the dominant’s consent

More exciting discussion on the international BDSM list I’ve been referring to a lot lately. This time, the conversation is around deeper explorations of the concept of consent. Someone asked me for my opinion – mwahahahahaha! Again, I felt it appropriate to re-post here with some mild editing for context.

I think my point of view on the question of consent verges on the extreme, so I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone, but here goes.

For me, the idea of consent is almost missing the point. Not so much because it’s irrelevant, but because it’s a basic first step. After the initial “yes” we get into a whole other list of considerations, and when I play with someone, those considerations become a matter of finely tuned and moment-by-moment personal judgment… which means the results are completely subjective.

So the questions I ask myself to determine a person’s consent by my own standards (not necessarily theirs) don’t stop with “Do they want this?” and “Are they competent to consent by the usual standards – mental health, intoxication, age, etc.?” Those are the first ones, the sine qua non. 

Then we get to the really important questions, and here the answers become much more about my gut feelings. I don’t necessarily ask a lot of these questions out loud, it’s more of a judgment call based on my read of the other person’s energy and approach. Here are a few…

– Why do they want this? Is that reason a healthy one in my opinion? Sometimes this is a huge question worth spending a lot of time on. I once negotiated a single scene with someone for many hours over several weeks – he was a complete novice and he wanted to be securely bound and then subjected to as much pain and torture as I could dish out, no warm-up, no breaks. He wanted to genuinely test how much he could take. It took a long time before I really felt this was an okay thing to do, and it very much was – one of the most memorable scenes of my life, and his too. But wow, did it take some work to convince me this was healthy.

– What assumptions are they making about who I am, what I want, and what I expect of them? This also is a big one. One of my bois badly wants to be a masochist because she knows I like to play with pain sluts, but she simply isn’t. We can grow this gradually, for sure, but she wants to take more for me than is really good for her because she wants to please me *right now*. As a result, in the past I have needed to calibrate and call her on it when she was struggling and didn’t want to let it show. We needed to get to a place where I could trust her to say “that’s too much.” She needed to know that I was more interested in her well-being than in satisfying my sadism.

– Are they approaching this with a sense of lack and need (big warning sign for me) or with a sense of strong, vibrant desire (yum)?

– If I were to back out or change the specific plans for our scene at the last minute because I felt tired or something, would they freak out at me, or be laid back and understanding about it? Even better, would they be kind and want to try some other thing that better accommodates my reality? In other words, how much of their desire for me is about wanting to connect with me in whatever state I’m genuinely in, versus wanting me to be the embodiment of their specific fantasy regardless of where I’m at? Is this about mutuality or about blind hunger?

– Who do they think I am? Am I their friend who gives a good flogging, their potential life partner, their hot new date, an embodiment of the Divine Feminine, a notch on their belt, a substitute for the person they really want, a curiosity…? Do I want to be that for them?

– What does it mean to that person to explore this with me? What will they expect of me during and especially afterwards? Can I, and do I want to, fulfill that expectation, whether it’s stated (or even conscious) or not?

– Are we on the same page about the eroticism, or lack of eroticism, in what we’re about to do? i.e. Is my understanding of “sex” the same as theirs? Is there any imbalance in our attraction to one another that places them in a more vulnerable position than me? Am I comfortable with that if so? What about if it’s vice versa?

– Will this scene (or relationship) take them to a place of feeling full and strong and beautiful (despite or because of the difficult things I’m doing to them) or will it make them feel diminished, weak, unworthy, ugly, or support their existing negative self-image? Am I contributing to their well-being, even if it’s through challenge and pain, or enabling a cycle of emotional ill health?

– Are they ashamed of what they want – and not in that fun hot way? Do they need to pretend to be someone else in order to do it and still feel okay? Do they need me to pretend to be someone else? (Needless to say this is another big warning sign.)

– Are they trusting me too much? In other words, are they valuing their own bodily and emotional well-being sufficiently highly to check and test me out first, to make sure I have the skills needed to play the way they want, to ensure I’m trustworthy and competent? Or are they simply throwing themselves at my feet and saying, “Anything, Mistress! I have no limits!” (Again those warning signs.) If I feel their trust is not calibrated to their knowledge of me, are there factors present that may explain this to my satisfaction? (Community references, for example, or observation of my play style at public events.)

– If we are exploring something new, especially if I’m more experienced than they are and have a sense of what doors it might open for them, do I think they can handle the places I think it might take them? Do they have the necessary emotional resources or community / personal support networks to lean on? If they don’t, am I prepared to provide that support myself?

– If the person wishes to be submissive to me, and to offer me elements of their life to control, are those elements truly theirs to offer? For example, if someone wants me to control their bedtime and waking time, what if their family situation has a claim on that time already? If they want me to take ownership of their style of dress, what if their workplace dictates that already? If they want me to own their sexual pleasure, what if they have other lovers who may not wish to have their interactions dictated by some other person? Of course this will be very different in a scene as compared to an ongoing relationship, but the question still stands. Can I take what they are giving me, or in doing so would I effectively be aiding them in stealing it from someone or something else?

– What’s their emotional state? Are they in pain and looking for some sort of catharsis? If so, do I think it’s wise to provide it? While catharsis can be good, I don’t want to serve up the BDSM equivalent of a self-mutilator’s release at a new knife cut, where stress leads to dependence on pain for release and I am just a stand-in for self-damage.

