Understanding Each Other’s Yes & Finding the Overlap: A Brief Guide to BDSM Negotiation

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Image by Cuito Cuanavale / CC BY

Hi Page, do you have any tips on BDSM negotiation?

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Negotiation Is About Obtaining Clear Consent. In BDSM That’s Not Just Getting a Yes or No, It’s Also Making Sure You Both Know What Someone Is Saying Yes to.

Consent is an extremely important issue to the BDSM community. Getting a “yes” requires agreement. Consent is not simply the absence of no.

In BDSM, it’s not only important that a person consents and that there is a clear and resonant yes. It’s also important to be clear what that person is saying yes to. And usually determining this requires some form of negotiation.

Negotiation Can Be Fun — and Even Hot

I personally love negotiation. When I’m in a Dominant role and negotiating with a submissive, I take the opportunity to really get inside their head. Know what makes them tick. And in effect, to become closer to my new submissive.

And negotiation doesn’t have to be dry, boring, or sterile. It can be super hot.

Everyone has their own individual process. In the past, I’ve been in submissive and Dominant roles. It all depended on the particular partner and the way I resonated with them.  I tend to behave very differently when establishing a dynamic in a relationship where I’m interested in a submissive role versus one where I’m interested in being their Dominant. In both situations, I try to communicate clearly, assertively, and honestly. But when I’m the Dominant I do tend to take the reins and direct the negotiation process more.

And one of my favorite ways to start when I’m negotiating with someone I want to take on as a long-term submissive is, “Tell me about your fantasies.”

Via this opener, the other person and I basically end up either dirty talking or writing erotica back and forth (depending on whether we’re doing this in text, on the phone, or in person). And while doing so, I strive to ascertain the following things:

  • Bucket lists, curiosities, and desires. What we’d both like to get out of the arrangement
  • Experience level. What we’ve done with others in the past (if anything).
  • Hard and soft limits.
  • Pain tolerance and any relevant health or medical issues.
  • How to stop a scene.

BDSM Checklists and FetLife Fetishes

It can be daunting when you’re new to BDSM to communicate the first three items: What you’d like to tackle in this relationship, your experiences with others, and what your limits are.

Thankfully, there are a number of checklists out there that can help get you started on thinking about where your interests and your limits lie. Here’s an example of one. You can find several others by Googling “BDSM checklist.”

Now, static checklists will never cover everything. There’s too much diversity in people’s kinks. But they do tend to touch on the most popular kinks and as such serve as a good jumping off point, especially if your mind comes up blank.

To fill in the rest, I also personally found it helpful to explore on FetLife.com (a social networking site that’s basically Facebook for kinksters). FetLife has a feature where users can list fetishes that they’re into and curious about on their personal profiles (if they want to). The fetish search tool has a tab that lists the most popular ones, and users have added countless others to the database.

In my very first formal BDSM relationship negotiation, my girlfriend presented me with a checklist and I went to town filling it out. I was amazed at how many things I was interested in or had experience with — while not considering myself terribly kinky!

When I was done, we traded checklists and discussed what was on them. As she was delightfully geeky, my girlfriend drew up a Venn diagram that combined the material from the two charts and demonstrated at a glance where we overlapped.

Even if you’re not as gifted with graphs, a checklist can be quite helpful.

Hard and Soft Limits

In BDSM, practitioners discuss boundaries explicitly. Often these are framed in terms of hard limits or soft limits. Hard limits, generally speaking, are things that you do not want done under any circumstances.

A soft limit is something that a person may be hesitant to do or only willing to do within certain, predefined circumstances but that they will sometimes consent to. Maybe only with certain partners or at certain times.

Limits, in another sense, are boundaries that you set with kinky play partners.

I’ve found that as a person explores and tries things out (whether that’s with a single partner or several), sometimes these limits can evolve and change over time. With experience, a hard limit may become a soft limit. Or a soft limit might become a kink. But not necessarily. Some limits stay the way they are.

And what’s important is that the person you’re playing with understands and respects the current boundaries you set with them.

Pain Tolerance and Relevant Health or Medical Issues

Some people like a lot of pain. Some want little or no pain.

Oftentimes, new BDSM practitioners are curious but don’t know how they’ll handle pain until they get there.

