Honoring boundaries is a crucial, if not THE crucial, part of kink. We’ve all heard the handy phrase, ‘the difference between BDSM and abuse is consent.’ It’s true. No matter how extreme you are you must still obtain tacit consent in every scene. Even consensual nonconsent requires an understanding of your partner to the point that you believe with very little room for error that they will ultimately benefit and/or consent to what you are doing at some point, even if they do not consent during the scene itself. For the purposes of this article, however, I will largely not be speaking to consensual nonconsent. Most kinksters aren’t ready for that kind of edge play, and so you can assume I’m speaking instead about the rest of the kink world.
Additionally, although submissives are usually the ones who complain about consent breaches, it is important to remember that Dominants have boundaries as well. Everything I say below applies to both Dom/mes and subs, and it is important for each partner to honor and respect the limits of the other no matter which side you’re on.
Any partner who does not honor your limits after you have communicated them *unless there is a very clear and sensible reason* is most likely not someone you should continue to scene with. Care is at the bedrock of BDSM, and we must each do our part to care for our partners, wether Dom/me, sub or otherwise.
Bring it Up
It’s not fair to expect your partner to be a mind reader, although if you’re with a great partner he or she may sometimes be just that! Nevertheless, take responsibility for yourself and be clear about your limits upfront. Do NOT assume your Dom/me or sub will know your limits. There are no “standard limits,” and each person is different. What’s “light” for one player may be a “hell no” for someone else, with no rhyme or reason as to why. Varying degrees of sensitivity are what make BDSM so exciting and also so dangerous, so be sure to cover your bases every time!
Just because your partner does not ask does not mean you don’t have a responsibility to tell. Bringing a victim mentality into a scene is unfair to your partner and invites unnecessary pain and anxiety for you. Take the initiative and state your boundaries, whether Dom/me or sub. It’s the safe way to play.
If you’re a Dom/me, try to find a way to ascertain limits. Sometimes you might not want to ask outright (especially if you’re into heavy psychological play and mind fucking), but the more clandestine you are about assessing limits, the more certain you have to be that you’re not wrong.
Timing is Everything
By the time a scene has started it’s usually too late to respectfully (and sometimes even effectively) discuss limits, though of course if you leave it till then and wish to communicate your boundaries, you have no other choice but to do so in the heat of the moment. A Dom/me or sub has likely already put some thought into the scene and started getting excited about the potential activities therein. Most importantly, if you’re into any sort of psychological play, a Dom/me may very well need time to process your limits before the scene begins in order to adequately prepare their strategies and tactics. Derailing someone’s plans or passion when you’re mid-scene is at best inconsiderate, and at worst, a way to ruin the relationship.
The best time to discuss limits is before you are in the space for a scene. It’s important to be in a neutral, non-arousal state so that you can think clearly and be as articulate as possible about your needs. You also need to be able to listen to and respect the limits of your partner, and it can be hard to do so if you’re in the throes of subspace. If needed, you can email your partner a list before you meet, hand them a hand-written note before the scene has begun, or even schedule an in-person coffee or meal a few days before the scene in order to go over your limits in detail. A good dominant will want to get a sense for your mental landscape well ahead of time, in order to gauge how to best handle you.
If you don’t communicate beforehand because you’ve “forgotten,” and maintaining your boundaries in a scene is important to you, then you have a responsibility to convey them during the scene, and your partner has a duty to listen. It might be bad timing, but it’s better than not doing so at all. Your partner does not want to see you unhappy, and it’s not in anyone’s best interests to walk away from a scene having damaged the other person or created a net-negative effect on someone’s life.
It’s Not What You Say But How You Say It
Ideally you have agreed to do a scene with someone because you feel you are, at a core level, compatible. Once you’ve established that, you’ve tacitly agreed to be open and respectful of each others’ limits as well. If you don’t jive with the person’s general kink interests, you should reconsider your reasons for wanting to play with him or her. If a person hates pain, for example, and you want to do a heavy corporal session with them, you need to know exactly what you’re doing and have a lot of experience in that sort of challenging “conversion” scenario. It’s not okay to “convince” someone away from their limits without either significant expertise or their consent.
