Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Delicate Art of Negotiation

By Lisabet Sarai

Negotiation (BDSM) – From Wikipedia (

In the BDSM community, negotiation is a form of communication where participants make arrangements on each others' requirements, responsibilities, and limits to find the best possible agreement.

Activity within BDSM relationships requires trust, openness about most practices that may include risks. On the other hand, partners have certain needs which should be clearly defined in order to be properly satisfied. In this regard, negotiation is essential part not only when parties were not familiar with each other but also in case when partners have long-term relationships.”

Our topic this week at the Grip is effective communication in the context of sex and relationships. Being who I am, I immediately thought about communication in power exchange situations—in the real world and in fiction.

Although the world of D/s may seem like a unified whole to the non-practitioner, in fact the desires, interests and limits of different individuals vary widely. The core concept of D/s is the exchange of power—the submissive surrendering and giving control to the dominant—but the reality of this surrender might be expressed via bondage, pain, humiliation, sexual objectification, enforced service, cross-dressing, sensory deprivation or a bewildering array of other physical or mental activities.

The concept of negotiation is widely though not universally embraced by responsible D/s participants. The basic idea is that before engaging in any actual BDSM activities, the “top” (dominant) and the “bottom” (submissive) need to share information, for the sake of both safety and mutual pleasure. A common method for structuring negotiation is a checklist ( see, for example, The sub (and sometimes the dominant as well) will indicate, for each activity on the list, a level of experience and a level of interest/excitement (including the information that this is a “hard limit”, i.e. something that the sub absolutely cannot endure). The content of the checklist then guides the dominant in selecting activities that are acceptable and/or desired by both parties.

Negotiation may also include the selection of safe words or gestures that will serve as signals that the sub wants the current activity to stop or to become less intense.

All this may sound very reasonable. However, negotiation involves an unfortunate paradox. A sub experiences satisfaction and pleasure in surrendering to a master or mistress. Part of the excitement derives from uncertainty. The ideal is that the dominant should do whatever he or she pleases, subject only to the submissive's hard limits and governed by the safe word. By engaging in negotiation, on the other hand, particularly at the level of detail provided by a checklist, the submissive is in effect telling the dominant what to do, or at least restricting the universe of possibilities. The very existence of the checklist may reduce the satisfaction of both partners in a D/s scene, because the sub is in some sense “topping from below” – dictating or at least suggesting behaviors to the dominant.

My personal experience with BDSM has been limited to a single relationship. In our case, the negotiation was far less formal. In letters, telephone calls and later in emails, my master would raise particular topics and ask me for my thoughts. He would assign me reading or send videos and then inquire about my reactions. I couldn't always be honest—I was too embarrassed—but I think he gained a great deal of information from these interactions. At the same time, these assignments expanded my notions of what might be possible and fed my fantasies (as I'm sure my master intended).

As I recall, I really wasn't aware of my own submissive tendencies until our first letters and calls, months before the visit that I've described in my previous post. I think he brought up the idea of spanking first. He'd say something like, “If you were here, I'd really spank your ass.” I'd treat the whole thing as a joke. “Oh, really? What a novel idea!” But I didn't say no, and later, I started to imagine what it would be like. I became curious and finally excited. Later he'd mention different implements or talk about tying me to his bed or inserting various objects into various orifices. He sowed the seeds and then allowed them to germinate and thrive in my fertile imagination.

Occasionally he'd suggest something that seriously squicked me. Normally it would easier to tell him what I didn't want than what I did. After all, like all subs, I wanted him to make the decisions. I wanted to do what pleased him, to give myself body and soul into his care and allow him to satisfy his own varied fantasies.

It worked for us. (Hell, it still works. He can still send me into a submissive swoon, long distance.) As D/s practitioners are fond of saying, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

In BDSM erotic fiction, negotiation is pretty rare. I think that there are several reasons. First of all, in short stories, especially, every word is precious. You've got to get the dom and the sub into their scene as quickly as you can, to grab and arouse the reader. Negotiation could be made sexy (and I am thinking that I may use this as the germ for a story) but normally the bondage, the beatings and the orgasms are more so.

Second, erotic fiction must feed the reader's fantasies. One of the most potent D/s fantasies is the notion that a dominant can intuit the sub's needs without them being expressed. In a really effective D/s interaction, the sub may feel that the Dom can read her mind. This sense of connection is intoxicating. (I'm speaking from experience.) Too much prior negotiation may detract from the impact of this experience (and reduce the vicarious thrill for the reader). In erotic romance, the conceit that the hero and heroine are soul-mates, fated to be together and perfectly matched, practically requires that their love-making (including power exchange) be incandescent and intense from the start, without any dickering about preferences, safewords or limits.

