. Pushing a limit or playing near a limit is called edge play.
Edge play is not the same as heavy play. The term "heavy play" generally refers to play that is considered relatively risky by experienced players. Although what constitutes heavy play varies from community to community, most experienced BDSM folks would be more likely to classify blood play as an example of heavy play than tickling, or bullwhippings to the point of welts, bruises, and cuts as heavy play than tying someone up to sexually pleasure the person. If tickling is off limits for you, then play that borders on tickling you is by definition edge play even if it would not be considered to be heavy play by outsiders. But also, since most people agree that to be pushed over one's edges is heavy play, the pushing aspect of that play might also be called heavy.
Pushing limits -- which is usually done in the context of a lot of ongoing communication and re-negotiation -- is a tricky kind of play and risks violating consent. However, it is commonly intriguing for both partners. In Part 3 we talk in greater depth about playing at edges and pushing limits into areas that risk violating consent.
Prior negotiation is relatively unusual for vanilla sex, though for some people it comes quite naturally even as vanilla sexual partners. Frank opportunity for negotiation is often highly appreciated by bottoms, and can lead to intimacy and trust that are unexpectedly close. For a discussion of why the emphasis on negotiating makes BDSM "pickup" play less common and more involved than Swinger interactions, see Part 5.
Some partners work out verbal or written contracts to set out their agreements. (In cases where the bottom is a slave, the contract is sometimes called a "slave contract.'') While written contracts can't hurt when it comes to reminding the partners what they agreed to, it is unclear how binding such contracts are under the law. In the United States, each State's law varies, as well, making it even more difficult for partners to know which aspects of their contracts are binding. Nevertheless, violating a written contract is customarily considered grounds for a partnership to dissolve regardless of whether or not it is legally binding. In the case of many slave/submissive contracts where the feelings involved are inherently a sense of inability to get out of the contract unless the dom chooses to release the sub, it is considered unacceptable for the slave/submissive to leave the relationship unless the dom does happen to violate the contract. Realistically, though, the slave/submissive can walk out on the relationship and fall back on the legal system, which likely will not honor so restrictive a contract. Unless the name of that contract is "marriage."
Contracts can be either very inspiring statements of love and intent, or very nuts-and-bolts statements of what each partner commits to doing. Most partners who are inspired by the concept of written contracts draw up their own, but there are several models floating around, most notably that of
Most contracts that are successful seem to call for periodic re-evaluation of the contract, say, every few months or once a year.
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