Violence in Sexual Scripts and Queering Consent: Perspectives from BDSM and Asexuality

Thanks to the Me Too movement and consistent feminist activism, we have started talking about consent and sexual violence in India. There is an important component that is often overlooked—sexual scripts. Heteronormative and patriarchal norms impact sexual behaviors causing harm to all of us. This article seeks to address this issue and offer a queer perspective on our current understanding and practice of consent.  

We live in a hetero-patriarchal* system. In our society, men, particularly cis-men, hold more power and authority, marginalizing women and trans individuals. Combined with heteronormativity*, this means that our society considers a “real” or “normal” couple to be made up of a man and woman, both cisgender* and heterosexual. 1 Additionally, they are expected to uphold traditional gender roles, the man should be the primary breadwinner and the woman should take care of the household.

These societal norms and conventions have a huge impact on individual behaviors and practices, including when it comes to sexual interactions. Take the example of gender stereotypes—according to patriarchal norms, men are expected to be persistent and aggressive, while women, even if passive or seemingly reluctant, desire power and domination from them. When this dynamic is reproduced in sexual intercourse, it is an example of a sexual script. 

Sexual scripts* are socially constructed guidelines that influence our sexual practices.2 They are learned through cultural, societal, and personal experiences. They implicitly or explicitly shape the perception that we hold of what is normal or acceptable sexual behavior.2 

Though a majority of sexual scripts are heteronormative, they still affect the queer and trans community, both indirectly and directly. Firstly, the impact of heteropatriarchal scripts on mainstream society itself leads to homophobia and transphobia, for example, toxic masculinity gives rise to cases of violence against queer people and trans women.3 

Secondly, heteronormative scripts directly influence queer and trans individuals. To take an obvious example, queer cisgender individuals can still be transphobic and harass trans people physically, emotionally or verbally, for example, misgendering*. Similarly, allosexual* queer people can be acephobic*, by causing emotional abuse to their ace partners to engage in sexual activity or denying them their right to consent. The performance of masculinity by trans men and butch lesbians may contain remnants of toxic masculinity* and misogyny.4,5

Hence, while it is undeniable that the queer community continuously challenges the dominant scripts and attempts to create new narratives that are less restrictive, it is important to note that some heteropatriarchal scripts are performed within the queer and trans community.

It is often said that in a country like ours that does not offer sex education to youth, the first exposure to sex is from porn.6 Unfortunately, media such as pornography primarily show sexual scripts that are heteropatriarchal and harmful.7

Mainstream porn mostly features penovaginal sex that caters to cishet male viewers. The minimal homosexual content that is available is objectifying and stereotypical. Scenarios from popular porn neither show mutual pleasure nor a healthy sexual dynamic. Rather they feature unequal control and imbalanced power dynamics. In general, sexual scripts do not teach us how to be gentle or respectful to our sexual partners, how to ask for or give consent, nor how to set or respect physical or sexual boundaries.8 

Porn is not the only way that violent sexual scripts are perpetuated, but it is one of the most insidious.9 Watching pornography can shape sexual expectations and create misunderstandings about consent.10 There is evidence of porn directly affecting sexual practices, for example, an abrupt increase in sexual partners (especially women) being choked or slapped without prior discussion or agreement.9 Consumers of porn, especially those who are younger,11 may want to recreate what they have seen in porn without a lot of reflection or without discussion, sometimes under the impression that their behavior is not only acceptable but desired by their partners. 

This misogynist dynamic has been replicated in the queer community as well, for example, the “top privilege” phenomenon among queer people assigned male at birth, where the penetrative partner often has more power and control in the sexual interaction, leading to the receptive partner’s comfort or boundaries being disregarded. 

Additionally, heteronormative aggression is also present in the act of corrective rape*, which is an overt attempt to reinforce heterosexual norms on queer and trans individuals. Transwomen are often particularly at risk of physical and sexual violence due to an intersection of scripts of transphobia and misogyny. It is paramount to identify and challenge heteropatriarchal sexual scripts, and their facilitation of misogynist and queerphobic violence.

