There are two things I want to make clear straight off the bat in this post:
- It is impossible to know what you don’t know – this is different than having the opportunity to learn and not doing so.
- Ultimately, you can do whatever you want. You get to pick your level of risk; I’m not the guy who is going to tell you to do otherwise.
I tweeted this a few days back.
Tops; what, if anything, do you look for that tells you a bottom knows their boundaries and is able to communicate them even when things get intense? Reply here, or feel free to DM.
— Heather (@MissHC) January 15, 2018
I think it’s an essential question because it provides some key information about how to proceed when getting ready to get down with someone (get down = do the thing that y’all are considering doing together – sub in whatever you like here.)
I want to push back heavily on this idea that there’s simply no way to know how an encounter with another person will turn out. While a 100% guaranteed outcome is incredibly hard to predict, it’s not difficult to use a combination of our brains, our experience, and our instincts to gain some solid information about what is likely to happen next, and how we should plan for it. For example, if you see someone wearing headphones and reading a book in a public space. Sure, there is a tiny possibility they could be open to company, but what’s much more likely is your interrupting will annoy them. Similarly, while we can’t predict an outcome of a scene/relationship/hook up, we often do have access to information that makes it possible to predict a likely outcome, and we can use that information to create the best possible scenario of a positive outcome. But to do that, we need to put the information we have (what’s been negotiated, what we know about the person we’re about to get down with, what our past experiences gettin down have taught us, etc. etc.) to use. Despite what romantic tropes tell you, having a basic plan makes for a good scene because if folks aren’t enjoying (whatever enjoyment looks like at this moment) themselves, you don’t have a good situation going on.
Before digging into this, let me lay out some foundational beliefs informing my perspective here:
- Everyone’s boundaries matter. Everyone’s risk tolerance matters.
- Any interaction involving more than one person is co-created, meaning it is everyone’s job to bring their full selves honestly to the table: knowledge, desire, experience, fears, uncertainties. The more information we have about any situation the better we can navigate it.
- All of the kinkoverse exists within a system that includes factors that affect whose voice is given power, what scripts are considered ‘sexy’ vs not, social capital, and bullshit myths around what makes a ‘true’ dominant or submissive. Our unique intersections can greatly complicate bringing our full selves honestly to the table.
- Whoever is best suited to directing things at any given moment should do so. Sometimes, this means the bottom will take the lead in a scene or a relationship — this is fine and useful. Need information about how something is impacting someone? Ask the person being impacted. We cannot read minds, and it’s much too easy to project our desires onto someone else’s body language.
- It is best practice to have a fall back plan that you can use in case of emergency.
- Playing more intensely than one ever has before, trying out new toys, exploring a new power dynamic or play with a new partner all require some level of uncertainty. That does not mean we have to cross our fingers and hope for the best with zero prep. It also doesn’t mean that we should avoid doing these things unequivocally.
- Tops and bottoms do not get the same educator when it comes to playing and so tops are missing out on relevant information when it comes to how to do risk assessment and management.
So how does this apply to partner selection? I got into it a little bit on this tweet thread, but let me expand here.
A crucial part of creating a scene with a positive outcome is risk management – doing what you can to make sure things don’t go awry. To figure out what risks you may need to manage you need to do a risk assessment. Risk assessment itself is about more than spotting a red flag. Red flags are pass cues, a thing that says this moment/person is not to be trusted; you may want to treat them as deal breakers. Risk assessment checks the whole environment and creates a plan for dealing with it. It asks questions like:
- How loud is the playspace? Will I be able to hear my partner call a safeword if I’m 3 feet away flogging them?
- Is the equipment I’m about to play on sturdy?
- Are there extra bodies around to help me if something goes wrong?
- Am I clear on all of my partner’s relevant limits?
- Have we established how to communicate with each other in the scene?
When we start asking these questions, we can come up with solutions to mitigate the risks with which we are about to engage. If the venue is loud, pick toys that allow you to stay close to your partner, or use a drop signal, or bring in a spotter. These are just sample question. Really, there are infinite risk factors at play, so the key is to create a level of risk that you are comfortable engaging with – if you aren’t sure what that is, think about what level of things going ‘wrong’ you know you’re equipped to handle.
There are some risks we do very well talking about in play. Physical safety is a common one; nerve damage, STI risks, checking in around hydration levels or blood sugar, what kind of marks are acceptable, what level of pain is desired, etc.
There are other risks factors that get far less attention. How to gauge someone’s technical skills, for example, or their self-understanding, or their capacity for communication. Sometimes skill is hard to evaluate because it’s beyond our ability to do so – for instance, I know almost nothing about rope bondage, so I’m in no position to evaluate my partner’s skill level. Therefore, whenever I do rope bondage I’m engaging in play that carries a higher risk, so I’ll take steps to mitigate that risk (leaving my limbs free, keeping rope off my upper arms, or staying super connected to my body so I can speak up as soon as things go tingley). I do have a lot of experience bottoming for whips and am confident in my ability to evaluate my partner’s skill, so my risk mitigation practices change.
