How Do I Negotiate?

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January 1994

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin

<Q> In the couple of years I've been reading your column you've frequently mentioned negotiation as if your readers would know right away what you meant. All that time I, as one of those readers, have made the parallel assumption: I assumed I knew what you meant. But last month at a party I ended up the Top in a scene that went very, very wrong. Thinking about the scene afterwards I realized my bottom had not told me something that was important about himself – and I had not really asked. When we spoke the following day he told me what the "something important" was (which I can't disclose here without identifying him). I asked why he had not told me about it before we started to play, and he said he hadn't felt he knew me well enough to tell me something that intimate. Now, I'd have thought this kind of volatile information was exactly what a bottom would want a Top to know to make sure the scene was safe. But this man only felt safe not telling me, which led us into an unsafe situation I did not anticipate. Looking back, it seems to me our negotiation failed, and as the Top I feel responsible. Leaving our specific scene apart, what is this thing called negotiation, and exactly how do you do it?

<A> Even among experienced players thorough negotiation sometimes goes out the window at the prospect of a really hot scene, and less experienced players often proceed to the dungeon after exchanging little more information than they'd have exchanged picking up a one-night stand in any meat rack bar. Most of the time no harm is done and essential data is exchanged along the way; but SM is a sophisticated erotic activity, and every now and then, as in your case, the failure to communicate leads to problems. In responding to your query I'm going to dip rather heavily into the SM 101 course I teach several times each year with my partner, Sybil Holiday, and into a presentation we made about SM in 1988 at the National Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex. Our remarks, slightly revised, were later serialized in issues 9 & 10 of The Sandmutopia Guardian as an article called "Erotic Power Play." I mention this history partly to acknowledge my sources and partly to direct interested readers toward the larger contexts that include, but are not limited to, our discussion of negotiation.

* * * * *

Negotiation may be understood as the art of getting what you want. Because we live in a competitive society we ordinarily hear about negotiation as the process of getting even more than you want – getting as much as possible, for instance, while giving up as little as possible. This win-lose dynamic is really a form of bargaining, and underlies most squabbles between friends, as well as most political negotiations: it's the way the Americans and the Soviets used to negotiate arms control, for instance. It's a dynamic based on selective communication: on playing your cards close to your vest, keeping aces up your sleeve, getting your way, and, if you're good at it, maybe even getting something for nothing.

This kind of negotiation is not what I'm referring to when I talk about negotiation in the world of SM. Because the goals of erotic power exchange are not political, the negotiation I'm describing here is a win-win dynamic that centers on complete communication: on laying your cards on the table, holding nothing up your sleeve, and, if you're good at it, getting all you need by giving all you can.

SM negotiation includes both initial and ongoing, verbal and non-verbal communications. It is the underpinning for consensuality because we cannot agree, or consent, to give something if we do not know it has been requested, nor can we accept something if we do not know it has been offered. In addition, the more completely and openly people negotiate about what we want or have to offer, the more we can establish the parity that underlies any exchange of equal value.That parity, in turn, establishes the basis for mutual respect, which is the sine qua non of mutual trust, and which, in turn, is the one absolute necessity for intimacy. It is through intimacy that we validate ourselves and each other and create opportunities to grow, through an explicit awareness of who we are and who our partners are. In this way, intimacy can be one of the chief objects of erotic power play, and one of the chief fruits of win-win negotiation.

To some extent I'm invoking an ideal of SM negotiation, I know, but doing so is part and parcel of establishing a definition: variations of all sorts may fall from it. As a reflection of this ideal, I like to think that the process of SM negotiation includes learning everything you can about your play partner (or prospective play partner) and telling him or her everything you can about yourself, so you will both be in the closest possible agreement about what's likely to make a good scene, what's likely to be all right, and what's likely not to work when you play together. Obviously, a complete negotiation can take a lifetime; but for most of our purposes it need only be confined to issues that crop up in the limited time and space of a scene.

A basic negotiation addresses both physical and psychological needs, wants, and limits, and includes questions about what is unknown. The best-established way I know to conduct this sort of negotiation is through what is usually called the 1-2-3 list. For example, if you're a novice:

  1. What kinds of activities are you interested in exploring?
  2. What are you not interested in exploring?
  3. What are you not sure about?

You can use the same kind of list if you're an experienced player:

  1. What kinds of scenes or activities do you like?
  2. What do you not like?
  3. What are you not sure about?

If you really don't know what you like, one place to begin an exploration is with your fantasies. These are likely to be more extreme than the reality you'll want to live with, but the images your mind provides will give you a sense of the direction you want to move in. What does the Top or bottom of your dreams look like? How does she or he talk? What is she or he is wearing? What is the historical context of your fantasy – Renaissance Italy? Victorian England? A galaxy in the future that's far, far away?