When the model of sexual intercourse itself has violence embedded in it, consent risks becoming meaningless. Consider the contractual and misogynist model of consent where some non-sexual acts like accepting a drink are taken as consent to sexual activity.12 This model of consent serves the hetero-patriarchy. Even sexual acts like kissing or touching are not consent to further sexual activity, instead, they are acts that require consent in their own right. 

This model has gone through many revisions and improvements. There is a deliberate effort to make communication and consent a part of our sexual practices. Unfortunately, there are still many reasons that well-meaning people struggle to practice consent. The first and foremost is a lack of awareness and understanding. Cultural factors such as traditional gender roles and social expectations can also hinder our progress. Finally, there can be issues with communication, or in the dynamic of the relationship. 

Many of us struggle to unlearn the sexual scripts that we have learned and pick up healthier practices. But the goal is clear. Not only do we need healthy and respectful sexual practices that over time will rewrite the current dominant sexual scripts, but we also have to clarify and strengthen the concept and practice of consent. Consent can not be understood as a static one-size-fits-all concept. 

An inclusive model of consent must be fluid. There are many ways in which people have tried to queer consent, to broaden and expand it.13 The first approach is the intersectional one; creating consent practices that are sensitive to different intersecting identities and are peculiar to these marginalized groups. This also involves contextualizing consent so that the impact of sociocultural norms is acknowledged and taken into account. The next two sections discuss two more approaches to queering consent that can be immensely helpful both theoretically and practically. 

The BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism, and Masochism) community is ahead of the curve when it comes to emphasizing the idea as well as the practice of consent, ethics, and communication. BDSM includes a variety of practices, often erotic or sexual, based on the dynamics of bondage, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism. The importance of a detailed, mutually informed consent negotiation process is key in the BDSM community as participants undertake different acts that are sometimes violent, and without a clear and hesitant agreement, and under coercion, blurring the lines of consent, possessing the potential to cause grievous harm.14 

There are three main components: prior discussions, safe words and aftercare. The prior discussions, often referred to as “pre-play” discussions can involve but are not limited to open conversations about boundaries and expectations, decisions on behaviours and words that indicate continued consent or consent withdrawal and establishment of shared definitions of words like “sex”, “intercourse”. In the healthiest and ideal form, the prior discussions give each partner an idea of what would be pleasurable and acceptable as well as what would be off-putting or a “hard limit” for the other/s. 15 Some practitioners also recommend discussing power dynamics, cultural pressures, and sexual experience in these discussions. 

Safe words are used in BDSM to indicate withdrawal of consent. They may have their origin in role-play, where the “normal” signs that indicate a withdrawal of consent, such as the words “no” or “stop” or non-verbal cues that indicate pain or reluctance would be ignored with the prior and discussed consent of all involved parties. Another variation that emphasizes the ongoing nature of consent is the traffic light model, with the words “red”, “yellow” and “green” indicating varying levels of comfort as well as consent with the activity underway. It is also incredibly important to create a space (for example, by using the prior discussions as a means) where participants feel safe and comfortable using the safeword and stopping sexual activity without fear or guilt. 

And finally, “aftercare” provides a safe space to emerge from a sexual activity and check in with the other partner/s. This communication facilitates self-reflection as well as understanding of the other person’s sexual experience. While aftercare may have emerged predominantly from the domain of kink or BDSM, the importance of post-sex rituals has also been highlighted by sex therapists in general.16

The BDSM community therefore offers us a practical guide to consent that highlights the importance of mutual pleasure and avoiding harm via miscommunication. 

Sexual scripts put forth an idea that (heteronormative) sex is normal and natural. This is called allonormativity, the notion that every normal person is sexual, and those that do not want sex are abnormal. This creates a lot of societal coercion on individuals to have sex, especially those in romantic relationships, consider for example, the denial of marital rape. 

Asexuality activists have often spoken out about how they feel pressured to engage in sexual activity. An ace person who is not informed about the idea of asexuality and ace discourse face challenges to resisting this pressure,17  and this is one of the reasons why asexual advocacy is so important. 

