Ethics of Kink:
This is a summary of the basic components that, in my perspective, make for ethical kink and BDSM practices. This is not meant to be comprehensive, especially in relation to the complexities of relationship development and negotiation. It is meant to be an overview, and a place to start.
Part 1: Consent and Communication
Consent, consent, consent. It’s what kink is all about. This is of course the same as all sexual or physical interaction- but becomes especially interesting in the realm of BDSM where there is “boundary pushing” and “consensual non-consent” being played out in an eroticized manner.
The basics of consent and communication are actually very simple: everything should be explicitly discussed and negotiated before hand, and where it makes sense to throughout the interaction. That being said, there does not have to be a step by step outline agreed to for every moment of every time you play, although there could be if that is what feels most comfortable to you. If you are comfortable leaving some parts of the interaction to organically and fluidly unfold, there should at the minimum have been a check in about this and the basic limits it would be okay to be spontaneous within. The things that are left more vague should be intentional, and not be left that way because anyone is too uncomfortable or insecure to bring it up.
Each other’s hard limits [what you are definitely not okay with doing] should be known, so that spontaneous moments don’t tread into severely negative territories.
Safe words [for example “red” meaning that the play needs to immediately stop, and “yellow” meaning that you are getting close to that point] should be clearly defined. Anyone can use their safe word(s) at any time without interrogation, guilt tripping, or negative emotional or relational consequences. That means neither party should be afraid that stopping the play will mean that aspects of their emotional or relational attachments to their play partner(s) will change negatively.
Agreements for play times or aspects of D/s relationships can be really detailed and specific, or more ambiguous. Neither is worse than the other, it’s just important that the agreements exist and have been discussed one way or the other in terms of where you want to be on the spectrum of limits and boundaries.
Quick note on the word ‘negotiation’: The term negotiation, as in “relationship negotiation”, I think confuses some people. In this context a negotiation does not mean that each person makes concessions. It means that all people have found where their “enthusiastic happiness” overlaps and have agreed to play in those margins. The only exception to this is when a person is not “enthusiastically happy” about doing or trying something, but they are not negatively affected by it, do not feel obligated by sexual, emotional or physical blackmail, and they are “happily willing” to do it for their partner’s pleasure.
Part 2: Anti-Oppression and Identity Politics
Sometimes, the power dynamics in BDSM mirror the oppressive power dynamics of our society. For example, a white Dom and a Black sub, or a male Dom and a female sub, or a butch Dom and a femme sub. These configurations are in no way inherently problematic. However, our sexual desires are not random: they are socially constructed, and influenced on a deep level by what we have been taught to eroticize by an oppressive culture. It is important for people to do anti-oppression work and deconstruct their sexual fantasies to help uncover their problematic roots. It doesn’t mean that it is problematic to play out those fantasies. But it requires work- anti-oppression work that everyone should be doing anyway.
For example, if a straight man has Dominant tendencies and desires towards submissive women, it is important for him to begin the work of questioning, deconstructing, and unlearning his sexist attitudes and assumptions on an interpersonal and societal level before engaging in play. Dominance and submission should not be born out of beliefs of inherent inferiority and passivity, or inherent superiority and aggression. It should be about people’s intentional choices to take part in a mutually fulfilling kinky interaction. The realities of our culture do not disappear once we head into the bedroom or the dungeon. If the underlying social norms that influence our play is not recognized, it can become harmful very quickly.
All this being said, if this deconstruction work is been done, BDSM can be a great vehicle for exploring and coping with oppression. If it is happening in the context of a healthy, anti-oppressive relationship, it can allow you to go to dark places, intimate place to explore your socialization.
Part 3: Motivations and Self Worth
Another aspect of ethical BDSM are the motivations people have for participating in it. Some people with submissive tendencies have deeply internalized beliefs about themselves: that they are inherently worthless and deserve pain and punishment. BDSM becomes an excuse to act these deep seated negative beliefs out.
I believe that this is a very dangerous motivation for participating in BDSM.
Similarly, people with Dominant tendencies who believe that they are inherently cruel or bad people are getting into very scary territory. I would recommend participating in individual therapy, or doing extensive self exploration and reflection before and while beginning to explore BDSM. Issues related to self worth and beliefs about self will likely come up. Both Doms and subs should be actively working towards cultivating the belief that they are important, worthy, valuable, and good. The choice to engage in BDSM should come from a place of self love, not self hate. Of course, self esteem is a tricky thing. I would not say “you have to have perfect self esteem in order to participate in ethical BDSM!”. Not everyone is able to have awesome self esteem all the time. However, it should at least be a continual project you are engaged in and aware of.
Part 4: Safety and Risk
People should be educated on the risks and rewards of different BDSM practices before they agree to them. Of course, when you are just starting out, there is always going to be an aspect of trial and error. However, I believe that people should engage in their communities and the educational resources available to make thoughtful decisions in their negotiations. There is so much information available: there are many books, tons of information online, websites and forums to ask questions in, and for those more economically privileged, workshops and conferences to attend.
“Safe, sane and consensual” used to be the mantra of ethical kink. However, it has been pointed out that some people decide to consent to highly unsafe things, and that is okay and a matter of personal agency. Also, “sane” implies that people struggling with mental illness cannot engage in BDSM, and that is totally false and prejudiced.
A more accurate mantra is “risk aware and consensual”. That is, it is important that people know all the potential risks, physical and mental, of everything they are agreeing to. I believe it is the responsibility of the more experienced partner to ensure their less experienced partner has the access to information that they require to make a fully informed, risk aware decision. However, it is also the responsibility of less experienced people to actively learn about and consider the pros and cons of different types of play.
Kink and BDSM are complex, multi-faceted, and can be incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. With the right partners, it can be a way to help us access our deepest resources for healing and self-understanding. However, this takes work, both emotional and cognitive. Considering the ethical implications of consent, communication, anti-oppression, identity, motivations, self worth, safety and risk in your play will help to get you started on a positive path.