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Can BDSM teach us what we’re missing on consent and bodily autonomy?

In the past several years discussion has arisen regarding the confusion surrounding consent. Books such as Asking For It and Missoula detail how our culture is quick to blame victims of sexual assault, going so far as to claim they weren’t clear enough as to whether or not they’d consented to sex. The excuse that the perpetrator just “didn’t know” is all too common in reports and yet proposals for consent classes at colleges are met with hard push back and claims that people don’t need to be taught that topic, that they already know it. The news is rife with stories of sexual assault, from college students to politicians, and more horrifying are stories about people in law enforcement such as police Chief Bryan Hammond making statements such as “silence is consent” (Remkus, 2017) when talking about matters of sexual assault and rape. Even as this is written and edited, there are discussions about sexual assault going on in DC regarding the hearings for a Supreme Court nomination. If those tasked with ensuring justice is served for survivors of sexual assault don’t seem to understand what consent is, how can we expect every day citizens to know the ins and outs of consent? Outside of the realm of BDSM and kink, where consent is one of the main foundations, very few people seem to understand just what is needed when it comes to consent. Perhaps society at large can and should learn from the so-called “Culture of Consent” if we wish to see a change in how society treats sex and the response to sexual assault.

We tell children in school that if something doesn’t belong to them they are to not touch it, yet we don’t pass that over to people as they grow older, sometimes even encouraging the belief that if a person touches/pushes/pulls the hair of another without their consent, it tells them that they like them. It begins to blur the lines of autonomy and consent that people claim they learned as a child, and by adulthood, these lines often are so blurred that any discussion of the topic leads to push back and a denial of, “I know what consent is!” even when it is clear they no longer understand it as it should be. Even among popular “BDSM novels” such as 50 Shades of Grey, the lines surrounding consent are blurry and often ignored with the excuse that the character wanted it or that they realized after the fact that they were just being difficult and had to be forcibly shown how much they liked it (Barker, 2013). In other words, the character had to be raped into enjoying what happened to them, which is in direct violation of their ability to consent and goes against what BDSM actually is about.

Contrast this to BDSM and Kink culture, and we can see just why they are known as “The Consent Culture”, specifically when it comes to BDSM. Without consent, one does not continue, no matter how much the other person might seem like they want something. Rules and boundaries are clearly set between partners, and despite popular belief, the so called extra steps within BDSM do not take away from the passion and enjoyment of the scene, but often heighten them. While most aspects of BDSM and Kink culture will never fully integrate into the majority of society, I propose that we as a whole could benefit greatly from not only incorporating the views and beliefs of those within the BDSM community, but that we should actually teach the tenants of consent as shown and understood by the community, starting at a young age to help ensure that by the time children reach adulthood there will be very little confusion or question left whether or not consent has been gained.

When it comes to BDSM, consent and communication are the primary focus as opposed to an assumed afterthought. Even though not all scenes (a set up period of time in which a variety of agreed upon activities are performed between consenting adults, often in a Dominant/submissive setting, that can include aspects of bondage, pain, and even psychological activities such as power plays) within BDSM are sexual, consent is still required and it is often re-established during the scene if the partners are communicating well during it. “The BDSM players are among the only people on the planet who elevate sexual/erotic communication this way.” states Carol Queen in regards to her experiences with consent and sex (Pfeuffer, 2017). Limits, boundaries, potential risks, and health issues are discussed beforehand, there is a safe word set up (or in cases where the submissive may be unable to speak, such as a gag or mask a gesture or action) that tells the other party to full stop if it is uttered, or to step back from the scene to open a dialogue to find out what is going on/get clarification. By keeping the dialogue open even during the scene, and by reaffirming consent through safe words and communication, it lessens the potential for coercion or “forcing” a scene on someone else. Through the use of open communication and the insistence on making sure that both parties are acting on what they want and not through a sense of obligation, the boundaries can be better enforced. Instead of thinking, “I’m doing this because this person wants it, even though I don’t.” a person is able to speak up and explain why they don’t want to do the act, and in doing so the two can open a dialogue and find what can be enjoyable for both parties.

