This one’s easy and yet the difficulty with which most people who participate in the BDSM Scene get this wrong speaks volumes about their ignorance and complicity in oppression culture. So easy, this whole post could’ve just been the title:
Never, ever assume you need permission from a dominant person to speak to a submissive person.
Why? Because asking a dominant person for permission to speak to a submissive person is like asking a man for permission to speak to a woman standing beside him. In what frakking universe would you think it’s okay to do that? And if you don’t go around asking people you perceive to be men if you have their permission to speak to people you perceive to be women, why the shit would you think it’s okay to do that in some other context, like a BDSM club, or any other social event?
I’ll take an educated guess why: because you’ve seen other people doing it, and you don’t think you know enough about The Scene to behave differently than others. Well, let’s let this cat out of the bag once and for all:
There is nothing the BDSM Scene knows, has, or can give you that you can’t figure out, experience, or acquire without it.
In other words, the BDSM Scene is lying to you. It’s lying to you when it says you can’t top unless you bottom (and that this is enforced most strongly among women is a symptom of its sexism). It’s lying to you when it says that in order to top, you need to have some specific tool, or toy, or skill. It’s lying to you when it says it’s a safe place to be. And it’s lying to you when it tells you to ask for permission from a dominant person before you speak to a submissive person.
So the next question is, why the shit are other people going around behaving like it’s perfectly normal, like it’s perfectly consensual, to ask a dominant person for permission to speak to a submissive person? Believe it or not, there’s a whole, repulsive “community” (although it’s really more like a cultural poison) trying to instill in newcomers a social norm of doing exactly that. And this is another area where BDSM’ers let their hypocrisy show with such unabashed stupidity I have to wonder if they’re actually capable of critical thinking. Or, to borrow a line from Franklin Veaux,
It’s common for folks in The Scene to give advice along the lines of, “Vanilla rules apply.” If it’s true that “vanilla rules apply,” and if it’s true that in the vanilla world you don’t go around asking a third party if you can speak to someone rather than speaking directly to them (I mean, really, what kind of an asshole does that?) then why is it okay in BDSM spaces? The whole “vanilla rules apply” thing is supposed to make interactions in BDSM spaces both easier and more respectful, and that’s great, right?
Even if we didn’t care about encouraging consent-positive behaviors on a global, cultural scale, there is a simple inconsistency in the BDSM Scene’s handling of this issue. And, as BDSM’ers themselves are quick to point out, inconsistency is a red flag for abusive behavior. When their own “community” is an abuser, however, they are quick to deflect.
The disconnect here seems to be the exact same disconnect as every other inane, coercive, culturally abusive, bullshit BDSM Scene trope as so many others: confusing the individualistic with the systemic, the singular with the cultural, the personal with the status quo. As I’ve written about (dozens of times) before:
Of course, it’s important to distinguish between the BDSM Scene as an institution, what I’ve termed the BDSM Scene-State, and some given BDSM play activity itself. The short-sighted and, bluntly, stupid conflation of systemic versus individualistic perspectives, coupled with dramatic misunderstandings of what BDSM ethnographer Staci Newmahr calls “the erotic-violent dualism” is the source of the absurd defensiveness with which many BDSM Scenesters adamantly deny their unflattering participation in such an oppressive system. Moreover, the very fact that I’ve heard this silly “but we’re special” story in every single regional Scene I’ve travelled is, itself, proof of the structurally abusive dynamics to which I point.
Further, the distinction between individualistic and systemic perspectives is what enables BDSM to problematize many of the things that it does, consent being the most widely discussed. By way of example, the use of safewords mirrors the US Government’s Veterans Affairs office recommended use of “code words” to help prevent intimate partner violence:
Consider finding a code word to use as a distress signal to family members, children, and friends. Inform them in advance that if they hear you use the code word, they should get help right away.
While you can “safeword” during a scene, you can’t safeword The Scene. Just as rape culture is the institutionalization of (systemic) sexism, the BDSM Scene is the institutionalization of the practice of fetishizing oppression culture; it is, to use McKenzie Wark’s phrasing, an abstraction—a double of a double. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people who are “not white, heterosexual, class-privileged, cisgendered, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, etc. [have wondered why] the BDSM Scene just doesn’t work” for them.
The BDSM Scene needs to be resisted not because the BDSM Scene is “inherently bad,” but because it is a system. The simple exercise of tallying imagery at BDSM venues exposes this nicely.
While you can “safeword” during a scene, you can’t safeword The Scene.
As a submissive-identified person, it raises my hackles to be talked about rather than talked with when I’m not playing. Being talked about, or talked down to, or even (in my case) lovingly and diminutively addressed can be a lot of fun during play. But unless you know for a fact that we’re playing together (and you will because we will have set that intention explicitly by talking about that before we do it), treating me like anything other than a self-empowered, autonomous, capable human being is not okay. Do it, and I’ll give you so much hell because I need you to stop treating anyone—not just me—like anything other than the self-empowered, autonomous, capable human beings we can all be.
Now, I might call this out harshly, which is more likely if we’re on the Internet. (I am an asshole on the Internet because that is effective.) If we’re interacting in person, I might do this nicely. That’s what happened when I attended Open-SF, hanging out in the lobby with Alisa.
