“I want to be manhandled, and pinned down, but not choked within an inch of my life. I want to be forced and held in position, but not punched until I bleed. I want to be violated… consensually,” says Mae, a 23-year-old Reddit user in her post, on the subreddit r/CNC_Connect. Mae, who is speaking anonymously to protect her identity, is part of a community of over 50,000 people looking for partners to practice consensual non-consent (CNC) with. The CNC kink, also known as rape play, is exactly that — one where two or more people agree to a sexual encounter that emulates rape.
Understandably, CNC elicits a visceral reaction in those who don’t enjoy it or know enough about it, though those who enjoy it say this comes from misconceptions and misinformation. There’s a lot of planning that goes into a CNC scene, and you can, in a way, think of participants as actors playing a role and exploring a desire that isn’t okay outside the realm of fantasy.
Those who practice consensual non-consent enjoy different aspects of it, and know it’s not just about physical violence – though that does play a big part in the pleasure of it. It’s about surrendering control for the submissive partner and exerting control for the dominant party, and for both it’s about indulging in something they wouldn’t want to be involved in if they didn’t have a say over the matter.
Mae wants CNC without the brutality, but this isn’t always the case. Some people who practice it, such as Mark, 37, want to feel like a “dangerous, cruel and violent rapist, and [his] partners want to feel helpless, afraid, unsafe and violated”. (Like everyone else we talked to, he is speaking anonymously to protect his privacy.)
Throughout our conversation, Mark stressed the need for both parties to cooperate when it comes to their expectations and agreeing not to engage in non-consensual sexual activity that wasn’t negotiated beforehand. Strict boundaries, he says, are imposed through verbal and non-verbal safe words (like holding up a finger or tapping once to slow down and twice to stop entirely), though he feels that concentrating solely on that whitewashes the experience. “The point of CNC is a way to have those real feelings in a way that is conscious, intentional, and risk aware. It’s sexual extreme sports,” he tells me over Twitter DMs.
A lot of people who enjoy consensual non-consent, or suspect they do, feel ashamed to want to rape or be raped even in a pretend scenario. Mark struggled to bring it up to his wife of ten years. “I felt a lot of fear admitting that I’m turned on by these themes,” he says. “What would she think of me? How could she trust that I’m a safe, sane, compassionate, feminist man if I also get turned on by the idea of ‘violating’ her consent?” He was able to open up once his partner admitted she was also into the idea, too.
Shame around CNC stretches throughout the gender spectrum. How could women, for example, want to experience something so violent? “If the patriarchy is violent and oppressive to women, and you are seen [by society] to desire things that look like that, something must be wrong with you,” says Dr João Florêncio, a senior lecturer in history of modern and contemporary art and visual culture at the University of Exeter. “It’s like you’re betraying feminism, or you suffer from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome that makes you want your own oppression.” But the history of – and conversations around – consensual violent sex are likely as old as sex itself, he says.
“A lot of sex has always been violent, but the idea of it being agreed upon by all parties and involving a degree of violence or playing with violence and power… You see that in literature, certainly way back,” Florêncio says. Examples of work by women include Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus (published in the 40s and again posthumously in the 70s), a collection of 15 short very explicit stories depicting violent sex and rape, and Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body (1973).
While a lot of this type of literature was initially written by men, women joined the conversation after the sexual revolution of the 60s ,when society became slightly more permissive. American sex-positive feminist author Carol Queen, who has been speaking and writing about progressive sex education since the late 90s, argued that sex positivity allows and celebrates sexual diversity and choices based on consent.
Other feminists considered sex as another oppressive, patriarchal form of control. Andrea Dworkin, an American radical feminist active from the 1970s to the 1990s, who is widely described as anti-sex and anti-porn, believed heterosexual sex to be synonymous with abuse. In her book Intercourse, she wrote “violation is a synonym for intercourse”. Even today, writer Louise Perry’s upcoming book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, argues that men are the ones to benefit from sex and porn, with women forced to accommodate their desires. If you follow this line of thought, CNC is incompatible with sexual liberation.
This view, Florêncio says, ignores people’s right to choose. “Claiming that a woman cannot engage in certain sexual practices out of her own volition implies that there will be kinds of women to whom you don’t grant the kind of ability to think and make choices that you claim for yourself,” he says. “The place of a woman in sex should not just be saying yes or no, it should also be saying ‘I want this’ and not just responding to something that the other person wants.”
The right to choose is central to CNC. While people might assume that the kink is dangerous or predatory, and that the woman or submissive party is helpless, those critics “need to understand that the sub actually has more control than the dom”, says Jade, 21, a submissive fan of CNC. The sub “decides exactly what happens to them, exactly what can never happen, and when to stop”, she adds.
Licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist Dr Kate Balestrieri agrees. Though it might seem paradoxical, CNC allows people to “let go in a way where they can feel really safe”, she says. This can also apply to survivors of sexual assault: “When [survivors] step into this role, regardless of whether they are the dom or the sub, it gives them access to control and having mastery over a situation that they were once very much out of control in. It gives them the ability to kind of play it out and be a victor, in some ways.”
Safely practising CNC is extremely important. Without healthy communication, negotiations on what both parties want to happen, what constitutes a firm “no” and safe words, CNC can look a lot like the cycle of abuse. Once all of these things are taken care of, a scene can be “incredibly healthy and incredibly fun”, Balestrieri says. Aftercare, the practice of debriefing and taking care of one another post-scene, is another element to it, but it’s an individual preference. Jade for instance, finds that aftercare takes away from the authenticity of the experience.
Bringing up the idea of trying CNC with a partner can feel scary, but Balestrieri recommends “yes, no, and maybe” lists that people can fill out to talk about what they’re open to and what they’re not. Porn shouldn’t be a first port of call, however, because “it doesn’t always highlight setting up the process in a way that is ethical and safe for people”. She also recommends starting slow instead of diving straight into the deep end — explore how things such as impact play, like spanking or slapping, make you feel before planning out an entire scene.
Above all, it’s important to understand that consensual non-consent doesn’t come from anywhere but the desire for heightened pleasure and to give up or exert control. Pain and fear actually elicit similar excitation responses in our bodies and nervous systems as do sexual arousal, and CNC can amplify those sensations. It also doesn’t speak to a person’s character. “Some people have fantasies about something, but that doesn’t mean that they want to be sexually assaulted or assault someone else,” Balestrieri says. “The purpose of fantasy and sex play is to allow for creativity, spontaneity and fun. Everyone gets to define that differently, as long as consent is in play.”