Here’s How Consent and BDSM Role-Play Actually Work

As told to
Photo: Vision/Getty Images

In an article published in The New Yorker on Monday, four women detailed the extreme psychological and physical violence they say they experienced at the hands of former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. In response, Schneiderman resigned, but he also made a disturbing statement linking these women’s allegations with sexual role play. His claim was promptly dismissed by Ronan Farrow, one of the reporters who broke the story, and the women who allege he assaulted them. (One of the women wasn’t even in a relationship with Schneiderman at the time, and all the alleged acts of violence happened well outside the context of sex.) The Cut spoke to sex and BDSM educator Barbara Carrellas, who explains exactly why Schneiderman’s “role play” defense is so flawed.

Role play means two people had a conversation and decided: I think this sounds really hot, now how can we sensibly play this out. You need to negotiate before you start playing. When you negotiate, you talk transparently about what you like, your no-go zones and you state what (in certain circumstances) you might be okay with. We call it the yes/no/maybe list. For acts that you decide are a “maybe,” you should think very deeply about what conditions would have to be in place for that “maybe” to be a “yes.” Get specific — there can’t be any surprises. You also distinguish between what you would give and what you would like to receive. Maybe you enjoy being spanked, but you have no interest in spanking? Then you and your partner can switch lists you can see where they match up.

Being slapped, choked, spit on, and called racial slurs out of nowhere by a drunk person with no prior discussion of kink or role play is a red light of volcanic brightness. For most people, those fall under “edge play,” and that’s the most carefully negotiated play in BDSM. It’s much better to let a desire go unfulfilled for the moment than to be left physically or emotionally injured.

When you have both consented to something that requires skill, or has potential to trigger — such as receiving a slap on the face — your partner should know how to safely execute it and be prepared to support you emotionally. The kind of BDSM we have been talking about, consensual play, requires affirmative yeses, which are all prenegotiated. Of course, you can consent to being slapped on the face, or to being called a slave, but that did not happen here. The slapping as described in this article was bang-on brute violence.

In BDSM role play face-slapping is a trigger for a whole lot of people. The trigger level is so high that we really need to get three times consent. People who slap should learn how to do it safely, and you would never slap someone on an ear. Before the role play, the slapper would ask, are you sure you have no triggers from childhood? Have you ever been slapped before? If so, under what circumstances? Someone might say, “I was slapped a lot in the past by someone who hated me but I want to try being slapped in role play so I can see what it’s like.” I would move very slowly and I’d probably stop after the slap so we can process it and if the receiver wanted to go further we would pick up at a later date.

Responsible BDSM players do not negotiate or play while intoxicated. There was a lot of drinking reported in the story about Schneiderman. You can’t give consent and you can’t accept consent when you are intoxicated. When you are asking for consent you are asking someone to turn over their emotions and their bodies to loan you a piece of their power. We don’t lend power to drunks and drug addicts. People who are BDSM sadists or doms are not enacting their will on a poor, helpless victim; they are accepting responsibility to give someone an experience they have asked for and they are responsible for the result.

A master-slave contract takes time, thought, and sensitivity to negotiate. Schneiderman’s reported references to terms like “master” and “slave” are alarming. Master-slave contracts are negotiated between two consenting, loving people, and they usually take years. They are fine-tuned so that everyone knows where they stand. You discuss exactly how much power is given up and in which situations. They typically do not include what someone eats, and most masters do not order their slave to remove things like tattoos from their bodies.

Race play requires extra-sensitive negotiation and consent. 
It’s reported that Schneiderman called one of his partners his “brown slave” and demanded that she repeat that she was his property. Race play is just as, if not more, delicate a negotiation than master-slave. It is so loaded. They are some of the deepest, edgiest emotional role-play scenes that two loving people can agree to do together. They are not entered into casually. Or when drunk.

All play requires an affirmative yes from both partners to all planned activities. He was hitting these women so hard they had marks the next day. Marks would be part of the negotiation — you’d ask each other, “Are marks okay?” In cases where you have negotiated no marks and it seems like a sex act might leave a mark, a responsible top will stop and say: “I will not go any further because I can’t be certain that this won’t leave a mark; what else would you like that would not leave a mark?” You have to talk these things through and you have to do that when you are sober. This takes skill.

Nonconsensual breath play (choking) is about the most hideous nonconsensual act in SM, or at least it’s way high on the list. When you are controlling someone’s breath it is so dangerous. Most people don’t swim in that pond. You can do choking with a lot of acting, there are safe places on the neck like the collarbone. You can then put your fingers up over the throat to give the illusion of choking. BDSM is a collection of skills. BDSM players learn from people who know what they are doing.

Always establish a safe word.
When you use a safe word it means that you have to stop. You don’t want to deploy your safe word because you are miserable or hurt: Maybe you need to pee? Maybe a rope is too tight. You stop, come out of role immediately and ask: What do you need? The safe word would stop all play instantly — it doesn’t mean, okay, this is completely over; it just means when it’s uttered everything stops until we figure out why. Safe words are usually words that don’t come up during sex, saying “no no no no no” could be part of the scene. So when someone screams “grapefruit” in the middle of a rape fantasy, it’s clear what that means.

Accidents happen even when there is consent and proper preparation, but there’s a way to deal with that.
Of course role play doesn’t always go exactly as planned. If the giver accidentally makes a wrong stroke and hits some place they didn’t intend to hit, I recommend that the top should acknowledge it. You don’t have to come out of role, you don’t have to grovel. But if you tell the bottom “that was unintentional” that is very important for creating trust and letting the scene swim on. The top might put their hand on the spot to take the sting out. Or give them a kiss, and you can do all of that in a very dominant fashion.

Consent is ongoing, and it can be rescinded at any time.
Withdrawing consent is not renegotiation. Even if these women had consented to a little bit of rough sex (and there’s nothing wrong with that), they did not consent to being brutalized. They did not consent to being slapped in the face on the ear. They didn’t consent to being choked. It doesn’t matter what the role play was if they didn’t consent to that. Role-playing is consensual pretending, it is not BDSM without consent. It’s not violence and abuse.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Here’s How BDSM and Role Play Actually Work