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Assault and consent in the BDSM community

I had planned to spend this afternoon writing about the Long Now Project, which inspires some of the most optimistic parts of me and speaks to the parts of me that are profoundly in love with the potential of the human race.

Instead, I'm going to write about something that saddens me greatly.

A short time ago, a friend of mine was sexually assaulted during a play session with a person who's prominent in the local Portland BDSM scene. The situation was complex, as these things often are; most rapes, whether they're within the context of BDSM or not, usually don't involve some perpetrator springing from a dark alley onto an unsuspecting victim. Yes, it can happen that way, but more often than not the victim knows the perpetrator, as was the case here.

This situation started out as consensual play, and turned into assault when my friend's boundaries were overrun. And what happened next makes me especially disappointed and angry.

The purpose of this post isn't to discuss the details of what happened. The things I'm going to say hold true regardless of the exact nature of the circumstances. Instead, what I want to do is talk specifically about the BDSM community, and how it often falls short of its own stated ideals, and often plays into cultural norms about men and women even while it supposedly enshrines values of individuality, negotiation, and consent.

It's not my intention to go into the details of the assault. For anyone who's interested and a member of FetLife, there's an essay here on Fetlife written by my friend. For folks who have access to Fetlife and who haven't read it, I encourage you to do so.

I'm a lot more concerned about the fallout after the assault. A lot of folks who I really think ought to know better have behaved in ways that suggests to me that they are blind to the value of consent and trapped in cultural paradigms of how women "ought" to behave.

I'm not saying that everyone in the BDSM community reacted badly. Quite a number of folks, both within the community and outside it, were supportive. What's disappointing and angering to me, though, is the people--and I will admit to being surprised by how many people--were not, and the lines of reasoning I saw.

If you don't lock your car, whatever happens is on your head

In conversations about rape and rape culture, one of the things I've heard feminists talk about is the idea that we as a society will often try to encourage women to avoid situations where they might be raped, but we don't encourage men not to rape women in the first place I think this is a valid complaint, and I do agree that this does, in effect, end up making it easier to blame the victims of rape for their own victimization. ("Well, if you hadn't been walking alone in the park/wearing that dress/whatever, this wouldn't have happened to you!")

But I think that blaming it solely on misogyny and patriarchy misses something important. There are women who buy into this notion as well, and it's not entirely because of internalized oppression.

We do the same thing with other kinds of crimes; we tell people to lock their doors rather than telling people not to burgle other people's homes; we tell people to lock their cars and hide their valuables rather than telling people not to rob cars. And this also creates an environment where victim-blaming becomes easier. I have had a car stolen before, back when I lived in Ft. Myers, and a surprising number of folks I knew told me it was my fault for parking it in a dark parking lot in a bad part of town. The impulse to blame the victim runs deep, and it isn't just about misogyny.

Instead, I think it's often about creating an illusion of safety. By finding some way to blame a victim of a crime, we can protect ourselves, if only a little bit, from the fear of that crime. If you are a victim because you did something wrong, then I don't need to fear being a victim as long as I do things right. I don't need to worry about having my car stolen, because I'm smart enough not to park it in a dark corner of a parking lot. I won't be a rape victim, because I'm smart enough to know better than to wear that miniskirt or walk down that alley.

Reality doesn't line up with those assumptions, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if women who dress modestly are just as likely, or more likely, as women who dress provocatively to be victims of rape. People will cling to beliefs that make them feel safer, even if those beliefs aren't true.

I am absolutely not saying that rape culture doesn't exist (it does) or that misogyny doesn't play a role in people's perception of rape (again, it does). For example, if a rape victim and a perpetrator know each other, that often makes folks more inclined to blame the victim than if the perpetrator were a stranger, yet the same is not true of robbery--whether a robber and a victim know each other or not doesn't change how likely people are to blame the victim for the robbery.

Instead, what I'm saying that both men AND women have a psychological motivator to engage in victim-blaming, and that misogyny is just one of many factors leading to victim-blaming.

