BDSM 101: Consent, consent, consent

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. In the previous three days I’ve covered mythbusting, finding out more, and figuring out what you’re into. Today – to finish – I’m focusing on the most important issue of consent.

Consent, consent, consent

Despite what you might think from Fifty Shades, consent is not just a matter of having a safeword! In fact we can see from Fifty Shades itself that safewords are not enough. The first time that Christian spanks Ana she’s really not sure if she likes it. Her feelings about it change from when it happens to later when she reflects on it. She has similar ambivalence on other occasions but clearly doesn’t feel that she can use her safeword to express that uncertainty.

There are huge cultural pressures around sex. We often feel – as Ana seems to – that we must have certain kinds of sex a certain amount in order not to lose a relationship. We feel that we should ‘perform’ certain kinds of sex in order to be a ‘real’ man/woman, or a ‘proper’ straight or queer person. We feel like if we’ve had a kind of sex before we’re obligated to have it again. We feel too embarrassed or awkward to say we’re not enjoying something. We feel that because we’ve done one thing we should automatically do others. All of these are deeply problematic ways of thinking about sex which hurt us badly, but they are also really hard to completely step away from because they’re so engrained in our culture.

So, when it comes to consent, we can’t just rely on partners to say ‘no’ or safeword if they’ve stopped enjoying it. Instead, consent should be about trying to minimise the pressures that they – and we – are under, so that we can be as confident as possible that what we’re doing is consensual. How can we do this? Well it is definitely worth talking about the messages we’ve received about sex and reassuring the other person that we really wouldn’t want them doing something they don’t enjoy. We can also deliberately avoid making any suggestion that kink or sex should involve certain things (e.g. genitals, pain, orgasms, or fancy outfits) or that certain things are more or less normal.

power

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BDSM 101: Figuring out, and communicating, what you’re into

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yesterday focused on finding out more. Today I’m covering how to figure out, and communicate, what you’re into.

Figuring out what you’re into

There’s a sense in Fifty Shades that the kind of ‘kinky fuckery’ that Ana finds herself enjoying is fine, but that the kind of ‘real’ BDSM that Christian is after is not okay. Please put these kinds of distinctions from your mind! People are always trying to draw lines between what kinds of play are okay and what kinds aren’t. For ages it was that missionary penis-in-vagina man/woman sex was fine and nothing else was. Then it expanded a bit to any kind of sex involving genitals was okay, but other stuff wasn’t. Now, after Fifty Shades, we’re told that a bit of light spanking and fluffy handcuffs is okay but anything ‘more than that’ isn’t. All this focus on what counts as normal, right, proper sex (and what doesn’t) takes us aware from far more important questions such as what the people involved actually enjoy, and how to do it ethically.

Fifty-Shades-Grey-Trailer

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BDSM 101: Finding out more about kink

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yesterday was an introduction. Today I’m focusing on how to find out more about kink.

Finding out more about kink

In Fifty Shades Christian swears Ana to secrecy about their kink relationship so that she can’t talk to anybody else in her life about it. This is a terrible idea! It’s a huge warning sign in a relationship if there are areas you’re forced to keep secret. Given how common kink is there may well be people already in your life who you can chat openly about your ideas with. However there is still stigma around kink, so you might prefer to talk with people who’re already involved in BDSM.

If you’re new to kink, there is a huge wealth of information available to help you get started. It’s definitely worth checking this out and learning from people who have been there and got the Tshirt.

Tshirt

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BDSM 101 (or what to do and what not to do from Fifty Shades of Grey)

The film of Fifty Shades of Grey is out this week to much excitement and media attention. As somebody who has researched with BDSM communities for over a decade, and written about the Fifty Shades books, I thought it’d be useful to give my suggestions for people who are thinking about getting into kink for the first time having watched the movie.

So, over the next four days, I’m going to cover the following topics, including where I think Fifty Shades gets it right, and where it has a lot of room for improvement:

Before we go on it’s important to say that pretty much everything covered here is also true for any kind of sex – not just kink. It’s sad that people often don’t think about tuning into what they enjoy, or ensuring consent, until they’re considering BDSM. So you might well find it useful to read on even if kink isn’t something you’re particularly interested in.

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Consensual Relationships Revisited

Applying the concept of consent to all relationships in various ways.

Content warning: abusive relationships and abusive sex are touched on briefly in this post.

Recently I wrote a post here about open relationships. It explored how the concept of openness might be applied to relationships more widely than just open non-monogamy – which is what people usually mean when they talk about open relationships. Whilst my research with polyamorous communities started by focusing on non-monogamy, I think that openness is a useful concept to apply to all kinds of relationships, not just non-monogamous relationships or just partner relationships.

A similar thing has happened with my research on kink, or BDSM, communities. Initially, like many of the researchers who have tried to learn from – rather than explain – kink, my focus was on the ways in which people ensured that their play was Safe, Sane and Consensual (SSC) or Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). Those terms are the mantras of the kink communities. Whilst RACK recognises the problems with the idea that the things people do could ever be entirely safe, or completely sane (whatever that means), it retains the idea that consent is the vital cornerstone of BDSM sex.

However, my latest piece of research with kink communities was all about how common ideas about consent are currently being questioned, and reconsidered, by people in those communities. Online conversations over the last three or four years have radically challenged understandings of consent in ways that I think are useful for everyone, far beyond just kink communities.

consent

The Consent Culture movement has argued that the idea of consent needs to be expanded out in a number of ways.

