Consent and Negotiation
Consent and negotiation are the cornerstone of safe, sane, and consensual kink. Consent is paramount to safe and responsible practice on the BDSM scene, and negotiation is a key way to ensure everyone involved gets an equal say in the activity.
Consent is actively agreeing to participate in, or be exposed to, something. It doesn’t just apply to sex or kink: being aware of and respecting the boundaries of those around you is an important part of human interaction. Everyone has different limits around what they’re comfortable with, and it’s important to respect these (for example, one person might love hugging their friends goodbye after a night out, but another might hate physical contact).
When engaging in kink or sex it’s important to be mindful of not exposing people around you to anything which might make them uncomfortable. This can include closing curtains so people can’t see into the room and being aware of what people around you are likely to be able to hear.
Consent should be clearly and continuously communicated throughout the activity, either through verbal or non-verbal means. Planned Parenthood use the FRIES model to explain consent. This means that consent should be:
- F: Freely Given
Everyone involved in the activity needs to be able to say “no” without any negative consequences. This also includes not being under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, and not being coerced or manipulated into consenting to something.
- R: Reversible
Anyone involved in the activity can change their mind and revoke their consent at any time and for any reason. For more information on suggested ways to ensure this in a kink situation, see the Safewords section below.
- I: Informed
People can’t fully consent to sex or kink unless they have all the necessary information. This can include things like knowledge of: STI status, safe sex measures, any relevant health conditions and any risks of the activity.
- E: Enthusiastic
It’s important that people consent to things because they want to do them, and not because they feel like they’re _supposed_ to want to do them. Not being interested in any particular BDSM activity, e.g. being a submissive and not wanting to experience pain, does not make you any less valid or kinky.
- S: Specific
Consenting to one thing does not imply consent to anything else. You can be as picky as you like about what you consent to. In BDSM, negotiation is a good way of communicating exactly what you do and do not want to engage in.
Safewords are an agreed word which can be freely used by any participant (whether Dominant, submissive or something else) in a BDSM scene to call an end to the activity or communicate a need for a temporary time-out. A good safeword is short, easy to remember and not likely to come up during the scene. Exercise common sense when engaging in BDSM: if your partner is saying a random word during a scene, check in with them as this may be a safeword they have used in the past but forgotten to tell you about. Needing to use a safeword doesn’t mean you’re ruining the scene, nor does it make you any less Dominant or submissive. Clearly communicating your boundaries is a vital part of being a responsible practitioner of BDSM and kink.
The Traffic Light System of safewording is the most commonly used system in the public BDSM community. It uses different colours to communicate different things:
- ‘Red’ means ‘I need to stop now’
- ‘Yellow’, ‘Amber’ or ‘Orange’ mean something along the lines of ‘can we pause for a bit?’, ‘ease off a little’ or ‘I don’t need to stop, but I do need to tell you something’. It’s important to make sure you and your partner are on the same page about what you want to happen when a safeword is used
- ‘Green’ means ‘everything’s good, keep going’ Sometimes a fourth tier to the system, ‘scissors’, is added. See our bondage guide for more information.
If you don’t want to use traditional safewords, a wide variety of alternatives exist. For example:
- Some people prefer plain communication, i.e. just talking to their partner and saying they need a break
- Non-verbal safewords (including hand signals, noisily shaking keys and breaking eye contact) are useful for scenes in which your ability to verbally communicate is restricted
- If you don’t want to use plain communication but are worried you’ll forget a safeword, using your partner’s name instead can be a good option
Negotiation is a discussion prior to a scene in which the participants talk about what they’d like to do and disclose any relevant information. This talk can happen several days or weeks before the activity, in which case it’s a good idea to have a quick follow-up conversation on the day in case anything has changed. It’s important to clearly communicate your likes, dislikes, desires and limits to your partner before you start playing. This is partly to narrow down what you’d like to do – Dominants aren’t mind readers! – and also to ensure the specific consent of everyone involved. Sometimes BDSM can cause people to slip into alternate headspaces such as subspace or the equivalent topspace, which can affect their ability to make rational judgements about what they consent to – this is similar to the way in which you might decide to do something embarrassing while drunk which you’d never do sober. Because of this, negotiation should be a separate conversation to the scene. While consent can always be retracted, it’s not a good idea to expand it during an activity.
How to Negotiate: A Step by Step Guide (adapted from Robot Hugs)
There’s no one way to negotiate, as different situations and relationships will require different details to be discussed. What follows should be considered a list of suggestions, some of which might not be relevant, rather than an exhaustive script of everything to include. You don’t have to go through all of this every time you want to play with someone!
Step 1: Set the Scene
This is the basics: what are you going to do, when is it happening and who are you doing it with? Be clear about what you want to get from the scene and what part you’d like to play in it.
- What is the scene going to include? Do you have everything you need to conduct the scene safely and comfortably? For example, if playing with hot wax you should always put a plastic sheet down to protect the surface underneath you.
- What are the participants hoping to get from the scene? If one of you is sadistic and sexual and the other doesn’t like pain and doesn’t want to have sex, you can either find the middle ground in an activity you’ll both enjoy or decide not to play together.
- Is bratting (deliberate disobedience to elicit “punishment”) going to be involved in the scene? If so, what does the brat want to happen in response to it?
Step 2: Risk and Risk Tolerance
Every activity, whether it’s related to BDSM or not, has inherent risks. Obviously you don’t have to draw up a full written risk assessment for your scene, but everyone involved needs to agree about what could go wrong and how you are reducing the chance of that happening.
