Tag Archives: consent

Negotiating Power

I once told a man he should cheat.

We hadn’t seen each other for some time. He looked exhausted. Miserable. He was talking about his partner of more than three decades, about hospital visits and stress and fear. About making every decision, wondering whether it was the right one. His partner’s dementia had progressed to the point he couldn’t make decisions about medical consent anymore. He didn’t remember things he should, he slipped sometimes into other times or experiences.

They had no romantic relationship anymore. How could they, when one of them could remember the other’s name only intermittently? They had no sexual relationship anymore. Not safe, when one’s mental state and physical health were tenuous at best.

“I’m celibate.” He shrugged. “I don’t want to be, but there it is.”

I told him he should cheat. What else was I going to say? Wait for your partner to die, maybe for years, look forward to the freedom to have sex or intimacy again?

A relationship–any relationship–is an agreement. There are terms and conditions. I’ll cook, you do dishes. If you have sex with someone else, I’ll leave. The terms can be somewhat fluid and not always discussed, but they’re no less real for that. Your relationship is how you interact with another person: when you change, or they do, what you are together changes. The terms and conditions change. They have to, if the relationship respects the needs of the people in it at all.

Sometimes renegotiating an agreement isn’t possible. Maybe there’s abuse: a person who can’t safely leave an abusive relationship still has every right to exercise autonomy, and shouldn’t be bound by terms and conditions they have not consented to. Maybe there’s dementia, a coma, an injury or illness that leaves a person unable to consent. Should their partner be bound to an agreement they would not be able to make or affirm anymore?

I won’t try to sugarcoat it. It is cheating, to break a relationship agreement instead of renegotiating it or ending the relationship. And I want to phrase this carefully because I know how many cheaters will say they had to cheat, because they would not be able to do what they want if they talked to their partners. That’s bullshit. Cheating because a partner wouldn’t understand or might end the relationship is cowardice. It’s the refusal to respect the conditions the cheating person has agreed to, it places their pleasure above their partners’ right to informed consent, and it is utterly despicable.

Cheating because one partner cannot consent…it’s cheating. It’s cheating, and the situation is awful and the world is awful for letting these situations exist. I don’t think it can happen without admitting that the relationship is already irrevocably damaged. At the same time, I won’t say that the man I advised to cheat should have had to leave his partner– to stop caring for him, living with him, being his companion–if he wanted to receive any kind of affection at all. I don’t think a person who is unable to leave an abusive situation should have to be isolated from intimacy until and unless they can gather the resources to escape abuse.

It’s been a few years. I don’t know whether he did cheat, before his partner died. We don’t see each other often and it’s not my place to ask. But I think I’d give the same advice again. I’m not sure it’s the right thing. It probably isn’t. But when the ability to even discuss the terms of a relationship is absent, I think it’s only compassionate to expect those terms to be less binding than they once were.

Kittens Are Not Tigers

“You were my single period, you know? And the stuff we did was incredible. I want that. I want more. But my girlfriend isn’t adventurous like you. What can I do?”

I try to answer kindly, because I remember you kindly. This is how you tell her what you like. This is how you explain to her what it means to you. Here are books and blogs, so if she wants to learn more about kink, about swinging, she can do it on her own time.

But all you can do is open that door. You can’t change what she likes any more than she can change what you like, and it would be monstrous of you to try. Don’t forget to listen to what she likes. Don’t forget to learn what that means to her.

I try to answer kindly, but there is a storm lifting my hair in electric ire. I want to say: Of course it was incredible. I know it. You know it. You’re the one who stopped it. You’re the one who chose a girl for her sweetness. How dare you come back to say “help, I’m lucky enough that this perfect, soft kitten is purring just for me…how do I make her a tiger? Only sometimes. Only when it suits me.” How dare you. Do you know how insulting it is to me, that the wantonness that made me undateable is what you want to cultivate in her now? Do you know how insulting it is to her, to tell her you could be happy with her in vanilla monogamy, when you knew you lied?

Kittens are not tigers. You cannot seek the company of something tame and train it to be wild.

I can promise you this: you won’t forget me. Years from now you will catch a glimpse of red hair out of a window and that will be it. The memory of what we did will hit you so hard you stop mid-sentence. You’ll need to brush the gooseflesh from your arms and shake your head to clear it of the echo of my gasps. You won’t miss me–we weren’t close enough for that–but you’ll wonder, a little rueful, why it can’t be like that with her, whoever she is.

