Sunday, May 19, 2013


"Sexual Health and Sexual Freedom:

AASECT believes that healthy sexual activity is always ethically conducted, freely chosen, individually governed, and free from undue risk of physical or psychological harm.  AASECT believes that all individuals should be supported in seeking and finding opportunities to pursue a healthy and happy sex life of their own choosing.  AASECT believes that all individuals are entitled to enjoy:
  • Freedom of their sexual thoughts, feelings and fantasies.
  • Freedom to engage in healthy modes of sexual activity, including both self-pleasuring and consensually shared-pleasuring.
  • Freedom to exercise behavioral, emotional, economic and social responsibility for their bodily functioning, their sexual liaisons, and their chosen mode of loving working and playing.
AASECT believes that these rights pertain to all peoples whatever their age, family structure, backgrounds, beliefs, and circumstances, including those who are disadvantaged, specially challenged, ill or impaired.

Sexual Variability and Rights:

AASECT recognizes the many varieties of sexuality including, but not limited to, the full range of sexual orientations, gender, transgender and intersex positions, as well as erotic preferences and lifestyles.  AASECT opposes the application of labels such as "normal' and "abnormal" to the variations in the healthy sexual expression of adults, and AASECT believes that all sexual and cultural minorities should enjoy sexual freedom, equal rights, and parity of social opportunities and privileges."
Excerpt from the AASECT Vision of Sexual Health (2004)

Kinky people who participate in lifestyle organizations and professionals in the psychotherapy community share deep philosophical commitments to ideologies featuring informed consent and personal responsibility.  Anyone who works seriously with the concept of consent not only recognizes its importance, but also how problems arise in its proper application.  In the therapeutic communities, this takes the form of discussions of professional standards, ethics and therapeutic techniques and boundaries.  How is informed consent to be protected, and how can clients make informed free choices?  We have already seen that kinky communities have tried hard to reassure interested potential members that they are not into coercive practices or dominating the unwilling.  They are fighting public notions that BDSM is non-consensual violence.  They want to protect free choice too.  The epistemologies of kink and therapy can be far apart sometimes, but here the two communities share a great deal in common.  Yet the concepts of individual responsibility sometimes get handled very differently and kink plays with consent in ways that would be unethical for professionals to attempt.  It is the opposite of the standard safety disclaimer:  “Don’t try this at home, folks, we are trained professionals.” means we pros can’t do the dangerous and entertaining presentation, which can only be safely attempted by amateurs!

 Mythbusters' Caveat!

Several characteristics of BDSM make consent a challenge.  Many clients want risky activities, but give consent in anticipation that things will go well, but not so much if they go wrong.  Intense emotions and the very manipulation of mood and consciousness that BDSM attempts to effect can drastically alter feelings, cognition, and the capacity to evaluate risk.  I have already suggested that fantasies of how BDSM practices feel and their reality may be widely divergent, and the inexperienced can easily have eyes that are too big for their stomachs.  Mostly we worry that people will get in over their heads, which certainly happens, but there are risks of being scared off too easily and missing out on pleasure to be considered also.  The kink community uses different language about risks and feelings, part of the glue that holds communities together is private argot that the unaware don’t share, so communication is far from automatic, especially for novices and outsiders, despite a very serious commitment to public education.


One of the primary strategies the kink community uses to counter these risks is by promoting the practice of explicitly negotiating scenes.  This negotiation often takes the form of a contract, that is rather like the things we therapists ask client’s to sign when they consent to treatment.  Contracts talk about things that must go into a play session or ‘scene’ (yes, the jargon for a play session and the larger community of BDSM is the same word!), things forbidden, safewords or signals that participants can use to stop play in an emergency, and safety arrangements.  They may discuss duration, who can watch or participate and how.  When relationships deepen and players become more intimate, this negotiation becomes less explicit.  But often the negotiation results in far more explicit conversations about not only sexual activity, but emotions, symbolic meaning, and intimacy than the non-kinky typically undertake.  In kink, communication is often deeper and more detailed, assumptions more challenged, and consent far more explicit than is customary or valued in vanilla sex.  We may imagine that contracts primarily protect submissives and masochists, but they equally protect Dom/mes who do not want to over-step, want to feel powerful, in control and effective—it requires staying within boundaries to do that.  Dominants may be doing things that would put them at considerable risk without prior explicit authorization from a submissive they can trust.  Pat Califia has an erotic story about a gay submissive being kidnapped and shaken down for sex by uniformed police officers.  That’s prima facie evidence of the crime impersonating a police officer, not something you are going to want to face if you think the ‘victim’ might complain.

This does not mean that such negotiations are risk-free, or even that partners are always open and honest in negotiations.  Excessive desire to please the other and unrealistic expectations can infiltrate these discussions just as they do with vanilla relationships.  Having an explicit conversation about your limits isn’t a whole lot of protection if you don’t know them.  But the acceptance that negotiation of scenes and boundaries is a routine part of play does mitigate many emotional risks and promotes awareness of self and others. 

