IM SAFE – A consent model
This is the transcript for a video I created for my friends at Kink Crate. (When they post the video, I’ll come back and link to it <<here>>.) In this video, I explained my model for consent: IM SAFE. Because I created this for Kink Crate, the examples I use have BDSM/Kink play in mind, but this model can be applied to any situation where consent is a factor (I’d argue that’s just about any time we interact with other people). For the broadest application, at the top of this article, I’ve also included a one-page PDF called Coffee and Consent that lays this model out in simple terms, with fun examples.
Kink Outside the Box
Hello, friends! Professor Sex is here for my friends at Kink Crate and this is “Kink Outside the Box” – the sex-ed show where we talk about kink, fetish, role play, and much more! On this episode: Consent!
The single most important element of any kink or BDSM play is consent. Kink communities have created lots of ways to talk about consent. SSC, RACK, PRICK, and the 4C’s. I’m a huge fan of anything that gets people thinking, talking about and acting on consent. All these approaches have a shared underlying philosophy of how to approach consent in ways that respect the wants, needs, and boundaries of everyone involved. I like to talk about that philosophy using the acronym IM SAFE.
I: Informed Consent
Informed Consent is Consent without Deceit. What are the things you need to know about your partners to be able to set appropriate boundaries and play in a way that makes you feel safe? What are the things your partners need to know about you? This will change depending on the type of play you’re doing, how long you’ve known each other, and how long you’ve been playing together. Informed Consent is also Consent that, well, has all the information. Or, at least, all the possible information. We don’t know what we don’t know, but we can do our best to share the information we do have and consider what we need to know so we can hunt down additional resources. Informed consent is a huge part of risk-aware kink and sexy times. Remember, you get to decide how much risk you’re comfortable with, and there’s no right or wrong amount as long as you’re all consenting adults. But, you can’t make those important decisions if you don’t have all the information you need to do so. Everyone will be comfortable with different amounts of information when making these decisions, and a lot of this is context-dependent, so consider this a helpful guide.
Here are some examples of the type of information you might wish to discuss:
- Health information – STI testing, Covid immunization, birth control, chronic illness or chronic pain, allergies… anything that might be impacted by your play together or that might increase health risks to anyone involved.
- Skills-based information – are you trying something new? Are there health or safety risks involved? How much experience do each of you have with this activity? Is this something you should research or practice before you jump in? A great example of this is impact play. It’s one thing to occasionally spank your partner in the heat of the moment. It’s something else entirely to whip out paddles, floggers, canes, and other tools. You’ll want to research where on the body it’s safe to strike someone, discuss the kinds of pain you’re comfortable giving out or receiving, and have a conversation about whether or not you’re comfortable leaving marks behind. You’ll want to test your tools out on a pillow, stuffed animal, and even your own arm or thigh before you break them out in a scene. Anytime you’re trying something new, think and talk about the information you both need to approach this as safely as possible.
- Emotional and mental health information – have any of you experienced any trauma that might be triggered by the type of play you want to engage in? have you talked about the kind of support you need if one of you is triggered, and whether you feel comfortable moving forward with a scene if a trigger arises?
M: Moment to Moment
Consent is not a contract, it’s an ongoing process that happens throughout your scene and throughout your relationship together. This means you can say yes or no to something, and change your mind later, and so can your partners. It’s totally okay to think you’ll be into something, start doing it, and realize it’s just not for you – or it’s just not something you’re up for right now. It’s also ok to start by saying maybe or no and then change your mind to a yes after you’ve gotten more information, had time to think about it, or grown more comfortable with the situation.
