For many people, consent is a fundamental principle in BDSM and is embodied in two of the common mottoes many practitioners live by: SSC (safe, sane and consensual) and RACK (risk-aware consensual kink).
Consent is ensuring that your partner has agreed to some activity before engaging in it, or before being compelled to engage in it when they are physically unable to resist, such as when they are bound or chained, or when they are unable to refuse, such as when they are gagged.
There are two important parts to this:
- They know what's going to be done, and
- They know the possible good and bad outcomes.
These mean that you need to be completely honest with your partner. It might seem that this is mainly for the tops, dominants, and masters out there, but being open and honest applies just as much to bottoms, submissives, and slaves because their partner needs to consent to the possible consequences of play just as much as they do. For example, if a submissive has a blood pressure problem, a dominant may choose not to engage in some sorts of play with them because they may feel they don't have the training or skill to deal with the possible medical consequences such as fainting. If the submissive doesn't say anything about their blood pressure problem and allows the dominant to think everything is hunky dory then they are getting the dominant involved without his or her consent.
Often, there can be a bit of to and fro involved in the process of gaining consent as each person---top or bottom, submissive or dominant, master or slave---discusses what they want to get out of scene, activity, or relationship, and what their potential partner wants to put in. This is called negotiation.
The nature of informed consent and its relation to abuse
A central rationale in the doctrine of informed consent is that the recipient or target of services has sufficient information in regard to the pending procedures, including the associated potential benefits and hazards, to exercise a meaningful or illuminated choice about whether to participate. Arguably, the necessity and extent of informed consent disclosures increase with the potential severity of adverse repercussions.
Because BDSM is about two people engaging each other in what is hoped to be something mutually satisfying, there's the potential that one gets more out of it than the other. This is not necessarily a bad thing when both people know exactly what's going on.
However, when one person manipulates what they tell or don't tell their partner so as get their consent for something, then this can be, and often is, abuse. Consider the example I mentioned earlier of a submissive with a blood pressure problem. If this submissive doesn't tell their potential play partner or dominant about this problem so as to increase the likelihood they'll get played with, then even if play goes ahead without problems it's still abuse because the dominant consented to something which wasn't the case, namely the implied state of health of the submissive.
There are some things you can't consent to
One of the principal ideas behind consent is that it is informed, understood, and the possible consequences evaluated. This means that consent is a rational, intellectual process. It involves reason. But many of our behaviours and responses to BDSM don't fit into this schema because a lot of what can go on in a BDSM scene can be very primal or animalistic, and primal behaviours and responses don't lend themselves readily to rational control:
The following is an extract from The Control Book by Peter Masters, pp. 37 - 38:
The earliest clusters of neurones—the precursors of the brain—came into being to regulate the operation of different simple functions of the body—breathing and heart rate for example.
Later evolution produced instincts and predispositions towards particular behaviours which increased the likelihood of survival of both the individual and the species. These include things such as cooperative behaviour, hunting instincts, parenting instincts, mating instincts and so on.
An important thing to understand, is that all this developed largely in layers. The oldest surviving behaviours exist on the inside of our brains and minds with later-developing behaviours and structures being layered over the top of these. Often this is very apparent physically in the actual structure of the brain, and through the comparison of human brains to lower animals... but this is getting off-topic and I’ll leave further exploration of this aspect to the reader.
Two consequences of all of this evolution are:
As a result, while many instincts and behaviours can be partially or completely overridden by conscious effort, there are many which are very resistant to conscious control (e.g. heart beat, hunger for food, thirst, reactions to pain, and sexual arousal).
You should also note that while for clarity I have been giving examples of physical functions to highlight the nature of evolutionary development, much more importantly—at least for the subject of this book—are the attitudes, emotions and intellectual behaviours which have also evolved in the same way and over the same period of time.
Because there are all of these things which we can't control directly, such as sexual arousal, a lot of the time consent has to do with getting into (or avoiding) situations where these things may be triggered.
For example, most submissives can't simply make a conscious or rational decision to go into subspace. Instead, they may consent to be put into situation (such as bondage) or engage in play (such as impact play) which is likely to trigger subspace in them. If they don't want to go into subspace during a particular scene, they may simply refuse to engage in activities which might trigger subspace rather than refuse subspace itself.
Often then, what we consent to is to get into a situation which we don't expect to surprise us.
Consent, then play
It is important that agreement is reached before engaging in play. Once play has begun an altered state of mind due to subspace or due to released neurochemicals such as endorphins may mean that clear thought isn't possible, and therefore the person can't properly negotiate or change the nature of their consent.
Legal problems with consent
In some legal jurisdictions you can't consent to abuse. Some BDSM activities fall into the category of abuse as defined by local law and can include any form of wounding, drawing blood, bruising, cutting, and so on. In these jurisdictions it isn't possible to legally consent to engage in these BDSM activities.
This means that if the law enforcement authorities discover your BDSM activities then you and your partner may be prosecuted, and while consent may diminish the punishment, the consequences can still include a criminal record and jail time.
Looking a little closely at the idea of consent and surprise, which I touched on earlier, there is an interesting philosophical question to do with consent. Many of the phenomena and feelings associated with BDSM have no equivalent outside of BDSM. How can you consent to them if you have no idea of how they feel or how they will affect you? For example, how can you consent to something that will cause subspace before you've ever experienced subspace or know what it's like? Virgins (mostly the female ones) are in a similar position before their first sexual intercourse. How can they consent to it, or consent to have an orgasm, when the feelings they get are like nothing they have experienced before?
It's worth noting that consent has a lot to do with expectations. Someone consents to something they expect may or will happen. They don't consent to something they don't expect to be a consequence of their activities and so if anything shocking, surprising, confronting or to-them-unexpected happens they may claim they didn't consent to it.