As a heads up, this post will discuss consent in BDSM at length and with nuance, and will reference an abusive BDSM relationship briefly, without giving details.
A few words about safewords
Some kinky folks absolutely believe that safewords are necessary across the board for everyone. Some believe that it might be different with experienced players or long term relationships, but that safewords are absolutely required for play with novices and at the beginning of play with a new partner.
I think that the question of safewords, like most issues around consent, is nuanced & complex.
Safewords do not ensure consent or clear communication. And that’s the core issue: consent and clear communication. Safewords are one tool that can help some people get there (as are negotiation checklists), but they are no shortcut, or guarantee. (And I think a lot of people think of them as both, or use them in place of negotiated consent and efforts to communicate.)
I have been in BDSM relationships where I was being abused. I had a safeword, and it did not protect me from being abused and having my consent violated. We did a checklist too, where I clearly stated my limits. That didn’t protect me either. Safewords and checklists do not ensure consent, and can be used as false symbols for it.
In my experience, rigidity around these things as the “one true way” to do consent and “good/safe BDSM” sets folks up to look to them as a symbol of safety instead of holding an ethic of consent and communication as the center of what they are looking for.
A checklist does not good negotiation make. A safeword is only useful if you actually feel free to use it and it is respected. A no would do just fine in its place, if you feel free to use it and it is respected. And valuing a yes, respecting the need for yes, for openly communicating desire, for verbal confirmation that someone wants what you are about to do, still wants it while it’s occurring, feels even more important to me personally than the absence of a no.
Safewords are needed when you are doing play where someone wants to say no or stop without things stopping or easing off. Safe signals (of the non-verbal sort) are needed when verbal communication is impossible (say because someone is gagged or cannot speak).
Other than that, it depends on the people and how they communicate and do consent. So, let’s talk consent and negotiation models, shall we?
There are many different ways that folks navigate consent, and which ones feel appropriate often depend on what activities are being consented to, the context, the relationship between the people, the intensity of power exchange involved, and the individuals themselves (experience level, communication styles, comfort talking about sex and kink, and trauma histories may all play a role). Some common considerations amongst consent models often gather around these questions:
- How mutual is the consent?
- How continual is the consent?
- How explicit is the consent?
Here’s a diagram I use when I’m teaching BDSM negotiation that lays consent practices out loosely on a spectrum based on a combination of these questions.
Many people are uncomfortable with both ends of the spectrum and fall in the middle somewhere much of the time. Safewords as a main consent practice is actually fairly far from mutual and continual consent. (Note their place on the spectrum.) There are ways to modify that, by doing check-ins at several points throughout play, and by all parties having safewords (both of which are rather unusual in everyday BDSM practices relying of safewords for consent). Safewords are somewhat about explicit consent, especially if there is a query practice around it, but they are more of a way to communicate no if needed, not a way to directly say what you want. (This can be modified through adding negotiation, which I will get in a bit.)
In contrast, the consent practice laid out in this post is more explicit and mutual than safewords. It also lays out navigating consent from both ends of the question, something that safeword practices rarely do, and emphasizes yes rather than no. Which is a great segue to the next consideration about consent practices.
Are we looking for an affirmative (yes-focused consent) or a negative (no-focused consent) version of consent? Again, this varies depending on a bunch of factors. If I worry that someone might go along with something they don’t really want, I might want to hear or see a clear signal of a yes for a particular activity or dynamic. If I am worried about crossing lines without knowing it, I might really need to have a clear no signal. If I struggle to articulate my desires out loud, I might want consent that’s focused on making room for my refusal because otherwise I worry we won’t ever get to the things I want. If I want to be clear to my partner that I really desire the activities plan, I might want to focus on more affirmative consent practices. Maybe I want both a clear no signal and continual affirmative consent!
There are some activities that folks in BDSM communities commonly think of as needing explicit (often prior) affirmative consent (i.e. a yes must be clear, the absence of a safeword or a no will not do). This includes most forms of edge play (whether we are talking something like blood sports or breath play or we are talking about psychological edge play like humiliation play or consensual non-consent), and also generally includes more intense SM practices like rough body play, more intense bondage practices like long term bondage and suspension, and common taboos like piss play, face slapping or age play. (Community norms vary around these things, of course.) So, even when folks don’t do a lot of explicit negotiation, they often will ask about these kinds of things if they are interested in doing them. And even if they regularly do them with a particular long term partner, they often check in to see if the partner is up for them right now. People (including tops) may have a deeper or more complex set of consent practices around this kind of play (for example, folks who do not regularly use safewords/safe signals may decide to use them for these activities). For a more concrete example, I laid out my own consent practices as a top around intimate sadism in a prior post.
Of course, BDSM negotiation can include a lot more than getting explicit consent for particularly risky and taboo activities. And there are so many different ways to negotiate. One of the most commonly espoused versions is the yes/no/maybe checklist. The scenario often is that a top (or tops) hands it to a bottom, and the bottom fills it out. And then the top(s) craft a scene based on this information, sometimes after discussing it with the bottom, sometimes not.
Checklists are a useful tool, but they aren’t the only way to negotiate kink and they are no shield from abusive behavior. (I can attest to this from personal experience.) Here are some options I offer when I teach BDSM negotiation.
- Limited Set: One party (often the top) lays out a set of choices (easy to do with SM tools if that’s the sort of play you are doing). Within these choices, the other party selects the ones they want. This is a great in person option for pick up play, but can also be built into a ritual for long time play partners.
“Pick three things you want me to hurt you with tonight.”
“That paddle, the nipple clamps, and the crop.”
- Flirtation/Seduction/Tempting: One party describes what they want to do, and asks for consent. This can easily be done via email or text.
“I really want to feel your belt tonight. Can I please?”
- Mutual Scheming: Egging each other on, focused on desires, plotting fun. This can easily be done via text or chat as well.
“I’d love to do a scene where I get to resist.”
“Oh that sounds fun, maybe a role play?”
- Graduated or continual consent: Getting verbal consent at every stage, with every activity. This is done as the scene progresses. This often leans toward affirmative consent, sometimes made hotter through the introduction of begging. I have personally found doing this through begging especially useful for D/s oriented play with survivors where I want to establish ongoing continual consent for my own peace of mind, without continual check ins of a more formal variety (which some survivors really hate because they feel like it’s treating them like they don’t know their own mind).
“If you want to lick my boots, you are going to have to ask me for it.”
- Checklists: exchanging lists of limits/desires, or one list from one party (usually the bottom). This can also be done without a formal checklist, and can be done verbally as well, but it’s a frequent choice for folks who struggle to say things out loud, and who want suggestions laid out for them instead of having to come up with language on their own.
- Conditional consent: anything can happen if X condition is met. Can be easily done via text or email.
“As long as you don’t leave marks, you can do anything to my chest, but leave the rest of me alone.”
- Off Limits: you can do anything but X, Y, and Z (however long the list of limits, it can definitely be more than 3). Can be easily done via text or email.
“My limits are scat, blood, role play, breath play, humiliation and tickling. Anything but that is a possibility.”
- Porn/fantasy sharing: telling/writing/reading stories, describe desires/fantasies. This often needs a bit more discussion, but can be a great way to jump in, and can be easily done via text or email.
- Absence of Refusal is Consent: establishing safewords/safe signals/explicit no, assumed yes til you get a clear no or safeword. This is often explicitly agreed upon pre-play or an existing agreement between long term partners. There are also common community safewords used in public play spaces (“safeword” and “red” are often the house safeword and definitely recognizable to other experienced players around), and folks may decide to use these instead of coming up with their own personalized safeword. This can be combined with other negotiation strategies listed above.
“Owwwww is not a safeword.” *continues activity*
- Multiple safewords/safe signals: red, yellow, green, safewords for multiple aspects of activities (e.g. if I say x, untie me but otherwise keep going). This is more likely to include ongoing check-ins throughout a scene, and requires negotiation of the safewords. This can be combined with other negotiation strategies listed above.
“What color are you?”
What kind of negotiation model you select depends on context, your relationship with the folks involved, fit with communication style and activity (e.g. some people like negotiating roleplay on a different day from play over email because then they can sink into character when the scene time comes), the particular scene you want to do, and the individuals involved.
One thing to note is that negotiation does not always culminate in agreement to play. Folks may find they are not compatible, or that they are not up for what they negotiated and change their minds, or that after talking about their desires they don’t want to act on them. There is a space between naming desire and action, and I care about holding this space very much. (In fact, I wrote an essay about it.)
Including consent and negotiation in BDSM fiction
Some folks write BDSM fiction with the intention of depicting a fantasy. They don’t want it to be realistic, they want to play with kinky desire and fantasy in a way that’s less concerned with the kind of consent and negotiation and safety that people care about in the real world. Common examples of this include depictions of mind-reading/telepathic dominants, dungeons that have built in hierarchies where there is a top dom who rules them all, insta-D/s with a “true submissive”, god-chosen masochist sex workers, fantasy organizations providing and training consenting slaves, magic forcing people to act on their kinky desires, abduction and servitude fantasy stories, etc. This kind of fiction rarely pretends to be realistic, and is not my personal cuppa, though I have enjoyed some of it. My feeling is that if you want to write about kink in a way that’s not realistic, as long as you make it clear that it’s not reality based, go to town. (And be up for the criticism you might get for not caring about consent.) Ideally it will still draw from real kink experiences. (Many of the stories I alluded to are clearly written by folks who did good research about what it feels like to do the kinks they depicted, including many folks that are active in kink communities).