In many of my own BDSM stories, I deal with the issue slightly differently. My tops frequently require the bottoms to admit to their own perverse desires. I find this scenario extremely arousing. The sub cannot hide from the fact that she is complicit in the outrages about to be perpetrated upon her body. Wanting to be beaten is as much if not more of a taboo than wanting to administer a beating. At the same time, the sub's confessions deepen the trust. Although the dominant might tease the sub about her lewd fantasies, ultimately they are partners in perversity. The sub's confessions serve the purpose of negotiation as well as signalling consent.

To finish off, I'll give you a short excerpt from Raw Silk that demonstrates this strategy.

She heard him moving behind her, near the bed, then he stood before her again, something dark in his hands.

"I left this, also, on the bed, for you to examine and consider. But apparently you did not notice - or did not allow yourself to do so."

He held out the article for her inspection. Kate swallowed the lump in her throat. The item in his hands was clearly some sort of leather whip.

"The technical term," Gregory said, smiling, "is cat o' nine tails. You'll notice the many strands of leather radiating from the handle."He grasped the handle, which was neatly encased in braided leather, in his left hand, running his right over the strands as if caressing a lover's hair. "Each thong ends with a knot. When used correctly, the thongs apply a sharp heat, while the knots digging into the skin provide an extra sting.”

He dangled the whip above her shoulder, the knots just touching, then brushed it lightly across her breasts. The leather was amazingly soft, but as he dragged it across her still-swollen nipples, she felt the echo of the clamps on her flesh.

Now he was delicately tracing an upward path, from her pubic fur across her belly, sending delicious tremors up her spine and down her bound arms. Thus far, he was using the cat o' nine tails as an instrument of pure pleasure.

He spoke again, without stopping his leather caresses. "Have you ever been beaten by a lover, Kate?”

Kate shook her head, and felt herself blush, though she did not understand why.

"Have you ever dreamed or fantasized about such a thing?" Gregory asked.

"No,"said Kate, indignant. "Of course not.”

Gregory laughed. "Of course not? Indeed! Perhaps you don’t remember your dreams, Kate."

He leaned close to her ear, whispering. "The first time I laid eyes on you, Kate, I sensed that you craved the whip. I saw it in your eyes, in the way you moved, in your fierce, almost defiant independence. I felt your yearning to be mastered, to be set free.”

Kate hung her head, and said nothing. Was what he said true? Did she really know so little of herself?

"I want to whip you, Kate, whip you well, to open your mind and your senses to the possibilities within you.”

He lifted her chin with the end of the whip, so that her eyes met his.

"Will you do this for me, Kate? Do you dare to take this next step?”

His gaze was a spotlight, searching to the depths of her soul. Kate felt fear and desire, rebellion (I'll show him what I dare!) and devotion (how could I not do whatever pleases him?). She found herself fascinated by the leather implement of punishment that he wielded with such familiarity. She was curious, disgusted, and, as usual in Marshall's presence, unbelievably aroused.

Finally she answered. "Yes," she said softly. "I dare. For you." Her cheeks burned at admitting her weakness.

"Good," he said. "Once again, you do not disappoint me."He circled around behind her. "Now, relax. And breath.”


  1. Hi Lisabet,

    Eloquent thoughts on the duality of D/S communication, and all of it beautifully illustrated by a slice of Raw Silk.

    This is going to be a fun week, I'm sure.



  2. Thanks, Ash,

    I'm very interested in seeing other folks' take on this topic. It can be viewed from a wide variety of angles.


  3. Hi Lisabet!

    I glanced at this on sunday and wanted to get back to you, but I was sick as a dog. Especially this, because this is the kind of post i really love to read. It gets me, because you're really stepping out on a limb with it.

    I find this interaction about negotiations interesting because I was thinking as you wrote - doesn'tt calling the shots take away from what is going on? Isn't it about closing your eyes and taking the ride where it takes you, short of the emergency room?

    This is a world which is such a mystery to me, and yet as you go on with this subject, I get such a sense of these elements hidden within myself. Why did I become such a religious person? Because I wanted to surrender freedom? Having been disappointed, what would I do if I held the whip? Because I could never have that trust again. Sometimes I ask myself, what if God were a woman, a beautiful strong woman and she said "Trust me. Surrender to me." Would I do it? If I knew the answer to that, I'd know the answer to a lot of other things.

    You didn't get a lot of response to this, but that only serves as a reminder to me that art is not a fan club. You can bear your soul and not get a lot of feed back. I think this is fascinating post, and thank you for trusting us that much with it.


  4. Lisabet,

    I had to come back and re-read this post. Your perspective on Dom/sub relationships, and the excerpt have stuck with me.

    This post is timely as I have been working on a story that, in part, explores a fledgling D/s relationship.

    Thanks for sharing so much of yourself and providing inspiration.



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