I can promise you this: you won’t find someone who satisfies you, not until you understand that women who like the things you do aren’t too perverse to date. That they’re whole sexual being before you ever meet them, that they can and will and should explore their desire when and with whom they see fit. That as long as you think this taints or degrades them, you must see what you want to do as degrading. That they deserve more respect than that (that we all deserve more respect than that). You won’t find a partner who’s right for you until you stop searching only among women you’d have to change to fit you. Because kittens are not tigers. And they deserve to be adored for who they are, not pushed miserable into who you want them to be.

In Time, With Trust

“I’m not saying I expect to just jump into something like that. But in time, with trust.”

But I don’t trust. I won’t trust, don’t even want to.

“I’m going to be trustworthy. What you do with that is up to you.”

You say that. You might think you mean it, even, but I can hear what you really mean. Do the right thing, the kind thing, the reasonable thing. Trust me. I’m worth it. I’ve earned it. Trust me.

I don’t. I don’t want to.

He will stand in the cold. They all do, for a little while. “Trust me,” and they’ll watch for me to open the door. “Trust me,” and they don’t understand why I haven’t yet, how I can laugh with them and flirt with them, fuck them and be fond of them but never let them in. “Trust me,” and it’s colder now, the cold that makes lips and voices and resolve crack. “Trust me,” and their blood is in the words, an offering, a plea, an accusation. “Trust me,” but I can’t. I will come outside, offer my body to keep them warm but it’s not enough. It’s not the cold, not really. They just want to see inside. To see if it’s all that they’ve imagined. “Trust me,” and I know I won’t because it does not break my heart to hear it. “Trust me,” and when I tell you the last time and the first time nearly ruined me, do you understand how sick it makes me that you expect me to just believe that you would be different?

“Trust me.” I don’t know why they want it, or what they expect to see. If they’re just curious. If because I am good–very good–at showing them how to sort and store their feelings, they think I should offer them a closet or a chest of drawers. If they just hear “I don’t trust easily” as a challenge, a way to prove they are special. I don’t know what they see but what I see is the aftermath. I see the day I am left to clean the junk of them from all my drawers, the repairs that will take years because they will have been careless.

I don’t trust easily. Asking, demanding, wheedling will not make it easier. All I see is testing doors, then. All I want to do is check the locks.

You have my permission not to love me. I am a cathedral of deadbolts, and I would rather burn myself down than change any of the locks. – Rachel McKibbens

Submit: (verb, active)

There’s been a flurry of posts lately spurred by Ferns’ post here, in which she notes a trend in behavior:

“Well, if the submissive doesn’t want to do it, then a good dominant will understand and not make them.”

And what I have seen is that the ‘it’ in that statement extends to *everything*.

And her response to this attitude is:

“That’s great kids, but *how is that submission?!*“

The answer is simple and unambiguous. That behavior is not submission. The OED says that to submit is “to surrender oneself to judgment, criticism, correction, a condition, treatment, etc; to consent to undergo or abide by a condition, etc.” The behavior Ferns describes does not fit the bill. I’m not questioning that person’s right to identify as submissive, because identity is an aggregate of actions and paradigms and ideas that are not always exemplified in every act and that’s fine. If a person identifies as submissive but never submits, it might be worth asking if s/he might mean another word (fetishist, bottom, masochist) much the way you’d question someone who identifies as a vegetarian but eats meat regularly, but that’s a separate issue. My point here is that Ferns is absolutely right to look at this behavior and assert that it is not an act of submission.

Kink in Exile followed this up with her own response, centered around the (also completely correct) statement that “anything short of respecting your partner’s boundaries is coercion at best.”

Here I’m going to start making assumptions. I think Ferns was referring to something like the dictionary definition of submitting quoted above, and that her annoyance stems from the idea that if a person agrees to do something, either in a specific instance or as part of a relationship dynamic, deciding not to do that thing is not, and should not be called submission. She has pointed out before that this is how one breaks a D/s dynamic. Does a submitting partner have the right to say “no” to any and everything under the sun? You bet. But a dominant person is going to be justifiably upset if her submissive is going to continually ignore the conditions of the relationship he’s agreed to. Spouse and I don’t have a power dynamic, but if I say I’ll drive him to pick up his car from the shop and then wake up in the morning and decide I’d rather sleep an extra half hour, he’s going to be pissed the hell off. I agreed to do a thing. He made plans based on the fact that he trusts me to keep my word. Taking these agreements lightly will be damaging to any relationship . Are there extenuating circumstances? Sure. The response in those cases, in or out of a D/s context, is “This thing came up, and I feel it is legitimately more important than our agreement/it is now impossible for me to do what I said. I’m sorry.”

Kink in Exile seems to be responding to the idea of a dominant partner making or forcing a submissive to do something, which would of course be unethical. Expecting your partner to do what he says he will is healthy, even requisite for a trusting relationship. forcing or coercing him if he doesn’t follow through is violating consent and destructive to a relationship.