Note the behaviors you and your partner enact in your fantasy. Does your mind conjure up images of bondage, dominance, service, spanking, or exactly what?

Notice the psychological tone of your fantasy. For instance, if your fantasy behavior is spanking, are you and your partner are engaged in it as a punishment A reward? Is are you doing it for the look or the feelings? If you're the Top do you want to administer sensation? To be served? Or do you want to control your charge? Similarly, if you're a bottom are you looking to get done? Or do you want to serve, to give up control and power, and not to be in charge?In other words, does your fantasy revolve around dominance and submission, sadomasochism, or fetishism? If you think more than one is important, how important is each one in your fantasy?

There are many different types and styles of negotiation, of course. Sybil likes prospective bottoms to submit a letter to her before any play agreements are reached, outlining the bottom's fantasies. I prefer to have a conversation, as if on a first date. Some people like the Dr. Kinsey method, in which the Top takes the bottom's SM and sex history. If you have a playful bent you can take pleasure in any sort of negotiation by turning it into a refined sort of flirting. The greatest danger I've encountered in this approach is that when I flirt I tend to slip into role before the actual scene begins. The problem with doing so is that neither my Top persona nor my bottom persona can really negotiate for parity or from a position of equality: the Top simply wants to take over now, and the bottom simply wants you to take over now. For this sort of reason pre-play negotiations done in role may sometimes be profoundly colored by the Top's and/or the bottom's desires.

In addition to addressing each person's wants and needs and coming to some agreement about them, any negotiation should include a discussion about the health of all parties, including allergies, susceptibility to temperature changes and extremes, the need for medications, and the use of prescription and non-prescription drugs. It should also include a discussion about everyone's psychological state, so that, for example, a deeply introverted bottom who cannot stand to be displayed does not suddenly find herself trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey at the next Bondage Beauty Pageant. Although you will eventually develop your own set of negotiating points, as well as your own approach to negotiating these points, there are sample lists and pointers (reflecting the authors' own biases, of course) in many of the SM how-to books that have become available over the past few years. For example, Pat Califia tenders some excellent advice about negotiating in Sensuous Magic (New York: Masquerade Books), as does Jay Wiseman in SM 101: A Realistic Introduction (from the author, P.O. Box 1261, Berkeley, CA 94701).

I said earlier that negotiation should cover all players' limits. A limit, which might be thought of as a feature of a person's needs, is a point beyond which someone is too uncomfortable to continue. Terror is a limit for some people; relentless pain is a limit for others; for still others, sex may be a limit: perhaps it must be part of a scene for you, but must not for the person with whom you're negotiating. If it is going to be part of your scene, then safe sex and birth control (if appropriate) may become limits that need to be discussed as well.

In dealing with limits, include behaviors and attitudes that would be upsetting to one player in a non-erotic way, those that are not to be done, and those that are absolute turnoffs or that provoke phobic responses. With prior negotiation some limits may be reached and then challenged, pushed, and even expanded; but negotiate that possibility as well. When a player is at the edge of his or her limits the entire scene is at the boundary between consensuality and non-consensuality; and while many experienced players find that playing on this edge provides exactly the high they play for, you cannot assume your partner feels that way unless you've discussed the possibility. Limits that are reached are most often the bottom's, so a Top should pay special attention when they are approached: proceed very slowly and maintain absolute concentration and attention on bottom and all bottom's responses.

Physical limits are usually obvious as areas of bodily concern: genital shaving, marks such as bruises, too much pain. But a limit may be psychological rather than (or as well as) physical if it concerns an emotional or intellectual area a person doesn't want to play with, or that provokes phobia. Degradation, for example, may be enough of a turnoff for some people that they simply can't play with it; the very sight of a needle or a blade may pull other bottoms right out of their bottom space.

Safe words are the signs the SM community has adopted for players to alert each other that a limit is being approached or has been exceeded. In part because I was trained by Sybil I use the same two she does, which are yellow (slow down) and red (stop the scene). In The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual Pat Califia suggests three: mercy (please lighten up physically), cruel (I feel emotionally unsafe), and the Top's first name (stop the scene immediately and completely).In response to a couple of upsetting acts a few years ago the community developed its own safe word for use at parties and in other public settings. The word is safeword, and its purpose is to solicit immediate, non-violent assistance for a scene that's gotten out of control.

There's a general recommendation abroad that the Top should ask the bottom to repeat all their agreed-upon safewords at various times throughout the scene, just to make sure the bottom hasn't forgotten them in the heat of SM passion, but it's also useful to remember that Tops can use safe words too, when their limits are approached or exceeded.

In negotiating:

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