Negotiation and Consent
- Opening Remarks
- Understanding the Stakes
- Why Safewords Don't Solve Everything
- Goals and Motivation
- Relevant Experience
- What Works for Your Body?
- Mood and Style of Touch
- Areas That Are Off Limits
- Extras to Specifically Negotiate
- Awareness of Risks
- Medical History
- Safewords, Signals, and Check-ins
- What Does a Good/Bad Time Look Like?
- Triggers and Trauma Responses
- What Happens After?
- Is Your Body Ready?
- Common Ways to Go Wrong
- Further Reading
There is no way any single article can be sufficient to this topic. The nature of our responsibilities to one another around consent and power dynamics go far beyond rope, sex, or kink; for any person of conscience it is the work of a lifetime to expand one's knowledge, skills, and perspective in these areas.
What follows is some of what I've learned from my personal journey in kink (including the making of many mistakes); and from the experiences of my friends and partners, many of whom have been gravely hurt.
Types of play other than rope -- or perhaps even just playing with rope differently than I do -- will raise consent issues beyond what I'm able to cover here. Expectations around consent also differ tremendously amongst various communities and around the world. Be active in engaging in conversations about consent with leaders in your own community. I've also linked to some additional perspectives at the end.
Understanding the Stakes
For those of us who have never experienced sexual trauma, it's hard to viscerally understand how significant the harm can be when consent is violated. If you're that lucky, a good start is to realize that your intuitions about how you would respond to such a situation are almost certainly completely wrong; it's easy to think that we would be able to defend ourselves, or that we wouldn't find a transgression that traumatic -- most people have these same, wrong intuitions, before it happens to them.
Regardless, the key thing to bear in mind here is that consent violations can be serious, life-altering, long-lasting injuries. A typical physical injury from rope would be a nerve compression that heals enough within a few months to stop affecting everyday life, with minimal if any medical intervention. A typical consent-related injury would be trauma that requires years of expensive therapy to incompletely heal from, and deeply affects how one moves through the world and relates to others. Comparing these, you can see why consent should generally be the foremost safety issue on your mind.
Not every consent mistake will cause this kind of injury -- but the worst-case scenario is a very, very bad one.
Why Safewords Don't Solve Everything
It's critically important to be aware that, especially in unexpected sexual situations, people very commonly find themselves unable to safeword or otherwise communicate. Once someone begins feeling scared, overwhelmed, or shocked, survival instincts can kick in, overriding normal decision-making processes. Particularly with restraints making fight or flight impossible, the most common response is to freeze. You can find a good scientific overview of this phenomenon in Part II of this paper; but the TLDR is that this is the expected result of normal human brain chemistry, and not because somebody is an irresponsible bottom, weak-willed person, or changed their mind later. You can't rely on the idea that if you go too far, your partner will be able to say something before they get hurt. This is what makes good up-front negotiation so important.
The following are items you'll frequently want to cover in negotiation for a rope scene. Of course not everything will apply to every situation, and it's impossible to be comprehensive here. You may want to use the table of contents for this section as the starting point for a checklist to refer to during negotiation. Personally, I prefer to structure negotiation as a somewhat freewheeling conversation, rather than like filling out a form together, but either way it can be helpful to have a checklist to run through at the end to make sure you didn't miss anything.
Goals and Motivation
Why are you having this scene? How do you each want to feel while you're playing? What do you each enjoy about rope?
Try to be honest. It can be tempting for whoever goes second to focus on things the first person called out. Instead of shaping your answers to fit what you think the other person wants to hear, trust that if everyone's open about their desires, there will be overlap and room for compromise even if it's not a perfect match. It's much better to compromise out loud, together, than unilaterally in your head, before even bringing up what you really want.
Have you each done this type of scene before? How did it go? What did you like or not like about it? Are there things you've tried before that you definitely do or don't want to repeat?
