You Call It "Playing," I Call It "Sex"
I have a huge problem with the ever-increasing use of the word "play" to describe both BDSM activities and sex acts in the BDSM community. "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
I think it's apologist, reductive, confusing, and cowardly. I think the community should face up to the fact that the word "play," which is most commonly defined as "to participate in games or sport," is a bad fit for describing the deep connections, spiritual moments, and passionate feelings of BDSM interactions.
I also think it's a lousy way to describe consensual sex acts between adults. While there is an historic use of the word "play" in the context of "sex play" or "playing around," the modern use in the BDSM community to describe any sexual relations trivializes adult sex and intimacy.
I've become aware of the new usage of "play" in the Bay Area BDSM community during the last few years. Last year, while I worked at San Francisco's wonderful kinky coffeeshop, Wicked Grounds, I realized the term had become ubiquitous. I had several very confusing experiences with the word as used by people, especially much younger people, in the scene.
First, the (much younger) boy I was dating was living with a female friend. He was afraid I'd be concerned by this, and he explained that they had "played," but they had never had sex. As it was of no concern to me either way, I didn't ask for details, but I did assume that he meant "play" in the sense I was hearing it used most commonly in the cafe—to describe a BDSM activity such as bondage, flogging, or D/s role-play. Months later, in a conversation about his relationship with the young lady, he said something about how they'd never had sex—"just oral." To me, this completely transformed my understanding of the relationship. They had been lovers! No wonder she'd had hurt feelings about my starting to date him! I was astonished at the semantic gap between 27 and 43.
Around the same time, I was talking to a beautiful young pornstar at the cafe. Usually quite discreet about her liaisons, she said she wanted to tell me something because she thought I'd be pleased. She told me she'd started "playing" with a mutual friend of ours. I thought it was nice that she was engaging in her kink play with someone I trusted so much and thought so well of. Weeks later, she said something about getting up in the morning with him, and I realized—they were lovers! I was delighted for them both, but very confused by the terminology. And a young man new to the scene texted me this past weekend; he had met a girl who wanted to fuck him with a strap-on, and he was excited about "playing" with her; did I want to watch while he lost his anal virginity? Since when is having strap-on sex something other than having strap-on sex? A dick in your ass is a dick in your ass, not a tennis match.