Acts versus consent: to what am I allowed to consent?

Image by the fabulous Stuart F Taylor

In any society, there’ll be things to which you cannot legally consent. Most UK-based kinksters will be probably be aware of the Spanner case, in which a group of men were prosecuted for various crimes including assault, despite the fact that the participants had consented to the activity. It’s a really interesting discussion this, because it tackles a whole range of things that are interesting to think about including consent, power, and personal freedom. To what, exactly, are we allowed to consent?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: what I am and am not allowed to consent to. The law says there are some things to which I can’t reasonably consent. I can’t consent to murder, for instance: that’s an obvious one. I probably can’t consent to serious injury either, although that’s not something I’ve spent much time thinking about, because ‘serious injury’ doesn’t register on my list of kinks.

But BDSM, pain, and mild injury is well within my kink comfort zone, so I think about it a lot.

And although I’m happy to accept that there are limitations on what I can consent to and in what contexts, I occasionally come up against suggestions that the list of what I can and can’t consent to should be expanded and revised. Sometimes I’ll have arguments with anti-sex-work feminists, who think that it’s not possible, really, to consent to doing sexy things for money. Other times I’ll read articles by people who think that voluntarily ‘submitting’ to a man for rough sex or BDSM is equally impossible: I can’t truly consent to something which they see as violent or degrading, and the only possible reason I would do it is because I don’t know better.

This isn’t just annoying and patronising: there’s something more going on. My objection to this isn’t just that it involves treating me uncomfortably like a child, or that there’s a double-standard happening which says I can consent to certain acts but only if a moral superior has previously vetted and assessed them. It’s that focusing on ‘acts’ in a sexual setting is less helpful than focusing on consent.

Acts versus consent

In an acts-focused approach to sex, sex education is all about which bit goes where. You touch X or Y, your partner does Z, one of these things might make you pregnant or give you chlamydia, you ask specifically before you make a move for a specific kind of thing, and you receive a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. This approach, I think, is what leads to seriously problematic ideas like those ‘consent apps‘ which claim to lock down consent into a simple one-off ‘yes’ to sex when in fact consent is complex and changes over time. An acts-focused approach is all about the what.

A consent-focused approach is more about the why. Less about touching X or Y and more about how you feel. Why do you want this? How do you want this?

Approaching sex from a foundation of consent means putting choice at the centre of the action.

When I write sexy stories – whether real life ones or fictional ones – the first thing I think about isn’t whose dick is going into which hole. I think about the atmosphere: what was it that made me want to do this? Why did I thrill with anticipation when this particular guy started to fuck me? What was it about this particular fuck that made it a story worth telling?

Consent isn’t just important – it’s the star around which the rest of a shag orbits. It’s fundamentally and inextricably tied to what I’m doing, because without it this is not sexy. It’s not sex.

Consent in BDSM

Earlier last week I was asked by a BBC journalist to answer some questions on BDSM, and the ways in which people who engage in kinky play ensure that it doesn’t ‘tip over the line’ into abuse. It was a tricky one to answer, because I don’t think that there’s a line somewhere on a spectrum, with BDSM on one side and ‘abuse’ on the other. I’d rather conceive of it as a spectrum of sexual activity from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’, with BDSM at the hard end, and gentler sex at the other. Abuse doesn’t sit on this spectrum, because it is not – should never be – a part of sex.

I wouldn’t have been able to explain this when I was younger. I’d have told you that certain situations I’ve been in probably ‘tipped over’ into abuse or some guys ‘took things too far’ – implying that riding roughshod over someone else’s consent was something that could easily, naturally happen in a scene.

And that’s because I was focused on the acts. If you’re focused on the acts then six hard stripes of the cane look much the same as twelve. A hand round someone’s throat looks like a natural step up from a good, rough fuck. One slap in the face looks much the same as another. Is this BDSM or abuse?

An acts-focused person would find it tricky to tell.

But in a world where we focus on consent, we can’t draw conclusions about this scene until we know the answer to the most important question: why are these people doing this? Are they both happy to be there? Did they make deliberate, informed choices about what’s happening? Do they understand how to stop things if they need to?

When we focus on acts, we end up scrutinising – in detail – the things that people do in private, drawing up lists of what is and isn’t acceptable based on what we as outsiders reckon. We look at the things strangers do to each other and we nod or shake our heads, deigning this to be OK and that to be bad based on which acts look violent or simply freak us out. All the while we’re focusing on acts – deciding if this smack is too hard or that fuck too aggressive – we’re missing the opportunity to ask and examine the most important question: do the people doing this actually want to be there?

