A short guide on how to negotiate consent in ropes and get what you really want
Consent in ropes is a hot topic these days. There are many words written about empowering the person in ropes to set up or defend their boundaries and creating awareness for the tying person to encourage this behavior. That’s great. There is also a lot of teaching on how to negotiate a rope scene including elaborated checklists. Still, there is an element missing. We believe the “success” of consent negotiation comes not with the most detailed checklist but with getting clear and honest first of all with yourself and then your partner about what your intention for the scene is.
There are many reasons why two people tie together. They range from love and mutual attraction to showing off and proving oneself. People might find a specific rope style attractive and want to try it out. People want to get a special feeling, such as “flying” in suspension. People want to practice a specific pattern. None of that is wrong or to be judged – as long as the intention is clear and consent about what is going to happen gets established.
Let us define first what actually “consent” is? Many people think of consent being the same as permission. Many use them interchangeably: “I give my consent”, “I’m going to get consent”. But consent is much more than permission. Having studied last year with Dr. Betty Martin on “The Wheel of consent”, we found her definition the most accurate: consent is an agreement that covers four elements: who is doing what for how long with which intention. The latter clarifies the question: who is it for?
The common answer here is: “It is mutual”. And in a way it is. You both get to enjoy what you are doing, of course! The question is not about who is enjoying. The question is about whose agenda you follow at this rope session, who is getting a gift… Giving a gift to my partner can be just as enriching. It is however different kind of joy from getting a gift myself, isn’t it?
Why it is important to ask this question?
- Because doing and giving are not the same
- Because we people tend to assume things
- Because we people tend to tolerate things
- Because it clarifies the question of responsibility – which check-list doesn’t
- Because it gives you clear structure to talk about yours and your partners’ needs, wishes and limits
- Because we people like to get surprised but we need a safe space as well
- Because it really helps to confront yourself with the question – why you do what you do?
- Because it brings you closer with your partner – promise!
Mixing up doing and giving is a very common confusion when it comes to consent negotiations. The focus is on an “active” and a “passive” partner. (We strongly dislike these terms and prefer “the tying person or the person doing the rope” and “the person in ropes”) So people often mix these terms assuming that the tying person is also the one who is giving. As a result, we have the person in ropes communicating on the pre-session talk about their likes and dislikes and the tying person is left with an unclear perspective on how to smuggle their agenda in. Well, those who dare, just go for it. Those who don’t, have a growing feeling of dissatisfaction…
The problem however is easy to address by asking exactly this question: “Who is it for?”
And then we can get specific: “I like to get suspended in futo momo, can you do it for me?” gives a different message compared to “I observed you tying, I would love to surrender to your rope for a scene, as long as we are clear that there shall be no penetration”, right? It sounds also much different to “Wanna tie?”
So how do we go about it? How do we proceed with intention-based negotiation? Depending on who is getting the gift and who is doin’ the rope, we have two possible dynamics, and here is what you need to discuss.
One possible scenario: the one who is tying is taking and the one who is being tied, is surrendering
The gift-receiving partner is responsible for communicating their wishes and desires. If you are the one who is doing the tying, and you agreed with your partner that this is for you, your question is: “May I…?” May I become sexual with you? May I torture you? What are your limits with sexual touch? What are your limits with pain / impact? How far may I go? You might hear Yes / No / Maybe. You might get specific on some particular aspect.
Asking “May I…?” you take the responsibility for what it is that YOU want to do. You take a responsible action for your own benefit. It’s very easy. Whatever you like to take, that belongs to someone else, you need to ask. When you want to take someone’s pen, you ask. When you want to touch someone’s skin, you ask. Asking creates an agreement. Pushing till they say “No” does not.
Once limits are communicated, this is your responsibility to guard them. This is never your responsibility to guess them. If your partner is fuzzy on that, there is only one way to create a safe space for play: spend extra time and help them to find their limits before you engage in the play. If they are not willing to cooperate on that and stick to “Oh, I’m just exploring…”, think about your own safety and maybe you decide not to tie with them.
On the complementary side, for the person in rope who is willing to surrender: it is your responsibility to communicate your limits. It’s very important: to know and to communicate your limits is your responsibility. We hear sometimes “to feel safe I need to trust my partner”. But this is another big confusion. The person you need to trust is yourself. This is not your partners’ responsibility to guess your limits. This is their responsibility to guard your limits once these have been communicated.
