For some reason these checklists have come up with a couple of different people lately. I’m not a fan. This may seem odd at first glance, because I love lists. I make them all the time, and keep notebooks in my purse just in case I feel the need for a new one. Some are meant for checking off: grocery lists, to-do lists, a list of books by a new favorite author. Some provide useful information: the list of prime numbers, your phone’s contacts list, the ingredients list on a loaf of bread. Lists make organizing life and tasks immensely easier. That said, not everything needs a list, and some lists are just plain terrible. BDSM checklists, I’m looking at you.
For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to define a BDSM checklist as any list of BDSM activities that seeks to be comprehensive. Some recommend checking yes or no, some suggest rating each item on a scale, most come prefaced with a disclaimer that everything on them merits further commentary and discussion than simply checking a box can supply. Most come with the suggestion that they can or should be used as negotiation tools. It’s that last part I have a problem with. These checklists have no real advantages over any other form of negotiation (except maybe not negotiating at all), and a dozen major drawbacks.
1: They’re poorly organized. I’ve seen at least half a dozen different kink checklists on the Internet, and they all have one fatal flaw in common: they’re alphabetized. Don’t get me wrong, alphabetization is great. If I go to a used bookstore and find their sci-fi jumbled randomly on the shelf, I’m leaving. But I’m also not shopping at a bookstore that keeps Soren Kierkegaard’s works next to Caitlin Kiernan’s. If you want a BDSM checklist that you can reasonably use, it needs to be better categorized. Some lists attempt this, listing “bondage” a dozen or so times, each entry followed by a different bondage material or body part, but for the most part items are simply alphabetized such that patterns do not naturally emerge. Because the list seeks to go into so much detail (the shortest one I’ve seen is 200 items), “wooden paddles” and “caning” wind up several pages away from each other. This implies that the type of implement is more important than the nature of the impact, and avoids more important questions: just how much pain are we talking about here? Where do you like to be hit? How do you want to feel?
2: They’re overwhelming. Even if you’re clear that it’s not a to-do list and what you really want is to be sure to not cross boundaries and get to know a partner’s preferences better, the point of the list is to cover a huge, varied community’s entire repertoire of skills and interests as quickly as possible. By item 50 I’m skimming at best, and I don’t have ADHD. Having to wade through six hundred kinks to check “yes” to “whipping” before negotiating a scene involving whips isn’t responsible negotiation; it’s just a time-consuming distraction. It reminds me of the forms one has to fill out in the ER: if you’re there because you mangled a knee falling down a mountain, answering three pages of questions about your family’s history of cancer and autoimmune disease are just not relevant.
3: They’re not comprehensive. No matter how long of a list you use, it’s not going to include every kink. It can’t. A lot of them don’t even include punching, which is a pretty straightforward activity. There are a few problems with this. Let’s say the list doesn’t include something you want to try today (or next Tuesday, which is when you’ll finish negotiating if you use this stupid thing). Maybe it’s punching, and you aren’t shy about it but after 700 questions to do with branding and pony play and tea service, you’re not really thinking about the smell of boxing gloves and the thud of impact, you’re having a surreal and possibly unpleasant fantasy about branding a pony girl while she attempts to serve tea to your wife. Or maybe you want to try something that is kind of out there. I know we’ve all got someone (if only the combined voices of the Internet) to reassure us that our kinks are okay even if not everyone shares them. But still, having a less common kink can make a person feel like a bit of a freak. If you give a partner a BDSM checklist, and it doesn’t contain something they really want to do or at least talk about, congratulations, you’ve just drastically reduced the odds that they will ever bring it up with you. Maybe that’s fine, but it’d be a shame if it turned out to be an activity you both liked.
4: They’re impersonal. I mean sure, if you’re going to get kinky with someone you’d better have one or two kinks in common, but these lists run from 200 to nearly 1000 items long. If someone insisted on going through a BDSM checklist as a prerequisite to play, I wouldn’t be interested. I want to play because of chemistry and mutual attraction, not because our 0s and 5s line up pretty well on a spreadsheet. Insisting on negotiation by checklist suggests that one’s partner is just a delivery system for kink. Even with a one night stand, I want to know that we have something else to talk about, whether it’s books or cooking or Dr. Who. After all, if there’s nothing to chat about in the sweaty aftermath it’ll just be awkward. There are two ways to go with a list like this: either you can just look at the list and decide aye or nay based on a compatibility algorithm, which…ech. Or you can spend three hours discussing every item in depth, and while you’re busy agreeing that no one involved is interested in bloodplay, you miss the opportunity to bond or flirt or talk about anything else.