Knowledge about ourselves can also be harder to gauge because we don’t know what we don’t know – how can I know how I’ll react to being hit with a belt in a BDSM context if I’ve never been hit with a belt in a BDSM context? Also, it’s hard to imagine what we’ll need to know. We can mitigate this risk through experience, but also through education. Bottoms are educated in these risks frequently – it’s drilled in that we need to help protect ourselves. Which, while a worthy starting point, can only go so far because it’s ultimately impossible to protect yourself from the actions of others – you don’t have that level of control.
Tops, however, don’t seem to get the same education around how to lower the risk of negative scene outcomes beyond physical injury. And to be clear, when I say ‘negative outcomes’ I mean scenes that leave folks feeling angry, sad, confused, used or violated when these were not the emotional they wanted to feel. Those situations may or may not include a legal definition of assault, but honestly? Legalities are not my concern. I’m much more interested in increasing pleasure, reducing harm and treating the people we interact with less no respect, dignity, empathy or compassion than we would want for ourselves.
If you aren’t sure how to start putting these types of risk assessments into your pre-sence planning, here are some questions you can use as a jumping off point.
- Does your partner have a strong sense of how different types of play impacts their emotional state likes, dislikes, and can they speak to the nuances of that?
For example, can they talk about what sensations they like and the feeling it evokes in them (“a bare hand around my neck helps me feel safe”, “sharp stings are challenging for me, and too much in a row makes me angry”). If your partner doesn’t volunteer this information up front, ask them about it. Ask them to talk about what helps them feel positive during play and what leaves them feeling negative.
- Is your partner confident in their ability to maintain communication in an altered state?
Have they told you about a time a scene started to go badly and the steps they took to correct it? Have they talked about going nonverbal? Have they expressed any difficulty safewording in any situations previously? Again, if they aren’t offering you this information, ask them directly.
- What specific factors give you confidence that your partner is currently upfront and transparent, not just telling you what you want to hear/ what they think will get you to play with them?
Have you seen them call safewords in other scenes? Have you watched them actively advocate for their point of view in online discussions? Are they freely offering information – including what could make the scene challenging?
Here’s a truth. Our current methods of keeping folks safe from harm (especially emotionally, and mentally) is based on being able to use your brain enough to analyze a situation at any given moment, evaluate if it’s positive or negative, theorize where things might go from there and then make a decision about whether or not to call a safeword. That is a lot to ask of a brain we are also throwing a lot of stimulation at to produce aroused states (aroused meaning anything beyond our resting state, not being connected to sexual desire). Safewords as safety is a faulty system y’all.
- Have they considered that this scene/relationship/hookup could go badly and have some ideas on what to do if that happens?
The reason you, as a top, want to know the answer to these questions is because it will help you navigate for non-physical safety in the scene. These answers point to how often, and perhaps in what style you need to check in. Or maybe the answers will tell you that it’s safe to ramp up the intensity if it looks like everyone is enjoying themselves. They will also give you information about, knock wood, what kind of fallout to expect if something harmful happens that you did not clue into in the moment it occurred.
None of the answers you get should individually make or break your decision to get down with someone. A perfect partner who can always give the full marks answer to any question doesn’t exist. Instead, focus on finding good fits for you, your style, and reducing the harm that can happen when rushing into something with the little-to-no information.
Folks have talked about different models of approach (like consenting to an experience, no matter the outcome), which can offer more flexibility. Other folks choose to try and mitigate the risk of will your partner speak up when they need to/that you will recognize, by only doing play that is emotionally easy until a working history is established, and information about how increasingly intense scenes are likely to go becomes known. The downside to these models is that they often require more self-knowledge, kink experience and established trust then exist at the moment. Also, within these models, there are two more challenges worth discussing.
- It is hard to predict how intense an experience will be when you’ve never encountered it before.
I’ve seen people space out while getting a few seconds of light flogging in a kinkotorium style try-it-out setting. It’s not that the flogging itself was intense, but the significance it carried – opening a new part of their sexuality – was incredibly overwhelming.
- Sometimes, the intensity is all you’re craving.
That’s okay – intensity is a drive that speaks to many of us. It what propels our tripping down the rabbit holes of adventure that lead us to kink in the first place. It’s why OKC marks us as ‘less romantic’ when really our version of romance just includes being able to breathe again. It’s why can look back over our lives and see the high-risk situations we’ve been in again and again – sexual or not. Sometimes it’s even because intensity is the only way to break through the haze of trauma that leaves anything else a dull, grey and fuzzy blur. There are all valid reasons to want to play with intensity.
I don’t want to be out here telling folks the way they play is wrong, but I do want us to get serious about what level of risk we’re talking and taking steps to engage with that risk responsibly.
Safe is a pretty impossible task in this world, but we all have room for safer. Start there.
If you want to read more from me on this subject:
If you want to read other’s thoughts on my question: