General Scene Negotiation & Planning
This post is part of a series that begins with BDSM Encounters – A Framework.
After going through the vetting process, you have decided that you would like to do a rope scene with someone. The next step is NOT to just pick up a rope and put it on them or allow them to put it on you. There are many things you both need to know in order to do so ethically and safely. You both need to:
- Agree on what activities will be permitted.
- Understand the risks of those activities.
- Figure out how you will know if something is going wrong.
- Plan for what you both will do if something does go wrong.
- Understand what you need to do for each other after the session (“aftercare”).
You Need a Plan
Yes, spontaneity can be fun and sexy, but it is not responsible to be looking for spontaneity with a brand-new partner, especially when there are as many risks to manage as there are with rope. Spontaneity is something that can come with time, experience, and trust with a specific partner. But when you begin playing with someone new, or with an unfamiliar activity, you need to revert to detailed negotiation until you both learn enough about each other to agree to introduce spontaneity.
First and Foremost
The root of ethical and effective negotiation is honesty.
BE HONEST. Be complete. Don’t hide important things, including your level of experience.
This is critical. Without real understanding of (1) the people involved and their needs and limits, and (2) the planned activities and their associated risks, it is impossible to give informed consent. This begins with being honest with yourself. What do you want out of bondage? Tell your partner(s) what you really want. Listen to what they really want. Do your best to determine whether you could have a path forward together.
Different situations require different levels of negotiation:
- For simple pickup play or a single encounter, you can negotiate a few straightforward activities and discuss just the details and risks of those specific things.
- With regular partners, or someone you are hoping will become a regular partner, you will need more detail in your negotiations so that you understand each other more deeply. This allows you to explore further and with more flexibility as you gain experience with each other.
Below is a general, high-level list of things that are important to understand and discuss. This is a good general start, but you need to research the risks of the specific activities you are interested in and include that information in your negotiation.
This is a general list for general BDSM encounters. It does not include many details that are important to a rope scene. When you are negotiating a rope scene, you still need everything on this list and you also need to include details specific to rope and any other activities you want to include in the scene. For example, if you plan to tie someone’s arms behind their back, you need to know if they have done that before, if it went well, and if they are aware of any medical or physiological issues that would prevent them from doing so now. Those scenario-specific questions are not included in this general list. Rope-specific details will be discussed in Risks When Using Rope and Nerves & Circulation.
Important Elements of Negotiation
Who will be involved?
Anyone who will be a part of the scene needs to be present at the negotiation. Each person must speak for themselves.
What roles do you each want to play?
There are so many fun options!
Top, Bottom, Dom, sub, Switch, Master, Mistress, slave, pet, housemaid…
Will there be any power exchange? D/s? M/s? What might that look like?
What do you want people to call you?
- Honorifics (Sir, Miss, Mistress, Master)?
- Pet names/terms of affection (pet, kitten, toy, doll)?
- Degrading terms (slut, whore, bitch)?
The way you move and the way you interact with your partner can do more than almost anything else to set the mood of a scene. You can change up your style to meet the needs of a given scene!
So … what do you and your partner(s) want your scene to be?
- Fast or slow?
- Light or dark?
- Playful or serious?
- Powerful or flowing?
- Sensual or demanding?
- Teasing or tormenting?
- Hands-off or hands-on?
- Passionate or peaceful?
- Intimate or objectifying?
- Worshipful or degrading?
- Exploratory or goal-oriented?
- Collaborative or domineering?
Be honest with yourself and your partner. Make this part of your negotiation. Plan ahead. By making conscious choices about these things, you both have a much better chance of getting what you want.
Perhaps these questions will help.
- What is the purpose of the scene? … Instructional? Demonstration? Exploratory? Professional (for photography, etc.)? Foreplay to sex?
- What mood? … Playful? Serious? Sensual? Demanding? Dark?
- How proprietary do you want this scene to be? … If you need them to be in a certain position or place … Will you ask them to move? Order them? Physically force them to move where you want them to be?
- What is their role? … Are they a stranger to you? Are they a play partner? A lover? A spouse?
- How do they want to be treated? … As a respected partner? As a gift? As prey? As an object? As dirt?
