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?
“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.