Consent is about:

  • All sex, not just kinky sex
  • Enthusiastic mutual agreement, not just the ability to say ‘no’
  • The whole relationship, not just the sex parts
  • All relationships, not just sexual relationships (including the relationships that we have with ourselves)
  • The whole culture, not just the individuals within it

The idea is that unless we aim for consensual relationships beyond the bedroom, with all the people in our lives, and in our wider culture, it will be very hard – if not impossible – to ensure consent within sexual encounters, whether those are kinky or non-kinky. It isn’t possible to isolate just one aspect of human behaviour (sex) and ensure that it is conducted under a completely different set of rules than the ones that we use when managing the domestic chores,for example, or  inviting someone out to a social occasion, or putting structures in place for how our work projects will be conducted.

I’ll take each one of these expansions in turn now, and explore how we might encourage all of our relationships, networks and communities to become more consensual.

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Trigger warning: Trigger warnings (towards a different approach)

There has been a great deal of discussion lately on the topic of trigger warnings. First a spate of articles appeared in the press describing situations in which students had asked teachers to provide warnings about the content of materials on their courses. These warnings aimed to provide people with information about any topics that they might find personally difficult, due to connections with events that had occurred in their own lives. Many of the newspaper articles ridiculed the idea of putting warnings on great literature, for example, and portrayed such requests as entitled and over-sensitive, and as a form of censorship. Following this, a number of online authors wrote defences of trigger warnings, portraying them instead as a means for people to have some control over what they are exposed to, often in the context of wider discriminations.

I’ve been struck that most of the articles and blog posts that I have seen on this topic have taken a stance for or against trigger warnings, often presenting an impassioned argument in favour of providing trigger warnings or virulent opposition to the practice.

As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been attempting to take a different kind of approach in my thinking about this kind of thing, despite the ongoing magnetic pull towards binaries of right and wrong, good and bad. I’m trying to avoid polarisation, but instead to ask the following questions (for example, in relation to pornography, sex advice media, monogamy, or mental health diagnoses).

  1. One thing or many?

What are we really talking about here? Is it one unitary thing, or might it be many things collapsed together, meaning that the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ people are often referring to slightly – or totally – different things (we see this, for example, when anti porn feminists focus on the most aggressive examples of mainstream porn, and sex positive feminists focus on alternative and/or ethical porn)

  1. Opening up and closing down

Given that whatever we are talking about is probably an umbrella term covering many things rather than a singular thing, and given that people seem to have such strong feelings about it in both directions, it seems unlikely that it can be determined to be either entirely positive or entirely negative. So instead it is helpful to ask ourselves what it has the potential to open up, and what it risks closing down. We might helpfully consider this question on multiple levels, i.e. what it opens up and closes down for the individuals concerned, for communities in which they are embedded, for achieving their aims, and for wider culture.

  1. Moving from what to how

Working through these questions often leads to different kind of conclusions. Instead of focusing on what to do (e.g. whether to use trigger warnings or not, whether to censor porn or not), we might focus instead on how we engage with whatever-it-is.

For the rest of this blog I’ll work through these points providing some of my own thoughts on trigger warnings. You might well have ideas to add in each place from your own reflections and from the other writing that already exists on the topic. Hopefully this will also provide a wider model for the way in which other topics might be engaged with from the ‘opening up/closing down’ perspective.

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Review of Rewriting the Rules

The first review of Rewriting the Rules is up on the Love Research Network blog. Thanks so much to Michael Gratzke for writing this. It feels amazing, after ten years of planning and writing this book between other projects, to finally have people reading it and commenting upon it. I’ve also received some very thoughtful emails and a lovely Amazon review (thank-you self-help junkie!)

The thing that I am most pleased with in the feedback so far is that most people are using words like friendly, kind, or compassionate. One person over email said that the fact that the book emphasises how tough relationships are, and how we all struggle and make mistakes, was refreshing and helpful compared to the usual ‘expert’ stance of self-help books. For me it was important to write something that could be useful and wouldn’t leave people feeling worse than when they started. That was a lot more vital than it being smart, radical, or rigorous (although I hope that it is those things to some extent as well).

I want to keep a note, here, of the points that people are picking up on that they wanted more on or didn’t think were covered so well. That way I can make sure that I explore more in those directions, and/or encourage other people to do so. So far these points have come up:

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Mental health: beyond a health focus

A number of news pieces in recent weeks have discussed a new report which found that only 25% of people with mental health problems get the help that they need. Articles highlight both the frequency of such difficulties (a third of families having a member with mental health problems at any one time), the high financial cost of not treating such difficulties, and the effectiveness of treatments like cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) for those who do receive them.

Certainly it is extremely important to make support available when people are struggling. However, these news reports seem to miss something by regarding this purely as a health issue, and by focusing only upon treatment once mental health difficulties are present rather than also considering measures which may prevent such problems or increase resilience.

The fact that so many people suffer with issues such as depression and anxiety has implications far beyond the health service, and the focus on targeting funds only at treatment for existing mental health problems seems somewhat blinkered.

As a starting point, here is a list of other arenas which could usefully attend to statistics on mental health and shift policy and practice accordingly. In all of these areas a broader biopsychosocial understanding of the experience of mental health problems would be of value:

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Self help or not self help?

I recently read a great new book by my colleague, Scott Cherry, called How to Stop Reading Self-Help Books. As well as being an entertaining read it presents some serious problems with self-help books and the self-help industry more widely. The book ends with a programme for weaning oneself off self-help books, written in a self-help book style of course!

But of course I am in a bit of a strange position in relation to criticising self-help books because haven’t I recently written something which looks very much like a self-help book myself? Here I want to summarise some of the reasons why I agree, with Scott, that it is worth being very cautious about such books, and also to explore some possibilities for engaging with this genre creatively (and, as Scott emphasises, critically) rather than wishing for its total demise.

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