Many people who have been socialized to be nice above all else might worry that saying “no” will ruin the vibe. Heart explains how communicating your boundaries is a muscle that can be exercised.
“Yes!” she gasped, gripping the edge of the bench, grinning wide. The leather flogger cracked against her soft thighs and she moaned with pleasure. “Again,” she begged, spreading her knees a little wider so I could see how excited she was getting. Anyone who says consent isn’t sexy hasn’t seen us play together.
We made up this game after a kink party that left a sour taste in our mouths. A lot of dominant players were pushy, but more than that, a lot of the submissive players were quiet.
There’s a dangerous tendency, particularly with folks who are new to kink, to assume that a good submissive is silent, pleasing, and doesn’t have limits. This misguided assumption leads to many young or inexperienced players being taken advantage of and missing out on some of the big joys that consent can offer.
Many of us, particularly feminine folks, have been socialized to be “nice” above all else. Setting limits, saying a firm “no,” speaking up about our own desires, are all things a lot of people pleasers don’t have experience with. Many of us feel pressure to be “fun” or worry about looking inexperienced, or we don’t want to disappoint people or “ruin the vibe.” This gets complicated in sexual situations, especially for folks who don’t have a lot of practice saying “no.”
Just as respect, safety, consent, and aftercare are critical for dominants to master and understand, submissives have jobs and expectations too. There may be an assumption that a good submissive doesn’t say “no,” but a submissive who doesn’t say “no” puts themselves and their partners at risk. Good submissives DO say “no.” (And good dominants listen.) Knowing your limits and speaking up to protect yourself are critical life skills, and also critical kink skills.
If I’m doing a scene with someone I need to know that they are capable of keeping themselves safe. I won’t play with people who don’t say “no.” Because I’ve had my consent violated in the past, the last thing I ever want to do is to create a situation where the person I’m interacting with feels like they can’t speak up. When I’m playing with partners who I can trust to advocate for their own good time, I’m not anxious and in my head. I don’t second guess myself as often. I can relax and tap into that electric energy knowing that my partner has all the tools they need to enjoy themselves too. Being confident in my bottoms’ boundaries gives me the freedom to be a more confident top.
Practice makes perfect
For those of us who haven’t mastered our own “nos” yet there’s good news: saying “no” is a muscle that you can exercise! Consent is something you can practice getting better at. Think of it like practicing a fire drill at school, or learning where the emergency exits are on a plane. When you go through the motions and plan your evacuation “just in case,” you’re making it more likely that you’ll react quickly in case of an emergency. The same is true when it comes to consent: if we don’t have a plan, and if we haven’t practiced, it can be hard to scramble for the right words when we need them.
I throw kinky play parties for women and sapphic folks, and after talking with many guests about the roadblocks to finding our “no,” I created a consent-forward game for those who wanted to practice. The first thing we do is establish that the purpose of this activity is to find limits and practice using your consent muscles. The submissive chooses an implement like a flogger, paddle, or cane. (Hands work great for this activity too!) Usually when I’m doing a party scene like this I’m trying to stay within the fun-zone, giving the bottom the sensations they’re looking for without going so far that they want to tap out. For the purposes of this game, though, we want to get to their limits. Instead of setting up a mindset where the submissive is trying to endure whatever the dominant is dishing out, we ask the submissive to really get inside of their body and feel their desire. We remind them there’s no wrong answer, just their truth. Rather than finding the sweet spot and staying there, I’m trying to push them past that spot so they can practice feeling their “no” and then saying their “no.” Both skills are important.
“I don’t want you to be tough for me,” I told my submissive during one of these games. “I already know you’re tough, I want you to really listen to your body and give me some feedback about what it wants. Don’t worry about pleasing me. I’m already pleased. This is about you getting what you want, are you ready?” She squirmed. I asked again, “Are you ready?”
“Yes, Ms. Heart,” she replied, loud and clear. She knew this time I’m not going to ease into it. I’m trying to find the edges of her “yes”. I’m going to spank her until she says stop. I’m not going to stop until she does. The spankings escalated quickly, sharper and sharper. I could feel her skin warming under my palm. After each hard spanking I heard her exhale, as they got tougher she started to grunt a little, her cute butt turning hot pink. When we finally got hard enough her feet started to scrunch up and she said in the smallest, almost imperceptible voice, “…stop?”
I stopped immediately, gasped in astonishment and showered her with praise. “What a good girl you are! Good job!” I stroked my fingertips softly over the handprints I’d left on her skin and assured her I was very pleased.
“Do you want to do it again?” I asked. She grinned and said yes. I praised her and asked her to try and make her “stop” sound a little firmer this time — not meek like a question, but loud like a statement. This is tough for those who haven’t practiced. We’ve learned to couch our “no” in soft words, high pitched people pleasing voices, gentle phrases with no sharp corners that won’t alarm anyone. For this exercise we want direct, loud, firm “nos.”
We do another round, and then again when she says “yes,” harder harder until this time her “stop” sounds clear as a bell. Each time she reaches her limit and speaks up she is showered in praise and adoration. The other women at the party join in this positive-reinforcement, stroking her hair and telling her what a good job she’s doing. Here in this room we make a safe space to practice using our consent muscles.
Making space for “no”
So often in life our “no” is ignored, silenced, or even punished. We’re violated; we’re painted as difficult; we’ve let people down. It’s not an accident that our patriarchal society produces so many people pleasers. Making a little space where we give our brains the experience of being rewarded for saying “no” can really push back against that conditioning and grow our skills.
One way to make space for someone’s “no” is to give two options:
“Can I take you to bed or should we watch another episode?”
“Should I go harder or stay nice and easy like this?”
“Is it time for a water break or does your greedy little pussy want more?”
“Can I take a picture or should I just keep this cuteness all for me?”
“Do you want to cum again or should we pause and get ice cream?”
This way you’re giving them an easy “out” without leaving too much room for over-thinking. Putting the “no” on the table as an option can really help folks who are learning to exercise these muscles.
Fighting the people pleaser instinct
Some of us have had (or have been) partners who respond to “What do you want?” with “I don’t know…” or “Whatever you want…” This is a classic people pleaser response, and while sometimes it’s nice not to have to make decisions, it’s often not true that they have no idea what they want.
I had a submissive partner who was naked and breathless from the exciting playtime we were having together. I’d been edging them for hours; their desperate whining and fussing was exactly what I’d been craving. I’d been calling the shots so far, but they’d pleased me so much during our scene that I wanted to spoil them by letting them choose how to end the session. “Anything you want!” they said. So I threw a quarter on their bedroom floor and told them to push it around with their nose. “This is so entertaining,” I said condescendingly as they crouched down on the hardwood. It didn’t take long for them to reconsider and come up with a very hot and rewarding idea for how they wanted to finish the scene instead.
These games are easy to play with a partner. Setting up the expectation that we’re going to reach “no” or “stop” can be a fun shift for everyone involved. Sometimes “no” means “I can’t take anymore” or “I don’t want this,” but sometimes it means “there’s a hair in my mouth and I can’t concentrate on anything else,” or “I really have to take a break to pee,” or even “this is kinda boring.” “Nos” come for all kinds of reasons, and the more we practice saying it the more comfortable everyone gets with its many meanings.
Saying “no” can feel uncomfortable at first, but using our words and our boundaries helps to build trust and intimacy with our partner. When they know we can protect our own best interests they are free to also protect their own. Consent is a safety net, especially when we’re taking big kinky jumps; a strong safety net means we can really test our limits.