- What are the rules of contact? … Will you be minimizing contact, touching their skin with yours only when absolutely necessary? Will it mostly be only the rope that touches them? Will you be casually and comfortably brushing their skin as you tie? Will you be all up in their business, teasing and tormenting them as you tie, i.e. the more touch the better?
- Is sex planned to be part of the scene? For some people, sex is an important aspect of a bondage scene, for others it is not part of it at all. IMPORTANT: If the answer to this is any type of “yes”, make sure you know what that means!! The spectrum of activities that can be called “sex” is huge. Be very clear and specific what is okay and what is not okay. Your definition may not be the same as theirs!
Understanding what you both want can help you choose how you will behave in the scene.
Here are a few examples:
- You can set a dominating mood if you move quickly and with confidence. Use big movements when you are doing tail pulls, fast and sure tie-offs, etc. You can enhance this by physically moving them where you want them (spinning them, for example) without talking to them very much, demonstrating that you are in control. But it is important to understand that doing this to an extreme can make them feel extremely objectified. Feeling objectified can be very good or very bad depending on the person or how that person is feeling that day. Treating someone like an object without their consent is not likely to go well for you, but doing so when you have talked about it and are both into it can be hot as fuck.
- You can set up a sensuous experience by moving slowly and gently, dragging the rope slowly across their skin as you tie. Letting it brush sensitive things like lips or nipples. Take your time, make the tying process itself a primary part of the experience. Even more, make untying just as much part of the experience. Untie just as slowly and sensuously and you will extend the scene and intimacy even longer.
- If you are tying with someone that has never had rope on them or that you have never tied before, you can set an instructional and light mood by keeping your voice at a higher pitch (less intimate), explaining in detail what you will do before you do it, explaining again as you are doing it and checking in with them about how it feels each time you complete a phase. Keep skin contact to a minimum and let them feel just the rope. If you are clever or charming, use that to set them at their ease. Do one short tie, let them feel it for a short time, and then untie them completely. Once they are completely out of the rope, take a step back, then smile and check in. Ask them how it felt and how they feel now. Let them process with you. Let them be heard.
It is important to help your partner understand your hot buttons (the things that you love), your soft limits (things that are not to be done for now, but perhaps in the future), and hard limits (things that are an absolute no, so don’t ask).
Be very clear about what activities are okay for this particular scene. Make no assumptions.
Agree on how intense the scene should be, the mood, and how each participant would like to behave.
- Mood: Instructional, intense, dark, light, sensual, violent, gentle, sterile, degrading, humiliating, animalistic, fun-loving, serious, personable, distant, goofy, etc.
- Intensity Level (pain or sensation): None, light, moderate, heavy.
- Deportment: Obedient vs. bratty, demanding, stern, aggressive, nurturing, professorial, etc.
How does the Bottom prefer to be untied – should you emphasize sensuality or speed?
How does the Bottom feel about rope marks, and their location – do they need to be able to cover them for work?
Can the Top overpower the Bottom and “force” them to do something?
Can the Bottom “turn the tables” and try to capture the Top instead?
Neither is recommended for early scenes, but these options can be amazing once you get to know each other!
Impact & Sensation Play
You can do non-impact sensation play almost anywhere on a person’s body. (There are limits depending on what you want to do, so do your research.) Impact play, however, can go more than skin deep if it is intense. If you want to hit hard, you need to avoid places where doing so poses a higher risk of physical harm.
When doing impact play:
- Only strike big muscles and big muscle groups: Pectorals, upper back, ass, thighs, hamstrings, calves, bottom of the feet. This rule can be bent when engaging in impact that is surface level. Canes, whips, and other stingy implements are unlikely to contain enough power to injure internal organs. But be reasonable, use common sense, and discuss it first. For example, ask your partner about whether having surface level impact on the low back is within their risk profile.
- Never strike the kidneys (lower back between the rib cage and pelvic bone) – Strong blows to the kidney will be painful and may result in serious injury
On the illustration:
- Teal areas are normally low risk to impact at reasonable levels (get feedback from your Bottom).
- White areas are fine for sensation play, but not heavy impact.
- Red areas are high risk and should be avoided.
