by Guest Contributors Kathryn R. Klement and Brad J. Sagarin

     “Learning how to do SM is like learning how to have sex all over again.” (Wiseman, 1996, p. 3)

Fifty Shades Darker hit theaters this month. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the movie continues the story of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey and their torrid and often kinky love affair.

Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

The Fifty Shades trilogy has been credited with starting a world-wide conversation about bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. But it has also been criticized for painting an inaccurate and potentially dangerous picture of BDSM, particularly around the topic of consent.

Consent is the key element of all healthy sexual encounters, but BDSM practitioners do consent differently. In a traditional heterosexual encounter, sex continues until one party (usually the woman) says no. Consent here is implicit: Silence implies consent to continue.

In contrast, explicit consent permeates BDSM interactions or “scenes” (Pitagora, 2013). This starts with pre-scene negotiation, during which each person identifies the activities they are interested in, the activities they are willing to engage in, and the activities that are out of bounds.

Explicit consent continues during the scene with check-ins between participants and the availability of “safe words" — predetermined code words such as “yellow” and “red” that indicate when the activities must slow down, change, or immediately stop.

After the scene is over, the participants often spend quiet time together, providing care, attention, and comforting physical contact to each other. This process, called aftercare, also reinforces explicit consent by giving participants an opportunity to discuss their scene. Aftercare is a very important part of BDSM interactions. In a study on the effects of BDSM activities on altered states of consciousness, our lab collected data on a series of two-person scenes. The scenes averaged 57 minutes, followed by an average of 19 minutes of aftercare, or fully one-third of the time spent on the scene itself (Ambler et al., in press).

These strong and long-standing practices of explicit consent have a number of advantages over the implicit consent of the traditional sexual script: Everyone is empowered (and, indeed, required) to ask for what they want. And if something isn’t discussed, it is off the table. Explicit consent also avoids the ambiguity of silence, which might mean the silent partner wants to continue, or it might mean the silent partner feels too scared or intimidated to say no.

     “Most couples don’t have conversations like this.” (Wiseman, 1996, p. 14)

Does talking about BDSM mess up actually doing it? Turns out, it doesn’t. The discussions required for explicit consent don’t undermine the excitement of what follows; instead, they allow participants to fully immerse themselves in the activities, knowing that they are interacting with a willing, consenting partner.

In our lab, we wondered if the BDSM community’s expectations for explicit consent might have another benefit — a deeper understanding of what it means when consent is violated. To test this, we, and our colleague Ellen Lee, compared the attitudes and beliefs of a sample of BDSM practitioners to those of college students and other adults.

Compared to college students and other adults, BDSM practitioners held fewer false beliefs about rape (such as, “Rape happens when a guy’s sex drive goes out of control”); showed less of a tendency to blame the victim of sexual assault; and had less paternalistic attitudes toward women (Klement, Sagarin, & Lee, in press).

Our larger culture emboldens half its members (men) to pursue what they want sexually, and assigns to the other half (women) the choice to acquiesce or not. By modeling and encouraging explicit consent, the BDSM community empowers all its members to ask for what they want, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, activity, or role.

Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Imagine if the larger culture followed their lead. If we empowered the other half of the population to ask for what they want, there might actually be more sex —there would certainly be more consensual sex. And there might well be better (and, dare we say, more kinky) sex, as well.

Kathryn Klement, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in the Psychology Department at Northern Illinois University. Her main lines of research explore consensual sadomasochism and the constellation of attitudes and beliefs that comprise rape culture.

Brad Sagarin, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. He teaches courses on evolutionary psychology, attitude change, and statistics. His research interests include social influence, resistance to persuasion, deception, jealousyinfidelity, human sexuality, and research methods.

References

Ambler, J. K., Lee, E. M., Klement, K., R., Loewald, T., Comber, E. M., Hanson, S. A., Cutler, B., Cutler, N. & Sagarin, B. J. (in press). Consensual BDSM facilitates role-specific altered states of consciousness: A preliminary study. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

Klement, K. R., Sagarin, B. J., & Lee, E. M. (in press). Participating in a culture of consent may be associated with lower rape-supportive beliefs. Journal of Sex Research.

Pitagora, D. (2013). Consent vs. coercion: BDSM interactions highlight a fine but immutable line. The New School Psychology Bulletin, 10, 27–36.

Wiseman, J. (1996). SM 101: A realistic introduction. San Francisco. Greenery Press.

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