- What are the risks involved in your scene? These can include things such as marks on skin from hitting or any of the risks associated with bondage
- How do you and your partner feel about the risks? Are they mild risks which are part and parcel of the scene, or something more serious? If the latter, what are you doing to mitigate the risks and what is your plan if something were to go wrong?
- Some kinks are highly dangerous and there is no way to safely practise them, e.g. breath play. It’s important to be able to identify these activities in order to avoid them.
Step 3: Experience Level
Be honest with play partners about whether you’ve tried a specific activity before. Claiming to know more than you do can put both you and them in danger.
- For bottoms: if this is your top’s first time doing this activity, be extra communicative during the scene. If it’s going well, reassure them that you’re enjoying yourself. If not, either safeword or tell them what you need to change.
- For tops: if this is your bottom’s first time, check in more than you would with an experienced partner. Have them communicate how they feel at regular intervals: is anything uncomfortable? Is the intensity of the scene at a level they like? Make sure they know they can safeword at any point and it won’t “ruin the scene” or upset you.
- For everyone: some kinks require a high level of technical knowledge, e.g. bondage, and shouldn’t be undertaken by anyone without the appropriate training and experience. It’s relatively common on the public BDSM scene to ask new play partners for references. However, you should always trust your instincts when deciding whether to play with someone: all the glowing references in the world should not outshine a bad feeling in your gut.
Step 4: Triggers and Limits
Everyone has limits. No matter what yours are, they are valid and non-negotiable. You should never be shamed, mocked or judged for your limits. Never attempt to coerce someone into going beyond their limits, and never listen to anyone who tells you that a “real submissive” or a “real Dominant” would be up for whatever they’re proposing.
- Do you or your partner have any triggers? If so, talk about how you’re going to avoid them and what you’re going to do if you accidentally trigger someone.
- What are your hard limits? These are things which you never want to do. They can range from things which you are physically not capable of (because of a disability or medical condition, for example) to things which you just don’t like the sound of.
- What are your soft limits? These are things which you’re not especially attracted to, but which you might want to try under specific circumstances. Soft limits are likely to be more flexible than hard limits, but they are just as important and worthy of respect.
Step 5: Sexual/Intimate Contact
Contrary to what mainstream media would have you believe, BDSM does not have to involve sex. Any sexual contact should be discussed before it happens.
- What level of intimate contact are you comfortable with? Can your partner hug you/kiss you/touch your [insert body part here]? Is dirty talk OK – if so, are there any words/concepts they should avoid?
- What is your partner’s STI status? When were they last tested? Which safe sex measures, e.g. condoms, dental dams, gloves, are you using?
- Is contraception relevant for you and your partner? If so, how are you managing it?
Step 6: Health Issues
These can range from temporary illnesses which might affect your scene, to longer-term problems which you need to learn to work around.
- Are you allergic to anything? If so, what should your partner do if you have an allergic reaction during the scene?
- Do you have any medication your partner should be aware of? If you’re likely to need it in an emergency, where is it?
- Are there any parts of your body which feel unusually stiff/sore/achy? These might be areas your partner needs to avoid
- Is there anything which isn’t necessarily a health condition, but which you want your partner to be aware of? For example, if you are doing bondage you should tell your partner if you have the contraceptive implant in your arm (as they’ll need to work around it and avoid putting pressure on it).
- Some types of play are significantly more dangerous for people with chronic health conditions. It’s important to be open with your partner about anything which might affect the scene, so precautions can be taken to mitigate the dangers or those kinds of play can be avoided
Step 7: Communication and Consent
Safewords are an invaluable way of communicating, but it’s also wise to let your partner know how to tell if you’re enjoying yourself without having to ask you. These indicators should never replace safewords, but can be helpful for Dominants to judge whether they are being too gentle or whether their partner is nearing a limit (in the latter case, check in with your partner to make sure they’re OK).
- What do you look like when you’re having a good time? Do you go quiet or make lots of noise? Do you wriggle or do you stay still? What about when you’re not having a good time?
- As mentioned above, opinions differ on what different safewords mean. Agree on a set definition of each safeword with your partner, to avoid confusion later.
- Is there a chance of you going non-verbal during the scene? If so, which alternative safewords are you employing?
Step 8: Aftercare
Aftercare is the period of time after a scene in which the people involved relax and emotionally and physically look after each other. Everyone’s aftercare needs are different, and what works for one person may not for another.
- Do you need aftercare after a scene, or do you need to go off on your own for a while instead?
- What sort of aftercare works for you? Cuddles, reassuring words, sugar, water, soft blankets?
- It’s good to contact each other the next day to discuss the scene. Do you have each other’s contact details?
The Stop, Start, Continue method is a good framework for talking about scenes. It involves discussing anything that you wouldn’t like to do again (Stop), any new ideas you’ve had that you’d like to try (Start) and anything you enjoyed and want to do again (Continue).
Good consent practice is the keystone of safe and responsible BDSM. Everything above essentially boils down to a) talking to your partner about what you want and don’t want, b) feeling able to speak up when you need something to change and c) being willing to adapt and grow together. The key principles of negotiation and communication can easily be applied to other social situations.
For more information on negotiation, see the following videos:
- How to Negotiate a Kinky Scene by Morgan Thorne
- Negotiating Sex and Kink by Watts The Safeword
- BDSM 101: How to Negotiate For a Scene by Evie Lupine
- 12 Minutes Well Spent: Rope Suspension Negotiation by Eg Cr – this one is specifically geared towards rope suspension (which is a high level skill which should not be undertaken by beginners) but a lot of the conversation is also relevant to other types of play