For example, you can punch someone on the butt quite hard without risking much more than a bruise, but punching someone too hard in the stomach can cause severe injury. As always, talk with your partner first and gradually increase intensity over time. Going too light is better than going too hard and ending up with an injury.
Some Bottoms love marks, from rope or from sensation play or both. They see them as badges of honor. But some people do not want to have marks after a scene for a wide variety of reasons. Or perhaps they can have them in one place, but not another. Discuss this.
Be very clear if any kind of sexual activity is permitted, and thoroughly define “sexual activity” with your partner. Make no assumptions. “What do you mean by that?” and “Can you give me an example of what you mean?” are critical questions when it comes to this subject.
- What constitutes sexual touch/activity to you?
- What level of sexual activity are you each looking for?
- Would the Bottom like to have an orgasm while in the scene?
- Would the Top like to orgasm in the scene?
- Is the Bottom able to orgasm while in scene or is this something that is not common for them?
- Does the Bottom enjoy multiple orgasms? What should happen after orgasm? Immediate release? Continued teasing?
Not only do you need to be clear about what is and what is not okay to do, it is also helpful to provide guidance on things on the approved list: e.g., “I love huge anal plugs, but you need to work them in slowly. Don’t have me gagged when you are putting them in because I will need to tell you when to keep pushing and when to pause. Also, after orgasm get it out of me quickly or it will switch from good pain to bad pain.”
When will you do this? For how long?
Consent in a scene is finite with a specific start and end time. It is important to agree on what those will be, especially if you have agreed that the Top is permitted to force the bottom to do things or have elements of non-con (consensual non-consent) to the scene.
Make it clear to your partner that it is okay for them to back out of any activity at any time for any reason. Reminding each person of this fact can be critically important to creating an emotionally safe environment.
Communication is mostly nonverbal. Your scene will go more smoothly if you can read your partner’s nonverbal cues. Try to get an idea of what your partner’s nonverbal communication might look like before becoming responsible for their physical safety. This may come with experience, and you can also just ask!
Tops, ask your bottom to show or describe to you how they might look when they are feeling good. Ask them what they will look like when they don’t feel good. If they don’t know, then for your first few scenes, keep a close watch. Try to learn what their nonverbal cues are for when they’re enjoying themselves, and when they are not. Then inform them so they have that knowledge for the future!
Paying attention to these signals will help you keep things at the right level so that your partner might never even need to use their safe words.
Every language on Earth already has a wide array of safe words – “Stop,” “No,” “I’m done” – all of which are great!
Words should always be taken to mean what they usually mean unless you have specifically agreed otherwise.
If you are planning a “non-con” (short for consensually non-consensual) scene, you might want these words to be ignored because you want to be able to say things like “No, no! Stop! You MONSTER!!” And in those cases, everyone involved needs to know what is actually being communicated, so there are no misunderstandings, consent violations, or worse. This is where “safe words” come in!
There are other reasons that safe words, gestures, or actions can be helpful:
- The Bottom will be gagged and unable to speak.
- Some people go nonverbal when they are in subspace or have a really hard time saying “no” for whatever reason.
In private scenes, you can pick anything you want for a safe word. If you are playing at a party there may be a published universal safe word so that the people around you will also understand when things need to stop and can intervene if necessary.
Here are several common safe words/gestures/actions:
- The “Stoplight System”, the words “Red” / “Yellow” / “Green”:
- Red: The scene is over. I’m done. Let me out, check in, and move to aftercare.
- Yellow: Stop any action and check in. The scene may continue after a check-in, or perhaps be modified or stopped, but talk first.
- Green: Keep going, I’m loving this!
- Beige: I am a brat and I want to piss off my Top by implying that I am bored. Hit me harder!
- Grunting/banging/beeping three times in a row, particularly if combined with tilting the head from side to side while making the noise. This can be helpful when gagged.
- Give the Bottom something noisy (a chain, steel ball, a bell, etc.) to drop. Again, this is useful if the person will be gagged or if they tend to sink deeply into sub space.
Those last two are usually treated as “yellow.” The action stops, the Bottom is ungagged and the Top checks in with them before they jointly decide what to do next.
