Jul 102012

When J and I first met, BDSM was entirely new to me. I knew very little of the practice(s), and nothing of the associated theories or language. Communication was confusing at times, both because I accidentally identified as a dominant before I understood what that meant and because I didn’t realize that some of the language I read and heard had meanings beyond what I assumed in my vanilla context.

I’ve learned a lot since then, and to some degree, I’ve been assimilated into the language of the discourse community in which I find myself. I use the shared language to assure shared meaning when I communicate with others.

As a sort of shared concept, the language of “hard limits” is useful to me. I understand “hard limits” as those activities or practices that a person absolutely will not engage in. In the context of a relationship, whether it’s a casual relationship that only lasts the duration of a scene or a longer-term romantic relationship, knowing your partner’s hard limits is important to keeping them physically and emotionally healthy.

But in the context of my own relationship, I don’t find “soft limits” useful–not the language or the concept.

While there’s no single authority, based on my reading and discussions, the concept of “soft limits” generally includes 1) activities a person strongly dislikes but will engage in if their partner wants, 2) activities a person can be persuaded to engage in, and/or 3) activities a person will engage in under special circumstances or in particular situations.

While “soft limits” may be useful for players with casual relationships or in the beginning stages of a relationship, at this stage in my current relationship (a longer-term, monogamish, D/s relationship), “soft limits” isn’t useful. It’s not that I reject the existence of “soft limits,” it’s just that I don’t find them useful for communicating my own needs, wants, and limits nor for understanding my partner’s needs, wants, or limits, and here’s why:

1) First, since we’re in a longer-term relationship, I already know my partner and I enjoy most of the activities we engage in. If there were huge differences between the sorts of play each of us liked, I doubt we would have gotten into a relationship to begin with. If a potential partner strongly disliked some sort of play that I was interested in, I can’t see the relationship lasting for very long. In general, making someone do something they really don’t want to do doesn’t turn me on.

2) Second, I don’t want to have to persuade my partner to do anything. I want my partner to want to do what I want because he’s submissive towards me and because he finds his submission fulfilling. Besides that, persuading or convincing someone just seems like too much work.

3) Third, since we’re in a longer-term D/s relationship, and assuming we’re in this relationship because we’ve earned each others’ trust, then I am the special circumstance.

For those reasons, (and again, in the context of my current relationship), I reject the idea that my partner has soft limits. He has hard limits… and then there’s everything else. Of course, within the realm of “everything else,” there are things he doesn’t enjoy and things he dislikes, but I don’t consider those “soft limits” because in our context, soft limits don’t exist.

While I reject the idea that his dislikes are “soft limits,” I do acknowledge their existence. I don’t ignore his dislikes. But rather than persuade, convince, or force him to do things he dislikes, I’m working to get him to the point where he does enjoy them. I want him to enjoy them because he’s deeper into his submission, because pleasing me turns him on, and because (eventually) he learns to enjoy the things I enjoy.

Does any of that make sense?

And now that I’ve explained (and quite possibly confused) my thoughts on limits, from this point on, I’m not sure whether to describe J’s limits as hard, soft, or otherwise?

Regardless of what I end up calling it for the purposes of communicating here, I’m very pleased that we’ve recently “broken” one of J’s limits. I’m not sure which of us was more responsible, but ultimately, he was the one to make the decision. While he act itself wasn’t a big deal (it wasn’t dangerous edge play or dark, heavy stuff), I’m very happy about what breaking(?) a limit means to the evolving dynamic and our positions in it.

Perhaps I’ll say more on that another day. :)

  19 Responses to “why “soft limits” aren’t useful”

  1. I have on occasion with past Dominants stumbled into what were considered soft and some hard limits for us both, then after the experience and in some cases hysterical laughter, they became part of our regular time together. That more organic experimental stuff happens when both get to the Dom/sub space thing methinks.

    “I am the special circumstance”, that is the one absolute for me, not you specially (a boy can dream) but the Dominant I am serving. In fact all the things I list on endless BDSM personals are soft/hard limits until they are associated with my Dominant. I wouldn’t enjoy most of them at all with a random person, but when it’s the will of a Dominant, I like to oblige. I don’t feel submissive if it’s always what I like. Being conditioned to enjoy another’s kink is in some respects, my kink. That’s when those lists make sense to me, to see if we are even on the same planet.

    Your planet is all beautiful like, I’m happy to be a satellite.

    • @MB: “I am the special circumstance” is the thing it all hinges on, for me. If I’ve earned your trust, done nothing to violate that trust, explained myself and my positions thoroughly–and if you (the submissive) accepts all of that–then “soft limits” are meaningless to me.

