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BDSM & Consent: What’s the Big Deal?

Anabelle is a writer hailing from paradise (aka Victoria, BC). She writes about love, sex, relationships and kink at The Story of A, and also about home decor. She practices Zen Buddhism, cat petting, knitting, and book reading. She’d lo...

Fifty Shades brought BDSM into the spotlight without much focus on consent

The fascination with BDSM didn't begin with Fifty Shades of Grey, but the popularity of the books and movies did bring the alternative sexual practices into the spotlight. And in the center of this spotlight: consent. Why does it matter? Why should we care? And most important, how can we do it right?

Explicit and implicit consent

Take if from an experienced kinkster: even in our communities, we talk about consent all the time. There are often debates about what constitutes explicit consent, when implicit consent is enough and the particular problems with consensual nonconsent.

More: BDSM Relationship Tips for Beginners

But first things first: a definition. In short, consent is giving permission.

There are many ways we give permission: explicitly, by saying, “yes, I consent to this,” or implicitly, by either not stopping an action or not caring about it. In the kink community, explicit consent is the least problematic because it’s fairly simple. You want to hit someone on the ass with a paddle, you ask, “May I use this paddle on you?” and the person says yes or no.

Clear. Simple.

More: 6 Things Fifty Shades Got Wrong About BDSM

In explicit consent scenarios, limits and specific actions are agreed to in advance of a scene. It’s called “negotiation.” This is basically when you sit down with your play partner and explicitly name the things you want and don’t want, the things you expect and means of communication (like safe words or nonverbal distress signals). Explicit consent scenarios provide a clear frame within which players can enjoy themselves.

But explicit consent scenarios are not the only ones that happen on a play floor or behind closed doors. Implicit consent, the kind of consent that is more assumed than received, is also quite common. Implicit consent scenarios might go something like this: A person agrees to a general framework for a scene (a spanking, a rope scene, whatever) but doesn’t explicitly consent to each and every action performed within the scene.

Simple? Maybe. Clear? Not so much.

The big deal with consent

Well-intentioned kinksters (because we have to acknowledge that some of them are not) always make a big deal about consent because it is a necessary but insufficient condition for healthy BDSM activities.

Consent matters because it underpins everything about BDSM. Consent is the one thing that, to an external observer, differentiates BDSM from abuse.

And this is why Fifty Shades is often so problematic. Anastasia often lets Christian do things to her that she didn’t consent to, often because she’s too shy to say no or because she fears losing him if she takes it away.

Although these behaviors are fairly common for women, putting them in a BDSM context makes them even more dangerous. Giving oral sex even though we don’t particularly enjoy it is one thing; receiving a potentially dangerous beating or engaging in breath play or rope suspension, on the other hand, can cause real, long-term physical and psychological damage.

So why is consent a big deal, really? Because without it, we can hurt or even kill people. People who engage in BDSM without the ability to reflect on their needs and desires, and therefore without the ability to properly consent to activities, cannot effectively engage in healthy, fulfilling kink.

More: BDSM Sex Tips for "Vanilla" Couples, No Red Room Needed

This is why so many of us have major problems with Fifty Shades of Grey. To people with real-world kink experience, Anastasia’s behavior is misinformed at best and dangerous at worst.

And for people who truly care about consensual, fulfilling and healthy kink, Anastasia and Christian represent everything that we don’t want to be.

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