Grounding Consent

One way in which my approach to kink is closer to (what we stereotypically think of as) the BDSM way of doing things, rather than (what we stereotypically think of as) the spanking/CP way of doing things, is that I’m much happier with clear and explicit negotiation and consent. I don’t mean to imply by that that negotiation and consent are necessarily lacking in the spanking/CP community, but the style is generally more informal and — and this is the key point here — more flirty. It’s not hard to see how this came to be the case: BDSM play is typically more planned, more structured, and more abstract; spanking/CP play can tend that way too, but its most accessible form bleeds very easily into/from non-kink activity. Someone who turns their partner over their knee for a spontaneous hand-spanking for being pesky isn’t necessarily doing BDSM; someone playing with Japanese rope-work pretty much necessarily is. So (what we stereotypically think of as [and that’s the last time I’m saying this; feel free to add it yourself in the following]) BDSM activity both has greater need for a more planned, formal approach, and has naturally developed such an approach.

In an earlier post, I characterised a common spanking/CP way of negotiation of consent by analogy with two modems following the handshake protocols by which a connection between them is established:

Person #1: *pours water on Person #2* [Hello! I’d like it if you spanked me! Is that okay?]
Person #2: “Do that again, miss, and there’ll be trouble.” [That would be fine, but I’d like to confirm I have your consent.]
Person #1: *pours more water* [This is confirmation that I want you to spank me, and am giving my consent.]
Person #2: “Come here!” [Your consent has been received!]
Person #1: “Ouch! I’m being spanked by you!”
Person #2: “I’m spanking you!”

The part of that analogy that’s relevant here isn’t the back-and-forth, but the fact that the human protocols involve encoding of the negotiation as subtext. The surface form of flirting carries embedded within it a request for consent, a giving of consent, and an acknowlegement that consent has been agreed. That approach can work, and often does — though is liable to be broken, with nasty consequences, if and when appreciation of the subtext is poor — but I find I’m not drawn to it. I like the clarity and honesty of clear consent.

What that doesn’t mean, however, is that I’m not into flirting. I just want the whole process to be grounded somewhere; to bring in another analogy, I want the logical deductions to be grounded by really clear and solid axioms. In order to feel free to flirt — never mind to play — I want to know that such flirting is consented to, and what the ground rules are. Without going into Jay Wiseman-ish fetishisation of the very process of negotiation, I suppose I want to know that I’m not being a pushy and tedious and inappropriate asshole.

This was clarified for me by something I wrote in an e-mail to a friend a few days ago:

There’s definitely such a thing as consent for flirting, over and above consent for play. What I think a lot of spankos do is negotiate the consent for flirting by flirting, which gets a bit messy. Much better to basically give explicit consent for flirting, and then one can be a lot more playful, knowing that it’s completely welcome/reciprocated.

The part of the process, then, that I missed out from the modem negotiation analogy, is that flirting in the spanking/CP world is often not yet encoded negotiation for play, but actually encoded negotiation for the act of flirting itself. We flirt in order to find out whether flirting is okay, hopefully reading responses appropriately and calibrating onwards from there. (I will note in passing only that such reading of responses in this situation often doesn’t go as planned.) This, again, bleeds into/from non-kink life. Young people discovering whether they’re into each other don’t ask for permission to flirt, they just dive in head-first, and damn the consequences.

It’s clearly the case that many people much prefer this approach, and see explicit negotiation as numbing of their desires — insofar as they even consider that there’s an alternative to flirting in order to request implied consent for flirting. The effect is one of ungrounded consent pulling itself up by its bootstraps. The BDSM tenet of more formally negotiatied consent is clearly an abstracted construct on top of the natural social interaction, but I find I’m much happier in the space created by explicit consent to flirt. What happens from there onwards can be flirty as hell, but it’s grounded by the knowledge that both people are inhabiting more or less the same conceptual space. It feels liberating, rather than restrictive. Can we have a bit more of it, maybe?


  1. Well said. When consent and boundaries are both spelled out, there’s a lot more room to enjoy the moment, and both of you can spend less time wondering, “Is this okay? What about this? And this?”

  2. Interesting. I never thought about it that way, but I think your analysis is right. Perhaps it’s because I’m not very good at flirting (except with gay men if they start it), that I prefer more transparent negotiation.

    I think it’s important that you mentioned that BDSM negotiation has “evolved” because I’ve heard about a lot of scenes from a couple decades ago that was nowhere near as thoroughly negotiated as current scenes tend to be.

  3. I’m late on this one, Paul, not having had much internet time in the recent months, but I wanted to throw in a few thoughts, nonetheless. I think you have raised a very interesting point here, and one that sometimes causes me difficulties in kinky environments.

    The thing is that I love to tease people I like. In vanilla environments this isn’t a problem. My friends know me and they know that the comments I make are just good fun. But in kinky environments I am sometimes afraid that a spontaneous, teasing comment could be misinterpreted as a flirt and a play request. Since I’m often not in the mood for playing with others (especially people whom I don’t know very well), that means that I sometimes have the feeling that it is better to contain and control myself a bit in kinky environments due to their flirting rules, which I think is a sad thing.


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