On the eve of Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing in which Christine Blasey Ford would deliver wrenching testimony about how Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, my partner, Vagabond, tied me up, hit me, slapped me in the face, called me a slut and a whore, and fucked my brains out. I loved every second of it. How? Consent.
Consent is always what separates sex and assault, but the concept is drilled into BDSM players over and over again because there’s a greater risk for what we do to be misconstrued as abuse. Consent isn’t just the dividing line between a fun time and a felony, though. It also serves as an important reminder that however violent our kinks may seem to the vanilla world, and even to ourselves at times, we’re partaking in them because we’ve chosen to do so.
When I first realized I was interested in BDSM, I grappled with why I wanted to be sexually submissive and, more specifically, why I craved consensual nonconsent, because I felt that these desires were at odds with my feminist beliefs. Why did I want to let a man control me in bed? How could I be aroused by mimicking violence even if it was consensual and not the real thing? I vacillated between being horrified and titillated.
I read everything I could get my hands on about BDSM and feminism in an effort to find out why I like what I like. Are my proclivities the result of how women are socialized? A reaction against the way women are socialized? A response to being in control in every other area of my life? It was this last notion that really struck a chord. I realized that the origin of my kinks is rooted in my personality and my core desire to lose control. It just took me many years to recognize that BDSM was the right means for me to achieve that end.
Ultimately, I concluded that being a feminist involves taking ownership of my sexuality and seeking out what makes me fulfilled and happy—and consent is the lynchpin that makes that possible. Consent is what enables me to give up control while retaining the ability to take it back at any time. Every scene I participate in is built on that foundation. It’s my choice to be spanked, slapped, degraded, and forcefully fucked.
Does knowing that I’m choosing to be treated this way erase all traces of guilt or shame? I wish I could say that I never feel a twinge of those emotions, but that would be a lie. As I listened to Blasey Ford’s testimony, I did what I always do when I hear such accounts: a mental calculation to determine the distance between what I find arousing and what constitutes assault, an automatic double-check to ensure I know the difference between the two. I was relieved when I realized yet again that I don’t find the idea of being attacked for real to be anything other than terrifying. Consent is always the safety net underlying all my violent BDSM fantasies.
The fact that I even engage in these mental gymnastics gives me pause (what would I do if I did find real assault arousing?). But I suspect I’m not alone in this sort of self-reflection, especially in the kink community, where consent is sacrosanct—in theory, anyway. In fact, I think it would behoove us all—kinky and vanilla—to perform this check more often than we do to make sure the line between consensual sex and assault remains bright. And we should all remind ourselves that consent can and should be enthusiastic, sexy, and empowering. Consent is what allowed me to feel comfortable reconciling my feminism with BDSM, and it’s what enables me to safely give up my control during play.
Unfortunately, learning all the ins and outs of consent often happens later than it should. As of now, only 24 states in the U.S. require sex education to be taught in schools, and of those, only eight mandate some mention of consent and sexual assault. With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that I, and I’m sure many others, didn’t truly understand consent until much later in life. Not only its role, or lack thereof, in determining what is or isn’t assault, but also its more subtle ability to give us the freedom to explore our darkest desires with the knowledge that we’ve given ourselves and our partners permission to do so.
In the era of #metoo, it’s incumbent upon those of us who understand consent to speak out against the ones who don’t and foster better education, not only to prevent unwanted sexual violence, but to distinguish it from the kind of kinky sex people like us enjoy.