What’s the difference between BDSM and abuse?

The reason I was nervous about the BBC article was precisely because I’ve been asked this question before: what is the difference between BDSM and abuse?

The answer is ‘consent.’

More thoroughly, here’s the full answer I gave when I was asked about it over email:

Consent. Honestly, that is it in a nutshell: it is all about consent. BDSM is to abuse what boxing is to being punched by surprise. The former is done with consent and an understanding of risks, the latter isn’t, and is assault.

But to elaborate, for people who might not fully get it, here are a couple of questions to ask themselves:
  • Does the person you’re doing this with/to actively want you to do it?

  • Do you have a power imbalance in your relationship (i.e. one is the other’s boss) that might make it difficult for the other one to say ‘no’?

  • Do they have an easy way to withdraw from the situation if they feel uncomfortable?

  • Are you confident that you can and will stop at any time when they give the signal? And do you know what their signals are?

But I’m worried that the fact this discussion comes off the back of yet another person trying to use ‘BDSM made me do it‘ as if it’s an excuse when they’re accused abusive behaviour. New York prosecutor Eric Schneiderman, in response to multiple allegations of violence towards women, told reporters ‘I like to role play rough sex’ as if that has any relevance whatsoever to what he’s been accused of. This is what happens when we focus on the acts: people say ‘I do this and don’t shame me for the sexual acts I take part in!’ when in fact no one’s telling him off for kinky sex here, they’re accusing him of abuse.
The acts are not the story: consent is the story. Soraya – the lovely BBC journalist who interviewed me for that piece – also asked about establishing consent. How does one go about ensuring that you have consent for violent acts? Again, this is a tricky question, but only because it’s framed as if violent acts are the only thing for which you need consent. In reality, consent should be at the heart of everything. Here was my answer:
“Consent in BDSM, like in all our other interactions, is absolutely vital. I don’t think that consent is – or should be – limited purely to BDSM. Establishing consent is vital whether you’re planning to spank someone over your knee or go camping with them in the Lake District, and the same process applies in each scenario. You need to talk to each other openly and honestly about what you both hope to do, and what you might like to get out of the experience, listening to each other and taking on board what the other person says. Alert the other person to your ‘hard limits’ (things you really don’t want to do), like being caned or going for a really long hike. Then at all stages of your adventure – whether camping or BDSM – you need to continue communicating. All the time. Listen to the other person, read their body language and tone, ask questions to check in and make sure they’re comfortable. In BDSM, you also sometimes have pre-agreed ‘safe words’ or gestures that mean ‘stop this immediately’. To continue the camping analogy you might both agree in advance that if the weather’s terrible and one of you decides you hate it, you’ll decamp to a BnB till the rain stops.”

When you focus on acts, you miss the whole point

Which brings me back to the question I asked at the start: to what can I reasonably consent? We all realistically have limits on what we think other people can consent to. For instance, it’s unlikely that many of you would support me if I said that I consented to be killed and eaten by a stranger. But there are probably plenty who’d argue that if I were in serious pain towards the end of my life, I should be allowed to give consent to end it in a painless way. But if I asked anyone to write a complete list of acts to which I could and could not consent, you’d quickly stumble across problems.

Real life isn’t simple enough that we can post a list of universal ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ – no running, no diving, no caning, no breath-play, no rough anal. We need to know the context.

When I get angry commenters telling me BDSM is bad for me, and that I can’t consent to violence, my gut reaction is one of sadness, because they don’t understand that for me this isn’t violent: it’s fun. It’s what I enjoy. They’re focused so hard on the acts they disapprove of they’ve forgotten to ask the questions about consent and desire. I actually enjoy this. I enjoy other kinds of sex far less. I struggle to get excited about shagging that doesn’t tap into my need to submit and wriggle and squirm and squeal and get spanked. The acts that they enjoy in bed are ones that turn me off, and yet under their acts-focused approach that’s what I’d have to do. Consign myself to a life of ‘non-violent’, gentle sex that I simply can’t enjoy.

Some of the things I like to do look brutal from the outside, and an acts-focused approach to sex looks only at that and never further – saying ‘I wouldn’t want that to happen to me, so I don’t think she can really be choosing it.’ This is dangerous, because in a world where consent isn’t at the heart of our sexual discussion, we lead people to believe that the acts are all there is. That ‘I like rough sex’ is somehow a reasonable response when people are accusing you of assault.

