Better BDSM Negotiation For Sexier Play

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By Sarah Sloane

In our culture, many of us have this fantasy — let’s call it “magical knowing” —  that if our partner is really into us, they will magically be able to automatically know what we need, and what feels good for us, without us having to say it. 

It permeates our culture; think about all of the movies where the protagonist says no but their (more dominant) partner somehow knows that they really mean yes, or the books where a first erotic encounter with a new person is filled with fireworks and mutual orgasms (yes, Harlequin Romance, I’m looking at you). This isn’t only bad news for new connections; it builds into ongoing relationships the idea that if our partner really loves us (or even just knows us well enough), they’ll be able to intuit what we want without us having to say a word.

Because what we do often involves physical or emotional risks, folks who participate in BDSM or kinky play preach against magical knowing. In fact, one of the first things that you’ll see BDSM educators (and sexuality educators of all kinds) talk about is the importance of negotiation. For kinksters, this includes communicating your needs, wants, and boundaries to a potential partner in order to create a mutually pleasurable scene (A scene, if you’re not familiar with kink jargon, is a term used for session & activities you plan to do together).

But for lots of novice kinky folks (as well as for some more experienced ones), the idea of scene negotiation can feel really unsexy. It can feel like an interruption in the flow: having to stop in the middle of a hot flirtation session to try to turn your rational brain back on and do some logic problems when all you want to do is Get It On. 

And you know what? Yeah. It can definitely be unsexy, especially if you’re dealing with it in a clinical way, or if you were always taught that you should negotiate kink or sex as if you’re trying to figure out a pizza order for a group of 20. 

The style of negotiation that relies on comprehensive tests taken and exchanged ahead of time, or approaches it checklist-style, may be an option for some — but it definitely misses the boat, and can in fact cause some bad assumptions to arise that end up making a date not so great. 

But there’s hope! In between those two unhealthy (and unrealistic, in the case of magical knowing), polar opposites exists a glorious world where negotiation can not only help us avoid negative outcomes, but also make those mind-blowing experiences happen more consistently in our lives.

1. Negotiate A Connection

First, I invite you to consider that negotiation starts the moment that you start thinking about how you and your potential partner might want to connect. Do they have the kind of attitudes and perspectives that make you feel comfortable with them? Do they check in with you on what feels good for you? Honest, empowered negotiation starts with a sense of connection & trust in the other person, regardless of which side of the action you want to be on (or whether you even want to limit yourself to a single role). The more that we trust that our needs will be met and our boundaries will be respected, the more that we’re likely to be able to relax into the intimacy of the play space and deeply enjoy it. 

Thinking about negotiation as a way of cultivating a connection runs counter to the more common “what’re you into?” conversation where one just starts to list off their interests in a way that can be so impersonal.

There is no reason that you need to have a checklist or take a BDSM quiz in order to be able to negotiate. For newer folks, it’s hard to have a sense of what we might like – and what we might not – when we may not have ever experienced it. And for more practiced folks, we may find that our “yes” is less about the activity itself than it is about the person’s skill set and passion. Now, some of us really love our checklists — I’m not here to yuck your yum, for sure, but the presence of a “yes” or “no” on a checklist misses nuances that might open up a world of pleasure for your playtime. 

A great way to start the more “formal” part of negotiation is to think about what you know about the person and what turns you on about them. Is it their confidence? The way that their eyes flicker down when they talk about sex? Did you see them using a flogger, or respond to a sensation play scene at a local play space? Whatever it is — tell them. Starting the conversation by telling them what attracts you to them, and how you’d like to capture that in your scene or in your relationship connection, can help provide a foundation for you to expand on.

Ask them what they would like to get out of playing with you, as well. Do they want to feel owned? Powerful? Skillful? Taken care of? Do they want to push their physical limits a bit further? Reach a transcendent state? Or do they love to laugh and want to be playful? Creating space for them to talk about the bigger desires they have for your scene centers them as a co-creator of the experience, and builds empowerment towards consent.

2. Brainstorm Activities That Nurture The Desired Connection

Once you’ve talked about what turns you on about your play partner, and you’ve spent some time chatting about the way that you want to feel when it’s all wrapped up, start digging into activities. 