      If you know me, if you’ve learned me as well as I’ve learned you, then there’s no need to fear that I’ll break you. I’m not that kinda girl.

      Satellite? I should hope so. You’re marked, boy.

  2. This is a thought-provoking article. Consent is a complex subject, and limits plug directly into it.

    I think that the idea of “soft limits” is better than nothing, because consent is a continuum. Anyone who had ever been conflicted about whether they want something knows that it’s a gray area. For whatever reason, language reflects this very poorly, and we are stuck with arbitrarily drawing and re-drawing lines in the sand that get washed away between conversations.

    “Hard limits” are inarguably useful because the things they represent are so far down the “do not want” side of the consent spectrum that they’re far past any line we’ve ever drawn. But there are things that reside in the muddy space between “always no” and “always yes”. There’s no practical way to package all of those ideas about context and desire, so we talk about “soft limits”.

    You even had to dance around absolutes in your post (emphasis mine):

    For those reasons, (and again, in the context of my current relationship), I reject the idea that my partner has soft limits.

    There you have it. Soft limits aren’t useful to you in the context of your current relationship, but I think it’s a little presumptuous to indict them completely, mainly because they function entirely based on context. They are very useful “consent training wheels” when negotiating new relationships, but as you say, they lose their utility once the basics are taken care of.

    Also, for me, it’s all right to have dislikes that come up in play. To use an extremely candid example, I absolutely loathe the taste of my own come. I find it to be a revolting substance and want nothing to do with it. However, several of the girls I have played with really get off on the idea of a guy “cleaning up his own mess” (so to speak). This activity is a soft limit of mine: I will not do it for just anyone, but once I have reached a certain level of comfort and trust with someone, I will do it without hesitation.

    There’s a lot going on there: I still hate the taste (and the texture and the smell and bleggghhhcht) and under normal circumstances would prefer to not be experiencing it. However, my Domme’s wishes supersede my own, and that leads to a sort of multi-pronged enjoyment for both of us: I am doing something I genuinely do not want to do because she ordered me to do it (which is hot). I am doing something that she enjoys for its own sake (which is hot). And I am being given an opportunity to revel in my obedience by ignoring my own distaste (which is hot).

    • @submissivedude: “You even had to dance around absolutes in your post”.

      If you mean “absolutes” in any context, with any sub, at any time, sure. I’d avoid that absolute like the plague.

      But if you mean absolutes in the context of an established relationship where we’ve discussed our limits, discussed what we’re into and what we’re not, where I’ve done nothing to push you too far, nothing to make you question my intentions or my care for you, then I don’t dance. If that’s the context, and you trust me enough to continue in the relationship as my submissive, then you have no soft limits.

      “Soft limits aren’t useful to you in the context of your current relationship, but I think it’s a little presumptuous to indict them completely, mainly because they function entirely based on context.”

      I did my best to be absolutely clear that my thoughts in this post were based only on my personal context–on my current relationship. I don’t indict soft limits completely; I don’t universally indict them at all. I said they’d be useful in the context of a more casual play relationship or in the beginning stages of a longer term romantic relationship.

      But my current context, the only one I feel at liberty to speak of confidently, is a relationship where the training wheels are way off. I’m only speaking of that context.

      As you suggested, without context, most (or all) of the language and concepts are confusing and/or of little use. But since I have a context, I speak to that.

      And certainly, the boy’s dislikes come into play. As I said, I don’t want to force anyone to do something they don’t want to do–that isn’t a turn-on. Rather, if there were sorts of play on which we disagreed, I’d hope that he’d come to learn to embrace what I enjoy and find his own enjoyment from my pleasure. (But honestly, I don’t even think there would be a relationship if disparate preferences were that much of an issue).

      I just don’t want to be misunderstood as saying “soft limits” are useless. I’m not saying that. I’m saying in my relationship, right now, soft limits don’t mean much to me.

      Thanks for your insight and your thoughts, submissive dude. :) I love good conversations!

  3. I don’t use the term ‘soft limits’ either, and would amend submissivedude’s statement that “consent is a continuum” into “‘hell yes!’ to ‘hell no!’ is a continuum (which I think is what he really intended by that statement because ‘yes’ is consent and anything else… well… isn’t).

    I use a BDSM checklist with my submissives and it is set up exactly that way, as a continuum. Level 5 (favourite things!) to 0 (soft limit) and then ‘hell no!’ (hard limit).