By the way, this is not about genre. I’ve read fantasy that does very much value consent in the kink practices it depicts and engages with the idea of consent within the context of magical SM. I’ve read science fiction that presents a clearly consensual service based D/s relationship. I’ve read post apocalyptic romance that emphasizes the importance of consent in D/s. This is about whether folks are choosing to write BDSM in a way that’s about depicting a fantasy of kink, or about depicting realistic kink, whatever the genre.
I choose to write realistic kink. Because I care about depicting the kink life and communities I’m connected to. Because I care about modeling consent and negotiation for readers, in multiple different ways. Because I looked to fiction to understand BDSM and my own kinky desires, and I wish I’d been able to access more realistic kink fiction back then.
Just as I think consent and communication are complex and nuanced in life, I want them complex and nuanced in my BDSM fiction. I don’t want all kink to follow the same prescriptive model of checklist + safeword=consent. That prescriptive model didn’t work for me as a novice; it gave me a false sense of safety and led me to conclude a top was worth trusting because they did those things instead of assessing that myself, practicing my own discernment.
I am particularly tired of this model being presented as the “one true way” to do kink in fiction when that fiction rarely depicts characters saying no or safewording, what that’s like, what happens when you do, the kind of things we need when scenes end abruptly. Though while I am on the subject, there are a few examples of characters saying no that I want to draw your attention to, as it is so rare, and I think writers ache for models:
- A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power by Rose Lemberg (out spring 2017) engages thoroughly with the complexities of consent and one of the pivotal scenes revolves around one of the characters saying no.
- Between the Shores edited by T.C. Mill and Alex Freeman is an anthology of erotica centered around the theme of one of the characters saying no or using a safeword.
- Always Be You by RoAnna Sylver is one of the best depictions I’ve seen of the kind of complex consent conversation that can happen when someone says stop, and though it’s not a kink story, it’s really worth a read for kink writers, because of the way it engages with consent.
So what do I want from kink fiction? I want an abundance of careful and thoughtful explorations of consent and communications around BDSM. What can that look like? Well, here’s a starting list of ideas:
- Complex explorations of consent that don’t make it seem easy or simple.
- Negotiations occurring mid-scene.
- Shifting D/s dynamics nudging characters to talk again about what they want or how they are going to manifest the change they envision into reality.
- Group scenes needing to pause because one character doesn’t have all the information they need to respect another characters limits.
- Scenes where consent accidents occur and need to be attended to.
- Characters trying to make their cyber scene an in person reality and realizing midway they can’t take that much pain and they need to adjust expectations and communicating about that.
- Survivors taking time between negotiation and play to make sure they are really up for what they said yes to.
- Characters saying no and it winding up feeling positive and good for everyone.
- Characters processing the last scene so the next scene is better.
- Autistic characters who go non-verbal in the middle of negotiation or the middle of play, and the characters figure out a way to ensure consent and for play to continue.
- Tops using their safeword. Hell, tops establishing a safeword at all.
- Continual affirmative consent as part of BDSM play.
- Characters sitting back to back after pausing play so that they can be touching as they text to each other about where they want to take the scene because text based communication works better for one or all of them.
- Mutual scheming leading to hot things happening.
- Negotiation established entirely through texting or email.
- Continual check ins during play.
- D/s that’s negotiated on a scene by scene basis.
- Characters establishing a safe signal before play precisely because one of the characters is likely to go non-verbal amidst play.
- Tops getting supported by the bottom by asking for confirmation of consent (a non-verbal signal, perhaps) from the bottom during play that pushes the top’s edges.
- Characters building a scene based on porn they love and needing to adjust it in the moment.
- A submissive leading the negotiation conversation and really insisting on the dominant’s explicit consent.
- Characters misreading each other during play, calling the scene when they figure it out, and processing.
- Characters saying no to the current activity and finding something else to do.
- Characters getting triggered and safewording, taking a break to attend to themselves and discussing whether they can return to play.
- Tops talking about how they are feeling pressured and asking bottoms to ease off.
I don’t want BDSM fiction that acts as if Kink 101 “rules” for the “one true way” we do “good BDSM” are a substitute for characters caring about consent and working toward clear communication. I want BDSM fiction that moves from a real place, and shows real people honoring each other’s consent, and yes, sometimes that looks like safewords, and sometimes it looks like direct communication in the form of “my back’s hurting in a bad way” or “we need to stop”, and sometimes that looks like a D/s dynamic that’s confirmed by a ritual all parties choose every day, and sometimes that looks like a focus on yes or a demand that the character name what ze wants in order to get it.