Your Rights. Your Privacy. Your Freedom.

Guest Blog: No Negotiation Is Non-Consent – or Rape

by Liz Harrison

Out in vanilla world, the concept of consent, while hotly debated from time to time by policy makers, is at its core cut and dry – either the person acted or spoke affirmatively and sexual activity occurred, or the person didn’t speak or act in an affirmative way and hopefully no sexual activity occurred. The waters became muddied considerably when some activists, particularly on college campuses, started pushing for “guilty upon accusation” policies when it comes to rape. Morning after regret could turn into rape allegations, and no one could be sure if yes meant yes anymore. This situation infuriates me, both as a writer and as a rape survivor. It is destroying the already hellish legal system for dealing with rape, because it is casting real rape victims as just women who thought twice about sexual encounters after the fact. Bluntly, it is making it necessary to coin the phrase “legitimate rape” that not so long ago caused a politician to face severe public criticism.

In the world of BDSM, these debates over consent can be considerably more complicated, given the nature of some people’s proclivities and desires. As an activist writer on sexual freedoms, I usually try to stay out of discussions on this, with the exception of when I come across situations that make me sincerely question whether or not consent has honestly been given and hasn’t been withdrawn. Because so much of BDSM exists outside the law – unlike vanilla sexual relationships – it’s very rare when I step in to offer an opinion. While I personally do not accept the “My Kink, Not Your Kink, and That’s OK” answer in all situations, I usually try to stay out of categorizing activities as acceptable or not until it comes down to people wanting to see their kinky behavior protected by the law. Bluntly, I’m not a miracle worker, and neither are any other sexual freedom activists who dabble in legislative affairs. There are some things we may never be able to get lawmakers to protect, period. So, my answer is “if you’re into it, have at it, but please don’t ask me to defend it legally, because I can’t.”

Lately, I’ve been catching a theme on something that honestly in that category. It seems that I’m seeing people regularly asking BDSM communities all over the place on the web about what to do when D/s relationships go out of control. I’m talking about a spate of submissive types asking for input on dealing with dominant types who are ignoring or not allowing negotiation of the boundaries of the relationship. I’m sorry, I’m not sorry, but there is just one word for that – rape. It’s not consensual non-consent, or any other glossy kink term someone chooses to use for it. When negotiations are ignored or not permitted, it is impossible for consent to be given, period. When there is no consent, it is rape.

Those of you who are shaking your heads because the situation in question did not involve sexual activity per se can stop now. I am saying this from the perspective of drawing a line in the sand. From my own experience dealing with lawmakers – over 20 years of it – I’m here to tell you that there is no way anyone will be able to sell this kind of activity as legally acceptable. Further, I am saying that personally, I will actively campaign against any attempt to do it, and will be on the front lines to see non-negotiated BDSM activity specifically made illegal, on the same level as existing laws forbidding rape.

While I’ve held this position for a very long time now, until recently, I had no idea what such a law would look like. Laws are picky things, and need to have specific language and requirements. There must be something for a prosecutor to prove in court, for one thing. That “something” doesn’t necessarily have to be absolutely objective, which is what we see in many rape cases already. So, what would need to be proven in this situation?

There is one common factor involved in all consensual BDSM activities – all parties involved are doing their parts to get something they want out of it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Sure, it gets complex quick, when anyone is put on the spot by questions about why they want something. “What normal person wants to be beaten or humiliated?” Yes, we all know that pile of questions from vanilla folks, and we generally just stick with the “Why do you assume we’re normal?” reply. Normal is boring in our world, right?

But, within our own little world, the answers to those questions about why we want the “freaky” stuff we do vary, with more answers than practitioners floating around. No, I’m not suggesting that we’ll ever manage to get the vanilla folks to “get” why we do what we do, even if it does end up that non-consensual BDSM can specifically land someone in court on criminal charges. I am saying that members of the psychological community are capable of figuring out whether or not someone is doing something completely against their will, and more importantly, whether or not real psychological damage is being done. In their parlance, it’s called diagnosing emotional abuse. That is the common thread I’ve finally noticed, and have been furious with myself for not noticing before – every one of those submissive types who would take to the forums in BDSM world to ask advice on dominant types who weren’t respecting or creating boundaries with them showed some signs of emotional abuse. Be it fear, disconnection from support systems, excessive insecurity, rationalizing bad behavior of their partners, or describing themselves as emotionally numb without realizing it, the signs are there. (If you’re a submissive type, and those words are hitting too close to home for you, it’s time for you to reach out for professional help, or at least a domestic abuse hotline. Skip talking about the lifestyle if you’re not certain the people you’re talking to would understand, and stick with just your emotions. Or reach out to NCSF.)

The reason why I have finally reached my limit on this one, and have decided to not remain silent on this issue is the pile of dominant types I constantly see replying “Well, that’s how it’s supposed to be, buttercup. Do as you’re told, and quit whining!” There’s one answer for that reply – NO!

BDSM and D/s relationships of any kind are not a license to ignore negotiation of limits, period. Full stop.

If you think I’m wrong, and you think you can do whatever you want to “your” submissive types as a dominant type, consider this fair warning. Watch your back. This isn’t a threat of violence or physical action, but it is a promise that I will start calling you on it. This writing is meant to encourage everyone who values ethical BDSM and D/s to do the same.

As a community, we have been failing submissive types by remaining silent. That needs to stop. “It’s not my place to tell someone else how to do their thing,” is not an acceptable excuse once it crosses the line to the point where the submissive types are making pleas that would fit on a domestic violence support group forum. If you don’t know what that looks like, start visiting them, and learn. Look under “emotional abuse survivors” when you can. If you have the time, it’s even better if you call your local women’s shelter, and volunteer to take some shifts on their helpline. They’ll train you, and you will learn how to draw a definite line between BDSM and abuse.