Trust is more critical than consent. The modern usage of the word consent is ‘to agree’, often by defining the terms of the agreement. I find this definition incomplete in some significant ways. The Swedish word we use is ‘samtycke’; ‘sam’ meaning together, and ‘tycke’; ‘opinion’, often related to thought. When people practise consent, it often looks like them telling each other what they want or do not want. Yet looking at the word’s origins, another layer of meaning is unveiled. The English word has two components; ‘con’, which means with or together, and ‘sent’, from the Old French ‘sentire’, that is, to feel. Feeling together, rather than doing stuff to each other. I find this so much more beautiful.
When choosing partners with whom to explore esoteric and sadomasochistic eroticism, I instinctually operate like this: if I trust that we can feel together, then my need for do’s and don’ts is minimal. Because I am curious about what we will become together, I don’t need to define what we want to do. I cherish the surprise. When I notice that we don’t feel together, there is a disturbance in our relationship; then, I must slow down and communicate to feel safe again. This normally happens all the time – it is the constant calibration of a relationship. In retreats, this is something I have encountered many times over, that what people most long for is to feel present in a collaborative unfolding of life’s mysteries. We can hang upon this any number of cliches or judgements, but I truly think this is what we deeply desire.
Why is it that consent then often becomes this statement of what I want and don’t want?
At its root, it is because we are taught to suppress our emotions from an early age. As babies, we express our needs through crying until they are met, but as we grow up, we learn to delay our needs and ignore our feelings. This is described in Sir Ken Robinson’s famously viral lecture about how schools stifle creativity. Human beings are remarkable at pushing themselves to succeed, but at the cost of not listening to our feelings, not honouring them. We lose the ability to be sensible – literally! – with others, to feel along with others. The result is burnout, hurtful behaviour, and exclusion. In a world with limited resources, performance is valued over emotions, making people easy to manipulate. However, it’s important to find a balance between doing and feeling. Naomi Klein’s books No Logo (1999) and The Shock Doctrine (2007) emphasise this message. While performance and doing are important aspects of progress, it is crucial to maintain a balance with feeling.
In this current cultural context, it’s not surprising that consent is often viewed as a matter of ‘doing’. I want to do this and that, and you should also ask me if I want chips or ice cream at nine o’clock. Even in the consent-focused sadomasochistic subculture, a sense of shared feeling is often missing. There is typically a safe word to stop or slow down, but beyond that, the focus is on doing and wanting. And if I am (forced) into doing, then I will ensure it will be what I want. This creates a paradox because many people desire to surrender and submit to a force greater than themselves, but they must still consent to everything along the way.
How can I surrender when I need to consent, in the modern sense of the word, to everything that happens to me?
I see a lot of hurt in the world from people acting on each other without a shared emotional connection. When I’m preoccupied with doing what I think I want, what I think they want, what society taught us to want, and I neglect feeling for others, that’s when I can cause harm. When we are hurt, we wear armour, build walls, and fight wars. We do this by defining how things are and how they should be. Avoiding hurt is a normal and human response, but it also creates a standstill. Over time, this lack of trust in feeling together leads to a loss of the ability to connect emotionally. Although intense or crazy experiences may seem tempting, I prioritise feeling together in even the smallest actions. Without that shared emotional connection, consent based solely on doing and wanting is not what I want. Or even feel like.
There is a common misconception about sadomasochism that needs to be addressed: that most dominants act based on a predetermined kink or fantasy. However, in my experience, it is more about feeling connected in the moment and what steams from a burning mutual curiosity. I stress in retreats that every action must have a reaction and there is no reason to tie a second rope until the tale of the first rope has been told.
There is a growing focus in media today on dangerous acts such as erotic breath play, which sometimes results in death. While I find this to be a horrible trend, I believe it comes from a search for identity and curiosity about sadomasochism. It’s about wanting to be someone or something. I assume it’s mainly guys wanting to be macho and dominant and girls wanting to be slutty and submissive. The source of this interest isn’t so important to me, be it violent pornography and video games or, for those, like me, born in the 1980s, pen-and-paper roleplaying and metal music. The issue is with the ego-centric wanting culture.
While these kids exploring erotic breath play are not likely brutally murderous monsters, and there was likely some consent involved, the fact that they engage in a dangerous and rewarding (there can be a slightly euphoric feeling from limiting blood supply to the brain) activity from a wanting perspective, with a lot of armour, hinders their ability to feel connected. The wanting culture prevents individuals from feeling together and being vulnerable and present.
Ideally then the interaction (may it be talk or tea) that would happen before erotic play would set the stage for a deeper inter-connection and greater vulnerability. And not be about citing a list of what I want and what I don’t want.