Especially for tops, be careful about trying out new skills with people who are also new to you. It's always safer to develop a connection with a new person through types of play where you're both comfortable/confident.
What Works for Your Body?
Are there injuries, new or old, that you need to work around? Are there particular body positions that tend to be unsustainable, or specially comfortable? What ties have worked well or poorly in the past? If you have photos, it can be helpful to share a couple examples of what was easy or hard for you.
If you're going to do suspension, do you like support from your chest, waist, hips, legs? Is inversion fun or difficult? Is spinning delightful or nauseating? These things are all very individual. If you don't have a lot of experience, be honest where you're not sure, and talk about whether you want to experiment with or stay away from those unknowns.
Mood and Style of Touch
Are you aiming for sexy, or friendly? Playful banter, or silent submission? Do you want minimal touch, or lots of it? Will touch be gentle and caring, or rough and hungry?
This can be one of the hardest things to verbally quantify. If you've had a chance to see each other play, saying something like "I liked the vibe of your scene with so-and-so, but maybe a little less sexual" can be a good approach. Or if you're in a busy dungeon, you can ask "looking around at all these scenes, which is closest to the mood you'd like?".
Areas That Are Off Limits
Where shouldn't you be touched or tied? Are there areas you need to avoid marks? Fresh wounds, tattoos, or piercings to look out for?
Extras to Specifically Negotiate
Anything you might want to add to a scene should be explicitly covered during negotiation. However, there are areas where some people might consider something a normal part of rope play, and others not. The below are examples of things that should always be specifically negotiated, not assumed.
Hair, Face, Neck, and Crotch Rope
Tying or pulling the hair, putting anything on the face or in the mouth, crotch/genital rope, and any sort of choking/breath play should always be specifically negotiated.
Some people also have fairly strong feelings about tying/touching the fingers, toes, or feet; you might want to check about those, particularly if you're planning it to be a major part of the scene.
Struggling in rope when it's not expected can be very disruptive or even dangerous. Tops will often tie differently if they know the bottom wants to struggle. This goes triple for struggling while being tied -- capturing someone with rope who is actively resisting is one of the most difficult and dangerous types of play (far more than suspension!).
When negotiating a struggling scene, be sure to cover whether it's important to the bottom if they do or do not eventually escape. It can be an upsetting letdown if the result is opposite of what they were hoping for.
Penetration or Genital Contact
It would hopefully be obvious these are something you need to negotiate, but it can be tempting to make assumptions where you shouldn't. For instance, say you've already negotiated that you want to have a sexy rope scene including crotch ropes. Does that mean it's OK for the top to play with the bottom's genitals with their hands? Not necessarily -- much better to ask: "I know we've said we want a sexy mood, but aside from crotch rope, how much genital touching would you want, if any?"
It's pretty common that if you only ask someone "is there anywhere you don't want to be touched?" they'll say "no" without having necessarily thought of everything they might not want. Don't be a schmuck who uses this as a loophole to do things you're afraid to ask about explicitly. Always ask specifically about anything that's sexual in nature or involves any sort of penetration.
Awareness of Risks
Do you both understand the risks involved in the play that you're planning? Are you prepared for the possibility of an injury occurring? This is especially important to discuss if anyone is new to rope, or to any specific type of activity (e.g. suspension). Many of the risks involved in rope are not obvious; if somebody doesn't know what they're signing up for, they can't give meaningful consent.
I believe it's also incumbent on tops who are choosing to use techniques or equipment that are not the safest option to be open about the availability of safer alternatives. Imagine if you were taking someone who'd never seen a car before for their first ride in one, and your car had no seat belts. Is it sufficient to tell them "there is some chance of getting in an accident, which could be deadly", or do you also have an obligation to disclose "some other cars have seatbelts, which would greatly reduce your risk of death"?
