If you have spent any time experimenting with BDSM, you will encounter the concept of the “hard limit”. You likely also heard about its close relative the “soft limit”. While they are both refer to limitations placed on the activities performed during scenes, they mean different things, but sometimes it’s not clear how they differ.
Before I discuss what they are, I want to mention that people have varying definitions of what they mean. So, you may run into explanations that are unlike mine. This is how I define them.
First, I want to talk about a couple of common misconceptions. The first is that people (usually newer players) think that “hard” and “soft” refer to a to a scale of play intensity. So, when asked about their hard and soft limits, will say something like, “not too hard” or “medium”. Another common idea is that a soft limit refers to something you have done and might not like very much, such as CBT or electrical stimulation (“e-stim”). Often this is followed by a, “but I’m okay doing it if you enjoy it, Mistress.” Those are not soft limits, they are preferences. Limits have to do with boundaries.
Then, what is a soft limit and how does it differ from a hard one?
A hard limit is non-negotiable. It is something you are not willing to do under any circumstances. This can be a never, ever kind of thing or it could be only for this one scene you’re negotiating with this one person(s) you’re about to play with.
A soft limit is negotiable but within certain parameters. It is something you are willing to do as long as certain conditions are met. Like a hard limit, a soft limit can be something that is static across time or it may depend on the scene and who’s involved in that scene.
Hard and soft limits apply to both physical or mental/emotional activities. Some examples of physical hard limits could be impact play, spitting, or anal stimulation. Turning the above examples into physical soft limits could be liking impact but only on your butt; liking spitting, but not on your face; or enjoying anal stimulation as long as there is no penetration. Some emotional hard limits could be degradation, abandonment, or brainwashing. Turning these into emotional soft limits could be finding it hot to be called a slur as long as it’s playful and not “mean”; liking to be abandoned as a part of your scene but only if followed by a particular type of aftercare; or enjoying being verbally brainwashed about what your gender is but not your sexuality.
An easy way to determine if a limit on an activity is hard or soft is to ask yourself: “Am I willing to do this activity under ANY circumstances?” If the answer is NO, then you have discovered a hard limit. If the answer is YES, and you have specific requirements that must be met in order for you to do it, then you have identified a soft limit.
When you realize that you are willing to do an activity in some instances, think carefully about what those instances are. Imagine what circumstances would need to occur in order to allow something to be done or said to you. Inversely, imagine what circumstances would absolutely stop you from wanting to do it.
People often seem confused about the circumstances part. I regularly have people tell Me something like, “I have a hard limit on marks. They can’t last more than a day.” What you have actually just told Me is that you have a soft limit on marks. The reason is because you’re actually okay with being marked, it’s just that those marks have conditions. The condition is that they last no more than a day. If you could not be marked at all — that is, you cannot leave the session with a trace of anything — then it would become a hard limit.
Some limits are very clear for people and some limits are not. Physical limits are usually easier to determine. Emotional limits, on the other hand, are often nebulous territory. It’s common for people to say they are unsure about their emotional limits. They may indicate they enjoy being degraded, for example, but are not really sure where that enjoyment may end. Then, someday, during a scene, they hear a word or phrase or end up feeling a certain way after a particular scenario and realize they have just discovered at least one fence post in the field of their emotional landscape.
It’s okay if you’re not sure about what your limits are. Even experienced players may not be sure of what they will enjoy — especially with a new play partner — or be aware of all the conditions around a particular activity. One way to become more sure is to go into your play consciously. Have conversations about your scenes, maybe take notes or even journal about them. This will help you become more aware of what is working and what your limits may be and why.