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The Counterintuitive Reason BDSM Is The Best Way To Explain Sexual Consent

Photo: Unsplash: Mickael Gresset
What Is Consent? Why BDSM Contracts, Rules & Relationships Prove Informed, Affirmative Consent Is The Answer To #MeToo
Sex

Yes, really.

If you're offended by the notion that BDSM may hold powerful answers to the issues raised by the #MeToo Movement, it's likely because you don't have a clear understanding of authority transfer-based relationships (aka total power exchange relationships) and their reverence for the concept of informed, affirmative consent.

The MeToo Movement is all about ending the abuse of power, whereas the practice of BDSM is all about mutually respectful negotiated power exchanges and transfers of authority between consenting partners.

What is BDSM and what does it stand for?

By definition, BDSM is an acronym for the terms bondage/discipline, Dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism. These are all of aspects of not only kinky sexual play, but also of the agreed upon relationship dynamics between partners.

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Being a Dominant or submissive in any BDSM relationship, whether casual or committed, relies on frank disclosure, thorough negotiation and explicitly given, fully informed consent.

Before engaging in kinky activities or entering a D/s relationship, both (or all) parties must be willing to have honest discussions about boundaries, limits, rules, and, above all, must express enthusiastic, affirmative and mutual consent. This is the only way for both parties to know whether or not their desires will match. And after all, if you enjoy sexual experiences that are outside of the norm, you can't assume anyone else necessarily shares a desire to engage in those same behaviors.

Please don’t misunderstand. I'm not suggesting in any way that the situations described by those sharing their MeToo stories took place within the context of consensual relationships. Some did and some did not. But that is exactly the point.

All MeToo stories share two defining features in common: a lack of consent and the abuse of power.

I was raped in 1982, at the age of 19.

At the time, I had the opportunity to talk with Ann Wolbert Burgess, a psychiatrist who, along with sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, first identified Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS), a theory intended to describe and classify the symptoms of psychological trauma experienced by many rape survivors during and after the attack.

I clearly remember her telling me, "Rape is not about sex. It is about power."

This perspective is widely accepted now, but in the early 1980's, it was a highly controversial idea.

Even when sexual misconduct doesn't progress to the point of rape, it is traumatizing for anyone subjected to harassment, assault, or abuse.

Yet, while the general public still tends to view consent as a simple, straight forward concept, it is not.

In many areas of life, people assume consent. The debate largely lies in the distinctions between implied or inferred consent and explicit or express consent.

The legal definition of implied consent is "the assumption that a person has given permission for an action, which is inferred from his or her actions, rather than expressly or explicitly provided."

Perhaps the most commonly known implied consent doctrine is contained within U.S. driver licensing laws.

As explained on Legal Dictionary:

"Every state in the U.S. has driver licensing laws that specify that anyone who obtains a drivers’ license has automatically given his implied consent to be subjected to certain tests to determine whether his is driving under the influence of alcohol or other substance. This generally includes being required to submit to a field sobriety test and/or a breathalyzer test, and in some cases, a blood test ... The reason the courts have held that DUI implied consent laws are constitutional, is that there is an implied responsibility to protect the public from property damage, personal injury, or even loss of life."

And the same is generally true in regard to medical treatment in emergency situations.

"At times, it is necessary to perform a procedure in situations that do not allow time to obtain informed consent or the patient is incapable of giving it. State laws support the right of a physician in an emergency to act without the expressed consent of the patient, relying instead on implied consent (if the patient could give consent they would likely do so)."

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It used to be that being married meant that a wife consented to have sex with her husband, but this is generally no longer the case in Western countries.

"In many common law jurisdictions, a couple who married were deemed to have given 'implied consent' to have sex with each other, a doctrine which barred prosecution of a spouse for rape. This doctrine is now considered obsolete in Western countries. In the United States, however, some state legislature offer leniency to perpetrators of spousal rape. These legislations typically require the use of physical violence from the perpetrator in order to be considered a felony. Reasons given relate to evidence and the potential for malicious prosecution."

What is informed consent?

