If you've spent more than a few minutes researching BDSM, even just scrolling through Submissive Guide, you know that negotiation is one of the cornerstones. Negotiation and consent are the primary ways BDSM is distinguished from abuse - they are essential parts of kinky play. But far too many people gloss over how important it is to be really good at negotiating so that you can have great kinky fun. And you want to have kinky fun, right?
Negotiation between people defines what is and isn't acceptable and your responsibility to yourself, your partner and the scene. It's what you will and won't do, how you'll communicate during play, how play is to wrap up after a good scene and what to do if something doesn't go right. As long as both parties have consented clearly and readily to everything, getting on the same page as far as safety before you get naked will help you keep your head in the details.
But before you sit down with your partner to start talking about all the fun things you want to do with them, make sure you have a working knowledge of what you want and need as well as your limits for play. If you and your partner have been at this a while, they probably have some ideas too. But if you need some help, pick up a copy of our ebook, A Submissive's Guide to Your Wants and Needs, and also a BDSM checklist to find some common ground. Be transparent about what you want to do and about your preferences, or things could go poorly. There are no mind readers, no matter how long you've known each other.
Armed with your BDSM checklist, limits, and what you're looking to get from play, it's time to cover a few bases in negotiation.
Safety and Risk Awareness
When we begin to look at safety and risk in BDSM play, there are a few principles that stand out. These are safety, risk awareness and consensuality. Before negotiation begins, you and your partner will want to talk about these things and agree with the level of safety and risk awareness you feel comfortable using for your scene.
If you prefer to avoid risky behaviors and feel that safety is the most important principle for your style of play, you will want to emphasize safety in your scene. With that standard, you may choose not to participate in activities that feel unsafe or that go outside of what could be reasonably realized. This influences knowing which fantasies you can act out and which ones need to remain a fantasy. When you prioritize safety, taboo, risky and potentially dangerous activities would be avoided. In BDSM circles, this is the Safe, Sane and Consensual or SSC model.
If play that feels a bit riskier or more challenging is interesting to you, make sure you do a lot of research about the activities and understand what risks are involved when participating. You’ll do your best to make it as safe as you can before you play, but also have an awareness that with the risks, you can’t make the activity 100% safe. Everyone then takes personal responsibility for their part in playing at that risk level. For the BDSM community, this is the Risk Aware Consensual Kink or RACK model.
Understanding and using either of these safety principles will help you mitigate risks for play. When you can understand the risks of play and are confident that, through negotiation, your play partner does also, you're able to lay down clear, specific boundaries and limits. With risk awareness comes a better comprehension of safety precautions useful in making the activity as safe as possible.
And of course, both of these concepts highlight consent. Without it, BDSM play borders assault or abuse. Consent is essential to BDSM negotiation and play, so we're going to cover it in more detail later in this article.
You should also let your partner know if any health issues could impact how you play. To be fully aware of the risks you might take for the BDSM activities you enjoy, you should disclose things like diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, clotting disorders, medications that you take that might impair you, and any injuries or range of motion issues. If you have medical problems that hinder you somehow, what safety precautions will need to be in place?
Consent is the foundation of all BDSM play. Consent means that you willingly agree to participate in a specific activity with a particular person in a specific situation. As we covered when talking about safety principles, explicit consent must be given for play to happen and only continue for as long as consent is active.
The idea behind enthusiastic consent is that you're, well, enthusiastic about it. You do not just agree to do it because you feel pressured to in some way; you're genuinely interested in it. Make sure you and your partner are capable of providing consent. Being high, intoxicated, or in a vulnerable state, you’re not capable of giving consent, much less enthusiastic consent.
There are a million different ways to ask for enthusiastic consent. You should find the way that feels right for you. Below are a few suggestions.
- "I would love to do [fill in the blank] with you, but I want to make sure you're as excited about it as I am."
- "Is it OK if I [fill in the blank]?"
- "Would you like it if I [fill in the blank]?"
- "I really want to do [fill in the blank] with you, but I'm not going to unless you ask me for it."
You want to hear an energetic "YES" each and every time. If you don't, then consent hasn't been given.
Tops and bottoms both need to consent enthusiastically. Ensure each person gets a voice on what they may want from play, and don't force your preferences into play. Coercing consent happens when you are pressured, threatened, or forced to do something you don't want to do. That is not the ethical, responsible way to play. If you feel pressured or threatened to agree to something, firmly say no and reevaluate if playing with this person is a good idea.
During negotiation and play, keep getting consent. Getting one "yes" from your partner isn't a blanket statement to keep going. It's important to keep asking and checking in to make sure consent is still active.
Safewords are an essential communication tool during play, so it is necessary to cover during negotiations. They are a clear signal to alert our partner of discomfort or limits when normal words just won't cut it. Your safeword can be anything short and easy to remember. The most common safewords are the Stoplight system. 'Red' meaning stop, 'Yellow' for slow down or check-in, and 'Green' means all is good.
If your activities will involve making words like "no," "stop," and "don't" part of the play, you need to use substitute words that do mean "no." Activities for example, like struggling to get away, begging and pleading, or your fantasy is saying "stop," but having the person ignore you.