Consent to one thing is not consent to all things. Consent to impact play with a paddle is not consent to impact play with a cane. Consent to rope play is not consent to a blow job. Consent to vaginal sex is not consent to anal sex. Consent to playing with toys is not consent to penetration. When you’re negotiating, think of it like you’re building an amusement park together. You’re deciding together what rides and toys are in the park, which ones are open or closed any given day, how fast or slow they go, which ones are water rides and which ones are haunted. Then, when the scene starts, there’s still some element of surprise and spontaneity, but it’s controlled by the parameters set when you built the theme park. So, it’s ok to introduce surprises that are already agreed upon, it’s NOT okay to introduce new things that haven’t been discussed yet.
A: Awake and Aware
Someone who’s asleep can’t give consent. Someone who’s so intoxicated that they’re not aware of what’s going on can’t give consent. When we’re talking about kink and BDSM play, it’s important to consider other things that impair our awareness. The first thing that comes to mind, for me, is pain and sensation play. Even if we agree on sensations and pain experiences ahead of time, it’s important to remember that ongoing consent means we check in with each other throughout our playtime so we can be aware when someone has hit a threshold or needs a break. This means being totally checked in with our bodies and the verbal and nonverbal cues of our partners. It also means being careful with anything that impairs our ability to have a fully embodied playtime experience.
Here are some things that don’t mix well with kink/BDSM play and should be handled with extreme caution (or, maybe even not at all):
- Pain medication: As a rule of thumb, taking something like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or other painkillers before playtime is something to be done with caution. Dulling our pain sensations may cause us to push further past our pain threshold than we might have otherwise and could lead to injury. Just like everything else, there is “one size fits all” recommendation here. For example, folks in chronic pain who take pain medication to function will have a better understanding of their relationship to these drugs and will understand their limits differently than folks who don’t take these medicines as frequently. The important thing is to consider this and discuss it with your partners.
- Numbing agents: this comes up a lot with lidocaine products that numb your anus for butt stuff or numb your gag reflex for oral sex. Again, I’m not the boss of you and I can’t make these decisions for you. What I will suggest is that if you’re new to an activity and the pain of the activity is a turn off, consider ways to move through that experience that don’t dull your sensations. Lubrication, foreplay, relaxation, arousal, and more communication are all super helpful tools in taking an experience that seems distractingly painful at first and turning it into something fun, enjoyable, and comfortable! Folks who have more experience with these activities have a deeper understanding of how their bodies respond and where their thresholds are between pain and injury, so their decisions to use these products may be different than what’s safe for beginners.
- Alcohol and recreational drugs: Recreational drug use is a complicated topic that shifts wildly based on the drugs in question, the people doing them, and the situation at hand. I’ll say – be careful mixing new drug experiences with new play experiences and use good judgement. Instead, I’d like to focus on drinking right now. I’m personally not a fan of mixing heavy drinking and sex or BDSM play. A drunk person can’t give consent. A drunk person also has an unnaturally increased pain tolerance, dramatically reduced sense of inhibition and becomes significantly less aware of their boundaries. None of this is recipe for safety. Heavy drinking mixed with sex, kink, or BDSM increases the risk of boundary violations, injury, physical and emotional trauma.
I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention Dom Space and Sub Space. Dom and Sub Space are well-documented, scientifically studied (Wuyts et al., 2020) phenomena in which a particular BDSM scene becomes so all-consuming that one or both of the players experiences an altered mental and emotional state. Submissives who experience sub space report feeling a floating, euphoric feeling of ecstasy. Many will say that anxiety and self-consciousness melt away, they lose track of time and their surroundings and are fully enveloped in this deliciously blissful feeling. Doms, on the other hand, report experiencing something akin to a “flow” state. “Flow” is a concept that comes to us from researchers Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura. In a 2004 TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi described flow by saying, “There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.” Not everyone who engages in kink or BDSM play will experience Dom or Sub Space, and even people who won’t experience it every time they play. It’s important to know these “spaces” exist and know they do indeed alter your mental and emotional state while you’re feeling them. This is what makes checking in with each other so important not just before and after playtime, but also during. If one or both of you have become so engrossed in your own experience that you’re not checking in with the other, it can be easy to push yourself or your partner far past your limits or violate your own boundaries or each other’s.
