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?

Bdsm and vanilla consent #4

 Sometimes, you might happen to be the first person to encourage a lover to try mild bondage, say, or mild pain, or a slave game where they give the orders, or they have to do as they’re told. You don’t think you’re putting them at any real risk. 

No-one is likely to come to any harm having their wrists tied to a bed, or from finding out that their lover likes to be tied up. Same with spanking or being spanked. Don’t dive straight into the deep end, and you’ll be fine. Get your asses into the shallow end, and start paddling. (Yeah, ha ha.)

But there is a risk for newcomers to bdsm, even mild bdsm. It’s not about welts; it’s about self-knowledge. Someone who finds out that he or she likes to inflict pain or to suffer it, or to bind their lover or be tied up, or to command or be commanded, or any combination, may not welcome that self-discovery.

There’s a sort of standing bdsm joke about the woman who’s always thought of herself as a feminist, but finds that she really likes being spanked.

There’s another one, which – unfairly – usually gets a more sympathetic hearing. That’s the man who thinks of himself as a decent guy, sympathetic to feminism and absolutely horrified by domestic violence. But he discovers that he not only enjoys spanking that woman; he really wants to take his belt to her ass each time she gags while she’s sucking his cock. With her hands tied behind her back. Um, so long as he does it nicely.

And it’s hard enough for women who discover submissive desires, and men who find out that they’re doms. (And yes, of course consensual bdsm is compatible with feminism, but that’s not our argument, just now.) Women who find that their desires are mostly dominant and men who discover their sexual submissiveness can have an even harder road to travel before they get to self-acceptance. 

We’ve been asking why consent is such a big issue in bdsm, compared to the vanilla world, so that bdsm consent has to be explicit, it has to be informed, and it should be prior consent, given before the lust gets into the driver’s seat?

Another possible answer is that people learn things about themselves when they first discover the desire to do things that generally labelled as bdsm. They may not always welcome that self-learning, or be able to handle what they find.

That old command, “Know thyself”, can be fucking dangerous advice. 

Bdsm and vanilla consent #3

There’s a legal case that began earlier this year. It’s kind of trivial, but anything involving a Disney employee being sued for spanking-related sexual harassment is noteworthy.It’s just a shame that it doesn’t involve one of the guys in the mouse costumes.

Anyway, Kellie Rodriguez, is suing the comedian Ron Pearson, for sexual harrassment.

She alleges that she was in the studio audience for a Disney show, where Pearson was the warm-up act. She says he’d been checking her out before the show, and when there was a segment for audience participation he made sure she was called. While she was up on stage, he spanked her bottom repeatedly (while she was standing with her back to him) and then kissed her. She alleges.

I’m not commenting on the case itself.

But what strikes me as interesting is that Ms Rodriguez is alleging two kinds of non-consensual sexual assault. One, the kissing, we’d call vanilla, or “not bdsm”. The other, the spanking, we’d say was very light bdsm. Of the two, it’s the (alleged) kissing that she says affected her more, because her children, who were in the audience, saw a strange man kissing their mother and were upset because they couldn’t understand what was going on. 

I had been thinking – Greedo aaargh made the same point, in his comment on Vanilla and bdsm consent #1 – that the standards of consent in bdsm are so much higher because what’s at stake in bdsm is greater. That is, there are more risks, especially for the submissive, in bdsm sex than in “vanilla” sex.

But that isn’t necessarily true.

In most bdsm no-one is really hurt. A rope mark from bondage or a blushing bottom from a spanking may not last as long as a vanilla love bite.  Getting kissed in front of your family could (again, not referring to the Disney case)  have greater consequences for your life than spending an evening chained to your bed.

The emotional consequences of fucking someone can be more important and have greater potential for benefit or harm, than the emotional consequences of spending a night as that person’s slave, but without intercourse.  

So the comparative riskiness of vanilla and bdsm sex is one issue in why the standard of consent is higher for bdsm than for other kinds of sex. But it can’t be the only issue. 

Bdsm and vanilla consent #2

So … in vanilla sex you can do something like push a woman’s skirt out of the way, or slip your hand between her thighs, based solely on the fact that she’s been looking at you, closely, for longer than half an hour.

Well, eye contact plus you’ve been agreeing with each other through that time (“I hate people who ironically pretend to like Glee”, “oh god yes, it’s still boring as a dog’s arse even after you’ve put quote marks around it”), about stuff you’d think was incredibly inane if it werent for all the eye contact. Or having fun disagreeing, with lots of animation and preening and all the rest of it. 

So, eye contact and preening is accepted as consent for actions that, if you guess wrong, would be a serious sexual assault. I’m cool with this, by the way. I’m just pointing it out. 

But in bdsm the rules on consent are much more rigorous. I felt great about sliding Diane’s skirt up for her, but I’d felt bad about asking for consent to reward and punish her after she was already turned on, because that conversation should have been held between two calm people.

So there’s a double standard. For vanilla sex, consent doesn’t have to be explicitly spoken, and for bdsm, mere explicitly spoken consent isn’t enough. There are also rules about how and when you should go about getting that consent.

I’m working for money today, so I’ll have to think about this tomorrow. 

Vanilla and bdsm consent #1

Back at the start of the Vampire girl saga (Vampire Girl #1, obviously), I mentioned how, only an hour or so after Diane and I had met for the first time, I’d slid her skirt up to her waist – on the left side, anyway – in a bar.

I didn’t ask her for permission, because if you slide a woman’s skirt up to a socially risky extent then it’s sexy if she likes it but creepy if she doesn’t. But asking first is never sexy. I decided it was worth the risk.  

Turned out that Diane thought it was hot, and I still think, looking back, that it was a cool thing to do. Which is good. If I join together all the time in my life during which I’ve clearly and unequivocally been cool, it probably adds up to about half an hour.  

II did it because by then I was pretty sure we were going to fuck, though we’d only just met. It felt like time to make a move, and I thought Diane’d like a direct one.

If I’d guessed wrong Diane would have called me a dickhead, and tugged her skirt back down while giving me the look you’d give a fried egg with a cigarette butt in it.

And told me to calm the fuck down: jeez. And finished her drink and left. Diane had a good line in withering contempt, and she relied on that to put down most male bad behaviour. It would have worked on me. No matter how many years passed, I’d still be making a sob-of-embarrassment noise any time I suddenly found myself remembering it. If it had failed. 

But pushing her skirt up worked, so therefore it was cool. Because it was a vanilla sex thing and not a bdsm sex thing, it was okay to do it without getting consent first. You find out if you’ve got consent by doing it and seeing if you get knocked back.

But you’d never take that approach in bdsm. It’s interesting, isn’t it?