It can be disappointing when things do not go well and it is okay to be disappointed. However, it is not as important as taking care of each other. Ultimately, addressing these needs and showing that you care for each other is far more important than feeling a little disappointed for a few minutes. Because hopefully, if you handle the situation well, you will get a chance to play again some other time.
You need to understand if any participant has any physical or medical conditions that may take certain activities off the table. Ask these questions at a minimum:
“Do you have any current or past injuries that have resulted in areas of sensitivity or any flexibility or mobility challenges?”
- If a person has had any joint, bone, or muscle issues, it may impact their ability to assume a given position or to stay in that position for any length of time.
- E.g., “I have a nerve injury so I can’t have my hands tied behind my back.” Or “I have a rotator cuff issue, I can’t lift anyone into a suspension right now,” etc.
“Do you have any medical conditions that might make you react to stress or emotion in a heighted or unexpected way? For Example: Diabetes, heart conditions, high or low blood pressure, asthma, fibromyalgia, etc.”
- If any of these things apply, make sure they have taken their meds and had a small snack and water before the scene.
- Make sure you have any applicable emergency meds (juice, glucose tablets, inhaler, etc.) within reach before you start the scene.
“Do you have medical insurance?”
- If your partner sustains an injury while in your rope, who is on the hook, financially?
“What medications are you taking?”
- Insulin – You need to know where their emergency glucagon kit is and have it within reach during the scene in case they go low. Confirm they have had food (with protein) and water recently before the scene.
- Blood thinners – Find out why. There are some things that are much riskier if a person is on blood thinners. Rope suspension, for example. Also, these can have conflicts with other medications. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen also tend to thin the blood a little, so people on blood thinners are often told to avoid them and use acetaminophen instead. But confirm with them.
- Asthma Inhaler – You need to know how they typically manage it and where they keep their management tools, inhaler, etc. in case they have an episode when you are in a scene.
“Do you have any STIs we need to plan around?”
- Ask gently, with a neutral tone and with understanding. Do not imply that someone with an STI is dirty by asking if they are “clean.” Asking questions in a judgmental way can discourage people from answering honestly. Remember, honesty is crucial in negotiation!
- Having an STI doesn’t mean you can’t play. You just need to know so you can properly plan.
- Use barrier methods as a matter of routine! “I use safer sex techniques.” Just set that as a standard expectation going in, nothing personal, this is just what you do.
Condoms, nitrile gloves, dental dams, mylorals.com wearable dental dams!
- Get screened for STIs annually and in between each sexual partner. You can’t know if you don’t test and knowledge is power. It is important to understand that not every STI is included in a routine screening. If you are concerned about something specific, ask your medical provider if it is included in your screening.
- If anyone is positive for an STI, do some research to ensure that your transmission prevention methods are based on the latest medical research and not on assumption.
More Information on Lesser-Known Conditions
- Fibro is different from person to person, but most people with fibro have heightened pain responses. (If someone without fibro bumps their knee, they go ouch and it bruises. If someone with fibro does so, they may get a blooming bruise, and cry because it throbs for almost an hour afterwards.)
- The pain centers will also be different from person to person, so if someone says they have fibromyalgia, ask how they experience it. Find out things you should be aware of to plan an appropriate scene.
- Here are a few links for more on this… 18-points-used-to-diagnose-fibromyalgia | Fibromyalgia Tender Points
Small Fiber Neuropathy (“SFN”)
If your partner has Small Fiber Neuropathy, they may experience pain or other sensations in ways or to degrees that you might not expect. This condition requires special negotiation to determine what will and will not work.
Check out the Small Fiber Neuropathy post for more.
Care of the mind is just as important as care of the body.
- We usually use the word “trigger” to mean something bad, but it is more complex than that. Triggers can work in different ways for different people. They can be positive or negative. Some things that one person might find negative or angering, might make a different person feel more submissive. But talk about it first, start slow, and move forward with care.
- This may be more of a consideration if you engage in verbal humiliation or name calling in a scene, but actions can also be triggers.
- Common verbal triggers include negative comments on appearance, intelligence, competence (“you can’t even…”), and gendered language. For example: “You can call me a cock-hungry whore, that can be hot, but don’t EVER call me an airheaded slut.”