Yeah, this list of activities is often it can start to feel like a checklist (or where folks show off their quiz results). But I’m encouraging you to think about things in more depth than just do you like being tied up, yes or no?

For starters, what does your partner know they like to experience, or perform? What have they had negative experiences with — and what were those experiences due to? Do they want to challenge assumptions or revisit things that they’ve tried before with varying levels of success? Are they curious about trying something new? Toss it all out on the table, as much as you feel safe with doing so. Just because one of you is interested in something doesn’t mean that the other person is obligated. 

I hope that you have lots of options on the table that are (at least somewhat) on everyone’s “yes!” list. But even if you don’t, pick out just one or two things that feel hot. You don’t need to have a session that requires a huge toy bag and three costume changes (unless, of course, that’s what turns you on); a single toy or a small set of directives can make for a pretty pleasurable scene! If you do have tons of options – here’s your chance to edit it down. A mistake that I made as a novice top was to try to use lots of different toys during an SM scene – so I’d pull out multiple floggers, paddles, a cane, a crop, etc…and I got so busy trying to switch between toys to get to all of the different implements in the scene that I wasn’t as connected to the energy & flow of the session as my partner deserved. Having a goal of using just a few items – or a single one – lets you play with pacing, different sensations, and … wait for it … anticipation!

Once you’ve decided (at least initially) on what you’re going to do, it’s time to make sure that you mark the territory that you want to explore. How do you do that? Boundaries! Negotiating the “no’s” isn’t always a clear-cut “don’t hit here” or “don’t call me ___” — it also includes what and how you’ll both recover from it if something happens. The reality is that many issues that arise are not because of rules that were broken, but they’re due to an error that wasn’t corrected or went under the radar. 

3. Don’t Rely Exclusively on Safewords When Trouble Arises   

Safewords, while often discussed as part of negotiation, aren’t the infallible tool for communication that we might want them to be. First of all, the onus is on the bottom / submissive / receiving person to call a safeword, and while that might make sense, it doesn’t take into account the underlying reasons that might prevent someone from using a safe word. Some folks can get into a non-verbal state during play; some people may also be unwilling to use a safe word because they don’t want the play to stop for a variety of reasons (including worrying that they will upset their partner). And for the top or dominant person, there are some of the same issues that may hold them back from alerting their partner if one of their boundaries has been crossed. 

There are ways to navigate this, though! We can decide that using a safeword only creates a “pause” in the action so that clear communication can happen before moving forward. We can also ask each other what they might say, or do, if they’re reaching a point that’s uncomfortable — some people who are experienced may already know this, but even for novices, they may be able to clearly identify at least one thing that they know about how they handle stress or pain that’s useful for their partner to know to look out for. A common reaction for pain, for example, is to pull away from the sensation; for many bottoms, they will pull away but then relax back into their original position (or even lean closer to their partner) as part of a pleasurable session, and so if they pull away and stay tense, it may indicate that they’re overwhelmed and may need a check-in or to have the sensation stop at that level. 

4. Watch For Nonverbal Cues

The negotiation doesn’t end once the scene has started. We negotiate with our bodies as well as with our words. Paying attention to our partner’s reactions to what’s happening can provide tremendous insight, and are “additive” in a way that allows each subsequent scene to be even more intuitive and more intimate! Are they clearly breathing harder? Is their body relaxing instead of tensing up? Are their noises sounding more pleasurable? When we respond in a particular way, does our partner shift their actions (or even their energy) in a way that feels good to us? Pay attention to the little things; often, our bodies know (and show) what our brains can’t put into words. 

The difference between an adequate session and an amazing session comes down to our ability to combine our trust in our boundaries and our intuition; and as we build both better verbal negotiation skills along with paying mindful attention to each moment as we’re exploring, we can bring those into alignment and allow ourselves to take a journey with our partner that transcends the norm.

Sarah Sloane is a sexuality and relationships educator, writer,
podcast producer and coach focusing on creating “light bulb moments”
for her readers, clients and students. With over 20 years of experience
in kink and ethical non-monogamy, and 18 years of teaching all over
the U.S., her work helps other people find their authentic bliss. You
can find her at sarahsloane.net, learn from her at Chicago Dungeon
Rentals, and listen in to her podcast “Social Intercourse with Sarah
Sloane” on your fave podcast service.

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Several of our fabulous Rebelles contributed to this piece.