An article for readers 18+
I met her on the internet, it was a hook up to “have coffee”, but we both knew we were checking each other out for sex. We met at Coogee, we flirted, we had a coffee, we flirted, we went for a walk, bought some ice cream, we flirted, we discussed our shared interest in art. She asked if I would like to go to her place to “view her portfolio”. Oh boy, would I!
In this scenario, consent was implied because of the flirting. My agreement to go to her apartment wouldn’t necessarily imply I was up for some sexy fun times (even though I was), but would at least imply I wanted to get to know her more. I was assuming that “no means no” was also going to be observed, but nothing was discussed.
“Implied consent” and “no means no” are familiar models of consent which are commonly used. Unfortunately, they support a culture prohibiting open consent conversations. While these models are common (though problematic still) in the world of vanilla dating, a much more robust model of consent is needed for BDSM.
BDSM is the abbreviation for Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism. The DS portion can also indicate Dominance and Submission. BDSM play requires social and relationship norms to be suspended in favour of what is, essentially, role play. It commonly plays with the power dynamic in relationships: One person takes the role of top (the person doing) and the other of bottom (the person being done to). People can immerse themselves completely, have long standing relationships in their BDSM paradigm, while others may play briefly or casually. People participating in BDSM often call themselves “kinksters”.
Kinksters enact their desire, known as a fetish, by weaving them into a “play scene”. A play scene is a specific time, place and activity. There are as many different types of fetish play as there are kinksters playing who all need consent to play ethically.
“No means no” means I will use your response to what I am doing as an indication of consent. Saying “no” is clear enough, while positive affirmation or silence means that you consent. This may sound fine, but relies upon me having good intentions and the ability to interpret your responses accurately. “No means no” assumes you feel safe enough to say no and that you are capable of saying no. When you consider it in the context of the cultural imperative to avoid embarrassment or embarrass others, relying on someone saying “no, stop it” after they have implicitly agreed to play intimately is a pretty big ask.
In the BDSM community, kinksters have traditionally relied on the “safe word” to signal no. The problem with using the safe word alone is that it can encourage the top to ignore all other signals and keep going until they hear the safe word. There has been growing awareness in contemporary BDSM communities that often (if you are doing it right) the bottom will be in an altered state from their normal autonomy and therefore have diminished capability to call for a halt in activity.
In most cases, and especially with kinksters who don’t know each other well, using a safe word alone is not a reliable consent model to use. It places far too much responsibility of halting the play on the bottom, and excuses the top from paying attention to their bottom and other signals that may indicate they are not into something. It assumes a level of cognitive ability that the bottom cannot be expected to have during a BDSM play scene.
“Yes means yes” means that everything must be requested and consented to. This can be problematic if you believe that consent should be given before you start playing. The progression of questions: “May I kiss you? May I touch you? May I penetrate you? May I tie up your hands, your feet? May I hang you upside down and drip wax all over your exposed flesh?” increasingly makes more demands on the bottom’s ability to remain cognitively present and assess risk.
While this model can work, it’s not completely foolproof. It can be counter intuitive with the play dynamic of a BDSM scene, as it makes the top the supplicant and the bottom the one holding the power, with no ability for this reality to be suspended.
Neither of these models are wrong and both of them together can build a framework of meaningful consent. It is not unusual for participants to use a “yes means yes” model until trust is built and you get to know each other.
My preferred models of consent include Safe, Sane and Consensual (SSC) and Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). SSC and RACK assume you are having a conversation before play and that you do not include anything that has not been discussed in the play.
A good example of this is when I negotiate to tie someone up, but have not negotiated to take pictures of them. Once they are tied up and in the air they are hardly going to say no when I ask them if I can take pictures. After all, how are they going to get down safely without my good will?
Regardless of the model you use, to navigate consent successfully in a BDSM scene, your consent conversation (sometimes known as negotiation) should have five factors.
Consent must be:
- Freely given: You are not coerced or compelled and you feel comfortable saying no.
- Rescindable: You can withdraw consent at any time.
- Informed: You have a good understanding of what you are consenting to.
- Enthusiastic: “Yeah”, “alright”, “maybe”, “uh huh” are not enthusiastic. “Hell yeah!” is enthusiastic.