So my final assumption here is that the two of them aren’t quite talking about the same thing, that there may still be some disagreement but to me their ideas look quite compatible.

Then MayMay declared that “dominants are rapists.” It is flat-out appalling. I’ve read every post on their blog, I’ve agreed with much of what they say, and this post has me stepping back and questioning all of it because it so fundamentally fails to respect human agency that I see it as incommensurate with everything they purport to stand for.

I am not saying this as a sometimes-dominant person. If someone wants to say I’m a rapist for acts of dominance, you know what? Fine. It’s wrong, and it feeds the terror I have every single time I take the initiating role in a social context, sexual or not, but ultimately I don’t care. The accuser is not one of my partners, and my partners are the only people whose evaluation of my behavior with them matters. It’s wrong, but identities carry social stigma, and we learn to live with them: Bisexuals are sluts. Polyamorous folks are sluts. Kinky people are mentally ill. Dominants are rapists. After a while you start to tune it out, realize that people just don’t know what words mean and most of the time it just isn’t worth the effort of correcting them.

This one is worth correcting. Saying “dominants are rapists” denies those of us who have chosen to submit to a dominant partner the right to call it a choice. Defining dominants as rapists, without exception, means calling their partners victims, without exception. Calling someone a victim or a survivor without asking whether they consider themselves victims removes a level of self-efficacy, denies them autonomy. I really believe–or did–that Maymay’s goal was to prevent assault. I don’t see that here. I see a writing that minimizes the trauma of those of us who have been sexually assaulted, tells us that we don’t get to decide which events in our lives were rape. You may note that I refer to events, behaviors: I am not a survivor or victim of sexual assault. I am a person who has been sexually assaulted. A victim is an object (in the grammatical sense). A person is a subject. For someone who so consistently purports to support people who identify as submissive, he seems to be missing the mark in a bad way.

MayMay’s language doesn’t give people in relationships with dominants that agency. They are victims. Specifically rape victims, whether they consented or not, whether their submission is expressed sexually or not. The idea that someone who chooses to be in a relationship with a dominant loses the ability to determine whether his or her own submission is consensual or not is insulting and dehumanizing to those people. It’s telling me what I can and can’t consent to, as if I were a small child.

I see, sort of, where this is coming from. It’s still appalling. The problem is, consent (as I’ve written about before) is agreement given freely. Desire does not have any bearing on consent. It is often an associated factor but is neither necessary nor sufficient for consent. Harm does not have any bearing on consent. It is an often inversely associated outcome, and lack of consent is sufficient but not necessary for an action to cause harm. Conflating any of these things is dangerous, especially given that desire is rarely simple. It’s common to want and not want something at the same time, for a variety of reasons. Wanting an outcome of an act (making a partner happy, having clean floors, or both) is a valid reason to do an act one in no way enjoys (scrubbing floors).

The thing about submission that I find so appealing is that it’s an active process. Every time someone chooses to submit, it’s an affirmation that s/he values the relationship. Building a relationship involving acts of submission with a dominant person does not diminish that value. It certainly doesn’t make the dominant partner a rapist.

**EDIT**
Replies on Twitter make it clear that maymay would prefer that I not engage them directly any further. I intend to respect that. Kink in Exile decided to leave the conversation in favor of privacy and tea, which sounds like the best idea ever right now. So what I’m going to do is this: if anyone chooses to comment on or ask about this issue on this blog or directly to my e-mail, I will respond. Outside of that–on Twitter, or anyone else’s blog, or what have you–I’m leaving it alone.

Consent: What is it, anyway?

People talk about consent as though it’s complicated. Sure, no means no, but does yes always mean yes? What if she said “yes” but doesn’t seem into it? What if he says “no” but really wants it? What if she says “yes” based on psychological issues without informing her partner about those issues? When does “Do you want to make cookies?” mean “let’s fuck?” What happens when one or more parties regret or just don’t enjoy whatever they’ve agreed to? All of a sudden everyone who wants to be conscientious about getting laid is either a lawyer, or afraid of lawyers.

I see posts like this one about being terrified of overstepping bounds or not being what one’s partner desires*. Or a tweet asking what consent feels like**. They make me wonder how much baggage the word has picked up, and why we seem so willing to let our partners’ consent be the sole factor in our decision to do sexy sexy things with/to/for them.

