Trying To Understand Consent? Ask The LGBTQ And Kink Communities

"Vanilla people" are starting to act a little kinky, and that's a good thing for everyone wondering what's OK in a sexual relationship.
Emerging research suggests that society could learn a thing or two about consent from LGBTQ and kink communities. 
Emerging research suggests that society could learn a thing or two about consent from LGBTQ and kink communities. 

Lizzy is a 21-year-old woman who identifies as bisexual, kinky and polyamorous. Lately, she’s noticed the kink community’s model of consent spreading to the so-called vanilla world, which includes everyone else.  

“It’s affirmative consent. It is overwhelmingly opt-in consent, rather than opt-out consent,” Lizzy explained during interviews with San Jose State University researchers Jason Laker and Erica Boas, who say they’ve stumbled onto some revelations about how college students navigate consent in sexual relationships. 

College students are negotiating consent, Laker and Boas are finding in their Consent Stories project, but it’s the LGBTQ and kink communities that seem to have a more overt model of what it means to obtain that consent and speak about what they’re comfortable doing with their partners. Straight folks and the vanilla world ― anyone who is not in the kink community ― could learn a thing or two, the researchers argue.  

“One of the things that I’ve noticed in the kink scene that I love is always ask before touching anything ― a necklace, hair, a sweater, whatever; a toy, a submissive ― anything,” Lizzy told the researchers. “And that’s one of the things that I don’t see in the vanilla world. Instead, it’s, ‘I’m just going to reach out and touch your necklace, because whatever reason.’”

“If there was a way to get every vanilla person who’s not even interested in all in the BDSM stuff to take away the communication and negotiation part of it, then that would be absolutely amazing,” Lee, a trans man in the kink community, told Laker and Boas. The researchers shared portions of transcripts from their interviews with The Huffington Post. 

Colleges and universities nationwide, concerned about sexual assault on campus, are staging educational sessions to teach students about consent. Hundreds of schools are using affirmative consent standards in their codes of conduct, essentially replacing “no means no” with “only yes means yes.” Some states mandate that colleges use the affirmative standards. 

There are plenty of critics, both male and female, who deride affirmative consent as unrealistic, and even unattractive. But the interviews conducted by Laker and Boas show that there are plenty of college students seeking to get consent. And among LGBTQ people and kinksters, it’s actually the norm to speak with their partners about what sexual activity they agree to. 

Consent doesn’t happen apart from a sexual encounter or a sexual act ― it happens as a part of that.” Erica Boas, researcher on the Consent Stories project

“It’s not black and white: this is what the non-kink people do and this is what the kink people do,” Boas cautioned. But the study is showing that in the LGBTQ and kink communities, “sexual consent doesn’t happen apart from a sexual encounter or a sexual act ― it happens as a part of that,” he said.

The problem around American society’s current discussion on consent, according to Boas, is that it’s taught as something set apart from the act itself. If straight and vanilla folks paid attention to LGBTQ people and kinksters, they might shift their own views of consent in a positive way. 

Erica Boas, left, and Jason Laker present on their research about consent. 
Erica Boas, left, and Jason Laker present on their research about consent. 

Studying Consent In Kink And Queer Communities

Originally, Laker and Boas simply wanted to study the college hook-up culture. Laker has a background studying gender norms. Boas is a former teacher who now studies sexuality and race among schoolchildren. 

But as they began interviewing mainly heterosexual students, the researchers found the discussion of consent fascinating. So far, they’ve spoken with a few dozen students at three campuses since 2012, often in multiple interviews. The research findings aren’t published yet.

In some of the early interviews with straight and non-kink participants, the researchers said they learned that many had subtle, non-verbal signals for how they got consent. For example, one couple described the man tugging on the woman’s sweatpants to see if she wanted to have intercourse. If she did, she’d remove her pants. Another couple had a similar process, where the male would nuzzle the female’s neck, and she would turn to him if the answer was “yes.”

That is asked and answered,” Laker said.

We can talk about ‘yes means yes’ and ‘no means no.’ That sounds great. That’s convenient for lawyers, but in live experiences, it’s complicated." Jason Laker, professor at San Jose State University

College students’ negotiation of consent, the researchers began to conclude, wasn’t necessarily through explicit verbal communication in the bedroom. 

“We can talk about ‘yes means yes’ and ‘no means no.’ That sounds great. That’s convenient for lawyers. But in live experiences, it’s complicated,” Laker said. He and Boas support the idea of affirmative consent, but their research shows socialization and early learning around sexuality has undermined the standard by making conversation about sex shameful or taboo.

After reflection on the initial interviews, and knowing some background about the kink community, Laker and Boas decided to start speaking with LGBTQ and kink-identified students. As they did, the two researchers became convinced that straight and so-called vanilla people could learn some lessons from the queer and kink communities on consent.

People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or identify as queer have long been discriminated against and maligned, of course. However, sexual identify forced them to develop elaborate, nuanced and clever ways to check on another person’s possible interest, Laker said.

It makes sense to say that LGBTQ individuals are generally more advanced at reading social cues and situations, said Ignacio Rivera, project leader at the Heal Project, which works to combat child sexual abuse. Rivera is trans, queer and polyamorous, and prefers the pronouns they, them, their.

