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got consent?

Part I * Part II * Part III * Part IV * Part V

Hey, it’s been a while since I last wrote about consent+kink on this blog! I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about it though, and here’s where I’ve come out. This post follows the four others linked to above, but also stands quite well on its own.

Go to any BDSM conference or event, and you’ll find lots of workshops on concrete, observable, and often flashy technical skills. Like how to do particular rope bondage techniques, how to use electrical devices in play, how to use a cane, how to do fire play, etc. You’ll probably also workshops on more mental things like planning a ‘scene,’ issues in age-play, on humiliation, etc. These are the sort of things that are accorded social status in kink circles.

But you know what you won’t find much of? How to own your own mistakes. How to mess up, take responsibility, and restore trust. How to better avoid violating consent, and what to do if or when it happens. How to hold each other accountable for our actions. These are the tools we aren’t teaching.  And yet, in a community where one-third of all participants have experienced a consent violation, these are the tools we need most badly.

After a lot of writing and thinking and many hours of conversations over the summer,* I’ve come the the conclusion that fighting rape culture in BDSM communities requires changing how we communicate about mistakes. Yes, better discussions around errors won’t end abuse. But they are essential to removing the Social License to Operate that predators too often enjoy. Because when we normalize responsible practices and lower the cost of vulnerability, we then expose the behavior of abusers as aberrant, so they can no longer hide. And that’s how things start to change.

Rape Isn’t an Accident

Rape culture has a lot invested in making us all think anyone can “accidentally” be a rapist. As Cliff Pervocracy argues, this is one big lie rapists tell, the big lie at the center of all other lies that make up the rape apologist narrative: “If you were in my place, you could have done the same.”

I mean, who among us has not been confused in the process of sexual communication?  Who has not thought someone was interested in them and then found out they read the signals wrong?  Who has not had a partner enjoy sex less than they’d hoped?  Who has not felt “swept away” at some point during sex?  Who has not done something stupid while drunk?  Who has not felt that the things their ex said after the breakup were awfully unfair? The rape-apologist narrative taps into some nearly universal experiences. And then, in that one big lie, pretends that these everyday insecurities and disappointments could lead anyone to rape.  “It could have happened to anyone,” say the rapists.

However, the truth is quite different:

  1. Surprise sex isn’t a thing. You don’t have sex by accident. Sex is always a conscious choice. Using protection is a conscious choice.
  2. Most rapes are perpetuated by a very small number of people–major studies indicate that Between 6% and 13% of men have attempted or completed rape, and that 4-8% of men are serial offenders, and responsible for the vast majority (90-95%) of all rapes. These are the predators.

Surprise Sex!: Not actually a thing that happens (except in these excellent Swiss condom ads.)

Predators and their enablers have a lot invested in the rest of us fearing that if we could get in big trouble for simple mistakes. This lie, this fear makes people focus on protecting themselves and their reputations. Now, I could just say that if you’re more concerned with your reputation than other people’s safety, then you are the problem. But that is too easy. The urge for self-preservation is natural. And we all make mistakes. Especially in BDSM play.

Nonetheless, You Will Fuck Up

Cliff Pervocracy is right that “if you, personally, make a commitment to never have sex without unambiguous consent, your odds of being a not-rapist are 100%.” But unfortunately in kink, that isn’t good enough.

There are a variety of options in kinky play and sex, and vast diversity in people’s limits and boundaries. As a result, frankly, there are immeasurably more ways to violate consent or hurt someone in BDSM than in vanilla sex. The uncomfortable truth is that accidental boundary violations and even consent violations in BDSM are actually fairly common. I think most everyone make mistakes at some point. If you engage in BDSM play long enough, it’s likely that you will cross someone’s boundary, in some way large or small, and that you will have your own boundaries crossed. Hell, I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and I still fuck up sometimes.

Now, a crossed boundary is different from a violation of consent. Rape apologists want us to see the two as one and the same. But they’re not. And what I’ve learned is that what matters most, what helps make the difference, is how you respond. And in this context, I find that I do agree with the NCSF after all that there is “a need for greater education.” But not so we can reduce “confusion.” Rather, so we can remove the social infrastructure of fear and doubt that gives cover to predators.

But first, let’s talk about how to play more safely and reduce the risk of violation in the first place.

(Note: in a number of places in this post, I will use the terms “top” and “bottom.” I want to be clear that in all cases, I am referring to the role an individual is taking in an given scene/encounter. I am not using them to refer to classes of people; I in no way endorse role essentialism, and I think many-to-most kinksters (including myself) take both roles at different times.)

