I had a conversation over the weekend that reminded me of an incident with one of my exes — a communication screwup that really highlights how strangely our culture thinks about consent, and how BDSM ideas of negotiation can work against that.

Wow, I’m realizing that I’m about to write a totally serious post about tickling. I hope I don’t sound too pompous.

Anyway, story!

So, I was lying around having a casual conversation with this particular ex, and he started tickling me. I really wanted him to stop, so I asked him to. He didn’t. I safeworded, and he still didn’t stop. Furious, I lashed out and scratched him badly enough to bleed. I do believe I left a scar.

He got upset because he was bleeding, and I got upset because he hadn’t listened to me. I can’t remember how exactly we talked it out; it was a pretty tense moment. I think I might have apologized, but I also might not have. I was really angry, and my stance was, “So I drew blood — how else was I supposed to get you to stop? You should have respected how much I don’t like that, and it is totally not okay that you ignored my safeword!” He snapped back that it simply never occurred to him that I would actually safeword, for real, against being tickled. Tickling just seemed like such a mild, unimportant thing to him ….

If we’d been in the middle of doing BDSM stuff, then he would have stopped instantly. Indeed, I did safeword with him a couple of times in the middle of BDSM stuff, and at those times, he did everything exactly right — he stopped immediately, he calmed me down, he reassured me, and so on.

I think one of the hardest parts about relationships is learning that your partner really doesn’t work entirely the way you do. That there are things that absolutely drive your partner crazy, that literally don’t matter in the slightest to you … and vice versa. That sensitivity is so hard to build.

I also think that when people engage in careful, consenting BDSM relationships, they learn that kind of sensitivity more quickly — and, more importantly, they learn how to communicate about those boundaries. If I hadn’t had a safeword at all — if I’d been in a “normal, vanilla” relationship with my ex — I’m not sure how I would have even tried to communicate about the tickling problem. What would I have said, if I hadn’t been able to draw on BDSM experience? “No, really. I didn’t like that. No, really,” — over and over, until he got the point? Thank God I had words for how I felt: words better than, “I wasn’t trying to be cute, I really meant it.” I had these words: “You ignored my safeword. You know what a betrayal that is. You know that’s never okay.”

There’s this stereotypical image we have — of the cute couple where one person is tickling the other, and the second person is protesting but secretly enjoys it. I’m sure everyone reading this has encountered that image; you see it in romantic comedies all the time. And that situation is totally fine … if the second person really does secretly enjoy it.

But I don’t think most people have considered what happens if the second person, who “secretly enjoys” being tickled, doesn’t actually enjoy it. How does that person show that they really hate it? Protesting won’t necessarily work, because people are expected to protest against tickling even when they like it.

There’s a limit to how much we can expect “No, really, I don’t like that … no, really,” to work in such a situation. This is part of what feminists are talking about when they discuss a “rape culture”. We have a culture where certain acts are considered acceptable, simply because they’re “not that bad”, or they’re “unimportant”; and sometimes people are expected to protest those things at first. So, (a) it becomes hard to tell when the protests are real, and (b) people are trained to ignore protests. Almost nobody is actually trying to be insensitive, but the culture in which we find ourselves encourages us to be.

BDSM is unusual in its approach to specific sex acts: the rest of the world is far less likely to think about consent in terms of “I consent to this act, but not that one.” (Instead, it is fairly common for people to assume that the existence of a sexual relationship or sexual agreement implies consent to all manner of acts. As a random example, if two American adults are dating, then frequently there is an assumption of consent to oral sex.) And the BDSM community often emphasizes that members must consent to each specific sex act. But this is something we must teach everyone — not just kinksters — to communicate effectively, because that’s what all good relationships are built on: trying to make sure that we mostly do things we like together, and avoiding asking our partners to do things they dislike.

It is so telling that my ex violated my boundaries with a vanilla act, but never violated them with a BDSM act. To me, it indicates that — for all that I talk about how BDSM ideas of consent can influence us into being more respectful about our relationships — sometimes, our ingrained assumptions about “normal” consent can be so powerful that they overwhelm what we’ve learned from BDSM.