- If your partner is sensitive about being called names, you need to know and respect that. If they have a history of trauma or abuse and would like to use BDSM as a way of processing that past, very real, pain, you need to know that. If you are not comfortable with or capable of helping someone work through mental or emotional anguish in the context of BDSM, say so. If you are someone’s play partner, it is both impossible and unethical for you to provide them with mental healthcare. Kink should never be used as a replacement for mental health services.
- “Given what we are planning, do you have any past trauma that might get triggered?”
- Some trauma survivors engage in kink as a form of therapy. For example, they might be reliving a specific event, but are doing so in an environment where they are in control and can stop it at any time. You need to know if this is the case. It will be very frightening or unsettling if a trauma reaction happens when you are not expecting it. But if you have discussed it first and agreed on how you should react, you can handle such a reaction with sensitivity, care, and grace should it occur.
- If you do not feel able to handle something like that if it were to occur, then change the plan to steer clear of any such issues.
Once you know what activities you are interested in, and have discussed the other factors above, clearly state any potential risks and make sure everyone understands and accepts them.
Change your plans account for or avoid the risks you uncover and for other potential issues and problems that may unexpectedly arise.
There are a thousand weird-ass things that could happen. What will you both do if:
- The bottom says they’re numb?
- Someone gets nauseated or vomits?
- Someone has a panic attack?
- Someone is triggered in some way (flashback/trauma response)?
- The Bottom faints?
- The Top starts to feel faint?
- The fire alarm or a tornado siren goes off?
- You get a call from a family member?
- Someone knocks on the door?
- Someone goes into diabetic shock or has a heart attack?
- Your neighbor calls the cops because they hear weird noises?
- The Top has a crisis of confidence? Remember, consent apply to Tops as well as bottoms!
For each applicable risk, determine how you will manage it.
- Safe calls – Set them up, make sure everyone knows you have one and when you will need to be free to be able to make/take the call. More on this below.
- Medical – Make your plans to accommodate all medical needs. Make sure everyone has taken all their prescribed medication. Make sure you have any necessary medical emergency equipment and supplies – inhaler, emergency glucagon kit, etc – within reach.
- Know the emergency services number in that area. It is 911 in North America. In other countries, 999 and 112 are common. If you don’t know, find out before you start playing.
- Confirm that your phone is charged and that you have a good signal in case you need to contact emergency services.
- Know the physical address of the location you are playing in case you need to direct medical services to your location.
- If something happens that requires a medical professional, DON’T HESITATE to call them. This is not a time to be worried about being embarrassed. Trust me, they have seen it all before; whatever you were doing may not even be particularly interesting to them anymore. Don’t let someone die because of your embarrassment.
If you are tying in a public or semi-public place like a party or public dungeon, the venue will normally have people in place to make sure everyone abides by the rules and is being safe, and they are right there if anyone needs assistance. These people are often called Dungeon Monitors. If possible, the first few times you play with someone, it is best to do so in such a place so that you have that safety net.
But when you shift to playing in private you take on additional risk. One of the ways to help manage that risk is to have a “safe call” in place. This is true for all parties involved, not just for Bottoms.
A safe call is a pre-arranged time where you will contact a trusted person to confirm that you are safe. That person also knows the real physical location where you are going to be and the real legal names of the person/people you are meeting. If the call is not made on time and your safe call contact cannot get ahold of you, they are to call the authorities and send them to your location.
When everyone involved knows that all the other people have someone that is going to be checking up on them, it makes everyone safer.
There are many reasons for a safe call. It can help lower the risk of assault and/or imprisonment, but it is also important if the Top becomes indisposed while the Bottom is helpless in some way. Medical emergencies happen (heart attack, diabetic shock, seizure, Gerald’s Game). If the Bottom is unable to reach their phone, having a safe call in place means that emergency services will be on their way by a certain time. So, it’s not just to protect you from the person that you’re tying with. It can also help prevent bad things – even accidents – from getting worse.
Safe calls can take many forms depending on the relative level of risk. Here is a common approach:
- Before you meet the person in private, meet in public and get to know them. Preferably more than once. If you decide to meet in private, get the real address you will be going to and the person’s real name. Have them show you a state-issued ID. Do not meet a person that is not willing to do this. Take a picture of it to give to your safe call contact.
