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On consent; picking apart the different shades of grey...

#consent #50shades #bdsm #sex #philosophy #flowchart
“It’s fine, so long as it’s between consenting adults.”

That expression sounds simple enough doesn’t it? In fact it might look like a pretty good cornerstone to build a morality around. It’s certainly an idea that’s down there somewhere amongst my own ethical foundations. ‘Consensuality’ seems like a simple line that can be drawn in the sand, as it appears to allow everyone the maximum personal liberty so long as they don’t infringe on the liberties of others.

However while a free reign of consenting adults might seem like a clear enough philosophy, I have been scrutinizing it for a while now and I keep noticing a lot of little loose threads around the fringes that worry me... I’m kind of concerned that if pull on them the whole basis of my morality might unravel... and then where will I be? Well this it the piece of writing where I give them all a solid tug and see what happens…


Well one thing that happens is I make a bit of a mess and I write a lot more words than I initially intended. This is because I encounter a lot of thorny philosophical do-dads and a lot of confusing questions I don’t really know the answers to. However I think I still have a nice piece of moral fabric left at the end, despite ending up with various other confused piles of cotton and potentially defective material that I’m not quite sure what to do with yet.

In case you don’t feel like wading through my ramblings I have made an easily followable if slightly absurd ‘consent flowchart’, to summarise a gold-standard of consent that one might aspire to… Well I just made it up, so it’s only a gold standard if you agree with me and I haven’t missed something major… Anyway, here it is:

And now for a ramble that goes along with it.


The problem with the ‘consensuality’ line in the sand is it can sometimes be damned hard to see where that line actually lies. Someone might look and sound like they’re fully consenting to something, but it’s hard to tell what motivational and psychological mechanisms are at work in the background that might be driving that consent, especially when something as charged and complex as BDSM is involved. Does someone let their partner hit them just because they are afraid of being alone? Does someone want to explore a fantasy of being injured without understanding the consequences? Is someone using BDSM to act out their self-destructive impulses?

There are a whole host of these murky scenarios that can often make a lot of ‘consenting adult’ situations appear very far from ok. In considering these I thought that it would be a good idea to try and distinguish a ‘gold-standard’ ‘bona-fide’ consenting adult from their messier counterparts. This does not mean to say that I am condemning those who fall outside of this definition, and looking back at my own dating antics there were perhaps times when my behaviour did not quite meet the ideals imagined here. However I’m not one to let the risk of self incrimination stop me from asking tough questions[1]! So here goes...

Questions about what makes for a bona-fide consenting adult

Question 1- Is an individual able to properly consent?
I’ll assume we’re all in agreement that only adults can properly consent, because, you know it takes a lot of growing up to understand that actions have consequences, etc etc. Admittedly some adults don’t always seem to fully understand the ‘actions = consequences’ thing, and I’m sure there’s a reasonable debate to be had over what the age of consent should actually be, but that’s a minefield I wish to signpost here as ‘a minefield’ and move on, giving it an appropriately wide berth.

We can probably also agree that someone has to be ‘sane’ to properly consent. Unfortunately in the past our culture has had the nasty habit of labelling anyone who didn’t think or act in accordance with the norms of social behaviour as ‘insane’. Medicine these days seems to have mostly gotten over that, but just to be on the safe side I will clarify that by ‘sane’ I mean anyone who is mentally functioning in a way that they can recognize and sensibly respond to the day to day realities of the world we live in. (Assuming that it is normal people have the correct impression of reality and that the lunatics aren’t the ones really seeing the world as it truly is… [Minefield #2- the nature of reality- Avoid at all costs])

There is also the broader spectrum of mental illness to contend with; all kinds of things can mess with our brain chemistry in ways we have little or no control over. For example those people with severe depression may still be sane, but they might not be in a state to effectively weigh the risks of any given activity, especially if they feel self destructive. Now how much value a person puts on their life and well being is always going to be subjective [Welcome to Minefield #3- the subjective nature of mental well being- twinned with the qualitative assessment of Joy... and Chippenham.] I have a strong gut feeling that anyone who exploits someone’s self destructive urges solely for their own personal enjoyment is a colossal arsehole who deserves to suffer a series of debilitating-if-not-quite-fatal accidents. On the other hand I have a great deal of respect for someone who can dominate a self-destructive person in a constructive way that helps them to turn those pernicious impulses in on themselves, and use the D/s dynamic to improve someone's mental health. Perhaps the key difference here is that in the later case the dom / top is taking on a serious responsibility and needs to value their sub / bottom in a way that compensates for any lack of self worth the sub may have... Maybe.

