Parameters of Consent – Part 1

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and speaking with others about the issue of abuse within the kink community, and how best to identify it, deal with it, and prevent it.  This post is the first in what I expect to be a series on the topic of consent and how that ties in with abuse, identifying it, and helping prevent it.  Many others, including the NCSF (National Coalition for Sexual Freedom), Midori, Thorne, and many more, are also looking in much greater depth at questions pertaining to abuse and consent than we have done before.  This is an idea whose time has come, and is gaining ground quickly.

We must get a better grip on the problem of abuse in our subculture, because it is at an all-time high, and part of that is examining consent much more deeply.  If we want to remain safe ourselves, much less expect to find acceptance by the mainstream, we’ve got to name the beast that lives within our walls in order to rout it out and put our energies more into how to solve the problem rather than continue to try to delude ourselves that there isn’t one.  There is – and it’s huge – and until we accept that, and examine what we do in much greater detail, and look at how we can improve on that, we will never be able to resolve the abuse problem.

Many of the concepts I will discuss here are actually equally applicable in vanilla relationships as in kinky ones.  Healthy relationships of any sort share most of the same qualities, and consent is equally necessary in all, although it is rarely articulated in the same way in vanilla contexts as we do in the kink world.

For many years, we have identified the difference between WIITWD (what it is that we do) and abuse as being about consent, or lack thereof.

And that’s true – always was, still is.  At the most fundamental, basic level, that is what it ultimately comes down to.

If you honestly agree to X, enjoy it, get off on it, etc. – great!  If not, you’re in abuse territory if your partner continues it despite your objections – or if you are the dominant continuing what your submissive objects to.

However, years of reading and hearing about literally thousands of people’s commentaries on and complaints about their relationships and what differentiates kink from abuse (not to mention my own experiences) has left me feeling like this is far too simplistic a way of looking at things, and that it’s time that we take a much deeper and more nuanced look at exactly what consent is, and learn some new ways of eliciting it, ensuring it, and otherwise working with it.

It is no longer enough to say “She consented” or “He did not consent”.  It is no longer a simple “yes/no” question.  Relationships of all sorts – and particularly BDSM relationships – are far too complex to leave such a critically important notion dangling by such a thin thread.  Even the most detailed of negotiations need to look at consent with new eyes.

Consensual Non-consent

The most obvious place where this simplistic definition of the difference between BDSM and abuse breaks down is with the concept of consensual non-consent.  That works when both players really trust one another, and no one crosses boundaries the other objects to enough.

By definition, however, such scenes often do cross them into territory that is truly nonconsensual.  What makes it OK (when it is), and allows it to work, is a whole constellation of considerations, not the least of which is prior agreement that that is OK and desirable, lots of negotiation, knowing each other really well, etc.  I don’t want to go too deeply into this particular question at the moment, but this is one of those most infamous “grey areas” in WIITWD in which the lines between true consent and abuse can be very blurry indeed.

Playing with consensual nonconsent, while an important and often critical part of many people’s dynamics, is basically edge play at its very edgiest, and there are tremendous risks involved.

Contrary to popular belief, too, consent can still be withdrawn during a consensual non-consent scene.

I think we can also place many of the stricter master/slave, 24/7, TPE (call it what you will) relationships in this category.  Many of these relationships operate under an agreement that the slave/submissive is not allowed to leave, and has to do everything the master/dominant requires, whether she likes it or not.  For many, there is the notion that she cannot leave, and many go so far as to turn over control of literally every area of their lives to their partners, and many will speak in terms of being physically “unable” to leave – as if she is somehow permanently chained.  For some, this works great.

At the end of the day, though, this is still a relationship construct that requires a suspension of disbelief, and is unenforceable in most of the world, since slavery is illegal almost everywhere, and even the contracts that people in relationships of this nature often draw up are legally unenforceable.  People do build their lives around these notions, but they are still fundamentally fantasies, and consent is still absolutely essential from the get-go, and on an ongoing basis.  Because slavery is actually illegal, consent can also still be withdrawn in these relationships at any time, regardless of the prior agreements, even though you will hear loud screams of outrage and disagreement at the very suggestion from many quarters.

What does consent really mean, and consist of?

One of the major issues I keep coming back to, and finding new angles to think about, though, is the question of exactly what “consent” means, even beyond the boundaries of consensual nonconsent, and I’ve come to realize that there are many different parameters involved in creating consent that is truly meaningful and useful.

There are a number of these – far more than most people realize – and I will address them a couple at a time so as to not make any individual post too long.

Informed Consent

The first issue we really need to look is at informed consent.  There is far too little of this going on in our little corner of the world, and that really needs to change.

It is not enough to discuss a scene, for example, and say you want to do some flogging, some needle play, some humiliation play, breath play, etc.  An eager bottom may agree to these things without even fully understanding what is involved – and what the real risks are.  Unless the pros and cons, accurate information regarding the anatomical and physiological issues involved in the activity, and real, concrete information as to what the risks and dangers are are fully communicated, then even an eager “Yes, I want to do that!” has no real meaning.

You also need clear definitions, as far as such things are possible.  “Humiliation”, for example, means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and you cannot assume that the person you are speaking with has the same understanding of it as you do.  Until and unless the specific kinds of actions, language, etc. are discussed in detail, and agreed upon, you do not have consent to proceed with that sort of play.

Negotiation

You most assuredly do not have consent if you just start playing with someone without explicit negotiation, or at least there is a serious risk that you don’t, or that it’s not clear cut – and a good case could certainly be made to that effect. This is obviously closely tied to informed consent.

In order to have a valid negotiation and agreement, you need two adults who are of sound mind to basically sit down ahead of time and discuss exactly what will and will not occur and be permitted in that scene or relationship.

The old hand in the submissive’s hair and calling her “slut” as you bring her to her knees is fine, and hot, and all well and good – but only if it’s been negotiated.  If you’re doing even something this simple on the fly, by the seat of your pants, as far too many people do, you are asking for trouble.  So far, most people have been OK – but we are moving in the US in this day and age into an era of far greater litigiousness than we have ever known before, and particularly as kink goes more mainstream, we are going to see more and more lawsuits, arrests, and problems resulting from lack of adequate negotiation of even matters this simple.

Paradoxically enough, too, as we see more and more newbies flooding in our doors from the Internet, and we are less and less able to adequately educate them, we need all the better emphasis on how to effectively negotiate scenes and relationships and to elicit consent properly.

With respect to definitions, likewise, with relationship labels such as “dominant” and “submissive”, “master/slave”, etc., explicit negotiation as to what these means is essential.  No two people mean the same things by any of these terms; the best they are good for is shorthand for starting a conversation.  You must get into much more detailed discussion as to what each term means to each party, and what their expectations are of themselves and each other before you can say that a given relationship (or scene) involves real consent as to the nature of the relationship and interactions.

Absent such detailed discussions, informed consent does not exist, and thus, arguably, no consent at all is present.  The more that is left open to interpretation, the more slippery the slope.

These are the issues that most people think of most readily when the question of consent vs the lack thereof comes up.  There is much more, though, and I will cover those elements in later posts.

What are your thoughts on these issues?