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Can we stop it already? Consent is a very simple concept. I’m just going to go with the OED’s primary definition: “Voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires; compliance, concurrence, permission.” That’s it, folks. Consent is permission without coercion. If you ask your partner, “hey, can you start the laundry?” and he says “sure,” that’s consent. If I growl “I want to bite your collarbone,” a “God, yes,” is consent. If he shifts to an open posture that gives access to his collarbone and/or draws my face towards it, that’s probably consent. Nonverbal communication can be clear and unmistakable***, but if (like me) you’re paranoid or terrible at reading it, adding a “may I?” and waiting for some form of verbal “yes/mhmm/please” or a clear nod can guarantee that you’ve got consent. If the answer to “I want to bite your collarbone” is “be careful not to leave marks,” you have provisional consent: biting yes, bite marks no. If the answer is “no,” well, that can be disappointing, but aren’t you glad you said something instead of diving in and chomping on someone who didn’t want it?

There are situations people seem to find genuinely confusing. They can be confusing, not because consent is hard but because there are other factors one ought to consider other than simply getting one’s partner’s permission.

A person can consent without having desire. This is no fun. If I say “let’s fuck” and my partner says “meh, okay, I’ve got nothing better to do,” that’s consent. It’s not enthusiastic by any means, but consent requires only acquiescence, not desire. Now, if I know my partner isn’t in the mood and is just acquiescing, that’s a hell of a turn-off. So I can try to create a sexy mood, or change my mind about initiating things****. What I can’t do (if I’m fair and rational) is accuse my partner of lying about consent. That’s not my call.

Conversely, a person can have desire without consenting. People can lust after each other, harbor crushes, flirt, or fall in love and still not consent to doing all the things they both fantasize about. Maybe one or both of them is in a monogamous relationship (cheating is wrong, folks). Maybe their religion says no sex before marriage. Maybe one of them wants casual sex and the other wants a relationship–if two people attach very different meanings to an act, it can break a friendship. Maybe it just seems like a bad idea to one person or the other. Doesn’t matter. The point is, no means no even if the person saying no desperately wants to say yes.

A person can consent when he or she should not. Yup. People screw up, and it’s allowed. If someone in a monogamous relationship decides to cheat, that person is consenting to do things he should not even though he knows better. If a person is sexually traumatized or self-medicating self esteem issues with sex, that person is consenting to do so even though it is not a good idea from a mental health standpoint*****. That said, a competent adult has a responsibility to provide partners with relevant information before diving into the fun stuff. Two people are capable of consenting to having an affair, but if the non monogamously attached party doesn’t know about the boyfriend/wife/significant other, he’s acting on incomplete information. Now, I realize things come up that we wouldn’t anticipate and it’s no one’s fault. A good rule of thumb? If you feel like you should bring it up, if you know a partner would want to know about your [insert relationship status, mental or physical health issue, or other here], speak up.

The common objection is that talking about sex ruins the moment. Asking for consent, clarifying desire, these detract from the moments we see in too many movies where people all just magically know exactly what their partners want. It’s bullshit. You know what ruins the moment? Having a man say “let’s bake cookies,” and then hover expectantly without saying what he actually wants while you try to give him tips to improve his oatmeal-raisin related skills******.If you can’t talk about sex, you can’t practice good consent. Anyway, dirty talk is hot. There’s no reason getting consent can’t be sexy as hell.

The thing is, getting your partner’s consent is necessary, but it is not sufficient. One’s own consent matters, too, and if you don’t feel secure in your partner’s desire or mental state or relationship status, you don’t have to consent. That’s right, you can decide not to go through with an act based on any criteria from the logical to the paranoid, even if you have desire and your partner consents. Is it fun? No. Is it hard? You bet. But it sure as hell beats telling your partners that you don’t respect their ability to make adult decisions.

*This paranoia is completely legitimate and I do the same thing all the fucking time. People should care about their partners’ experience as well as their own. My point here isn’t that you shouldn’t worry about your partners’ secret wants, desires, thoughts, or anything else. It’s that those things are not consent.

**Consent feels like having agency and responsibility for one’s actions, and clearly communicating one’s decision to engage in the activity/ies consented to.

***I expect some disagreement on this point. I’d like to refer again to the definition of consent here: “Voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires; compliance, concurrence, permission.” There are non-verbal cues that unmistakably show agreement. Nods mean “yes.” Moving in close and tilting your face to avoid nose-bumping means “yes” to kissing. This is important in part because the converse is also true: shaking one’s head means “no.” Turning away or putting a hand up to block a kiss means “no” to kissing. I’m sure many people’s gut reaction to this is going to be “but sometimes body language is ambiguous!” Yeah. Sometimes it is. I’m referring to specific, universal nonverbal signs of invitation and agreement. Not all body language can be interpreted to replace verbal communication. Body language should never be interpreted to override verbal communication. If there’s ever any doubt, ask! “May I..?” “Do you want..?”