With a consent-focused approach, though, this excuse is exposed for the meaningless, pathetic bullshit it truly is. It reveals it to be an utter nonsense, because we’re not looking for an explanation of acts here, we’re looking for proof that the people playing these ‘sex games’ actually wanted to be there. In a world which believes sex is all about acts, violent abuse looks the same as consensual BDSM.

In a world which understands that consent is paramount, they look like the opposites they really are. This is why people who are into BDSM will usually get so angry when yet another appalling shitbag trots out ‘I’m kinky!’ as if it excuses abuse.

When I have arguments with anti-BDSM folks about consent and violence and whether my kink ‘looks scary’ from the outside I’m not just saying it because I want to defend the way I choose to get off. I say it because when we focus on acts instead of consent, some people will use the fact that I, and others, take part in consensual ‘acts’ as a smokescreen to cover up abuse.

When we focus on consent, they have nowhere to hide.

8 Comments

  • Curvaceous Dee says:

    You explained this really well, GotN! The analogy with camping really helped to make it clear.

    Saving this one to share when needed :)

    xx Dee

  • Hazelthecrow says:

    Another perfect mic-drop closing line! Nailed it GOTN. Do let us know when/if the story is on the Beeb, I’d be interested to see what they are doing with it.

  • moondog says:

    I’m just making my first foray into the kink scene and recently attended a workshop on consent (required of everyone who wants to attend the play space for this group). I have to admit that beforehand, whilst I thought consent was really important, I didn’t really have a clear understanding of how you enact it in a way that retains the sexy aspect. Your description of act-focus vs consent-focus really hits the nail on the head for how I’m seeing it now, and explains it in a really straight-forward way.

    Great post :)

  • DB says:

    Let me first say that I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said here; consent is clearly paramount in determining what is or isn’t abuse.

    However, I *suspect* that what the “you can’t consent to violence” crowd are concerned about is self–harm. If I’m alone and self–harming then I’m surely consenting — there’s nobody else here to coerce me— but we correctly recognise that the desire to self–harm comes from a place of pain that should be healed. Similarly, how can a naïve observer tell whether another’s consent to BDSM comes from desire, or from pain and self–loathing? I suspect (and this is just me theorising out of my ass) that at least some of the scolding is from a misplaced concern for kinksters’ mental health.

    Obviously, shaming somebody into changing their sexual behaviour wouldn’t resolve the underlying pain even if it were there, and for the consenting people involved this is all covered by “Does the person you’re doing this with/to actively want you to do it?”. But a third party has no way to know *why* somebody is consenting.

  • This was really interesting – and incredibly well explained, when pinpointing the nuances of this topic can be like nailing jelly to the wall!
    I came to your article after reading Bib1’s post in response, and I have linked to this post in a #MasturbationMonday post of my own.
    As ever – thank goodness we kinksters have you in our corner GotN!

  • May More says:

    You certainly have hit the nail on the head for me – Consent is the keyword and really all those self-righteous so-called do-gooders who wanna to dictate what I or you or him or her enjoys sexually can take a hike – because we consent to do these things.
    As you say without the kink sex is just not sexy. I remember a time when I was in a vanilla relationship and I got so bored with the sex that I just stopped having it – went for literally years without any. I became very unhappy – was that good for my mental health – I don’t think so. So I resent this apparent concern for mental health! I like to be dominated in the bedroom, that is a rational want for me. My mental health is spot on – I am certainly saner than most because I am happy with my sexual relationship. I enjoy the bondage the pain, it excites me and it is darn sexy. This makes me happy and spills over into other areas of my life.
    Thanks for that great post GOTN –

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thanks May! Although I should probably clarify that I don’t mean ‘without the kink sex is just not sexy’ – I mean without *consent* it’s not sexy. I’ve had tonnes of fabulous sex that doesn’t involve any kink (or only includes a tiny bit or what have you). It’s not that sex isn’t sexy without kink, it’s that it’s not sexy without *consent*. And you’re right re: sex and mental health – I think being able to explore things you enjoy safely and consensually can be incredibly beneficial to your mental health. I know it won’t be the same for everyone of course, but it’s definitely helped me like it’s helped you!

  • Andrew says:

    What strikes me about this way of thinking is how completely inconsistent it is.

    BDSM is to assault as vanilla sex is to rape — it’s absurd to ask how to stop one ‘tipping over the line’ while pretending the other doesn’t have the same problem. That kind of model seems liable to do a lot of damage.

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