In the BDSM community, victim-blaming can be more subtle and more insidious. I've heard folks say "Well, everyone knows how so-and-so likes to play. She should have known what she was getting into when she agreed to play with him." I've heard folks say "Well, she should have checked his references (or established a safe call or not played with him in private or any of a dozen other things) and this wouldn't have happened."

These "she should have" games play out after the fact, too. I've heard folks, including one person I know who I consider to be basically a decent guy, say "She should have done thus-and-such after the assault happened." Usually it's "She should have reported it" or "She should have confronted the perpetrator directly" or "She should have gone to a community leader and let him know that there was a problem".

To me, all these "she should have" statements are a little fucked up. See, here's the thing: Often, the folks in the BDSM community who end up assaulting someone are well-respected leaders in the community, with impeccable references and strong community support.

And I especially find it odious when folks try to say what they think an assault victim should have done after the fact. Look, here's the scoop: I am privileged. Men in general are privileged. We don't live with the pervasive knowledge that we can be sexually assaulted. I have never been the victim of a sexual assault, and because I am male, I am unlikely ever to be. That means I do not know what it feels like to be assaulted, or to be constantly aware that I can be assaulted. For me, or anyone who doesn't know what that's like, to presume to tell someone who has been assaulted how she is "supposed" to deal with the assault seems incredibly presumptive.

Confrontation has a cost. It is quite common for people, even when they have been victimized, not to be confrontational. This can be especially true if the person who's been victimized rationalizes that some part of the victimization might be his or her own fault; it's often easiest to say "Well, I shouldn't have been in that situation, so I really am not in a position to make a fuss about it now."

The "She should go to a community leader" is particularly presumptive considering how often it is that the "community leaders" are precisely the ones most likely to behave inappropriately, as was the case in my friend's assault.

And when it is a community leader who's involved, the community can close ranks behind him surprisingly quickly.

Again, this is not necessarily because of overt misogyny, though misogyny may play a role in it. There certainly is a streak of misogyny in some parts of the BDSM community, which you can see in the way submissive women are treated at social functions; there's often a presumption that a person who identifies as submissive, especially a female submissive, should naturally behave submissively toward any self-described dominant who walks into the room. You can see it in the way a submissive woman may be subjected to unwanted touching, especially in a "ha ha only kidding" context; if you announce that you're a submissive woman in a group of kinksters, one or two of them will quite likely assume that means they can swat your ass or otherwise encroach on your personal space without your permission. You see it in the way that many self-described dominants believe that submissive men are not "real men."

So there is an element of misogyny at work. But misogyny isn't the only thing going on. Community leaders in the BDSM community often become community leaders because they're willing to do things for people. They may host play parties or BDSM events. They may conduct classes in rope work. They may donate money to causes that are important to BDSM. They're community leaders because they perform some kind of service that people benefit from.

And people don't like losing that benefit. They may feel that if a community leader is accused of inappropriate behavior, he might stop hosting play parties, or they might not have the opportunity to learn from him. That creates a powerful incentive for them to find reasons to discredit accusations of assault or other inappropriate behavior. Or, worse yet, if the perpetrator withdraws from the community, they can act like it's the victim's fault they're not getting to go to those play parties or getting that education any more.

So community leaders in the BDSM community often find themselves in a position where there are fewer checks on their behavior, and where it is easy for them to be able to get away with inappropriate behavior. And that creates an environment where it is easy for a person in the role of a community leader to become a serial offender. Without checks on his behavior, he may feel free to commit assaults over and over again, with each victim believing that her assault is simply an isolated incident. The cost of coming forward means that few people are likely to come forward. The reluctance on the part of the community to acknowledge abuse means that those who do come forward may be discredited or dismissed. Together, these things become a recipe for an ongoing cycle of abuse.

In talking to people about my friend's assault, I've seen this happen. The perpetrator in this particular case runs (or used to run) a studio dedicated to teaching erotic rope work. This is a resource which, for obvious reasons, people in the local community do not want to lose. It's not hard to figure out why otherwise decent folks, folks who would act decisively against a random person accused of assault, might be willing to search for reasons to believe that what happened isn't really that big a deal when a community leader is involved. They have something to lose.

