“The sub is in control” — actually, this isn’t true and consent culture needs better words

CONTENT NOTE: This post discusses BDSM and violence against women.

TLDR: in a world where violence against women is a major issue, and ‘rough sex gone wrong’ is being used reprehensibly as a defence to murder, the BDSM community needs to use the best language it can. In a consensual context, it’s not that the sub is in control; rather, it’s that the dominant is fully responsive to the sub’s communication and desires. So if that’s what we mean, then that’s what we should say.

My husband has Asperger’s Syndrome and that can make things like going to the dentist very confuddling. So a few months ago, when he needed a filling, he said he wanted a responsible adult in the room with him. Me.

In the event, the dentist was extremely polite, clear and professional. She explained what she knew about the filling, what she would need to find out as she went along, and what she was going to do and why. She answered our questions and my husband agreed to go ahead.

And then, once he was in the chair and all numbed up, she gave him one last mild-mannered reassurance: “You’re in complete control.”

I want to talk about this.

No, not in complete control

In many ways, the dentist’s statement was absurd.

Although my husband was able to communicate, his physical ability to do so was impaired whilst the dentist was working on the filling. Also, he was in an emotionally heightened and nervous state and that impaired his mental ability to communicate. (Both of these are reasons why I was in the room.)

And not least, he had zero control over what the dentist was actually doing to his tooth. She had control over which tooth she worked on, how she drilled and how she cleaned it out. If she was doing it wrong, we wouldn’t have known. We had to take her at her word.

So why did she say my husband was in complete control?

Well, it wasn’t to pretend that none of the above was true. Rather, it was to tell my husband that, although she was the one in control, she would be fully responsive to anything he communicated.

In particular, she wanted him to know (and she did say this explicitly) that he could motion for her to stop at any time. Also, whilst his ability to communicate was impaired, it was not removed. If he had grunted or gurgled or raised his hand or whatever, that important piece of communication would have been heard, recognised and responded to. That’s what she wanted to assure him of — and rightly so.

Right, now let’s discuss this in the context of BDSM.

Oh, wait, before I do that, I need to interrupt this post for a short political broadcast.

I love the NHS!

The dentist was a South-East Asian WOC and she was absolutely amazing; we in the UK are extremely privileged and should be very grateful that health professionals from overseas who, like her, are willing to work here.

Also, like most people in the UK, my husband and I don’t have private dental care or dental insurance because we’re on the NHS. (That’s the National Health Service; it’s paid for by national insurance contributions deducted as a percentage from our payslips.) The filling cost was subsidised by the NHS so we only had to fork out about £60 in total. It wasn’t a lot for what we were getting.

In short, the NHS is amazing and shouldn’t be privatised. Oh, and the decay in my husband’s tooth was deep but narrow, and the dentist got it all and my husband hasn’t had a problem since.

Very, very grateful.

Right, where was I? Oh, yes: BDSM.

If you’re less familiar with terms like ‘BDSM’, ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ you might want to clue up by reading this post here: Why do I write about BDSM?

In consensual sex, people are vulnerable with each other. That’s part of why consent matters so much and there are loads of layers to the vulnerability — physical, emotional, mental, maybe even spiritual.

In BDSM though, it’s common for vulnerability to be both heightened and imbalanced between the people involved.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s think about a submissive and a dominant. If the submissive consents to being physically restrained in some way, the dominant has a physical advantage they wouldn’t otherwise have. And this is on top of any physical advantage they might already have by virtue of their build, strength or athleticism.

The heightened and imbalanced vulnerability is what holds a lot of appeal for people in the BDSM community, but it comes with its risks. To state the obvious: if a submissive is made more vulnerable then, in absolute terms, they are also more vulnerable to abuse.

