Traditional sexual consent vs bdsm consent

When I was growing up I didn’t know any other people who had bdsm dreams and desires. I wasn’t sure if there even were any girls into bdsm in the whole world, and I was certain that there weren’t any in the farming town I grew up in. So getting consent to do bdsm-y sexual things wasn’t even an issue for me.  But at least there were girls who liked sex, so I did learn the traditional script for getting consent for non-bdsm sex.

It’s a sexually asymmetrical script. That is, it’s sexist. A woman is supposed to give subtle, non-verbal signals of her interest in a man. Things that seem obvious to her, that men hardly ever even notice. A man is allowed to show sexual interest more openly.

He can gaze at a woman, make compliments, stand close to her, try to make himself helpful if she’s doing something, talk and listen to her answers, and try to be clever and funny. He’s supposed to monitor the response, not that she has to make one.

If she frowns, freezes, calls someone else over, changes the subject to something dull, sighs, looks bored, turns away, then he should go away. But if he seems to be being smiled at, he can continue. Eventually he can touch her hand, or her waist or shoulder, though avoiding areas of the body that are marked as sexual.

If she seems comfortable with that “casual” touch, he might stay with that for a time. When it seems natural, which might be a minute later but it might be days, he can try to kiss her. He’s supposed to keep his hands somewhere neutral, and leave space to back out if the kiss isn’t well received.

Ah, the universal language of flowers. Usually they say, "sorry, I spent the afternoon fucking someone else, and I feel a bit bad about that, so here's some flowers." Note: flowers won't get you laid, but they are good for whipping breasts with.

Ah, the universal language of flowers. Usually they say, “sorry, I spent the afternoon fucking someone else, and I feel a bit bad about that, so here’s some flowers.” Note: flowers mostly won’t get you laid, but they are good for whipping breasts.

She doesn’t have to say anything, because she doesn’t have to acknowledge that anything is happening. If she’s not pleased, she can withdraw her body, or her warmth, or tell him to fuck off. If any of those things happen he should say sorry and back away. If there are no signals either way, the man will probably pause, then move forward carefully. If he seems still to be getting smiles, then he can try for an open mouth kiss with his hand touching sexual areas: her ass, a breast. That also might happen seconds later, or days.

If that’s well received then sexual consent is usually assumed, though the man can lose consent by doing something stupid and off-putting. From that point the woman can withdraw consent, but she has to be explicit about doing so. That’s the version I was taught by girls and, I suppose, my parents. There’s another version of the script in which the woman isn’t allowed to withdraw consent once she’s shown any sort of keenness. It’s a script that doesn’t have much trouble turning rapey. 

The man who’s advanced to this point and been accepted no longer has a moral right to stop. For a man to bow out at this stage, within this script, is nasty, hurtful and humiliating behavior.

These scripts are like dancing, because they allow creative variations, and some people can perform them gracefully while others are crap at them. Still, they’re based on the idea that women shouldn’t want and shouldn’t be able to show sexual interest or desire too quickly or easily, or too openly.

In the script’s harshest forms a woman only has the right to be silent or else to stop a man’s advance, and a man may have moved from eye contact to sexual touching with nothing more than her inaction as his indication of consent. The script maximizes opportunities for men and women to misunderstand each other and hurt each other. It seems designed to create misunderstanding.

contractWhen I was a child, before I knew about this script, I’d assumed that men and women would be frank with each other about their sexual interest or lack of it. A woman or a man would plainly declare their interest and the other person would give them an honest and open response. If they were both interested, they’d talk about what they wanted and then get on with it, doing their best to find and give pleasure as they’d agreed.

Yeah, what a silly idea. But the funny thing is that this is pretty much how consent is negotiated in bdsm. People who enjoy bdsm generally avoid ambiguity over sexual desire and intentions.

This may be because we’re usually more specific about the kind of partner we’re looking for. We usually prefer one sex and some specifications about appearance, as non-bdsm people do, but as well as that we’re usually looking for a dominant or submissive partner in particular, and within that group we’re looking for someone prefers the specific practices that we like, and to roughly the same degree of intensity.

Also, the consequences of miscommunication can be greater in bdsm. So in bdsm courtship people tend to be explicit about what they want and who they want it with. 

Even before I knew the rules of bdsm courtship, I knew that I kind of disapproved of the rules of non-bdsm courtship. The bdsm world seems to have taken a far less sexist approach, and a much more ethical one.

That is, it’s better in principle. Assholes, liars, manipulators, nutters and rapists can still misuse any system, but at least in bdsm the ground rules are fairer and clearer.

What do people think?

38 thoughts on “Traditional sexual consent vs bdsm consent

  1. Good post. It’s quite the labyrinth, consent, isn’t it? If you have a system other than directly asking and negotiating.
    But I was wondering, when you said the risks are greater in bdsm than in regular sex. Is that really true? Without doing bdsm a woman can get pregnant. You can get raped. You can get an STD. You can meet a serial killer who isn’t anything to do with bdsm.
    Maybe in bdsm, people just pay more attention to risk.

    • Fair point. I suppose that there are two extra risks associated with bdsm.

      The first is a real issue, that if you allow yourself to be put into real bondage with someone you don’t know, you’re in more danger than if you can run away when they start acting squirrelly. Which is why there’s so much advice around about not letting yourself be bound on a first date, or at all till you know and trust your partner.

      The second is a perceived risk, that there are more crazy axe murderer-type people in bdsm than elsewhere. Statistical studies show that people who engage in bdsm are no more likely to have been sexually coerced than people who don’t do bdsm.

      Also, I’ve heard some war stories about non-bdsm internet dating, where things have turned weird. I think that real predators might choose a more naive group of people to prowl amongst, because there’s a lot of safety advice for bdsm first dates. On that basis I think a real nightmare-prowler might have an easier time on, say, Christian dating sites.

  2. Oh god. Yes, I remember learning this stuff as an adolescent. It’s awful, but it does work – and you described it quite well.

    When I was 15 and desperately trying to lose my virginity, someone told me that the one sure-fire method is to whip out your cock, put her hand on it, and then burst into tears. I think it was serious advice, but I never followed it. That’s how I got to be the man I am today (i.e. not in jail.)

  3. The “put your cock in her hand” thing is so very very strange. I can’t imagine how anyone could expect that that could possibly turn out well.

    I’ve got an idea that it’s something that Frank Harris, the “My Life and Loves” guy, did when he was young. He claims it worked, but he would claim that, of course. Now it’d just get him listed as a sex offender.

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