Consensual Non-Consent

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May 1999

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin

<Q> Can a person consent to non-consensual play?

<A> Games of consensual non-consent are among the most intense and controversial forms of play I have ever encountered, and I have to say they are not up my own alley. But for people who like them they seem to provide an erotic version of the same kind of satisfaction that any form of far-out-on-the-edge play offers, from bank robbery to Russian roulette to taking a first giant step for mankind on the moon.

Although I know of one scene that ended up as a playful surprise birthday party, in the BDSM world consensual non-consent generally includes interrogation games; kidnap, rape, and assault scenarios; harsh forced service and severe humiliation scenes – anything, in fact, that the bottom absolutely would not agree to do under any circumstances except of course these circumstances under which s/he has agreed to do just that. What makes this field so intense is that the basic negotiation is the bottom's concurrence that the Top has the right to exceed the bottom's limits, or to play without limits, or, in other words, that "no" does not mean "no" – nothing does. We are not discussing safewords here, you understand.

Under the best of circumstances the consensual non-consent Top is extraordinarily trustworthy and safely takes the bottom on a trip beyond the bottom's ability or willingness to even imagine. Because both Top and bottom are skilled players and skilled interpersonal communicators, the Top is able to gauge accurately just how far is too-far-enough for the bottom to feel a level of pain, fear, chagrin, or other intensity to believe him- or herself genuinely over the line: utterly and helplessly lost among cut-throats, in the serious clutches of a dangerously mad fiend, or otherwise past whatever point of help or no return will thrill and chill the bottom beyond redemption. Under those same best circumstances the bottom is extraordinarily trustworthy too, and gives the top a response that is no less thrilling. In this sort of scenario consensual non-consent is BDSM distilled to its pure essence: the Top commands, administers, orchestrates, hurts, takes pleasure without any restriction save his or her own desires, and the bottom obeys, receives, responds, cries out, and knows there is no escape or reprieve, no questions asked.

What makes consensual non-consent so controversial is exactly what makes it intense: the bottom agrees to relinquish all control, and the Top agrees to take it. But while we like to think of ourselves as safe, sane, and consensual in this community, our SM had some of its origins as rough sex play among outlaw bikers who were not especially concerned with the niceties that bother most of us, and there are still plenty of people who find all the classes and organizations and conferences and sets of protocol we spend so much time publishing just awfully, well, vanilla for their tastes. They want their SM pure and absolute. Some people I have known have debated whether what such folks do is really SM, but except in the corridors of political nomenclature I don't know that it makes much difference: whether someone wants the label or not, there are people whose pleasure in taking risks exceeds their pleasure in conforming to community codes. The Tops really want complete dominion and expect to make extensive use of their rights, and the bottoms really want to be even mortally out of control. Sometimes a Top or a bottom is farther out on that edge than makes even BDSM comfortable – sometimes a Top secretly or not so secretly really wants to do harm, and sometimes a bottom secretly or not so secretly really wants to be harmed.

In The Armed Robbery Orgasm (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993), Ronald W. Keyes and John Money describe a relationship in which a submissive man (Keyes) who was incapable of saying No to sadistically dominant women found himself in a very genuine, non-community, lifestyle consensual non-consent BDSM relationship. His Mistress beat him bloody when he disobeyed or displeased her; she used her command over him to control his orgasms as well as to command him in other ways; and she kept him as the slave and lover he both wanted to be and felt himself to be with her. His Mistress also had a penchant for – you guessed it – armed robbery, and made him the strong-arm. "Misappropriating money especially stirred her to lust. I didn't consider the armed robbery a crime; I wasn't even sure that I was awake.... By her own admission, Connie had been committing armed robbery with a male accomplice since the age of thirteen. She knew that I could be led astray by her domination. In order to achieve optimal orgasm with me, she needed to make me a criminal.... Masochistically, I would have done anything that Connie told me to do.... I was semierect during all armed robbery episodes." In the end, she turned him in, and he went to prison.

In another situation of which I was apprised, a man with an abduction-and-rape fantasy managed to get himself abducted, beaten, and raped over the course of several days in a local warehouse, and – not in the original plans – infected with HIV.

In discussions about consensual non-consent these kinds of situations are not the ones I hear about most, though neither are surprise birthday parties. More commonly I hear about interrogation scenes in which the bottom is broken and finally gives up the secret information the interrogator wants, or abduction scenes that end up – after the terror and desperation have had their victories – with nuzzling couples laughing, crying, and coming together. Still and all, I don't much like surprises, and I'm not so big on terror either. I don't know that I'm entirely married to my limits, but when I bottom I'm certainly fond of knowing where they are and of being able to make reliable agreements about them, and when I Top I'm much more interested in sweet surrender than in playing on the edge of the edge.

Still, that's me. I always think the first commandment of BDSM should be Know Thyself, and the second, Know Thy Partner. if you know yourself and your partner and you want to play these games, have a ball. In answer to your question, yes a person can consent to non-consensual play.

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