However, allonormativity adversely impacts everyone, not just asexual people. It is also important to note asexuality and allosexuality exist on a spectrum. There are many, many reasons that a person may not want to engage in sexual activity, and they are all valid. Making sex necessary for romantic relationships makes refusing to engage in sex difficult and complicated, and is another way that sexual scripts make consent dubious.17 

The queer community also struggles with this.18 To take an example from the gay dating scene, being available for sex is often a requirement to use Grindr to meet other queer men. Users have described how this hypersexualised dating scene takes a heavy toll on them. 19 

These challenges are complex and do not have simple solutions. Hopefully, understanding the influence of sexual scripts on our impulses and behaviors helps us gain a more nuanced understanding of sexuality. Dismantling harmful sexual scripts is an ongoing process, but reconsidering and improving our practice of consent is an excellent place to start. 

Conclusion

Given that a lot of violence in our sexual practices is rooted in heteropatriarchy, the queer perspective is crucial to arrive at a fluid and inclusive practice of consent. The BDSM community has valuable input in the practice of consent. They aim at preventing harm through ongoing clear communication, consent negotiation, and prioritising mutual pleasure. Many practices, one example being aftercare, can be easily adopted in non-BDSM contexts to the benefit of all partners. Improving our understanding and practice of consent is a must to have healthy and respectful (sexual) relationships. Only by fundamentally queering conventional understanding of consent can we move towards a society where in every sexual and non-sexual interaction there is mutual respect and individual agency is affirmed.

Heteropatriarchy: Socio-political system where cisgender and heterosexual males have authority. 

Heteronormativity: The concept that heterosexuality is the preferred or normal mode of sexual orientation.1

Cisgender: Someone whose gender identity corresponds with the sex registered for them at birth; not transgender.

Sexual scripts: Blueprints and guidelines for what we define as our role in sexual expression, sexual orientation, sexual behaviors, sexual desires, and the sexual component of our self-definition

Misgendering: Using words, especially pronouns, that do not reflect the gender identity of a person. For example, using she/her pronouns for a trans-man. 

Allosexual: People who experience sexual attraction to others.

Acephobic: An action or person that expresses acephobia, that is, discrimination against asexual people (also known as phobia).

Toxic masculinity: Toxic masculinity is a set of certain male behaviors associated with harm to society and men themselves, for example, considering that it is weak/feminine to express emotion or be upset. 

Corrective rape: A hate crime in which people are raped because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity such as homosexuality.

 

1 What is Heteronormativity – Link

2 Sexual Script Theory – Link

3 How Toxic Masculinity Fuels Transgender Victimisation – Link

4 Butch Please: Butch With A Side Of Misogyny – Link

5 Can Lesbians Be Misogynistic? The Answer Is Yes & Here’s Why It Happens – Link 

6  Is Porn Taking Over the Role of Sex Education Amongst The Youth? – Link

7 Sexual violence as a sexual script in mainstream online pornography | The British Journal of Criminology – Link

8 How Porn Can Normalise Sexual Objectification – Link

9 How Porn Can Promote Sexual Violence – Link

10 How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding of Healthy Sex – Link

9 A man tried to choke me during sex without warning’ – BBC News – Link

11 What Teenagers Are Learning From Online Porn – The New York Times – Link

12 Sexual Consent by Maria Popova – Link

13 Zine on Queering Consent – Link

14 The Role of Consent in the Context of BDSM (Dunkley & Brotto, 2019) – Link

15 Bound by consent: concepts of consent within the leather and bondage, domination, sadomasochism (BDSM) communities – Link

16 BDSM Consent in Non-BDSM Sex – Link

17  Ace by Angela Chen – Link

18  Sexual Assault and the LGBT Community – Link

19 How Grindr, The Dating App Is Destroying My Mental Health – Link

Simran (they/them) is a teacher and writer from Pune. They write from a feminist and philosophical perspective, focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. They are especially concerned with addressing sexual and gender-based violence. They have an academic background in philosophy and feminist phenomenology, with a BA in Philosophy from Fergusson College, and a Masters in Cognitive Science from IIT Gandhinagar. Fluent in French, they’ve also worked as a language teacher, including a stint as an English language assistant in France. They are the founder and host of Our Feminist Reading Group, a small and thriving online community of readers and young academics. In their free time, Simran enjoys reading, swimming, solving jigsaw puzzles, and learning new languages. You can connect with them on Instagram, LinkTree and LinkedIn.

 

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