A few weeks ago, I discussed “Yes/Maybe/No” (YMN) lists as an underutilized tool amongst my peers for fostering sexual communication and consent. The concept of YMN lists came to me through a friend who is a member of Conversio Virium, the Columbia University BDSM club. Catching a spare moment together, we spoke about issues of rough sex, violence, and consent, and she soon told me about the popularity of making such lists in the BDSM community.
To give a clearer idea of what a YMN list is, I’ll give a description by Adult Parlour Games. A YMN list is defined as a master list of sexual moves, categorized by “what’s totally acceptable (everyone says, ‘Yes!’), what’s absolutely forbidden (anyone says, ‘No!), and what’s negotiable (any combo of ‘Yes!’ and ‘Maybe?’)” (Feb 2009). My friend explains that a YMN list makes it easy for an individual to share sexual desires with partners in a way that is open and especially necessary when placed in a BDSM context.
My first question was how such a list provides a space that dissolves the impracticalities that challenge individuals discussing their sexual desires. How easily can a woman say that she enjoys being tied up in leather and whipped? A YMN list reduces the stigma of having such a conversation, but it opens the conversation up further. When my friend said to me that some of her peers in the BDSM community have the healthiest relationships she’s ever seen, I started thinking hard about my own sexual decisions and methods of communication.
After discussing YMN lists with THE LINE Campaign, I suggested to my partner the possibility of creating our own lists to improve our sexual relationship. I was driven partly by intrigue toward how he would respond and partly by excitement of finding out each other’s likes/dislikes in bed. I may not be into what is strictly defined as BDSM, but I like sex, and I like it rough, which entails some hair pulling, slapping, and the odd moment or two of being cuffed or tied down. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made to ask my partner that we make YMN lists.
What ended up happening is that he refused my suggestion. No anger or hostility was involved, but we did launch into a huge discussion, in which he laid out reasons why he wasn’t against YMN lists but couldn’t make one himself. His reasoning unseated my own determination, forcing me to look critically at what may be a faulty conviction that YMN lists provide a holistic answer to sexual communication.
The conversation began with me asking what he thinks of YMN lists. He wrote that his concern was how they might be perceived like “a/s/l” inquiries, in which a person’s nuance and existence on a spectrum is eliminated by what seems like packaging. When I asked him to elaborate, he asked me, “Why pick a ‘no’ today, when it may be a ‘yes’ tomorrow?” I realized that he was pointing not only to the problems of packaging oneself, but also the fact that creating a list is also in some ways forcing oneself to establish a particular identity. My partner may like to pull my hair in bed (“yes”), but tomorrow he may not want to do it at all (“no”). To list is to categorize, and to categorize creates an idea that certain things, like sexuality, can remain static and contained.
I remained troubled. If my conviction in the powers of a YMN list is unhinged, then can I still make a list for myself? Do I still believe in other people’s lists? I asked my partner if he thinks that YMN lists are unnecessary, and he immediately answered, “Well, no, I still sincerely believe that the one good thing about YMN lists create consent! They’re just not for everyone.”
My partner and I agree that creating YMN lists won’t do much to change our relationship, but that’s because of who we already are as individuals and how we already communicate. We consent to talking about what we want, what we don’t want, and how and when we will tell each other these things. These are some of the most important takeaways of YMN lists, but we didn’t need one to get there. A greater message lies within an act of list making. To have one is a great tool for people who wish to declare their sexual needs, but it won’t make a difference if there isn’t already the feeling that sexual communication is important. In some senses, the YMN list did help my relationship foster communication, but not through the sheer act of putting a pen to some paper and writing a few bullet points down