Yes, No, and Consent

December 28, 2009  |  essays

In much of the workshops and trainings around sexuality and sexual expression that I have attended, we have often started with one basic concept: saying no.

For example, I have been part of a circle of pairs where the instruction was for the person on the outside of the circle to think of a place on their body that would really like to be massaged right now. Hands, feet, wrists, scalp, shoulders – wherever there might be some great tension released. And the instruction was to ask the person on the inside circle, politely, “would you please massage my ____.” The person on the inside was instructed to say “No.” They could say, “I’m sorry, not right now.” Or, “I really can’t, no.” Or to couch it in some other softer “no,” but the instruction was specifically to practice saying it – even if they actually wanted to give the massage! (There would be time for that, later.)

The point of that exercise is to practice saying no. To know that it’s okay to say no. To have permission to say no – to have instruction, even, to say no. It’s actually really hard! But it’s so, so important, especially when building trust, especially when deepening a relationship, especially when working to assert your own needs and desires, as I feel probably all of us struggle with, in some ways.

The idea behind this, in erotic work is without no, there is no YES. And the YES is what we’d like to get to. The delicious, hungry YES, which is so excited and juicy and ready for what’s coming.

Without the ability to say no, the yes is virtually meaningless. Without the reassurance of my partner or girlfriend or lover or wife or toy or submissive saying no to me every once in a while, how can I be sure that she really can say no? It feels good, to me, to hear someone create limits on something, because then I have a better idea of how far I can go. I hate to discover dealbreakers in the middle of something, that is not good.

That’s pretty explanatory, right? The no-gives-yes-value thing?

This happens in relationships, too, not just with sex. For example, my friend and her girlfriend were planning to do something, one of those big relationship things. The details are a bit unimportant, but it’s something her girlfriend had expressed skepticism about in the past, and my friend was really into it. At the last minute, her girlfriend decided no, actually, it isn’t something she wanted to do. Oops sorry! My friend was mad, for a while. We talked and talked and she was upset. After the dust cleared a little, though, my friend said she was really grateful to her girlfriend for being honest. She was really grateful that her girlfriend wouldn’t be the kind of person who would just go along with something her partner wanted, even if it wasn’t something that she truly wanted herself. How much worse would the resentment build up if she had gone and done it anyway, secretly knowing she didn’t want to! How much more tension and stress would their relationship be under! My friend’s girlfriend risked hurting my friend’s feelings, and risked the consequences of being honest, but also has a lot of trust and faith that they will be able to talk through things, to reach some sort of mutually appreciated conclusion. And my friend has said, many times, since, I value honesty over consistency any day.

They are closer, as a result. Telling the truth doesn’t have to mean being disappointing or disappointed, it doesn’t have to mean steps back in a relationship. I would rather be with someone who I could trust to tell me no when they felt no and tell me yes when they felt yes. And if she never tells me no, can I be sure she really can?

Audacia Ray has said that working in the sex industry taught her to say no. She’s also said, “‘No’ is a complete sentence!” (especially when she and I have talked about how overcommitted we are), which I find myself saying to myself in my head frequently. Lots of the productivity blogs talk about turning things down as a way to really take control over your own time and owning your own sovereignty. This is important in sex play and relationships, too.

I know lots of these concepts around “saying no” are taught in sexual assault, survivor, reclaiming sexuality, and power play workshops all over, but I want to reiterate where it comes from, because the next part is this: about saying yes.

As I have been writing about a bit lately, I have struggled with being a top and dominant in bed. Sometimes, upon expressing to my lover something that I’ve wanted to do, and after they say, excitedly, that they have always wanted to do that too, I still have trouble, I still doubt that it’s okay, I still hesitated.

It’s like what J. said, in a comment on the Reconciling the Identities of Butch Top and Feminist essay:

Recently, my partner and I have been experimenting with some new things in bed and I was constantly asking her if she was okay with what we were doing. I was so worried that I asked her several times in a row, not taking her first yes for what it was. She told me that if I’m going to trust when she says no, I also have to trust when she says yes.

Bingo. I love that explanation of this process – so succinct. Yes, exactly.

As the dominant, I think I can ask whether my submissive is okay with what we are doing (or going to do), even more than once, until I am satisfactorily convinced of her consent, but – BUT! – it is also my job to trust her answer, to believe her, and to let that be enough.

If she consents, and uses it against me later, that is, most likely, NOT MY FAULT and she is a jerk. (See Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast Episode #165 where a guy gives his boyfriend permission to fuck other guys, then gets completely pissed and refuses to see him again after he does. Not okay!)

If I have chosen to date this girl, then personally I do have some sort of assumption that her consent means that she knows herself, and she is able to gauge her own reactions, and has enough self-knowledge that she will know whether being in whatever situation we’re discussing will make her freak out or not.

I can, of course, check in with her during the scene (hopefully in ways that do not break the scene entirely – see The Topping Book and The Bottoming Book for more about that), but I also have to accept that if something was wrong she would tell me or communicate it to me somehow, and that it is not my job to be a mind reader. It is my job to ask when I notice something, it is her job to communicate with me actively.

