A bit of context: over on FetLife, the Facebook for kinksters, there’s a constant cycle that goes like this:
a) Dude writes rapey essay on this beautiful experience he had with his sub where, say, he ties her up and ignores their negotiated boundaries in an extreme scene, and she loves being pushed past her stated limits and all is well.
b) People point out, “Dude, that’s kind of rapey, what you did there – and are you sure she was into it as you think she was?”
c) Dude freaks out, because this is a personal story and how dare you criticize my wondrous tale?
d) And everybody complaints about the “consent police,” and how dreary it is that we spoil everyone’s good time.
This happens, I shit you not, once every two months or so. It’s the cycle of (Fet)Life.
So in the wake of this latest flurry of CONSENT IS GOOD/CONSENT IS BAD newscycle, I wrote this essay to describe why these sorts of essays are troublesome. And it had a concept about consent that I liked, and thought I’d present to you.
Anyway. Here it is.
“She had this long black hair, and I was jabbing my fire-torch into the nape of her neck,” the guy says. “Just burning all the little hairs at the base, then slapping out the sizzling fires before they got out of hand. She was terrified. What a great scene! At the end, she cried, and collapsed into my arms, and thanked me.”
And if you know the dark art of BDSM fireplay – or even if you don’t, I reckon – you’d hear this story and cringe. There are safety protocols in fireplay, and one of the biggies is “Don’t set fire to the hair on the head.” That stuff can get out of control fast – Michael Jackson fast – and cause permanent scarring and injury. Heck, a rogue drip of burning alcohol off the fire wand might turn those beautiful black tresses into a face-obliterating inferno.
But, you have to admit, this scene went well. You’re glad of that. Yet this fireplay dude telling the touching story of “burning her neck with love” without any disclaimers carries the heavy implication that this kind of fireplay is a good thing to do.
So you say something.
And the dude gets mad. “I’ve been burning people’s hair for years now!” he says angrily. “Nothing’s gone wrong! How dare you butt in?”
The girl gets involved. “Yeah! That scene was precious to me! He’s really good at knowing when to slap out the fires on my scalp! How dare you tell me he’s a bad guy?”
The next thing you know, there’s a huge argument, largely based on the concept of “Everything went well up until now,” which works well until the people in the burn ward weigh in.
And that, my friends, is how Internet flame wars start.
Yet the thing is, there’s a difference between “This went right” and “Best practices.” You can get lucky lots of times with bad procedures, as any rope rigger who’s watched dangerous suspensions understands. Good outcomes are not necessarily the result of good planning – people drive home drunk all the time and make it home safe, but that does not mean they’re safe to drive intoxicated.
And yet even if you have some statistical outlier who can drive better on a fifth of Scotch, it’d still be dangerous for him to write an essay on the relaxed, wonderful feeling he gets gliding home soused in his SUV. Maybe he can do it well, but by giving the impression that everyone can, he’s making the streets more dangerous.
There are safety procedures which work. And maybe experts, in given situations, can circumvent certain safety procedures if they know what they’re doing – but in an unknown situation, relying on the tried-and-true rules like “Don’t jam a blazing torch into the nape of her neck” is wisdom.
That’s what consent is.
Too many consent fetishists imply that “lack of consent” == “bad outcome.” That’s the insidious thing about consent! Sometimes, someone pushing past a mushy consent works out great for all parties concerned, just like these torch-jabbing folks got lucky and had a really intense scene that bonded them. You can get lucky, pushing boundaries, having sex with drunk people, deciding unilaterally that hey, let’s put these fingers here.
But like the torch-jabbers, when shit goes wrong, it goes really wrong. And fast. And permanently.
“Consent” is not a panacea. “Consent” does not guarantee satisfying sex. “Consent” is merely a form of protocol where we say, “In an absence of more specific knowledge, these are the best practices designed to guarantee everyone’s safety.”
And when we see people violating safety protocols and presenting the good outcomes as proof that “See? This went well, and felt magical, and was therefore correct,” the safety protocol-positive people are going to go, “Ya know, that carried a risk, and I’m not sure you should be presenting it as though it was something people should do regularly.”
Which, yeah, risks harshing your buzz on that beautiful scene you just had. And I apologize for stomping on your squee. We’re not trying to tell you that this didn’t work for you – although maybe your interpretation of her pleasure wasn’t as clear-cut as you’d like to think it is.
What we’re trying to say is “Dude, you’re taking some mighty dangerous edge play and presenting it as though this was what people should do, and that is potentially hazardous.”
So call us consent police, if you gotta. But in the absence of knowing someone better, “Clear and enthusiastic consent” is the equivalent of “Don’t jab that torch into her hair.” It’s not that we’re consent police, we’re “safety protocol police,” and when you start presenting good outcomes as proof of good practices, we’re gonna kick up a fuss.
Because somewhere, there’s a woman with a keloid-scarred scalp, and a sagging eye where they reconstructed her cheek muscles. We owe it to her to point out the risks that other people are taking. And to provide that counterweight that maybe this beautiful, beautiful hair-burning scene arrived as a result of a lucky spin of a roulette wheel, and to point out those odds.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.