Consensual Rape? A Feminist’s Story of Violence, Love, and Sexual Empowerment

Paul Valenti Photography via Twitter
Paul Valenti Photography via Twitter

By Birdie McNeill, guest edited by pajarolibre (PJ)

Content Warning: This piece discusses sex, kink, and consensual violence, which may be triggering to some readers.

“He held my hands above my head.”

“Like this?” my partner said, grabbing my wrists.

“Yes. I remember trying to crawl out from under him, but I was drunk and he was a lot stronger than me.”

“Tell me more,” he whispers into my ear. “What were you wearing?” He pushes his body against me. “Can we play with this?”

It’s a courtesy to me that he asked permission to sexualize my trauma. As part of our power exchange relationship, we have negotiated that I am his sexual property. I’ve given him blanket consent to be sexual with me in any way, at any time, regardless of my willingness in the moment. Sometimes our sex is tender and sensual. Sometimes it is aggressive and violent. Regardless, it is always intimate, connective, authentic.

This type of play is known in the kink community as consensual nonconsent, or CNC. CNC is any exchange or “scene” in which the bottom (the receiver) gives consent in advance to play without a safeword—nothing they say or do can make the top (the doer) stop the scene. It can be sexual or sadomasochistic (or both) in nature. It encompasses any kind of total power exchange, and while it can look like rape play, often it can look quite different. For example, one friend described a CNC relationship in which she gave consent for her friend to choke her whenever he wanted, outside of public view. The content and scope of the scene is negotiated beforehand (for example, “you can degrade me but don’t call me a bitch,” or “you can hit me with this but not that”).

Trust and communication are paramount. Let me repeat: trust and communication are paramount. The top has to trust the bottom immensely to know their limits and communicate them accurately in negotiation. The bottom puts their safety in the hands of their top, and gives up their agency. All parties involved are aware of the risks innate in this kind of play (following RACK: Risk Aware Consensual Kink practices). Even with these safeguards in place, engaging in this type of play carries high physical and emotional risks. Just the notion of CNC can be triggering to some: it may seem too close to the very real violence that happens in our world.

When CNC is mainly sexual, it can carry a lot of stigma because of its perceived similarity  to sexual assault. Initially, I felt ashamed and disgusted by my attraction to CNC. What self-respecting feminist would ask to be raped? What sexual assault survivor would willingly relive that experience? Was I feeding my feelings of victimization by asking for this “abuse”? Was I fueling the subjugation of women by allowing this to happen to me? Would I be triggered and experience a regression of my mental health? Was the fact that I was attracted to this idea a sign I was emotionally disturbed?

Far from it. In fact, my experience with CNC has been extremely empowering.

Sex has always been an emotional minefield for me. Having been sexually abused during my early teenage years, most of my sexual experiences during the formative part of my sexuality were non-consensual. As a young adult, I struggled not to overlay my previous trauma onto my new relationships. Sex would often cause me to dissociate. I would feel violated and alone while my partner was soaking in the afterglow.

I felt I had two choices: try to be honest with my partner during sexual experiences about what I was feeling and allow them to comfort me in the moment, or try to hide what I was feeling. Even my most patient and caring partners were overwhelmed by the work of keeping me in a positive emotional space during sexual encounters, and the stop-and-go pace was frustrating for both of us. It seemed easier to stuff down my feelings during sex and do self-care in the aftermath.

Over time, my struggles with sex started to ease. I started to have moments when I could feel connected to my partner without needing to dam up my distress. I no longer felt the need to disclose my sexual trauma to new partners, because it rarely interfered with our sexual relationship in a visible way. However, I always felt closeted. Any feelings of alienation, degradation, or panic I felt during sex had to be kept to myself, or they would drive a wedge between me and my partner. During sex, I couldn’t be my whole self.

Now in my CNC relationship, I don’t have to pretend that everything’s fine if it’s not. I can scream. I can cry. Nothing I express is a showstopper. Nothing I feel is unwelcome. For once, I feel like there is nothing I need to “get over.” There is nothing wrong with me or the way I process sex. I am not damaged goods.

I don’t mean to indicate that everyone who engages in CNC has a history with abuse. Nor do I wish to promote CNC as a therapeutic response to sexual violence. My experience is simply evidence that sexual liberation can come in many forms. It is a core belief of intersectional feminism that no one should be deemed as less-than because of their body, gender, or sexuality. Still, many feminists hold narrow ideas of what progressive sex practices are allowed to look like. While casual sex, for example, is more frequently viewed as an expression of sexual freedom, BDSM practices—especially those involving sexual submission of a woman to a man—is still often viewed as repulsive and unethical. Those whose sexual inclinations fall outside the limited mold of acceptable sex practices are made to feel that our body’s responses are wrong and that our desires are to be ignored, repressed, or even hated.

Our culture is just beginning to accept the LGBT population, along with the nontraditional sexuality and gender politics that are part of that movement. Still, many alternative sexualities remain unwelcome in the public eye, or are crudely sensationalized (as evidenced by Fifty Shades of Grey).

There is a saying in the kink community, a golden rule of sorts: “Don’t yuck anyone else’s yum.” It’s a code of mutual trust and respect, an attitude of “as long as it’s between consenting adults, go to town!” Only you can know what’s good for you. While some types of kink may not be popularly supported by feminists (or the general public), this foundational mentality of the kink community defends our sexual freedom the way intersectional feminism aspires to.

After my partner and I played with CNC for the first time, I sobbed. Not a sweet tearing in the corner of the eye, but a hailstorm of tears and snot. I glanced at my partner to view his reaction, ready to be humiliated by my lack of composure. He smiled patiently. He didn’t try to calm me down, or chastise me, or change how I was feeling. He didn’t get angry, or feel accused, or slither out of the room. He just held me until I decided to speak.

In that moment, I experienced real acceptance—acceptance of my raw self, vulnerable, unkempt, slimy-faced, and for the first time, unashamed.

Guest Editor: pajarolibre (PJ)

PJ is a queer polyamorous kinkster and has been an active BDSM community member since 2011. Since entering the scene, she has continually broadened her role as an educator and play facilitator at events across the Northeast. Leveraging her background in psychology and behavioral health, PJ enjoys fostering discussions about cathartic kink, consent, and sex positivity to enable fellow kinksters to find new and comprehensive ways to enjoy kinky good times.