The following was inspired by a thread about BDSM and Violence in the Gay Male BDSM Mentoring Group, but it goes way beyond the scope of that thread or group, so I’m bringing it here. Some of my points have been made by others, but I don’t believe they’ve all been brought together before in one post or essay.
I believe that most of us in this group are united in desiring at least some forms of BDSM to be accepted both legally and socially as healthy erotic expression rather than prima facie evidence of criminality or depravity. Furthermore, I think most of us see the consent of the participants as at least a key part of what distinguishes the BDSM activities we promote and defend from those we find at best dubious and at worst odious.
Where we differ is usually in how we understand “consent” in BDSM contexts, and the resultant arguments have grown pretty heated. I think this is largely because we’ve been trying to make “consent” do too much work, especially when we call on it to prove that a BDSM scene or relationship is not abusive. Then we have to add such qualifiers as “adult,” “informed,” “uncoerced,” and “clear-minded” to distinguish legitimate consent from the kind often found precisely in abusive relationships, whether vanilla or kinky.
Even if we get all that sorted out to our satisfaction — no small order! — we still have to deal with the not insignificant number of cases where people not only consent to being harmed but seek out someone to kill them by hanging, torture, or some other kinky snuff scene. “But that’s not BDSM!” you say? If the only thing that distinguishes BDSM from abuse is consent, why not? I’ve never seen a good answer to that question, because there isn’t one. Consent alone is not enough. Even when they don’t express it, people always rely on some additional criterion in making these judgments.
CRITERIA FOR ETHICAL SM
Many years ago, I made a stab at expressing the criteria for ethically defensible SM (the umbrella term BDSM hadn’t been invented yet). What I came up with was “safe, sane, and consensual” (see my essay at http://boybear.us/history.htm). Well, we all know how that worked out! It was a crude first approximation, but so many people in the scene — and, especially, coming into the scene — liked it that the phrase became enshrined as a “credo.” SSC’s very vagueness is a big part of its appeal, because everyone can read it as giving an imprimatur to their way of doing SM — and use it as a club to beat up anyone whose play involves things they don’t approve of. No wonder a lot of heavy players and folks in edgier relationships, like M/s and O/p, run the other way at the mere mention of “community standards” in BDSM. Who needs a kinky Moral Majority or Family Research Council for D/s?
[Jargon note: SM = sadism & masochism, SSC = Safe, Sane and Consensual, M/s = Master/slave, O/p = Owner/property, D/s = dominance & submission.]
But crude as they are, “safe” and “sane” at least point toward the kind of criteria needed to supplement “consensual.” The former points toward the outcome of the scene or the ongoing quality of the relationship, while the latter points toward the state of mind of the participants, and in particular their intentions. Given that, I think we can discern the schema of at least an ethical BDSM scene or play session. (By “schema” I mean an analytical abstraction, not something that anyone actually says or writes down before playing!) It’s more challenging to construct an ethical schema for an ongoing M/s or D/s relationship because of the much longer or open-ended time frame.
So-and-so, being adults of sound mind, freely agree to engage with each other in such-and-such a scene with the intention that when it’s over both (or all) will be glad they did.
Instead of prescribing various specific qualities to make a scene “ethical” rather than “abusive” or “exploitative,” this schema focuses on the criteria of consent and good intentions. Whatever the type of BDSM activity, as long as these criteria are both met, it’s hard to see how anyone could be faulted ethically even if the aim of mutual satisfaction is not, in fact, achieved, or is achieved only partially. Accidents or mistakes by a Top or Dom are not ethically culpable unless they’re willful or negligent, and the same can be said of a bottom or sub’s mis-estimation of his/her pain tolerance or ability to handle some other effect of play. (Like “freely,” the phrase “being adults of sound mind” is not an additional criterion but a clarification of consent since these are requirements for any sort of consent to be fully valid.)
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
The following deliberately simple but not unusual scenario for an SM scene between two men may clarify what I’ve been talking about:
Let’s say that Tom and Bill know each other through mutual friends, and at a play party Tom says to Bill, “I’d like to flog you.” Bill responds, “Great! Let’s do it!” Tom leads him to a vacant St. Andrew’s cross and tells him to strip while Tom sets out his gear. Bill looks over the array of straps, floggers, and whips but doesn’t say anything. Tom asks if Bill has any medical or other condition he needs to be aware of. Bill says no, and Tom gestures for him to stand facing the cross. Raising one of Bill’s hands toward the dangling leather restraint, Tom asks, “Okay?” and Bill nods, so Tom buckles the cuffs onto both of Bill’s wrists and ankles. Finally, Tom says, “Your safewords are Slow and Stop.” Bill says okay, and Tom selects an implement and begins the scene.