As well as being of sound mind a bona-fide consenting adult also has to have a clear idea of what they are actually consenting too. ‘Informed consent’ is something doctors make a big deal about, and it comes complete with [Minefield #4 - how informed does informed consent need to be? What about morons?]. Ok so I kind of get the feeling that dumber people might be somehow less responsible for their actions and more care should be taken about ‘informing them’. However I’m not going to put my foot all the way down on that detonator and instead leave this minefield unexplored.

I’m pretty sure though that for the most basic idea of consent to work it needs to be ‘informed’ to the minimum extent that the expectations about what’s being consented to should roughly match what actually happens. For example if a bottom just agrees to a spanking session but then gets punched in the back as well as spanked they cannot be said to have consented to that, and similarly if they agree to be ‘dominated’ with one idea in mind, and receive something completely different, then they’ve not really given informed consent either. However with BDSM there is the significant complication that ‘anticipation of the unknown’ can be a major part of the excitement. If someone had to give informed consent for each thing the top wants to do to them in advance of doing it, then that would ruin a lot of the fun... Lots of people love kinky surprises right? My get around for this is that someone needs to be informed that they are going to be surprised by things before they can properly consent to be dominated in that way. There should also be a safe word or other mechanism in place to let them stop things when they’re not happy with what they've been surprised with, but I’ll talk more about ‘withdrawal of consent’ in the next bit.

Different BDSM practices come with different risks and technical difficulties, and so for someone to give true informed consent they need to have some way to gauge what risks they are signing up for. Part of that means they need to have and truthful impression of the skills of whoever they are allowing to dominate them. [You are now passing through Minefield #5- Acquisition of skills, understanding of risks, and division of responsibility.]  It’s natural for people to try and present the best images of themselves to other people, especially when courting potential play partners. This means that in the highly competitive dating arena the temptation for a top/dom to pretend they know what they’re doing when actually they don’t can be overwhelming. However the more someone exaggerates their skills the more they are to blame if something goes wrong. I don’t think telling outright lies should be acceptable in any situation (regardless of the example set by politicians and the media), and saying you know how to do something difficult and hazardous like suspension when you don’t, is dangerous, stupid, and grounds for intense distrust at the very least[2].

Question 2- How has the individual communicated their consent?

Language is a complex and highly fallible thing. There are obvious sentences and there are cryptic ones, there are clear actions and there are subtle bits of body language. These elements of information fly out from us through the air and into another person’s eyes or ears. This information is then gathered by thousands of interconnected neurons, and gets transmitted to that person’s brain where is sifted through their past experiences and personal biases. Finally it emerges in their consciousness as meaning something completely different to what was originally intended.

Somehow though we mostly managed to rub along as a society and we're always getting past hundreds of little day to day misunderstandings. With sex and BDSM though misunderstandings cannot be easily afforded, as in some cases they can have serious emotional consequences. I’m not saying that consent needs to be in the form of an unmistakable signature on a contract (though this might not be a terrible idea, but I expect that handing someone a contract as an act of foreplay might not always go down well...). However I do think we have to look carefully at how consent is communicated.

‘Did someone say yes or did someone say no?’ ooo, what a nice open patch of ground I’ve discovered, I’ll just dash across here quickly.... “BOOM!”

[Minefield #6 - The space that lies in between yes and no].

It seems pretty unequivocal to me, (and hopefully to you), that if someone says ‘no’ to something, or tells someone to stop something, and then the dominant party ignores them and continues to do it then that dominant party is committing rape/assault, (unless the words ‘no and stop’ have been stripped of their meaning and replaced with a safeword, but then the same applies if a safeword is ignored). Similarly if someone is violated while incapacitated and unable to say ‘stop’/’no’ that is also rape[3].

I don’t see how that should be controversial, but who knows on the internet these days. Maybe someone might say ‘stop’ in a sarcastic voice or give off other contradictory signals, but what did I just say about misunderstanding?! Always safest to clarify!