– What are their communication skills like, both verbal and non-verbal? In other words, can I trust that if something goes wrong, they will let me know in some clear fashion? Or simply: as a top, am I emotionally safe in trusting that this person will not turn me into a rapist by neglecting to keep me informed of their ongoing status of consent? Can I read their non-verbal signs well enough to know something’s up even if they’re not saying it by our agreed-upon signs?

I guess what it comes down to is that not only do the basics of competence to consent need to be present, but I need to have a lot of additional information that comes from just feeling out a person and a situation. It’s not enough for them to consent; I have to feel that consent is coming from a good, solid place by MY standards, whether they like it or not. There have been many times when I’ve heard a “yes please,” sometimes very insistently, and my answer has been “you are not ready” or “this is not what you need” or “I want to too, but I am not willing under the current circumstances.” If someone gets upset about me presuming to contradict their self-knowledge, so be it. I trust my own judgment and would rather be safe than sorry. They can be as pissed off as they want. I’ll still feel better than if I were to do something despite that nagging little voice in my head. So far I’ve never lived to regret listening to that voice. And so far, while I’ve dealt with the occasional grumble, nobody’s ever lived to hate my guts for saying no when my spidey-senses were tingling – some have even thanked me later, some of them months or years later. I would rather be accused of arrogance than risk damaging someone when some part of me knew better.

I know this all sounds really complicated, but it’s not like I go through this litany of questions in order every time I play with someone new. It’s more like a list of the problems my gut instincts have pointed me to in the past – a list of all the reasons why I might find myself saying “no thanks.” 

While it may appear that all of these questions are aimed mainly at determining the degree of “true” consent on the part of the bottom I may be playing with, in truth these are the ways I determine my own consent as a top and a dominant – consent which is mine alone, and for which I don’t owe anyone a justification.

11 thoughts on “the dominant’s consent

  1. I was pointed to your blog by Inara de Luna on Twitter. Awesome post! I’d love to be able to start a real conversation about this by picking a point to debate, but the truth is – I agree with every single thing you said. I suspect it won’t happen every time…but you nailed this one dead on.

    The question now is how to convey the high level of emotional intelligence to others? You ask questions many (maybe most) people wouldn’t think to ask. Can that be taught?

  2. Nice to meet you, Heartsong! Hmmm… good question. I don’t know if emotional intelligence can be taught. Certainly I’ve learned a lot from observing and conversing with people who are further along on their paths than me at various points in my life, so I think learning is possible, but likely to a varying degree depending on the personality and predisposition of the individual in question. Which is a fancy way of saying “maybe.” 😉

    I think, too, that sometimes we know things without having the language to express them. I know I’ve had many powerful experiences in reading people’s writing and listening to them speak, when they could put a framework and a shape to feelings that were already lurking inside me but that I could not have articulated or fully understood at the time. So in that sense, someone who’s predisposed could probably learn a lot if they’re exposed to the right stimulus. Though of course you gotta be interested first…

  3. I’m pretty much with heartsong here, I almost want to have a conversation on every single point – but I also agree with you on them.

    (BTW – I am not sure I told you about this pseudonym. If the name of my blog doesn’t tell you who I am, just email me.)

    I do think emotional intelligence can be… strengthened(?)… more than learned. I do think people have different levels of emotional intelligence – but it is not some kind of fixed immutable block.

    If someone gets upset about me presuming to contradict their self-knowledge, so be it.

    This is something I’ve struggled with. Mind you, in the narrow framing you have here, I am in 100% agreement. Ultimately, I am exercising my own right to say no if I don’t feel right. Obviously, overriding their “no” because I ‘know they really want it” would not be particularly kosher to me.

    (I still think I did lose a relationship, however, because I trusted my betrothed’s self-report that she was ok with something and her explicit instruction to do more of it despite a gut feeling that she wasn’t as ok with it as she was telling me.)

    For me, the idea of consent is almost missing the point. Not so much because it’s irrelevant, but because it’s a basic first step.

    Absolutely, hear hear.

    OK, I will probably crack and come back and comment on each point anyway. But I need to eat breakfast.

  4. Hey, Victor. You never run out of new pseudonyms, do you…

    I’m not sure about that second piece, where one might override a person’s explicit “no” thinking they know better. On the surface you’re right, that’s antithetical to everything we talk about in BDSM. On the other hand I think there are circumstances where it makes sense to override. I would posit that those circumstances fall almost exclusively within established relationships where there is lots of trust. I know, for example, that with my bois there have been numerous instances where their “no” really meant “actually I’m a little freaked out and I need you to take a firm hand and tell me I have no choice.” Often that looks like an initial “no” followed by me saying something like “If you really do mean that, I’ll stop immediately, but I think you can do this for me / I think you want this / I want you to trust me that this will be okay / etc.” I’m not talking about forcing someone past a firm and genuine no, but I am talking about responding to a “no” with a question about what that really means, especially if it contradicts my judgment of what’s going on. I wouldn’t do this with a person unless I knew them really well.

    There are other circumstances too… all of them with lots of nuance to think about. I just think human consent is way more complicated than the words “yes” and “no” permit.

  5. Such a great article and I love your perspective on consent here. Thank you for sharing it and for giving me even more to think about as I continue to explore my role(s) in the BDSM community.

  6. This is marvelous; thanks for writing it. I’ve run into a number of these considerations before, and while they are usually silent judgment calls on my part, it’s nice to see them spelled out for a view in the wider world. I don’t generally play publicly, so most of the people who approach me are basing their opinion on my writing rather than on actual experience. It’s a reasonable way to get to know someone’s thought process and reasons for kink, but by itself, insufficient.

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