What BDSM teaches about consent — not just for BDSM

In light of a recent news story around a kidnapping which mentioned the social BDSM network FetLife with negative subtext, I need to take up the cudgels for sane BDSMers (which is, from my experience after 8 years in the scene, the large majority) whose reputations got hit by this as well — and yes, that includes people who do rape- and abduction play. I get that the idea of a website with forums called “abduction fantasies” or “How to rape play” is scary and sounds disgusting, but listen.


In the BDSM scene, the top priority of anyone who’s not a criminal is consent for everything that happens, for everyone who’s involved. Most of the things we do would be illegal outside of a complete consensual context, and rightfully so punishable with sometimes long prison sentences. Noone wants to get insulted, hit, tied up, abducted or raped (or all of the above at once) in almost all situations, by pretty much every potential person, and in practically any context.

What gives these actions negative value, and what causes emotional damage, is not the action itself but if there’s no consent behind it — informed, conscious consent. That means: Consent has to be fully informed considering everything that all involved playpartner consent into potentially happening, all play partners have to be on the same page about the definitions and consequences of the actions that are being discussed and potentially played out, and both play partners have to be in a state of mind that enables them to fully grasp and judge on what that means to them. That means that they can’t be under the influence of substances that alters their perception of reality and capability of rational judgement too much, and they have to be (fully) awake and able to give and withdraw consent at any given time during the play.

The distinction between a “good” and “bad” action completely relying on consent, not on the action itself, may feel like a confusing and unintuitive one, but it’s important — and the entire basis of BDSM. I also get that most people won’t ever enjoy being hit by anyone in any context, so for most people that distinction is irrelevant for their own situation; still, it’s important to be aware that that’s not the case for everyone. Some actually do enjoy being hit, tied up, raped in rare contexts and by very few, specific people they fully trust.

Such a context has to involve the right partner(s), the right situation, the right time, the right mood, the right location, and more. If these circumstances are in place, some people might consent into some of the things that fall under the category of BDSM — and that includes things we call rape play and abduction play.

The “play”-part of the terms is what’s important here. It marks the relevant distinction, and while some group names might not include them, in a sensible kinky network the premise is always that it’s a play — not real — that’s being talked about, discussed, and given tips for. If there was any doubt considering the discussions in such a group, that group would get sent flying Team Rocket style and the leaders might get in trouble (not even mentioning the awful reputation any member would instantly have).

There are many reasons behind why people like BDSM, and the parts of it that most people would describe as violent. Trust, proving to be worthy of it, letting go, not having control -> not having to care about what you’re doing and look like are only a few, but common ones. The cliché of rape victims trying to gain back control by practicing BDSM is awful, and while sadly in very rare cases somewhat the truth — insignificant to an amount that makes it irrelevant for this discussion. No sane person would play with someone who tries to use BDSM as a coping mechanism (if they’re aware). Enjoying it more due to some psychological background can be fine under specific circumstances, but that’s another topic (and a very complicated one).

The important thing is: The only reason that makes us enjoy these things is consent. We know that we can abort at any time, we know the person who does these things to us (or we do these things to) still likes/loves us, we know that if we actually do abort that everything’s fine and fluffy and pink again. If those premises are doubted at some point, we very quickly don’t enjoy BDSM anymore — especially in meta-consent-sessions (I get back to what that is later), since we can’t just ask in those without breaking out of the role. As soon as the consent is gone, rape play turns into rape. (One can argue that using a new word for those things with less negative connotation might help to get rid of the awful image we have, but that’s also another topic.)

A big part of discussions in any BDSM community is how to be sure wether consent is still active, and how to make sure that the submissive part can communicate withdrawal at any point. We have methods to do so if talking is not possible or hindered, and no matter what we do, we always make sure that either words can always get spoken without any problem or one hand is free to snip or drop a bell if the person can’t snip. This is our top priority, and if we can’t do what we intended without making sure of these things, we don’t do them — period. If someone does anyway, they quickly have a really bad reputation as careless and dangerous. Everyone makes mistakes and attention can slip, but the reaction of someone after making a mistake is very telling about their intentions.

Especially in more heavy parts of BDSM, these things become more important — and more complicated. Things like rape play and especially abduction play are a rather rare thing in the community, and while a few people fantasize in some of these directions (including me), the biggest reason for those who didn’t try them is that they didn’t find a partner they fully trust yet, and that they don’t feel that they’re educated enough. Noone wants to try those things on the submissive side and find themselves wanting to abort and failing to communicate that — just as noone wants to be the dominant part and find out that the submissive one wanted to abort long ago, but you didn’t see/understand it.

Many dominant people in the BDSM scene have problems with coming to terms what they like, and accepting that it’s not the actions but missing consent around them what gives them negative value. That is especially the case in things like rape play because of their incredibly negative association (rightfully so, as they are among the worst things you can do to a human if they don’t want them which is always the case outside of BDSM). Breakdowns within a session are a huge part of discussion as well, and how to care for a partner in an emotional drop in a healthy way — usually it’s the submissive one that breaks down, but especially in more heavy sessions it can happen to the dominant one as well.

