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In healthy, consensual BDSM, saying ‘yes’ is just the beginning Add to ...

Andrea Zanin is a Canadian BDSM writer and educator. She is pursuing her PhD in gender, feminist and women’s studies at York University.

With the Jian Ghomeshi scandal all over the news, many people might be wondering how consensual kink actually works.

As law professor Brenda Cossman made clear in an article Monday, consent is not a defence for assault causing bodily harm in Canada – including kinky activities that leave marks. This may be true, but a Supreme Court ruling doesn’t make us kinky folks any less kinky. I’m not here to provide a legal viewpoint on what constitutes consent, but as a BDSM educator, I can shed light on how consent is negotiated and respected within a healthy BDSM relationship. Speaking as a proud pervert, an educator and a staunch feminist, here’s my short answer: There’s no one way to do it right.

Most of the activities under the very broad BDSM/fetish/kink umbrella are no more physically risky than regular sex (you can’t contract a sexually transmitted infection from a spanking, for instance). But some practices might seem extreme to an outsider. We must approach them by educating ourselves as we do for other physically risky pursuits: hockey, renovation work, childbirth, deep-sea diving, laser hair removal, cycling to work. For some of us, BDSM risks are well worth it, because they represent the fullest – or only – expression of our sexuality. As responsible adults, we get the proper education, equipment and skills before jumping in – and BDSM players are often lifelong learners. As ethical people and caring partners, we negotiate and communicate our continuing desire and consent at every step of the process.

Sounds idealistic? Sure is. Putting the BDSM label on a person or an activity is far from enough to guarantee that everything is healthy or consensual. We still need to exercise our critical faculties when we see, hear about or partake in BDSM.

We start out with negotiation. It’s not as dry as it sounds. Negotiation can be flirtatious, hot, exploratory, exciting. For some people it’s the best kind of foreplay. At the same time, it’s serious stuff. Here are some of the considerations we might discuss: What is the mindset, intent and emotional state of each participant? What’s the mood and purpose of the scene you want to do? What activities do you want to experience? What are you each up for trying, even if it’s not at the top of your personal list? What activities are absolute no-gos, whether right now or forever? Do you want a superscripted scene, with each act played out in predictable order? Or do you want an experience that falls within a set of parameters and limits, but that flows more freely? What feedback mechanisms will you use? Are they verbal, non-verbal or both? What do you look like and sound like when you’re having a good time compared with a bad time? The answers may surprise you – for instance, crying may be an indication of upset for some, but a deeply satisfying catharsis for another.

Let’s talk safewords for a moment: A safeword is a code word that either participant can use to stop a BDSM scene immediately. But safewords aren’t magic, and they aren’t even the gold standard of consensual kink. Why? Because some BDSM players like to just use regular language. If “Hey, can we stop? This isn’t working for me” does the trick, there’s no need for “grapefruits” or “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Code words are handy if your scene includes role-play where you want to be able to scream “No!” and have it mean “Don’t you dare stop!” but not everyone’s into that kind of role-play. Safewords have become popular shorthand for “We’re doing this right.” But a safeword’s existence is no substitute for each participant listening and looking for a broader range of signals to indicate continuing consent.

We adjust based on verbal and non-verbal feedback. In some scenes, this feedback loop can become so instantaneous that it’s as if you’re both experiencing the same sensations. For some of us, this kind of deep connection and intense intimacy is the whole point of BDSM play. If someone uses a safeword or withdraws consent in any other way, that’s not a failure or a loss – it’s a sign to stop, check in, and perhaps end the scene. Why? Because the point here is mutual enjoyment, not playing out an agreed-upon scenario to its bitter end.

Beyond the communication, healthy kink also involves some other considerations. All players need to know good technique and understand the risks of their play activities. BDSM community workshops and conferences can help here, or direct one-on-one mentorship with an experienced practitioner.

Then there is what is called “aftercare” – the part in which, after you’ve played, you take care of each other. For some this means quiet cuddling time, a verbal check-in, and a phone call a couple of days later. For some it means a handshake and a grin. This, too, is best negotiated ahead of time, but sometimes aftercare needs pop up unexpectedly and must be taken in stride. Aftercare can also be a time for feedback on what worked, what didn’t, and what you might or might not want to do in the future.

In a steady relationship, this whole process may become more fluid – in the sense that negotiation and consent may become embedded in the broader long-term process of building trust and deepening a connection.

In short: In healthy, consensual BDSM, “yes” is just the beginning.

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