Consent is a complex issue, particularly in the kinky community. On the one hand, you want to explore, try new things, and have intense experiences that often involve giving up control to another person. On the other hand, you don’t want to have your personal boundaries violated. It’s a fine line to walk.
The first thing to realize is that BDSM is not really about one person “doing things to” the other. It’s about two people working together towards a shared goal. You and your play-partner are exactly that — partners. Each of you wants something that the other can provide, and the scenes you do with each other are a way for both of you to get your needs met. Their dominance and your submission fit together, and it’s through teamwork and cooperation that you both get to where you want to go.
Because it’s a partnership, you both have responsibilities when it comes to consent. Your partner’s responsibility is to respect your boundaries, and your responsibility is to communicate clearly about what those boundaries are.
What makes consent complicated is that sometimes you may not even know what your boundaries are until you stumble into them. So what do you do?
Choosing a Partner
The first step is to find someone to play with. In order to stay safe, you should “vet” potential play partners by asking around about them. Keep in mind that anyone who has been around for any significant length of time will likely have made some mistakes along the way, so don’t assume that one or two bad reports are an automatic red flag. Also pay attention to the source of any information you get about someone. Is it first-hand? Second-hand? Something someone thought they heard once? Idle gossip? Does the information come from your potential partner’s ex? Not all sources of information are equally valid.
However, if there’s a consistent pattern that suggests someone doesn’t respect peoples’ boundaries, you probably don’t want to choose that person as a play-partner. It’s better to not play at all than to have a really bad experience.
If in doubt, the best thing to do is “crowd-source” the question — ask a lot of people what they think of a potential partner, and base your decision on that.
Once you’ve found someone to play with, the next step is to negotiate. It’s really important to be clear and specific in your negotiation. That’s hard to do when you’re first starting out, since you may only have a vague idea of what you’re looking for and what your limits are. It can also be difficult (and sometimes super embarrassing) to talk about your deepest sexual fantasies with someone you may have just met. Saying those words out loud can be tough! Do the best you can. An experienced dominant will ask you questions to help clarify your feelings about various forms of play, but you shouldn’t count on that. You may want to practice in a mirror, so you’re not stumbling over your words and leaving out important information. Remember, your partner needs to know as much as you can tell them. Practice saying things out loud, verbalizing your needs, your desires and your limits. Try practicing with friends until you’re comfortable with it, so you’re able to negotiate clearly when the time comes.
It’s also really easy to get caught up in the moment and just throw caution to the wind, especially if you find yourself strongly attracted to the person you’re about to play with. Your first impulse may be to say “whatever you want!”, but that’s really not helpful to your partner and may get you in over your head.
Don’t assume anything. If you make one set of assumptions, and your partner makes another, you’re going to run into problems and you may end up having your boundaries violated.
One of the big things to negotiate about is sexual contact (of all kinds). You should communicate about this early on, so your partner’s expectations are in sync with your own. You should be aware that for most people, kink is a sexual activity. If you’re not okay with that, then you need to say so clearly. If that means that your prospective partner doesn’t want to play with you, that’s okay. Like we said earlier, it’s better to not play at all than to have a bad experience.
Here’s some general advice.
- Do not play privately with someone until you know them really well. The first few times you play with someone should be at a play party, either a big public event or a smaller party in someone’s home. The important thing is to have lots of eyes watching, lots of ears listening, and (ideally) DMs who are listening for safewords. Playing in that environment is safer for both of you.
- If possible, do all your negotiation by email. This gives both of you a written list of limits and negotiated activities that you can check before the scene to make sure they’re fresh in your minds.
- When playing with someone privately for the first time, make sure that you have a safecall in place. You should call once upon arrival, again if you change locations or take a break during the scene, and again at the end of the session.
- Do not get drunk or stoned before the scene. If you wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car, you shouldn’t be playing! Most responsible tops won’t play with you if your judgement is impaired. If you feel you can’t play without a drink or two first, that’s a problem you need to deal with.
- Make sure your partner knows your safewords (or safe signals, if a gag is used).
- Discuss beforehand how you want the scene to end. Does it end with cuddling and a blankie? Does it end with sex? Does it end with chocolate? Does it end with sex and chocolate? (yum!)
No matter what kind of scene you and your partner are doing, you can withdraw consent at any time. That’s worth repeating — you can withdraw consent at any time. You don’t need a reason, or an explanation.
The way you let your partner know that you need to either pause the scene or stop it all together is through the use of safewords. Safewords are a way of making sure you have clear, effective communication during a scene. They’ve been the standard procedure in kink for a very long time, and it’s important that you be able to use them.
However, you don’t need to use actual safewords (like red, yellow and green) unless you’re playing in a public party where the DMs are listening for those exact words. You can simply say “whoa, that was a bit too much” or “don’t touch me there” and your partner should listen, respond and adjust. It’s completely okay to talk to each other during a scene — there’s no rule that says you can’t, unless either you or your partner feel that words will take you out of your headspace (in which case, fall back on safewords).
If you’re going to be gagged during a scene, make sure you have a drop signal. A drop signal is an automatic safeword, and you and your partner should talk about drop signals before any scene in which a gag of any kind is used.
It is your responsibility to safeword when you need to. Don’t worry that your partner will be unhappy — if they’re a responsible dominant, they won’t have any problem with it. If you’re in distress for whatever reason, they want to know about it! And a dominant who gets upset when you safeword probably isn’t someone you should be playing with at all.
