Blog, Consent, Kink, Psychological & CNC

Safewords, CNC, and How We Define Consent

This has been ruminating for some time, and recent conversations with several people- including discussing co-teaching a class on CNC-have brought it back to the forefront of my mind, along with the general community-wide discussions of consent. So, I figured now is as good a time as any. The content warnings are what you would expect: discussions of CNC and references to rape play.

Possibly-unpopular opinion time: if you exclusively use safewords in your scene, then it’s possible there is some inherent level of consensual non-consent (CNC) interaction occurring.

And fuck, I love CNC and am all about people exploring that desire and curiosity safely. What I don’t like, though, is hearing people talking in shaming and/or disgusted ways about CNC in one breath and then insisting on safewords in the next. I also really dislike the narrow parameters under which CNC tends to be discussed because I think this can be both dangerous and fuel problematic narratives about consent (and consent violations). So I want to unpack this a little- this is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a start.

Consensual non-consent is often conflated with rape play, but they aren’t synonymous. Rape play is certainly a type of CNC, but it isn’t the only type of CNC. At its core, CNC is any type of scene in which a person has consensually negotiated to be in a situation in which they cannot give or choose to revoke consent, and that agency is ignored.

For example: I really love waking up to getting fucked. But when I am asleep, I can’t give consent for someone to fuck me. So I negotiate it ahead of time (when I am able to give consent), and wake up to happy fucking (at which point, there is usually a copious amount of enthusiastic verbal consent). But whoever I am doing that with is putting a lot of trust in my ability to negotiate and state my boundaries ahead of time, because it’s not like they can check in before starting. God forbid I have a bad dream.

The same scenario could be applied to substance use, or any number of things that limit or erase our ability to give consent in that moment. These are, for the most part, situations that I would categorize under CNC.

(Note: yes, this gets a little trickier in established, long-term relationships where there is a level of implied consent and folks might feel perfectly fine consuming substances and kinking, or where there are D/s or M/s power dynamics present. I respect and appreciate that, and don’t seek to police the behavior or explorations of others’ relationships. This is more of a “in general” statement, rather than an “in all cases” statement.)

CNC can also include types of rape play, in which someone wants to be able to verbally resist and have that resistance ignored- saying things like, “no,” and “please stop,” etc.

Hence the need for safe words: a way to differentiate between in-scene resistance that is supposed to be ignored, and opportunities for the bottom to communicate, “hey, I actually need you to stop right now.”

Outside of CNC, I can’t think of a reason in which someone’s, “no,” “stop,” etc. wouldn’t be respected (or at least checked in about). Outside of CNC, I don’t see any reason that direct communication doesn’t work.

Do I think safewords are a good thing? Absolutely, and I’m not advocating not using them- they are a part of the community lexicon, and an incredibly important one. I’m mostly pointing out that there is a bit of hypocrisy in shaming CNC while simultaneously requiring the use of safewords. And there is a lot of danger in only responding to safewords.

This has been on my mind lately with all the discussions of consent. Specifically, the ways in which we frame “consensual non-consent” says a lot about the ways in which we view consent. If we only view CNC as rape play, the implication is that nonconsent = rape, and I think that’s a pretty tricky line to draw (if for absolutely no other reason than because there are consent violations that are not sexual in nature). It also means that things can “accidentally” become CNC very easily if we don’t think about CNC outside the context of rape play.

I think safewords are good. I think it can sometimes feel less loaded to say “red” than “no”-particularly for those who are socially expected or inherently predisposed to be people-pleasers. I think they are a useful safety net if someone is not listening or respecting boundaries to know that there is a word we can yell that will get other people’s attention and help in a public play spaces.

I also think that the insistence of safewords as the end-all, be-all is a strange thing. In my negotiations, I state that I will always respect red/yellow safewords, but that I also respond to plain English and will likewise respond to “hang on a sec,” or “I’m done,” or “stop” in the same ways.

I love CNC. Ehhhh, I take that back. I love well-negotiated CNC, where everyone is on the same page. And I think we should talk about the broad spectrum of CNC because I really do think that the ways in which we understand and perceive CNC are a direct result of the ways in which we understand and perceive consent (and/or lack thereof). And I think that the insistence on safewords can sometimes be a dangerous crutch, because if you’re not willing to respond to “hang on” in the same way you might to “yellow,” or “stop” in the same way you might to “red,” then I think we really have to ask ourselves what kinds of scenes we are looking for and negotiate for that, rather than accidentally end up in a CNC scene that rapidly goes from consensual to not.

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