Bdsm

The Basics of BDSM Negotiation

Published: FEBRUARY 21, 2023 | Updated: DECEMBER 29, 2023
For better, safer play, negotiate all aspects of pre, during and post-play time before it starts.

Negotiation is the backbone of consensual BDSM practices. In fact, negotiation and consent are the primary ways BDSM is distinguished from abuse. They are essential elements of kink play. BDSM without explicit understanding from both parties isn't consensual. Both parties need to be crystal clear on all terms to avoid the risk of coercive behaviors. Gaslighting, lies of omission and peer pressure are some common signs to watch out for when engaging in BDSM. Neither party should ever be forced, pressured or persuaded into doing something they aren't 100% okay with.

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Even so, negotiation is often glossed over or sped through, even by experienced players, which is a shame -- and sometimes downright dangerous. Not only is negotiation one of the most valuable ways to keep yourself and your partner safe, but -- when done correctly -- it’s also part of the fun.

Whether you start the conversation in person, by email or by text, negotiation can be akin to flirting and dirty talk. You’re sorting through a whole world of possibilities and deciding what you’d like to do together; that’s exciting stuff!

Here are some of the key points to cover during your BDSM negotiation.

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Read: BDSM Acronyms: A Look at SSC, RACK, PRICK and CCCC

SSC vs RACK

Because consent is essential in kink and BDSM, there are multiple frameworks for making sure consent is addressed in both public and private play. SSC (safe, sane and consensual) is a framework that was developed in the early days of the internet, when kinksters were discussing their practices on message boards.

As discourse evolved, RACK (risk-aware consensual kink) was proposed as an alternative to SSC. The reasoning behind this shift is nuanced, but there are two important points: RACK acknowledges that no kink activity is truly “safe” and that the term “sane” can be seen as ableist.

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“Risk-aware” focuses on the importance of informed consent, meaning that someone can not consent to an activity if they do not fully understand the risks that they are accepting.

READ: Why Trust Is the Most Important Element in BDSM

In practice, both SSC and RACK are still used in kink settings, and if you’re looking at public or private party descriptions, you may see events listed as either SSC or RACK events. What this tends to mean in practice is that SSC events are more beginner friendly or more suitable for the general public, and RACK events tend to include riskier activities such as play that involves blood or fire.

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Negotiate in Advance When Possible

It’s best to negotiate in advance when possible. Once you’re already naked and in bed (or in the dungeon), there’s too much pressure to rush through the process -- that’s how important information gets missed. Also, it’s well-documented that arousal can cloud your judgment. So, set some time aside before you play and get your negotiation done right. You can allow the anticipation to build as part of foreplay.

Focus on the Connection

When you’re planning kink play, it can be easy to get lost in the details. First and foremost, remember to focus on the connection between you and your partner. Allow the kink play to act as a tool to facilitate intimacy rather than as the main event.

What Tone Do You Want to Set?

Think about the tone you want to set for your scene. Make sure that you’re both on the same page. If one person is looking for something sweet, with a little bondage and spanking to add spice, and the other is looking for an intense discipline scene, one or both people are going to be surprised and disappointed -- maybe even angry and hurt.

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Set-Up a Kink Inventory List

When you’re talking about the specifics of what you’re going to do, a yes/no/maybe list or other kink inventory can be helpful. Lists like these can give you ideas you may not have had on your own. You may even become aware of kinks that you didn’t know existed.

While you’re thinking about what you want to do, make sure that you also think about what you don’t want to do. Your boundaries (sometimes called soft limits and hard limits) are as essential to negotiate as the things you do want.

Many people have limits their partner might not expect (such as, not touching feet or not using certain words) and nothing derails play faster than someone being triggered or having a negative emotional response. Be sure to not only get these limits expressly stated, but discuss what to do if an unexpected emotional landmine is hit. BDSM can tap into extreme vulnerability and sometimes people have a strong response. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but be sure you know if your partner wants to be comforted or left alone if something does come up.

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READ: How to Make a BDSM Contract

Limits aren’t only about things you don’t want to happen. They might also revolve around how intense the play becomes. Not everyone wants pain with their kink. There are plenty of ways to engage in BDSM that don’t involve physical pain. If you are playing hard, make sure that you discuss marks and bruises, especially in areas that will be visible to others. Some people have a personal or professional life that isn’t compatible with visible bruises.

