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Playing With Fire

Fire Play, the BDSM practice that will set your lover on fire, literally!

Naked woman with arms on fire
Wing of Fire. Scene set-up by www.eroticflameart.com. Model: baembooo, https://www.instagram.com/baembooo/. Photographer: @augenblicke.vienna.

Fire play is a sadomasochist practice that consists of touching the skin of a person with fire, or setting the skin briefly on fire.

Its effect is psychological, since the sensation it produces is not painful, just a mild warmth. In fact, if it hurts, this is probably a sign that it’s not being done correctly and it may produce a burn injury.

However, it’s hard not to be scared when our skin is being set literally on fire.

This is edge play and can be dangerous. I have explained the basic safety precautions here. But if you can get hands-on training, that would be ideal.

“Fire play is edge play and is extremely dangerous if done incorrectly or carelessly. Even when all possible precautions are taken, there is a great deal of risk involved. Fireplay can be sensual and painless, but it can also result in serious, even life-threatening injuries…not to mention burning your house down. BE CAREFUL!” The Pyro Passion handout.

Why do people like Fire Play?

If it’s so dangerous, you may ask, then why do some people do this? Unlike BDSM activities like spanking and bondage, playing with fire doesn’t seem particularly sexual. Still, for some people, it is sexual. Different people fetishize different things, and fire can be a fetish, too. Besides, not all BDSM is sexual. A lot of it has to with conjuring awful things, like whipping and torture, as a way to exorcise our horror about them. Burning people at the stake was one of the worst horrors frequently done in Western culture.

For the bottom person, fire play provides the exhilaration of getting over the fear of being burned, which is deeply engrained into us. After all, scaring ourselves with something that looks dangerous is a favorite entertainment for many. Think scary movies and roller-coasters.

The physics and chemistry of setting people on fire

The magic trick of setting the skin on fire without burning it is based on several facts:

  1. The heat of a flame travels from the bottom to the top. Therefore, if the skin is at the bottom of a flame, it absorbs little of its heat. However, if we were to put our hand on top of the same flame, it would burn us.

  2. A brief contact of a flame with the skin, as done in fire flogging, does not have time to burn.

  3. Alcohols give little heat when they burn, compared with, for example, gasoline. The combustion heat of ethanol is 1367 kJ/mol, and that of propanol is 2021 kJ/mol. In contrast, that of gasoline (heptane/octane) is 4466 kJ/mol, more than the double.

  4. Alcohols burn slowly and smoothly, not fast and explosively like gasoline, because they contain water.

Safe Fire Play

From these facts, we can deduct a few tips about how to do Fire Play safely. However, experienced players emphasize that Fire Play cannot be made 100% safe; you can only reduce the risks.

  1. Flames should be applied to the skin of the bottom person in a horizontal position, so the heat of the flame moves up and away from the skin.

  2. Use alcohol as fuel. The “rubbing alcohol” sold in American pharmacies as disinfectant is isopropyl alcohol (2-propanol), an isomer of propanol that has the OH- group in the middle carbon instead of at the end (see picture). Therefore, its combustion heat is similar to that of propanol. European pharmacies sell ethanol as disinfectant, which is even safer given its lower combustion heat.

  3. The concentration of alcohol should be 60%-70%, not higher. This means that the alcohol contains 40%-30% water, which makes it burn slower and reduces its combustion heat.

  4. However, alcohol flows down. If it gets on the sides or below the body it can burn the skin on top. The same thing can happen if alcohol pools in body crevices such as the buttocks, genitals, breasts or any other part of the body with skin folds. To avoid this, run a damp cloth over the body every few minutes to wipe out any remaining alcohol.

Advanced fire players may use white gas to get more spectacular flames. However, this increases the risk and requires experience and skill. The white gas used in camping stoves is, basically, gasoline. Its higher combustion heat makes it more likely to produce burns. Besides, a gasoline fire is more difficult to put out with water because gasoline floats on the water and keeps burning. In contrast, alcohol dissolves in water and stops burning when its water content is too high. Gasoline can produce toxic fumes in closed environments, and can burn explosively.

Keep in mind that hair spray, cologne and some body lotions are flammable. They could increase the heat produced by the alcohol and make it difficult to put out the fire on the skin.

