Consensual Non-Consent: Exploring Challenging Boundaries
Exploring complex forms of consent in kinky encounters
Posted February 2, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
In recent years, discussion of “consensual non-consent,” or “CNC,” has been increasingly prevalent in the world of kink and sadomasochism (BDSM). The ideas of CNC are an exploration of power, and the eroticization of completely giving up all power, and putting oneself completely in the hands of another. While this idea is terrifying for some, for others that terror translates into a powerful erotic rush.
Sadism and masochism describe individuals who engage in either giving or receiving pain, as a part of their sexual repertoire. Modern research now suggests that characteristics of excitement-seeking, extraversion, and openness to experience are key personal characteristics that draw individuals to engagement in such sexual behaviors as BDSM (Brown, Barker & Rahman, 2019; Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013). Just as some people gravitate towards “adrenaline”-type hobbies like skydiving while others prefer knitting, some people gravitate towards highly stimulating sexual behaviors, while others prefer quiet lovemaking.
Sexual behaviors involving spanking and elements of force, aggression, or dominance are extremely common and are not associated with pathology or emotional disturbance (e.g., Joyal, 2015). Typically, in BDSM behaviors, there are individuals who engage in dominant, assertive, aggressive, or disciplinary behaviors. For some, psychological dominance or “headgames” is a central component of the experience, whereby a submissive is forced to experience intense, powerful emotions of fear, anxiety, even disgust, while in the context of a trusted, negotiated, and consensual relationship. While BDSM and CNC are often sexual, these behaviors may sometimes involve only exploration of power, with no overt erotic contact.
Consent to sadomasochistic behaviors is receiving current research attention (e.g., Carvalho, Freitas & Rosa, 2019), and there are several different models or frameworks of consent utilized in BDSM, including: “Safe, Sane and Consensual,” “Risk Aware Consensual Kink,” “Caring, Communication, Consent and Caution,” and “Ongoing Consent” (Santa Lucia,2005; Williams, Thomas, Prior & Christensen, 2014). People who participate in organized BDSM tend to be more aware of nuanced aspects of consent, and are adept at negotiating consent (Eg Dunkley & Brotto, 2019), though consent violations and sexual assaults still occur within these groups. “Safewords” are a part of the negotiation of BDSM activity, whereby individuals identify a way (a word or nonverbal gesture) in which they would end activity if they become distressed, and which also allow them to say “no” and resist or struggle, without ending the activity.
“Consensual non-consent” describes engaging in behaviors that may include role-playing nonconsensual behaviors, or may involve negotiating sexual behaviors where one partner agrees to give up consent during certain behaviors or relationships. For example, this can involve individuals who describe to their partner or potential partner that they fantasize about being kidnapped and raped and the partners agree to enact this as a role-play “scene” in real life, in order to fulfill the desired fantasy. “CNC” describes the manner in which the individuals consensually negotiate in advance what the in-the-moment nonconsensual behaviors and role-play would involve. Consensual nonconsent represents a form of individuals putting responsibility and control in the hands of another person and inviting them to push the individual beyond their limits or to take responsibility for overcoming the submissive’s internal obstacles to engaging in desired behaviors. Consensual nonconsent, in essence, reflects an extreme form of eroticization of powerlessness.
