Limits are things that should be discussed during any negotiation. They can be due to medical issues or triggers, however, those are usually discussed separately. Personal limits typically refer to things that have to do with preference versus inability. A “don’t want” versus a “can’t”. Limits (just like most things in a negotiation) can apply to both the bottom and the Top. Both partners should cover limits for themselves when negotiating a scene.
There are two categories of personal limits, hard limits and soft limits. Hard limits are fairly easy to define. These are things that you will not do under any circumstance, at least for the scene that is being negotiated. These could be things that you won’t do at all, will do with some people but not with others, or it’s something you won’t do with a new play partner until you get to know them better. Hard limits can include extreme forms of play and what we think of as “typical” hard limits, which include things like illegal activity, but it can also include any type of play or activity that the person is not OK with. Sometimes somebody has a hard limit that their play partner is used to doing or that may be ok with most people, however, if it’s not okay with you don’t hesitate to tell the other person. You should never not mention a limit just because you think it’s silly or because you think it should be expected. Just because you think something is common or well liked by most people, for example hair pulling, this may be something that is a hard limit for you. Maybe it’s because you have extensions in your hair or maybe it’s because you have an emotional trigger connected to the activity. The reason doesn’t matter. The point is, if it’s not okay with you, your partner needs to know that and they need to understand that it’s a hard limit.
Soft limits usually fall under two different categories. They are things that someone has tried and they don’t necessarily enjoy it (or at least didn’t enjoy it with the person they experienced it with) but it wasn’t so bad that it’s a hard no – it’s more “I’m willing to try it again with you and/or I know I don’t really like it but if you like it I’m willing to endure it for you”. The other type of soft limit is something that has not been experienced before, but that the person is willing to try. Usually in this case the top will want to start slow or light and go from there. The last thing you want to do when introducing a new type of play or type of implement is to go too hard and give the person a bad first experience. You don’t want someone to not like an implement or type of play based on a bad first impression or fear.
Keep in mind if you’re new, when you have a list of hard limits and soft limits, these things can, and probably will, change over time. Hard limits can become soft limits, soft limits can become fetishes or turn ons, or things that you once enjoyed can become a limit for you. Just be prepared for the fact that these lists are not set in stone. As you experience more play and as you experience playing with different people, things will change over time and that’s perfectly OK. You may even play with someone one time and have a certain set of limits and by the time you play with them again those limits may have changed. So as a top it’s also important to remember that. Keep in mind it may have nothing to do with them being dishonest or keeping anything from you or be anything personal, it could just be that their experiences have changed.
Lastly, there is something you want to avoid, especially as a new s-type, when you first start playing. You may not know what your limits are and that’s perfectly OK. What’s not okay is to tell a Top that you have NO limits just because you don’t know what they are. Be very clear that your limits are uncertain because you haven’t had much experience, but give them a list of things you would like to try and just go very slowly. In the end it’s all about having fun, self-exploration, and growth.
Jennifer Masri is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, specializing in Alternative Lifestyles for individual and relationship issues. She also teaches the BDSM 101 class series at Sanctuary LAX in Los Angeles every Monday evening. Read more about Jennifer on her blog, A Kink Shrink.