    Level 0 is defined as ‘I loath it, wish I never had to do it, don’t want to do it EVER, but would do it for you’ and if I was to ask him to do that thing, we would *both* know that he is hating it and I am pushing him really hard. What I find is that as the relationship deepens, and grows, things that were a hard limit sometimes become a 0, things that were a 0 sometimes become a level 1 and so it goes.

    It is hugely informative (and intimate and lovely and hot) to redo the checklist after some months together to see what has changed and to see how much we have grown together.

    Interesting post.


    • @Ferns: We had the discussions, about limits, but I didn’t know enough to employ a checklist. Even if I had known of their existence, I don’t know that I would have used one. But, that’s unimportant to my point and to the impetus for this post.

      Looking back at the way things were, and looking at where they are now, I think we’re in the middle of the sort of “redo” you mentioned. My thoughts here were prompted by his own reassessment of his “limits” and his want to break them.

      That–his own unprompted reassessment–is the hottest of hot and the most touching and most wonderful thing I could imagine. As I tried to suggest, I think I’ve earned the right to be the special circumstance, and I’m really glad he’s finally seeing that.

      It’s all good stuff… really good stuff. :)

  4. I don’t have much to add except I think you are spot-on and I (literally!) couldn’t have articulated it better myself. So this is really just a pat on the back more than anything else. *pat!*

  5. I don’t like the term “soft limits.” I think adding a modifier to the idea of “limits” is a bad idea. Either it’s a limit, or it isn’t. Just its usage implies that limits are not meant to be limiting – it erodes the meaning of limit.

    Let’s say Domme A is playing hardcore stuff with sub b. sub b says, “I have a soft limit for cream cheese, and also a limit on necrophilia.” Domme A thinks, “Was that “a soft limit for cream cheese and necrophilia?” or a soft limit for “cream cheese” and another soft limit for “necrophilia?” Or was the necrophilia NOT a soft limit…”

    So just for NOT saying, “You know, I really hate cream cheese, but if You like it, it’s okay.” sub b is now potentially going to be experiencing necrophilia sans cream cheese. NOT a good time in the old town tonight.

    I love wax play. I love the way it burns when the wax hits my skin. I love the way it tugs at my skin when it comes off. I love it. Conversely, I hate ice. I can’t stand the way it feels on my skin. I shrink from it. I shiver and quiver uncontrollably from it. But…it’s okay if Mistress Delila rubs me down with ice because I know She enjoys my discomfort (partially because ice doesn’t bother Her at all and how can I flip out over such a tiny thing?). It isn’t any kind of limit at all – it’s something I do without regard to my distaste for it because, as You put it, She is who She is. This is also within the rules of our relationship, as we put them into practice.

    Either something is a limit – a boundary which is not crossed – or it isn’t. If I have a limit with whoever I am with (it would be Mistress Delila…) and they willfully violate it because they don’t care – then that is a non-consensual act and should be considered battery. If they cross it unknowingly (um…sub b didn’t know he was against necrophilia until she opened the casket and tossed him in…), that’s a different story.

    • @Tomio: Two things…

      1) You said it *way* better than I did. “adding a modifier to the idea of “limits” is a bad idea. Either it’s a limit, or it isn’t. “ You articulated my thoughts far better than I did… it’s a limit or it isn’t a limit. Likes and dislikes are certainly important, but they aren’t as important as limits.

      And yes! Adding whatever modifiers does dilute the meaning of “limit.” I hate to keep repeating what you said, but it’s a limit, or it isn’t.

      As you said, ice isn’t something you enjoy, but you trust Mistress Delia to employ ice as she wishes… perhaps because she knows you can take it, because she knows you ultimately enjoy what she enjoys, or because she knows you fucking hate it and she wants to see you squirm. It doesn’t matter… you trust her with you (with your body, your head, and your emotions). You trust that she won’t harm you, won’t damage you, and you trust that she won’t push you too hard. If you trust her (which you do), then you have no “soft limits”– you have hard limits, and then you have everything else…. what you like and what you don’t. You trust her to employ any/all of those “everything else” activities at her discretion because she’s earned your trust and she’s earned your submission.

      2) WTF and LOL! (Both are acronyms I rarely use… if and when I do, I mean it!) Necrophilia and cream cheese? I really tried not to laugh, considering this is a serious topic, but super-squicks and bread spreads are too much for my little brain to handle all at once!

      Well done, Tomio!

  6. So, say for example you haven’t done much of anything,
    There are activities you are certain you will not do under any circumstances, and there are other activities that you are pretty damn sure you would not enjoy, or want to do, but you might be willing to try them, eventually in the relationship.

    How do you refer to activities in the second category? or activities that start edge towards your boundaries, where you may be able to handle them, but you are uncomfortable because they get so close your hard limits?