A person--especially a submissive and most especially a submissive woman--who comes forward in the BDSM community about assault often faces considerable repercussions for it. Other submissives might say "Well, the victim isn't really a TRUE submissive; if she were, she'd embrace what happened." She might have difficulty finding play partners, as people think "Well, she's just crazy; crazy people fling around wild accusations all the time. I better not go near her, or next thing you know she'll be making shit up about me!" People who like the perpetrator, or who gain some benefit by the perpetrator's involvement in the community, can try to minimize the assault: "Well, it wasn't REALLY assault; the boundaries were fuzzy, and it wasn't like he really meant to violate them."

It's that last one that pisses me off the most.

I like my women like I like my coffee: as a metaphor for objectification

When you encounter the BDSM community, the first thing you'll find is people talking about consent. It's the thing that differentiates BDSM from abuse. It's in the slogans you'll hear: Safe, Sane, and Consensual; Risk Aware Consensual Kink. BDSM Web sites, including mine, spend a lot of time talking about it.

And yet, for all the fact that the BDSM community talks the talk about consent, even to the point of smug self-congratulation, it's far too common that folks in the BDSM community aren't really serious about consent.

And I don't just mean the way that people will non-consensually swat the ass of any self-identified submissive who walks by. I mean in the way that folks will rationalize sexual assault just because they think there might have been some fuzzy boundaries.

There are lots of situations where boundaries can be fuzzy. I get that. People might start a scene and then what they want might change midway through. People might not communicate clearly. I get that.

But here's the thing: If you're not quite sure what the boundaries are, don't go sticking your dick in other people.

My sweetie joreth doesn't like the "No Means No" anti-date-rape campaign.

It has a noble purpose; and it is certainly true that if someone you're with says "no" to a sexual activity, you're an asshole if you go ahead and do it anyway.

But its weakness, she argues, is that it places the burden of responsibility on the victim--usually the woman--to say "no". If no means no, what does it mean if the answer is ambiguous? What does it mean if there's no answer? Does that mean yes? Should we assume that the default is yes unless we hear a definite no? Women are often socialized not to say "no" directly. Does that mean they're actually saying "yes?"

Instead, she argues in favor of a different standard: "Yes means yes." If you don't have direct, affirmative permission to put your dick somewhere, don't do it. Even if you didn't hear a "no."

In the BDSM community, which prides itself on negotiation and consent, one would expect to find that the incidence of "assault due to fuzzy boundaries" would be lower than in the wider society at large--but honestly, I don't know that that's the case. I suspect it's not. Some of the blame for that, I think, can be pinned on the "no means no" mindset; we didn't specifically negotiate this, but she didn't explicitly say "no" to it either, so that must mean it's OK.

"Yes means yes" sets a higher standard for consent; if the boundaries are fuzzy, if you didn't hear an explicit yes, if you aren't quite sure whether or not she wants you to put your dick there...assume that it is not OK for you to do it. In a community that claims to worship consent so much, that is, quite frankly, the minimum standard I would expect to see. And I'm disappointed by how often I don't.

There also seems to be, for some people in the BDSM community, an all-or-nothing approach to consent, even though we talk a great about limits and negotiation. Consent to one activity never implies consent to another. If she is in your house, that does not mean she has consented to get naked. If she has consented to get naked, that does not mean she has consented to be touched. If she has consented to touch, that does not mean she has consented to sex.

This should be obvious. Sadly, it appears that it is not. The perpetrator in the case here has tried to use photographs from a previous rope session with my friend, during which she had a positive experience, as evidence that the assault was consensual. It seems plain to me that consenting to be tied up is not the same thing as consenting to sex.

Overall, I'm quite disappointed by the way the BDSM community handles cases of assault, especially when the perpetrator is highly placed in the community.

I don't want to give the impression that it's a common problem. It's really not; most of the folks I know involved in BDSM are upstanding people, and the abuses I'm aware of are relatively rare. But they do happen, and when they do, I think a lot of folks in the community really fall short of responding in a compassionate and appropriate way.

