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. :)