    Soft limit seems to me to be like many parts of the BDSM vernacular, a flawed term that requires actual communication to understand properly, but still a potentially useful tool for that communication.

    • @Peroxide: I think you already answered your inquiry.

      “How do you refer to activities in the second category?”

      Those activities in the second category require “actual communication to understand properly.” Having been in this thing, whatever it is, for a year and a half, we’ve had the conversations required for me to understand the differences between his limits and his dislikes.

      In the beginning, he presented them as limits. I wasn’t interested in those activities, nor was I interested in pushing him too far too soon (I’d rather hold off and establish trust and assure understanding). I didn’t bring them up again… he did.

      If he hadn’t, I’d be perfectly fine still treating those activities as limits. Again, we’ve been together long enough for me to be sure that we share enjoyment of enough activities to satisfy me. I wasn’t interested in pushing particular “limits.” With that said, I’m very excited that he was the one to suggest breaking limits–not because I’m all that interested in engaging in the activities, but because it means he trusts me, wants to please me, and in general, he is showing initiative in taking those steps he feels are needed to be my boy.

      I guess to answer your question in short, I didn’t/don’t refer to activities in the second category. He did. If he hadn’t, they wouldn’t have been an issue.

  7. i really like what you had to say. I agree, completely actually. Being in an M/s relationship my hard limits are what I need respected and everything else comes down to communication and, like you said, getting me to a place where I don’t just enjoy serving him in ways that I might be uncomfortable with, but actually coming to enjoy those things over time as my mind is ‘bent” around my oppositions.

    You articulated your concept excellently! Thanks for putting this together :)

    • @Kassia: Thanks for your thoughts on this. It does come down to respect, trust, communication and ultimately, growing together as a couple–whether it’s D/s, M/s, vanilla, or otherwise.

      “actually coming to enjoy those things over time as my mind is ‘bent” around my oppositions.”

      In some regards, I think it works both ways. As a result of this relationship with my sub, there are things I didn’t enjoy much before but I’ve learned I do enjoy now. While learning to enjoy something and learning you do enjoy something isn’t exactly the same, those ideas are so similar and (in my mind) so closely intertwined they couldn’t totally be separated either.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

  8. as a submissive, for me, the term ‘soft limit’ evokes the need for honest conversation about the fetish/activity/kink … its alerting my domme that this is something closer towards fantasy than want-in-reality, and i want to have an open discussion before engaging in it (and usually, it turns into an activity i enjoy). by having the communication with my domme regarding the soft limit, it usually reinforces my trust in her.

    for example, i don’t need to have an open discussion when engaging in some good ol’ tit torture… but i’d definitely want to talk about walking down the street attached to my domme’s leash.

    but like you too, i also have defined a lot of BDSM terms in my own words, too. :P

    (and, as i go back to read previous comments, it looks like i’m actually on the same page as your other readers, so that makes me feel me better!)

    • @wish:

      for me, the term ‘soft limit’ evokes the need for honest conversation about the fetish/activity/kink

      Absolutely. I’m with you here. We talk about almost everything that’s new for us. We just don’t use the term “soft limit.” I think I might if I were in a new relationship, but it just seems like a term for something we already do.

      but i’d definitely want to talk about walking down the street attached to my domme’s leash.

      I’m with you here. I wouldn’t spring something like that on J, in part because I already know what his iffy areas are. I think soft limits (and discussions about) are really useful in the early stages of a relationship. I probably would have used the term, too, if I had only known what I was getting into while i was getting into it.

      It seems with D/s, I was the last to know. :)

      • agreed. i’m hopeful that one day i’ll be in a relationship where using the term ‘soft limit’ will be moot … i just gotta get with someone that sticks!

        (and i have to admit, i’m finding myself inexplicably attracted to you due to the maaaannny similarities you share with my domme … so i’m kinda glad that i’ve finished reading your blog from back to front! now, i can just stay up to date!)

        • @wish:

          i’m finding myself inexplicably attracted to you

          Nooo! It’s explicable! (wow… that’s really a word? I guess so…) It’s explicable because I am teh awesome! Except when I’m not. :)

          due to the maaaannny similarities you share with my domme

          She sounds like a delightful human being, a good cook, and I bet she smells nice, too. :)

          so i’m kinda glad that i’ve finished reading your blog from back to front!”

          Wow! I’m flattered, and at the same time, I question you’re sanity. :) There’s an awful lot of rambling here…. I swear, there should be some sort of award for the few brave souls who’ve read through the whole thing in a short period of time. I don’t think I could stand that much of me… I’m shocked and delighted that anyone else can!

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