I believe this scenario is fairly typical, at least among gay men at play parties and runs; some scenes will require more negotiation, some even less. The question is, what exactly did Bill consent to? There was explicit consent to “being flogged” as well as to being restrained by leather cuffs and to the choice of safewords. But nothing was said about how long the scene would last or about which implements would be used, in what order, how heavily, or where on his body. How broadly may Tom interpret Bill’s consent?
According to one common interpretation, Bill has agreed that Tom may do anything he wants until Bill uses his safeword; the whole onus is on Bill to object if Tom exceeds Bill’s limits. But by then it may be too late — Bill could be scarred or traumatized for life before he pulls himself together enough to scream “Stop!” or whatever the safeword is. If this scenario is typical, why doesn’t that happen more often? Why is it, in fact, rare for safewords even to be used in such circumstances — and even rarer for serious injury to occur?
I think it’s because Bill’s consent is based on something equally important: his understanding of Tom’s intentions, which he intuits based on his prior acquaintance with Tom and the context of the encounter. There’s a whole raft of unspoken but perfectly reasonable assumptions both Bill and Tom make about how the scene is going to go, and it is these assumptions that qualify what appears to be Bill’s almost limitless consent.
If Tom and Bill were complete strangers, it’s unlikely their agreement to play would have been arrived at quite so swiftly. They would likely have spent some time feeling each other out in terms of experience, interests, mutual friends, attitudes, and so on. And if they clicked, they’d be among guys having some degree of experience in SM; there might even be monitors to facilitate safe, responsible play. Above all, given that they’re at an event they paid to attend and not in a dark alley somewhere, they can reasonably assume that neither wants to risk having their time together end in a hospital, police station, or law court.
I think we can go even further in teasing out the unspoken intentions in the scenario. Bill agreed that Tom would be his Top in a flogging scene. So it’s not going to be an electrotorture scene or an interrogation scene or a fisting scene. It may involve some bondage, if Bill agrees, but it won’t be a bondage scene. It’s not a humiliation scene or even a Dom/sub scene, just a straightforward flogging scene between friends. No one knows how far it will go, because that will depend on how Bill reacts to what Tom does as they go along. They will dance together, Tom leading and Bill following, and go where the magic takes them until one or the other has had enough.
Neither of them assumes that it can end only when Bill says “Stop!” Tom may recognize before then that Bill has had all he can safely take, or Tom may reach his own limit and not wish to go any further. Each wants his partner to be satisfied; that’s what makes what they do “play” and not “abuse,” “exploitation,” or something else one-sided. In fact, Bill’s safewords only work because Tom intends to honor them. He has consented to be bound by them as a last resort if he fails to recognize earlier signs that Bill needs him to slow down or stop. Despite what some ignorant “guides” to BDSM imply, the bottom’s failure to use a safeword never excuses the Top from paying attention to other verbal and nonverbal expressions, body language, and so on throughout a scene.
It seems, therefore, that most of what Bill’s consent means is supplied by the context (which should not surprise anyone who’s studied how language works). He is not agreeing to a transaction in which he and Tom exchange specific goods or services. (A flogging scene could be the subject of a transaction, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) Rather, he is agreeing to risk a certain kind of experience — specifically, to allow Tom to lead him on a journey of pain and ecstatic release. It is not necessary for Bill to see a map of the journey even if Tom was able to draw one up. It’s enough to believe that Tom intends to be with him all the way and to bring him back safely. And Bill’s trust is enough for Tom as well.
Even using a safeword is not necessarily a withdrawal of consent. It may simply be the last act of the drama, bringing it to a close. More often, though, it is a discordant note signaling a breakdown of trust because a limit was crossed. Let’s suppose that Bill, toward the end of the scene, is flying high from the bone-rattling thuds of a heavy buffalo-hide flogger. All of a sudden, Tom throws a bullwhip at his back. As the whip slices through previous welts from the floggers, Bill screams, “Stop! Red! What the fuck?” This is not a good way to end a scene! Either Tom made a bad judgment call about how Bill would react to bringing in a singletail, or he got carried away and stopped caring. Whether it was a well-intentioned mistake or selfish negligence may determine whether the two can remain friends afterward — and how badly Tom’s reputation will be harmed by the incident.
Sorry to have gone on so long, but I hope it’s clear how intimately consent and intention are intertwined even in this deliberately simple situation. When it comes to ongoing BDSM relationships, it gets more complicated very quickly. But in any case, we can’t understand what makes normal, healthy BDSM play and relationships different from psychopathology and abuse by focusing on consent alone.