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got consent?

Part I * Part II * Part III * Part IV * Part V

Content Note: This post focuses on rape and rape culture, especially in kink communities. Please refer to our glossary for definitions of a number of key BDSM terms.

Last week, I began this series by describing my own history and love affair with kink and enthusiastic consent. As I wrote–and I’m sure I’ll talk about again–BDSM communities have developed numerous elaborate tools for negotiating boundaries and consent–tools that have gone on to influence more mainstream perpectives on consent as well. It is also true that the community is full of radical allies who care deeply about consent and do their best to honor it. So this is awesome! But it can create a false sense of security, and blind us to the reality that BDSM communities actually have a big problem.

[Edit: For those who have been following debates on abuse in the kink scene over the last 18 months, some of this post may be review, but I hope you’ll find some new material; we’ll dive into original material in earnest in the next parts. For everyone else, I hope it is eye opening—but not paralyzing, for there is much work to be done.]

Evidence of a Crisis

In January 2013, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), a legal advocacy organization for kinky and/or ethically non-monogamous people, released a survey about consent in BDSM communities.  At the very end of they summary of findings, NCSF writes:

Additionally, 30.1% of respondents indicated that they had a pre-negotiated limit violated and 14.9% had experienced having a safe word or safe sign ignored. The aggregate total is 33%: 1 in 3 kinky people have experienced a consent violation, further emphasizing the need for greater education.

33%. That’s dramatically higher than the already-way-too-high rate of sexual assault in America (20%).

Susan Wright from NCSF says the results indicate “there is still confusion between consensual BDSM and assault.”

Wait, what?

Let me get this straight. ONE-THIRD of people that NCSF surveyed had their consent violated, and the best NCSF can say is that there is “confusion” and a “need for greater education?” Really? This isn’t an “additional” interesting finding. This is evidence of a crisis. And we should be suspicious of the motives of anyone who pretends otherwise.

Don’t get me wrong. The NCSF does a lot of good work on spreading an understanding of how consent is supposed to work, and trying to improve the legal status of BDSM activities. They get it in theory, clearly, since they have a good summary of consent principles from a legal perspective up on their page. And I do kind of feel bad attacking them, so soon after their office caught fire. But they have a fundamentally assimilationist agenda, and that’s dangerous. In short, NCSF often seems to care more about making BDSM seem safe to outsiders than making the scene be safe.  And no matter what good legal work they do, the honest truth is that none of their work is of any use if we let abuse fester inside the community.

Marinating in Rape Culture

Kink culture is no better and no worse than mainstream culture. It’s not evil, or particularly full of bad people.  But we all come from the wider culture–which in the case of most people, means modern Western (and especially American) culture. We are surrounded by rape culture. We’ve been marinated in it our whole lives. Is it any surprise that we end up bringing rape culture with us into our happy hours, our bedrooms, and our play spaces?

This, then, is the tragedy. The BDSM community does in fact have the tools to combat rape culture. In theory at least, we understand better than most anyone how crucially important mutual informed consent is, and how complicated it can be. But in practice, kinksters have often ended up reproducing, in our own unique forms, many of the same problematic dynamics of mainstream rape culture.

For too long, kinksters have been afraid to talk about abuse in our community. We have been afraid of scaring people away, afraid of reconfirming people’s biases against kink, afraid of outing our friends and ourselves. But I firmly believe that talking about problems isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength.

Over the past 20 months or so, there’s been a war on in the BDSM community about issues of abuse and consent—in particular, the ability to call out predators. The war broke out, in part, after a piece in Good Vibrations Magazine in July 2011 by Kitty Stryker called “I Never Called It Rape: Addressing Abuse In BDSM Communities.” Following that, Kitty Stryker and Maggie Mayhem founded the Consent Culture Project, and doing events and organizing to raise awareness about of the issue—even getting covered in Salon. Others, like Maymay, have also been doing a lot of important work on this issue for quite a while. All these efforts were joined in 2012 by a group of young queers who organized to call out predators online; we’ll catch up with that part of the story in part III.

Others have covered this topic already at great length, and I will try to credit and link to their posts. But I encourage you to find the time to go back and read those posts directly. For a comprehensive survey, you can’t do better than Thomas Macaulay Miller’s seven-part “There’s a War On” series on the Yes Means Yes blog (Click for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7).

Communities?

I talked a little bit in my first post about BDSM communities, but for those who aren’t active in these communities, a few more words on their structure may be useful.

