The Thorny Issues of Consent

This was originally written as a continuation of the discussion of consent, however I think it stands alone as a basic outline of the issues with consent within our community.

In many ways, I think you can boil the core issue in consent in BDSM down to the Foo Fighters.

“The only thing I’ll ever ask of you – You’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when”

In the legal world, consent is viewed through the filter of contemporaneous consent.  Even though in practical terms we have to allow for second thoughts and misunderstandings, in legal terms we don’t.
In the world of consensual non-consent, the building blocks of consent are different.  If I were going to take even a wild stab at laying a framework I would say:

  • An initial consent – prior consent
  • That prior consent is informed consent
  • That the partners involved honor whatever promises were made at the point of prior consent.  Being able and willing to carry through with threats of consequences or punishment is often core to the power dynamic.
  • Post/ongoing consent – the ability to check in and various points which do not involve major stressors and determine that there is a recognition of the prior consent and an intention to continue.

Within the c/nc community there are several points of debate

The validity of indefinite consent.
Some years ago a couple of my friends signed a contract for their relationship.  While the contract appeared to be fair, both of the partners began to systematically subvert the rules attempting to coerce the other.  As their relationship moved along blatant coercion through withdrawal of sexual favors and public humiliation that made others in the community uncomfortable, became the norm.  Events they both attended were unpleasant. The only thing the two agreed on is that they could not break the contract.  The damage they did seemed unlimited…it went well beyond ego and sex into actual matters of money and property.  I remember friends trying to persuade the female partner to break the contract and the wide-eyed and very real fear in her eyes when she said that she could not break it.  It wasn’t a preference…it was a deep visceral fear that had been coerced into over years.

Fortunately they were finally persuaded that despite her family’s religious teachings and his conservative demeanor, divorce was a real option and both agreed they should never have gotten married in the first place.

Proving that kinksters are not the only ones who face this problem…

It is often part of the mystique and energy of the relationship that submissive and Dominant partners agree that the submissive partner does not have the option of revoking consent. Certainly almost all the literature in this area focuses on indefinite consent.

People seek indefinite obligations for any number of reasons.  I find it odd that people may consider the idea of a lifelong obligation to a Master “sick” while finding nothing unusual about marital vows containing the phrase “till death do us part.”  In both cases the core idea is that both partners can rely on the relationship without question and make an absolute commitment to make it work.

We know that in both cases this is completely impractical but the idea of being protected by someone/possessed by someone/possessing someone forever and without question is a human motivator that speaks to our desire for stability and safety on the deepest levels, and the myth that the submissive partner “cannot” leave is a core element of willing suspension of disbelief.
In the practical world of M/s on the East Coast, I have never heard anyone seriously maintain that someone should be kept in an M/s relationship after they have determined in a moment of sober post-stress thought that they don’t wish to.  I’ve known dozens of M/s couples/households that broke up, and if anything I’ve observed that the community is usually highly supportive of the previously submissive partner.

In contrast, I often see individuals on Fetlife plausibly maintain that they have fairly healthy long term relationships where a very real absence of the ability to leave the relationship is a part of the dynamic.  In most cases I genuinely think that this is simply a case where both individuals engage heavily enough in the willing suspension of disbelief that the thing is true.

It is also arguable that the distaste and antipathy that one sees in more conservative Masters who post from locations far outside the urban centers of alternative sexuality, or declare themselves to be outside the community is because of a dynamic that is actually far more draconian than that of most community members and that they fear (they would not use the word fear of course) that contact with the community will contaminate the purity of that dynamic.  I imagine this must be true in some small number of cases, but reading between the lines makes me strongly feel that it is a vanishingly small minority of cases.

I feel that as an observable rule of thumb, most members of established communities honor the concept of irrevocable consent as an ideal the same way many mainstream people honor the concept of “till death do us part.”  In practice they are actively supportive of anyone who chooses to leave a relationship for any reason, just as the same people who stood in rapt attention and listened to a mainstream couple’s wedding vows hear the news of impending divorce without batting an eyelash.
But the intellectual debate continues, and it is confused by the degree to which some people buy into the willing suspension of disbelief and speak in defense of the ideal rather than the actuality, as well as people who may actually hold the point of view.

What constitutes coercion

In the 1950s, the Communist Chinese engaged in programs of cultural re-education that gained the name “brain washing” from those who opposed them.  Certainly their version of re-eduction involved physical coercion and punishment to force compliance with an arbitrary norm.  In practice most militaries and many other organizations do exactly the same things for the same reasons.
Born in 1921 Margaret Singer led a controversial life.  From an apparently stable and affluent middle class Denver family, she was a cellist and received degrees in speech pathology and in clinical psychology.  Through chance or interest she ended up working at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. during the height and aftermath of the Korean War.  She met and interviewed soldiers who had been “brainwashed” and was startled by their antipathy towards America. The changes she saw were real and began a quest for a detailed explanation.

Moving to Berkeley in the 1960s, she was similarly alarmed.  Everyone who has had a friend who suddenly dropped their entire life for a new crowd, boy, or Jesus can understand her concerns…Berkeley was a hotbed of political activism and parents came to her describing complete personality changes where people simply disappeared.

