The right to say yes, no, maybe
Lessons from the BDSM community on why consent is not a one-time thing
She asked for it," they say. Really? To be groped on the street by strangers when all one is trying to do is have a good time on New Year’s eve? Some years ago, at a sexuality workshop with teachers in Rajasthan that I was conducting while working with a feminist non-governmental organization, one of the men said, “Uski naa mein toh haan hai (When she says no, she actually means yes)." The men sat on one side, and women on the other (not by design), of the big hall at an ashram in Pushkar where the workshop was taking place. One of the women turned around and asked this man, “If a man makes a move on a woman, and if, instead of an initial no, she says yes, what happens? She is instantly labelled a slut." The discussion concluded with what to me, in my 30 years in the women’s movement, seemed to be a pearl of wisdom: Women have the right to say no only when they have the right to say yes. It makes perfect sense, therefore, to discuss consent in the context of our ability to say yes, precisely at a time when the country around us is rife with conversations, online and offline, on gender-based sexual violence.
There is clearly an urgent need for a fundamental shift in our thinking about consent; about adding “yes" to the existing focus on “no". We need to recognize that our ability to say “no" and our ability to say “yes" are inextricably linked. And, if I may move full steam ahead, there is also a need to recognize that there is a range of possibilities beyond “yes" and “no" in sexual encounters, which we may not talk about or bring into our struggle against sexual violence, but which exist nonetheless. And only a discussion on consent which acknowledges a woman’s freedom to say yes opens up the space for this.
I’m talking of the space for “maybe", which allows us to explore, change our minds halfway through, surrender control completely—ways of “doing" consent that are in sync with the nature of our desires. I say “do consent" rather than “give" it, because consent is not a one-time-only thing to be given and never sought again. The most widespread and insidious assumption about consent is that it already exists—it is presumed. Another assumption is that negotiations around consent will kill the intense, spontaneous passion that we feel. If talked about at all, it is considered to be a thing that people are meant to do only before they have sex. “Are you okay with this?" In any case, what is “this"? I suspect it might be the ultimate peno-vaginal penetrative act (one act among thousands, but more often than not, considered a synonym for sex). None of this is necessarily any individual’s fault. In the midst of all these assumptions is the truth that societies, globally, don’t have a culture of talking, teaching, or learning about consent. Let’s move to a better scenario.
I am part of a community that has great expertise on consent—the Bondage Domination Sado-Masochism (BDSM) community. In BDSM, consent is sacrosanct. There are a range of mechanisms to ensure that consent is given and taken proactively and enthusiastically. Although not everyone uses the same mechanisms, these include “hard limits", which are acts identified beforehand that can never be attempted. “Soft limits" refers to those acts which don’t fall within one’s comfort level, but which one is not entirely averse to trying or experiencing. Then there is of course the safe word, which is a predetermined, typically easy-to-recall word (many friends and I choose “red") which would instantly and unconditionally end whatever is transpiring. The limits are negotiated beforehand. The process of negotiation can be hot.
Although I always ensure that I have a safe word, I have very rarely used it. Having a safe word gives me tremendous confidence to explore my desires and allow my boundaries to be pushed. The safe word also gives the other person the confidence to push my limits. I am not referring only to pain when I talk of pushing limits, but also to giving up control. In my experience, dominants often stop short of providing the extent of control that submissives desire, because they fear that they might push them too far. In this context, the safe word gives each person the confidence to continue going much further than they otherwise might have. I hope that others would like to try to use the safe word in their sex lives, however kinky it may or may not be.
Other than soft limits, hard limits and safe words, the other useful consent mechanism in my experience is the conversation that happens after the session, talking about how one felt about what happened. Such conversations have really helped me to connect in a deeper way with what turns me on or off, about my triggers and resistances. The honesty, directness and trust that has typified these conversations, even with virtual strangers whom I have played with (we call these BDSM sessions “play"), is precious.
The significance of these mechanisms goes well beyond BDSM. In the Kinky Collective, the group that seeks to raise awareness about BDSM and of which I am part, we share a lot about consent because we believe that everyone can learn and benefit from the ways in which consent is understood and practised in our community. It shows us ways of “doing" consent which are sexy, which help move us out of the embarrassment associated with negotiating consent, which don’t interrupt the flow of desire but, in fact, enable and enhance it. Most importantly, these ways of understanding and giving consent are in sync with the nature of human desire and with our need to explore, give up or take control, and importantly, our need to pursue pleasure, and not only protect ourselves from harm. BDSM shows us that making consent sacrosanct is not only the responsibility of the individual, but of the community. A lesson worth learning from the BDSM community is also that “slut", whether used for a woman, man or transgender person, can be a word of praise and not a slur. It is not surprising perhaps that a community which enables this space for agency and desire, beyond the constraints of shame, to say “yes", is also a community which has at its core consent.
Jaya Sharma is a queer activist, and worked on issues of gender and education for over 30 years. She is a founder-member of the Kinky Collective (Kinkycollective.com).