Avoiding Impairment

Impairment can mean lots of things. Drugs, alcohol, sure. But also exhaustion, distraction. I know every time I’ve made a mistake, it’s because I was inebriated, exhausted, or distracted. And when I can’t listen to my own body is when I’ve been most hurt. Maybe you feel you need a substance to loosen your inhibitions. But there are other ways to get to that end. The atmosphere of a public space can be intoxicating. And for a bottom, subspace is a pretty potent alternated state by itself; it doesn’t need chemical enhancement. Look, I’m not saying that it is impossible to consent while intoxicated. I think it’s quite possible to give full consent while impaired to some degree. Rather, I’m saying that intoxication raises the risk that something will go wrong. And in kink, there’s so much more that can go wrong! I’m not perfect on this either, thoughI’m trying to get better. These days, I try to never play with new partners while intoxicated. There’s just too much room for error, especially if I don’t know the other person and how they’ll respond. Sure, it has cost me some potentially great play. But it’s probably also prevented some real fuck-ups. And that’s a trade I’m happy to make.

Practicing the Precautionary Principle

When playing, it’s important to err on the side of caution. Listen carefully to how the bottom reacts. If you think they aren’t okay, end the scene–even if they say they are okay! If you’re not sure, consider ending the scene. Tops will say they thought something was okay, but often, they knew it wasn’t okay. They knew they might be violating consent. But they decided to risk it anway. Don’t be that Top.

Kink culture has come to value heavy play, and pushes both Tops and bottoms into playing harder. Please don’t buy into this. And safewords, while in no way a cure-all, need to lose the unfortunate social stigma they’ve acquired. When your bottom or your friend uses a safeword, don’t be disappointed or upset. Thank them. Support them.

The same applies to re-negotiating. I’ve heard far too many stories of Tops negotiating one thing and then, once the scene has started pushing further. On some level, I just don’t get this. For me, I really enjoy enthusiastic consent—as a Top, I get off in part on the fact that what I’m dishing out is what my partner deeply desires. But absent a request from a bottom to do something more (and even there it’s risky), I think expanding beyond the pre-negotiated scene is really problematic and unacceptable. To understand why, we need to talk about subspace. “Subspace” is a BDSM slang term of the altered mental state that someone who is bottoming in BDSM play can experience, created either through Dominance/submission or intense physical sensation. And with rape culture already tending to blame women for not saying no, the addition of subspace suggestion is a potent cocktail.

I particularly think back on a couple scenes where I was being submissive and the Dom did things I didn’t like. In those cases, I hadn’t set clear limits beforehand about what I didn’t want, and I didn’t try to end the scene. So it’s hard to say that I didn’t consent. It would probably be more accurate to say I regretted consenting. Like many people, when I am in a deeply submissive headspace, it sometimes becomes harder to articulate to myself that a boundary was being violated, or that I didn’t actually want to change my mind and allow the Top to do this or that. Such incidents have led me to create new limits and be clearer about what I want, and to be more selective about whom I am willing to submit to, because I don’t always trust myself to protect myself. And it underlies how consent is complicated. And so I would just caution people, especially those who are less experienced at bottoming, to be careful, and also be forgiving of themselves and of each other.

So, say the scene ends “prematurely?” What’s the worst that can happen? The bottom wishes you’d gone further? Great, maybe you get to play again! I think we often bring a scarcity economy mindset to our play–we think we must grab this opportunity because it won’t come again! We accept bad scenes because we think it’s as good as we can get. But there almost always will be another opportunity. And we deserve fucking great scenes. Which would you rather your partner feel at the end of a scene? Hungry for more? Or upset because you went too far? Yeah, I thought so.

Taking Responsibility

responsibility aheadRegardless, you or a partner probably will make a mistake.  I think it is important to own one’s mistakes. What does this look like? Myself, I try to make a practice of checking in one to three days after a scene, to give my play partner(s) an opportunity to discuss what did and didn’t work for them. I find that some people take a few days to fully process intense experiences, and so asking immediately after the scene is insufficient.

When we tell someone something went wrong, there are three possible responses.,

  1. Denial. They say they didn’t do it. They say it wasn’t a mistake. They try to shift the blame and deny responsibility.
  2. Collapse. At the other extreme, they apologize, but fall apart doing so. They get so upset and self-flagelatting that you end up comforting them, and regretting bringing it up in the first place.
  3. Responsible Discussion. They accept responsibility, apologize, discuss it, and then allow you both to move on.

You should want #3. Expect #3. Deliver #3.

And on the flip side, remember:

Just because it’s an accident doesn’t mean you’re not still responsible. 

Just because you’re responsible doesn’t mean you’re a monster.

So if you made a mistake, apologize. Don’t shift blame to the other person. Don’t fall apart–owning your mistakes requires owning your shit. Then discuss. Try to understand exactly what went wrong, and why. Approach it with clarity. This is how we grow. It’s hard to see everything when you’re only using your own eyes. Other people’s perspectives are valuable and essential. Yes, this requires being open to criticism. Make no mistake: this is not always easy to do. But the right thing is rarely the easiest thing.

