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The Art of Suffering for Pleasure
I see three different classes of soft limits.
One is "no for now, but I fully intend to eventually say yes somewhere along the line in the future." That's the sort of "I'm not ready for that" or "Maybe someday" or "I'm keeping that as a fantasy for now, but understand that it still is a fantasy of mine" sort of soft limit. In the moment, though, it's functionally indistinguishable from a hard limit.
Another is "only under specific circumstances, and you don't have permission to do it unless and until we discuss what those circumstances are." So "the same" activity might have no limits associated with it at home in private but be off the table a play parties, or it might be reserved to a primary partner but off the table when having a three-way, or some other situation that imposes limits sometimes but not others. And I'd put the kinds of things that are "Sometimes, when I'm in the right mood, I gotta have it, but sometimes, I can't stand it and won't consent - so you're free to ask, but don't take a yes as a given" or even things like "Not on a weeknight" or "not after a big meal."
The third is a conceptually different thing, that honestly, I'd like a third term for, but one where there are clear limits on intensity or duration or even the need for being prepared to stop early. This is where I'd see something like working toward fisting or being new at spanking, or trying to get good at deep-throating, or even overcoming a phobia about something like bondage.
So it's "Yes, but there are still limits on how we do it, or how far we take it, and we may need to stop suddenly or go deliberately gently." Effectively, it's a situation where starting is not a limit - the activity is going to be consented to, but both people know and understand that there are boundaries somewhere within the activity that will be treated as a hard limit if they are reached, and need to be honored as such. When the beginning fistee says "Stop there," they mean it, and it's not up for interpretation or discretion on their partner's part.
That's distinct from the safety net of a safeword or verbal feedback for unexpected needs to stop - it's built in, and negotiated, and understood that there will be a point where a limit is reached in the course of the kind of play that's being consented to. It's often intended that that limit be reached, and pushed, with the full consent and eager participation of both people, but that once that limit is reached, it's a real limit.
The most important thing about limits is that even the term is short for "the limit to my consent." Consent can be given or withdrawn at any point, whether a limit was expressed in advance or not. But expressing limits is like putting up fences or painted lines on the ground in an open field - mapping out in advance those areas where consent won't be granted if someone tries to go there - so don't go there. And some kinds of soft limits are more like speed limits or caution signs - not a direct refusal, but the advance agreement that specific cautions will be taken and specific boundaries won't be crossed, even if those boundaries may move around over time.
Some people make the mistake of assuming that everyone, even casual partners or people in new relationships, automatically consent to everything unless it's on a limits list. That's backwards. Until someone actually and affirmatively consents, you aren't consenting to anything whether you express a limit or not. But limits are a convenient way of mapping out known areas of consent and non-consent in advance so you don't have to keep asking and answering "Is this okay? Is this okay? Is this okay?" questions.
Which is why I shake my head at the people who start their limits lists with things like "no amputations, no farm animals, no children." Because as far as I am concerned, the normal discussion of what someone might get up to doesn't even put those sorts of things on the table for consideration, so they don't need to be discussed as some sort of exception to what might reasonably be expected to come up for consent. It's also why I think so many "I have no limits" discussions go off the rails right from the start. I agree it's a really poor phrase to sling around casually, but the kind of people who leap to "So, you mean it's okay if he cuts your arms off? No? Then you DO have limits!" are actually buying into the complete miscategorization of what what limits are all about. Sure include such things in your lists if you must, but if you honestly think you're dealing with someone who thinks such things are an option unless you say otherwise, you need to rethink your choice of playmates.
It's worth noting that it can go in the other direction as well. Something that you consented to doing, or even honestly thought you would enjoy and eagerly sought out, can become a limit as circumstances and preferences change. Just because you said yes once doesn't mean you say yes forever. As a practical matter, it's fair to a partner to explicitly say so, and not get upset if they assume a previous yes is still in force if you haven't said otherwise. But there are some things that go beyond that. Even if someone agrees completely that they won't try to force it on me, there are things that other people could do, or do with other people, or even simply clearly state that they enjoy doing.
If you have further input on SOFT LIMITS, feel free to write them below for discussion.