- Before you go to the location of the private scene:
- Give your safe call contact your play partner’s real name and the address of where you will be, along with the picture of their ID. Do not go to a different location without informing your safe call contact first.
- Consider temporarily sharing your mobile phone location with your safe call contact.
- Arrange a time when you will call your safe call contact. Usually, a call is preferred over a text message as it is much easier for a nefarious person to pretend to be you over text.
- Consider having a code word or phrase that you are to use to indicate well-being or plan to have your safe call contact ask you a question that only you would know the answer to.
- For example, you could agree that “things seem to be going well” actually means that you are afraid for your safety and that “Remember to feed Rex!” means that you feel safe. Choose whatever makes sense for you.
- If you decide to use a question instead, a correct answer indicates that you are safe and well. If you answer incorrectly, you are in danger and need assistance.
- At the time of the safe call:
- Call your contact and talk for a short time. Provide the appropriate code, if applicable. Verify that things are okay.
- If you do not call on time, your contact should try to call you immediately.
- If you do not answer the phone for your safe call, your safe call contact is to call the authorities immediately and send them to your location.
Important! – Having a safe call is not a guarantee of safety. It can be an important tool but a lot of horrible things can happen in a short time. So it is best to meet in public and play at larger parties several times to build trust and experience before you play in private.
Important: Punishment is not required to play with power exchange.
If punishments are going to be part of the dynamic, negotiate about what form they will take! Yes, negotiate punishments.
To be clear, we don’t mean “funishment” here. Heavy sensation play can include a wide range of activities that might appear to an outsider to be punishment, but they are done in such a way that all participants get something positive from them. That is not what we mean here. We mean real, negative reinforcement applied by the Top to the bottom to correct an undesired behavior or as the consequence of a failure, etc.
Being punished is a very different psychological space than heavy sensation play. This is a moment in which the Dom/Master/Mistress may be genuinely displeased or disappointed with their sub/slave and is allowing that displeasure to show. This means that the bottom does not have the emotional safety blanket of knowing they are pleasing their Top. This can leave them profoundly vulnerable in ways that the Top does not intend. Therefore:
If real punishments are going to be part of the dynamic, it is important to discuss them and negotiate on this point. Otherwise, it is entirely possible for the Top to select a punishment that may accidentally damage the relationship.
One example: A punishment of withdrawal of affection or attention for a period of time. If used on the wrong person, they could assume their failure has caused their partner to pull away, which could cause them to question the relationship or send them into a shame or anxiety spiral which could be psychologically damaging and/or could destroy their trust in their Top, and be a possible step toward the end of that relationship.
A BDSM scene can be an experience unlike any other. Both Top and bottom may experience incredible highs or intense catharsis. Serotonin and endorphins may flow heavily. You can literally experience an altered state of mind. The more intense the scene, the more this may be the case.
Regardless of how intense the scene, it is important for both the bottom and the Top to take care of each other and help bring each other back to their regular state of being. This is called “providing aftercare.” Reassure each other that the experience was a good one, that everything is okay, that they did well, that you care for them, etc. If you ignore this step, one or both of you may have emotional drop in reaction to the emotional state or to serotonin withdrawal. Some level of drop may happen regardless, but aftercare tends to help.
Aftercare can mean a wide range of different things. Each person will need different things.
One bottom may need to have a cool drink of water, a little snack, and their favorite fuzzy blanket, then want to immediately socialize with others at the party. Another may want to be left in a puddle on the floor for five minutes until they begin moving on their own, at which point they want their Top to help them up and snuggle them for a while.
One Top may need to have their bottom curl up beside them and lay their head on the Top’s leg in a gesture of reassurance and affection. Another might get everything they need by caring for the needs of the bottom.
Everyone needs different things. Figure out what you need and share that information.
If you’re tying an existing partner, you still need to negotiate. You can shortcut a lot because you know each other much better, but here are still a few core questions that should always be asked:
- Are you still in the mood to do a scene today?
- Has anything changed since last time?
- Is everything on the approved list from last time still on the table?
- How are you feeling today? What kind of mood do you crave in the scene?
- Any person-specific topic:
- “Is your piercing still healing?”, etc.