A friend came up to us and began to apologize for any potential offense they may have caused when they spoke to me instead of first asking Alisa if that were acceptable. They gestured at the sleek silver collar I was wearing by way of explaining their cautiousness at “respecting whatever dynamic [we] had going on.” And that’s the excuse so many people give when they explain away their completely busted behavior: “I didn’t want to be rude.”
That’s sweet, I guess, but it’s completely backwards to apologize for treating a human being like a person, rather than property. And if you can’t make the leap from the fantasy of being someone’s property to the reality of being a human, then…well, shit dude, you’re not worth my time. Ironically, by initially failing to adhere to the BDSM Scene-State’s busted, oppressive social norm my friend was behaving far more respectfully towards me. Later, when my friend relatively thoughtlessly (but sweetly!) tried to correct that perceived error, and by adhering to the BDSM Scene-State’s status quo, my friend caused more offense.
“Sorry,” my friend said, directing their apologies to Alisa. “I didn’t know if it would be okay.”
I jumped in before Alisa could respond. “It is okay, and I also think it’s silly to ask someone who may not have that information—like, y’know, anyone other than the person you wanted to be speaking with—whether it’s okay to speak with them,” I said.
This is the key point: to respect whatever dynamic is going on, we must default to equality, not inequity in all social norms. A sociopolitical status quo based on inegalitarian power will never result in a consent culture. That is why you do not assume a submissive person can not speak for themselves. Ever.
You do not assume a submissive person cannot speak for themselves if they are wearing a collar, just as you do not assume a woman “is asking for it” if she wears a short skirt. That doesn’t mean you, as a submissive person, must always speak; you’re a self-empowered, autonomous, capable human being. Do whatever the fuck you want. Remain silent when spoken to, or gesture towards a dominant if that’s what gets your rocks off. But don’t ever assume you can not speak to a submissive person without a dominant person’s permission. Ever.
Making that assumption is domist. Full stop.
So, what do you do? Geez, people, it isn’t that hard. You:
- Talk directly to whom you wish to address.
- If they tell or otherwise communicate to you they are not allowed to interact with you, stop. Y’know, just as I hope you’d do if they communicated disinterest in interacting with you.
- Take the submissive person’s word over the word of any other human in the area, regardless of whether some Dominant McDomlyPants says otherwise. They can go frak themselves for all I care, it’s the submissive person we’re talking to and about, not the dominant ones. (And if their precious Dominant ego gets all hurt, all the better, I say.)
Others perspectives I appreciated included Joreth’s and Calico’s.
It is not the general public’s responsibility to know what any given couple’s protocols are. Just wearing cuffs or collars doesn’t tell me what kind of rules they have. My metamour is a collared sub, but they don’t have an “Ask the D first” rule, and she would be highly offended if you didn’t speak to her first to ask her what her protocols are. I would find it rude to ignore the sub and ask the dom if it’s OK to talk to the sub. I think it is more polite to ask the sub if you should ask the dom permission to speak to him/her or if it’s OK to just start talking directly. The sub can pointedly look to their dom or get their dom’s attention if they’re not allowed to speak without permission and that answers the question. I think it is rude of the couple to insist that we all play along with their fantasy when we haven’t consented to being part of their relationship and we don’t know the rules. I treat individuals as human beings first, their roles second. If the couple thinks it’s rude to address a sub when we have not yet been made aware of the couple’s protocols, that couple is being rude for not allowing some leeway in those who can’t possibly know what the protocols are. I also wear cuffs & collars and do other things that might be the same as a sub, but I am not a sub. Toys & restraints & personality quirks are not the sole domain of the kinky, or of any particular kinky role, and other people do things that are similar to or can be mistaken for something else. Ignoring me and asking someone next to me whom you assume is my dom is one of the fastest ways to get a boot in your ass.
I used to feel that it was polite to ask the D. Now I feel — as someone who has been depersonalized as an assumptive “S” many times — that it is impolite to defer to the D if what you really want is to speak to the S. I would acknowledge the couple socially together (“Hi, good to see you both!”). If the S is under some sort of protocol, it is their responsibility not to speak to you, not yours to avoid speaking to them! And if the D wants you to play along without being told, they can damn well tell you. So be prepared to accept hands behind the back, a smile, a deferential look, etc as the S’s signal that they are in a scene and can’t respond. But it’s not your responsibility not to speak to them. This isn’t at all what I was taught coming in, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The mistake happens most often to me when I approach men (usually D-types) sexually and they ask permission of the man accompanying me — who may or may not even be my partner! Same bullshit. Basically: when you assume anything, you have a giant chance of getting it wrong and making an ass out of yourself. ASK ASK ASK. If you wouldn’t assume a pronoun don’t assume a goddamn high protocol speaking dynamic!
Look, people, screw “D/s dynamics.” We are people first, sexual roles second. Don’t let the BDSM Scene make you forget that; it’ll happen if you spend too much time there because there are metric shit tons of stupid fantasy-driven gobbledygook just like this (YKINMKBYKIOK, anyone?) designed to socialize you out of treating people like people, and into treating them as some kind of essentialist Role Orientation, like “Dominant” or “submissive.” And that’s really coercive, yo.
That’s why I don’t want to spend much time in these BDSM Scene-State consent-disaster areas anymore. I almost forgot I deserve to be treated like a person, too.