F: Freely Given
Consent should be offered freely and without coercion or manipulation. This is especially important to remember when we’re negotiating power exchange dynamics. We’ve agreed that one of us will be submissive and one of us will be Dominant, but those agreements should be discussed in a neutral space where we’re both free to say what we need to say, ask the questions we need to ask, be open and honest about our fears, concerns, wants, needs, and desires, and set the boundaries we need to set.
Another way to say this is “Affirmative Consent” or “Yes Means Yes”. Let’s be honest, we’re not always jump-for-joy enthusiastic about sex or play. Sometimes we’re trying something new we aren’t sure about, or maybe we’ve got a punishment dynamic and now it’s time to pay the piper. The important component is that we’re a definite “yes” to what’s happening. We’ve actively agreed to the experience, and we know we can change our minds at any time.
*You could also say E = Engaged. It means you’re an active, willing participant, and that’s what’s important to remember.
So that’s IM SAFE: Informed, Moment-to-Moment, Specific, Awake & Aware, Freely Given, and Enthusiastic.
Ok, so what are some practical ways to apply these tools and negotiate consent?
One of the more popular and commonly used tools is a Safeword. Or, more accurately, safe words. Safe words are keywords or phrases that mean you want to slow down, shift gears, or stop. Sometimes part of the fun of BDSM play is pain and conflict, so “ouch” and “stop it” aren’t great safe words because we may not actually want our partner to stop anything. Lots of folks like to use a red, orange, yellow, green system. Green means – this is great keep going! Yellow means – check in with me, because I need to shift positions, I want you to stop using that tool, I want to stop doing this thing but not stop playtime altogether… that sort of thing. Orange means – I’m near my threshold but I’m not ready to stop yet. Red means – Stop right now, I’m being injured, or I need something important and immediately. You can use whatever language works best for you, and unless you’ve expressly and clearly said otherwise, No, stop it, and slow down all mean exactly that – no, stop it, and slow down. The most important thing is that you’re communicating and checking in throughout your playtime.
Another fantastic tool is the “Yes/No/Maybe” list. You can find dozens of versions of Yes/No/Maybe lists all over the internet (Or, ya know, at the link in the last sentence). Some are kink/BDSM specific, some are not. To make it easy on you, you can find a trauma-informed, BDSM inclusive yes/no/maybe list that I’ve created by going to kinkcrate.com or professorsex.com. You can also just create your own, though sometimes it’s easier to use one that’s already made as a starting point because they offer suggestions we may not consider if we’re starting from scratch.
The way these work is by first offering you one or more lists of activities to consider, followed by places to rank those activities by “Yes,” “Maybe,” or “No.” The Yes section is full of things you like to do – indicate whether you like to give, receive, or both. Take care to also note whether you’ve ever done the thing before, as this could be important in your discussions. The Maybe section is full of things you think you might like to, or things you’re willing to do if your partner likes it, but maybe they aren’t your favorite – be careful to indicate which is which. The No section is full of things you do not like to do, would not like to try, or feel triggered or traumatized by. Some folks divide this up into “Soft No” and “Hard No”. A “soft no” is something that you maybe didn’t love in the past but might be willing to try again under the circumstances or things you’d like to wait to discuss until you get to know each other better. A “hard no” is something that is off the table completely. Write your lists separately and then compare! Use this as the starting point for a conversation about what you think is sexy and what you might like to do together.
At the end of the day, the common thread in all of this is communication. It can be verbal, non-verbal, flirty, sexy, sexy-texty, spelled out in a journal or love letter, or written in lipstick on a mirror. How you communicate is entirely up to you, as long as you do it!
And, on that note, that’s all for this episode of Kink Outside the Box.
For more from Kink Crate, or to subscribe and start getting Kink Crates delivered right to your door, head to KinkCrate.com. You can also see other videos on my Kink Crate playlist at YouTube.com/ProfessorSex.