This is one of those ways that BDSM is actually Relationship Communications 401, way beyond the basics. And this is why I personally have had a tough time playing with people who were not self-aware, people who were not impeccable communicators, and people who were not afraid to be honest and assert what they needed.

This stuff is really damn hard, I know. Sometimes I don’t even know what I want, let alone being able to articulate it. But if we can’t trust each other to say yes, and no, and mean it, then we can’t go farther, we can’t play with consent and force, we can’t establish deeper trust to be able to get to the darker, juicy stuff, like domination and submission outside the bedroom, and role play, and deep, late night conversations untangling some of our control issues. Ideally, a good relationship works to bring parts of you to light that weren’t quite visible before, and supports you as you work through them, and possibly enhance or change them – and I have found no better tool for that than the many varied practices of BDSM.

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10 Comments


  1. I wish I could've gotten former partners to read this..

    a lot of great info & things to think about, sin. thanks. :)

  2. Thanks for this post. I agree that consent isn't just "no" … It's also knowing when and how to say "yes" as well as being able to communicate clearly about what you want.

    I feel blessed to have trusting communication around consent and power play as a foundation in my relationship with my partner/lover – which has allowed us to play with some edges of consent. For example, "no" doesn't mean stop, our safe word means stop. This often relates to more subtle plays around resistance and defiance. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this or if any commenters know of others who write on this?

  3. One of the reasons that I like BDSM so much is that you get to a level of trust with another person that I personally don't think is possible with any other kind of relationship. It's such a rewarding dynamic. :)

  4. "She was really grateful that her girlfriend wouldn’t be the kind of girl who would just go along with something her partner wanted, even if it wasn’t something that she truly wanted herself. How much worse would the resentment build up if she had gone and done it anyway, secretly knowing she didn’t want to!"

    I read this article this morning and was able to apply it this afternoon, when I was asked whether or not I would be comfortable with something happening. I remembered the above section and felt comfortable enough to say no. Sadly, I don't think the person liked hearing what I was saying, and I had to explain my reasoning a bit…but reading and remembering this made me feel more comfortable saying it. Thank you for writing this.

  5. How timely. My ake and I had a discussion last night about this very thing. Literally, last night in bed. My girl brought up the topic of resistance play. That led to Me asking, "In a rape scene, I continue to worry that you'll blank on your safe word, and 'no' will mean 'no' except I won't realize it and won't that be a fkg mess for Me to clean up." Then I talked TO MYSELF: "How I can ask her to trust Me implicitly when I am conveying to her that I can't trust Myself to read a crisis?" Soooooooooo, ultimately, I have to trust U/us both. Just a little reminder, too, that while people sometimes assume that it's the Dominants with the "gravy" jobs in this Lifestyle, We can NEVER check ALL of the way out, to the the point that We might miss a crucial cue during a scene. I can't believe I came to this page today. VERY timely, Man. Thanks for what You do.

    DC

  6. this is really thoughtful. thank you, Sin!

    it makes me think, too, about learning to say Yes and No and being honest & real about it internally, too. as a pleaser who has in the past leaned submissive to please, and now is exploring more dominant to please myself, it is tricky business to discern where the internal “yes” or “no” rises from, and whether it is my truth or a pattern of accommodation. additionally, as a pleaser, it is tempting to assume a partner says yes or no, but not always mean it because that’s what a less than self-aware pleaser might do.

  7. I agree with this so much. . .But, as someone who stills feels new to bottoming -or at least new to understanding that title and how it relates to herself- I feel that need to put in that we don't always know where our thresholds are. Yes, I know myself and I know my desires at this point in my life to a somewhat profound degree. . .But, there were definitely times in my past where I really didn't know and that sometimes led to bad results. Due to my lack of knowledge I felt betrayed/trespassed etc. And, some of that was my fault, but some of it was naïveté as well.

    I think sometimes people -whether they be bottoms or tops or some other definition- have to realize that other people may not have definite knowledge of themselves. And, when you are dealing with people who don't have such knowledge of themselves the definitions of "no,"and "yes" are murky at best.

    I so deeply agree when you write: "If I have chosen to date this girl, then personally I do have some sort of assumption that her consent means that she knows herself, and she is able to gauge her own reactions, and has enough self-knowledge that she will know whether being in whatever situation we’re discussing will make her freak out or not."

    Basically, we all have to be careful to make sure that when dealing with trigger-type situations that our partners have enough self-awareness to actually know what they desire/don't desire.

  8. This post brought tears to my eyes – I understand very little about the BDSM relationship dynamic – everything I know I know from reading this very blog – but OH the power of no and yes and the self-awareness from which they arise – such depth and richness there… thank you!

  9. Not being able to say "no" has caused all links of problems for me in the past. In my last relationship it was much about my not saying now as it was that she constantly created situations in which it felt "no" was just not an option on many fronts.

    I have been thinking about consent and boundaries a lot lately, so thank you for this very thought provoking post.

    Happy New Year to you and Kristen! :-)

  10. An excellent articulation of something that ought to be obvious, but almost never is.

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