Up Front by Emma Hart


A Word About Safety

I don’t often get to be a journalist’s go-to comment these days, but it appears that when the call is “Quick, someone find me a feminist submissive,” that’s still just me.

Be aware that this column, and pretty much every link in it, may be extremely triggering.

So I was called upon to comment for this column about a recent rape case where the defendant was acquitted because the complainant didn’t use a previously-agreed safe-word. And I find I still have things to say, because fucking hell, nobody in that courtroom seems to have had a fucking clue about BDSM practice.

I was told that the defence lawyer mentioned 50 Shades of Grey in his opening address, and basically nothing I said after that has been printed because of all the swearing. I’ve been saying for years that book would get people hurt, and I did not need proof. (I’m not going to go into my issues with it here, I’ll just say the relationship it depicts is profoundly abusive, and if you want to know more, just read this.) Especially right after it became a ‘sensation’, we had people turning up on FetLife thinking it was a model of how to behave as a Dom, and as a sub. It is not. It is the opposite of that. Male Doms think they can do anything they want. Female subs think they don’t get a say. This is bullshit. I said I wasn’t going to go into it. I lied.

But let’s talk a bit more about consent in BDSM relationships. I’m going to use gender-neutral pronouns: between fem-Domme/male sub couples, same-sex couples, and various multi-member groupings, male Dom/female sub pairings are a minority in BDSM, and nothing I am saying applies only to one gender.

Use of a safe-word immediately ends play. That doesn’t mean that nothing else ends play. Saying, “Well they didn’t use their safe-word,” is like saying, “Well, they didn’t say no.” There is so much more to securing comprehensive consent. We know what we’re doing is dangerous.

One of the things that most surprises vanilla people about good BDSM practice is how nerdy it is. I have a six-page spreadsheet of sexual practices that I will, won’t, or might engage in. I’ve sat through an hour-long PowerPoint safety briefing. I was talking to my Dom about this, and he added that when you want to try something new, you spend hours researching how to do it properly, because you don’t want to hurt your partner.

And then we spent several minutes trying to talk our way out of that knot, because of course you DO want to hurt your partner. But not hurt them. You don’t want to injure them, and you really don’t want to traumatise them. You want to hurt them as they want to be hurt. That’s not a matter of only using a particular level of force, it’s really granular, that’s why the spreadsheet is six pages long. For me, for instance, particular language or humiliation play is completely off limits, because it’s enormously triggering. Physical violence is much easier to deal with. Restraint is fine for me but gagging is not, because I had my jaw muscles cut when I had brain surgery.

This is why we talk about this stuff, at length, in detail, before we play, and we’re really specific. You don’t “spring” BDSM play on people. Also, we do “check-ins” while we play. (Link NSFW.) Even if we’ve discussed what we’re doing, even when we have a safe-word, a Dom will check in with their sub, ask if they’re okay, how they’re doing. This isn’t just to get a Green, a Red, or an Orange (a ‘yes but’). The Dom should be using the sub’s entire response to get a read on their mental and physical state. If a sub can’t speak (and this happens), they can’t safe-word. (I don’t mean ‘can’t speak because they’re gagged’, I mean the psychological process of framing speech has become too difficult.)

All of this, spread-sheets and safety briefings and check-ins and discussion, exists to protect Doms as well as subs.

And another thing.

Sex therapist Edit Horvath told the court submissive partners were encouraged to resist rough sex and to role play by using force and words such as "no" and "stop".

Only code words could end the "alternative paradigm", she said, as normal words and actions didn't hold their typical meanings.

"'No' is part of the fantasy they're acting out."


I don’t know what she was asked, but what she is describing is not true of all BDSM play. It’s not true of “rough sex”. What she is describing is “consensual non-consent”, or rape play. We are aware that, like fire play, breath play, and blood play, it’s really dangerous, requires a high level of trust, and should only be practiced by people who really know what they’re doing and have a good understanding of each other.

Now maybe you’re thinking, but Emma, I don’t give a crap what you people do, it’s none of my business, this kind of thing should be private, stop shoving it in our faces. But maybe one day you’ll be on a jury, and you’ll realise that there is a four-letter word to describe this

They were not seeing each other at the time of the alleged rape. There had been no discussion before she went to his house of having sex. During the alleged rape, she pleaded [with] him to stop, cried, said no, vomited, and had a panic attack.

and it’s not ‘kink’.

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