Before digging deeper into the complexity of on-the-fly consent, let’s stand on the pulpit and deliver a small sermon about how to offer and to receive a ‘no’. The First Commandment here would be that a ‘no’ must always be met with a ‘thank you’. Thank you for not letting me abuse you. Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for protecting your boundaries. Thank you for making me feel safe dominating you, etc.
Learning how to say no is learning how to say yes. It is knowing oneself and one’s automatic responses to unwanted situations, be that expressed in fawning, fighting, flighting or freezing. This is great knowledge to have about yourself and your partner. Because these responses can sometimes be partially hidden in one corner on the extreme end of a spectrum or emerge wildly on the other; for example anywhere between agreeable to codependent, from tensing to brawling, from withdrawal to panic, from numb to apathetic. Knowing one’s boundaries and being able to communicate them is a great gift. Hallelujah!
I believe the most fundamental goal of the dominant-submissive dynamic is to stay inside the sadomasochistic play. To maintain the shared fantasy, so to speak. Therefore, any communication that aids in maintaining that frame is helpful – as well as an act of submission. This is a constructive way to relate to the concept of ‘no’. Two things are immensely helpful in achieving this.
A Shared Understanding On What’s At Play
The first key is a shared understanding of where the focus lies in the sadomasochistic play at hand. For example, is the focus the fingers I’m sucking in my mouth, the spanking I’m receiving while counting and saying thank you, or the challenging position I’m being tied in? Once the submissive understands the focus of the play, they can communicate when any element threatens to take awareness away from it. For instance, the painful knot under the submissive’s foot may detract from the finger-sucking. Very likely, the dominant forgot making that pesky knot in the first place and needs the submissive’s help to know. This is not a ‘no’ to the knot under the foot but rather a ‘yes’ to the sucking of fingers. The aim is to plunge deeper into the dynamic, but it also requires the dominant to be clear about their actions’ intentions.
The second key is communicating what is happening without the submissive expecting a specific reaction from the dominant. So they may plead to be relieved from the pesky knot but be OK with a response anywhere from a ‘stop bitching’ and a slap in the face to an ‘oh I’m sorry darling, but you are cute when suffering’ or to the knot simply being untied.
There’s a spectrum between being informative and stating an overt ‘no’, and where one finds oneself along this scale at any given time depends greatly on trust – trust that the dominant can deal with the consequences of their own actions. This is true no matter if the dominant chooses for the submissive to withstand the hardship or acts to change or alleviate it. A situation can become pretty extreme when a long-term play partner whispers to me that they shall soon pass out if they remain in a certain position any longer, and they are OK with passing out as they trust me to bring them down safely in any case. This doesn’t often occur, however, as making people pass out is over the edge for me as a dominant.
Knowing That The Dominant Knows Is Often Enough
Sometimes, just knowing that the dominant knows the actual state of the submissive is enough to make the suffering meaningful. That is, knowing that the pesky knot under the foot is intentional in the placing of it or in deciding to keep it there even after the information about how bad it hurts has been given. There should be a clear distinction between saying ‘no’ and giving information. A stopword, the hard ‘no’ breaks the frame. That’s its whole point. Simply giving information can easily be part of the sadomasochistic play.
Another way for the submissive to deal with communicating boundaries is by ‘opting in’ instead of ‘opting out’. This means actively engaging or encouraging the play, like leaning in closer, looking for eye contact, and whispering a thank you. And being open and transparent about one’s feelings, like crying when things are hard or moaning when things are sexy, rather than avoiding the show of emotions. Some submissives may find this scary as it requires vulnerability. Continuously opting in will create a noticeable change if the submissive suddenly starts fighting to fend the dominant off, tries to get loose to flee the room, or becomes utterly passive in an apathetic freeze. However, ‘fawning’ doesn’t work in this scenario. Fawning is when one unconsciously adapts to another’s demands without consent, which may lead to a different kind of uncomfortable situation.
As a dominant, you can smoothly help in the creation of opt-in situations for your submissive. For example, sometimes I tell this fictitious story about how I would pee on a new play partner without talking about it beforehand. Starting off, I would bring the focus to their mouth by gently tracing their lips’ outline. Then, I would separate them slowly with a finger, opening them up, and preparing them to receive. Next, I would start touching myself, close enough to their face so they could smell me, knowing that it’s me that they will receive. At the same time, my gaze would move from their eyes to their mouth and back. Then I would squirt slightly to their right while maintaining eye contact. Next, I would hold their hand to the left and wet it, asking them to smell and taste it. Finally, I’d return to eye contact while opening their mouth with a finger. Again, never forcing it but just implying that it should remain open, ready to receive. Now, if they kept opting in during this almost ritualistic choreography, I would feel very safe peeing.
In the submissive role, the final consideration is the distance between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. The answer is very individual. If it’s not far enough between a yes and a no, the person comes off as ambivalent and therefore less safe to play with because a yes might turn into a no at any moment, then back again. It can be empowering for someone to feel very attuned to their yesses and nos and experience being heard and respected as they shift. But this can also be draining in a sadomasochistic play by removing focus from the existing power dynamic. The more that trust exists, the more a ‘no’ transforms into simply sharing information without expecting any specific action, therefore retaining the power dynamic. This, together with learning how to opt in, is the key to altering a scen’s direction without breaking it.