Contrast this to popular culture, where coercion is viewed as romantic, the lines of what is consensual and what is not are much clearer within BDSM than outside. Consent is often assumed in most of society as being granted from a lack of an outright and forceful “no” or physical pushing away, and the ignoring of such actions is in many books and cinema viewed as romantic because the woman just didn’t know what she really wanted. For lack of a better way of putting it, “In a traditional [sexual] encounter, sex continues until one party (usually the woman) says no. Consent here is implicit: Silence implies consent to continue.” With traditional sex, there are many assumptions, such as it follows a set format of foreplay, penetration, climax, end. BDSM seeks to remove the assumptions, even with long term partners, through open and constant communication. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean everything is all right, it means that more communication is needed to ensure all parties are consenting and wanting what is to come next. Communication and consent are constantly reinforced throughout the scene via what we’ve come to call explicit consent, the opposite of implicit consent.

Take for example the following scene:

The Dominant and the submissive have discussed using bondage during a scene. Through discussions they’ve learned that the submissive is worried about the possibility of rope burns and even cutting of their skin due to the ropes. The Dominant then discusses with the submissive other options for restraints and various materials that can be used to lessen or remove the concerns of the submissive. They continue to talk about it and work out the various issues and problems that might arise from the scene until both parties are satisfied (Pitagora, 2013). They agree that if the submissive uses the word “yellow”, that the Dominant is to pause and get clarification/open a dialogue to find out what is causing a problem within the scene. The word “red” means to stop immediately and end the scene and open communication on what went wrong.

The Dominant is then set to provide the materials for the scene (the submissive can help provide the materials as well), and the scene begins. During the scene, the Dominant checks in with their submissive, making sure that the ropes aren’t too tight, that it’s not cutting off circulation, etc. The submissive keeps an open communication with their Dominant as to how things are feeling and how they are doing. Should the submissive feel the need to stop the scene or to pause it, they utter the agreed upon word, and if things can be worked out, the scene starts up again after the problem is taken care of.

After the scene ends, then begins what is known as aftercare, where the participants provide care, attention, and comfort to each other. Sometimes it involves the Dominant allowing the submissive some private time, other times it may involve wrapping the submissive in blankets and holding them. The time within the aftercare period and after allow for discussion of the scene, what could be improved, what each member enjoyed the most, what to leave out next time, and so forth. This helps to reinforce the fact that the scene involved explicit consent, not implicit consent. The scene doesn’t just end and the partners go their separate ways like is often seen in traditional sex. Aftercare is a very important part of BDSM interactions. “In a study on the effects of BDSM activities on altered states of consciousness, our lab collected data on a series of two-person scenes. The scenes averaged 57 minutes, followed by an average of 19 minutes of aftercare, or fully one-third of the time spent on the scene itself” (Ambler et al., in press).

As can be seen, communication occurs during the entire time, and the use of specific words to say, “Pause” and “STOP” help to remove any confusion that may arise during it. If at any point either party believes the other might be wavering on their consent, the scene is paused and communication is established. If one party doesn’t wish to continue, the scene stops and aftercare begins.

As I’d stated in the beginning, we teach children at a young age that if something doesn’t belong to them they aren’t supposed to touch it. If they are told no they are to accept that as the answer and not keep pushing and prodding. These are things that BDSM teaches and constantly works to hammer home through every action and every scene and event. It doesn’t matter if it’s an object or a person, if it doesn’t belong to the person wanting to touch or use it, they are to keep their hands to themselves and to ask permission. If they are told no, they are to accept that response. There is no room for assuming that silence equals consent, and all parties are required to communicate. The simplest way to put it is that if one party isn’t sure of the other party’s consent (has received a clear “yes” or acknowledgment) then the next course of action is to continue communicating until both parties are sure of their consent (receiving a clear “yes” or acknowledgment). Unlike what is often seen in traditional or vanilla encounters, consent is clarified before the act, reaffirmed during the act, and communication continues after the act (Kay. 2008).

