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Thursday, March 14, 2013

BDSM is Not Immune to Rape Culture | BDSM & Consent

I've been to several great consent workshops, and I've learned a lot in the process. After one of these workshops, I approached the experienced and talented presenter, a member of our small radical queer community in central Maine, and asked this question:

"What about BDSM* and consent? No one ever mentions that, and I've never seen any resources or zines about it."

To my surprise, she agreed wholeheartedly that it was a real community need, and she had so far not seen any [offline] resources geared toward kinky folks and how we manage consent. Since that time, I've kept my eyes open for BDSM resources on consent, or commentary on how consent culture is or is not present in the BDSM scene. I've also been practicing BDSM during these last few years and talking with many other people who do, as well as reading some great blogs like maymay's Male Submission Art and Maybe Maimed But Never Harmed, and Yes Means Yes.

What I've learned has been disturbing.

[Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and coercion in BDSM contexts. No graphic/sexual images  are used.]


To get to the root of the problems with kink and consent, we need to go back to the beginning. For me, the beginning of my exploration in BDSM, and with witnessing friends exploring BDSM, was about ten years ago, when I was sixteen. As a new explorer in the field of spanking, makeshift restraints, candle wax, and sex toys, I had a rather rosy-colored picture of consent and BDSM. Tell me if this sounds familiar:

"People think BDSM is unsafe or depraved, or that it's like sexual assault, but really BDSM players are much better with consent because everything is negotiated and talked about."

I heard this many times during the years in which I was beginning to learn about BDSM. I was a social justice advocate, an activist, and eager to counter any mainstream preconceptions about subcultures and their practices, so this statement really appealed to me. Without any experience with the BDSM scene, I took it as gospel truth. Kinky folks are better at consent. Because everything's negotiated beforehand. Because we actually talk about what we will and won't do, our "limits." Because we are really super well-adjusted people (every single one of us!) and nobody is ever abused or ever was abused or.... you get the idea. (For a very peppy defense of BDSM that glosses over any possibility of sexual assault, see this article.)

In some sense, these kinds of statements are aimed at defending kinky people from some very serious legal and societal intrusions into our lives. These statements are meant to calm an anxious public and assure them that we are not that which we might pretend to be in the bedroom or playroom, and not what movies or books might make us out to be. Yet precisely because these statements are intended to defend the BDSM community, they tend to discourage the self-reflection and truthful analysis that is needed to prevent sexual assault.

Sexual assault and consent violations are part of the BDSM community as it currently exists.

The facts are that many consent violations occur in BDSM contexts. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom conducted a survey of 5,000 people in the fall of 2012. Questions included “Have you ever had a pre-negotiated limit violated in a BDSM scene or relationship?”, “Have you ever negotiated a safeword or safesign with a partner who then ignored it during play?” Yes Means Yes reports that "taking the two questions together, 33% of respondents that answered these questions answered yes to one, or the other or both."

In other words, one in three people reported a consent violation in a BDSM context.

Interestingly, the comments on Yes Means Yes's reportage provide a great sampling of reactions. Here are the first and second comments:

"Wow, I am surprised, considering what you said, that this community discusses consent more than most."

and,

"In my experience, the lifestyle tends to attract two groups, the majority, are very big on consent, and just into different things. But, the acts involved can attract a darker personality, that believes they can hide behind the lifestyle to act on their more … socially unacceptable… urges."

 The first comment echoes the belief that BDSM players are better at consent. This is an argument that is worth picking apart. Do people believe that because they talk about consent in the form of negotiated limits and safewords, that they are safer in their sexual lives-- and less likely to perpetrate assault-- than people in the dominant culture who don't talk about the meaning of "red, yellow, green" before getting into bed?