****Or have unenthusiastic sex, I guess, but why?

*****we’re talking about competent adults here. Mental illness of a severity to prevent the ability to consent at all negates this. But if a person can hold a job, feed and clothe himself, and be otherwise vaguely responsible for his own life, he can own his own sexual decisions as well.

******True story. And yeah, we had sex. I lectured him about using his words first, though.

Risk and Reward

Let me just warn you, this post is long. Really long. It’s still not long enough to do its subject justice. Click the links, read the data, click the links in the articles linked to, realize that this is still only the barest beginning of a comprehensive view of the topic, and keep reading.

I only got involved in the public BDSM scene (and joined FetLife) about six months ago, so I am writing this as a relative outsider. In some ways this helps: I am not so used to or so comfortable with the scene that I find its flaws charming, nor am I dependent or attached such that those flaws are invisible. I can compare in-scene behaviors to their extra-scene equivalents with relative ease. On the other hand, I’ve been there six months. I know that people don’t tell the horror stories to newbies, and while I’ve seen a certain amount of conflict, a healthy cynicism tells me there are skeletons in closets that I’ve yet to find.

The public BDSM scene receives a lot of serious criticism, much of it justified. There are some folks who choose to ignore the issues, others who deny them, and some who steer clear of the scene altogether to avoid them. Let’s be clear here. there are problems in the BDSM scene. It needs work. It’s a messed up environment in a lot of ways. I participate in it anyway, because I think it can be made better and because I feel it still has a lot to offer. But it can’t be fixed if we don’t acknowledge that it’s broken. There are problems. Let’s talk about them.

Consent Violations

According to a recent NCSF survey[1], the BDSM and fetish community have a 33% incidence of consent violations (the exact questions were “Have you ever had a pre-negotiated limit violated in a BDSM scene or relationship?” and “Have you ever negotiated a safeword or safesign with a partner who then ignored it during play?” The 33% figure represents respondents who said “yes” to either or both.) Yikes. One in three. That’s not a number we want to see in a community that prides itself on having a better understanding of and respect for consent than the general populace.

Maymay recently contextualized this statistic by calling out a “50% higher incidence of consent violations [in the BDSM community] than the general populace,” and a post on Yes Means Yes says much the same. This is close to an accurate assessment if you look at the NISVS 2010 report which shows a lifetime incidence of rape measured at 18.3% for women (1.4% for men, but I don’t trust that[2]). And that’s still not a good number, but it’s significantly lower. If that analysis were an accurate reflection of the danger within the scene vs. the danger outside of it,  I’d agree with Maymay on that basis alone that the scene was not worth the risk of participation.

But be careful. That 18.3% represents a very specific definition of rape. It is not a measure of consent violation, but of “any completed or attempted unwanted vaginal (for women), oral, or anal penetration through the use of physical force (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threats to physically harm and includes times when the victim was drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.” That is, rape according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey includes only penetration by force, threat of harm, or complete incapacity to consent. It does not include consent violations such as causing a person to penetrate someone else (with penis, fingers, toys, or objects) even in cases including physical force, threat of harm, or intoxication or unconsciousness[3]. It does not include coercion. It does not include non-consensual non-penetrative sexual contact such as cunnilingus, tribadism, or fondling. It does not include non-consensual non-contact sexual experiences such as being flashed or being forced to expose one’s body or being forced to masturbate or watch someone masturbate.

Those things are not classified as rape by the NISVS (nor by the CDC, nor by the NIJ), but all of them could easily fall within the umbrella of consent violation as stated by the NCSF survey’s questions (“Have you ever had a pre-negotiated limit violated in a BDSM scene or relationship?” and “Have you ever negotiated a safeword or safesign with a partner who then ignored it during play?”) Thankfully, though the NISVS doesn’t call them rape, it acknowledges that these things are still sexual violence, and they gathered data about them as well. The NISVS survey reports a 44.6% lifetime incidence of sexual violence against women, 22.2% lifetime incidence against men. That means a 33.4% total incidence of lifetime sexual violence[4], nearly identical to the figure found by the NCSF survey.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that this statistic is acceptable. It’s horrific. The idea that rates of sexual violence within and outside of the scene are the same while community leaders continue to assert that consent is taken seriously within both the scene and the community at large is beyond reprehensible. Kinky folk talk about consent constantly. We devote time to negotiation. We have safewords. We have no excuse for being as backwards and fucked up in our consent practice as the general population, and we have no right to claim to the public and to naive newcomers to the scene that we are better when it’s simply not the case.