5: The answers could be wrong. Not everyone knows what the kinks listed even are. Someone could indicate disinterest in something that might be a long-held fetish because an unfamiliar term is used. Or worse, maybe you’re dealing with someone new to the scene who sees “water sports” and thinks SCUBA. This is not a random example. I used to dive. Learning that “water sports” was the term for a thing that is neither a sport nor involves water came as a nasty shock. (As a side note, SCUBA sex should happen. Somehow it didn’t make any of these lists. I’ll just pencil it in, shall I?) There are a number of reasons that someone would fill this thing out incorrectly, purely by accident, and the confusion could be problematic.
6: People lie. Confusion and inexperience aren’t the only reasons someone might fill out such a checklist inaccurately. It sounds obvious, but even so. A list is impersonal. A person who would be able to relax into conversation and gently let you know that e.g. she’s into breath play could easily mark “no” on paper because even on a sliding scale, even with a “comments” box, it’s still answering yes-or-no, does this hold any interest for you at all in writing. That feels vulnerable and dangerous. Expressing interest in that form feels like it requires explanation if one then adds “but not now” or “but not with you.” Worse, there’s a risk that a partner (not a good partner, but this is someone you’re getting to know via list, so…) might believe that a check mark in the “yes” box implies consent. So maybe it’s easier to check “no.” But then how do you take it back without admitting you lied? It’s tricky. The checklist format is too impersonal to really make a person want to open up. And that’s without addressing the lies people will tell about whether they have experience with X or Y. Some folks will show off. It’s easier to tease out the truth in a conversation than on a form.
7: The 0-5 scale is not as universally simple to interpret as you’d think. Take a look at e.g. pain. Suppose prospective partner G is really into pain, can’t get off without it in fact, but only mild-to-moderate pain. Will G check 5 because it’s a favorite thing, or 2 because any higher mean more pain than G wants? Or maybe partner H can take pain or leave it, but if she’s taking it she’s got a pain tolerance that’s yet to discover a limit? Check 2 because pain is “meh,” or 5 because she’s still standing after an hour of heavy caning? How do you answer a question about electrical play if you adore TENS units but violet wands make you want to cry? Again, I know there’s a comments box, but these lists seek to be comprehensive. They are long. I’d bet that very few people have the time or inclination to add detailed commentary to each of 200-1000 different items.
8: They do not address basic safety. I’d like to assume that’s a conversation that everyone knows to have separately, but still. Let’s say your potential new partner is interested in X. He’s never tried it but you have, and hey, X is hot! Too bad potential new partner has medical condition Q (sometimes Y needs a night off, you know. Give Q some love) and it’s really not safe to do X to a person who has condition Q, or a special precaution is necessary. Of course if you don’t know about condition Q, you can’t prepare, and sometimes the connection is not obvious. Sure, you know better than to practice heavy impact on someone with CIPA (protip: it’s not safe to do any damn thing to someone with CIPA. Not that it’ll ever come up) but chronic low blood pressure could lead to a partner passing out in certain situations. It won’t show up in the comments section for activity X, because your partner may not think of it, or may not realize it could be relevant. Or maybe he’s horribly allergic to your pets or your lotion or the peanut butter sandwich you had for lunch. These things can come up. Obviously you don’t want an additional 200+ item checklist of medical conditions: you just want to ask “hey, any possibility of transmissible diseases, chronic conditions, allergies &c that I might need to know about?”
9: Some of us kink on different things with different partners. This is one of the reasons I do not have a fetish list on Fetlife and don’t intend to change that. A lot of people are reaction junkies. A lot. So if we haven’t tried an activity with a partner, we don’t know how it’ll be. Maybe I rate biting as a 5 when I play with A, because he moans and writhes and is otherwise lovely, but only a 1 with B, because she doesn’t react any more to a good hard bite than she would to a fly landing on her arm. If I haven’t bitten you, I don’t know. If I have, we both already know and it doesn’t need to be on the list. So maybe you think I should add “reactions” as a write-in kink, to say that I like “making partners moan.” Of course, different partners come with different desired reactions. Maybe A makes me feel violent and dominant, but with B I want to grapple and be switchy, and I play with C because I like feeling utterly overwhelmed and out of control. It takes some experimenting to see what works with new partners.