Kinky communities are actually a lot more like most communities than one might expect. There tend to be local organizations in most major cities, often several. Some (like Dark Odyssey in DC) focus on organizing big events; others (like Black Rose or Queer Munch in DC) are weekly or monthly social gatherings that throw the occasional party. Parties happen at hotels, at campgrounds, and in dedicated clubs. They tend to have a range of members, but are often (though not always) disproportionately white, middle-class, and geeky.

Collectively, this set of social networks and events is the “Public Scene.” However, I don’t think there is one unified scene, so I’ll mostly be using the term “BDSM communities” in this post. This is especially true in major cities like DC, there is a sufficient mass of people for the communities often end up somewhat segregated, especially along lines of sexual orientation.

Of course, most people who have kinky sex or play don’t do it in any public way—they do it with their partners, in their bedrooms, and may or may not even conceptualize it as BDSM. But I would argue this entire post is relevant to them too! Purposeful or accidental consent violations can and do often happen in private, intimate partner relationships. Indeed, it seems to me that because ignoring a safeword is much more obvious than ignoring a pre-negotiated limit, safewords are more likely to be ignored in private than in public.

Safewords

When you negotiate a kink ‘scene’ (time-and-place-bounded play with one or more other people), you discuss your interests as well as your limits—things you don’t want to have happen. But they might happen, or you might reach the limit of endurance for an activity you enjoy very much. What then?

KEEP CALM AND USE YOUR SAFEWORD

In BDSM play, a safeword is a word that you can use to end a scene (“red” is common), or request a decrease in intensity (“yellow,” for example). [EDIT: A safe “word” can also be a non-verbal signal to request that the scene stop, such as a hand tap or dropping a clutched object. Non-verbal signals are usually used when the bottom is gagged, but they are useful as a backup in all scense, because some bottoms often become become non-verbal as a result of deep submission or intense sensation.] Safewords were originally designed for “rape play” and other “consensual non-consent” scenes. Safewords exist so the bottom can scream “NO!” at the top of their lungs as part of a role-play, because another word have been mutually agreed-upon to mean no. But they’ve come to be used in all types of play.  And while they are indeed useful, I think they are relied on–and yet not actually used–far too often.

The real danger comes from the fact that safewords have substituted for “no” far too well. What I mean by that is that safewords have neatly replaced the role “no” plays in mainstream rape culture. I am always dismayed when I hear people express the opinion that if a safeword wasn’t yelled[/signaled], then the scene was okay and the bottom consented. Or when people assume that if the play stopped the moment the safeword was spoken, no boundaries had yet been violated. Really? Do we actually think that so long as “she didn’t say no,” the sex was consensual? I hope we all know better than that! So why do we adopt that kind of thinking with regards to BDSM play and safewords, when there are often many more boundaries and limits that could be crossed?

Personally, like Laura Antinou, when I am topping someone in a scene that isn’t about “consensual non-consent,” I’d rather have them use their words. Your wrist is starting to loose feeling and needs to be untied/moved to a different position? Just tell me! You can’t take any more hits with the cane? Say so! You want me to stop right this second? Skip “red” and just tell me! Safewords are very useful, but they can make for lazy, careless tops, who aren’t really listening to their bottom’s every movement and word. Which is especially important because actually saying a safeword, or admitting that one’s consent was violated, is very hard.

This elevation of safewords to a pedestal becomes even more problematic once you acknowledge that there is both social and internal pressure not ‘tap out’ via your safeword. To be a “good bottom,” or “good sub,” and endure it, to not get a reputation as someone who safewords too quickly, because then people might not want to play with you. To not bite the hand that fucks you, as it were. This attitute seems crazy, but it is sadly not all that uncommon. Kitty Stryker writes:

As I reflected on the number of times I’ve had fingers in my cunt that I hadn’t consented to, or been pressured into a situation where saying “no” was either not respected or not an option, or said that I did not want a certain kind of toy used on me which was then used, I’m kind of horrified. When I identified as a submissive female, I was told that using a safeword indicated a lack of trust, or that if I was a “real” submissive I wouldn’t need to have limits…I had multiple times when I took more pain that I could handle because I developed a fear of safewording, since it was so rarely treated with respect. And that’s just a sample….

How on earth can we possibly say to society at large that BDSM is not abuse when we so carefully hide our abusers and shame our abused into silence? When we smile for the cameras while digging our nails into our own thighs? I can only speak for myself, but as a fat, insecure girl coming into the BDSM scene, whatever rhetoric I was told, actions taught me that my value was in my sexuality and my willingness to give it up. A good submissive, you see, is quiet, passive, and obedient. Or, at least, the submissives who got the attention were.