But we’re not worse. If the communities that make up the scene can acknowledge that there is a problem, steps can be taken to improve this statistic. And to be clear, by steps I do not mean “tell people how not to be victims.” That’s victim blaming, and blaming victims protects predators. Which brings us to the next awful problem the scene has:

Protecting Abusers

Again, this happens in the vanilla world. Start a conversation about rape and the need to increase convictions to show that the crime has consequences, and some asshole is going to say “but what about false accusations?” The theory here is that if it’s not violent assault by a stranger plus sex, it’s not rape. Forget the fact that 35.6% of women and 28.5% of men report being raped, assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner (NISVS 2010 report). If person A is in a sexual relationship with person B, or goes on a date, or flirts, or gets drunk with person B, society says that on some level person A wanted to have sex. Why else would person A wear something flattering to his or her body type? Society also tells us that if you want to have sex on some level, that’s consent-ish. It’s “grey rape” or some other area on the rape spectrum that people feel doesn’t really count. Sexual violence is something that too many people believe has to be so extreme that it can’t possibly be mistaken for anything else before they will stand by a victim with any reliability. It’s nonsense, but it’s common.

Now add BDSM. The kink scene is perceived by some to be sexually free, therefore there are people who would say that attending a kink event at all is tantamount to consent. They’re wrong, but they exist and that needs to be addressed. Add the fear of exposure that most people in the community have: their involvement in kink gets out, they could lose their kids, their jobs, their standing in the community, the trust of family and vanilla friends, and you have a whole lot of folks who just don’t want to get involved in a conflict that could go public. Again, this will happen in normal life as well. I was strongly discouraged from officially reporting harassment at a former job not because my supervisor denied that it occurred, but because he didn’t want his superior to hear about it: harassment “makes the company look bad.”

Even if no one’s taking names, people who have a vested interest in their local scene (or just like kinky stuff) don’t want to hear that it’s got a dark side. No one wants to hear that about his or her own community. Even Jay Wiseman, who has acknowledged the problem with an obvious sense of horror, calls consent violation “extremely rare” and goes so far as to suggest that in almost all cases a perceived violation is just an overreaction. That is, in a book about handling dungeon emergencies, a well-known voice in the community feels the need to treat an incredibly common and potentially life-altering emergency as rare and misunderstood. He gives more credence and advice to the handling of false allegations. This is not (at least, I hope) that Mr. Wiseman is a rape apologist. He believes that he is a good man who is careful of consent and negotiation. He wants to believe that other men like him–self-identified dominants–are likewise serious and careful about consent. It’s akin to the sexual violence covered up by the Catholic church for very similar reasons. The scene needs good PR in order  to keep and attract people,  to pursue genuinely laudable goals (provide a safe environment, educate, foster community, and fun), and to keep the torch and pitchfork bearers at bay.

It’s not acceptable to base that good PR on lies and cover-ups. We need to earn it.That starts with acknowledging the problem and giving victims a voice. Maymay’s FAADE tool is a step in the right direction, but the fact that this tool is a subversion of FetLife rather than a built-in feature just shows how willing the community is to protect abusers.

Sexism (also Racism, Homophobia, Transphobia, Ableism and more)

Again, all this is rampant in the surrounding culture. I’ve touched on racism before and honestly don’t have much to add (as a very white person I feel the best I can do is be an advocate and ally). Rarely can one point out something as obvious as blackface, though. What I see is simply an overrepresentation of white, straight[5], male-dominant female-submissive oriented, able people[6].  If I mention it, people will shrug it off. After all, no one’s stopping anyone interested from joining, so if the club has these features, it must reflect the demographics of people into kink.

First of all, I dare anyone to say that about white folks here in New Orleans. It’s been suggested that there might be more cultural taboos against kink among minorities. That seems unlikely: kink is a pretty universal taboo. If what we did were normal, we’d call it vanilla. There’s a reason, for sure, and it isn’t demographic. Beyond that, I haven’t got a clue.

Okay, moving on to the straightness. Leather culture is a product of gay culture; you’d expect to see some remnant of those roots represented. Certainly kinky activity is more widely known and accepted among the GLBT community than outside of it, so if anything you’d expect a higher proportion of queer kinky folk to show up. When I scan the room at a kink event about 90% of pairings are straight. Those I’ve seen that weren’t straight were either F/f or involved one or more non-cisgender persons. I have yet to meet a self-identified gay man or witness an M/m scene at any organized event. It’s sad.

