Since officially becoming a sexual therapist 3 years ago, I have had more and more submissive clients coming to talk to me about their kink related issues and traumas. In these conversations a common thread among the different stories is appearing to me – many subs are struggling to exercise their right to say no and are having troubling experiences as a result, some even walking away from their sessions with the feeling that they have been violated in some way.
It’s an incredibly difficult scenario to process, a common complaint from subs in these situations is that they feel they have no way to overcome the trauma and move on from the negative experience because the Dommes in question are not being held accountable, but even disregarding the fact that in this unregulated industry it’s actually very difficult to hold anyone accountable anyway (at least for a “bad experience” if not a physical injury) – how do you hold someone accountable for something they never even knew was an issue in the first place?
It might seem crazy to some that there are people who struggle to refuse or reject things they don’t want, but if you look at things from the perspective of a submissive it’s actually not that difficult to understand. Most subs report that they fear saying no to their Domme, or using safe words for 3 main reasons:
1.They don’t want to disappoint their Domme.
2.They fear that the Domme they love will refuse to see them again.
3.They fear that in saying no to one thing, they could be punished with something much worse.
When you consider the very strict, no nonsense attitude that a lot of Dommes convey, these reasons start to make sense, but the reality is, strict or not – most humans actually struggle to say no to a person they view as an “authority” figure and studies have been done to prove this.
The human tendency to comply.
Some of the first experiments on human compliance were conducted by Stanley Milgram of Yale University in 1961. His study aimed to answer the question - how did Nazi authorities manage to get so many Germans to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience?
Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment on someone else, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a "learner." The “learner” was subjected to memory tests by the “teacher” (the unwitting participant actually being experimented on), and if they were unable to correctly recall information they had been provided, they would be electrocuted by the “teacher”. The “learners” were in fact actors and not actually being shocked at all, but the “teacher” was led to believe that the electric shocks were real and for every incorrect response, the shocks they provided gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. If the teacher became uncomfortable at the sounds of agony they would hear from the learner on the other side of the screen and started to object, the scientist in control would simply tell the teacher “the experiment requires that you continue”, “it is absolutely essential that you continue” and finally, “You have no other choice, you MUST continue.”
The initial experiments were performed on men, then eventually repeated many times around the world with different groups of people and genders with fairly consistent results - a very high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly, from the person they believed to be the authority figure in that situation – the scientist.
Before Stanley Milgram started the experiments he conducted an informal poll among his peers and colleagues, who came to the consensus that less than 3% (an average of about 1.2%) of “teachers” would actually inflict the maximum voltage on the “learner”, who would view a university scientist as an authority over them right? But in the end, that figure turned out to be over 65%, despite the fact that nearly all the teachers displayed visible signs of distress while complying.
So what can I as a Domme take away from this study on the influence of authority and what I am learning from the clients who talk to me about their issues? That potentially - there is a very high probability that over half of my clients are agreeing to engage in practices they would rather not - at my suggestion. Sure, you could say that because we ask our subs to let us hurt them rather than them hurting others, then when it comes to our situation that figure could be much lower, but we’re talking about subs that actually love, admire and respect us, and as a result that figure could also be much higher.
For an activity that is supposed to be built around absolute consent, whether that figure is lower, higher or the same for our community, that is still a terrifying prospect.
It’s a terrifying prospect for both me and my subs, for the subs because they should never have to find themselves in that position, and for me because where I thought I was providing joy, I was actually inflicting real & genuine suffering - not what I’m about at all!
And this is the issue when these subs say they feel they can’t hold their Domme accountable, the truth is, if these subs were to talk to their Dommes about what they really experienced, any Domme worth her salt would be absolutely horrified and heartbroken to learn that they had made their sub feel that way.
We talk about communication all the time, but clearly there is a massive break down somewhere.
So let’s address this question of accountability first. It is vitally important for anyone who decides to engage in these practices, be it as a sub or a Domme, privately or professionally, to understand that there are no qualifications, governing bodies or regulations surrounding what we do. Anyone can decide to pick up some ropes or a whip and give it a go and there is absolute nothing in place to show that the person has any idea what they are doing. Engaging in these practices under any context ALWAYS comes with risks, we cannot go into these things blind and/or ignorant.
This is why the responsible Dommes among us are always nagging about doing your research properly! I’m not upset that you didn’t read my website properly and now I have to answer a bunch of pointless questions, I am much more concerned with the fact that you have not been properly responsible for yourself in making sure that I am the right person for you, that I am a person with whom you can feel comfortable communicating properly.
While it’s true that if something goes horribly wrong and a sub ends up seriously injured he can refer to the police and the law, it will not always go in his favour when we are talking about something that we tout as a consensual practice. Judges who have to evaluate cases of this nature do not have many precedents to go on, that combined with their lack of understanding means they may not always make the right call.
A prime example of this is a situation that occurred with some of my friends while I was living in Italy. A very experienced and well respected bondager in our community, conducted a private suspension scene with a female sub who was also very well known in the community and despite being quite young at only 22 she had a reputation for being a very extreme player.
During this scene something went wrong, she blacked out, by the time he could cut the ropes off her - she was already dead.
