What are the qualities that make a great play partner? Ask ten people and you’ll get ten wildly diverse answers, but you’ll also find that some qualities are universally cherished. Clear communication about desires, interests and turn-offs is at the top of the hit parade, and the ability to listen – really listen – is as precious as tickets to a Pearl Jam concert. In fact, play that is safe, sensual and satisfying depends on the ability of partners to absorb information via all six of the senses. Everything you see, hear, taste, smell, touch and intuit provides an awareness of your partner and yourself that you need in order to play considerately and consensually.
BDSM players often speak of “pushing limits” or taking partners to their edges. Newcomers to the experience may erroneously conclude that these phrases imply going beyond activities that were agreed upon. Mostly, they would be wrong. Yet, consent is a tricky concept, and includes at least two sub-categories: explicit and implicit consent. Safe, enjoyable play requires an appreciation of the differences between them.
In the early stages of a relationship, discussing the boundaries of consent allows players to develop their connection and ascertain skill and experience levels. Spelling out what is and is not OK is important to the development of trust. Plus, this information gives the top a chance to slowly discover the range of a bottom’s sensitivities without making unwarranted assumptions or taking unwise risks.
One way to initiate negotiations is to discuss the items on one of the “bdsm checklists” here on site. These lists allow partners to numerically rate a nearly unfathomable variety of activities, indicating their level of experience and enjoyment or potential interest in each. Talking about the items elicits a wealth of insights and enables free-flowing discussion about even the most extreme variations. Using the lists helps partners see how the other thinks and processes information, and encourages expanded discussion about items of special interest or concern.
Favorite flavors and “hard limits” – i.e., those “no way in this lifetime” activities – are clarified.
During initial play sessions, negotiated activity can be limited to items that both partners have rated highly. Preferences are hardly ambiguous when you’re staring at a sheaf of papers that have 5’s (love it!) and 4’s scribbled under some categories, but not others. Plus, when the getting-to-know you process is also the first stage in scouting for a serious relationship, it’s useful to know early-on whether the items that one person rates a perpetual 5 only warrants a 1 – or even an “over my dead body” 0 – from the other.
As a relationship progresses, some forms of explicit consent may no longer be required. For instance, if your partner knows you’re OK with anal plugs, and you know that your partner is skillful in inserting them, she probably doesn’t need your explicit consent to surprise you with a larger plug, or one that vibrates. You have a safeword, you’ve established mutual trust, so she can go for the gusto, confident that you will let her know if you’re unhappy with the new sensations. You, in turn, feel safe in the hands of someone with experience interpreting your every shade of oooh, aaah, and ouch.
Consent can get tricky, however, when you’ve given someone clear permission to push the boundaries of intimate activity. In that case, consent to new activities becomes implicit rather than explicitly negotiated. Forms of explicitly outlined consensual “non-consent” occur mostly in relationships where the “top” is given express psychological control over the “bottom.” Here, the terms dominant and submissive better describe the power dynamic. A submissive might explicitly relinquish power to the dominant in specified areas of life, including the erotic sphere. That would mean, theoretically, that within the confines of reason and safety, the dominant could do anything she wishes. Does this mean that your partner can or should do things that you would find disgusting or frightening? Does he or she really have carte blanche? The answer to those questions is – explicitly – no!
Even in the realm of implicit consent, the submissive should always retain a safeword to alert the partner to unforeseen (or invisible to the dom) problems. The dominant is implicitly expected to focus on the submissive’s pleasure as much as, if not more than, her own. (“Pleasure” is a subjective experience, which is why knowing one’s partner well is key here.) Even pain-play is meant to be ecstatically pleasing, and any activity that the dominant has reason to suspect would be repellent to the submissive, or which he is not sufficiently skilled to employ safely should be avoided – and “safe” encompasses both the physical and psychological. Nobody gets “dom-credit” for being rash and thoughtless. To the contrary, for serious players within a community of players, inconsiderate or irresponsible partners may be identified publicly. A reputation as a worthy play-partner can be built or destroyed based upon maintaining consistent respect for the needs and desires of one’s partners. Respect may even include ignoring a submissive’s craving for more intensity if the dominant suspects that she is too strung out on endorphins to be a good judge of her own condition. Backing off if the dominant is concerned for the submissive’s well-being – even if the sub is begging for more – is an often under-rated aspect of sensitive and considerate play.
A submissive who later complains about a dom’s caution could be seen as inconsiderate of the dom’s right to feel safe, too. Submissives can manipulate and shame dominants just as dominants can upset submissives. A sensitive submissive partner is one who understands how precarious the dom’s moment to moment decisions can be, who doesn’t expect a “mind-reader,” and who knows that the quality of his communication is crucial to the dominant’s ability to orchestrate a fulfilling experience for both of them.
The term “play” is used for a reason: kinky sexuality is all about entrancing times for adults, deep erotic connection, and lingering bliss. Looking back on a play-date with a happy gleam in one’s eye – not anger, regret, shame, or a bill from the ER – is the whole point.
My advice to tops/dominants is to move slowly in new relationships. Be willing to err on the side of safety and concern for the bottom and in the interests of your own peace of mind. There will always be time later to play harder, test limits, and audaciously challenge one’s self and one’s partner. In the world of kinky play, giant leaps are mostly for the arrogant and childish. Respectful steps are for smart, savvy grown-ups.
Abput the Author:
A psychologist and sex therapist based in New York City, Dr. Joy Davidson has been involved in the development of internet-based sexuality education for much of her career. Convinced that the internet has the capacity to revolutionize intimate connections, she has been actively researching and writing about the internet as a vehicle for sexual expression, education, and therapy for nearly a decade.
Dr. Davidson was a key contributor to MSN’s pioneering online magazine for women, Underwire, as well as a sex and relationships columnist for MSN’s WomenCentral.com, SexualHealth.com, and SavvyMiss.com. Offline, she was for 8 years the sex columnist for Playgirl magazine and Men’s Fitness magazine. In addition to her current articles on LoveandHealth.info, she hosts a sexual enhancement video series, The Joy Spot, which can be viewed on other major video sites as well. Dr. Davidson’s personal website is www.joydavidson.com
Dr. Davidson is the author of Fearless Sex: A Babe's Guide to Overcoming Your Romantic Obsessions and Getting the Sex Life You Deserve (2004, Fairwinds Press), which, in hardcover, was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Venus Book Club. As an expert on sexual issues in popular media and culture, she is also a contributor to four of Benbella Books’ acclaimed “Smart Pop” anthologies and the editor of an upcoming fifth release. Her astute insights and warm, vivacious personal style have made Dr. Davidson a sought-after speaker at seminars and conferences, and a guest on hundreds of national television and radio shows, including Oprah, 20/20, CNN News, Entertainment Tonight, Montel, and Bill O'Reilly. She was the host of 36 episodes of the Playboy channel’s series, “Secret Confessions and Fantasies,” and the writer/creator of the Playboy/Sharper Image home video series, “Secrets of Making Love to the Same Person Forever.” Dr. Davidson is a frequently featured expert in national magazines and press, including USA Today, Salon.com, Redbook, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Marie Claire, Men's Health, and Cosmopolitan. She holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, an AASECT certified Sex Therapist, and a member of AASECT’s Board of Directors.
Article by Dr. Davidson © CollarNcuffs.com