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BDSM 101: Consent, consent, consent

BDSM 101: Consent, consent, consent

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. In the previous three days I’ve covered mythbusting, finding out more, and figuring out what you’re into. Today – to finish – I’m focusing on the most important issue of consent.

Consent, consent, consent

Despite what you might think from Fifty Shades, consent is not just a matter of having a safeword! In fact we can see from Fifty Shades itself that safewords are not enough. The first time that Christian spanks Ana she’s really not sure if she likes it. Her feelings about it change from when it happens to later when she reflects on it. She has similar ambivalence on other occasions but clearly doesn’t feel that she can use her safeword to express that uncertainty.

There are huge cultural pressures around sex. We often feel – as Ana seems to – that we must have certain kinds of sex a certain amount in order not to lose a relationship. We feel that we should ‘perform’ certain kinds of sex in order to be a ‘real’ man/woman, or a ‘proper’ straight or queer person. We feel like if we’ve had a kind of sex before we’re obligated to have it again. We feel too embarrassed or awkward to say we’re not enjoying something. We feel that because we’ve done one thing we should automatically do others. All of these are deeply problematic ways of thinking about sex which hurt us badly, but they are also really hard to completely step away from because they’re so engrained in our culture.

So, when it comes to consent, we can’t just rely on partners to say ‘no’ or safeword if they’ve stopped enjoying it. Instead, consent should be about trying to minimise the pressures that they – and we – are under, so that we can be as confident as possible that what we’re doing is consensual. How can we do this? Well it is definitely worth talking about the messages we’ve received about sex and reassuring the other person that we really wouldn’t want them doing something they don’t enjoy. We can also deliberately avoid making any suggestion that kink or sex should involve certain things (e.g. genitals, pain, orgasms, or fancy outfits) or that certain things are more or less normal.

power

It’s also worth thinking about wider power dynamics that are in play between you. Is one person older than the other, or from a gender, race, or class with more social power? Does one person earn a lot more than the other (hello Christian Grey!)? Is one person much more sexually experienced or confident in their capacity to find other sexual/romantic partners? Are there differences between you in terms of mental or physical health? All of these are worth considering in relation to how the person with greater power (in these various areas) can maximise freedom of the other person to be able to say no (or yes). Of course it’s likely that you’ll each have more, or less, power in different areas.

Finally it is troubling how much we tend to assume that we’ll be able to have consensual sex – or play – when our wider relationships are not very consensual at all. The Pervocracy puts it really well:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general. Cut that shit out of your life. If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right. Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along. Accept that no means no–all the time.

Fifty Shades is a perfect example of how to get this wrong. Christian is constantly doing things after Ana has clearly said ‘no’, such as buying her expensive gifts, following her on holiday, and getting involved in her work. How on earth is she to trust that he’d respect her ‘no’ when they’re playing? And just as Christian tries to convince Ana that she’s a submissive, Ana tries to force Christian to be the ‘hearts and flowers’ boyfriend that she’d really like. How are they to trust each other not to try to pressure, control, and manipulate when it comes to their sex life?

If you’re bringing kink into an existing relationship it’s definitely worth having a good hard look at whether you treat each other consensually around other things, such as socialising, food or finances, and how you might be more consensual in those areas. It’s also worth thinking about whether you treat yourself consensually! This is something I’ve written more about here and there is lots of useful stuff about cultivating consensual communities over on the Consent Cultures blog.

Conclusions

I hope these posts have given you a flavour of some of the things that are worth thinking – and communicating – about when exploring kink. As I said earlier, there are heaps more helpful resources out there to draw on. There’s another excellent list available from Clarisse Thorn’s website here.

It can be amazing, when you haven’t done so before, to finally give yourself permission to have the kind of sex and/or play that really excite you. Tuning into yourself, communicating with others, and cultivating consensual dynamics, are all excellent ways to start opening that door.


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