No respectable Dom/me is going to insult your limitations or make you feel stupid for having them, as long as you have presented them properly. For instance, if you have a fear of soda pop and ask that soda pop never be used in a scene, you should make sure to preface it with, “I know this is ridiculous and illogical, so please bear with me, but…” That way you acknowledge the irrational nature of your limit and your Dom/me will be able to come to terms with it. We Dominants are actually great at plopping things in the category of ‘No Good Reason For This But Just Accept It,” and enjoy quietly laughing at your endearing weaknesses—they make you who you are, and you expressing your vulnerabilities makes us feel closer to you. Just make sure you bring each limitation up with utmost respect and, when appropriate, an apology.
Good openers for subs:
“Ma’am/Sir, would it be all right if we talked about some no-go areas for me?”
“I’ve prepared a list of my hard limits, would it be acceptable to email it to you in advance, please?
“I’m afraid I have some rather ridiculous issues around ______, and I would love to be able to talk about it with you before we meet. Unfortunately _______ takes me totally out my good headspace, so I want to let you know upfront so that we don’t get interrupted.
Good openers for Dom/mes:
“I will honor and respect your boundaries at all times, but I need you to know that I also have boundaries. Are you prepared to hear them?
“There are a few behaviors from submissives that really bother me. Can we talk about them? I don’t want you to make the same mistakes others have made in the past.”
“If you do _______, ________ or ________ the scene will end immediately. Do you understand?”
Discovering a Limitation
On occasion you will realize that something that was previously not a hard limit has become one. It is imperative that you communicate this to your partner as soon as possible, but that you also give it proper care and consideration in your language. The absolute worst time to figure something like this out is in a scene, but unfortunately that’s usually the time when it happens.
The most important thing is to understand your partner is not a mind reader, and that if you have a realization they do not necessarily know that. As far as they’re concerned, unless otherwise noted in your body or words, everything is hunky dory and okay to proceed as normal. If you are the one who has discovered new information, you are the one interrupting the scene. You therefore owe your partner an apology of some sort (whether inferred or literal), no matter whether you are Dom/me or sub. This is not so much a rule as basic etiquette. You would apologize if you changed social plans with a friend, why would you not apologize if you changed plans with an intimate play partner?
Good openers for discovering a limit:
“I’m sorry to have to say this, but I have just had a revelation about ______. I don’t think I can do it, or at least right now. I’m so sorry to bring it up in the middle like this.”
“You have done nothing wrong whatsoever here, but I am feeling very uncomfortable with ______. I didn’t realize this until just now. I’m really sorry.”
“May I say something? It’s out of the blue, I know. I’m feeling really upset around ______ for some reason, would you be okay with doing something else for the time being and perhaps talking about this afterwards?”
Resilience and Forgiveness
Having been recently inspired by The Dirty Gentleman’s events here in New York, as well as the high protocol D/s group that is known collectively as the Guild of Voluptuaries, I want to highlight the need for resilience. We don’t play with actual Gods and Goddesses, we play with other human beings. Human beings make mistakes. Constantly. You WILL make mistakes with people in the scene, eventually, and others WILL make mistakes with you. The key is to maintain compassion for yourself and for others, and remember to take ownership for your own communication and manners at every possible moment.
While there are certainly instances of abuse in our community, you should always background check the overall reputation of a play partner as best you can – not with second and third-hand information but with others who have ACTUALLY played with them. If someone has a load of play partners who have had bad experiences (and you have heard this FIRST-HAND), then perhaps reconsider whether it’s a good idea to play with them. Once you’ve signed on for a scene with someone, though, it’s your responsibility to follow proper etiquette around communicating your limits.
If you deem someone cool enough to scene with, hopefully you also deem him or her of a worthy character (if not, don’t play with them!). If someone has worthy character, they will be willing to take responsibility for their mistakes and attempt to make amends should an error occur. Value resilience—your own and your partner’s—and make your own respectful communication top priority. You will significantly decrease the amount of bad experiences you have in so doing.
The goal is a net positive experience, on both ends. Maintain manners, communicate with courtesy, and your scenes will unfold safely, happily, and worry-free!