In my not-so-humble opinion, there are a lot of myths about consent and negotiation that float around our subculture. There are so many, in fact, that once I started writing about them, I found that I had too much to say, and I had to divide this post in two so it wouldn’t be ridiculously long.
The thing I really hate is that I think many of these myths and negotiation rituals were clearly designed in a spirit of care, with the assumption that they would sincerely help protect people. And instead, I think they actually lead to more consent violations because they don’t encourage solid, normal human communication. I think the more we see “doing scenes” as “being regular people who are doing a kinky thing,” the more likely we are to keep everyone safe. So without further ado, here are a few of my (not so)favorite of the negotiation and consent myths…
Myth 1: The ritual of pre-scene negotiation is more important than an actual conversation where you get to know a person
I’m starting this list with my all-time biggest pet peeve. As a subculture, we’ve stupidly decided this ritual of pre-scene negotiations is all you really need. But pre-scene negotiations really only work as Cover Your Ass arrangements: they are NOT a substitute for taking the time to actually talk with someone, get information about their general character, turn-ons, experience, attitudes towards consent, etc. I think depending on quick pre-scene negotiations for safe and quality scenes is right up there with thinking that asking someone when they were last tested for STI’s is sufficient to know if they’re “safe” to fuck—turns out those 2-week old test results don’t mean shit if they had unprotected sex with 4 people since then. Treat those immediate pre-scene negotiations like a last-minute checklist, and don’t pretend like they give you the real nitty gritty information you need to build an awesome (and safe) scene with someone.
Myth 2: A pre-scene negotiation is like a contract!
I recently had the following exchange with a friend:
Friend: I saw this rapey demo one time where a top put a plastic bag with a bunch of toys on a table and told the bottom to take out everything they didn’t want used… Then when the bottom was done, he put the bag down over her face.
Me: How is that rapey? Could she not safeword or tap or anything?
Friend: Well I guess she could have… But it wouldn’t have occurred to me to. I mean, they had negotiated.
For reasons that I’ll probably never understand, a lot of bottoms think that once they’ve negotiated a scene, they’re committed to it. But no one should ever be allowed to trick you with a negotiation unless that’s the sort of thing you’re into (see above: getting to know your partner). Personally, I’m turned on by cleverness, and I’d probably think the bag trick was pretty fucking funny as a bottom But on the other hand, I can tell you from personal experience that if someone actually conspicuously tries to violate my consent, I’ll skip trying to summon DM’s and go straight for kicking their most readily available body part.
A negotiation is a conversation, not a contract or a trap. You might feel like it, but I promise your pride, soul, virtue, etc. are not on the line. You may have agreed 10 minutes ago to those sexy looking canes and then realized that your eyes were a helluva lot bigger than your ass; it’s okay to say so. And if someone tries to cheat you at negotiation, for goddess’ sake, cheat them right back.
Myth 3: You can withdraw your consent at any time!
Now the attentive ones among you may look at this one and say, “hang on, how can that be a myth? weren’t you just saying a second ago that you can withdraw your consent at any time?” The answer is, “yes and no.”
The thing is, there are some activities that you really can’t reasonably just instantly withdraw your consent from. Get hook suspended, and if you decide you don’t like it, it’s still going to take time to get you down and get the hooks out—and you’re still going to bleed and have scars. Agree to use icy hot as lube, and you can’t really just decide, “This was a bad idea! I do not consent anymore!” because you can’t just wash that shit out of your holes. Agree to get injected with saline, get an artistic cutting, etc. etc… There’s a lot of activities that you can’t reasonably just decide “I’m done now!” and have that mean much.
Similarly, it’s important for people on both sides to recognize that under certain circumstances, while a person technically can withdraw their consent, they're extremely unlikely to. I once found myself alone with a girl--yet in a very public way--and realized at the point where all of our clothes were off and we were about to have sex that this was a bad idea. But I did it anyway because once you've committed yourself so far to an interaction, it can feel sort of inescapable. This is not quite in the negotiation-as-a-contract realm, so much as noting that certain social pressures are... well, pressuring. You have to be aware that if you put yourself into certain situations, you're unlikely to get yourself neatly out of them.
Myth 4: People can fully consent to things they’ve never done before!
Bullshit. If someone has never done something before, the best they can really do is consent to TRY something. That's not to say that you should never pop someone's cherry; but it is to say that both they and you should always remain cognizant of how conditional that fledgling consent is, and that the person should be made aware of the limitations of consent withdrawal (see earlier section on hooks, icy hot, etc.) before engaging in the activity.
Myth 5: Before the scene, we negotiate as equals!
Many people forget that pre-scene negotiations often kind of are part of a scene, and one of the things that makes life more fun and interesting is to make them sexy. If there is power chemistry between you, there's every chance that it's going to show up in the negotiation phase as elsewhere. Don't kid yourself that declaring that you're negotiating as equals is always sufficient to make it true.
Hell, most of our negotiation techniques as a subculture are heavily top-led. It's normal for tops to ask bottoms, "where can I touch you?" but not normative for bottoms to return the question (even though it's certainly relevant for both sides). If we were actually negotiating as equals, we'd both be asking each other questions about preferences, goals, desires, and limitations. But most standard pre-scene negotiations consist of tops interrogating bottoms, and trying to figure out what it's acceptable to do to them. That's not exactly "power-neutral."
If you, as the bottom, really want to impress me, or for me to take charge, or to just have me throw you against a wall and have my wicked way with you… there are serious limits to how well we’re going to negotiate as equals. I like to say that in situations where this becomes obvious, figure out how to get the fucking keys and safely drive the car and just go already.
I negotiated with a guy the other night who said, “I loathe people service topping me. I want to do what you want to do.” This, of course, is never quite exactly technically truly truly true; he had limits and preferences, just like all people do. But if that’s the starting line--and well done him for saying so--then I figure out what’s forbidden and double-check with an offer (“So if I tell you that I want to put you in my dress and cut it off you with knives, your response is…?” “Sure!”) and then just fucking running with it. Because negotiating as equals just kind of defeats the point in that situation.
Myth 6: “Limits” are useful and meaningful categories
Turns out, they mean very different things to different people.
For me, I really only have two limits that will pretty much undoubtedly result in me reporting you to people and calling you a violator: sticking your dick in my pussy or ass without a condom, or recklessly doing something that to me that will likely result in an emergency room visit (accidents are a different story).
All the things that I list as “hard limits” on my profile are things that will make me less attracted to you if you try to do them to me. That’s all. But for some people, “hard limits” are things that will leave them trembling in a corner for days, or never wanting to see you again. For me, my “hard limits” are mostly just going to piss me off or annoy me.
I talked with a couple of people who are way subbier than I who said that their desire is to find a dom who will make them give up their “hard limits.” That is, they actively want someone who will make them do the things they hate. Meanwhile, when I search for someone to submit to, I generally carefully screen for people who aren’t likely to want me to do the things on my hard limits list, because I don’t want to disappoint them. Seems like a definitional chasm to me…
And don’t even get me started on the differing definitions of “soft limits.” For me, it’s things that will tend to take me out of space, or things that I’ll only want to do under certain very specific conditions, or things that require some extra special negotiation. But one of my partners literally said that he thinks of “soft limits” as things that he’s supposed to try to convince someone to do.
In short: don’t assume that someone’s “limits” mean what you think they mean.
...to be continued