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Sorry, the BDSM subculture probably can’t solve vanilla consent problems…

As a consent crisis strikes at the heart of upper-middle-class America, I’m getting a lot of people from NPR to academics asking me hopefully if the BDSM subculture has the magic answers for all of their consent problems. They’re always disappointed when I tell them… No.

If I was going to be honest, I’d tell them FUCK, NO.

Now if you’re from the Scene, you probably think the next thing I’m going to say is because we have so many violations of our own, so that must mean that we haven’t “solved” consent. But actually, that’s not it at all. I think people in the Scene have totally lost perspective, and given how much fucking we do with so many people and so many people that we play with… Actually, we’re doing remarkably well, given the considerable cultural constraints we’re starting from. It’s like Dan Savage on monogamy: if you’re married for fifty years and only cheat twice, you’re actually pretty good at monogamy. Perfect we are not, but we’re doing way better than the culture at large, I think. I think.

No, the reason that our consent norms (which I think are bad, but nowhere near as bad as everyone else’s) won’t work in the vanilla world is for a long list of other reasons–in no particular order after the first two.

The top reason BY FAR that our norms won’t work elsewhere is because we drink so much less than everyone else.

I often like to joke that the only thing kinky about the Scene is that we do the shit we do while sober. Shit, sometimes people literally come to the Scene to help them stay sober. Kink consent norms assume that you’re basically sober when you’re negotiating with someone else, and on the whole, people usually are. Meanwhile, in vanilla culture, there’s pretty much an assumption that if you’re having sex with someone you don’t know well for the first time, you’re both probably at least a little (if not a lot) intoxicated. And people are SHIT at negotiating while drunk, partly because the culture has told them that being drunk is a legitimate excuse for being bad at negotiating and taking responsibility for what they do sexually… if they’re a girl, anyway. (You still have to take responsibility for anything else you do drunk, from hitting someone to driving. But for some reason sex is special). If you’re going to negotiate while drunk, I’m pretty sure you need a different set of rules and expectations. At a bare minimum, you have to alter the cultural meanings of drunk + sex.

The second biggest reason our norms won’t work well elsewhere is because mainstream culture doesn’t teach anyone to really value consent.

In the Scene, we’ve all been taught to value consent in general. We fuck it up by pretending like bottoms’ consent is the only thing that matters, and that tops’ consent is irrelevant, but we at least have the spirit of the thing. But in vanilla culture, no one really values consent to start with, and then they fuck it up along gendered lines, with people assuming that women’s consent matters and men’s doesn’t. Specifically, I hear a lot of people going on and on about how guys don’t value women’s consent. This is such a wild misunderstanding of the problem that it occasionally makes me want to go on a violent kicking spree. First of all, in terms of what they’re taught culturally, guys don’t value ANYONE’S consent. Have you ever seen the way lots of gay men interact with other? They’ll literally grab each other’s dicks without asking; even het guys recklessly sexual harasseach other without apparently even thinking about it that way. Second, women have been taught to think of themselves as completely unthreatening, so they don’t value anyone’s consent either. Women don’t bother to ask men if they want to have sex with them; they just assume the men want it. Watch how easily women touch other women and men with total freedom in vanilla spaces, and then watch how straight men touch other women and men. Men’s touches are assumed to be laden with the threat of sexual violence, and women’s touches are assumed to be sweet. Women get passes for making consent errors; men don’t. Men would take women’s consent so much more seriously if women took theirs more seriously, so nothing changes until we teach EVERYONE to value consent more.

The Scene is a highly monitored, tightly knit social world. Reputation is everything here.

In the Scene, the social cost of fucking up is relatively high, and you’re relatively likely to get found out. You can’t just go to a different bar next week to pick up a girl from somewhere else. (This is why the key violators in the Scene were/are people who travel a lot and/or deal with a lot of new people). But there are no dungeon monitors at a frat party. Meanwhile in the Scene, it’s common to negotiate in front of your friends and play and have sex with someone in front of other people. There’s a lot more potential for others to enforce consent.

The Scene is way more gender equal.

We still have all the problems of thinking that men’s touches are potentially threatening and women’s aren’t, but overall, my statistics say we take gender equality more seriously in every way than mainstream culture. When you think men and women both desire sexual pleasure, and both deserve sexual pleasure, consent negotiations are a lot easier and less awkward. On top of that, most of the vanilla world is structured around the assumption that men have to persuadewomen to have sex, because of course, “women don’t want to have sex”.

The Scene is way more sex-positive and way less slut shamey than vanilla culture.

