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Consent within BDSM is when a participant gives their permission for certain acts or types of relationships. It bears much in common with the concept of informed consent. It is an issue that attracts much attention within BDSM, as well from outside observers.
Legal consent is a separate and largely unrelated matter. The importance of consent is simultaneously a personal, ethical, and social issue. Acts undertaken with a lack of consent are considered abusive and shunned within the BDSM subculture.
Concept of consent
Consent is an explicit agreement to acts, terms, and conditions. It can be confirmed verbally and/or in writing.
The underlying principle is a classical liberal idea that a person's freedom can be measured by lack of interference with their personal choices. As in classical liberalism, the harm principle comes into play. Consent, within BDSM and some academic schools of thought, is what separates legally actionable harm from legitimate personal freedom.
Informed consent is the idea that consent is offered with sufficient information and understanding of what is being agreed upon. As in vanilla society, an impairment of mental state or decision making abilities is considered a state in which informed, rational consent cannot be offered.
Another concept is contemporaneous consent. That is about *when* consent is offered and how it can be revoked. Legally, if someone says "no," "stop," or any other related things, you are obligated to stop. That is contemporaneous consent. This can conflict with concepts like total power exchange and consensual nonconsent. This is an area of significant philosophical conflict within BDSM communities.
Scope of consent
Consent is a vital element in all psychological play, and consent can be granted in many ways. Some employ a written form known as a "Dungeon negotiation form"; for others a simple verbal commitment is sufficient. Consent can be limited both in duration and content.
It is not unusual to grant consent only for an hour or for an evening. When a scene lasts for more than a few hours, some might decide to draft a "scene contract" that defines what will happen and who is responsible for what. Some "contracts" can become quite detailed and run for many pages, especially if a scene is to last a weekend or more.
Indefinite and long term consent
For long term consent, a "Slave Contract" is sometimes used. BDSM "contracts" are only agreements between consenting adults and are not legally binding; in fact, the possession of one may be considered illegal in some areas. Slave contracts are simply a way of defining the nature and limits of the relationship. Other couples know each others likes and dislikes and play accordingly. Such arrangements typically use a safeword, a signal by one or more of the participants that the action in question should either stop or that the session should end completely.
Consensual non-consent, also called meta-consent and blanket consent, is a mutual agreement to be able to act as if consent has been waived. It is an agreement where comprehensive consent is given in advance, with the intent of it being irrevocable under most circumstances. This often occurs without foreknowledge of the exact actions planned.
Consensual non-consent is considered a show of extreme trust and understanding. It is controversial within BDSM circles, even often frowned upon due to concerns about abuse and safety. It is mainly limited to those in Owner/property and 24/7 Master/slave relationships.
In recent years the term has also been used for the practice in play sessions. In the past, the term consensual non-consent was reserved to committed relationships, while the play practice used the umbrella term of edge play. This expanded scope is contentious and the subject of acrimonious debates.
In limited parts of the online BDSM community, "consensual non-consent" is instead used to refer to rape play that includes the use of safe words. This use of the term is commonly frowned upon, especially among total power exchange lifestyle participants. Experienced practitioners of BDSM generally discourage others from using "consensual non-consent" to indicate rape play. This attitude arises from the belief that it is a miscommunication potentially leading to serious and irreparable psychological harm.
Negotiation is a discussion about what is acceptable and what is off limits between partners. It is a crucial element for consent within the BDSM subculture. Negotiation can be formal with a complete checklist of acceptable and unacceptable acts. It can also be informal or ad hoc as part of the regular flow of a relationship. The culture of BDSM encourages a more formalized and explicit process. Clear negotiation for consent is the norm.
Informal negotiation is the process of discovering limits and interests along the way. Things are up for discussion and consent is granted on a case by case basis. However, over time the consent granted typically becomes broader before hitting a plateau. Negotiation in this sense resembles regular vanilla relationship discussions and debates.
Formal negotiation goes through a comprehensive list of questions and disclosures. This can be a broad process, setting out the boundaries for a long-term relationship. It can also be a narrow process that only addresses one or two specific actions, like negotiating for hypnotic trance or a thuddy flogging. This is fairly popular with play partner arrangements and "pick up" play in BDSM clubs, as it helps set very clear boundaries.
Models and philosophy
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BDSM communities share a common language of consent. Various models are expressed as acronyms representing differening approaches towards a philosophy of consent.
SSC stands for Safe, Sane, Consensual. It is far and away the most recognizable and popular model of consent in BDSM circles, though not without criticism.
RACK stands for Risk-Aware Consensual Kink. It is the second most popular consent model. It was created to overcome perceived shortcomings of SSC.
PRICK stands for Personal Responsibility Informed Consensual Kink. It is an alternative to RACK that emphasizes personal responsibility for choices and consequences.
Several of the activities in sexual BDSM play would be considered illegal and fall under the definitions of rape, assault or similar crimes or torts, if performed without consent. However, most legal systems include a general defense that activities performed with the victim's consent shall not be considered a crime or a tort. This raises some legal and ethical issues, such as:
- What is consent?
- Who can express consent? (For example: children are typically not considered to be able to give consent to sex.)
- When do we define consent as given?
- When is given consent invalidated?
- And are there activities that we still cannot allow, even with the victim's consent?
These concerns apply not only to BDSM but to every kind of interaction between persons. See Consent (criminal) for the general discussion.
The issue of consent in BDSM has caused a controversy in some countries since certain activities, (including some kinds of edgeplay) remains unlawful even when consent has been freely given. In such countries, these activities will always be viewed by law enforcement as unlawful when discovered, even though the activities have been entirely private. The Spanner case in England demonstrates the point, where participants in a consensual mutual BDSM play party were arrested. At all stages, the national and European Court ruled against them on the basis that a person under English law may not give consent to anything more than minor injury. Interested people may think that private mutual activities should not be the subject of law as a matter of public policy, a view which has some legal backing in the United States from the case of Lawrence v. Texas where it was effectively ruled that the state lacked the power to declare an activity illegal purely on the basis of moral opinion.
The March 5th 2007 conviction of Glenn Marcus on counts of sex trafficking & forced labor renewed much debate on this issue. Likewise in April 2007, two UK men were convicted of false imprisonment in a case where a third party who had been treated like a dog asserted the matter had not been consensual.
- Slave contracts are illegal in USA since 1865, with the 13th amendment. Slave trade illegal in 1808
- "Consensual non-consent", Informed Consent dictionary, Accessed 12 June 2012.
- Dictionary of BDSM Terms, "Consensual Non-Consent", Accessed 12 June 2012.
- "Sex Slave Trial" New York Post
- "Man was forced to live like a dog" - BBC (Analysis of consent issues on BDSM forum)