Instead of starting out by teaching children proper boundaries and respect for others, only to allow those boundaries to weaken and degrade over time with allowing violations of another party’s consent (hair pulling, “he’s mean because he likes you”, “boys will be boys”) to the point that once the children are adults the concept of consent is a supposed gray area, society should take notes from the BDSM and kink communities and continue to teach children the same reinforcement of boundaries, consent, and communication throughout childhood and up into adulthood. If confusion arises, then instead of pushing it away, it should be taken as an opportunity to open a dialogue and learn. If someone violates another person’s wishes or consent, it shouldn’t be brushed off with a simple claim such as “boys will be boys” or that the person shows they like another through forcing themselves on the other party. This sort of thing should be met the same as within the BDSM and kink community; with a full stop of everything that is happening and the parties being sat down to talk about what is going on. They should be seen as educational opportunities, not something to look back on sometime in the future in a “where did we go wrong?” scenario.

It is my personal belief, backed up with various scientific studies regarding consent, the general consensus of the BDSM and kink community, and fellow kinksters (people within the kink community) that if we as a society treated consent and communication the way that it is treated within the BDSM and kink community that society would see a drastic decrease in not only confusion surrounding sexual assault, but in sexual assault in general. If we as a society teach children early on and reinforce it throughout their development that communication and consent are the basis of every relationship, platonic, romantic, or sexual that the blurred lines and gray areas surrounding relationships and sex will become clearer and more tangible. Victims of sexual assault regardless of sex, gender, or orientation will be able to more readily come forward due to the boundaries being more clear cut and defined regarding sex. The excuses of “bad sex” or “I didn’t know they didn’t want it” would be thrown in the trash where they belong. While victim blaming may still occur, it will be to a lesser extent as all parties have been raised from a young age to understand what consent and boundaries are. In short, by incorporating the very foundations of BDSM and kink, by taking the lessons we can learn from the “Culture of Consent”, we as a society and as a culture can help the victims of sexual assault and work towards lessening and possibly even preventing future instances of sexual assault.

Bibliography

Ambler, J. K., Lee, E. M., Klement, K. R., Loewald, T., Comber, E. M., Hanson, S. A., . . . Sagarin, B. J. (2017). Consensual BDSM facilitates role-specific altered states of consciousness: A preliminary study. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 4(1), 75–91.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cns0000097

Barker, Meg. “Consent Is a Grey Area? A Comparison of Understandings of Consent in Fifty Shades of Grey and on the BDSM Blogosphere.” Sexualities, vol. 16, no. 8, 2013, pp. 896–914., doi:10.1177/1363460713508881.

Kay, Tamar. Safe, Sane, and Consensual. 2008, http://www.rcdc.org/articles/tamar-ssc.html.

Magliano, Joseph. “What the BDSM Community Can Teach a Kinky World.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 27 Feb. 2017, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-wide-wide-world-psychology/201702/what-the-bdsm-community-can-teach-kinky-world.

Pfeuffer, Charyn. “Fifty Shades versus BDSM: The reality of consent.” The Globe and Mail, 24 Mar. 2017, http://beta.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/valentines-day/fifty-shades-versus-bdsm-the-reality-of-consent/article33876672/

Pitagora, Dulcinea. “Consent vs. coercion: BDSM interactions highlight a fine but immutable line.” The New School Psychology Bulletin, vol. 10, no. 1, 2013, doi:10.1037/e543732013–004.

Remkus, Ashley. “Small-Town Alabama police chief posts ‘sarcastic’ sexual abuse statements about Doug Jones.” AL.com, AL.com, 21 Nov. 2017, http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2017/11/roy_moore_doug_jones_alabama.html.