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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Anatomy of a Negotiation

I'm back on my soapbox. It's been awhile. I've been in the process of moving to a new city, and then in the process of traveling up and down the west coast to visit friends. The former was terrifying and all-consuming, and the latter has been wonderful and also all-consuming. I spent some good time in Washington, and, in between drinking great local beer and trying to spot the stealth vampires, I had some time to think about how the BDSM community fails us all. My favorite pet peeve.

I've been thinking about something that happened at a play party I attended just before I left my last city. I had been chatting with this woman for a while, when she expressed interest in tying me up. I hadn't planned on playing that evening, but I was enjoying her company, and I happily agreed to it. Once I was tied, she got pretty handsy - not in a way that I found to be wildly objectionable, but in a way that fell outside of the mere tying-up to which I'd agreed. Let me be clear: there was an established party safeword. I trusted that if I used it, she would stop, and on the million-to-one chance that she didn't, the twenty-odd people in the room with us would notice and step in. If I'd raised any objection, I'm sure she would have respected it. I wasn't upset; I was just noticing that we were having a less-than-perfect interaction. This woman did everything else right: she expressed her interest in a respectful, no-pressure way, she checked in during the scene, and she made sure that I felt good once she'd untied me. I think that the reason that the groping went unmentioned when we were establishing what we wanted was that she honestly didn't think to separate groping from tying up. I'm sure that, in her experience, no one has objected to it - and I was no exception.

Someone I know was in a similar situation recently, at a different party, with a couple of guys who proposed a tying-up scene and then started in with impact play without asking. It seemed like the two guys, both of whom were new (their first party) had spent the evening watching other people restrain and beat up their play partners, and had gotten the idea that that's the unspoken rule of how things go. It makes sense in that environment, especially if you've got no other point of reference. That tying up leads to spanking leads to whacking with whatever implements you can get your hands on is as natural an assumption as kissing leads to groping leads to sex. Which is, oh wait, a totally fucked up assumption.

Both parties are regular events, each with a list of rules that guests are supposed to read before attending. One list is more comprehensive than the other, but both include basic precautions for safety ("No blood in the air.") and privacy ("No photographs without explicit permission."). Both of them mention negotiation, but not at length, and not enough to prevent the kind of misunderstandings that I mentioned above. Hyde and I were discussing this, and we thought that it would be a nice idea to include some negotiation guidelines with the party rules, as an aid to newcomers, and to ensure that everyone is on the same page. It is deceptively easy to believe that we are, most of the time, since play is supposed to follow a simple formula.

Here's the formula: boy meets girl, boy politely asks girl if she would like to play with him, girl consents enthusiastically, boy and girl negotiate, boy and girl have a mutually satisfying time playing, show-stopping musical number.

There's something missing from the narrative about how to go about playing with someone. Namely, what the hell is negotiation?

Is it when someone takes some hostages, and Samuel L. Jackson has to talk them into releasing the hostages? Sort of. In BDSM, as in the cinema, being a good negotiator does make you a total badass.

In very basic terms, negotiation is when two or more people talk about their wants, needs, and limits before a scene, so that they can come to an agreement about what the scene will entail.

Unfortunately, knowing what negotiation is doesn't make a person good at it. It certainly didn't make me good at it. Learning how to articulate my wants and needs so that I know my partner can understand them, making sure that I understand my partner's wants and needs, and trying to do all of that in a way that isn't a complete buzzkill, has been an ongoing challenge for me. Too bad that it's one of the most important skills you can have, as a play partner or as a lover.

Still, I have learned a good deal in the past couple of years, and I'm going to do my best to articulate it. Below, I've written up some makeshift rules for negotiation. I'm tailoring these more for negotiations with first-time partners, or for individual scenes, not necessarily for entire relationships.

Tell your play partner what you like.
Tell your play partner what you don't like.
Likes and dislikes can go by degrees, so be as specific as you can. For instance:
"I like being pinched, except on my inner thighs."
"I like the violet want, but I can only take it for a few minutes."
"I like being spanked, really hard, until I bruise."
"I like being called names, but don't call me 'toy'."
"I like being called names, especially 'whore'."
"I don't like being bitten, so you can use that as punishment, if you want."
"I don't like pain, but I like proving that I can take it."
"I like being spanked because it turns me on; I like being slapped in the face because it makes me afraid."

Tell your play partner your limits.
This is different from what you like and don't like. These are things your partner should never do. Even if it's something you don't think they'll do in the context of the scene, mention it. (I, for instance, have to tell all of my play partners not to touch my solar plexus. Yes, it's unusual. Shut up your face.)

Talk through what you'd like to do together.
Come up with a list of activities that's good for both of you. You don't have to outline the whole scene if you don't want to, but you should both (all) have some idea of what to expect.

If you haven't talked about it, it's off the table.
It's always worthwhile to say this out loud, before you start. If you're in the middle of a scene in which you've explicitly agreed to handcuff your play partner, drag him around by the hair, and flog him until he begs you to stop, you don't get to start biting his neck, even if it seems perfect at the time. You don't know what affect that's going to have on him, and he hasn't explicitly agreed to it. On the other hand...

Establish whether surprises are okay.
Before you start playing, ask your partner if you can do something that you haven't explicitly negotiated during the scene, as long as it isn't one of their limits.

Check your assumptions.
Do you always have sex with your play partners? Do you always kiss them? Do you always call them sir? Or slut? Do you always give them orders? Do you always punish disobedience? Think through what you expect in a play encounter, and then ask about every element of it, even the ones that you think you can take for granted.

If you think you're going to need some kind of aftercare, ask for it beforehand.
Again, you want to be on the same page.

Set up safewords, and make sure both know what they mean.
Even if you're just using the stoplight system ("red" means stop), I have heard so many different versions of what "yellow" means. Does it mean "stop that specific thing you're doing"? Does it mean "check in with me"? Does it mean "I'm almost ready to stop, so start winding it down"?

Remember: negotiation can be sexy.
You are talking about what you want to do to each other. How is that not foreplay?

And then, of course, you may not be able to tell your play partner about your likes and limits, because you may not know yet. (As I've said before, I've been in the position of having to reevaluate and re-learn what I like and can handle, so this is fresh for me.) In that case, let the other person know that. Talk about what you're curious about, and feel free to ask them to check in with you. Remember that safewords are awesome, and using them when you need to makes you look good.

These are my initial thoughts. I'd love to hear what anyone else has found helpful to keep in mind. I'm hoping to do something worthwhile with this eventually, in the larger world.