As I have begun to travel the scene, I am seeing a sad trend in the way that negotiation is shifting away from being a way to create a wonderful, hot, connecting scene to being a tool for absolution of responsibility on both sides, where negotiation is replacing communication and personal responsibility.
When I first entered the scene, I was seeing a young woman (we'll call her Alice) who I'd met through vanilla dating, but who was very open to kink. I was taking negotiation classes, and one of them brought up the idea that asking "Do you have any health issues?" can often lead to "No, I'm perfectly healthy.". The presenter suggested instead that the top should specific ask questions such as "Do you have any heart or circulatory conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes? Do you have any neurological conditions, etc?" and "When was the last time you were in the hospital?"
I commented to Alice that I was lucky with her that she didn't have any health issues, "Do you?", I asked? She said she didn't, and that she was very healthy, did yoga, etc. I asked her some of the specific questions from the class, and it came out that she actually had cerebral palsy, and that if I left her standing too long, she would collapse.
I remember thinking how good it was that I had learned this negotiation skill, and that I would always have to remember this in future negotiations.
As time has gone by and I've encountered more classes and discussions about negotiations, the list of things I'm expected to ask about has grown. In addition to asking things directly relevant to the scene (limits, in-scene communication), I'm supposed to ask about health, mental and physical, allergies, childhood or adult trauma, as well as things that may be very hard to predict, such as how the bottom responds to certain physical or mental experiences.
Doing this kind of long negotiation is supposed to protect everyone involved. But I wonder sincerely if it does, or if we've simply fallen into a trap of treating negotiation as a form of legalistic insurance policy, "Did you you cover this in negotiation?"
I've had long negotiations, multi-hour sometimes, and I've had short negotiations, and my experience has been that covering a laundry list of questions is far less effective than one might imagine. Even if the top asks all the right questions, the bottom may forget something, or the response that they expected to have was not what happened in this scene.
When I see skilled players in the scene, even in pickup play situations (for those who do pickup play), I see far less negotiation than we often discuss. It's often a few minutes of basics about themselves and the scene, and it's down to the fun.
Negotiation, as it turns out, is far less valuable than communication, before, during and after a scene, as well as flexibility on everyone's behalf. The truth is that while we can all do our best to plan, we can never really know how a scene will play out until it plays out, and while we can try to predict the physical and physical and psychological effects, we can never know for certain how a scene will effect the parties involved. Instead of falling back on whether or not a need was anticipated during negotiation, we need to be emphasizing communication, flexibility and forgiveness. We need to be emphasizing that just as tops are expected to do check-ins, bottoms must be communicating effectively with their tops, helping them ensure the scene is going well. We must emphasize flexibility in a scene- not just safewords, but how to keep the scene energy going, or how to safely and gracefully end the scene if something does arise, as well as flexibility in offering support to our partners when their needs might be different than they anticipated. And we must emphasize forgiveness if something does go wrong, that the emphasis needs to be on helping, rather than blame.
Not all negotiation classes are bad. @TouchDeep and @HeartBound teach a form of fast, sexy negotiation that I think fits well. Other presenters, such as talk about negotiation as an important tool, but manage to do so in a way that emphasizes personal responsibility and communication over prescripted questionnaires.
A presenter at last year's TES Fest introduced me to the concept of "CRASH", Consensual Risk Aware Shit Happens- which I think we often forget. It is possible for everyone to have done the right things and for mistakes to happen, whether that be from personal, equipment, physical or psychological reasons, sometimes things just don't go as planned, and we must learn to forgive our partners as well as ourselves. Not all disappointments are consent violations, and not all mistakes are signs that you are a bad top/bottom/switch/dom/sub/little/big/kitty, etc.
The keys to our community are understanding and communication. Let's take back our negotiations from being something akin to a legal disclaimer and turn them back into tools to fulfill our fantasies.
Going back to Alice, I'm glad that I asked her that question about her health. Luckily, her CP was never an issue during a scene, but I like to think that even if it had been, we'd have been able to handle it together.