What I would like to see from the BDSM community:

- An acknowledgement that sexual assault can and does happen within the community, and that this assault is sometimes perpetrated by community leaders within the community

- A standard of consent that is very, very high. No means no; fuzzy boundaries means no; I'm not sure but I think she might be indicating that she wants to go further means no; I'm not quite sure how to read this situation means no; only yes means yes. No putting your dick, or anything else, anywhere you don't have an explicit invitation to go. (Yes, I get resistance play. Yes, I get consent play. You can still negotiate that out with an explicit "yes.") This includes small things, like swatting the ass of that subby girl who walks by. Doing that isn't cute and it isn't funny. It's misogynistic, and it shows her that her consent isn't really all that important to you.

- Better recognition of the fact that a person who has been assaulted might not react to the assault the way we think she should. If a person does not react to being assaulted the way we think she ought to, that doesn't mean the assault didn't happen or was less serious. C'mon, really, people, this should be obvious.

- Better policing of the behavior of community leaders. The fact that community leaders contribute so much to the BDSM community creates an incentive for people to downplay accusations of assault against them. That's exactly why such folks ought to be held to a very high standard.

- Assignment of responsibility where it belongs: on the assaulter. Yes, we like to talk about what people can do to keep themselves safe, and there's value to that. Safe calls, references, meeting in public--these things are the scene equivalent of locking your car's doors. But make no mistake about it, if a person doesn't lock their doors, or doesn't meet in public, that person does not deserve to be violated! Regardless of what the victim did or didn't do, the responsibility for assault rests squarely on the assaulter.

- Make it safe for people who have been assaulted to talk about it. No victim-blaming, no ostracizing the victim, no whispered "wow, she must be crazy" behind closed doors. Keep an eye on the ball. The asshole is the perpetrator, not the victim. It's bad enough that the victim was assaulted; don't compound it by making it unsafe for the victim to do anything about it.

- Don't ostracize people who come forward when they've been abused. An explicit recognition of the fact that coming forward is difficult would go a long way toward creating that safe space.

- The roles that people play in the BDSM community are choices. They are not the whole of who someone is. It might be fun to talk about "true" dominants or "real" submissives in a scene, but at the end of the day, every single person makes choices about what role they play and what their boundaries are. If you let these roles bleed over into reality to the point where you think that all dominants should X or all submissives should Y, you're missing the point.

I believe that my friend is likely to face reprisals or ostracism from some of the members of the local community for coming forward, and I have a lot of respect for her for doing so despite the social cost. It's entirely possible that by writing this blog post, there are some members of the local community who won't much like me, either. I would like to propose that instead of being something that creates enmity in the community, this should become a catalyst for change. I think this should be a wake-up call for community leaders to make the community safer for its members, to hold ourselves to a higher standard of consent, and to create an environment that does not tolerate abusers. I would like the local BDSM scene in specific and the community in general to become better educated on the subject of sexual assault and create a safety network that makes it easier for victims to come forward. We need to do better than this.

Comments? Your experiences?



( 115 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 12th, 2011 03:43 am (UTC)
"Instead, I think it's often about creating an illusion of safety. By finding some way to blame a victim of a crime, we can protect ourselves, if only a little bit, from the fear of that crime. If you are a victim because you did something wrong, then I don't need to fear being a victim as long as I do things right. I don't need to worry about having my car stolen, because I'm smart enough not to park it in a dark corner of a parking lot. I won't be a rape victim, because I'm smart enough to know better than to wear that miniskirt or walk down that alley."

You're 100% correct, there've been numerous studies that show when someone close to you is victimized it shakes YOUR sense of safety, so you find a way to make it their fault to restore that sense.

And no, it's not misogyny. Your analysis of some of the issues in the community being at fault is, IMO, far closer, and I say that because I've seen the exact same thing happen on at least 3 occasions with people I know in the gay male scene, and once to a het male who was victimized in the straight scene. It is unusual for it to happen to straight males in the scene, but more common in the gay scene than most people would admit. Same sort of community ripples & victim blaming happen in both cases.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 12th, 2011 05:31 am (UTC)
^ this

Generally, what you're describing in this post happened to me once, so I avoided the Madison scene for years. 'Prominent man' wasn't hearing what I had to say, so I spread the word of his ignoring my well-defined boundaries. I was ostracized, but didn't mind so much since I wasn't interested in a place that condoned his kind of behavior. I just made sure incoming girls understood who and what that man was before they went further.

