My Consent-Seeking Approach
I’m the kind of dominant that carefully negotiates the aspects of control we might play with. The kind of top that lays out a set of tools and asks you to examine and select from them. The kind of butch that asks, politely, if it is alright to flirt with you. My negotiation tends toward lengthy, often occurring over email, and then reaffirmed in person. On the spectrum of consent-seeking, I’d characterize myself as leaning very much to one end—the explicit verbalized continual consent-seeking end.
This quality of my kink practice is not the norm in the kink communities I’ve been part of. Many folks want something faster, something more casual, something with less steps. I’m fairly open about being a dominant sadist and enjoying edgeplay, and some people assume (or perhaps fantasize) that I am going to have a constant air of authority and dominance, or that they’ll sense evil lurking behind every corner. I am sometimes a disappointment, because I don’t “act like a dominant” until I have consent, and then only within agreed upon contexts.
The thing is, I am consent-seeking in life, not just in play and sex. I ask if it’s alright before I touch you. I give trigger warnings. I ask before I put you on hold. I look for non-verbal cues that something’s not ok. I ask if you would like some help before offering it. I watch the room to see if I’m making folks uncomfortable. When I teach, I say upfront that I welcome folks to take care of themselves and to participate at the level they are comfortable, and that includes leaving the room, not talking at all, etc. If you say you want to break up, I don’t try to talk you out of it. (This has led to several experiences where I have been assigned the responsibility for the relationship ending because the other person expected me to try to talk them out of it.) If it seems like I may be nudging up against an unspoken boundary, I ask about it, or just back off. I assume that if you don’t respond to my message or email, that you don’t want to engage, and I leave you alone. Consent-seeking isn’t just a part of my kink and sex life, it’s an essential life practice.
(As a heads up, the next part of this section references consent violations, violence, and abuse, without sharing details or telling stories)
The longer I’ve been doing kink, the more careful I’ve become, the more I’ve tried to do everything within my conceivable power to recognize and prevent accidental harm, unknowing consent violation, or careless coercion. I think about this a lot, work to be as careful as I can be, to prevent being (directly or indirectly) implicated in or responsible for violence, harm and abuse.
I am a survivor of intimate partner violence, family violence, sexual assault, and institutional trauma. (This includes abuse in BDSM relationships.) I endeavor to prevent enacting non-consensual anything with anyone, particularly loved ones, because I have experienced too much of it myself. It is the stuff of my nightmares that I might find out that I unknowingly violated consent, after the fact. (I mean that quite literally. I have had and do have nightmares about that.)
Part of being a survivor, for me, is about diligently working to recognize abusive dynamics and behaviors: in others, in institutions, and in myself. I work my ability to recognize abusive power like a muscle. (If you stop using it, it stops working well.) I am constantly reading the world with a trauma lens, and with an eye toward power dynamics. Working in the trauma field for so long definitely contributed to my tools in this area, but this is one of the core survival skills that I’ve been developing long before doing trauma work. I need it honed and ready, in order to feel safe enough to trust myself and my judgment, let alone to connect with others, to build relationship, to participate in community.
Grappling with consent isn’t easy
(As a heads up, this section talks about the ways engaging with our own consent can be hard for trauma survivors, and tells a personal story about that difficulty, without sharing details about the trauma itself.)
All of the above is about seeking other people’s consent, which is of vital importance to me, and takes hard work. What is harder, more complex, and often more hidden, is grappling with my own consent, especially as a top. Partly because we do not often have conversations about the consent of tops, so I have less practice, less tools, and less support for this kind of engagement. Partly because I’m a survivor of sexual and intimate violence, and this is a common challenge for survivors. Partly because my own consent has always been a struggle for me, long before I thought of myself as kinky.
