Consensual BDSM vs non-consent…

With expert information from Dr Emma Chan, Junior Doctor and Sexual Health Education Facilitator

Kayleigh’s sordid experience left her feeling ashamed and used for weeks. She checked in with Dr Emma Chan, who teaches consent workshops in school and universities, to help her set clear boundaries in the future.

“While it’s important to recognise and respect that for some people things like consensual degradation may form an important and fulfilling part of a healthy sex life. Kayleigh’s experience with Den was very different from this. She is often someone who appears to enjoy novel experiences and impulsive sexual acts. However, she clearly didn’t enjoy or consent to oral sex with Den. There is no discussion about it beforehand. Den makes no attempt to explore what Kayleigh’s wants or what her sexual desires are, either before or during sex. More alarmingly, he ignores repeated signs of verbal and non-verbal non consent.

We know that sex isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ affair. Different things arouse different people. Some people find sexual pleasure in things that others would find extremely uncomfortable. This includes acts that involve pain or humiliation and degradation, for example. Practices or desires such as BDSM – the acronym for ‘Bondage/Discipline Domination/Submission Sadism/Masochism’ seem reasonably common. A fairly recent study found that nearly half of respondents (46.8%) had engaged in at least one BDSM act with 12.5% reporting it as a regular practice. [1]

“People that engage in degradation type practices during sex say that it’s about the power dynamics that are at play. A systemic review of the traits of those who already engaged in BDSM practices suggested that one important factor was high levels of sensation seeking and impulsivity. [2] People were not only comfortable with pushing their own boundaries, but actively sought out those experiences. So it’s important to recognise and respect that for some people things like consensual degradation may form an important and fulfilling part of a healthy sex life.”

‘Vanilla’ vs ‘Kinky’?

‘Vanilla’ is often a term used to describe ‘standard’ or ‘non-adventurous’ sexual practices. It can also be seen as the opposite of ‘kink’ or ‘kinky’. Both are value judgements and therefore relative terms. Their meanings and definitions can vary hugely from culture to culture. For example, what was considered to be daring sex by an upstanding Victorian lady may be different to that of a modern Londoner, like Kayleigh.

For this reason, it is really important to communicate openly with your partner or partners around sex. This is especially true when it comes to things you feel might be pushing your – or other people’s – boundaries. This type of discussion clearly didn’t happen between Kayleigh and Den. He physically pressured her in to carrying out sex acts without ‘checking-in’ on her. He made no efforts to establish her levels of comfort with what was going on.

And what about the law?

People need to consent to any type of sex they engage in. If they do not, then this is considered sexual assault and is illegal. According to  the law, consent is defined as someone agreeing by choice to engage in sex, where they have the freedom and capacity to do so. [4]

Kayleigh does not appear to consent to have oral sex with Den. She gives no indication that she is complying with his wishes because this is something that she wants to do. Several features of her behaviour suggest she wishes to stop – for example, she vomits and says ‘no’ several times.

As with finding about what turns people on, communication is key to establishing consent. A good rule of thumb is that if you are unsure if someone is consenting, ask. Den’s attitude to Kayleigh seems pretty disrespectful and non-consensual. While it may be something that some people would enjoy, Den has no reason to believe that this is the case with Kayleigh. Conversations before and during sex about what someone enjoys are important to everyone involved finding pleasure and fulfilment. Open and honest dialogue can avoid unpleasant experiences. It is also an important part of making sure that you are not violating someone or breaking the law.

Respect and boundaries

It’s important to respect that some people enjoy practices such as kink, BDSM and consensual degradation. Even if this isn’t something we want to do ourselves, we can still have respect and understand that others have different needs and wants. However, it’s also important to recognise that these need to be consensual and mutually pleasurable experiences for all involved. As we’ve discussed – honesty and communication is key to ensuring this.

It is  very clear that Kayleigh is uncomfortable and doesn’t  consent to what happens with Den. However, there are lots of other signs of someone not consenting to a sexual activity – such as withdrawing or becoming passive. These soft nos are just as important and valid as hard nos.

Lastly, it’s important to recognise with all types of sex, including kink, consent can be withdrawn at any other time. Even if someone is dressed up to the nines in their regular fetish club, they still have the right to withdraw that consent. In fact, many people that engage in sexual practices such as BDSM, describe whole etiquettes such as ‘safe words’ that have developed exactly to ensure that everyone has a pleasurable and consensual time.


[1] Holvoet, L., Huys, W., Coppens, V., Seeuws, J., Goethals, K., and Morrens, M. (2017), ‘Fifty Shades of Belgian Gray: The Prevalence of BDSM-Related Fantasies and Activities in the General Population’ The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 14 (9): 1152-1159

[2] Richters, J., de Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., and Smith, A. M. (2008), ‘Demographic and psychological features of participants in bondage and discipline, “sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): data from a national survey’, The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 5 (7) 1660-8.

[3] Crown Prosecution Service, The Sexual Offences Act 2003. ‘Rape and Sexual Offences

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