Written by Nike Vrettos
Consent is an unavoidable part of current news headlines. The #MeToo movement triggered intense public debate around what is considered correct and incorrect behavior, particularly among university circles, and especially within my friend group. As I was talking about rape culture and un-consensual sex the umpteenth time, I started to think: the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world do not resemble the scary figure that I was taught to fear. Most sexual abusers look common, harmless. They are not ominous men, wearing black rubber suits and a whip, ready to handcuff you any moment. So if “normal” looking individuals are struggling with consent, how do the ones who are said to be deviant, the kinksters of the world, deal with it?
I started to do my research and gradually uncovered novel aspects of the BDSM (the initialism of Bondage & Discipline/Dominance & Submission/Sadism & Masochism) that I had previously been oblivious to. I luckily had the opportunity to interview Valerie (a pseudonym used to protect her anonymity), a woman in her early 20s, who identifies as bisexual and practices BDSM.
In my interview with Valerie, she elaborated on the importance of consent in the kinky world and beyond. When I phoned her I expected a rough, sexy, deep alluring voice. Yet, her mellow voice ringing with a slight Dutch accent reminded me more of a petite teen. I had the image of a Cinderella-like blond girl in my head. She had a giggling, contagious laugh and talked about bondage as lightly as about the weather. As if it were the most mundane thing in the world.
One thing is fairly certain: in our culture, it is considered immoral to hurt someone. As a civilized member of society, you should not punch your neighbor in the face, and you must never be physically aggressive towards your partner, the person that you love and hold dear.
By stark contrast, members of the BDSM community take pleasure in exactly what we, “Vanilla” people, find worthy of condemnation – hurting the one you love or allowing yourself to be hurt by them. As a consequence, their practices have an odd twist that many struggle to fathom.
Despite common perception, rape culture and a dithering attitude towards consent is not a critical issue within the BDSM community – it is, predominantly connected to the “Vanilla” sex culture. Still, for some obscure reason, it is the former which is condemned as violent and immoral. Casual hookups and committed relationships alike are negatively impacted by the uncertainty surround sexual interactions. All too often, we cross our fingers, wish for the best and assume that our partner truly consented; that you have read the body language correctly. This can create a dangerous mixture of miscommunication, denial, and oblivion.
Yet, consent still isn’t a clear-cut concept, as confusion still reigns over the topic. The question remains: what does consent really imply? An expressed, explicit ‘yes’? Mere suggestive body language? Suddenly, the supposedly easy and ideally enjoyable setting of intimacy becomes an awkwardly risky situation. No one wants to be called a rapist.
There are many positive aspects of consent and consideration the average sexually active person can learn from the “abnormal” BDSM community. For the BDSM population, consent is not a question of sexiness, but rather focuses on making one’s partner feel as secure and comfortable as possible. Valerie elaborated one interesting aspect of the BDSM community, the so-called “safe words”. Before engaging in BDSM, couples agree to safe words which indicate a complete stop of an action in case lines are crossed for one partner, or they feel too uncomfortable to continue. “One agrees on them before doing anything. You can have checklists that include non-verbal gestures or a word or sentence, or ‘how much do you like this on a scale from 1-5’.” She pointed out that it is unacceptable to start things which are not pre-agreed on; this would counter the practice of the pre-negotiations.
When we touched on the topic of consent, Valerie explained that instead of trying to interpret consent through body language, it is made very clear whether one consents. This is pivotal: “If I agree with you on slapping that doesn’t mean you can also whip me.” This kind of negotiation as part of sexual practice is particularly relevant when you navigate between actions that can injure you. In mainstream sex life, consent as an affirmative action is treated as being outside the sexual act itself, yet it is something that it cannot (and should not) be separated from.
“Consent shouldn’t only play a role in the context of BDSM. Understanding your partner’s limit is something everyone can benefit from, also for those who don’t engage in kinky stuff.” Clear boundaries and a genuine interest in what makes one’s partner feel comfortable and what doesn’t is important, regardless of gender or sexual preferences.
Surely, certain aspects of BDSM practices are used also as means to abuse, such as strangulation or physical restraints, but the key difference is the consent behind the act. Valerie added that people within the BDSM community known to abuse others under the cover of BDSM are clearly overstepping boundaries and are called out within the community. “Trust plays a significant role in BDSM practice, more maybe than in normal Vanilla sex, because so much can go wrong. People who abuse others and then point to us are wrong. We value consent very high”. Her voice was urgent and stressed the importance of her point. Asking for consent isn’t only about accepting your partner’s boundaries but also an honest self-reflection on your own. It is not at all about seizing your partner or playing the role of the ‘submissive’, but about acknowledging what you feel in the moment. Knowing your own boundaries eases the preemptive talk and allows you to discuss your partner’s, which isn’t unsexy at all. Quite the contrary, it shows that you care and value what the other one wants.
We should understand that sexual assault based on short, inviting dresses or misleading body language is the result of how insufficiently we as a society deal with sexual consent. By looking at what our society deems as “immoral” and “violent” kink communities and how they handle consent, the general public can certainly learn a lot. Talking and educating oneself (and others) about consent is the only way to diminish the risk of traumatizing sexual assault for both sides: men and women.
Perhaps, the “normal” ones are the individuals we should most be afraid of when we walk alone at night. Perhaps the normal ones are the ones who really misunderstand and actively ignore safe consensual practice. Perhaps, the “abnormal” crowd already has it all figured out. Perhaps, the normal ones ought to be a little more abnormal – for everybody’s sake.