Grappling with Consensual Non-consent, part 1
The concept of consensual non-consent1 (CNC) relates to the type of BDSM interaction in which there exists a mutual agreement between participants that allows for an atmosphere of suspended consent2 or suspension of limits3. This type of interaction can take place within the parameters of a time-delimited scene, such as a heavy discipline scene or rape roleplay4,5, or a D/s relationship in which the power dynamic extends beyond sexual interactions, such as in 24/7, Erotic Power Exchange (EPE), Total Power Exchange (TPE), or Total Power Transfer (TPT) relationships2,6. Identifying a clear framework for CNC interactions is exceedingly difficult, which is most likely why CNC has long been controversial within the BDSM community, both in terms of how it’s defined, and whether it’s a viable form of BDSM due to its pushing the boundaries of consent. Some would say CNC is entirely consensual and only presents the appearance of non-consent, along the lines of a roleplay2,7; others would say that once consent is given in this type of dynamic, anything goes, and rescinding it signals an absolute termination of the interaction or relationship2,6; and still others say that (from the bottom’s perspective) it is integral to their experience to experience a complete loss of control, and feel that there is no other option but to endure whatever happens within a scene or relationship8.
Tsaros’s2 article in Sexualities analyzes occurrences and conflicting understandings of CNC in two popular BDSM texts: Fifty Shades of Gray and The Story of O. The author points out the differences between ownership in EPE or TPE relationships (i.e., it is symbolic, and commonly incorporates intimate connection and protection from harm), and ownership found in non-BDSM instances of slavery and human trafficking2. The author also problematizes the concept of CNC, suggesting that the imitation of ownership is an integral part of all BDSM interactions, not just in CNC2. These points support the position that there may be an ideal way to enact a CNC scene, which incorporates the understanding among all parties that the loss of control is an illusion that can be ended at any time by the bottom9.
It can be argued that there should be room in human sexuality to encompass CNC, perhaps ideally a version in which all parties involved place concrete emphasis on the consensual nature of the scene, and are in agreement that the atmosphere of “non-consent” that follows is plastic and rescindable. In other words, for many, the ideal CNC scenario is explicitly consensual, and the non-consensual aspect is a roleplay contained within the bounds of consent, with rules in place regarding negotiation of and respect to limits, use of safewords, and incorporation of aftercare. Having said that, while it is easy to state that every sexual interaction should be explicitly consensual, it is not as easy to define what consent means to or how it is communicated between others10. For example, while consent is a social construct that can be defined in an important and useful way, society does not seem to have a strong collective understanding of what consent means or how it is obtained.
While there are those who would take issue with placing restrictions on a CNC scene, many who engage in BDSM find it helpful to play with certain guidelines in place, especially in the case of more extreme scenes, which CNC scenes often are. For example, such guidelines might include avoiding CNC interactions with people who lack experience with BDSM interactions and/or an understanding of how to communicate their boundaries. As Califia7 notes, it is crucial that newer players be aware of the distinct and necessary difference between fantasy and the manifestation of fantasy into reality. Another guideline might be that CNC interactions take place between people who have interacted with each other for a long enough period of time to establish a sense of mutual trust, care, and understanding. The problem many have with the concept of CNC is that there tend not to be such clearly stated parameters. As mentioned above, however, consent tends to be a difficult concept for many to clearly define, a fact that should not necessarily affect peoples’ rights to engage in what they consider consensual activities or lifestyles.
In an article discussing the need for a more sophisticated conceptualization of consent, the authors describe three different levels of consent: surface consent, i.e. “no means no” and “yes means yes;” scene consent, i.e., the pushing of boundaries and blurring of lines within a negotiated and consensual scene; and deep consent, in which the bottom may be in an altered state of consciousness, and consent may not become clear until considering it afterwards5. The authors also posit that in the case of deep consent, what makes a scene consensual or not is the extent to which both parties are aware of the potential for an altered state of consciousness, and there exists an adequate amount of affection, aftercare, and communication between participants before and after the scene. While deep consent in the context of a time-delimited CNC interaction might make sense in practice, the bottom’s inability to know in the moment what is illusory contradicts the idea that the non-consent must be illusory, especially given that every BDSM interaction is by definition based in consent, regardless of how it is framed or appears to be3,4.
BDSM by nature plays with the illusion of a loss of control and at times with an atmosphere of non-consent5. While this can be precarious, it is also what draws many BDSM participants to the lifestyle—finding a way to balance proper communication with a suspension of disbelief can result in the combination of fear and excitement that many people desire5. Inherent to a CNC scene is the desire to experience a range of intense emotions, and in the best case scenario, could provide a context for achieving transcendence. The concept of deep consent could contribute to a number of emotions on the part of those involved in the scene. In the case of a successful scene, participants might feel elation, happiness, a sense of intimacy, and empowerment. In the case of an unsuccessful scene, anger, resentment, disappointment, and alienation might surface. Even in the case of an unsuccessful scene, there is the potential for the rupture to be repaired with aftercare, an exchange of feedback, and renegotiation of rules11. If the participants have entered into a CNC scene with partners who they trust, know well, and desire intimacy with, even negative emotions could be processed in a way to achieve a closer bond12.
Please see the continuation of this essay, Grappling with Consensual Non-consent, part 2.
1 Fifthangel. (2012). Inside the mind of a sadist. In T. Taormino (Ed.), The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge (pp. 333-351). Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.
2 Tsaros, A. (2013). Consensual non-consent: Comparing EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and Pauline Réage’s Story of O. Sexualities, 16(8), 864-879. doi: 10.1177/1363460713508903
3 Moser, C. (2006). Demystifying sexual behaviors. Sexuality, Reproduction & Menopause, 4(2), 8690.
4 Fowles, S. M. (2008). The fantasy of acceptable ‘non-consent’: Why the female sexual submissive scares us (and why she shouldn’t). In J. Friedman and J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (pp. 117-125). Berkeley, CA: Seal Press. Kindle Edition.
5 Williams, D. J., Thomas, J. N., Prior, E. E., & Christensen, M. C. (2014). From “SSC” and “RACK” to the “4Cs”: Introducing a new framework for negotiating BDSM participation. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 17. Retrieved from http://mail.ejhs.org/volume17/BDSM.html
6 Dancer, P. L., Kleinplatz, P. J., & Moser, C. (2006). 24/7 SM slavery. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2/3), 81-101. doi:10.1300/J082v50n02_05
7 Califia, P. (2012). Expanding masochism: How to expand limits and increase desire. In T. Taormino (Ed.), The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge (pp. 309-331). Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.
8 Taormino, T. (2012). “S is for…”: The terms, principles, and pleasures of kink. In T. Taormino (Ed.), The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge (pp. 24-32). Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press. Kindle Edition.
9 Baumeister, R. F. & Butler, J. L. (1997). Sexual masochism: Deviance without pathology. In D. R. Laws & W. O’Donahue (Eds.), Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment, and Treatment (pp. 225-239). New York: Guilford Press.
10 Barker, M. (2013). Consent is a grey area? A comparison of understandings of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey and on the BDSM blogosphere. Sexualities, 16(8), 896-914. doi: 10.1177/1363460713508881
11 Faccio, E., Casini, C., & Cipolletta, S. (2014). Forbidden games: The construction of sexuality and sexual pleasure by BDSM ‘players.’ Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16(7), 752-764. doi: 10.1080/13691058.2014.909531
12 Beckman, A. (2007). The ‘Bodily Practices’ of Consensual ‘SM,’ Spirituality and ‘Transcendence’. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane, and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism (pp. 98–118). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.