Playing safer (2020)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

I’ve recently participated in some online calls to talk about BDSM, and the returning question is how do I play “safe” so I can “surrender” – and yet again I realize that it’s one of the subjects I never really wrote about clearly. I wrote about the relationship between safety and bravery, and about surrender, but this text will look at it even more fundamentally. There are three different points I want to cover – pre-negotiated consent, the role of a shared fantasy, and the skill of on-the-fly consent.

First off is pre-negotiated consent. These are the agreements that you make before you play. I think they need to cover two things but can involve many more. The first mandatory item is your exit strategy – that means how do you signal that you want to stop, and what actions follow. Usually, the signal is a safeword; this everyone knows I know. But the important thing is the actions that follow. I typically recommend that the first thing is to calm down together, followed by a debriefing of what happened. If there is disagreement or hostility, I recommend using a third party, like a friend, and if something illegal happened, then contact the police. The main goal is to handle the situation before a possible trauma grows more prominent and avoid blood feud, while at the same time creating a sense of justice. 

The second mandatory item is your frame – that means how long is your session, where does it take place, and what does it include. Usually, the length is a couple of hours, once that has passed, and you moved outside the frame, you need to redo the pre-negotiation – this could be as simple as confirming that they are no changes since last time. Where the play takes place is on the basic level, a real location, like in the bedroom or living room. But with a camera, it can be extended to the Internet if you upload pictures online. Later if you talk about your sessions with another person, you are also extending it both in time and space. The final part of the frame is deciding what it includes and excludes. Some people stretch it to detailed lists of toys, roles, words, and much much more. Some argue that it is part of the foreplay but personal I prefer to handle it using the idea of a shared fantasy.

The shared fantasy is the seed that drives the play, that you place inside the pre-negotiated frame. It can be as simple as “You are dominant; I’m submissive.” or as elaborate as different role-playing scenarios—for example, strict teacher and bratty student. Everyone included inside the frame acts together to keep the fantasy alive, while hopefully being able to forget everything outside. The shared fantasy inside the frame creates the opportunity to be safe and brave at the same time. And the exit strategy allows an agreed way to break the structure, and return to real life outside. BDSM is allowing us to explore the dynamics of human existence consciously and consensually, that is typically acted out non-consciously and non-consensually in everyday life. My experience is that the more I play with dominance inside the frame, the less interested I become to do it outside, and I become aware of the attempts of others to dominate me.

The reason why I prefer a shared fantasy over a too detailed pre-negotiation is that BDSM is more of an emotional journey than a practical one, for me. How I experience something is more based on how it feels, than what it is. So there is a risk of confusing and misunderstanding each-other when trying to be too detailed or exact. That’s why sharing an overall theme is often a more successful strategy in my experience. Then, of course, there might be specific details that are worth deciding before —for example, no permanent scarring, or avoiding actions connected to previous trauma.

Finally, I want to talk about on-the-fly consent. It is a skill that you practice together with your partner, to understand the physical and emotional state of the other and yourself. By comprehending your own experience, you will automatically become more transparent about it. For example, if you like something and dear to express that, then you will be easier to understand. The same goes if you dislike something, or is hesitant. Avoid trying to analyze it, because that will make the experience stick in your head, rather than express through your body. You might notice this by your monkey mind (the voice in your head that rarely shuts up) keeps observing what’s happening from the outside. Instead, focus on letting your emotions express through you. Then after your play is over, the analysis might be an excellent subject for a conversation over a cup of tea. Expressing yourself is half the battle; the other half is listening to your partner.

Listening to your partner can be approached analytically – for example, by analyzing their breathing or muscle tension – that this is a good starting point. But I believe that our intuition is capable of so much more, once we have trained it. It evolves by interacting with another human-being while receiving feedback. At first, the input might need to be verbal, but eventually, you will learn to understand each others body-language. An easy way to practice this with a partner is that for five to ten minutes, one person interacts with the other, while the other moves closer if they approve, and moves away if they disapprove – if there is a misunderstanding, you fall back on words. In a BDSM play, it can become complicated if you are acting out a shared fantasy that involves consensual struggle. The way to approach that is to continuously offer small opportunities in the scene to move away or to complain. Most likely, you already know how, because you as most animals, already do this when play-fighting as a kid. But it might need to be rediscovered as a grown-up.

To end this, I want to stay that there is nothing like 100% safe play, but there is safer and unsafer, and hopefully, with this knowledge, you can make your play safer. Finally, here is a checklist version of the ideas mentioned in the text above.

  1. Define an exit-strategy – including how to exit and what to do.
  2. Define a frame – including time, location, and things.
  3. Decide a shared fantasy.
  4. Practice on-the-fly consent – both expressing and listening.