Mental Health:

To be released May 22, 2013

Consent is problematical in other ways.  Because of psychiatric diagnoses that kink behaviors may be pathological or compulsive, this legitimates questions of what activities may be consented to on a genuinely informed basis.  Mostly people in the BDSM world avoid direct discussions of psychiatric diagnosis, and maintain that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals of the Mental Disorders over-pathologize kink.  There were several serious organizational efforts to have consensual sexual sadism and consensual sexual masochism removed from the Paraphilias Section of DSM-5. This blog will eventually present a very extensive series of posts regarding the history, social construction, and professionalization of sexual deviance, a topic way beyond the scope of this post.

There is understanding of concepts that are not unlike psychopathology in BDSM.  The tendencies of novice submissives to become like kids in a candy store and crave everything imaginable is understood and discussed by dominants, and respected dominants know and deal with this by setting limits.  The same is true for ‘sub-drop,’ a kind of adrenaline and endorphin crash the follows intense scenes, and manifests a great deal like Major Depressive Episode.  Emotional aftercare for heavy scenes is a part of the expectations of effective tops.  It is also part of the folklore that breakups of intimate BDSM relationships of longstanding are especially difficult for dominants and submissives alike, and that people need special support during such losses.  Because of the troubled relationship between organized scene activity and professional mental health, most of these problems are dealt without professional interventions.

Do Not Forget Your Safeword!

Safewords:  The epistemology of “No!”

Perhaps the most common but provocative core concept in BDSM relative to consent is the safeword, a signal that the submissive can use to communicate that there is an emergency that should stop play.  Obviously, submissives would not need this protection if they were free to stop the action any time they felt like it.  But this is no fun for the submissive, who would then feel responsible for everything that transpires, and enjoy no sense of giving up control.  Neither is it any fun for dominants, who want to feel like they are driving the action, not slavishly obeying the submissive’s instructions.  So both parties in a BDSM scene have a stake in agreeing to ditch active consent.  Contracting inevitably constitutes a surrender of consent, and the safeword acts as a device for restoring part of it.  But one of the main effects of safewords is to assert the reality in BDSM that “no” doesn’t really mean “No!”, and that the dominant in any scene doesn’t have to stop simply because the submissive says so.   The existence of safewords is proof  that most BDSM activities involve some degree of consent play--that freedom to stop the scene is given up.  But it serves the symbolism and theater of the play, and the psychological needs of the players to feel power is genuinely exchanged in the scene.

A French Stop Sign.  We will revisit this when we discuss Jacques Lacan, who was not kinky, but was disinclined to stop!  But in the interim, this is a poor safeword.
The mechanics of safewords differ somewhat.  Typically a word the submissive would not be inclined to chose is 'Stop!', or 'No!' or any word s/he commonly uses when excited.  'Yellow' is a more common choice.  Sometimes there is a hierarchy of safewords, so the submissive can stop action to discuss something, without permanently ending play.  There is considerable incentive not to use safewords in a cavalier manner.  Submissives feel like they may be giving in too readily to their anxieties, or fear judgment from the top or observers, or dread the Dominants possible disapproval.  It can take courage to use a safeword, and tops are encouraged to make sure the bottom really knows and will use a safeword in a genuine emergency.  Debriefing scenes is sometimes a part of aftercare, to see if the bottom had feelings about safeword use.  Sometimes tops give the submissive the safeword, and make it long or complicated when no real danger is expected, but they do not want the bottom using it to escape a stressful situation too quickly.

A romanticized Western view of 'oriental' sex slavery.

The most challenging problems of consent in BDSM for most in the therapy community is cases where submissives want to give up consent in ways that expose themselves to irreversible dangers, such as David Cronenberg’s movie Crash, in which protagonists are aroused by automobile crashes that are far from accidental.  I have never encountered serious practitioners of that particular kink, which is based on the novel by English writer J G Ballard who also wrote Empire of the Sun.  But serious kinks do involve giving up consent more or less permanently as can be enacted in 24/7 lifestyle sexual slavery.  The Dominant in such a scenario may have total control of the slave’s money, work life, relations with family and the community, as well as explicitly sexual activity.  Lesser variations, involving temporary and permanent surrender of the right to safewords may be consensually negotiated.  Although it is the view of this author that most kink is not psychopathological, every clinician who treats sexual variation needs to decide for him or herself where the limits to healthy sexual expression end.  Some consensual sexual expression goes directly to the boundary where the values of sexual health and sexual expression are in conflict, and the support of one value necessarily must compromise the other.

Crash By G J Ballard:   Crash, by G J Ballard
Macho Sluts By Pat Califia  Macho Sluts

©2013 Russell J Stambaugh, Ann Arbor, All Rights Reserved.

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