If you’re new to BDSM, one of the first things you will hear about are limits. You may also see people declare themselves a “no limits slave” or demand a submissive partner without limits. What does that mean and what are limits? What is the difference between hard and soft limits? Why do we even need limits in the first place?
Limits are basically a boundary, a thing you don’t want to do. BDSM often divides these into “soft” and “hard” limits. An important point to remember is that Dominants and submissives, tops and bottoms all get to have limits. We all have things we won’t do, part of finding a compatible partner is finding a person who likes similar things and dislikes similar things. A person whose hard limit is your favourite activity probably isn’t a good match.
A soft limit is often an activity that you don’t enjoy and wouldn’t normally engage in, but you may consider doing it for the right person. It could be an activity that you feel is too dangerous to participate in, except with a person who has demonstrated expertise in that area. It could be something that both intrigues you and horrifies you, that you would only consider doing with someone you trusted deeply.
When people talk about “pushing limits” in BDSM, they are often talking about playing around the edges of these soft limits. It’s something that should only be engaged in after serious talk or negotiation – it’s not up to the top/Dominant to unilaterally decide that it’s time to push limits without the input of their partner. Pushing limits can also result in some messy emotional or psychological stuff. Everyone involved should be aware of the potential consequences and be prepared to deal with the fallout, if and when it happens.
Hard limits are absolutes. These are the things that you will not do, under any circumstances. For many people, these may be activities or things which trigger bad memories, panic attacks or other psychological stress. Hard limits can be anything at all, even things that other people consider to be tame or a lot of fun. I’ve met people who have tickling as a hard limit – you or I may not think it’s a big deal, but it is for them and that needs to be respected. You can’t disregard a limit because you don’t think it is important.
Hard limits are considered pretty sacred in kink communities. People who violate hard limits (or soft limits without express permission) are correctly viewed as dangerous players. Not only have they violated consent, but they’ve done the very thing they were told not to do. In most communities, it is enough to get you ostracised.
It is important to recognize that limits aren’t carved in stone. The limits I have now are much different than the limits I had when first starting out in BDSM more than 20 years ago. A few have survived, but not many. In some cases, my understanding of the activity grew, for others, it’s just a matter of changing taste. I’ve added limits in that time too, things I didn’t know were a kink (or that didn’t apply to me then but do now), things that reflect some bad experiences I’ve had in life in general and things I’ve tried in kink that I found I don’t like.
Limits can also be different from one person to the next. You may choose to only engage in sexual play with your romantic partner, but enjoy non-sexual play with others. Sexual activity (as you define it) with people other than your romantic partner would be your hard limit.
You can choose anything at all for your limits. You can have as many limits as you need. Anyone who shames or teases you for your limits or the amount of them should be avoided as a partner – will they really respect your limits during play? As long as you inform your partners of any changes in your limits, you are free to set them wherever it is comfortable for you.
So what is with the “no limits” thing? Often the ones bragging or demanding no limits are new or uninformed about what limits are. I refuse to play with a person who has so little regard for themselves that they wouldn’t set limits on play with a new partner. Often they are fantasists with little to no actual BDSM experience. I often remind these people of my interest in flesh hooks suspension (many experienced kinksters will joke about “chainsaw play”). It usually gets the point across.
There are some people who, after developing a deep sense of trust with a partner, may choose to have “no limits”. This is often less discarding limits as it is finding someone whose limits are similar to yours. This is much different than the people who claim no limits to absolute strangers. If you choose to engage in this style of relationship, knowing your partner well is important.
Determining your limits will take some introspection and reflective thought. In the next article, we will discuss 5 methods that you can use to help sort out what your limits are.
By: Morgan Thorne
Morgan Thorne has been practising BDSM all her adult life. She got an introduction to kink through the Queer community in the early 1990’s and knew she had found ‘her people’.
Morgan has also spent nearly a decade working as a Professional Dominant, which has allowed her to expand her skills as both a Top and a Dominant. Morgan has been offering workshops, lectures and BDSM training for a number of years as well. She has a successful Youtube channel where she educates about D/s relationships, BDSM basics and various kinky skills.
In January 2017, Morgan Thorne released her debut book, “A Guide to Classic Discipline”. This will be followed up in Nov/Dec 2017 with “Medical Aseptic Technique for BDSM Play”. Expect more great books from Morgan Thorne in 2018!
Morgan identifies as both a Sadist and a Dominant. She enjoys playing with a variety of people of all orientations/genders/
Prior to her work as a Professional Dominant, Morgan worked in health care. This has allowed her to gain a more thorough understanding of health and safety concerns in kink. She retired due to an injury that lead to chronic pain and disability. It also drove her interest in medical play, as a way to continue to use the skills she learned in health care and to find comfort in the loss of a much-loved career.
Morgan has been active in various forms of activism, including LGBTQIA rights and sex worker rights. She is a strong advocate for equality and the human rights of all people.
Thank you for your reply, Morgan. It was really helpful! Do you recommend writing your contingency plan down?
Can you please tell us some signs that you know of that indicate one is ready to make a hard limit a soft limit?
Morgan Thorne says
That’s going to be really individual. You may find yourself thinking about an activity more, even fantasizing about it. You may see someone else doing it – in person or in a photo/video – and think “that doesn’t look so bad!”. It could look completely different than these examples.
If you find yourself wanting to explore something that previously was a hard limit, its best to do a bit of introspection, think about if it’s better off left as a fantasy, even if it’s just for now. If you have a trusted partner that you can explore with, talk it over with them. Just make sure you have a backup plan if things don’t go well. I’m a big fan of being prepared for the worst case scenario, then I can be happy when I don’t need it!
Loved your article! I think this topic is very beneficial to talk about, especially for those new to the scene.