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.


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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.


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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.


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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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BDSM: What do we know?

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s a longer one on BDSM following the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and your past research into BDSM practices?

I’m a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and I’ve been studying BDSM and other sexualities for around ten years now. In 2007 Darren Langdridge and I published a book called Safe, Sane and Consensual (Palgrave, 2007) which brought together many of the main people researching BDSM at the time.

What drew you to study this subject?

I’m generally interested in sexualities and relationships that fall outside the mainstream and what people in general might be able to learn from those who do things differently.

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Dominant and submissive relationships

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d start to post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one I did on dominant and submissive relationships after Fifty Shades of Grey was published. You might also find it useful to check out some more posts I did about the same topic – around the time the movie came out – here:

Why do people sometimes prefer Dom/sub relationships?

D/s is one aspect of the wider category of BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism), sometimes also known as kink. Some people are into all of the things listed under BDSM, and some only some of them. D/s is generally distinguished from SM because it is more about power than about physical sensation (although some use these terms more interchangeably).

In D/s activities one person generally dominates the other, or has power over them, therefore people tend to prefer D/s if they find a power dynamic to be exciting in some way. Of course it is pretty common for sex and power to be mixed together in our culture. For example, a lot of romance fiction involves people being rescued from peril or being swept away by somebody more powerful, and a lot of people fantasise about having the power of being utterly desirable to their partner.

What is involved in a Dom/sub relationship?

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Kink awareness exercise

Yesterday I ran my training session on kink/BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism) to a group of sex and relationship therapists and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to blog about the exercise I use in these sessions. Here it is so that you can have a go, yourself, if you like.

Would you be concerned or not if a friend [or a client if you are a practitioner] revealed taking part in this activity? Which are most concerning and why?

An individual gets a rush out of being put in terrifying situations which makes him scream and cry out in fear. He engages other people to put him in a special device which will result in these effects. When his time in the device is up, his face is white and he has tears in his eyes, but he begs them to let him go through it again.

A woman asks strangers to cause her extreme pain to her genital area. She does this regularly, as she feels more attractive following the painful session. Sometimes, she’ll even do it to herself. If it’s done right, no permanent harm results.

A small group of people arrange to meet in a private space in order to watch others role-playing being raped, humiliated and tortured. They find this an enjoyable way of spending their evening.

Two people arrange to take part in a public scene. They spend a great deal of time preparing separately in advance. On the night they dress for the occasion in clothes made of satin. Watched by a gathered group of people they strike each other. The scene is considered successful if one of them briefly loses consciousness. The beatings are so severe they can result in permanent damage.

A woman spends several hours preparing her appearance. She chooses from items of clothing on which she has spent several thousand pounds, all of which painfully restrict parts of her body, forcing it into an unnatural shape and making it impossible for her to function normally. Over an extended period of time she knows this will damage her permanently. However, she experiences great pleasure despite the pain.

As part of a group ritual a man consents to an event which he knows will be gruelling, although he doesn’t know exactly what will take place. During the event, among other things, he is put in an altered state of consciousness, stripped and left alone in public.

An individual gives his life over to his master. He won’t do anything that is disapproved of under to code of rules his master has set. He won’t allow himself to experience sexual satisfaction until he has undergone the procedures his master sets out as necessary, although he often finds himself in a state of arousal and wishes he could. He mostly spends time with other people who have also pledged themselves to the same master, although none of them has ever met him in person.

In training this exercise leads into a useful discussion about the kinds of lines we draw to delineate concerning from non-concerning, and acceptable from non-acceptable, sexual practices.

For example, when reflecting on the activities people found most concerning yesterday, some said that it was about whether it caused damage and whether that damage was permanent or temporary. Others delineated between harm caused to oneself or to another person. Some said that it made a difference how rare or common an activity was, or how extreme it seemed to be. For some the number of people involved played a part in their feelings on the activity, as did whether it was in the context of an existing relationship or with a stranger. People spoke about lines around illegal activities, and also around fantasy and reality. Others mentioned whether activities caused distress, and we got into a discussion about whether distress could be pleasurable or not.

Throughout the conversation people frequently mentioned whether activities were consented to by the people involved, and whether this was informed consent (for example, the group ritual caused concern because the participant didn’t know what he was consenting to and members of the public may not have consented).

Of course you may well have realised that there is another element to this exercise along with being a useful way into considering the lines we draw around sexual activities.

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Consent and abuse of power in kink and other sexual communities

My latest project is to write a paper about the conversations about consent that happen in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and comparing these to recent conversations about consent that have been happening in kink and other sexual communities.

One main point of this is that Fifty Shades of Grey represents quite a conventional understanding of how consent happens. Generally Christian suggests something and if Ana doesn’t explicitly say ‘no’ they end up doing it. Additionally to this, outside of their sex life, he often does things that Ana has explicitly asked him not to. It seems that consent is only seen as applying to sex, not to the relationship more broadly.

Several bloggers in kink communities have recently pointed out that such simplistic understandings of consent, along with stigma around kink itself, have conspired to mean that many people have experienced rape and abuse in these settings and have felt unable to speak out about it. This has lead to an ongoing conversation about consent, power and abuse on the internet and at community events which is much more sophisticated and productive than some of those that preceded it.

It seems to me that there is a lot to be learnt from such conversations for those who – perhaps having read Fifty Shades of Grey –  are beginning to engage in kink, but also for people more widely: in a sexual context and in general.

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