10: It addresses the what of kinks but not the why. This is a big one. This is the other reason I do not have a fetish list on Fetlife. 246,305 people on that site list “spanking” as a fetish. Some indicate that they like to give spankings, some that they like to get them, some don’t say either way; maybe they’re just happy knowing that there’s a spanking going on somewhere. Cool. Fine. So your new potential partner lists spanking as a level 5 favorite thing. How do you interpret that? Does he want to be punished, berated, shamed? Does he want to prove he can take the pain while you reassure him that he’s ever so good and brave? Does he want the pain or the sound of it? Is he hoping to look in the mirror and see a pink blush ten minutes after the scene, or a bruise a week later? Should you do it over the knee or standing, with what and on which body parts? Does he want to break down crying or have a little giggly light fun? None of these are things it’s safe to make assumptions about and everything on that list is at least as complicated. If you want to actually have a scene before the Tuesday after next, the way to do it is to say “hey, I’d like to engage in activity C. Here’s some more details about what I’m looking for. How does that sound to you?”
11: If you’re looking for a custom list, many kinky people already have one written out. Many of those kinky people who use Fetlife have a fetish list on their profiles. Peruse potential partners’ profiles. (When you’re done, do please come back and admire my alliteration. It was accidental but I’m quite proud of it.) This guy lists eight different fetishes involving foot worship? Chances are you can suggest a host of activities as long as your toes or favorite heels are intimately involved. That girl’s into a variety of medical play activities? Neat, where does that overlap with your interests? As a bonus you get to learn just how much effort they put into their profiles on Fet, what kind of image they are attempting to portray to the community at large, and whether they have a sufficient grasp of grammatical convention (abuse of the English language is not quite a hard limit for me, but I have to be quite smitten to let more than the odd typo pass without remark, mockery, or straight-up disdain. Long rambling sentences well-sprinkled with parentheticals, on the other hand, are fine. Obviously they’re fine: I use them.)You can learn a lot just by looking at and asking about the things a person is already putting out there. This is true even if they don’t have a fetish list posted (like me) or don’t have a Fetlife account at all: look at how people carry themselves at fetish events, notice what toys we bring, listen to how we introduce ourselves. Some people are one-trick-ponies, only into rope or electricity or whatever. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth talking to. The scene revolves around kink, but all of us involved in it are whole individuals. If you’re not into bondage, it’s still worth your time to sit and chat with a rigger about local restaurants or swap kinky stories.
12: They’re just not sexy. Negotiation can be hot. It should be hot. It should be growling in your partner’s ear that you want to bite his neck and shoulders. It should be telling her how much you want to feel her body wrapped in rope. Or it can be goading and fun (“Why did the chicken cross the road?”). It can be “I saw that scene you did earlier, and I really liked [some aspect of it]. Would you like to try something like that with me?”. It should not be a survey taken on a clipboard to be analyzed by you or your prospective partner.
I’m not saying BDSM checklists are a complete waste of space. I looked at one years and years ago when I was very new to kink but didn’t yet understand what that meant. Seeing just how much ground the term BDSM can cover was helpful in keeping me from saying “I’m up for anything” and in providing a starting point from which to say “I’m curious about. . .” For entertainment alone, it might be fun to go over one with a partner for the giggles and the “really? Sounding? What the heck is that like?” conversations. I just can’t see them as a useful negotiation tool. There are alternatives, but they mostly boil down to “learn to have a conversation and talk about what you like and want, then play, then recap and talk some more about what you liked, what you want, what you’d rather avoid next time.” I enjoy the one page checklist here (though I would add a line to address aftercare: pre-negotiating aftercare is really useful, especially with new partners). When someone tells me they’re up for anything I love to refer them to the sex map. Most people realize pretty quickly that “anything” covers a lot more than any one person can realistically enjoy.
I get what the BDSM checklist is trying for, really. I just think it fails. There’s nothing wrong with looking at one to start thinking about what interests you and why, or going through one just for fun, but as a negotiation tool they seem like a staggering circumnavigation of more important questions.