I remember the first time a lover insisted on my explicit, verbalized consent. Until that encounter at the age of 18, all of the sexual activity I’d experienced had occurred in the context of sexual assault (which I did not separate from other sex at the time), or the kind of heteronormative coercion that I thought of as the normal sexual script (you know, the one where you get pressured over and over to acquiesce, and the absence of no is enough to go forward). I’d literally never had someone be interested in my yes before. (It’s likely not a coincidence that he was my first queer lover.) There I was, rolling around in bed with someone who actually stopped and waited for a yes, pushed me to say whether I wanted this, instead of pushing until I said no. It freaked me out, big time.
In the trauma field, we talk about the way trauma (especially ongoing intimate trauma), changes the way you understand the world, shifts the foundations of your perspective. This can be one of the most shocking, devastating, and scary impacts of trauma: it can lead you to question or straight out destroy what you thought you knew about the world. I had spent the first 18 years of my life understanding my relationship to sexual consent as being about saying no, being pushed, and deciding whether to hold steady on my no under pressure. I had built strategies for my own safety and survival on that foundation. This experience was an earthquake, taking that ground from underneath me, revealing things I had not conceived were possible: that my yes could be treated as important, that sex could be mutually desired, that desires could be mutually expressed.
The idea that this person cared enough about my explicit consent to stop and wait was earth-shattering in a way that felt huge and painful and basically impossible. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. In that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to say yes, though I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have said no. I couldn’t handle the earth disintegrating under my feet and figure out whether I actually wanted this enough to say yes, to state my desire, to claim my body, my sexuality for myself. It was too huge to hold all at once, too scary to actually figure out what I wanted, too vulnerable to try to claim, and name my desire.
Explicit, verbalized consent around sex and kink is hard core shit, demanding a lot from all involved, including:
- the courage to own and articulate your desires and limits;
- unlearning oppressive sexual scripts;
- care and trust;
- grounded assessment of current reality;
- giving permission to yourself and others;
- listening skills;
- claiming your body, your sexuality, and your agency, in the face of oppression and trauma;
- creativity in language and communication;
- choosing to be witnessed in your vulnerability;
- having access to information about a range of possibilities for what you may want;
- being in the moment; and
- the ability to match pace with the slowest paced party.
What I have learned from my own endeavors and conversations with others is this: the reality about explicit, verbalized consent is that when we strive for it, we still are imperfect in our actualization of it. Which scares the shit out of me, but is just plain real. We do what we can in the moment, bring our best and bravest selves to our connections, and we still fuck up, we still struggle, we still are not fully enacting our most hopeful visions of how we can be present with each other in sex and in play. I generally err on the side of caution, leaning toward supporting the explicit consent of those I connect with, and sometimes neglect my own full consent in the process. That is where I err the most, around the cautious not doing, and around my own consent. That tendency of mine is perhaps one of the reasons that I am writing this post about my own consent: because it is an area where I don’t do things well all of the time, where I struggle, make mistakes, am still trying to find the best strategies I can.
Risk and consent in sadism
(As a heads up, this section talks explicitly about sadistic desire.)
One of the main things that I seek in play is intimate sadism. The kind of connection where I can trust a bottom enough to go deeper into my sadism, let out the leash a bit on the beast that roams inside me. The kind of play where I am vulnerable, embodying my feral self, pushing my own edges. The kind of play where I am witnessed in my complexity, and supported in showing myself and taking risks. The kind of play that engages with desire for fear, tears, pain, and cruelty in a mutual way, chosen openly and enthusiastically by all parties, enacted in a space we co-create together. This kind of play has been a rare thing in my life, one I have great hunger for, but am also very careful about.
Intimate sadism frequently hits all three main arenas of edgeplay that I discuss in my edgeplay classes:
- the edge of death (depends on how you play, but as bladeplay, blood sports, and breathplay are favorites of mine, this applies)
- community edges (the kind of play that is marginalized or taboo—deep sadism definitely qualifies)
- personal edges (individual to each person; this applies to my experiences with intimate sadism)
Intimate sadism pushes my personal edges as a top, because it rides the line of my control, because it scares me, and because I’m being witnessed in my vulnerability (yes I know I said I want that, and I do, but that doesn’t mean it’s not edgy for me). It’s one of the main ways I push my own edges as a top these days.