For this reason, the BDSM community makes a big deal about communication, negotiation, and consent that’s both informed and freely-given. In their book, just because a dominant has power over the submissive, that doesn’t give the dominant a licence to do anything and everything that that power enables them to do. Rather, the dominant should only use their advantage to do things within the pre-agreed parameters they’ve negotiated with the submissive and, lest we forget,the overall purpose of those things should be mutual fulfilment and enjoyment.

Going outside of this is not OK.

In other words, although the dominant is the one with the power, in consensual BDSM the dominant is also constrained by the bounds of consent given by the submissive/sub — which they can revoke at any time, for any reason.

As such, you hear this phrase: the sub is in control.


There are no safe words, only safe people

There is nothing magical about the words “I consent to x” or “I do not consent to y” or “no” or “stop” that means another person is bound by those statements. No startled grunt or exclamation means another person has to listen or pause for continuous consent. You can pre-negotiate all you like, you can explain yourself perfectly clearly, you can set up safeguards and give gestures particular meanings — but none of that, absolutely none of it, can compel another person to honour the bounds of your consent.

When you’re vulnerable with someone, you’re not in control of what they do. They are.

Which means the only question that matters is whether they will be responsive to what you say and what you want.

Of course, that’s what the dentist really meant when she told my husband he was in ‘complete control’. She wasn’t trying to deceive him, and she definitely wasn’t trying to lay aside her agency or responsibility. If anything, my husband was relying on her toexercise her skill and decision making capacity. He wasn’t in control; rather, she was a dependable person.

Likewise, this is the dynamic shouldbe playing out in a BDSM scene. In a consensual context, the dominant doesn’t lay aside their agency or palm off responsibility for their actions. Instead they hold onto both, within the bounds of what was previously negotiated, remaining responsive to every signal from the submissive and alert to any normal communicative signals dropping away.

Why it really matters that we move to better words

I haven’t said anything new here; I’ve just tried to articulate what a lot of consent-conscious people mean, but don’t necessarily say.

But, I think it would be good if people move away from this phrase.

Firstly, being savvy about consent is something that simply cannot be taken for granted. There are plenty of people whose stupidity seems to know no bounds, or whose naïveté is simply scary. I would know, I was one of them once. If we throw around phrases like “the sub is in control” it can create a false sense of security and encourage people to switch off their brains. This is not good for healthy, consensual sex.

Also, it’s not like BDSM doesn’t have its critics. And for as long as they can point to blatantly obvious facts (namely, if a person is physically restrained then they are not in control) these critics are not going to engage meaningfully on issues of abuse within the BDSM community. Instead, they’ll say that BDSM promotes abuse and enables abusers.

And in a context where BDSM and ‘rough sex gone wrong’ are being used — reprehensibly — as defences to murder, by men who don’t seem to have any regard for safety or consent, this matters a lot. It rings hollow to suggest that “the sub is in control” is what distinguishes BDSM from abuse. Whether the context is consensual power-exchange, or whether it’s non-consensual abuse, the sub is rarely — if ever — in control. That’s the point.

So the more the BDSM community can emphasise that the dominant’s continued consent is part of the equation, that they have a responsibility to be safety-aware, that they need to be alert to the sub’s communication, that they need to be satisfied that the sub remains able to communicate — then there will be less chance of ‘rough sex gone wrong’ gaining traction with juries.

At least, I sure hope it will.

I’m not a BDSM advocate, but the best things I’ve learned about consent are things I’ve learned from the BDSM community. I’d like to have a fair discussion about how BDSM and sexual ethics intersect and to do that, those of us who are BDSM-aware need to say what we mean.

So instead of dominants telling subs “You’re in control”, let’s have ones that say, “I will be alert to and completely responsive to your signals and communication. And don’t feel bad about throwing on the brakes at any time, even if you think I wouldn’t want to stop; because if you want me to stop, then I’d want to stop — for that reason if nothing else. Also, if you communicate something that I don’t understand, I’ll check in. And maybe that’ll break the mood for a few moments, but I’d much rather do that than violate your consent or cause you harm. Agreed?”



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