According to the definition from Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary, informed consent is explained as follows:

"An agreement to do something or to allow something to happen, made with complete knowledge of all relevant facts, such as the risks involved or any available alternatives. For example, a patient may give informed consent to medical treatment only after the health care professional has disclosed all possible risks involved in accepting or rejecting the treatment. A health care provider or facility may be held responsible for an injury caused by an undisclosed risk. In another context, a person accused of committing a crime cannot give up his constitutional rights — for example, to remain silent or to talk with an attorney — unless and until he has been informed of those rights, usually via the well-known Miranda warnings."

For someone to wholeheartedly and properly give informed consent in a sexual context, at least these two things need to be true.

1. The person needs to be able to consent.

People who are under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex. They are deemed able to consent to some types of medical treatment, but in most areas, parental consent is required.

People who have certain cognitive limitations, such as developmental disorders and severe mental health disorders like untreated bipolar disorder, untreated severe depression, or psychotic disorders, are also not able to give legal consent in many circumstances.

For example, some medical professionals require consent from a legal guardian before providing treatment when someone is having an active psychotic break.

Whether or not a person can give consent depends upon two factors: the person’s individual condition and the activity for which consent is being sought.

A person with depression may well be able to consent to various medications being administered, but not able to consent to an activity that risks their life.

Finally, people who are in an altered state of consciousness cannot give legal consent. This means if you are intoxicated or naturally high as a result of sexual activity — from what's known as being in either "subspace" or "Domspace" — you cannot consent to new things in that moment, particularly to new things that are dangerous.

Of course, even this is not straightforward.

Some people take opiates as regular medication. Technically, this should make consent difficult, as opiates do affect consciousness. However, people who take opiates regularly for chronic pain management usually don’t experience effects on their consciousness once they have been using them for a while. Therefore, they're able to consent, whereas someone who's had a shot of morphine for pain or is taking heroin is likely not able to consent.

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2. The person needs to understand what they are consenting to do or participate in

This is the part of consent that being "informed" is really about in medical settings.

It is no longer acceptable to have people sign consent forms for medical procedures unless that form clearly spells out the risks inherent to the procedure or anything else that may need to be done if certain events come to pass while it's underway. The onus here is on the person who is asking for consent to spell things out in detail and to answer all questions fully before going ahead with anything.

In the case of ordinary sexual hookups, people rarely think about whether the other person is able to consent.

Many people meet at parties or in bars while alcohol and drugs are being enjoyed. The line between being able to have consensual sex and being too intoxicated to consent is not one single line. It differs for every person, and it's not always easy to figure out.

All of which brings us back to BDSM.

Most people who engage in BDSM and authority transfer-based relationships discuss, negotiate, and gain explicit sexual consent before anything takes place and in a neutral environment.

(As a rule, it is best to have these conversations when no one is intoxicated.)

Taking part in such discussions around desires, rules of engagement, and hard limits gives men and women alike the chance to consider exactly what will be involved during sexual activity they take part in together and knowing that, whether or not they wish to go any further with this person. Doing so also highlights and draws awareness to the power dynamics that are and will be present within the relationship.

Under such circumstances, a submissive's power is not unwillingly taken, as it was from the many people who've share their "me too" stories.

I'm not saying everyone should start having kinky sex, of course.

What I am saying is that talking about your emotional and physical boundaries in advance of sexual activity gives everyone involved the think carefully about whether they are feeling pressured into do something, or if they feel they are meeting as equals both making a free and conscious choice.

When people engage in authority transfer-based relationships, they meet as equals first, and then create a detailed agreement that suits them both.

Both parties must consent to every one of the points in the agreement.

It's not that there is no abuse present in the BDSM community. But when you spend time thinking things through and have space to consider your options as an equal, imbalances in power are clearly highlighted, making blatant violations of consent more difficult to enact.

If more people approached their sexual and romantic relationships this way, power dynamics between partners would be far more clear.

By making informed, explicit and affirmative sexual consent a priority, there would be fewer abuses of power, fewer violations of women's personal boundaries, and fewer #MeToo victims.

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Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey is a sex & intimacy coach, psychologist, public speaker and author who works with individuals, couples and polyamorous groups during discovery sessions to help them create and sustain healthy exciting relationships. She's also the host of two weekly podcasts, The A to Z of Sex® and Sex Spoken Here.