Now that I'm in a monogamous relationship, I'm a little saddened that I've lost that part of my development that could have been better enjoyed with more worthy partners.
(no subject) - inyou - Aug. 13th, 2011 12:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 12th, 2011 04:18 am (UTC)
Aug. 12th, 2011 05:44 am (UTC)
Very nice post. I like the "only yes means yes" stance.
Aug. 12th, 2011 06:48 am (UTC)
With your permission, may I print this out? I think the local community really needs to read this.
Aug. 12th, 2011 09:19 pm (UTC)
Absolutely! By all means. :)
Aug. 12th, 2011 07:13 am (UTC)
Thank you for giving such a clear voice to this topic. Things are not always as clear as people want them to be..when I was violated it took a day or two to even realize my own anger, and longer to put words to why...that was eight months ago and even now I'm understanding my anger in a better sense from reading your post than I had available to me when confronting my perpetrator. Even then I felt the need to 'hold back' like my anger wasn't justified because I knew he 'didn't mean it'.

It's amazing how much we can further the violation on ourselves for the sake of society, playing to people's discomforts about the topic and fear of shame and blame that we deny ourselves our own voice...sometimes even out of guilt/self-punishment. I've a friend who's now got her perpetrator living with her because of the "karma" of putting off a guy she cared about because she felt too guilty to tell him about being date-raped, so she's staying with the rapist.

And others...that someone can somehow quickly work his hand down your pants, which gets physically removed and ends the date, and then still not get it enough to try contacting the next day as if nothing happened, baffles me.
Aug. 12th, 2011 07:40 am (UTC)
I need to read this in more detail, but yes. The conversations need to start happening, and the rationalizing and "mansplaining" need to stop.

Oy vey, people! we're cutting edge here, (pardon the pun) we have to take care of each other!
Aug. 12th, 2011 08:08 am (UTC)
You are right once again!
Thank you for writing and posting this. Having been physically assaulted a number of years ago by a so-called community leader, during a social in one of the main gathering places of our community here in DC, I can attest as a guy that community leaders get away with a lot of crap no one else is allowed. How much worse it it for women or others, I can only imagine. Life may be a popularity contest, but ethical behavior is not.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 12th, 2011 09:29 pm (UTC)
The fact that so many people feel it's OK to harass women online, especially on fetish sites, is a dimension I hadn't considered, but I definitely think it's closely related to misogyny in the BDSM community in general. I know many women who've been subjected to some pretty amazing levels of online harassment. While it's not 100% misogyny--I've talked to male submissives who say the same thing happens to them, suggesting that people who identify as submissive may be targeted for harassment regardless of sex or gender identity--there's unquestionably a strong component of misogyny to it.

I've been chewing on something that happened to me many years ago, when I was still living in Florida. I'd gone to a play party in Ft. Myers with one of my partners, who I was bottoming to at the party. A lot of folks at the play party behaved in what I thought was inappropriate ways toward me (ass-swatting behavior being one specific example), just like they did to female submissives. The difference, though, was that when I said "Hey, that's not cool" to one of the people in question, I got a "Okay, sorry man" response, whereas a woman who said the same thing got a "Man, what a bitch!" response. So even when people behave inappropriately to both men and women, there does still seem to be misogyny in the way they react to boundary-setting.
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(no subject) - james_the_evil1 - Aug. 12th, 2011 10:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 13th, 2011 07:56 pm (UTC)
That's one of the problems, I think--men and women both in our society are taught to surround sex with shame, and on top of that, women are also socialized to believe that consenting unambiguously to sex makes them "sluts." So both men and women can have internalized reluctance to talk openly about sex, though I think it's worse for women than it is for men.

