Musings on Consent, Consent Violation, and Stigma
Disclaimer: This is long and winding and somewhat disjointed. It is also going to upset some people. Consent is a difficult topic to discuss due to the stigma surrounding consent violations and injuries but I encourage civil discourse and disagreement in the comments. Attacks against people directly, however, will not be tolerated and will be deleted immediately. It’s time that we have a grown-up conversation about consent and promoting a culture of consent that helps everyone.
Safe, sane, consensual (SSC) was one of the first phrases that I learned upon entering the kink community. It was explained to me that all of the actions that I, or my partner, partake in should be:
- Safe – no risk of someone getting hurt.
- Sane – done knowingly, without intoxication or coercion.
- Consensual – everyone involved in the activities has agreed to them of their own free will.
In my previous writing "I'm not a Safe Rigger", I showed that I do not believe that I am safe. While I do not play intoxicated, I also wouldn’t consider large amounts of what I do to be particularly sane. Consensual though, that word I can get behind. Consent is everything in our world and for something that we talk about so much and promote as the thing that separates our actions from abuse and assault, we certainly have a hard time agreeing on what constitutes consent and what constitutes a consent violation.
As a side note Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK) is the more common acronym these days, and while I find it to be an improvement, I disagree that simply being aware of the risks isn’t enough. More on that later.
When I was a newbie in kink (for those of you wanting to comment about my age, more than 5 years ago), consent was easy. I had the things I wanted to do, things I might want to do in the future, and things that I didn’t want to do. Now, consent is more complex. I’m one of those people that enjoys being forced to do things I hate by a trusted partner. I still have my list of hard limits but it is substantially pared down. Consent has become more of a gray area in my life. As a bottom, blurring the lines of consent and non-consent is one of the biggest things that I’m into but like the way I top with rope, this comes with substantial risk to my partners and myself.
So, what do I do? As a bottom, I take responsibility for the fact that I am playing in a very high risk way and accept that I could come out of a scene feeling awful. I am not only aware of these risks, I accept them and know that if I play long enough and with enough people, this will happen. I take responsibility for my own emotions and will not label a scene going sideways as a consent violation. And with this, we get to the meat of what I want to discuss. Consent violations, how I feel that they should be discussed, and the way that victims and violators are treated in our community.
First an anecdote:
A bottom, relatively experienced in some areas of kink but new to wax play, walks up to a top well known for their skill with wax. This bottom asks to be given a lesson in topping wax play. The top agrees and begins to teach the bottom. At one point, the top wants to demonstrate a point and asks to pour a little wax on the bottom. The bottom agrees and the demonstration begins. Using the bottom’s own candle that the top isn’t particularly familiar with, everything is going fine until at one point, the candle gets a bit too close to the bottom’s skin and one drop of the wax actually mildly burns them. The top stops what they are doing, asks if the bottom is ok and wants to continue. The bottom says ‘yes’ and they move on. Later, the bottom tells people that this top violated their consent.
Why did I tell this story? Unfortunately, I tell this story because things like this are happening in our community right now. Did the top violate the bottom’s consent? Well, technically the bottom didn’t consent to being burnt but in reality, they consented to the risk of wax play and one of the risks is minor burns. But, I can see the argument about it being a consent violation.
Many things violate our consent. I don’t consent to take-out food taking 3 hours to be delivered. I don’t consent to my mailman not dropping off a package on time. I don’t consent to spiders in my house. But I also don’t label these natural and relatively expected things as ‘consent violations’. They do violate my consent but if I were to call the delivery driver and the mailman and spiders as consent violators, I am taking away from those people that have been victimized and abused by the true monsters that exist in our world. I understand that in our community, the term ‘consent violation’ holds substantial weight. This label is one of the worst possible things someone can be called. It makes them a pariah in their communities.
Guess what, I violated a bottom’s consent. True story, I got really into a scene with one of my favorite bottoms to play with. We hadn’t actually discussed limits in a while and I forgot that being smacked in the face was a limit of hers. In a moment of true stupidity, I did it. Here’s how the outcome was different than the previous story. Rather than label me a consent violator, my bottom approached me a day later and explained that I had broken one of her limits. I felt terrible and apologized profusely. I explained that I understood if she was very angry with me and that if she needed space or even to not talk to me again, I understood. She understood that it was a true accident and did forgive me. We did not play for a while after that but we are now back to playing regularly and having fun. The experience changed the way that I negotiate. Even if I’ve been playing with someone for a while, every few scenes or so, I ask for a refresher on their limits, especially the people that I only play with once in a while.
So we have had two stories now of consent violations and different ways that they can be handled. One trashed the top’s reputation. The other was handled discreetly and civilly between the two of us involved. I know which I prefer.
Moving on from here though, I want to talk a little bit about how I categorize consent violations. This is where I expect to get the most disagreement, so just be polite about it please. Let’s face it, we all accept that rape is different than someone accidentally brushing your butt in a crowded bar. Both of these things are consent violations but we take one far more seriously than the other, as we should. So without further ado, my categories of consent violations:
- Intentional, major consent violations – I classify these things as rape, intentional violation of hard limits, tops taking advantage of a situation and doing something totally inappropriate and unexpected for a scene (i.e. sticking their fingers in someone during a rope performance) or ignoring a safe word.