“Edgeplay is playing with risk—with the threat or certainty of losing something meaningful or permanent” –Flagg, The Forked Tongue
In kink communities, we more frequently think and talk about the risks to the bottom. The truth is, kink poses risks to all parties, and edgeplay comes with even more risks. Edgeplay from the top is loaded partly because it openly acknowledges that tops take risks and are vulnerable…and that’s not something we talk much about in kink communities.
When I consider my own consent for intimate sadism, one of the main underlying questions is: what do I need to take these risks?
Here are some things I need when I’m engaging in intimate sadism:
- Establishing a foundation of consent
- To know my play partner(s) had time to consider, understood what they were signing up for, and chose to do this scene, with me, in this setting.
- To have explicit verbal expression of consent and desire for play activities.
- To trust that we are not just freely choosing but also are free to choose to play, that our play is not a violation of agreements any of us has made with others.
- To have my consent be a consideration, and not simply assumed.
- To be able to end the scene as a top, and to have it be ok to shift play to something else that my partner(s) consented to, without complaint. (Top equivalents of red and yellow safewords.)
- Meeting needs and minimizing harm
- Preparation/planning/foreknowledge, including arranging for everyone’s aftercare needs to be met, and a sense of what we might do if things go badly.
- To have my access needs (and other needs) listened to and honored.
- To feel that I know enough about my play partner(s), their bodies, limits, needs, boundaries, identities, and disabilities (physical and psychological) so that I am able to minimize risk of harm. To trust that they will communicate new information that I need to know, before, during and after play.
- To feel that I am not participating in or implicated in an abusive or coercive dynamic, either with my play partner(s) or in their other relationships.
- For play to take place within a respectful relationship
- Emotional intimacy and the possibility of continued relationship.
- To be treated with respect and care (both in general, and specifically to have my limits, stoneness, and gender respected, and to have my vulnerability treated with care and compassion).
- To feel seen in my complexity, not reduced to a tool or a fantasy.
- To trust that I am not being judged for my sadistic desires, and that my play partner(s) are not mired in shame or doubt around their kinkiness, or queerness.
- My own capacity and desire
- To assess my resources at the moment and determine what is possible given that reality:
- Am I coming into play feeling relatively confident, cared for, safe?
- Do I have support if things go awry?
- How accessible is the space?
- What are my spoon levels? Is my physical capacity a good match for the kind of play we want to do?
- Have I had enough sleep? How is my blood sugar?
- How am I doing psychologically? How has trauma impacted me today?
- Do I have what I need for aftercare?
- Is it possible to create a cushion for edgy play by balancing it with play that’s comforting, helps me ground in my body and my desire, feels loving and connected, or affirms myself or the relationship?
- To have it understood and accepted by my partner(s) that my capacities change and that therefore our plans for play may need to change.
- To have space to check in with myself and assess whether I am up for this scene, in this setting, with these partner(s):
- Am I up for this now?
- Is now a time for pushing my edges?
- Is this the setting I want to do this in?
- Just because these partner(s) say yes to this, and I am really hungry for it, doesn’t mean they are the right partner(s) to do it with. So I want to consider…are these the partner(s) I want to go there with?
- To assess my resources at the moment and determine what is possible given that reality:
- Mutuality and shared responsibility (see the next couple sections for more on this)
- To know that I’m not holding this alone, that we are all working together to create a safer arena for play, that we are all watching the edges and responsible for the result and the ripples out after the scene.
- To trust that we have established shared intent for this scene, and that we have simplified the scene as appropriate (are not trying to do everything at once).
- To trust that my play partner(s) have the skills to hold the scene with me:
- Are they able to self-advocate?
- Can they call a scene that needs to be called?
- Can they understand and set complex boundaries?
- Can they communicate mid-scene?
- Can they practice two-footing?
I don’t want to be holding the scene all by myself
(As a heads up, the next couple sections talk explicitly about intimate sadism in practice, and the risks we face at those edges, as well as the kinds of things that I need in order to engage in that level of risk. A knife play scene is described.)