Still, the BDSM community talks the talk about open negotiation and consent, and I think it's necessary--particularly since so much potential for abuse exists--for it to walk the walk as well. Even if talking unambiguously about sex is difficult.
Aug. 12th, 2011 11:11 am (UTC)
Repeated, in whole, for depressing truth. (The whole blaming thing? Some of it's misogyny; some is Just World Theory, which makes an observer think the victim did something to deserve the punishment. Both serve to distance the observer from the victim--"if I don't do X, it won't happen to me." We all know that's BS.)

One of my favorite posts on sexual assault: this one from Harriet J.

Thinking good thoughts for your friend.
Aug. 12th, 2011 02:50 pm (UTC)
We'd a long talk at dinner about the aspect of the just world fallacy here.. and certainly the misogyny.. but there is something I see playing here among the good people I nkow who are not being the best versions of themselves in responding to the situation and it REALLY seems to be centered on wanting to feel safe. Victim blaming to create a sense of self-safety: They want to decry the victim as having blame for getting into the situation by ignoring certain safety or communication concerns they can come up with because if THEY could avoid doing that THEMSELVES then maybe THEY would be SAFE. The other influences are there, of course, but they don't seem to be winning.

People seem to want to believe there is a set of rules or expectations they can rely on (without, you know having to actively negotiate them?!?) to validate they will be safe - and don't want to accept that is merely an illusiory.
(no subject) - zellion - Aug. 12th, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Aug. 12th, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 12th, 2011 01:57 pm (UTC)
I have a "Yes Means Yes!" pair of panties, and you inspired me to make an icon out of them...
Aug. 12th, 2011 02:36 pm (UTC)
Great post! Thank you, I'm passing it about in the BDSM community here.
Aug. 12th, 2011 02:40 pm (UTC)
I read Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem he talks about what people do to survive emotionally in a war zone when you or people close to you can die suddenly. They invent "rules" for survival. "He died because he only waited 10 min. after the cease fire siren. Everyone knows you wait 15 min."
They had to invent these rules to create an emotional zone where they could survive. Where there is no safety, you invent it.
Aug. 12th, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC)
Good observation, and sad. We humans crave not only safety, but a sense of order and narrative. When things don't make sense, our brains work overtime to impose sense on the senseless. I can't begrudge people in a life-or-death situation that crutch if it helps them keep themselves together long enough to survive it.

The rest of the time, however, I wish more people would see victim-blaming for what it is and work harder to dismantle it. I'm tired from all the self-defense I have to do every day.
(no subject) - tacit - Aug. 12th, 2011 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 12th, 2011 03:04 pm (UTC)
I had my car broken into over a year ago and my laptop stolen, I was told "You shouldn't have left your laptop in your car in that part of town."

I was raped at 13 at a party filled with older people who were drinking and was told "You shouldn't have been at that party because people were drunk."

I stayed the night in the bed of a friend a couple months ago and he started groping me. I asked him what he was doing, and his response was "I'm not hearing a 'no...'"

I get nervous telling people I am a submissive, because I am particular about me being touched and have been told before that because I am submissive I should "appreciate" the touching I recieve. About a year ago I had a partner that I was submissive to. He gained another partner/sub, and decided to tell me that from that point on I was submissive to the both of them. I had no choice in the matter, according to him I was supposed to answer to her the same way I answer to him. I broke up with him over this, and was told that it was a stupid reason to break up with him from other people in the community. Because I am a submissive I should have said "yes, sir" and just gone with it.

I'm really glad for your friend for standing up. Knowing someone who has had a scene with a community leader that has gone too far has been hard to watch, especially when she tried to speak up and people immediatly rallied behind him. She quieted down because she would rather remain a part of the community than be booted out and she was aware there was no chance of people standing behind her in the numbers they were standing behind him.

I'll comment on this comment with two youtube links people should check out. One is from a speaker at Slutwalk Seattle, and the other is from a deaf actor.
Aug. 12th, 2011 03:20 pm (UTC)
A message from Shoshanna Stern about "don't rape" vs "don't get raped"

Amazingly powerful speaker from Slutwalk:
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