He did the right thing and immediately called the emergency services, but the case that ensued was a mess. Being a mature male of 45 years old, he was perceived as perverted predatory monster who prayed on the innocence of a young girl and then did not look after her responsibly, even though the community knew this not to be true at all, he wasn’t even into BDSM practices, he only enjoyed rope and took it very seriously.
It looked like they were going to throw the book at him, until an autopsy and medical records revealed that the female sub who was morbidly obese, had been suffering with health issues and black outs for a long time already and ultimately the health issues were responsible for her death. She NEVER disclosed those health issues, not to the bondager she played with that night, not to anyone in our community and we could only imagine that the reason she did not disclose was out of fear that we wouldn’t want to continue playing with her in the extreme manner that she enjoyed. After a very lengthy court case in which it was clear the judge had absolutely no idea how to evaluate such a situation, the bondager, my very good friend, still served several years for involuntary manslaughter - despite the fact it was proved her death was due to health issues - because the judge could not be certain that the suspension did not compound those health issues, nor could my bondager friend prove that she did not disclose her illness.
You may wonder what a sub withholding information has to do with a sub who is scared to say no, the lesson is still the same – by not speaking out she wilfully endangered her own life and paid the ultimate price and this is the thing about accountability, ultimately in these risky unregulated situations, we have to be accountable for OURSELVES first and foremost.
To the subs that come to me with stories about how they struggled to say no, felt violated and then angry that the Domme wasn’t held accountable, I ask, are you not also accountable for not using your voice? If your Domme was to be prosecuted for violating you when she didn’t even know that that was happening to begin with, would that outcome actually give you satisfaction? Is that really what it would take to help you move on?
I genuinely believe that my friend turned in her grave when the courts decided to hold him accountable for her death, despite evidence to the contrary.
This is the thing about not using our voices and asserting our rights and responsibility to say no in situations such as those that we all engage in, when we don’t do it, we endanger both ourselves AND the person we are playing with. You could end up injured or feeling violated, your Domme could end up in prison with her whole life ruined.
Now I am not saying that only subs are at fault for being afraid to say no, as Dommes we need to be aware that we have a massive responsibility to make sure that we foster an environment in which our subs feel safe enough to actually say it.
Communication & Consent.
So let’s talk about communication, we’re obviously getting it wrong somewhere and it looks like safe words are not as effective as we believed. It’s time for us to talk to each other again and to stop assuming that BDSM guidelines long since set in place are actually still working.
It’s time for subs to realise that they have a voice and they have every right to use it, not only that they have the right to use it, but that they have a RESPONSIBILITY to use it, both to themselves and their Dommes. That only through the use of that voice are you able to avoid scenes you don’t really want to be in, and while the most experienced of us Dommes are often skilled in guessing where you’re at from your body language, we are still not mind readers. You can even use that voice to test the metal of your Domme, if it’s not respected you know you’re in the wrong place.
It’s time for Dommes to realise that however nice, friendly and approachable we like to think we are, our subs still find us incredibly intimidating and often scary, and also that experience, a good reputation and a warm smile are not enough to make our subs feel safe enough to properly open up to us. We all need to make sure we are putting focus on the fact that our subs are free to withdraw at any time without repercussions, we assume they know it but as it turns out many of them really don’t, and if we don’t do that then we are also accountable for subs feeling like they don’t have choices. We need to be aware that if we don’t make sure that our subs know that implicitly, then we too are endangering ourselves.
It’s time to re-open those conversations about consent and its importance in what we do, we espouse the values and virtues of BDSM every day but we have all become complacent, we think we have espoused those values enough through the years that “it is known” by now, at least in our community where it counts, and there is not so much necessity to talk about consent anymore, we take it for granted that we all “get it”. We are wrong.
We need to continue having meaningful and adult conversations about consent EVERY SINGLE DAY, with EVERY SINGLE PERSON we play with, professionally or not. I’m not just talking about getting consent, we need to be more thoughtful and talk about what it means to give consent, how to withdraw consent and the impact on both parties when we get it wrong. I talk about my pride in providing safe spaces all the time, but if my subs don’t really feel that way then what the fuck does it matter what I say and is my pride even justified?
Upon coming to this understanding myself, over the last few months I have been taking a different approach to my sessions, particularly with those where I am playing with someone new.
I too was guilty of that basic conversation, what do you consent to? What are your limits? Do you have any injuries or illnesses? Safe word is traffic light system, end of conversation.
I still have that conversation and I still offer the traffic light safe word system for those don’t want to interrupt a scene with conversation, but particularly if I’m playing with someone new, I actively discourage the use of safe words and instead encourage full expression.
I make a point of letting them know that they have a right to say no and absolutely should say no if they feel that’s where it is going, I make it crystal clear that I will NEVER be disappointed if they feel they are unable to do something I ask, that actually I would be PROUD of them for asserting that right and I would never punish them for it. I make it clear what the potential consequences are for both of us if they agree to things they don’t really want out of some misguided belief that that is what is needed to please me. I let them know that the very fact they even found the courage to come and see me and try these things at all, pleases me plenty, that I want them to leave that session feeling nothing other