- Specific: Your consent is understood to be given ONLY for this time, this place, this activity, this location, these people.
This is known as the F.R.I.E.S model of consent.
So let’s revisit my first real life contact with BDSM in the flesh and blood world, the hottie from Coogee. There we were in her bedroom looking over her portfolio, which included pictures of her ex-girlfriend, a professional dominatrix. I got all sassy because I knew about these things, I saw them on the internet and asked her if she was a Dom or a Sub. She said she was a Dom and fished out a box full of things: black leather and metal things, some I recognised and some I had no idea about. Then she asked me to share my dirtiest fantasy, the desire I felt most ashamed about. Hmmmm, we just went from soft serve ice cream on the bluff to deep dark fantasy in the buff in less time than it takes to book a cab. Alrighty then.
Looking back, I understand that it is really hard to know when or how to start to have that conversation. The box had already been opened and clearly just by my body language I was interested, but I couldn’t say the words. I couldn’t describe what I wanted and didn’t know if I could do that safely with this person. I was embarrassed and scared of rejection, I balked.
This is where it’s very helpful to already have a template of some kind – a script, a list of questions and answers – essentially a map to navigate your way to consensual kinky play.
For myself, over the past twenty years I’ve distilled it down into five bullet points that I call Speed Negotiation. I remember it by turning it into an acronym: S.H.E.L.S
- Safe word
- Emotional state
A safe word is used by the bottom to signal a need to stop the scene. The words “stop” and “no” are not normally used, as they are sometimes words that are commonly used as part of a role-play and therefore don’t stand out. “Red” is a common safe word as part of a traffic light system. Red means stop, yellow means caution/slow down and green means go harder. “Mercy” is also a common safe word, but people can make up their own safe word that the bottom can say to signal a need to stop.
Respecting a kinkster’s safe word is critical. Ignoring a safe word is considered a blatant consent violation and a fast way for a Top to earn the reputation of an abuser.
I don’t just ask “Do you have a safe word?” I use this opening question to have further discussion about what will happen if the safe word is used.
Enquiring about a person’s health status can feel overly personal, especially with someone you have just met, but it’s important to keep in mind that the questions you ask are on a need-to-know basis.
Keep your questions relevant to the type of play you plan. For example, I am a Shibari rigger, I often tie people up without any sexual activity involving bodily fluids. I do not need to know if they have any blood or fluid borne diseases, but I do need to know if they have a heart condition or recent injuries.
It’s important to understand a person’s emotional starting position. This is done through observation, as well as by asking how they are feeling. Someone who is depressed or lonely, who feels negatively about themselves needs to be treated more carefully and considerately by someone whose mood is elevated.
A person’s emotional state can also be altered by alcohol and drugs. Both parties need to know what has been taken for informed consent. It’s a simple question that can save lives.
New kinksters usually know their extreme limits and will list those off easily. In the context of proposed play, most of us do not know our own limits until we have crossed them. When asking someone about their limits I have found it’s helpful to suggest a few limits depending on what type of activity is planned.
Common things can be temporary and permanent marks, taking pictures and social media privacy, nudity, intimate touch and kissing, gags, hoods, blindfolds and pain. This is not an exhaustive list, but a good starting place to encourage discussion about limits in the context of real play.
The conversation so far has been a series of questions and answers in order to define the things that you require consent being given in order to play. It’s been an information gathering exercise. Now you need to bring it all together in summary to ask for consent.
Replay the points you believe are important for consent. Repeat the safe word and outline the reasonable expectation of action your play partner can expect if the safe word is used. You do not have to give a blow by blow road map of the play, but you do need to ensure the person you are playing with is informed about the play.
So what happened at Coogee…
There we were, a rumpled bed, stale coffee, a box full of toys and an open window catching the salt breeze of the ocean. The Coogee hottie doing the thing most important when navigating consent for BDSM, she listened, she gently encouraged me to speak the words. I sat trembling with what was an equal share of excitement and anxiety. I had lost all sassiness in the face of reality and was left quite speechless and embarrassed.
The hottie from Coogee had some limits of her own, one of them was that she needed her play partner to be able to communicate clearly and confidently. So we settled for vanilla sex that first time… which by the way, was amazing.
Because consent goes both ways.