In addition, if either of you have relevant health or medical issues, negotiation is a good time to disclose them. Whether that’s an old football injury, PTSD triggers, epilepsy, or any other condition that could be something that your partner needs to be aware of that could affect the way you do scenes together and safety precautions that you take.

How to Stop a Scene: Safe Words and Signals

Oftentimes, people will designate what’s known as a safe word as a signal that the scene must end. Typically this is a word you wouldn’t say during a typical scene.

Here are some examples that I’ve heard real people use:

  • Lawyer
  • Santa Claus
  • Sushi
  • Beetlejuice

Safe words are helpful when you want to be able to yell things like “ouch” and “motherfucker” and “oh my god, stop it” as a submissive/bottom and not have the scene end.

However, it’s important to bear the following two things in mind with regards to safe words:

  • The universal safe word in most BDSM shared play spaces is “red.” So if you’re playing in a club, and your partner says “red,” bystanders are going to presume that they want you to stop.
  • If you haven’t negotiated an alternative safe word in play with someone else, then “no” and “stop” function as safe words.

In addition, if you’re going to be doing anything where the submissive/bottom is going to be gagged or otherwise unable to speak, you need to set up nonverbal “stop” signals. What this would be would depend on the scene, but hand or foot signals are popular. Sometimes people opt to have a small bell nearby within the reach of submissive/bottom that they can ring.

Furthermore, careful players often monitor their partner’s facial expressions to get a sense of how their partner is doing. And to pick up on any changes or lack of responsiveness that could signal safety concerns.

Negotiating Pickup Play

The way you negotiate may depend on the kind of play you’re engaging in. Popular depictions of BDSM usually revolve around developing a dynamic and play within a single relationship. But the BDSM scene is also known for pickup play.

This can involve a lot of things, but typically BDSM clubs will throw play parties in their devoted space with a variety of furniture and equipment that’s for shared use (the cost of acquiring, maintaining, and replacing these are often offset by ticket prices or annual club membership). Some people will engage in play — also known as scenes — with preexisting partners. But others will befriend new people and may end up negotiating a scene with someone they’ve just met.

Some folks on the BDSM scene primarily engage in pickup play. Others rarely or never do and only play with long-term partners.

Typically, in pickup play, negotiation is fairly quick. Once clear interest in doing the scene has been established from both parties, the Top (i.e., person applying the stimulation) and the Bottom (i.e., the person receiving the stimulation) will negotiate the details of that specific scene and that scene alone. As in comprehensive negotiation, limits and safe words are established. And as in a more prolonged negotiation, it’s helpful for the Top to ask if the bottom has any recent injuries or ongoing medical issues that they should know about.

Timing of Negotiation and the Art of Ethically Surprising Someone

So when are negotiations supposed to happen? Right before the scene? A while before? And how can you negotiate thoroughly and still manage to surprise your partner?

This, too, all comes down to personal preference. In pickup play, the negotiation comes right before the scene in question.

If you’re negotiating an entire relationship, much of what you negotiate will come long before the actual play. Even after doing a blanket exploration to ascertain your overlap, you may also opt to negotiate individual scenes directly before them as in pickup play. This is really the safest way to operate, as it ensures that you clearly understand your original discussions and it also provides the opportunity for your partner to correct you if you’ve gotten something wrong.

This is a bit like asking someone what they want for their birthday and then giving it to them. Or telling them what you’re thinking of getting and then getting it for them when they tell you that sounds great. And a lot of people love this method.

However, other people do find that they don’t like knowing exactly what will happen in any given scene beforehand. What I’ve found to work well in that situation is discussing multiple scenes well before the fact with the Top/Dominant having a specific scenario in mind but not revealing which one. Then a bit of time elapses, and the Dominant will start one of the previously discussed scenes.

In the previous analogy, this is a lot like providing your partner with a long list of things you were thinking about getting them for their birthday, making sure they like all of the options, and then picking one out and surprising them with which one you chose.

In addition, there’s a third method. Finding the general overlap and you design a custom scene for them paying heed to those elements. But not telling them exactly what it entails.

This is a lot like asking them about what sorts of things they’d like for their birthday. And using that list to generate a new gift idea. Without running the specific gift by them.

All three approaches can work and be ethical. What’s important is that you and your partner both agree with that approach. And that you take the time to figure out limits and concerns prior to playing.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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