- Unintentional, major consent violations – So I haven’t heard of many, if any, stories of this happening but it’s hypothetically possible. I would consider this something like the top being unaware of a bottom’s hard limit or doing something that seemed appropriate for the scene but the bottom didn’t agree with. Also, not hearing the bottom safeword would fall into this category.
- Intentional, minor consent violations – A top pushes a bottom too far in a scene or pushes a soft limit. For example, whips them to the point they call ‘red’ and the bottom didn’t really want to be pushed that hard. Or the bottom says that it’s okay to have sex if the feeling is right. The top thought the feeling was right, the bottom didn’t.
- Unintentional, minor consent violations – A top stumbles upon a limit the bottom didn’t know that they had or failed to communicate during negotiation. A top accidentally brushes against the bottom’s genitals while tying a hip harness. Anything accidental that ends up not being a big deal in the future.
Things that I don’t classify as consent violations:
- Accidents – Things that go wrong during a scene that were meant to be avoided. (i.e. the candle incident or nerve impingement, etc.)
- Regret – A top or bottom agrees to something at one time, does it, and then later decides that they didn’t like it. Saying that it’s ok for you to whip me and then me deciding that I don’t like being whipped doesn’t give me the right to later say that I never consented to that.
You will notice some trends. I am using two deciding factors when classifying consent violations. First, and by far most important to me, is intention. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult to know for certain. To me, anyone that intentionally harms their bottom or ignores their limits needs to, at a very minimum, do some soul-searching about their behavior and attitudes. Secondly, I have two major categories of severity. There will be some disagreement about what actions go in which categories but to me, there is a difference between rape and copping a feel. Both are disgusting and bound to leave the victim feeling violated but as a society, we accept one of this as far more disgusting than the other.
Why did I attempt to categorize consent violations? Because of the stigma associated with the term and to show that someone could use that term to mean any number of things. I personally would not play with someone that had committed an intentional, major consent violation but I might be willing to play with any of the others. Someone else might have a different opinion on who they’re willing to play with. Another piece of the puzzle is frequency. If I know of someone who has pushed my limits one time and then I’m aware of multiple times with other people that this person pushed their limits (or outright violated them), I’m not likely to play with them, even if the limit falls into the ‘minor’ category, such as I was drunk and saying ‘no’ but the person pulled me on to their lap anyway. The problem here is frequency. Obviously this person is a repeat offender. It wasn’t a moment of idiocy. It’s a pattern and therefore, I am less likely to play with this person as I don’t expect my limits to be respected.
But does a single incident of someone forgetting about a limit mid-scene or misinterpreting a signal from their bottom deserve to have them labeled as a ‘consent violator’ when that term in our community means the same as ‘rapist’? I personally don’t think so. You may disagree and that’s okay.
What is not okay is bottoms (and tops) using a scene going sideways or someone getting injured or feeling regret about what they did (or were considering doing) to damage someone’s reputation. First of all, this is just not ethical. It’s malicious and just as disgusting to me as someone who actually does violate consent intentionally. Secondly, this gives more ammo to the people that like to deny true consent violations. They say that the person is just making it up and point to the statistics that some people do make them up for many reasons but usually revenge and (as it at least appears sometimes) political advantage and popularity within the community. The more often false allegations happen, the easier it is to disbelieve actual victims that come forward to accuse the person that abused, raped, or assaulted them. These people hide behind the false (and I’ll allow for ‘mistaken’) allegations. Please don’t use ‘consent violator’ as a weapon for your personal gain.
On a related but different note, something that we, as a community need to work on is destigmatizing the term ‘consent violation’. I don’t think that I know a single top that hasn’t violated a bottom’s consent in some way. The difference is how it is handled. Barring a serious problem, most people handle it quietly, with the person themselves. They, of course, are free to tell their story but most people handle minor violations and then only discuss it if asked about that person specifically. If we were to keep a database of everyone that ever committed a consent violation, I have no doubt, that with enough time, every single top would end up in that database making it totally useless and defeating its, misguided perhaps but, well-intentioned purpose.
In closing, as a community, we need to realize that consent isn’t the black and white issue that we wish it were. There is nuance and gray areas. Unfortunately there are people out there that use consent as a weapon. There are people that simply don’t know how to give consent and negotiate. And there are true monsters that abuse and violate. While many people advocate for extremely detailed negotiation in order to prevent any possible thing from going wrong, I suggest that we move away from this model and towards a model of personal responsibly and informed consent. Understand that what you are consenting to carries risk and that you can’t negotiate for every contingency. Tops, rather than negotiating for every single action within a scene, I advocate negotiating for a feeling or a style. In my personal experience, it leads to happier bottoms and better scenes but your mileage may vary. Bottoms, you are responsible for your well being in a scene. You must learn to negotiate for what you want. Setting limits or asking for a specific style of scene is your responsibility. If you don’t know what type of scene you want, an honest discussion with your top is in order. If you don’t know your limits, perhaps you should do some soul-searching and research before trying to negotiate a scene. If you absolutely can’t wait to play, understand that it is not a consent violation if you try something and end up not liking it.
I think that we can all help this problem by accepting that there are not only physical risks to what we do but mental and emotional risks as well. Scenes don’t just go sideways from physical injury. A bit more understanding from both sides and less of a knee-jerk reaction about consent violation can help us start to open up more honest discussions about consent in our community.