The Role of Consent in the Context of BDSM

Sex Abuse. 2020 Sep;32(6):657-678. doi: 10.1177/1079063219842847. Epub 2019 Apr 22.


Consent represents a central focus in the controversial realm of BDSM-an overlapping acronym referring to the practices of Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism. Many authors have argued that the hallmark feature that distinguishes BDSM activity from abuse and psychopathology is the presence of mutual informed consent of all those involved. This review examines the relevant literature on consent in BDSM, including discussions on safety precautions, consent violations, North American laws pertaining to BDSM practice, and the role of the BDSM community with respect to education and etiquette surrounding consent. Practical information relevant to professionals who work toward the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse is provided. The explicit approach to consent practiced by those in the BDSM community is proposed as a model for discussions around consent in clinical and educational contexts. Criteria for distinguishing abuse from BDSM and identifying abuse within BDSM relationships are outlined. It is our hope to demystify the consent process and add to the growing body of literature that destigmatizes consensual BDSM practices.

Keywords: BDSM; consent; sexual coercion; sexual sadism; sexual safety.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Communication
  • Dominance-Subordination*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent*
  • Male
  • Masochism / psychology*
  • Negotiating
  • Sadism / psychology*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology*