The Music and Dance of Negotiation

There is this thing called negotiation in the BDSM and kink communities.  I’m often fairly crap at it.

At least- that’s what I have thought for some time.  But today, talking with sexuality educator Scott Thomson, I realized that no- I am really quite good at actually negotiating.  Getting my needs and desires out on the table, and hearing the needs and desires, limits and frameworks offered by others.  The issue is that I play jazz music, and play in a culture that has evolved to appreciate sheet music and classic composers.

In the public kink scene, a fetish has evolved for intellectualized, verbalized, formalized communication of needs, wants, desires and frameworks/boundaries.  We fill out profiles on online systems, state our labels, declare our identities and desires for a mass consumer audience.  Over coffee we have three hour discussions about the details of desire, and then dive straight in.  We rifle through stacks of sheet music, choose a song that appeals to everyone involved, set the music up on a stand, and immediately start playing.  Our negotiation styles have become homogenized.

Formal concert musicians impress me.  I have always been awed by the capacity to lay it all out, agree to who is playing what in advance, and then immediately follow the form set out.  The notion of sitting down with someone, “negotiating” in such a manner, and then going straight into playing- it wows me.  It fascinates me.  And I am often fairly crap at it.

I thought this meant that I was crap at negotiation- because the community I am so often based in kept telling me in every single kink 101 class (including those I teach) that we need to have this skillset.  That we need to be able to communicate our desires lest misunderstandings happen.   If we can’t, it is said, how can someone else know what we want?  Do we expect our partners to be psychic, we laugh?

But my reality is that I have major challenges suspending disbelief.  I cannot agree to be forced to the ground, and then be forced to the ground and still believe it, if it was only 3 minutes ago that I agreed to it.  It feels false, contrived, and inauthentic to my monkey mind.  Or more accurately, my monkey mind stays engaged during the encounter and I do not get to dive into the depths of my spirit and flesh.

As a top, a rigger, or a dominant partner in the dance known as power exchange, it leaves me feeling like someone expects me to perform on command.  Just because I desire to play with you does not mean that I can turn on some sort of magic “on button” and go the moment we get the safety discussion out of the way.  I am not an erotic vending machine, and neither are you.  Do not just hit all my buttons, top or bottom, and expect me to shoot out an orgasm.  Unless, of course, we are having an erotic vending machine scene 😉

I negotiate in many ways in my personal life, ways that are usually not part of the 8-page checklist model or the long-talk-then-immediately-play model.

  • I have some friends and lovers that I have “carte blanche” arrangements with.  We discuss health, desires and realities far in advance (sometimes years in advance), and build a framework for desires in both directions.  I then say “cool, come find me and take me if you want, any time that is appropriate,” or they will offer similar statements to me.  And I have no expectation that anything will ever happen.  Ever.  I cannot have resentment if nothing happens, and I have to also inform said friends if the rules and realities ever change.
  • I flirt, checking as I go.  I pick up a piece of rope, and wink.  They wink back, and walk towards me.  I reach for a hand, and they offer it up, as I bind both hands.  I kiss lightly on their neck, and they moan.  I kiss harder, kiss more.  I may have known them for years, or may have met them that night.  I must stay attentive, constantly, for new consent comes with every breath.
  • I share information as I go.  In the midst of making out, his body pushes against mine.  As we move towards the bed, I say “let me go grab some condoms and gloves.”   Or as I have someone kneel before me I say “you look so hot like that, I would love to see you bound like that.”  I pause and wait for responses.  If someone says to me “I don’t need condoms,” my default retort is “if that’s going anywhere in me you do,” with a smile.  This dance requires players who can share their reality as they go.  If someone is in a deep altered space, I have no interest in “buyer’s remorse” the next day.
  • I share health concerns, hot stories, flirtation and more online, and then in person see if there is chemistry.   I endeavor to make it clear that the flirtation and information sharing is not a guarantee to play, just an interest and desire.  I do the same thing between events- sharing health realities, desires, fantasies and friction building at one event, and share that next time I look forward to diving in with them if it feels good for both of us.  This gives me days, months, or even years, between the bulk of detail sharing and a hot encounter.  The day of, we both have a chance to touch base and update each other with changes to reality, but not hours’ worth.  If there are dramatic changes, I may choose not to engage.

Oftentimes, this means I find musicians with skills in jamming.

The music I play as a kinkster is often improvisational, based on 15+ years of erotic exploration, and yet being shown new riffs every time I dive in with someone new.  I had a period of time where I was learning classic music, following the sheet music and playing in cover bands mimicking the greats.  And you know what- I still can.  In fact, sometimes I really enjoy the artistry involved in finding that perfect performance partner, or putting together a whole Ska band, complete with horns section, and planning, and planning.  But I am really skilled at jamming and love it.  I am pretty good at sheet music, but am only sometimes passionately fueled by it.  I am decent at dedicated danced with formal scripts.  And I am only just now learning at how to make a Ska band stick together on the same track.  It’s a lot harder than it looks.