Then sexism. Oh, the sexism. There are plenty of women around, but the default assumption that we’re all submissive is frustrating. Many submissive men assume it and don’t join the public scene [7]. Many dominant men assume it (though some of that is clearly wishful thinking), which is off-putting to women who aren’t submissive. Heck, it’s off-putting to me even though it’s half-true. And the prevalence is sexist, not because that’s what individuals like to kink on, but because femininity and submission are so intricately bound in people’s minds. When my husband wears heels, people assume I’m forcing him. (I’m not. He does it to annoy me when I brag about being taller than him, and because it makes his calves look amazing.)

Classism

This one I have not encountered at all. I’ve seen people complain about it on FetLife–that to participate in their local scene they’d have to drop a ton of money, but it just doesn’t seem to be a local problem. Membership is free. The educational demos and munches are free. Parties cost less than a movie, and there are occasional free parties as well. No one seems to have a problem with my thrift store clothes and homemade implements of torture. In fact, there’s a monthly workshop for making affordable BDSM gear and dungeon equipment. I like to play dress-up, so I will wear leather to some parties, but t-shirt and jeans are perfectly accepted and just as common. If anything, I’ve seen folks in the scene snigger about guys with fancy expensive floggers until they’ve thoroughly proved that they can use them. I’m guessing there are for-profit or just more expensive clubs out there, or parties where fetishwear is required (fetishwear can be had on the cheap, but not easily). That would definitely make things more difficult for folks on a budget. I’m guessing New Orleans is just too poor in general to support a snobbish kink community (median income in NOLA in 2009 was $36,468, compared to a national median income that year of $50,303), or maybe I just lucked out on a good group in this regard. If a group does require a significant investment to join, I’d recommend avoiding it.

So that’s a lot of issues. What makes the scene worth hanging around?

Education (classes, demos)

I’ve done stupid, stupid things in the name of getting kinky. I ended up with second degree burns thanks to fire play gone wrong as a teenager, dangerous loss of blood flow due to inexpert bondage, all sorts of nonsense. The scene wouldn’t have been an available resource to me at fifteen/sixteen anyway, but I’ll always point to this as a reason to have classes and demos. Not everyone knows how to be safe. Not everyone knows that they aren’t being safe. Risk-focused classes, skill demonstrations with extensive Q&A, seminars on negotiation and group sessions for kinky relationship talk are an invaluable resource. The toy-making workshop is a great idea (I haven’t been to one, as I am very antisocial when I focus on hands-on projects, but yay homemade toys). The public kink scene is a great resource for these things. If your local scene isn’t, it is time to bother them about it. Outside books and trial and error, the scene is the only way I know to get this. (Wait, can you learn kink by osmosis? That’d be cool.)

Education (corrective and influential behavior)

Sometimes it seems that being into BDSM makes folks forget how to act like normal humans. New subs will want or expect to call doms Master or Mistress on sight (and possibly some doms expect this, too). New doms will show up and act shocked that sometimes doms do nice things for their subs. It’s a chance to show people who haven’t seen it a side of kink that isn’t based on creepy porn. It’s way to talk to the new girl who says she’s a sub but whose eyes light up when you show her how to swing a crop. Will some of the creepy porn attitudes persist? Sure. But some of them go away and leave people more capable of introspection and relationships than they were before, and how freaking great is that?

Social acceptance

Sometimes we all feel like freaks. I know the vanillas do, too, but we feel like freaks about things we can’t talk about to most people because they’d just agree. I like that I can go to a munch and talk about nutrition for an hour with a guy who likes to be electrocuted because hey, we’re actually just normal people who like some freaky stuff sometimes. It’s nice that there’s a space to talk about relationship problems specific to D/s where no one has to worry about other people in the group staring from the position that D/s is bad. It’s nice that this discussion is made of kinky people, not just kink-friendly ones, because then if someone says “that’s not D/s it’s abuse,” you know they have a framework to speak from [8]

Public play

This one is a bonus. No one needs the public scene in order to get their kink on. I use it, sure. I live in an apartment, and keeping mindful of noise levels for the neighbors’ sake can be a mild annoyance. If bondage were my thing, I couldn’t reasonably create a suspension point in the bedroom without either breaking the terms of my lease or building the sort of structure that would be difficult to explain to visitors. I like knowing that if I’m worried about playing with someone, there’s a dungeon monitor, my husband, and a friend or two who know my limits keeping a vague eye out. It won’t prevent something going wrong, but it’ll end it quick and I probably won’t get axe murdered. So that’s nice. As I said, though, it’s a bonus. You don’t need to go to parties or publicly scene if you do go to them in order to benefit from the scene. It’s just fun.