Bottoms should also be open about risks they're bringing to the scene. For example, maybe every time you're in a certain tie, your hands go numb -- but that's within your risk tolerance. It might not be within the top's risk tolerance! Both people are affected in case of something going wrong. What risks you're mutually accepting should be discussed together up-front, not unilaterally decided by either party.
Do you have any conditions that could affect how you respond to play, or result in a sudden medical emergency? Are there medications you might urgently need? If so, where are they, and should a partner be prepared to help administer them?
Tops as well as bottoms should disclose this information. A top becoming suddenly incapacitated while their partner is restrained is potentially much more dangerous than the inverse situation. A bottom can't give informed consent to the scene if they aren't aware of that risk.
Safewords, Signals, and Check-ins
Make sure there are clear expectations about how you're going to communicate during the scene. If "ouch, fuck you!" doesn't necessarily mean "stop that!", you probably need some sort of safe word. If someone's going to be gagged (dangerous!), you need another reliable signal, such as a pattern of grunts or a dropped object -- ideally multiple methods.
Some bottoms are more or less able than others to stay present and self-monitor during play. Discuss how much the top should check in. Personally, I usually like to check in a lot, but some bottoms find that annoying and prefer it left to them to speak up if there's a problem.
This is a good time, if relevant, to practice how you'll do any collaborative physical check-ins, like hand-checks. It's also a great time for tops to remind their partners that they welcome feedback while tying, and would much rather change the tie than have the bottom suffer silently and get injured.
What Does a Good/Bad Time Look Like?
When tying someone new, it's helpful to know what to look out for in their reactions. Does a giggle mean you're having fun, or feeling nervous? If you go quiet, are you blissful, or scared? Are you likely to become non-verbal? If so, is that good, and do you want to keep going? Does crying mean you need to stop, or is that exactly what you're after? Obviously bottoms can't know in advance how they will react to every situation, especially with a new partner -- but providing the top with whatever clues you can based on past experience helps the top guide the scene towards a good time for everyone.
Triggers and Trauma Responses
Do you have some past trauma that might come up, and if so, how do you act and what do you need when feeling triggered? It can be hard sharing about this with someone new, but it's also super important information to keep you safe during play. You don't need to go into the details of your past experience -- focus on what to avoid, how to recognize a problem, and how to help you come back from a bad headspace.
What Happens After?
A scene isn't really over until everyone is back to how they were before it started. Just from a brain chemistry perspective, that can take hours or even a couple days.
Tops and bottoms can both experience drop, and may have immediate, short-term, or long-term aftercare needs. Make sure you discuss what responsibilities to each other you're taking on for after the rope comes off, whether that's a blanket and a cuddle, a check-in the next day, sharing (or not sharing!) photos, or how you would respond to an injury.
Is Your Body Ready?
Have you eaten recently, but not too recently? Are you hydrated? Have you used the bathroom? Did you get enough sleep last night? Are you at a comfortable temperature?
Don't neglect the immediate state of your body when approaching play; you may be about to ask a lot of it. Many scenes end prematurely or badly just because somebody went in with low physical reserves.
Common Ways to Go Wrong
These are far from the only things that can cause a scene to go wrong, consent-wise, but from what I've seen a lot of the worst outcomes share one or more of these factors.
Sex and Penetration
Sexual experiences have a particular potency for causing trauma that is difficult to recover from. Feeling horny has an astonishing ability to impair our judgment. The combination of these factors means that decisions made about sex during play are almost always going to be the riskiest element of a scene -- far more likely to cause lasting harm than, for example, a difficult suspension. The good news is that these risks can be tremendously reduced by making all the decisions up front, during negotiation. The biggest mistakes happen when a sexual element that wasn't explicitly negotiated gets added in the middle of play. Even if you think you got consent in the moment, remember that mid-scene, you're less competent to evaluate whether that consent was enthusiastic, and your partner may be less able to refuse or withdraw consent.