Just because I play jazz does not mean I don’t enjoy classic rock.  Yes, there are a number of folks who only have Country in their collection, and that is all they are interested in.  If you flip through my iPod, you will see how diverse my musical collection is.  And yet, I spend the bulk of my time with S.J. Tucker, Amanda Palmer, Lady Gaga and CeeLo Green right now.  So it is for my erotic journey.  I might spend windows just going back and forth between the 3 songs stuck in my head, or I might pull out my old Wu Tang Clan and Ice Cube CDs and scream out for one night only.

Not everyone wants to jam.

Not everyone wants sheet music.

And I have realized that I felt bad about my negotiation skills because the mythology in the kink community is that good kinksters can both read sheet music and enjoy it.

I want to dance.  I want to play music.  I want Rockabilly and Bluegrass.  I want Aretha Franklin and Dolly Pardon.  Introduce me to your obscure French Punk Band.  Show me the variety out there of tribal rhythms that have been pulsing through the earth for a millennia.

And I may not like it all.

In fact, some of it might rub me the wrong way.  But if someone had told me years ago that one of my guilty pleasures would be listening to Eastern Block Surfer Bands, I would have laughed (Bambi Molesters for the win).  But I would not have known unless I had been given the CD by my uncle.

I am not saying that folks who only listen to Thrash Metal are bad, wrong, or inappropriate.  But I don’t want to connect with them (unless, to break metaphor, they are watching DethKlok stuff).  I respect their negotiation and play styles, but it’s not for me.

For that matter, just because I tend to negotiate and play Jazz in public does not mean I am not interested in learning that amazing Vivaldi piece for the right person, or might slip on some Luther Vandross behind closed doors.

Some folks want all their information out and on the table- all of their fantasies laid out to examine and choose from.  Let me order from their menu.  Others say simply “Hey, wanna do some stuff” (thank you Phillip the Foole).  Let me gauge my body and energetic response, and say “sure, how about dinner” or offer play options.  It could mean anything really.  It is a dialogue opener, rather than ordering from the menu.  And others- they just give me free range to the kitchen and we see what we can whip up together.

What is your negotiation style?  Your play style?  What music do you create?  How do you like creating it?  Do you practice the same number for years, perfecting Mahler’s 10th symphony until the crescendo of your spirit is audible in every note?  Do you enjoy the dissonance of the beat poet saxophone and obscure poetry that fills the night of smoky bars?  Is your calling that of a single djembe playing out an earth beat, or thirty drums at the bonfire moving in and out of echoes under the group consensus of goat hides?

Come and play jazz with me.  Behind closed doors, we will rock out once in a while to rap and r&b.  And for you, here, see my collection of Canadian Comedy music… I love you, I love you.  The music soars, and we each find our rhythm.  Our volume.  Our treble and bass.

We find those who dance to our style, and we tear up the floor.  Put me at the top of your dance mix, today my friend, today my friend.  Let us dance, and tomorrow, I will understand when you switch from Jazz back to Ani Difranco and Phish.

Let the drums beat.

Let the music soar.

I am good at negotiating, and getting better each day.  Getting better my way.


If so moved…




Lee Harrington

Lee Harrington is an internationally known sexuality, relationships, and personal authenticity educator. Having taught in all 50 states and in 6 countries, he brings a combination of playful engagement and thoughtful academic dialogue to a broad audience. An award-winning author and editor on gender, sexual, and sacred experience, his books include “Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Journeys,” and "Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond," among many other titles. He has been blogging online since 1998, and been teaching worldwide since 2001. Welcome to his world, and your chance to expand your mind and heart alike.


  1. Like music, I thought the better negotiators play it by ear. Just saying. Let’s jam to Wu Tang! 😉

  2. Let our crescendo raise so the gods may hear and dance.

  3. I really enjoy the metaphor, and maybe it is because I am a trained musician who rebelled against sheet music in favor of more interpretive fiddle tunes that this really speaks to me. It made me stop and think, and realize that I don’t think I ever had a formal sit-down and hand out everyone’s parts from the score with my partners, we just jam. We follow leads, allowing one to lead the other back and forth. Interesting.

    I can’t help but wonder what my current preferred actual musical styles (techno, specifically hardstyle/hard-dance/hard-trance and dubstep) would morph into in regard to the metaphor. That’s the music geek in me coming out to play.

  4. Real magic happens when two musicians from differing backgrounds meld. The thing about jazz is, can you pick up on the changes before they swerve around a corner? I just wanted to say I LOVE this analogy, and I think that when a person has discriminating tastes, then they are actually open to more nuances and variety…funny that!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful, well articulated metaphor! I absolutely felt something resonate within me reading this.

  6. Thank you for sharing this.

    I long considered myself a bad example of negotiations as well. I prefer to do a lot of communicating on the fly, which seems to throw a lot of tops, and I know isn’t something all bottoms can do; communicate effectively in an altered state; and be okay with the afterwards.

    Hell it’s not always something I do perfectly…but since I’ve been doing negotiations this way I’m finding the quality of my play has improved. I’m also finding I play less because I want people who speak my language…but I’d say the hotness more than makes up for the reduction.

    I’ve started adding different negotiation styles to the workshops I teach as well – beyond the basic check-list style…hopefully it opens the eyes of more people to other ways of doing things and breaks down one more way in which we measure ourself again the strange ‘Golden Standard of Kink’ that, more and more I see, really does not exist.

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