About a decade ago, I began more deeply exploring my sadism with a few people, going to more intense places with it. I had this moment in that exploration with a bottom, where I had my knife against her neck, and she was pressing into it, begging me to slit her throat. My inner sadist wanted to slit her throat, ached to see the blood rush out. It was an intense and scary moment. I knew that the only thing that would stop me was my own will, because she was not going to help me to stop—she was going to egg me on to do it. I did stop myself, and I remember calling the scene, and shaking afterwards, because I felt so alone in that place, like I had all of the responsibility, and no one to hold my hand in it, no one to support me. Kink has the capacity to create immense intimacy. But it can also leave you feeling intensely isolated and alone.
Pushing my own edges as a top means I am taking deeper risks, including riding the edge of my own control. I am often going to intense and scary places in myself…that’s the idea. After that experience, I re-evaluated how I approached this kind of play, set new parameters for myself, and clarified what I need from my play partner(s).
To engage in intimate sadism, I need to not be alone like that, not to shoulder all of that by myself, but to co-create and share responsibility for the scene. This means that before engaging in this sort of play, I need to be clear that we have a shared intent, especially around shared responsibilities for the scene. I also need to simplify the scene, not try to take on too much at once, and I need play partners that are up for that. Mollena described this simplification approach as “a scoop in a cup, no toppings”, in her Taboo Play class (at LSM on 3/10/10).
It also means that I need play partner(s) to have particular skills, skills I do not necessarily require when I am playing in my comfort zones. I need folks who can advocate for their own needs, and call a scene that needs to be called. I need folks who don’t see boundaries as only black or white, but can navigate and understand the complexity of the grey. I need play partner(s) who are able to communicate with me mid-scene, tell me what’s going on for them psychologically, what is happening in their body, help make decisions if something goes awry.
One of the core skills I need in play partners is two-footing, a skill I learned about from Del in his Top Trance class (at The Floating World 2008). This skill is about having one foot in role or play experience, and one foot in reality. When practicing it, you are simultaneously experiencing the scene and also holding onto your knowledge of the edges you are playing on and the risks involved. This is a skill that is generally expected of tops, but much less so of bottoms in many kinds of play.
When I’m going deep into my sadism, I need the bottoms I play with to know how to two-foot. I need to trust that I am not the only one watching the edge, that we are both holding that edge together. This makes it possible for me to go deeper into my sadism, to embody something more feral and dangerous, to ride the razor sharp edge of my own control. Two-footing means that when you are bottoming, you are not goading me to go deeper, begging me to slit your throat, but are reading the intensity of my sadism, and helping me to manage it. Two-footing means that we are holding the space together, we are both riding the edge together, we are both remembering the limits of reality together. Two-footing means that we both know however much we ache to see your blood pour out and spill on the floor in that electric moment of play, that the actuality of me slitting your throat would be very bad, and is not really where we want to go.
Tam describes two-footing in the negotiation section of my work in progress, “The Tale of Jan and Tam”, a kinky retelling of the story of Janet and Tamlin, where both characters are disabled genderqueers:
“You couldn’t float away on the pain. You would have to stay in it with me, stay focused on me, so you could track safety with me.”
To give you a feel for what this might look like in practice, here is an excerpt from the scene where Jan is practicing two-footing, in order to draw Tam back to a more grounded reality, using a tool that they both agreed upon in negotiation. (Tam had said that using Sir would help keep hir anchored.) As a heads up, this excerpt includes knife play, breath play, and rough body play.
Jan could see that Tam had shifted somehow, was not there in the same way. Now to get to work, they thought.
“Sir, I am here. Right here with you, Sir. Ready for your blade. Ready for the pain you want to give me. I am here, Sir.”
Tam came back slowly, drawn back by Jan’s voice holding onto hir. Ze met Jan’s eyes.
“I am here for what you need, Sir. We are in this together.”