There’s very limited discussion of CNC in research and clinical literature. The related concept of “rape play fantasies” has been extensively researched, with research suggesting it is extremely common. Various studies suggest that between 30-60% of females report sexual fantasies of being raped, ravished, or otherwise taken sexually against their will, with about half reporting that such fantasies are arousing and positive for them (e.g., Bivona & Critelli, 2009). There is little information about how many women incorporate such fantasies into their sexual behavior as role-play. Many women fear that sharing such fantasies may lead to them actually being raped, or to people believing that they do actually want to experience sexual assault, which they do not (Bivona & Critelli, 2009). When couples attempt to incorporate rape role-play fantasy into their sexual behaviors, it can be a complex, fraught, but often rewarding and positive activity. (Johnson, Stewart & Farrow, 2019)
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom conducted a survey of individuals involved in BDSM to investigate the extent and nature of consent violations within those who practice BDSM. Amongst over four thousand respondents, 29% reported a history of consent violations, ranging from fondling and touching to nonconsensual genital penetration. Forty percent reported that they had voluntarily engaged in CNC scenes and behaviors, in which “one or more people give up the right to withdraw consent for the duration of the scene.” Of those who had engaged in CNC, only 14% reported their pre-negotiated limits had been violated in a CNC scene or relationship, which was half the rate of consent violations reported in the sample at large. Only 22% of the people who engage in CNC behaviors reported they had experienced consent violations at any time, compared to 29% of the sample at large. The authors suggest that “the additional discussion and negotiation that it takes to engage in CNC is one of the keys to gaining fully informed consent.” (Wright, Stambaugh & Cox, 2015., p. 20)
“Master-slave” relationships are a ritualized form of consensual nonconsent BDSM relationships, whereby individuals negotiate a consensual relationship wherein one partner allows the other to control all aspects of his or her life. Master-slave relationships are rare, but do exist, and were studied in 2013 by Dancer, Kleinplatz, and Moser. They found that by incorporating mundane daily life events such as household chores and daily routines into the power differential aspects of their lives, participants expanded the boundaries of their BDSM interest beyond just sexual activities. Though there was a perception and ideal of “total submission,” “slaves” who had negotiated consensual nonconsent still exercised free will when they needed to for their best interests. About half of the "slaves" in this study described that they had foregone any ability to refuse orders from their master, once they entered into their relationship. Seventy-four percent of "slaves" reported that they had engaged in behaviors that had previously seemed inconceivable to them, as they had been “pushed beyond their limits” by their master.
Consensual nonconsent, master-slave relationships, rape role-play fantasies, and BDSM in general are components of extremely popular online discussions in online social media. Unfortunately, like everything online, these discussions can involve as much bad or incorrect information as they do healthy or positive ideas and material. Sex therapists and clinicians such as myself frequently encounter individuals whose information about how to engage in BDSM, CNC, or alternative sexual practices has come entirely from online sources, and contains a great deal of suspect and unhealthy information or practices.
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A clinical and scientific understanding of the prevalence, nature, and etiology of consensual non-consent sexual practices is in its infancy. Research and clinical work around these matters are ongoing, but this area of sexual behavior is also evolving as it grows, making it challenging to fully conceptualize or frame. It is clear that many people fantasize about being in sexual situations where they cannot escape or end the experience. Fewer people enact such behaviors in real life through role-play, compared to fantasy, though it appears that it is not rare to do so. Done with consent, self-awareness, negotiation, and communication, it appears that integrating consensual non-consent practices into sexual behaviors can be a healthy and fulfilling aspect of sexuality for some people, allowing them to expand their sexual boundaries.
Bivona, J. & Critelli, J. (2009). The nature of women’s rape fantasies: an analysis of prevalence, frequency and contents. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 1, 33-45.
Dunkley, C. & Brotto, L. (2019) The role of consent in the context of BDSM. Sexual Abuse, DOI: 10.1177/1079063219842847
Johnson, Stewart & Farrow (2019) Female Rape Fantasy: Conceptualizing Theoretical and Clinical Perspectives to Inform Practice, Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/15332691.2019.1687383
Santa Lucia (2005). Ongoing consent. In The Regulation of Sex, Carceral Notebooks, Vol 1. Available at: Carceral Notebooks - Journal Volume 1 (thecarceral.org)
Williams, Thomas, Prior & Christensen, (2014). From “SSC” and “RACK” to the “4Cs”: Introducing a new Framework for Negotiating BDSM Participation. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 17, July 5, 2014
Wright, Stambaugh & Cox, (2015). Consent Violations Survey, Tech Report. Available at: Consent Violations Survey (ncsfreedom.org)