The bottom person should not be bound, to let him/her to put out the fire with their hands or by rolling over, if necessary. Things happen very quickly when fire is involved. There is no time to untie or cut a rope, or to unclip a carabiner.

Ideally, the person being lit on fire should be nude to prevent clothes from catching fire. Make sure the hair is out of the way of the flames.

Fire play should never be done on the face or the neck. A Kevlar hood can be used for extra protection of the head.

Fire play should not be done on hairy skin, because hair generate embers that produce burns, especially if the hair is thick. Use areas with little or no body hair, like the buttocks or the back. People with hairy skin should shave beforehand - preferably the day before because alcohol may irritate newly shaved skin. Burned off body hair may not grow back in the same pattern as before.

Fire play should be done away from curtains, sheets, carpets, furniture, grass, straw or any other object that can catch fire.

There should be a wet towel and a container with water nearby. The wet towel can be used to smother a fire or to refresh the skin if it gets too hot. Water will dilute the alcohol and stop it from burning.

It’s a good idea to use a fireproof blanket to put under the bottom person, since any blanket, sheet or mattress will catch fire if the burning alcohol falls on it. However, some fireproof blankets are meant for welding or putting a fire out, not to lay naked on them. They are made of fiberglass, which can get into the skin and cause irritation. Fire blankets made of wool or Kevlar are better. Although they are less fire resistant than fiberglass, the will withstand burning alcohol for a short period of time. Some old fire blankets contain asbestos, which is extremely toxic and should be avoided at all costs. A simple solution could be using a wet towel under the bottom person.

An additional precaution is to have a fire extinguisher at hand, in case things get really out of control and threaten to set the building on fire. It should be suitable for A and B fires. The fire extinguisher is not meant to be used on a person; a wet towel or fire blanket should be used instead.

Fire play is not a safe practice to do alone! There should be a top partner who can devote his/her undivided attention to the fire, while the bottom enjoys it and deals with the strong feelings it may evoke. Adding a third person - a spotter - increases safety by providing extra eyes and hands.

Nobody should panic while doing this. It can be dangerous. The psychological effects of seeing fire on your naked skin should be discussed while negotiating the scene.

If you are completely new to fire play, practice on an object before attempting to do this to a person. Even in that case, do not do it alone and take all the safety precautions. You can even do drills in which you use the dire blanket, the wet towel and the fire extinguisher.

Things you are going to need

Basic items:

  • isopropyl alcohol, 60%-70 - it can be diluted more with water to make the flame go out sooner;

  • container for the fuel - it should be kept in a closed container, preferably one that would not spill or break if it tips over;

  • a bowl or cup (ceramic or metal) to put a small amount of fuel to dip the fire wand - better if it has a large base for stability

  • Fire wands - they are metal rods with a Kevlar tip (these can be bought as fire-swallowing sticks or fire swords) or a cotton tip; which is dipped in the fuel;

  • lighter, preferably with a long stem;

  • cotton balls.

Safety items:

  • fireproof blanket (wool or Kevlar) - to put under the bottom person or to use to smother the fire;

  • wet towel - the first thing to use to put out the fire or to refresh the skin;

  • lotion for burns with aloe - to treat redness and first-degree burns;

  • water in a glass or other container - to put the fire out if needed;

  • fire extinguisher - in case things get really out of hand.

Basic Fire Play

The most basic form of fire play consists of touching the skin with the tip of a fire wand with burning alcohol in it. Another is to dab the naked skin with alcohol and set in on fire.

A fire wand, fire-swallowing stick or fire sword are metal rods with a Kevlar tip or sheet, and a rubber handle. The Kevlar can be dipped in alcohol and set on fire. Since Kevlar is quite fire-resistant, it will not burn with the alcohol. The rubber handle protects the hand of the person holding the stick, which may get hot.

The bottom partner should be naked, or wear clothes far away from the skin that would be used for the fire play.

  1. Put a small amount of alcohol in the metal bowl. Close the main container.

  2. Dip the Kevlar tip of the fire wand in it.

  3. Light it on fire with the lighter.

  4. Touch the naked skin with the tip of the stick.

  5. Fire should be in contact with the skin for a maximum of 3 seconds, to avoid burning. Don’t apply fire repeatedly to the same spot.