For supposedly sex-positive communities, we still have far too much victim-blaming going on. Sure, someone can fail to properly articulate their limits beforehand, or get triggered unexpectedly, or make a mistake. But in my book, responsibility for avoiding rape or boundary violation ultimately rests with the top. And given that BDSM practitioners often play with power exchange and power differentials, this seems even more obvious.

The Predators Among Us

Rape culture has a lot invested in making us all think anyone can “accidentally” be a rapist. In the BDSM scene, predators and their enablers similarly have a lot invested in the rest of us fearing that if we could get in big trouble for simple mistakes. And it is true that accidental boundry violation is fairly common. I’ll talk more about this issue, and how to respond when you mess up, in future posts. For the moment, let’s keep the focus on where the real danger comes from.

Most people aren’t abusers and rapists. But empirical research shows that a small subset of the overall population—less than 10%—of people are responsible for most of the rapes and sexual assaults. And the kink scene is sadly no different. And we need to be able to identify these predators and call them out.

That would be relatively easy if the only danger were the creepy doms in the corner, who prey on newbies and “don’t do consent.” Like the “stranger in the bushes” framework for rape, it’s common to believe they pose the real danger. And they do pose a danger. Most of the really horrific BDSM-tinged crimes that have been successfully prosecuted involve such people. But they’re also recognizable. Asher outlined many of the key warning signs in their piece, “Field Guide to the Creepy Dom.”

The greater difficulty comes when the predator is a “pillar of the community.” The predator who is a pillar of the community has references, has played with lots of people, is well respected, and sometimes is even a hot commodity on the BDSM workshop/lecture circuit. They may even know how to talk a good game about consent. But they don’t respect it. Not really. Again, they often target newbies and other more vulnerable people. They negotiate a scene. And then start pushing the limits. It’s like the boiling frog concept—push a little to see if they can get away with it, and then they push a little more. But unlike the creepy dom, their social capital makes them hard to call out—even if everyone knows they have a problem. Do something once or even twice and perhaps it’s a mistake, an accident. Do it enough and it’s no accident.

A Picture of a Stair with more than a few stairs missing.

Now The Just Ain’t Safe.
Picture by Bad Swan, Via Cliff Pervocracy

The problem of predators not being excluded is made worse by the fact that often no one warns newbies about known abusers. Cliff Pervocracy analogizes this tendency to a missing stair in the staircase. You could fix it, but that’s too hard, so you just pretend it isn’t a problem because everyone can jump over the gap. Until someone falls through the gap.

In his comment on Reyes’ post about Dark Odyssey Winter Fire 2013, stewallthethings wrote about one such case, back in 2009, where the Dark Odyssey organization protected a community member, Don, despite two separate reports in a short timeframe of him not respecting consent. Those who reported him not only received no official response from the organization, but also a lot of social ostracization from other community members. And lest you think this is some random Internet comment, I have spoken at length with one of the women whose whose consent Don violated, and while I wasn’t there, I absolutely believe her. I can also confirm that Don continues to attend Dark Odyssey events to this day. To be clear: I greatly enjoy Dark Odyssey events and the people I’ve met there; but I don’t operate under the illusion that it’s safe.

Like all communities, members of BDSM communities often seek to avoid drama, minimize conflict, and defer to authority—all of which serve to protect rape culture from challenge. But it’s worse because we also have a BDSM Scene that is saturated in the geek social fallacies, where “drama is always worse than the thing the drama is about.” I’m not sure if this is actually related to the fact that a lot of kinksters are geeks. Possibly. But I do think it is also driven in part by the same dynamics that create problems in geek culture. Fearing (and often having experienced) rejection from mainstream society for our kinks, kinksters fall prey to the geek social fallacies that ostracizers are bad and friendship comes before all. Unfortunately this doesn’t extend to those who speak out about abuse. All too often, people act like it is worse to name an abuser than to be an abuser. And that’s pretty messed up, and, frankly, juvenile.

The end result is that the Public BDSM Scene is not safe space. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say it’s a safe space for the wrong people. Rather than protecting and supporting potential survivors of rape or abuse, the community often ends up protecting predators and silencing victims. No space can be safe for everyone. So if we want to prevent abuse and support survivors, we need work to create spaces that are actively unsafe for those who don’t respect consent. How we do that will be a key thread of the rest of this series.

In Part III, I’ll discuss how we can better call out the predators, and network with more security and transparency. And that requires taking on a tool that has become hegemonic in BDSM communities. I’m talking, of course, about FetLife.

In the meantime, I’m off to CatalystCon East! I am very excited about a whole weekend of networking with other sex-positive activists and friends. Will you be there too? E-mail me! I’ll be live-tweeting the conference at @DisruptDinner with the tag #ccon (Follow us!).

[Continue to Part III]

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