In vanilla culture, part of the reason girls often don’t tell their friends about Bob the Rapist is because they’re ashamed they went home with Bob in the first place and are afraid of their friends judging them (and they probably are). In the Scene, people care waaaaay less about that, so the social cost of telling your friends that Bob is a dick is a lot lower. Being more sex positive also means people feel less like they have to get drunk in order to be allowed to fuck.

The Scene isn’t monogamous.

This view may be unpopular, but in my opinion, mononormativity discourages people from being honest. It encourages you to lie to your partner and pretend you weren’t checking out that girl over there; that you don’t watch porn; that you didn’t have lunch with your opposite-sex co-worker, alone, when there was nothing business-y to talk about; that you hadn’t had sex with 30 people before you met your current partner (I actually interviewed that woman); and that you aren’t still dating two other people because you haven’t actually agreed to be “in a relationship” yet. Mononormativity generally operates from a place of “some things are better left unsaid.” In that social world, bluntly asking, “Do you want to have sex with me?” doesn’t fit well because people just aren’t used to being truthful. They’re used to being cagey and coy and constantly skirting the boundaries between truth and lies. But in the Scene, polynormativity tends to encourage people to just constantly word-vomit their feelings at each other, and sometimes to feel guilty about hiding anything. It’s much easier in a culture of honesty to say things straight-up like, “can we rub bits?”

The Scene has a clearly established system about who’s supposed to start and lead the consent negotiation.

In KinkLand, for better or for worse, we’ve made it clear that it’s the top’s job to start and lead a negotiation. Things get fuzzier with switch scenes, but people still seem to be pretty good at adapting the format to their specific situation (and generally, the toppier person ends up leading the negotiation, and it becomes a way to try to establish dominance). In the vanilla world, it’s totally unclear who’s supposed to start the negotiation. Vanilla culture has sort-of decided that this is the guy’s job, but then they shame guys for making unwanted advances and so then the culture overall gets super-nervous about the way that initiating those negotiations ostensibly gives men so much more sexual freedom and power than women… so now it’s officially ?nobody’s? job. Without a clear definition of roles here, whoever makes the first move in a negotiation has the power of the initiator, but loses power based on the principle of least interest (as the person initiating, you look like you care more about the outcome).

The Scene’s norms don’t work spectacularly for negotiating sex in KinkLand.

Don’t get me wrong; I think we’re doing a lot better than vanilla people on this one. But I’ve got the numbers: if you met someone at a culturally BDSM place (munch, dungeon), you’re waaaaaay less likely to have sex with them than if you met them at a non-BDSM place. I’ve led workshops about negotiating sex for scenes, and people were like, “whoa, I never heard anyone talk about this before!” We’re so nervous about it that we constantly set up places to ease the negotiation process by functionally pre-negotiating it for everyone (gangbangs, orgies). Basically, as far as I can tell, our negotiation norms often actually prevent people from getting laid (in addition to preventing people from getting raped–can’t lose sight of that!), but I think there’s still a LOT of room for improvement.

Looking forward

I think there’s a bit of an order to the way these things have to change for things to improve in vanilla culture. I’m pretty sure that first, they need more gender equality, more sex positivity, and a more honest approach to relationships. I want to believe that fewer drunken hook-ups would follow naturally from that, but Icelandic culture (the most gender equal in the world) suggests that might be a vain hope; at a bare minimum, vanillas have to start acknowledging that reality of drunken hook-ups and try to develop realistic strategies for establishing solid negotiation systems in that context.

Even if they had those things, lacking a cultural norm about who’s supposed to start consent negotiations and a deeply entrenched system of social monitoring, vanillas are highly unlikely to be able to employ our system any time soon. I’d like to believe that the social monitoring is mostly only necessary because people aren’t especially great at monitoring themselves–basically, once you have a well-established norm, people generally start enforcing it for themselves. So perhaps the only real problem to solve there is who starts the negotiation. I suggest that the answer should be whoever asked for the date when you were chatting online/to go out/to go home, etc. But lacking blatantly defined power dynamics, vanillas need to recognize that starting those negotiations is always going to be trickier than it will be for kinky folks.

I don’t want be the bearer of despair and hopelessness. I think that vanillas can probably learn a little from the way we do things, if for no other reason than we’re showing that consent can be better. But I think that generalizing from the deeply eccentric cultural space of KinkLand to vanilla world probably won’t work too well: I think the fucked up consent culture that pervades the vanilla world is largely the product of a fucked up gender/sexual culture, and it’s basically impossible to fix the consent without ALSO fixing the gender and sex.

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I recently did an interview with NPR where I talked about a lot of these things.