  6. Sometimes, a bit of alcohol remains burning on the skin, which can be put out with wiping motion of the hand.

Alternatively, a bit of alcohol can be rubbed on the skin with a cotton ball. Then the fire-swallowing stick is used to light the alcohol on fire. After one or two seconds, the top puts the flames out by wiping them with the hand.

The bottom person should just experience a warmth in the skin. The fire should not be kept too long on the skin, because the heat can build up fast to the point where it becomes intolerable and produces a burn. Some redness in the skin is normal and can be treated with aloe lotion.

Advanced Fire Play

Hair mousse burns slowly and with low heat. White Rain, Salon Selectives, Alberto V05 are the brands that I have seen recommended for this. It is used to draw patterns on the skin, which then are set on fire. Often, the fire moves over the mousse in waves, creating beautiful effects. It usually turns itself off before the mousse is consumed, and needs to be lighted again.

Flash cotton can be cut in little pieces, which are put on the skin and lighted. It is also called flash paper, and its technical name is nitrocellulose. It’s a highly flammable compound that burns in a flash without leaving any residue. Therefore, its effect is the opposite of hair mouse: instead of burning smoothly, it produces a quick, hot flash. This increases the danger of setting something on fire, so extra precaution is required.

Fire drumming uses two fire wands to drum on the skin.

Naked woman on a Saint Andrews cross being hit with a flogger on fire
Fire flogging. Picture kindly provided by SirBis, model TheSaraHless, from Fetlife.com

Fire flogging use floggers made of Kevlar, which can be dipped in alcohol and set on fire. The flogging is done with the bottom person standing up or leaning on something. A horizontal position is not used in this case, since the flames touch the skin of the back only during the brief impact. The sensation is said to be nice flashes of heat. Fire flogging is often done at night or in a dimly lighted room because of the visual effect.

Cupping is considered by some to be fire play, although the fire is only used to heat the suction cups and does not touch the skin. Still, since fuel can spread to the body, the precautions listed here should be taken.

These are advanced techniques with which I am not familiar. The best thing to do to learn fire play is to participate in a workshop organized by a BDSM organization. There is a handout written by Pyro Passion that can be downloaded as a text file and printed. Here is one article about fire play, and another. There is also a book: Flames of Passion: Handbook of Erotic Fire Play, by David Walker and Robert Rubel.

Things that can go wrong

Fire play may seem simple enough, but it should be considered edge play and done with the utmost precautions.

Things can go horribly wrong. There is an account in Fetlife.com (in the Fire Floggers and Fire Whips group, Fire cupping gone wrong; direct links are not possible) about how a scene involving fire cupping resulted in second-degree burns over a large part of the body. In a nutshell the main mistakes were that the bottom was restrained, alcohol inadvertently pooled on her body and suddenly caught fire, and there was no wet towel to put out the fire.

Here are a few things most likely to go wrong, and what to do in those cases:

  • The fire stays too long on the skin of the bottom - The top should put it out with his hands. If this doesn’t work, immediately use the wet towel or the glass of water to put out the fire.

  • The clothes of the bottom (or the top!) catch fire - Put them out by with the wet towel.

  • Furniture, curtains, sheets, etc. catch fire - Use the wet towel or fire extinguisher to put the out fire.

  • You accidentally set the cup with fuel on fire - If the fuel is alcohol, it could be put out by damping water on it or covering with a damp towel. If it’s gasoline, this is much more dangerous and may require a fire extinguisher.

  • The fuel container falls down, spills fuel on the floor, and it catches fire - That’s why you need a fire extinguisher! Put the fire out immediately with it. Small spills may be put out using the wet towel, but don’t take any risks. Gasoline fires are much more dangerous than alcohol fires.

  • Alcohol spreads or pools on the body of the bottom - wipe it thoroughly with the wet towel.

  • The bottom panics - The bottom may jump up and run away, which is fine, except that things may get knocked over and set on fire. The top needs to have the presence of mind to put out any flame before helping the bottom.

Summary

In summary, fire play is an edgy BDSM activity that toils with one of our deepest emotions: the fear of being burned. It is visually beautiful and exciting. The physical sensations it evokes are surprisingly pleasant. If done with the adequate precautions, it can be a lot of fun.

Copyright 2022 Hermes Solenzol.

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