Tam put the knife down, and just gripped Jan’s face, sinking into their gaze. Ze pulled Jan into a hug, tightening until Jan was breathless, then releasing, pulling back to watch Jan’s eyes get huge. Yes. Fuck this distance, ze wanted to be up close, grip tight, use hir bulk. That would get hir anchored again. Tam helped Jan get settled onto their back, careful of their ankles. Ze collapsed hir weight onto Jan, driving the breath out of them, watching their eyes get huge. Oh yes. Ze pressed hir cock into Jan, grinning.
“Hello there,” ze said.
“Hello, Sir,” Jan said pertly. “Nice to have you back.”
“This is the place to be.”
Why it’s worth it
“Taking responsibility for your desire, wearing it where other people could see it, being defiant about your deviance-it was the kind of butch signal, like a shaved head, that Kat recognized and loved, that made her knees get weak. You had to flaunt it. You couldn‘t change it. You didn‘t really want to. Because even if you hardly ever get what you want, knowing what it would look like and trying to get it was so much less crazy than believing the lie that you wanted what everybody else wanted, that there was nothing else, no choice.” –Pat Califia, “Big Girls” (available in the collections Melting Point and Blood and Silver)
Part of why it took me so long to decide that I needed these things, to own it and seek it, to make choices with that in mind, is because I was afraid it would stop me from getting the play I was so intensely hungry for. That’s the thing about consent: it demands that you be willing to say no as well as yes.
As a survivor, it can be difficult to hold on to a vision for relationships where you are getting your core needs met. We hoard scraps and are afraid to let them go because we are starving for the kinds of connection we need, and because it can be so difficult to imagine beyond a hope for not being treated badly.
And, as a survivor, I am certain that self-knowledge is one of the best tools I have for survival. I firmly believe in seeking and holding onto self-knowledge about desire, even when that knowledge is scary and painful to hold. I feel sure that it is both deeply dangerous and intensely alienating to refuse knowledge about my desires, the truth of what I want and need. Much more dangerous and alienating than being in touch with those desires. I agree with Amber Hollibough when she says:
“It is always dangerous to refuse the knowledge of your own acts and wishes, to create a sexual amnesia, to deny how and who you desire, allowing others the power to name it, be its engine or its brake. As long as I lived afraid of what I would discover about my own sexuality and my fantasies, I had always to wait for another person to discover and give me the material of my own desires.” –Amber Hollibaugh, “Desire for the Future: Radical Hope in Passion and Danger”, My Dangerous Desires
I want more from my play than I used to imagine was possible. I want deep mutual connection. I want to be witnessed in my vulnerability. I want to be in this together, to know that we are all working together to create the safest containers we can to play with the deliciousness of danger. I want the kind of trust and mutuality that I describe in my story, “A Wolf’s Yearning” (which centers a genderqueer diabetic sadist werewolf named Rocky):
“There was something about this boy in particular that added Rocky’s own fear to the mix in a way that almost felt delicious. Rocky knew that if ze cracked open and a dam burst inside hir when ze came, that Frankie could help hir hold on, channel the energy, keep hir rooted in the chaos. It wasn’t just that ze wanted to keep Frankie safe, though that urge was bursting inside hir. Rocky knew that the boy was up to keeping hir safe. And that made it worth the risk. Even if ze did crack open.”
I want to trust that my play partners are just as invested in holding me in my vulnerability as I am in holding them in theirs. I want the intense intimacy, the glorious pleasure, the open acceptance that comes from being witnessed, held, and met in my deep sadism.
Seeking the kind of intimate sadism I desire means that I need to take as much care with my own consent as I do when seeking the consent of others. I’m working on that.
This post is not intended to be a prescription. I am not making an argument about what you should look for around your own consent, or that your sadism should look like the kind of sadism I adore. Those are deeply personal and individualized things. My hope is that sharing my own considerations may help you think about what you need and want, to deeply consider your own consent. For more ideas, and a different approach, you can check out Andrea Zanin’s post, The Dominant’s Consent.