We talk about risk profiles in the scene- the idea that we recognize that different activities carry certain types of risks, and we understand what those risks are (to the best of our abilities). We attempt to mitigate those risks through negotiation, safewords, in-scene checks, etc. but at the end of the day, we recognize that X activity carries Y risk. Those risks that we are willing to assume make up our individual risk profiles.
Rope is a really easy example that gets talked about a lot: those who are willing to be tied in box ties/TKs accept that wrist drop is part of their risk profile. No one wants wrist drop to happen, and we do things to try to minimize that risk as much as possible- bottoming education, wrist checks, wrap placement, etc. But even the most knowledgeable, informed bottom in the world doing all the “right” things can still get wrist drop.
And on the flip side: rope tops, if you tie people in box ties/TKs, part of your risk profile is giving someone wrist drop. It doesn’t mean that you want to, or are trying to. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that you’re a bad rope top, or that you’re tying a bad rope bottom. Shit happens sometimes, and we know this, and we do these things anyway.
That’s the whole point of a risk profile. It’s the idea that there are certain exposures we are willing to accept and some we aren’t (and sometimes that changes depending on who we are playing with). And to the best of our abilities, we try to mitigate the harm of those exposures where possible, and we make contingency plans in case something happens.
For example, my sexual barrier and fluid practices put me at risk for transmission of STIs. I get tested regularly, update sexual partners on any changes in either STI status or fluid-bonding status with other partners, and ask that they inform me of the same. I have done as much as I can do to mitigate the risk of STI transmission by (a) knowing my and my partner’s statuses and (b) knowing what risks my partners assume in their practices. I also continue to get tested frequently because sometimes shit happens, and I want to keep my own tests up-to-date. And if it turns out that I have an STI, then I inform my sexual partners and get it treated. I don’t want to get an STI, but it’s a risk I have factored in and know what I would do if it happens. There are still consequences when those things happen- assuming risk doesn’t negate responsibility or consequence; it’s a statement that we are willing and prepared to acceptresponsibility and the consequences of our actions.
So what does any of this have to do with consent violations? Just this: by engaging, by playing, by doing anything with someone else, we run the risk of violating their consent.
This doesn’t mean that we want to, or that we’re trying to. It doesn’t mean that we meant to, or that it’s ok that we do, or that people shouldn’t report issues and incidents and violations because it’s a known risk. It just means that, by the very nature of engaging with another person in the ways that we do, we run the risk of crossing their boundaries. And if that’s not something we are willing to accept, we shouldn’t be playing.
We can mitigate the risk as much as possible. We can use opt-in, enthusiastic, ongoing verbal consent. We can check in throughout the scene, and do everything right. But what this doesn’t take into account is trust: we have to trust the other person we are with to speak up if something isn’t ok.
Back to the rope example: I can tie a TK on someone, check and dress the wraps, ask them how they’re feeling, try to keep an eye on their wrist movements… but I have to trust that they will tell me if something doesn’t feel right. I have to trust that they know the difference between circulation and nerve issues. I have to trust that, if things reach a point that they are no longer comfortable, that they will speak up. Because I can do everything “right”… and still give someone wrist drop.
We can do everything “right”… and still violate someone’s consent.
Nothing is foolproof. We might forget a limit someone told us. We might have misunderstood a limit someone told us. We might go to do something with someone that we’ve done with them before in a previous scene that went well (only to find out later that that thing wasn’t ok this time around, or maybe either time). Someone might not know something is a limit until it’s happening. There are so many ways consent issues can happen, everything from a genuine mistake or misunderstanding to malicious, intentional violations to rape. I’ve written about the role of safewords before, but unless you have negotiated the ability to resist and have your resistance be ignored, there is no reason that “no” and “stop” are not every bit as effective as “red.” If your excuse for penetrating someone despite their resistance of “please stop,” and “no,” is “well, they didn’t say ‘red,’” that’s still rape. Maybe you thought you had negotiated for that; maybe you know you didn’t. That gets into intent, and I’m not talking about that here because regardless of your intentions, that person’s consent is still violated.
Consent violations are part of my risk profile, every bit as much as wrist drop is. Do I want to violate someone’s consent? Absolutely not. Do I do everything I can think of to prevent that from happening? I do, and I continue to learn more every single day. But is it still totally possible that I am going to violate someone’s consent someday? Absolutely. And I have to think about what that looks like and what I am going to do when that happens.
One of the ways I manage this risk is in how I select my play partners: every single person I play with, I have looked at and thought seriously about how the “shit went sideways” conversation is going to go. If I cannot imagine how the “hey… you did something busted here” conversation is going to go, or if I can imagine it and it doesn’t go well, I don’t play with that person. That is a conscious part of my play partner selection: I have to feel comfortable and confident that we can talk honestly with one another when things go badly- because part of my risk profile assumes that, at some point, they will.
I also recognize that the risk of violating someone’s consent goes up the more comfortable and familiar we become with someone. In the beginning, it’s very easy to stick to well-negotiated, well-established boundaries. But as we get more comfortable with someone, we learn where we can push more. Sometimes we misjudge. Sometimes we don’t realize we have hit a boundary until we look behind us to see that we’ve already crossed it. As I get to know someone better, my understanding and evaluation might change. Because it is up to me to know, understand, and manage my own risk profile. As a top, as a bottom, as whatever side of whatever slash I land on on any particular day, it is my responsibility to understand the risks that I’m assuming and take steps to mitigate those where I can.
Does recognizing that consent violations fall within my risk profile mean that people “deserve” to have their consent violated? That they should take that as par for the course, or accept it as a reasonable risk and just deal with it when it happens? Not at all.
If I gave someone wrist drop, I have a responsibility to that person to make sure that (a) they are able to access what they need to get appropriate care, (b) find out how this is impacting their life (as much as they are willing and comfortable sharing) and see if I can do anything to ease tension or undue burden as a result, (c ) ask what they need in terms of financial, physical, emotional, etc. support, etc. There are still consequences when something happens; the whole point of a risk profile is recognizing what the risks and consequences are and deciding whether you are willing to accept responsibility for those consequences. If you aren’t, that’s not something you should be engaging in.
If you’re not willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of violating someone’s consent, you shouldn’t be playing. Because no matter how good you are at negotiating, at checking in, at doing everything “right,” shit still happens. And if you can’t accept that, if you aren’t willing to do the work with the other person- which includes actually changing and fixing your shit- then this isn’t the place for you. Because if you think that you are foolproof, that you’re so good at doing all the things right that you could never violate someone’s consent, that makes you much less likely to own up when someone does come to you to tell you that something you did was problematic. It makes it much less likely that you will be willing to fix busted and problematic habits and patterns (and we all have them). And those are the things that get really dangerous.
No one is perfect. No one is above reproach. And no one is immune from these risks: if you play with someone else, you risk violating their consent in some capacity. So factor that into your risk profile, figure out how you are going to handle it before it happens. Think about how those conversations with your play partners are going to go. Think about the positions of power and leadership you hold, and whether you’re willing to step back from them (hint: if you’re not, you probably shouldn’t be in them). Think about those positions of power- both formally (as an event or group leader) and informally (as someone who is well-known, well-liked, or “popular”) and factor that into how that might affect someone who needs to come to you about something you did that was problematic. Think about how you can mitigate that to the best of your ability and factor that into your post-scene check-ins. But most of all, recognize that every single one of us runs the risk of violating the consent of the person we are playing with: tops, bottoms, switches, subs, dom(me)s, etc. Every single one of us. And if that isn’t factored into your risk profile, think long and hard about why, and how that’s going to play out when something inevitably happens- if it hasn’t already.