Unfortunately though the social stigma around sex is so out of control, and our personal fears of judgement so great, that a lot of people may not always feel comfortable clearly stating ‘Yes! I want you to do that *really freaky sounding thing* to me’. Alternatively they may be afraid that someone might interpret saying ‘yes’ to one thing as a complete handover of control to do other things too. Communication is important, but we should recognise that it can also be very hard to do right, and it can be a particularly tricky balancing act when you're first starting to date someone. Personally I think consent can be communicated non-verbally, and if someone continues to kiss you back when they know full well what you want to do to them, then that’s an action that kind of strongly resembles a yes...

Now I am going to try to tip-toe between a whole lot of tripwires because I am going to suggest that if someone is sober and has every opportunity to say ‘stop’ or ‘no’ but doesn’t say these things, and has to reason to be fearful of saying them, then that could sometimes KIND OF be seen as a passive form of consent... This is heavily predicated on the notion that both parties know that CONSENT CAN BE WITHDRAWN AT ANY TIME! Of course it's possible that someone might be too afraid to say 'stop' even though they want to and so the context of the interaction needs to be carefully considered (see next section).

But yes, I’ll reiterate, CONSENT CAN BE WITHDRAWN AT ANY TIME! BDSM is not like an iphone contract; if someone changes their mind mid-scene they should be let out of it as quickly and safely as possible, regardless of what careful negotiations went into setting up the scene before hand. Very occasionally I come across writings about ‘total submission’ where there are no safe words and once someone has agreed to enter that situation, they have no way out except through the mercy of their dom. Even though this makes me feel very uncomfortable I can maybe see that there could perhaps be a level of trust between two people where this could be ok?? Maybe?? Though to be ok I think that this sort of play really has to come out of the submissive’s desire to be totally ‘owned’ or ‘broken’, and that means the answers to the next questions assume extra importance.

Question 3 - Has the individual’s consent been manipulated or somehow incentivised?

[Welcome to : A whole shit-pile of minefields!]
So I’m pretty sure someone can’t be considered a bona-fide consenting adult if you’re holding a gun to their head, (or if someone else is holding a gun to their head either)… but what if the gun is metaphorical? And what if it’s only a little gun and they’re not really afraid of it? and what if and what if and what if...?

For a more balanced example; what if someone is convinced they should do something in exchange for a particular reward? Maybe they’re hoping to secure a relationship by letting their partner dominate them? Or maybe they’re getting money out of it? In both of those cases the consenting individual could be making a free and independent choice, (assuming there are no guns to their heads behind the scenes), and so it seems like they should still qualify as consenting adults. A lot of us would rather not turn up to work every day, but we do it because we get paid, and our bosses aren’t accused of violating our consent are they? However where this starts to get icky is when an individual is somehow inhibited from making a free and independent choice….

Here I start to get seriously lost when trying to disentangle ok-ish scenarios from the bad scenarios, and the really fucking ugly scenarios. If someone’s consent is being coerced by threats of violence or other forms of blackmail, eg the threat of exposing someone’s secret kinky side, or getting them fired, or kicked out of school, etc etc, these all seem like obviously terrible situations. However there are perhaps more subtle forms of emotional blackmail that some unscrupulous people might use to get people to consent to sex (or to being dominated). For example there’s the ‘negging’ technique, beloved of pick up ‘‘‘artists’’’, which consists of undermining someone’s confidence so that they then look to the under-miner for validation… (Apparently it’s actually a thing, and apparently it actually works in some cases?) Anyway how wrong is it for someone to use these sorts of techniques to illicit someone's consent? Is it wrong to to use deceptive and manipulative strategies like negging? How bad is it to say to someone something like “You’re not very good at sex, but you’ll be better at sex if you let me tie you up...” ? It definitely doesn’t feel right, but is it everyone's individual responsibility to recognise manipulative ass-hats for what they are? Also when does persuasion become manipulation? When does putting a positive spin on something become deception? Where are the lines here?