When surrendering feels difficult, that can be an indicator that you don’t have inner clarity about your limits. Let us look into that. How to find your limits? Do less, walk slow, find first your comfort zone – where it feels absolutely safe – and grow slowly from there. Betty Martin teaches: “listen to the pull, not the push”. The pull comes from inside of you, this is this little shy voice that says: “Mmm… I really like to try that, even though it feels a bit scary…” The push comes from outside as rather a pressure to do something that we think we SHOULD be doing. True, that pressure can be experienced as an inner impulse, but the kick is coming from outside. Trust yourself on taking the responsibility for how far you like to go. Don’t put it on the tying person – it is unethical and simply doesn’t work.
Another reason to feel difficult about surrendering: you don’t trust that your properly communicated limits will be observed. When this is the case, you should probably ask yourself, why do you like to tie with this person in the first place?
Another possible scenario: the one who is tying is giving and the one who is being tied, is receiving
How is the other situation when the person who is handling the rope is offering a gift? If you have the intention of serving another person, you don’t ask “May I…?” This is not for you. You make a clear offer: “Would you like me to tie you up? Tell me how you like it?” It is completely different dynamic from what we described above.
When truly serving your partner, you set aside what you prefer. That includes things you feel like doing, that includes the reactions you hope to see. The art of giving is finding out what your rope partner wants. Verbal and non-verbal communication can help you here, there are many teachings out there, but most of all keeping a clear intention in your mind: it is not about you neither your impressive rope technique this time. It is about your partner, the person in ropes.
When serving, this is your turn to watch your limits. It is also ok for people doing the rope to say “No”. As far as we know, there is no privilege or entitlement to be tied up.
As for your partner on the receiving end, well, now it is your turn to speak about your wants. When you like to be tied up for yourself, you make a request: “Will you please do this and this for me? I really like this experience of flying in ropes… and a scratchy sensation of the rope on my skin…” What you are doing here is asking your play partner to do something for you, to engage with their time and energy. You might hear Yes / No / Maybe. You might get specific on some particular aspect. Asking “Will you…?” you take the responsibility for what it is that YOU want to receive. Be clear and ready to express, what it is that you actually want. Settling for what your partner is offering does not yet really make a receiving. When receiving, you don’t need to worry about giving something back immediately. Although this can be a subject for negotiating with your rope partner.
The more honest we get in our self-statements, the more we get it to the point, the clearer it is when our intentions don’t match. When one person says, like in example above: “Would you be willing to suspend me and hold a space for me to enjoy this experience?” and another says “Ehhh, actually I was going to ask you if you would be up for some sexual semenawa?” then you got it right there in the beginning, you are not good for each other, without possible painful experience.
To wrap it up:
- Get clear and honest with yourself about your wants, limits and intentions.
- Communicate it to your partner. For “advanced” practitioners: communicate from the place of openness and vulnerability.
- Invite your partner to do the same.
- Shut up and listen. Make sure you understood.
- Stay in here and now. It’s not about what you “usually” like. It’s about what you like to do with this particular person in this particular moment. What gift would you like to offer them… or what gift you like to receive from them?
- Now you are on your way to have a Responsible Experience. We think it’s hot!
Why is consent violation or at least consent “confusion” happening much too often, even with all that theory out? In our opinion, based on now more than 5 years anthropological field study in the “scene”, there are two main reasons. The first is, there are people, who think they can “read” their partner so they can see if they are fine / still within limits etc. You can’t. People tend to tolerate things.
“…Because we all have been touched the way we didn’t want to – as babies, before we could walk and talk – our nervous system knows how to get along with stuff…”
That feels normal. Unless consciously unlearned, many of us have this mode by default. So even with the best intention you might end up doing harm.
The second reason is, people don’t get honest with their intentions. Often, the person doing the rope doesn’t dare to ask for what they really want. Asking for what you really want (in this kink context!) makes you damn vulnerable. You get naked with all your desires and “perversions”. Therefore, the wanting or taking is wrapped into an offer or a secondary wish. Instead of asking the person I find so hot on that Jam “May I tie you up hard and rough” I may offer to do some hammock suspension (to make her fly) or to do some technical stuff. Is there some secret wish to get more? Maybe… But it is in the gray area bordering consent violation.
But there is hope. We see more people doing good consent negotiations. People who want to go into the rope are much more aware of their limits and communicate them clearly. As you read this, now you know. Let us take care of each other. Let us be tender with each others’ wounds.