[Content Note: Throughout this series, I’ll be talking about rape and rape culture. This introductory post will discuss these topics in much less detail, though.]
“You’re going to write for a feminist blog? But you’re a MAN! How are YOU a feminist? What sort of feminist are you?”
So said my Mother a few days before Christmas, when I told her about the plans for what was to become Disrupting Dinner Parties.
“Of course I’m a feminist! Feminism is for everyone! As for what sort of feminist I am, well, that’s a very good question indeed.”
To help further the conversation, on Christmas I gave my Mom a copy of “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and World Without Rape.” We’ll come back to that in a moment.
From the moment I was asked to write for this blog, I had a topic I knew I wanted to write about. A topic that I given a lot of thought to, and about which I have all the feelings.
I want to talk about consent and abuse in BDSM communities. Because that’s not complicated or anything, right?
I just didn’t think I’d be writing about it quite so soon.
On February 22nd, Reyes wrote a really great conference report about Dark Odyssey Winter Fire (DOWF), one of the biggest BDSM events in the region, which both she and I attended. (BDSM is shorthand for Bondage, Discipline, Domination, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism; check out our glossary for a whole set of related terms.) At the end of her post she talked briefly about the problems with the BDSM scene on issues of consent and abuse. A friend of ours left a comment pointing out that Dark Odyssey is not a safe space, and has in at least one instance protected someone with a history of violating consent. (Indeed, this very story had been raised with us prior to our attending DOWF.) That comment deserves a response.
In researching and writing that response, and talking with a number of friends, I’ve concluded there is just far too much ground to cover for one blog post. So this post will be the start of a series.
As with many topics, it probably helps if I start by explaining where I am coming from.
When people ask about why I identify as a feminist, I usually start by talking about how everyone should be a feminist, because being a feminist simply means recognizing that all people should have the same rights and opportunities, regardless of gender. And that sexism, misogyny, and the patriarchy screw over everyone (even straight, white men). But get me talking, and I’ll soon end up on the topic of sex positivity.
I believe that we won’t eliminate rape and the culture that enables it until we embrace the idea that all people—but most of all women—can desire and ask for sex, and have as much sex as they want, without consequence. When it comes to sex, I believe that consent is paramount, and that consent is a process—not something handed over once, but something that needs to be continually negotiated and enthusiastically re-affirmed. I believe that sex is infinitely complex, and it is important to understand and openly discuss options, fantasies, boundaries, and limits. And I believe that any sexual activity between two or more fully consenting adults is perfectly okay.
I didn’t learn these lessons from reading Yes Means Yes (though I do think it’s an excellent book that everyone should read). I learned these lessons back college, and, largely, from the BDSM communities that created many of these tools. If you want to play with power, bondage, and pain safely, you have to be pretty damn serious about consent. Now, I maintain that pretty much everyone can benefit from using some of the communication techniques that the BDSM scene has developed—things like checklists, safewords, check-ins, journals…even menus to stir the creative juices. But kinky people need these tools.
So while it is true that my approach to kink has been shaped by feminism, it is probably equally accurate to say that my feminism has been shaped in profound and at times surprising ways by kink.
I first experimented with BDSM about a decade ago, back when I was starting college. My college kink scene was not only profoundly queer-friendly, but also just downright friendly. These were my people. Over my college years, I threw several private play parties, and ended up co-chairing the informal, underground kink club. (The decade-plus saga of attempts to charter that club is a separate tale; indeed, it’s one I am writing a book about…in all that spare time I don’t actually have.) In the years since, I’ve gotten involved in the public BDSM “scene” in major cities, and attended five large BDSM conferences like Dark Odyssey Winter Fire. In the kink community, I have found welcome, acceptance, joy, and love. So despite all the problems–and they are legion–this community has become one of my homes.
My kink identity is pretty fluid, or, to use a term from the scene, “switchy.” I enjoy both Sadism and Masochism, both Dominance and submission. I have a wide range of interests and experiences. I’m also a bisexual man (we exist!), though I prefer to identify as queer. I have played with and/or had sex with people with a number of different genders and sexual orientations. Or, to put it another way, I’m kind of a giant slut. And over time, I’ve decided that I’m okay with that.
Why do I love kink? Letting go of all your assumptions about what someone else might want, pushing beyond your comfort zone with someone you really trust, getting to explore physically or psychologically risky things in a negotiated context, and owning your desires and asking directly for what you want…these are some of the rare, wonderful, and sometimes even transcendent experiences that kink can provide. For me, there’s an additional draw. I have Attention-Deficit Disorder, and I have found that engaging in BDSM play creates some of only times that I can stay hyper-focused without distraction for half-an-hour, an hour, three hours at a time. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t struggled with ADD what a truly remarkable gift that is.
But for all that can be good about kink, we also need to face the fact that kink communities have a major problem. In January 2013, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) released a survey about consent in the BDSM communities. The survey found that one-third of all people surveyed had experienced a violation of their consent during BDSM play. Thomas Macaulay Miller writes that the survey “demonstrates empirically that the biggest problem facing kinky people today is consent violations and everything else is less important.” [Emphasis Original.] I could not agree more.
On Monday William Saletan discussed BDSM in Slate Magazine, and ‘discussed’ about problems of abuse within BDSM communities. But he quickly went off the rails, calling kink “consensual domestic violence” and insisting it will never be able to be accepted by society. Clarise Thorn, bless her heart, tore him a new one over this, and I concur. In short, I think it was journalistically irresponsible for Saletan to use his Slate piece to focus on abuse in the BDSM scene, without so much as acknowledging all the people who are working to make the community safer.
I will not stand for people attacking and demeaning BDSM without knowing the first thing about what they are talking about. But I am not so concerned about convincing the world that BDSM is safe and sane so as to give shelter to the predators who would destroy us from within. I care about my community far too much for that.
Over the course of this series, I will explore in more detail the story of how the BDSM community has begun to openly discuss this crisis of abuse, with a focus on the pressures people face to not use safewords and not report violations, and the problems that result when predators gain positions of influence within communities. I also plan to discuss how to play more safely in both public and private, and how we can work together to build a better communities and run safer parties. And I will of course discuss sexism within the ‘scene,’ the importance of brining a feminist and critical approach to BDSM. I know other editors on Disrupting Dinner Parties have lots of things to say about that last topic in particular, and I look forward to reading what they have to say as well.
Defeating rape culture, and realizing the transformative and feminist potential of BDSM, is not and will not be easy. But few things worth doing are. What I do know is that when I look at the people I love, I can’t help but be hopeful and determined. And I know that there’s no time like the present to get started.
I hope you’ll join me on the journey.