“We’re living in a world that doesn’t value us,” Rivera said. “We definitely have to get good at it. It can be the line between meeting someone really awesome and being attacked.”

A straight, cisgendered man can look at a woman on the street and assume he’s safe doing that, Rivera said. But if a gay guy were to do that to another male in some situations, “that can be pretty dangerous.”

You negotiate. You do this. You do that. ... If you don’t negotiate, then we don’t play.” Luna, a gender-fluid bisexual student

Meanwhile, those who identify as kink often develop their own rules for sexual activity that differs from vanilla relationships, and are adamant about direct, overt communication for specific requests and responses, the researchers explained. 

In interviews with Boas and Laker, one gender-fluid bisexual student named Luna mentioned talking with people about “your list,” that is, what you like or don’t like to do with a partner. Luna has a rule for partners: “You negotiate. You do this. You do that. ... If you don’t negotiate, then we don’t play.”

Creating A Space To Speak In The Sexual Arena

Societies have long ascribed to what feminist writer Jaclyn Friedman calls a “commodity model of sex,” which is one “where women give it up or don’t, and men get some,” Friedman explained. “Women’s sexuality is the commodity and men are the purchasers in this model.”

When people reject these gender and sex norms, Friedman said, it creates space for discussion about what’s going to replace it. 

“In general, people who are outside of the mainstream in some way, they have to sort of forge their own rules and become more conscious of things,” said Harry Brod, a gender studies researcher and longtime proponent of affirmative consent. Brod serves in an advisory capacity to the Consent Stories project. 

Since both the queer and kink communities can be maligned due to their sexuality, Brod said, they end up with different comfort levels discussing sex with partners.

“Our society is afraid to talk about sex, afraid of the erotic,” Brod said. “So some people, whether LGBT or kink, have overcome that fear of the erotic to a greater extent than the mainstream, so there’s therefore a freedom ― less fear about conversation in sexual arena.” 

Rivera said the kink community is where researchers learned a lot about language around consent. 

“Because we like to, for the most part ― and I’m generalizing ― play on the edges and work in taboos, in order to do those things we have to learn about it, we have to talk about it,” Rivera said. That means a lot of reading, sharing tips and tricks, learning what is dangerous and what’s safe.  

New students at San Diego State University in California watch a video on sexual consent during an orientation meeting Friday
New students at San Diego State University in California watch a video on sexual consent during an orientation meeting Friday, Aug. 1, 2014.

Don’t Assume Everyone Who’s Kink Or Queer Is Perfect On Consent

The idea that LGBTQ and kink communities are more advanced in discussing consent isn’t new, activists say. It’s actually controversial to some, because it may suggest that no one who is kinky or LGBTQ is abused or assaulted. 

A person who violates their partner’s consent within a BDSM experience might use consent rhetoric to blame the victim for not communicating, argued Shanti Flagg, a Baltimore-based artist who manages Monument Quilt, an abuse-awareness project. In this type of situation, an abuser will try to excuse under the guise of “practicing bad consent” rather than calling it what it is ― intentional assault, Flagg said. 

“I personally have had experiences,” Flagg said. “I’m a survivor of sexual abuse in two kink relationships with men.” 

Boas and Laker said they don’t want to suggest everyone who identifies as LGBTQ or kink is perfect on consent. In fact, studies show LGBTQ individuals experience sexual assault at higher rates than heterosexuals, though most surveys do not examine whether the attack was within a queer relationship or if the victim was out with their identity at the time of the abuse. 

‘Consent Is Not A Gendered Responsibility’

Conversations about consent are important, even in relationships, explained a Latinx gender­-fluid woman named ESME in an interview with the researchers. “Relationships are much more complex than we think they are and there’s an oversimplification of the concept of relationship that really hurts people all the time,” ESME said.

“I think a lot of people go through their whole lives without looking inside and saying, ‘What do I want right now?’” Flagg said. “’Do I want genuine interaction? Do I want intimacy? And I shouldn’t have to give up something I don’t want to get it.’”

The overall message, Flagg said, should be that everyone, of every sexual identity, should spend more time learning what their partners want in the bedroom. “People should understand you should get to know someone a little bit to understand how that person communicates,” she said. 

Friedman noted that “consent is not a gendered responsibility.”

“All of us could benefit from having these conversations with our clothes on,” Friedman said. 

I don’t­­ think I can see where people are coming from when they think that asking for that affirmative, clear, ‘Yes, I want you to fuck me,’ is unsexy.” Lizzy, a female who identifies as bisexual, kinky and polyamorous

Sex educators should focus on making affirmative consent appealing, rather than lecturing about how it’s mandatory, argued Lizzy.

“I don’t­­ think I can see where people are coming from when they think that asking for that affirmative, clear, ‘Yes, I want you to fuck me,’ is unsexy,” Lizzy said. “But if you noticed, ‘Yes, I want you to fuck me’ can also be really sexy. It can be one of those triggers that just ... you know, makes the sexy times fantastic, and it can really set somebody off.” 

Consent is powerful and sexy, but it is also very realistic, said Rivera of the Heal Project. And it’s the direction society is moving.

“Consent is so much a part of the conversation,” Rivera continued. “And it is vital for us as a country to be really talking about it, exercising it and not brushing it aside, because it does make a huge difference in experiences and minimizing a lot of fucked-up situations.”



Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter who covers sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can reach him attyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.


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