Is it enough to be "better" at consent -- or discuss it "more than most"-- when the dominant culture is a rape culture? Is it enough to discuss consent "more" when our partner is tied up, gagged, deeply in an altered state of consciousness, or experiencing the psychological influence of a "24/7" relationship? Perhaps we shouldn't think about being better at consent, but about being committed to consent,  dedicated to preventing assault, passionate about ensuring that partners are willing.

The second comment has the flavor of truth to it, and it's probably appealing to kinksters because we all would prefer to think of ourselves as the majority who is "big on consent." And it's a nice thought. But just like with sexual assault in the wider population, the statistics don't support the idea of a minority class of extreme deviants. The statistics support, instead, the reality of non-consensual interactions woven throughout the fabric of kinksters' lives and social groups. The statistics (1 in 3 experience consent violations) support the idea that BDSM scenes, like the wider sexual culture, are not separable from rape culture.

To say that BDSM scenes are not simply "polluted" by a sprinkling of bad players isn't to say that there aren't specific perpetrators who need to be identified for what they are. This is the purpose of FAADE, the Fetlife Alleged Abusers Database Engine. Fetlife is a major social network for people involved in BDSM and fetish activities and lifestyles. Unlike Facebook, its content is only visible to members. Fetlife is where many kinky folks meet other kinky folks for play and hookups, and as such, it could be an important stage for organizing around consent in the BDSM community.

Unfortunately, Fetlife as a company is unwilling to side with survivors of sexual assault in the community. Their terms of service state that it is against the rules to "make criminal accusations against another member in a public forum." That means no calling out someone who is dangerous and may harm others who they hook up with. Maymay, who has been a longtime blogger on kink and the BDSM scene, created the FAADE plugin to give Fetlife users the ability to call out alleged abusers. The plugin works with Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome to add extra functionality to Fetlife's database, enabling you to view reports of consent violations when viewing a member's page. You can also report consent violations anonymously without downloading FAADE.


Toward a kink-inclusive vision of consent?

It's my belief that establishing and maintaining healthy consent among lovers or players, or in a whole community, is not a work that is ever finished. A world without rape would be a world where we will always talk and teach about consent.

This isn't less true in BDSM scenes, relationships, or spaces. If anything, it's more true. BDSM interactions aren't covered in traditional consent workshops (or many consent zines and other print resources) perhaps because the subject is too complex, or because it's assumed that the same rules apply and the same processes are useful, or because the number of kinky people is thought to be too low to merit consideration.

The subject of consent in kinky relationships and hookups is complex, but that is not a good enough reason to skirt the issue. More and more people are becoming interested in some type of kinky play, with widely ranging estimates on how many people are currently involved. If including an extra segment in your consent talk prevents one sexual assault, it's worthwhile. The difficult aspect comes in when a presenter must decide how to present information that is kink-inclusive without giving incorrect information or promoting unhelpful advice. That's where kinky folk need to themselves get involved with educating about consent, both inside of our community (on blogs and websites and zines and workshops geared specifically toward kinky folks) and in the wider community (in sexual health and consent workshops and seminars, consent zines and pamphlets, and sexuality web resources.)

Should I expand this article with a secon part,I want to explore the value and limitations of safewords, considerations for dominant and submissive partners, consent issues in semi-anonymous hookups, and perhaps briefly touch on consent and sexual and relationship violence in 24/7 relationships. If you would like to get in touch, you can email me at zeraph@alchemistscloset.org or anonymously submit anything at http://alchemistscloset.tumblr.com/ask. Thank you!





*BDSM is a compound acronym standing for bondage & discipline / domination & submission / sadism & masochism. Wikipedia [3/14/13] states that BDSM "represents a continuum of practices and expressions, both erotic and non-erotic, involving restraint, sensory stimulation, role-playing, and a variety of interpersonal dynamics." I am using the acronym here to refer to any variety of BDSM or depth of involvement. I make no attempt to distinguish between "real" or "heavy" players and less experienced or involved players. Such distinctions "mystify" BDSM, shield it from the transparency and accountability needed to create consent culture, and create shame and uncertainty.

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