Negotiate Toys and Tools

BDSM play doesn’t require special tools, but a lot of kinksters love their gear. And it’s a good idea to check in about all the toys and tools that may be used during your scene. For example, bondage rope is often made from hemp or jute, which can cause reactions in people with grass allergies. People can have a variety of other concerns related to the materials used on their bodies, such as vegans avoiding leather floggers.

Many BDSM tools require special care and cleaning, so it’s also worth having a conversation about how toys are cleaned between partners -- and being aware that some materials, like leather, can never be truly sanitized. For this reason, some people prefer to negotiate that only their own toys be used on their bodies.

One fun way to negotiate toys is by having a show-and-tell session before play, where you display everything you propose using, and give the other person a chance to ask questions or veto certain tools.

Establish a Safeword

Because some people engage in role play that might involve saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’, it’s a good idea to establish a safeword. The traffic signal system is very common: green for yes, more please; yellow for slow down or check in; red for stop right away. You can think up something clever if you want. Just make sure it’s something you’ll both remember if/when the time comes.

If you’re playing with gags or anything else that will prevent someone from speaking, or playing in a loud setting, establish a non-verbal signal. Common options include holding a ball or handkerchief that can be dropped when you need to get your partner’s attention.

You can also use body language cues, such as moving away from your partner when you need a moment, and moving back towards them when you’re ready for more -- such as during a spanking or flogging.

Are You Going All the Way?

When engaging in BDSM, sexual touch or activity is not a given. Make sure that you explicitly negotiate whether this will be an aspect of the scene. If the answer is yes, then you need to define just how far it will go. Don’t forget to negotiate safer sex agreements while you’re at it. Never assume that other people are on the same page as you when it comes to barrier use or any other aspect of safety.

Talk about Safety and Special Concerns

Speaking of safety, there are some special considerations when engaging in BDSM. You need to know if the person you’re playing with has any medical issues that could crop up during play. Asthma and diabetes are two common examples, but they’re far from the only ones. Find out what you need to do if the person you’re playing with has an issue during the scene. If they need something like an inhaler, make sure it’s within arm's reach when you play. Also, take into consideration any injuries or stamina issues that may impact forms or duration of play. For example, if someone has a bad back, you might not want to put them in a strenuous hogtie.

Ongoing Check-Ins

Negotiation doesn’t stop when play begins. It’s vital that you keep checking in to make sure the activities you’re engaging in are still pleasurable for everyone involved. And check-ins don’t have to ‘ruin the mood’ as some people fear. There are numerous ways to design check-ins that align with the mood of your play, such as incorporating dirty talk. Questions like, “Do you like that? Do you want some more?” can easily be asked in a teasing or playful tone, or “Ask me for more when you’re ready” in a commanding or serious voice.

READ: Dirty Talk 101: The Art of Using Your Words

When it comes to negotiating during play you can always stop or modify activities. But it’s a bad idea to renegotiate previously established limits. For example, if you’d negotiated a no biting rule before play, and then an hour after starting biting sounds like a good idea, it’s best to hold off. Arousal and endorphins can cloud judgement -- which is why negotiating in advance is important. You’re better off sticking to established limits and then considering changing the rules of a future play session if you feel the same way once you’ve had time to cool down and really consider what you want.

Discuss Aftercare

Don’t forget to negotiate aftercare. For some people, this is as simple as a glass of water, a piece of chocolate, and a warm blanket with a five-minute snuggle. For others, they may take a couple of hours or even all night to come down from an intense scene. Aftercare can continue for several days or more in some situations. Make sure to articulate if one or both people want check-ins by phone, email or text in the coming days or even if they want to get together for a cup of coffee. Mismatched aftercare needs can be a deal-breaker if one person wants a lot of contact and the other isn’t willing to make that commitment.

Conclusion

Negotiation is paramount to practicing BDSM -- and that doesn't mean it needs to be a bore. When you begin negotiation, you and your partner are building a fantasy together. You’re talking about what each of you desire and how to build an optimal experience.

This sort of communication is the best way for all parties involved to get their needs met -- and it can be very sexy, too.

READ: Welcome to the Dungeon: How to Join the BDSM Community

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Stella Harris

Stella Harris is a certified intimacy educator, coach, and mediator, who uses a variety of tools to guide and empower her clients and she teaches everything from pleasure anatomy, to communication skills, to kink and BDSM. Stella has appeared at conferences across the US and Canada, and regularly provides workshops and guest lectures to colleges and universities. Stella’s writing has appeared widely, including a weekly sex advice column in her local paper. Highlights of her...

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