Our consent, negotiation, and safety practices are gloveboxes that let us handle dangerous material.
The world of kink is generally made up of things that would not be okay to do outside the context of kink. We build structures around these things to answer the question, “how do you know when it is okay to do that?” The things we do vary in not-okayness, but having an answer to that question is always good. The glovebox metaphor is part of my answer to that question. The very same things that make our kinks interesting — taboo, danger, improbability — are the same things that make them not okay in other circumstances. Like mercury, uranium, or arsenic, we can build powerful and useful things out of them. But also like those elements, we need safety gear or else we will harm ourselves and others.
Also like the elements, our kinks are present around us whether we want that or not. We would not need the glovebox if we could just decide to not have some particular kink. But we don’t choose our kinks. I argue that our lack of choice means we are not morally responsible for having kink desires. What we are morally responsible for, and must diligently hold each other accountable for, are the ways we engage with our desires. We have full agency over our engagement, and therefore are fully responsible for it. We may behave with great responsibility, dismaying irresponsibility, or with a general muddling-through figuring-it-out-as-we go sort of thing — it’s not a binary. So we build a metaphorical glovebox out of consent, negotiation, and safety practices. It doesn’t mean we’re 100% safe or can’t do harm — but it does mean we have some very reliable ways to increase safety and reduce harm.
Right now I’m not here to talk about the implementation of these practices, but rather, to talk about why we need them and what they accomplish. Chattel slavery is outright evil, but there are plenty of people who kink to re-enacting part or all of it. That’s an example of a kink with a high bar for “are you engaging with this responsibly?” Especially for white Americans, the potential to for us to do shitty things while enacting that kink is very, very high. We’re living in a nation with a long and unresolved history of doing massively awful things around slavery and its legacy. To re-enact things of slavery in your kink life without also engaging with the history of slavery in America and the open wounds it has left us with, is to engage with that kink irresponsibly. If you turn to bimbo/ditz kink, there’s a similar issue. Human culture has a virulent, centuries-long misogyny problem. To re-enact the tropes of feminine stupidity, shallowness, vapidity, promiscuity, and vanity in your kink life without also engaging with the history of these ideas being used as weapons to enforce a misogynist, heteronormative culture, is to engage with that kink irresponsibly.
Another facet of the “engage responsibly” framing is that we can acknowledge that we have different responsibilities in different circumstances. When we are in private with our longtime partners, we hopefully can rely on a long track record of negotiation and mutual knowledge and not have to justify everything from first principles all the time. But if we’re in public, we have to have a different set of standards in mind, to be aware of how our engagement affects others. At a dungeon party, yet another type of engagement. We already know there are different social rules for different circumstances, we just need to extend that knowledge. Engaging responsibly is a skill we can practice, can improve at, can learn from our failures at.
Part of engaging responsibly is looking directly at your own engagement. What are you doing to attain, ensure, and enact consent? What in your negotiation, does get you from proposal to resolution? What about your practices makes the thing you’re doing safer? For some kinks, the answers to these are quite easy, but for all kinks, being able to ask these questions and search for answers is a good and useful thing.
I should emphasize here that although I think the bar for engaging with things responsibly is higher for some kinks than for others, I think it’s very reachable. Doing your research, exercising empathy, and minimizing your impact on non-participants' lives, plus 101-level consent, negotiation, and safety tactics, will get you most of the way there, and they are things you absolutely should be doing anyhow just because those are what decent people that others want to get kinky with, do. A particular physical act or circumstance isn’t enough by itself to satisfy a kink. We get our thrill from emotional experiences — we use the acts and circumstances to produce the experiences that satisfy us. Once you identify the emotional experience you want, you can identify more ways to produce it. This too is something that’s good anyhow, because if you identify your own needs more clearly, you’ll be able to more easily guide partners to doing stuff that meets your needs (and little is more delicious than identifying your partner’s needs so well that you can deliver the experience they want via unexpected means).
A major reason I push people to think in terms of “are you engaging responsibly?” is that thinking in those terms gets us away from making moral judgments about people’s kinks based on gross-out reactions. Whether you get a gross-out/squick/revulsion reaction from something is absolutely not a reliable guide to whether that thing is okay. It’s a reliable guide to whether you personally should participate in that thing, but no more than that. Being able to explain whether some form of engaging with kink is responsible or not, is something we can actually have a productive discussion about. We can point to actions, to visible, tangible external things, and talk about what makes those okay or not okay. It is impossible for “that thing grosses me out, therefore it’s wrong” to lead to a productive discussion on this topic; it immediately demands that uninterrogated, unfalsifiable internal factors be the entirety of the discussion.
Here’s my go-to example of using the responsible-engagement model to think about a kink that is a gross-out thing for many people. Zoophilia is a kink some people have. Putting aside the gross-out reaction — how can you tell if someone is engaging with this kink responsibly? Let’s look to first principles. Consensual sexual interactions are okay; sexual interactions are not okay without consent. Consent requires that you communicate with your partner and that they freely give their consent. Even pointing out those two factors of consent, suggests that fucking animals is not going to be a responsible way of engaging. There’s some wiggle room with the first factor. Animals can absolutely express some forms of consent and refusal. A horse that has two or three times your mass, will not be subtle if it doesn’t want to fuck you. But there are unavoidable limits to communicating with animals that mean you can’t reach the sort of sustained, high-level communications that a dedication to consent demands of us. What really demolishes the proposal, though, is the second factor. Animals are not your peers, therefore they cannot freely consent to sexual interactions with you. It’s not about you or them, it’s about the system you live in. No matter how much tenderness you personally feel towards them, you live in industrial human society where you are a person and a citizen, while they are a thing and an article of property. It’s like the magnified version of why bosses shouldn’t fuck subordinates or why Thomas Jefferson’s sex with Sally Hemings couldn’t have been consensual: regardless of the interpersonal relationship, the system in which it happened, eliminated one party’s freedom to refuse. Even if you could perfectly communicate with them, animals would not be able to freely give their consent. So fucking animals cannot be a responsible way to engage — not because of any gross-out factor, but because we live in a system which eliminates the possibility of consent.
There are plenty of kinks like that, where there is no responsible way to directly and naïvely enact them. Fortunately for everyone, “directly” and “naïvely” aren’t the only ways to engage with those kinks. Technologies of simulation have gotten pretty good, and willing partners with clever props go a very long way. So those are good paths towards responsible engagement with such kinks. Engaging with them responsibly still takes effort, but at least those paths offer the possibility of responsible engagement.
One of the bright sides to all this is that when we move towards responsibly engaging with our kinks, we necessarily move towards more clearly understanding both our own desires and others' needs/boundaries. These understandings are inherently good and will make your kink more enjoyable, for you and your partners. Kinks often come with guilt and shame, as well — we Americans, for example, live in a culture that is generally hostile to sexual pleasure, and is particularly hostile to women’s sexual pleasure and to non-heteronormative sexual pleasure. This can leave us pretty messed up about our kinks. Going through the exercise of figuring out responsible engagement, can help us relieve that guilt and shame by shifting the burden to “are we engaging responsibly or not?” Guilt and shame are part of the danger we try to reduce when we use our glovebox techniques. When we use these techniques well and engage responsibly with our kinks, we are building towards a world where kink is accessible and enjoyable to everyone who wants it.