Talking About Kink and Consent

Consent works the same way in the kink world as it does in the vanilla world. If you don't know what your partner likes or wants, ask. With your words.
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Wrists tied together with rope
Wrists tied together with rope

My dom once stopped a scene to make sure I was still breathing.

I wasn't mad or anything. I was really glad she checked, because if I hadn't been, it would have confirmed all my mom's fears about the dodgy, catacomb-ish sex dungeons she thinks I frequent.

I was breathing, just deep in subspace and kind of incoherent. I'm a quiet player, and I like scenes that involve monumental stillness, so sometimes it's hard to tell if I'm, you know. Alive. My dom and I hadn't been together long, and she was still working out the whole, "Okay, what do you look like blissed-out versus what do you look like asphyxiated?" puzzle. She's a trooper.

A couple of years before I met her, I was raped during what was supposed to be a no-sex scene. That "dom's" response was, Yeah, but I was just trying to get you turned on so you'd enjoy the scene more. And even though I knew that was bullshit, I spent years wondering if it was a misunderstanding. If I'd failed to communicate clearly. If the rules were somehow different in BDSM because I'd agreed to be "submissive."

Here's what I've learned: Consent works the same way in the kink world as it does in the vanilla world. If you don't know what your partner likes or wants, ask. With your words. You can use nonverbal communication too, but your words are best. It won't kill the mood, I promise. After I told my dom, "Yep, still breathing," the scene went on. Kind of like how in the pre-streaming era, you could watch TV, go microwave a frozen burrito during a commercial break, then return to the couch and dive right back into the story.

Kitty Stryker, in her essay "I Never Called It Rape," says, "[When] I reflected on the number of times I've had fingers in my cunt that I hadn't consented to, or been pressured into a situation where saying 'no' was either not respected or not an option...I'm kind of horrified." I've heard similar stories from other subs -- boundaries are violated, and no action is taken because how do you explain to likely-vanilla authorities that yes, you wanted to be whipped until you bled, but no, you didn't want to be fingered? It can be equally hard to find support within the kink community. Blogger Thomas MacAulay Millar has a seven-article series about unprosecuted rape and abuse in Kinklandia, where he notes that the power structures in BDSM communities sometimes privilege abusers and silence survivors.

So what are some the myths about kink -- particularly about dominant/submissive dynamics -- that perpetuate rape and abuse and make it difficult for survivors to speak up?

Mind-reader dom reads my mind so good.

I write romance novels. And yes, sometimes the Oh, I've never been able to ask for what I want sexually -- please, experienced and outlandishly attractive stranger, make my body your banquet and show me hitherto untold pleasures trope is fun.

But in real life? When you're kinking? All parties need to be able to articulate what they want and what they don't want. Or, if they're exploring uncharted territory, to be able to stop and say, "Nope, that's not working." Or "Yes, do that forever."

Being dominant is about asserting control.

Being submissive is about asserting control. It's about knowing and communicating your limits. Being dominant is about listening. It's about orchestrating a scene within parameters that someone else has set. It's also about communicating your own limits. If there's something a sub asks for that you don't feel comfortable doing, you can say no. You don't have to stumble through out of a desire to prove that you are, in fact, dominant.

It's solely the top's responsibility to spot problems.

A top (this term can refer to a dom or to anyone who's giving sensation rather than receiving) does have to be extra vigilant, because BDSM's chemical reactions can inhibit a bottom's ability to communicate clearly. Subspace, for some people, operates a bit like drunkenness -- you get kind of woozy and can't walk a straight line and possibly you throw your arms around your top and exclaim, You're my bessst friennnd! and then karaoke Bonnie Tyler. It can also impair your ability to recognize you're reaching your own limits. Which is where a vigilant top is handy. But every participant in a scene shares responsibility for one another's safety.

It kills the mood to check in with your partner.

Come on. You can get a reaffirmed "yes" during a scene in a second. You can even pre-agree on signal phrases that fit a given role-play. Oh, it'll spoil all your sexy domming to make sure your partner actually thinks your domming's sexy? You're not a dom. Go home.

I firmly believe consent isn't as complicated as some people want to make it. Though I do recognize that kink can murk up the waters, since many kinky scenarios center around power exchange and nonconsensual fantasies. But when you're dealing with kink, you're dealing with people's mental and physical health. How much of that are you willing to risk in the name of an authentic-feeling noncon scene?

The answer, for some people, is a lot. And if all parties understand the risks, play on. But we'll have a stronger, healthier community if we accept that kink is first and foremost about communication. Not about your boner. Not about how obsessively you dream of being kidnapped by pirates. Boners will come and go. But a kinky relationship built on mutual trust and respect is forever. Or possibly just for one night in a scary sex dungeon. (Yes, Mom. All the time.) Your pirate can still terrorize and torment you -- in the best possible way -- even if just a minute ago that pirate broke character to offer you water and ask how you were enjoying your ravishment.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

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