Consent is the key to bdsm. Consent is the difference between bdsm and assault, just as it’s the difference between lovemaking and rape. Still, “consent” isn’t always easy to define. For example, anyone who has given consent because their judgement is impaired by an intellectual disability, a psychiatric condition, or because they are too drunk or drugged to know what they are doing, is not considered to have consented in legal terms, or in the ethical codes recommended by most bdsm organisations.
BDSM is very alert to consent issues, partly because we need to make consent very explicit and specific, to avoid submissive coming to harm by being pushed into practices they didn’t really consent to.
And partly, I think, because we – I think; I’m just guessing, extrapolating from myself – find the gestures and words of consent are sexy in their own right.
The words “I want it”, which are sometimes pronounced, “punish me; I deserve it”, are some of the sexiest sounds in the universe, round my way.
Age of consent laws
Most governments specify a minimum age at which a young person is considered able to consent to sexual activity. The age varies from one legal system to another. It’s 16 where I live, and 20 where the poor South Koreans live.
Look, Helen Mirren once starred in a film called “Age of Consent”, and spent a lot of screen time being naked.
So this is a relevant, non-gratuitous illustration. Really!
People sometimes argue for higher minimum ages of consent for various kinds of minority sexual activity. Like there used to be – probably still are, in some places – discriminatory age of consent laws for gay sex compared to heterosexual sex. So that a young woman can use her cunt as she sees fit from 16, while a young man who is gay (also his lover) would have to wait till the young man was 18 before his asshole was legally, um, accessible.
I’ve sometimes heard that bdsm should have a discriminatory age of consent. When a 16 year-old girl or boy says, “Whip me, Master, or as the case may be, Mistress”, does that 16 year-old know what they are doing?
I think the answer is “probably not, not really, in most cases”. But I think the same is true of sexual intercourse, and there are good reasons why we allow kids to make their own mistakes and their own successes, from around that time.
Oddly, although most legislators are likely to find a minor’s participation in bdsm more alarming than intercourse, many bdsm activities may not be covered by age of consent laws because there may be no genital contact of any kind, or even undressing. However, other laws, for example the lesser charge of indecency to a minor, would presumably apply, and anyone who fell foul of those laws would be unlikely to get much sympathy from a jury, or (not that it matters) from me.
Anyway, I don’t think the consequences of bad sexual intercourse choices are actually less significant than those of bad bdsm choices. In sexual intercourse potential bad consequences include pregnancy, getting raped after withdrawing consent, falling in love with a bad, destructive person, disease, and so on. The consequences of bad bdsm choices, especially submissive choices, overlap with those, except that there is probably less risk of pregnancy or disease, and higher risk of being pushed into scenarios harder and faster than they should.
But consequences like rape and, say, a spanking that expands into a serious assault, are already covered by the law: they are illegal regardless of the age of the victim, and therefore not really relevant to discussions about ages of consent.
Did I mention that”Age of Consent” film with Helen Mirren? (Based on a Norman Lindsay novel, it’s a better film than you’d expect from the title.)
I suspect the idea that kinky sex leads to greater harm is partly based on simple distaste for kinky sex, and not on objectively thinking about consequences.
There’s also a principled objection to having discriminatory age of consent laws, which is that they are discriminatory.
More importantly, perhaps, there are practical objections. There’s no age of consent that fits the individual circumstances of every young person. We have to accept that the law is only trying to set out a general protective principle without stopping young people from experimenting and experiencing.
A government that issued a range of different consent ages for different sexual activities would make lawyers rich but have no effect on what young people do.
Information for young people is the best protection.
This is what I think, at the moment, from first principles. I’m open to argument, either way.