Grappling with Consensual Non-consent, part 2
Continued from Grappling with Consensual Non-consent, part 1.
Langdridge’s1 chapter on the eroticization of pain in BDSM interactions describes the concept of losing control in a different way. Though CNC is not mentioned explicitly, the type of interaction described intimates an interaction that is initially consensual, but then brings the bottom to an altered state of consciousness in which there is a complete loss of agency and separation from reality, which the author notes can result in a greater sense of intimacy and bonding between the parties involved1. Though this and the previous school of thought are contrasting on the surface, it seems in some way a question of semantics, or perhaps more accurately, individual differences in perception. That is to say, while a given person in the bottom role might be able and want to hold a suspension of disbelief during a scene, and a given person in the top role might be able to orchestrate a scene that makes this possible, others may not be able to sustain that illusion and still attain the kind of CNC experience they want, and so they may need to approach it in a different intellectual way. Both of these instances of CNC might appear to be played out in the same manner, and may result in a similar experiential trajectory.
Just as there are different ways to conceive of consent and CNC, there are differences in meaning that each individual attaches to their BDSM play. With this in mind, it stands to reason that almost every BDSM scene could be considered analogous to a CNC scene, in that consent is negotiated and obtained, there is an illusion of a loss of control, and there is a way for the bottom to end the scene. The potential for trouble enters into any BDSM scene—whether or not it includes CNC—when negotiation occurs and consent is obtained, but there is a lack of compassion or connection between the top and bottom, and therefore there is a greater margin of error and potential for dissatisfaction. There is also the case of a participant’s misrepresentation, or one who is under the influence of alcohol or a substance; these scenarios would further confound the potential for a successful BDSM and/or CNC scene. This begs the question of whether it is always possible to assess the level of trust that a bottom has for their top, or to know someone’s ability to trust or be trusted. Further, if a top is deemed trustworthy, does it follow that they would never allow a scene to go too far? If that is the case, does it then nullify or reinforce the premise of CNC? It seems possible to split hairs indefinitely, but in all cases, the way CNC is defined and enacted seems to be a matter of perspective and context.
CNC is considered problematic by many who feel a sense of stigmatization by virtue of being BDSM-oriented. Many fear that assumptions will be made about the way certain people in the kink community play, and that these assumptions will be project misapprehensions onto the entire community, and further pathologize all BDSM participants2. This fear is not unfounded; unfortunately, the problem of abusers masquerading as conscientious and caring sadists has long been detrimental to the public perception of BDSM. Sexuality educator Dr. Charlie Glickman gave voice to this issue when he wrote that some people are drawn to BDSM not because they get pleasure from consensual BDSM interactions, but because they see it as an opportunity to manipulate people new to BDSM into accepting abuse, while convincing them that their boundaries and desires do not matter. Those new to the scene without an awareness of BDSM culture are particularly susceptible to believing such violence must be accepted2. Additionally, due to the stigma associated with being kink-identified, fewer people are willing to discuss the existence of such predators in the BDSM community because they are reluctant to exacerbate the already negative perception that mainstream society has about BDSM3.
Ironically, two recent textual analyses comparing BDSM and heteronormative relationships illustrated that the dynamics of a D/s relationship have the same discursive origins as traditional relationships, and fall prey to the same issues of inherent gendered power dynamics4,5. The distinguishing factor that some would say makes a full-time CNC relationship a better option than conventional relationship is the explicit negotiation of and agreement to power roles and behaviors, as opposed to most conventional relationships, wherein roles are assumed based on socially mandated gender roles handed down through generations of patriarchy. Similarly, CNC can be perceived as reminiscent of conventional sexual interactions. That is to say, in the former, consent may be more likely to be overtly agreed upon initially than in the latter, but in both cases there is an expectation of consent, and an assumption that consent will persist and not be rescinded unless the interaction/relationship is being terminated.
Along these lines, in Tsaro’s6 analysis of contemporary BDSM-themed texts, consent is sometimes described in mainstream representations of BDSM as being reinforced by the absence of overtly denying or rescinding it, which is reminiscent of typically gendered sexual assumptions4. This is of particular concern, as the media and entertainment industries often seek to sensationalize and distort reality and focus on the extreme in order to gain maximum reader- and viewership, at the same time doing a disservice to readers and viewers by communicating false information and reinforcing unhealthy social dynamics.
In summary, while grappling with the concept of CNC interactions may clarify certain aspects and suggest guidelines, there remain conflicts about its practice, which is oftentimes arbitrary and ill-defined. It stands to reason that the struggle among BDSM practitioners to agree on specific, inclusive, and clearly defined terminology to describe BDSM interactions and behaviors may represent avoidance and resistance based in a reaction to internalized stigmatization, as well as an indication that intellectualization cannot always address emotional and moral conflicts. In the end, it seems as though the best possible way to address the issue of CNC is to continue the conversation, and encourage open dialogues about sexuality and the vast range of sexual behaviors both within and outside of the kink community.
1 Langdridge, D. (2007). Speaking the unspeakable: S/M and the eroticization of pain. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane, and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism (pp. 85–97). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
2 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.
3 Glickman, C. (August 8, 2011). BDSM & rape, what now? Retrieved from http://www.charlieglickman.com/2011/08/18/bdsm-rape-what-now/
4 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
5 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
6 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