Singer’s detractors felt she overstated a natural tendency of cultural change and teen/early adult rebellion to explode into rejection of an oppressive middle class American culture whose values we’d identify with Don Draper.  Her supporters pointed to the Charles Manson “Family” as the extreme end of a situation where normal people could become capable of behaving in monstrous ways.  Singer testified in relation to the trial of heiress Patty Hearst who is often discussed as a textbook case of “Stockholm Syndrome” after she became allied with her SLA kidnappers.
Our question…if someone is consenting…are they really consenting of their own “free will” or have they been coerced into consenting “against their will.”

In the 1980s the American Psychological Association…the professional organization which can be considered to represent some of the greatest authorities on human psychology and behavior in the US and probably the world, took on the question of unethically coercive persusasion.  One might imagine that after attempting to apply Occam’s razor to the issue, we’d have a good statement on the subject.  In fact we don’t and the spectacular debacle that followed is a good object lesson in the hazards of well meaning organizations like the NCSF trying to quantify what may not be readily quantifiable.

The APA constituted a group, called the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control, or DIMPAC.  They probably unwisely chose or allowed Margaret Singer to lead this task force.  Singer was an outspoken and opinionated critic of what she considered “coercive persuasion.”  This resulted in a high profile debacle, starting with the Task Force submitting a friend of the Court brief in a California case involving cults.   The APA Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) rejected the DIMPAC Report with some prejudice leading Singer to sue the APA for defamation.  (There’s a pretty good writeup here)

And the issue of coercion remains murky.

Our problem is simple. In many cases people who feel a lack of control in their lives are drawn to the lifestyle because it promises discipline which they feel is lacking. Others seek an emotionally or physically coercive situation because their sex drive is linked to anxiety or coercion and the need and desire to experience sexual release is important to them.

Most of us probably agree that there is some level at which discipline might be “too much” when we are making someone into a traumatized basket case rather than a more functional human being.  The question is when and where.  Most of us feel we would “know it when we see it,” but so did Margaret Singer.

The problem is that there is no legitimate way to draw a line between what constitutes legitimate stress and coercion and what does not.  You cannot draw the line at whether or not it is “nice” or “constructive” because much of mainstream society forces compliance in ways that are neither.  It is unreasonable to draw the line at physical force because many ancient institutions and sports require strict physical discipline and mete out rather harsh physical punishments.

Many mainstream people are vaguely horrified by the idea of a slave being bound and beaten with a cane for punishment.  However they would easily digest an inspiring movie where a harsh coach’s insistence on laps or a stadium “grand tour” (with the implicit alternative of shaming and expulsion from “the program”) results in a moving sports victory, even though the mechanism of shame may be more coercive than an agreed punishment by physical force.

Even my friends in very mainstream “vanilla” relationships often come out of bad breakups saying that their partner “fooled” or “coerced” them into staying in the relationship, though in many of these situations it’s clear to me that the coercion was more in their sense of duty and pride versus guilt or inattention than in any actual force.  That happens in kinky relationships too, and when it does, there is often “more ammunition.”  We don’t have any objective ways to sort out what is and isn’t fair and unfair.

My personal criteria is informed consent.  I need to feel that the person who asked for or received a certain degree of coercion understood what it was and understood as much as possible the ramifications.  But that’s vanishingly hard to establish, since a change in point of view can change even the ramifications.

The Question of Competence:

As an afterthought, I’ll add something which is related but peripheral to consent, which is a cyclic set of issues over competence.

Twenty two years ago, when the place to find alternative culture of all kinds, from music and video to BDSM, was at the strange mixed-interest events called “Science Fiction” conventions, I attended an event in the DC area.  Every event had different rules, but this event was noted for being particularly spastic about badges. The “Security” staff numbered at least a twentieth of the overall attendance, and were planted at every elevator.  Their capacity for making rude demands and managing to find the worst possible way to ask about badges was legendary.

I’ve been to a few events in my lifetime where the DMs or Site Security seemed to be more about “Domming” the guests than actually providing safety, and if you get out much you probably have at least one similar experience.  As a fairly visible alpha-male I am often a target for this…people who would never confront me in normal life finding or even fabricating reasons for a confrontation because they feel in a temporary position of authority and want to exercise it in a way that makes them feel good.

Back 22 years ago, I got a good piece of advice for my own events.  “Anybody who strongly insists  they want to serve as security probably shouldn’t.”

There is an undercurrent of that concern in all discipline and in our community.  We are aware that often the people who want to serve as disciplinarians are interested in inflicting punishment as much because of their own needs as to actually create a program of discipline.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but when people are delusive about it, or out of touch with the reality it can lead to statements about their values and relationships that are far out of sync with the actual realities.

In practice I’ve seen this lead to all sorts of bizarre elitism in the M/s World, including calls for stratified programs of training, or self-delusive Dominants who were in denial about the fact that they got off on hurting people essentially trying to maintain that if you enjoyed it you shouldn’t do it, so making the primary qualification for a Master being able to engage in doublethink.  Not a lot of people own whips or tasers if they don’t get some enjoyment out of using them.


I won’t say this is a comprehensive review of the issues revolving around consent, but it is the beginning of an attempt to establish some sort of coherent framework for discussing it, and understanding the areas where, as Margaret Singer found, it is very resistant to analysis.

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