As usual I don’t know the answers, but I do know that I have lingering worries over how pliable people can be in real world situations, and how they’ll go along with things they might not agree with so as not to be seen as troublesome. I certainly don’t want to put anyone I'm dating in a situation where they're afraid to speak up, but how can I be certain that I haven’t? In the BDSM scene at large I also worry about something I’ll call ‘retroactive consent’ whereby after an abusive encounter someone might tell themselves they agreed to having something done to them when they actually didn’t. No one likes having regrets, especially big ones that might haunt us, and I think this gives humans the tendency to look back at our lives through rose tinted spectacles; we re-brand mistakes as ‘adventures’ or ‘character building exercises’. Don’t get me wrong; I’m completely in favour of looking at the past like this normally. However I worry it’s a phenomena that abusive individuals who violate peoples consent may hide behind. I also worry that people who don’t want to feel like victims may take on responsibility for situations they were not responsible for. Perhaps someone might regard their assaulter as a wild beast who was just acting naturally and that it was their own fault for getting bitten. It must be an awful fallacy to deal with.

The fact is if someone can’t control their inner beast then they don’t belong in society; no one else is responsible for their despicable actions regardless of how much tantalizing flesh they were presented with. 

It’s also possible that someone could still like and get on with the person who violated their consent. Maybe a consent violator isn’t always a ‘bad’ person when looked at from any other angle. However so many human interactions are based on trust, if you can’t trust someone to respect another person’s consent, then what can you trust them with?

Taking a step back though I think that the majority of kinksters come to BDSM entirely though their own volition. If they’re lucky they find like minded people to explore it with, completely consensually, and none of the numerous concerns I've probed above are at all applicable. However there is one pesky loose thread left here that I can’t quite ignore; what if the desire to be dominated or to receive specific punishments has somehow been instilled? What if a partner deliberately plants an idea and subtly manipulates someone to think the idea to be dominated is their own? Or what if being in a community of aggressive kinksters changes the way people think and interact as they learn from and emulate each other? In extreme cases some might call it ‘brainwashing’, though I’m not sure if that’s really a scientifically meaningful term. However I do think that human personalities and desires are malleable and constantly being reshaped by all we’re exposed to[4]. So then; is a consenting adult really a consenting adult if they’ve been intentionally or unintentionally manipulated by someone, or by a group of people, to think that they want to do something that maybe they didn’t want to do originally?

If a person thinks they like something, then they like something right?


So yeah, that’s about it for that pile of confusing shit that I thought needed poking. Despite all this I'm sure it’s very possible for someone to be a bona-fide consenting adult, and I’ve been lucky enough to encounter quite a few of them in New York. Surely you can’t have manipulated someone into wanting something if they wanted it before they even met you?! Ok, maybe I am taking advantage of centuries of cultural manipulation, but aren't we all swept up in that same wave? I’m all for social change, but  in the meantime I think that we are who we are, regardless of how we got like this. So why shouldn't we try to have some mutually satisfying and consensual fun along the way?!


[1]  When dealing with these moral grey areas it seems to me that a simplistic binary morality of ‘good vs bad’ isn't very helpful. Instead  it seems better to acknowledge that there’s a spectrum of good to bad behaviour that goes via ‘ok behaviour’, and ‘not great’ behaviour, etc. I also think part of accepting our humanity is realizing that not all acts of ‘not great’ behaviour make someone a bad person, or should necessarily be banned or heavily stigmatized. Take it from the Englishman; sometimes polite discouragement is the best way to keep society on track.

[2] A general problem in the scene is that learning BDSM skills generally requires practice and naturally people are more attracted to individuals with more experience. This may create a bunch of ‘sexonomic’ problems and make it hard for the inexperienced people (particularly guys) to find matches to learn skills with in the first place, but this is probably something engaging with BDSM communities can help with. 

[3] Unless perhaps they have clearly agreed to this treatment prior to incapacitation…?

[4] Maybe when decrying ‘brainwashing’ we like to think there’s a line that can be drawn between learned behaviours and behaviours that originate from someone's deep inner self/soul. However that doesn’t really work when you think like me and see all behaviours as learned, and ‘the self’ as just a mesh of interconnected neurons sitting in a bag of chemicals....


  1. Giving me grief posting a comment! Hopefully this is not attempt #4 showing up...

    This is rather brilliant! Thanks.

    post post post...

  2. Thanks a lot! Sorry blogger was fighting you!