Responsibility is hard because it requires vulnerability. Vulnerability is something many men in our culture have trouble showing. And moreover, in kink communities, Tops, regardless of gender, often think they can’t show vulnerability. They think they have to be confident and all-knowing, that if they admit error or lack of knowledge people won’t want to play with them. But this is, frankly, pretty nutty. It prioritizes cultivated archetypal images over engaging with another human as a human. Someone who can’t accept that they could be wrong isn’t someone you can trust–because they care more about their reputation than about you!

It is being vulnerable that requires the greater strength. Because it requires you to risk something. But the rewards are great. To accept criticism and improve is a trust-building activity. To be vulnerable requires trust, and builds trust in return.

Admitting error and trying to learn from it is not just the right thing–it’s the smart thing. To use another context, statistics show that doctors who apologize and own their mistakes are much less likely to be sued for malpractice than those who deny and try to shut down discussion. In BDSM communities,  I know people who have made serious fuck-ups, and if they’ve owned up to it, they tend to be on good terms with the other party. It’s the cases where the Dom denies responsibility where people end up really feeling violated.

Relative Responsibility

One of the biggest sticking points in conversations about violations is about relative responsibility. Admitting that people can make mistakes also requires admitting that both/all parties can make mistakes. Which means both people can be at fault. But that is actually quite different than it being nobody’s fault! Culpability doesn’t magically cancel out. In my view, the greater culpability HAS to rest with the person with greater power. In kink context, that pretty much always means the Top or Dom. It’s just that simple.

Cultural Change

Owning our mistakes and communicating honestly about them isn’t just important for our own relations. It’s crucial to fighting rape culture.

We need to not just talk about communication, negotiation, and self-criticism–we need to model it. We tend not to see people negotiate, and we certainly don’t see the difficult conversations. I think of the contrast between my experience of BDSM and poly circles. I see polyamorous people processing and modeling their communication skills frequently. And doing so makes sense, in part because the poly communities accord social status to people with good communication skills. So if, as kinky people, we want to make negotiation and communication valued in our communities, then we need to stop hiding these conversations.

Yes, everyone makes mistakes. But predators will keep making the same “mistakes” over and over. Repeated mistakes aren’t accidents. And even if they are still “accidents,” the refusal to learn and grow as a Top so as not to make those mistakes again IS willful. Predators will always deny responsibility and shift blame. Right now, predators hide behind this, since it is a natural instinct for many people. But by normalizing taking responsibility and seeking growth, we will start to make the predators’ behavior stand out for what it is.

The stigmatization of accidents and violations prevents us from talking about them. People fear being branded, ostracized.  They fear being seen as not a good Top. They fear losing their community status and their romantic/sexual opportunities. So they don’t admit error. And they definitely don’t accuse others of it. As a result it’s all rumors, shadows, whispers. Well-connected, experienced people may be in the know, but the newbies, they get screwed.

If we can talk about mistakes and violations openly, we can document them. If we document, we can track patterns. And then we can begin to act to exclude known predators. In short, we need to deescalate the consequences of the first problem, so we can escalate the consequences of repeat problems. We need to give people a second chance, but not a fourth!

Holding each other accountable is hard. It’s easy to say, “oh, they are my friend, they can’t be a rapist.” But this sort of biases are the problem. When we prioritize loyalty to a friend, we do a disservice to our community, to ourselves, and yes, even to that friend. Because we should call each other out, even when it is hard. We should demand and expect responsible, ethical behavior. And when someone can’t deliver, we need to be willing to exclude them. Our spaces need to be safe not for the most powerful, but for the least of these.

I have made mistakes and crossed boundaries in the past. I’ve learned from those mistakes. But I’ll probably make new ones at some point. If I violate your consent, I WANT you to talk to me. And If you want to call me out publicly, I will respond in good faith. I think it is possible that this will happen. Perhaps even in a public reporting tool like the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife, which I wrote about in Part III. I’m okay with that. That is a price I am willing to pay.

Elise Wiesel reminds us that “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

Whose side do you want to be on?

Where Do We Go From Here?

What makes the five somewhat-independent articles in this “Got Consent?” series a series is really nothing more complicated as that it started out as a single article. Which means that though this may be the end of this series, it is hardly the end of the conversation. I have lots more to say on these topics. And I’m sure you do as well.

I don’t presume to have “the solution” to the problem of abuse in BDSM communities. Let alone rape culture overall. But I think that what I’ve laid out in this series–respecting boundaries, ending the protection of predators, creating better ways to share knowledge, building safer play spaces, and dealing responsibly with our own failings and those of others–these are key elements of a different vision. Of a way forward. Of a community and a subculture I could actually be proud of. 

Don’t let anyone tell you you don’t deserve that. You do. We all do. So let’s get to work.

*In writing this post, I am particularly indebted to insightful conversations with Crosswords, Daniel, V, and Jan, along with the writings of Thomas Millar.