While waiting for the firestorm over my three masculinity posts to die down (I’ll post a followup soon, promise), I want to parse out some recent thoughts on — you guessed it — consent!
I’ve been dating a guy here in Africa whom I will henceforth refer to as Chastity Boy.* I recently wrote a piece on my southern Africa experience that included descriptions of my relationship with him. I texted him, asking permission to write about him — which he granted — and then the next time I saw him in person, I had him go over the writing and specifically give consent for the piece itself. I warned him that the writing would almost certainly end up in a public place, though it would be under my scene name Clarisse.
This step accomplished, I sent the piece to some friends for feedback. One of those people was a mutual friend. Chastity Boy heard that she’d read it and wasn’t happy; he asked me about it, saying things like, “Well, it wasn’t quite a red flag, but close …” Naturally, with him talking about red flags, I felt scared that I’d transgressed a serious boundary. My ears perked up, I sat straighter and I tried to figure out why I’d failed to sense that boundary.
We talked for a while. “I don’t understand,” I eventually said. “You knew those pieces could end up in public. That’s why I thought it was okay to send them to her.”
“Well, but that’s different … I knew it’d be in public, but I didn’t expect people I know to see it,” he said. He thought about it some more. “I guess it just took me by surprise.”
“Do you want me to edit some parts of the pieces, or not post them?”
“No,” he said. “You can keep writing whatever you like about me.”
I asked if he was sure. He assented. I asked if he was really sure. He assented again. I asked if there was anyone in particular he didn’t want knowing about my identity as Miss Clarisse Thorn. He told me, and with that understanding, we closed the topic.
The whole incident got me thinking, though. Eventually, if I publish those pieces, he won’t be able to withdraw consent. I myself won’t be able to, either: after all, once published, it’s published. Even if circumstances change drastically, even if I’m outed, etc. etc. etc. … it’s out there: end of story. Especially in today’s highly backed-up and mirrored world, it’s nearly impossible to bury something once it’s been tossed into the public arena.
The ability to withdraw consent is one of the cornerstones of BDSM communication. (In a hypothetical world that did a good job of teaching vanilla relationship communication, I’d think it would be one cornerstone of that, too.) Hence our most basic tactic — safewords, which even most mainstream folks have heard about by now. There are some tricky aspects of using safewords well: you want to ensure that the safeword is easily pronounced, for instance; you want to ensure that both parties have access to some kind of safeword-signal at all times, even when (for example) gagged. Most importantly, you want to ensure that all parties feel comfortable safewording. This is often the hardest part, since (for example) bottoms can have a ton of pride wrapped up in not safewording, or be so desperate to please the top that they’ll feel guilty for safewording. (And tops may feel as though, since they’re “in charge”, they have no “reason” or “right” to safeword.)
Ultimately, I think all those issues come down to mastering good communication tactics and learning to read one’s partner. For instance, I’ve had a number of tops stop the scene before I safeworded because they accurately sensed my distaste before I was sure we should stop (and I’ve done the same myself, while topping).
But the situation with Chastity Boy isn’t like that. His consent is bounded by factors beyond my control, which any amount of good mutual communication can’t change. Past a certain point, he can’t withdraw consent.
It reminds me of a situation I once saw outlined on a FetLife discussion board. A fetish model who’d had a relationship with her photographer was posting. She said that she’d signed a model release (that is, a document giving up all rights to his pictures of her), and that they’d taken photographs together for years. Now they’d broken up, and she wanted him to take down the pictures, but he wouldn’t do it. She was asking the group if she had any recourse.
My initial reaction to her question was to feel indignant on her behalf. Obviously, I thought, her ex was being an ass! She might have no legal recourse, but I figured that at the very least she might be able to ruin his reputation in the BDSM community, and I said so. Then, however, I read some of the other comments, and I reconsidered. It’s true that her ex was perhaps being a jerk, but he also might not have been; it’s impossible to tell without his input. As a photographer, those photos were part of his livelihood, and was it reasonable for her to demand that he lose that money just because they’d broken up? Too, there’s the fact that models who sign model releases with other photographers would never be able to “take back” the pictures: those photos aren’t theirs and never will be. It might arguably be different for a fetish model than it would be for, say, a Nordstrom model, because leaving fetish photographs public could affect her future relationships in ways that a Nordstrom photo shoot wouldn’t. But the basic commercial framework is the same.
So here’s the question that came out of this, for me. What are my responsibilities in a situation where consent, ultimately, will have to be permanent? What were the photographer’s responsibilities?
Hmm. But maybe I should back up a bit! Maybe the situation of the model and of Chastity Boy can be compared, if not to a heated BDSM encounter itself, then to a BDSM encounter that has lasting effects: for instance, one that leaves bruises or scars. In such a situation, I think the top has the responsibility to ask the bottom ahead of time where it’s okay to leave marks (and what kind of marks are acceptable). A top who deliberately marks a bottom in a place where the bottom doesn’t want to be marked has violated that bottom’s consent. But if a bottom gives permission — with full understanding of what the marks will look like and how long they could last — then there’s no way to withdraw consent once marked.
True, the bottom could have “morning after” regrets, just as the model had regrets upon breaking up with her ex. But those regrets do not a violation make. The only potential violation would arise from a top’s (or photographer’s) failure to clarify the consequences of their acts. I do think that it’s incumbent upon all partners to be open to feedback, of course! The good tops I know are open to discussing a bottom’s morning-after regrets, if the bottom has any. But it’s also incumbent upon a bottom to take ownership of their own responsibility for those regrets.
One might argue that the responsibilities of a writer are different from the responsibilities of a kinkster. Must I as a writer be as careful as I am during BDSM, in gaining consent? After all, there are plenty of writers out there who aren’t anywhere near as cautious with their muses as kinksters try to be with our partners …. Still, I think any artist who plans to portray a sexual partner explicitly should observe the same care with that person’s boundaries as they would while actually having sex with them. Other personal information (for instance, writing about how my boyfriend drinks his coffee) may require less care; but sexual boundaries are as sensitive when portrayed in a memoir as they would be in person, and deserve the same respect.
So, here are my responsibilities — as both kinkster and sex writer: not just to get consent ahead of time, but to be very sure that my partners know exactly what the long-term consequences could be.
* This moniker arises from the fact that he’s got a vow of chastity going — yeah, I know, it’s beautifully ironic that a sex activist is dating such a man! And I do, of course, have his consent to call him that.