Don’t assume that your partner will magically know that you’re in distress without your having to say anything. Unless your partner is legit psychic, they won’t know what you’re feeling unless you tell them. Use your words!
If you’re someone who becomes completely non-verbal when you play, you need to discuss that with your partner beforehand and agree on how to handle it. Most of the time, a dominant will end the scene if you stop responding, simply because they can’t be sure they still have your ongoing consent. If your silence really means “I’m blissed out and doing great”, that’s something that your partner needs to know before the scene so they don’t stop it just when you’re getting to where you want to be.
There may be times when something happens during a scene that brings up feelings or memories of previous trauma. It doesn’t happen often, but it can really mess you up when it does. In some cases, you won’t have had any idea beforehand that you would have this reaction, and there was no way to warn your partner about it. It just happens, suddenly, out of nowhere.
There are no easy answers here.
The first thing to do is safeword if you can, so your partner is aware that something’s wrong. If you’re just completely freaking out, your partner may get freaked out too because they don’t know what’s happening. Both of you freaking out is really bad. Just try to communicate that you need to stop.
When the scene stops, try (if you can) to let them know what you need in that moment. Do you need to be taken out of whatever bondage you’re in? Say so. Do you want them to just back off and give you some space? Say so. Do you want them to hold you and comfort you? Say so. The main thing is to communicate to your partner to let them know what you need from them in that moment. That’s really hard to do when you’re feeling traumatized, but try to remember that you’re not alone and that your partner is there to help you through this.
Mistakes and Moving Forward
There is no magic formula to guarantee that you get exactly what you want, no more and no less. Especially when you’re starting out, both you and your partners are very likely to make mistakes. And even if there are no mistakes, sometimes things simply go sideways. A piece of equipment fails. A safeword doesn’t get heard. An emotional trigger gets set off. Shit happens. Sooner or later these things will happen to you. The way that you and your partner handle those situations can make all the difference.
Assuming that you and your partner are both good people who want the best for each other (and if that’s not the case, you shouldn’t be playing in the first place), you need to spend some time talking with each other about what happened, and how the two of you can move forwards. What makes this difficult is human nature — in really intense situations (including a lot of kinky play), people are under stress and their first instinct is to automatically blame the other person. The “blame game” is very destructive, and can end a relationship (and in extreme cases, fracture a kinky community).
If your partner screwed up, and it’s clear that they weren’t intentionally trying to cause you harm, the healthiest path forward for both of you is to talk it through. Give your partner an opportunity to take responsibility and own their mistake. Talk about ways of avoiding the same thing happening again. They probably feel incredibly guilty already, so there’s no need to make them feel even worse.
On the other hand, if you get the sense that they aren’t listening to your concerns or that they’re trying to minimize them (or worse yet, trying to somehow blame you for their mistake!), that’s a huge red flag and an indicator that you shouldn’t continue playing with that person.
Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, fueled by passion and adrenaline and endorphins and all kinds of other emotional and biochemical stuff, you may find yourself doing things that you wouldn’t normally do. Sometimes you’ll do things that are way outside your normal range of sexual behaviour. Afterwards you may have feelings of shame, or guilt, or regret. You may have trouble reconciling what you did with how you normally see yourself. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s really hard. Accepting who you are, and what you need, is challenging — especially after a lifetime of being told how you “should” be.
And here’s where things can sometimes get kind of murky. At some point, you may be tempted to blame the other person for “making” you do those things. After all, you’re not the sort of person who would do things like that, right? So it must be that the other person “controlled” you somehow and forced you to do those terrible things.
And sometimes you’ll be right — there are a few people out there who’ll want to push you past your limits, which is why it’s good to be careful about choosing your play partners.
But if your partner respected your negotiated limits, and responded to your safewords, then it’s not fair to blame them afterwards just because you’re feeling bad about some of the things you did. Your partner can only make decisions based on the information you give them. If you gave them your consent at the time, you can’t decide to withdraw it the next day. You can’t change the rules after the game is over.
If you find yourself feeling bad about what you did, possibly days or weeks later, it’s not your partner’s fault. Maybe you just need to work through some things.
It’s really important to talk about what you’re feeling, rather than letting it stay bottled up. In situations like these, vanilla friends aren’t always helpful. If they’re not kinky themselves, they won’t understand it and they may even judge you for the things you did. You may end up feeling worse than you did before talking to them! Or they may just encourage you to blame your partner for “forcing” you to do things. So your vanilla friends… aren’t always great. All the more reason to have kinky friends.
Often the best person to reach out to is the person you did the scene with. In most cases, they’ll be more than happy to listen, talk things through with you, and help you find some perspective. This is especially important if you want to play with that person again, since they need to know how you felt about the previous scene.
If you’re really struggling, the best thing to do is find a good (and kink-friendly!) counselor. They can make a world of difference. They can help you process what you’re feeling, and come to terms with it.
Remember, the bottom line is that you want what you want, and you shouldn’t judge yourself for wanting it. And you shouldn’t let other people judge you either. And don’t judge others — that should go without saying!
And that’s it
Hopefully, we haven’t scared you off. Kink can be a wild ride, but a scary one too. Try to minimize the risks, be smart in choosing your partners, communicate clearly, and you’ll (probably) be fine!