When play might include being hooded or gagged, it's necessary to have alternate safe signals. A safe signal is a safeword item or gesture you can use when your voice won't be heard, for example, when you wear a gag or are in a loud space. A few safe signals that I'm familiar with are; holding a set of car keys and dropping them, humming or tapping SOS, or using a dog training clicker.
The bottom isn’t the only one who should have a safeword. Your Top should be encouraged to have a safeword also and to share how they will safeword if they need to, since they can use plain language without confusion. Safewords are important for both parties because they create an exchange of mutual trust for the scene. The Top trusts the bottom to use the safeword if needed, and the bottom trusts the Top to check-in when used.
When negotiating, you should decide on a safeword or safe signal and explain your role in its use. You are responsible for requesting a check-in if you need one and not pushing yourself beyond the agreed limits of the scene. Safewords are an agreement of continued consent between you and your partner. As long as you haven't said your safeword, you consent to what's going on. As soon as it's said, consent is suspended. Failing to safeword when you should can lead to injury and emotional trauma and violate the trust and consent agreement you entered for play.
Also, discuss a post-safeword plan. This is how you will resolve the scene if a safeword is used to stop play. Many emotions run high during play. Not to mention the adrenaline and endorphins racing through our bodies. No matter who uses the safeword, it can be rough on the Top too, so both of you may need emotional care for having to stop abruptly. Just be there for each other as you process what happened.
After Scene Care and Evaluation
Aftercare is the attending to the emotional and physical needs of both parties once a scene is over. It is not limited to immediately after the play is over but can last hours, days, or weeks later. Frequently it involves reaffirming each other that everything is okay, getting some food and water, and taking care of possible wounds and bruises. Later, aftercare may involve comforting words while distressed, calming confusion, or showing love and affection.
Negotiate beforehand what kind of aftercare you may need and what your partner may require. If you are playing with someone you don't know well, they may not be capable of providing you with the aftercare you need, so in these situations, you should have a surrogate or learn how to perform self-aftercare. If your partner needs aftercare, find out what they may need and offer to provide it.
Aftercare is important for a lot of people. You've just done something intense, and you need a few moments to normalize and feel comforted. How you do that is personal. Not everyone needs aftercare, and some only need it occasionally. Let your body and mind tell you what you need and make sure you fulfill the needs if not with the Top you played with, then on your own.
Once the scene has finished, and everything has gone back to normal, except for a few aches and pains, you may want to take a few minutes to evaluate how the negotiation worked. It's always good practice to continue to learn and develop good negotiation and communication skills. Be critical in your evaluation to build on the good results and rework what may need a bit of help. Ask yourself these questions.
How prepared were you for the negotiation?
Coming into the negotiation unprepared can lead to a lot of issues and disappointments for the scene. Make sure you have a working knowledge of your BDSM checklist and know what you want and need from the scene and your play partner before you negotiate. Spend some time to think about these things before your next negotiation.
How well did you listen to what your partner said they needed?
Actively listening to your partner and acknowledging what they wanted and needed from the play is just as important as your own needs. Negotiating a scene is about finding a mutually enjoyable scene to explore. Were you able to provide them what they said they needed? Did you try to convince them to do something they were hesitant about or insist on something specific?
Did you find you wanted to renegotiate something during play?
Sometimes while we're in the midst of play, we want to add something right then and there. Since it wasn't negotiated before play, how you handle small adjustments during a scene requires reconfirming consent. It's not recommended to make any major, drastic changes or additions in the middle of a scene. For various reasons, including the altered states that come with adrenaline and endorphins, mid-scene negotiations aren't a good idea. What might you want to consider for the next scene negotiations with this in mind?
Was consent honored throughout the scene?
You've learned throughout this article that consent is the foundation of negotiation and safe scenes. But sometimes things happen that could be a gray area and, rarely, outright violations. The important thing to remember is not to jump to anger and hostility right away. Most of these instances of gray happen because of miscommunication and can be successfully resolved with a conversation.
Consider the scene when you're able to separate from the emotional reaction. If something happened that crossed someone's consent, what was it? What was each person's responsibility in this situation? Did either of you fail to do something you should have? Process why it might have happened, and what steps could have been taken to prevent it potentially. Then take reasonable steps to avoid it happening again.
What made you a responsible, safe player?
We often forget to acknowledge when negotiation or play was really successful and our part in making it a success. Take some time to reflect on your part in playing safely, your knowledge of activities and yourself, and how you engaged with your partner.
What could you improve next time?
While perfection is nice, we can always find things in our negotiation skills to improve for next time. When you notice how the negotiation went and what you can do to learn from that, it demonstrates you are really invested in making your playtime experiences safe, fun, and consensual.
If you're interested in keeping a history of your evaluations, you can save a written log of your scenes, the assessment of each, and what you explored by using Scene Reports.
With these safety and negotiation bases covered, you will be able to start diving into the fun details of what you want to do with your partner. While safety and consent are often the least interesting parts of a kinky fun time, sharing your responsibilities in scenes will build the trust necessary for amazing connections.