The use of Contracts in BDSM and Power Exchange relationships seems to be a surprisingly charged and polarizing subject. Indeed, there are those that love ’em or hate ’em, but rarely does there seem to be any indifference. Because I espouse a mindful and rational approach – I believe it depends on what works considering the dynamic in play. Perhaps then it’s not so much that contracts are “bad” but rather what doesn’t work, and why. As a result, this post will expound on the use of contracts, purpose, benefits, risks, etc. As is normal in my writing, I offer information and perspective, but not dogma. Your path is up to you to find, I merely offer my perspective for consideration.
What’s a Contract?
First off let’s clarify what a contract is supposed to be. Very simply, a contract is an agreement which should be mutually beneficial and work towards a mutually satisfying outcome. It may be written or spoken, but its essence is that of an agreement which exists between two or more parties for the doing (or not doing) of something specified. Due to the rather litigious nature of western society, the establishing of a contract has become associated with an approach that is adversarial, rather than cooperative in spirit and construction.
A contract does not mean “do all these things I demand or else” – that is an ultimatum. Not to say that contracts don’t necessarily have provisions for penalties or consequences (often amended with “…which is intended to be enforceable”), the purpose of which is to ensure no one is “getting screwed over”.
See also: agreement, commitment, understanding, covenant, bargain …
What’s in a Contract?
The content of a contract all depends on what you want it to do. For most establishing contract is a way of stating a common understanding, clarifying expectations, and setting guidelines for results or behavior. Where more detailed, contracts may specify roles & responsibilities, specific codes of conduct, and outline cause & effect (i.e. consequences) regarding the achieving or missing of expected outcomes.
In the scope of BDSM, a contract can be as simple as a bullet list for stating what activities will be engaged and what the limits are for the scene. In relation to a Power Exchange relationship, a contact can clearly articulate the roles, responsibilities, modes of conduct (protocols), and expectation of all involved.
Does it seem like work? Yes, it may take effort, but it can be well worth it. The benefits often goes to the heart of any type of power exchange, that of dominance and submission. A contract helps to shape and define, these are merely forms of control that Dominants employ to influence their environment and interactions. A contract also helps to clarify expectations and reduce surprises (chaos/whimsy), which is often supplies the stability and clarity that is desired by many submissives.
Going through the exercise of careful Negotiation & Consent, and then documenting these understandings in a very basic Contract entails getting to know your partner/s better and without making erroneous assumptions. The shared collaboration of building a contract also ensures that all are working towards a satisfying outcome with the personal accountability to achieve those goals. By including limitations within a contract, one also provides for a way to prevent consent violations, have a common communication foundation, and even manage risks associated with scene creep.
There are no magic bullets, everything has a potential risk. One of the biggest traps is trying to start by building a contract that is all inclusive and thus becomes overly detailed. A good rule is that a contract needs to be clear and simple, but not too simple. Also known as “right sizing” – a contract has to fit the circumstances.
Another risk I’ve seen are submissives which develop the habit of hiding behind technical language of a contract (lawyering). Take such behavior as any other kind of push-back or challenge, such as one might expect from a bratty sub, as an invitation to show your adherence to the spirit of the contract and not verbal games. If you feel clever enough, use it against them and force the choice of their interpretation or your proposed new and crueler interpretation and see which they choose (i.e. give them all the rope to hang themselves).
Some may find a contract to be stifling to their sense of creativity & inspiration. In which case a looser contract in the shape of a series of guidelines (our outline format) would serve better. In such a case, more discussion is required to ensure everyone is on the same page with respect to the outline contents and language.
Perhaps the biggest risk is that relying on the contract makes folks lazy and may cause them to stop adapting to changing circumstances. Reality always has priority over the flights of mental fantasies. It is a matter of knowing or learning how to adjust yourself to the circumstance at hand. As such, a contract should realistically be subject to review and adjustment as life, relationships, health, and other situations change. Keep in mind that contracts are not ritten in stone, and even if they were, time and the elements will still cause them to change.
A contract need not be something specific in terms of using one format or another. There are no absolutes, and plenty of examples are out there to find and tailor to your liking, or to help you craft your own. Put another way, have a discussion about and consider the needs, desires, and limits of all those involved. Work together to create an outline, and then let one person (typically the Dominant) prepare a contract for the rest to review and agree upon.
Bear in mind that the primary effort in developing a contract lies in balancing the equation of effort, risk, and reward. Go with “enough” to meet the need; keep it simple but no simpler than necessary to establish clarification and understanding; and use short, straight-forward language. This helps to keep from confusing the participants and to keep all eyes focused on the real purpose and heart of the matter.
If you’d like to know more, please vote here or comment on social media and I will expand based on questions or feedback.
Copyright 2017 Limits Unleashed