Noone with a sane mind will say “You/we should totally do rape play, don’t think about it, let’s just do it!” — if they do, that’s a reliable red flag for everyone who’s sane and if a sane person hears someone say that the reaction is always the same: Stay the fuck away. Everyone knows these things are dangerous; that’s the case for every part of BDSM in some way, but for the more heavy parts — especially those with meta-consent — even more so.

Meta-consent describes consent that is given at one point — explicitly, voluntarily! — and can be withdrawn at any other with a sign or a safeword, but everything else that’s being said and/or done will not be seen as withdrawal of consent even if the partner is so convincing in their play that a spectator would instantly assume that they fight for their life. That is also not something that’s easy to handle for any partner and requires a lot of trust and careful approach to the play, and each other.

In a context where the corresponding real-life situation involves missing consent and fighting, it can get hard to keep track of wether consent is still active. That is why there are so many active groups on FetLife around many BDSM practices: They discuss on how to make them as safe, sane, and consensual — the BDSM-abbreviation for that is SSC — as possible. The step further, which is what rape and abduction — anything with meta-consent, and everything that has some risk of non-short-term repercussions of the practice — fall under, is called RACK: Risk-aware consensual kink. Take notice that consent is part of both of these terms.

Of course anything with meta-consent like rape play is intended to feel somewhat realistic (regarding the actions), so rape play will involve fighting, hitting, force, restraints of movement and, in more elaborate plays, specific locations and/or more people who all consented, but do not always have to be known to the submissive part if they trust the partner enough and it was discussed that they can involve other people at one point.

How to make sure of consent at any time is the one most important thing in any group around topics with meta-consent. Signs, safe words, especially body language that can be hints at actual discomfort are highly relevant to talk about. Submissive parts sometimes tend to try to “impress” the dominant one (or themselves) by having been able to take a lot — or they don’t want to “waste” an opportunity which might be rare, so it can happen that they don’t instantly abort a session even though they don’t enjoy it anymore. Safewords are therefore not 100% reliable which is why there has to be a lot of trust (that the submissive will use it if necessary, and the dominant will notice sudden lack of consent even without it) and the partners have to know each other in and out including subtle body language. In the best case, the submissive part also had at least one breakdown before such a play so that the dominant one knows some signs that go along with one for that partner (breakdowns are very individual).

“How do I differentiate between an acted “No!”, a played push, and an actual “NO!” and a deliberate push?” — That’s hard, and everyone who’s ever had a session with meta-consent knows that. Adrenaline and being horny clouds rational decision making and situation assessment, and we are aware of that. A top rule for any BDSM session is that the dominant person (and, for most people, also the submissive one) shall NEVER be under the influence of emotion or any perception-infuencing drug. Both the dominant and submissive parts can and have to be able to abort any session at any point without the other part giving them shit and/or resisting/arguing. If that is not reliably the case, that’s where sane (which is most!) BDSMers say “That person is toxic, maybe dangerous.” With things like rape and abduction play, even more so.

Dominant people constantly have to have their guard up and abort at slightest doubt. In sessions outside of just meta-consent (which is the large majority, and for many BDSMers the only way they play entirely) we can use the “traffic light system”, which means that sub can additionally to “red” for “full abort” use “yellow” for “be careful, but I don’t want to abort yet” and “green” for “all good, continue”. The dominant one can always ask for the current status as well and adjust the session accordingly without instantly having to abort it. In meta-consent-sessions that’s not possible as asking for a safeword attacks/destroys the mood — “subspace”, in BDSM terms, where sub completely blends out the outside world and just lives in the moment. Reaching subspace is the ultimate goal in some sessions for many submissives and has holy grail status for some.

In articles talking about the more heavy sides of BDSM it’s often being suggested, or implied, that groups of these topics talk about how to actually abduct people; how to be “better” at raping. That’s bullshit. The opposite is the case: We talk about how to make sure that it never becomes actual rape and/or abduction. That is our priority.


Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades) did huge damage to the subconscious, public image in non-BDSMers; more than the increase in awareness helped us in my opinion (that’s a controversial topic within the BDSM scene). It’s very similar to 13 Reasons Why in terms of how the topics were being handled and displayed. For 13 Reasons Why the general consensus of professionals always was, and recently more publicly known is, that the show is more dangerous in its implications and message than the increase of awareness and representation helped actually effected people. Suicides that got linked to the show make that stance pretty much undeniable. For BDSM, that’s not quite the case as we don’t have such an open professional representation — and people don’t directly die from the negative influence; they “just” experience trauma and we already have the image of causing that a lot anyway.

We BDSMers are aware of the difference between an action with negative connotation and missing consent in those actions. We have to. Are you?


(Part of this piece is quoted in Rolling Stone’s article “Is it Safe for Abduction Fetish Sites to Exist on the Internet?” by Britni de la Cretaz with permission.)

(A german, polished version of this complete article got printed in June 2018’s issue (163) of the Schlagzeilen, Germany’s biggest BDSM magazine. An online version is not yet available.)