Another way to reduce the risk of incorporating sex into rope play for new partners is to only have sex in rope after a previous occasion when you had sex without rope. Navigating sex with someone for the first time when they're in as baseline a headspace as possible greatly reduces the chance of some type of miscommunication or misjudgment.
If I'm Feeling It
When playing with someone new, it's hard to know what the vibe will be like before play starts. Both people may be unsure exactly how much they'll be up for, depending on how well they click. Once I had someone tell me they were down for sex during a scene "if it's contextual". Obviously this is risky to navigate; what if in the moment, I think it's contextual, but they don't?
There's nothing inherently wrong with "ask me again once we get there" as a type of consent -- after all, consent can always be withdrawn, which means it's always conditional. However, especially as it relates to sex, and for all the reasons in the previous section, a "yes" during play is never quite as solid to give or receive as one beforehand. The safest thing is always to say "maybe next time" instead of "maybe this time" if you're not sure during negotiation. That said, here are some tips for reducing the risks of a "maybe, depending how the scene goes":
- Negotiate maybes in the same level of detail as you would a yes; for instance, if sex is a maybe, what specific sex acts are on the table? This avoids having to negotiate the details during play.
- Always check in and get an explicit and enthusiastic "yes" before proceeding; "maybe, depending on how I'm feeling" doesn't mean depending on how you guess that they are feeling. Ask first.
- If there's any doubt, err on the side of leaving it for next time. It's so, so much better to leave someone wanting more than to go too far.
The more people involved in a scene, the harder it is to negotiate in advance for all the possible interactions that could come up; but that isn't the only reason group play increases the risk of consent problems. There's also a diffusion of responsibility effect during group play, where people tend to assume that if there was a problem, somebody else would be addressing it -- or that because someone else is doing something, it must be OK.
One thing that can help in planning group play is to be very explicit about who has what roles and responsibilities in the scene. Beyond that, do all the normal things, but more so -- negotiate in extra detail, be extra conservative about evaluating on-the-fly consent, check in and communicate more than you would normally.
A lot of people tend to have group experiences when they're new to kink or to a relationship and everything is exciting. Often these don't go well. My suggestion is to treat group scenes as an advanced form of play, to be undertaken when you have substantial experience or with people you know well.
It's almost always a bad idea to let someone join an in-progress scene. There's no chance to negotiate; so unless everybody in the new group plays together so often that they wouldn't normally negotiate before play, that's a huge omission. On top of skipping negotiation, you're bringing in all the additional risks of group play mentioned above.
If you're the top, it's your responsibility to protect the bottom from outside interference in a public setting; they may be restrained, may be in a headspace where it's hard to say no, may not have good situational awareness. If somebody from outside the scene asks you to participate, just say no. If they ask the bottom and the bottom says yes, the top should still say no -- make it clear you're not consenting to them joining the scene, even if your partner is. I've written more about why this is important, because of the way certain creeps use social settings to bypass consent, here and here.
Having an Audience
Playing in public, monitored spaces is the safest way to engage with new partners, but there are risks of having an audience. Knowing that people are watching can create pressure to not embarrass your partner, and increased adrenaline, which may interfere with your body telling you there's a problem. Remind yourself and each other that staying safe is more important than looking like a badass.
When putting on a formal performance, these effects are vastly magnified. It can be extremely difficult on stage to safeword or offer necessary feedback; nobody wants to ruin the show. For this reason, I only ever perform with partners whom I've tied on many previous occasions. The bigger or more important an audience/occasion is, the more you want to be extra careful about negotiating and/or rehearsing exactly what you're going to do, and deviating from the script as little as possible.
Another situation where the pressure of an audience makes it difficult to withdraw consent is for demo bottoms or other volunteers in a class setting. An instructor in their classroom has tremendous social power, which needs to be wielded very carefully. The Kink Education Code of Conduct has many good suggestions for managing the risks of this situation.
Playing under the influence of mind-altering substances is risky for all sorts of reasons, and the risk of a consent screw-up is obviously one of them.