I try to minimize my level of frustration with the scene in a few ways. Using the public scene as a social network and educational tool, not a means of seeking play partners or relationships. Ditto FetLife. Jump in there. Meet people. Learn to talk about all the kinky stuff you love or want to try: it’s a useful skill, and a munch is a way lower-pressure environment than negotiation. As for the problems? I’m active. I advocate. I annoy, and question, and ask what we plan to do to fix it. Maybe not enough yet, but I’m new still.

Please Note

I should be clear that even though I don’t agree with his conclusions, I respect the hell out of Maymay and am incredibly grateful for all his campaigning, warning, programming, and high-level gadfly activity in the name of kink. He’s mentioned so much here because he provides the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen collating specific, serious problems with the public BDSM scene and FetLife and provides practical software to help kinky people extricate themselves from those networks. I still use FetLife. I still participate in my friendly neighborhood kink club. Maymay is still right that they aren’t safe. Where I disagree with him is that I think they can be made safer, and that even with risks they have value.

Yes Means Yes has a series of posts titled “There’s a War On” (part one is here) discussing the consent violations and protection of predators within the scene in great detail. Highly recommended, along with the rest of the blog for good measure.

Notes

[1] This survey has issues, serious ones that make me really wish that the NCSF had gotten the help of an actual public health or sociological researcher in designing it. The two questions referred to here are fairly straightforward and I’m inclined to trust them to be close-ish to accurate despite those issues. I am however disturbed by the survey’s lack of a reliable method of sample generation, screening questions, acknowledgement of limitations of data collection method, or fair data analysis, among other things. I’d go into it here, but frankly survey writing/data collection/statistics 101 would overly derail this post. Maybe I’ll write it later.

[2] Male self-reporting on rape is dicey at best. Underreporting due to shame occurs across gender and sex lines, but men, especially straight men, are under a huge amount of pressure to want sex at all times from all women. A man who admits that he at any moment does not want sex with a partner of his preferred gender is admitting a lack of masculinity that can prove challenging to self-identity and therefore be difficult to confess even anonymously. Similarly, there’s a strong chance of underreporting because a man having sex when drugged, intoxicated, or unconscious is less likely to identify the act as rape even if he was incapable of consent.  Add the fact that the limited scope of the definitions used by the survey do not permit a man to say he was raped unless he was penetrated, and you’re going to get a deceptively low number.

[3] Shame on you, NIPSVS. Really.

[4] If we assume equal proportion of men and women in population (I know it’s not but I don’t want to math today. We’re close here.)  ignore all non-cis folk the way these surveys do, and assume similar levels of inaccuracy are inherent to both surveys.

[5] I’m counting bi women as “straight” here because women who sleep with both men and women are perceived–sometimes correctly, I’m sad to say–as straight women who are not averse to engaging in lesbian acts for their male partners’ pleasure, and bisexual women are thus afforded the privilege of straightness for women in most of secular society. (Bisexual men, on the other hand, are afforded all the stigma of gay men. Because that’s fair.)

[6] The club I’m part of does have a large number of transsexual, genderfluid, genderqueer, and cross-dressing members. I have not seen any rudeness or stigma on that count (of course as a cis woman, I wouldn’t), but I have been told that some of the other groups in the area are less welcoming.

[7] This is not a guess. Half a dozen submissive men now have explained why they never joined the scene with some variant of  “there are like 20 submissive men for every dominant woman, so what’s the point?”

[8] Not that all kinky people know the difference between D/s and abuse, but at least we don’t think it’s all abuse.

Disturbed

This started out as a comment in response to “Do we have a right to be offensive?” on Not Just Bitchy. The fervor surrounding the issue that sparked that original post has died down, but the general issue Stabbity raises is one that we face constantly: how do we as a community know where to draw the line between “Your kink is not my kink but your kink is okay” and “Dude, you just crossed a line”? I’m not going to summarize her post (go read it, lazy) because this can easily be read as a response to the titular question.

So, do we as a community have a right to be offensive?

I’d like to turn this into a linguistic problem. People will say “I’m offended” when the act that bothers them is not inherently offensive, but rather disturbing, disgusting, or simply difficult to process. There’s a difference between “offensive” and “disturbing.” The Shirley Q. Liquor act is offensive. It has a right to exist–offensive things do–but members of a community that wishes to create a haven for marginalized persons have a responsibility to eschew and speak out against things which reduce the security of that community. An act is offensive if it mocks, generalizes, or makes light of the plight of a group of people in general without that group’s consent. One can argue that paying to see a performance is consenting to be exposed to its content, and that’s true. Racism (or nationalism or homophobia or domism or any other marginalizing generalization you can think of) is a part of the world in which we live and no amount of railing against that seems capable of eradicating it. But as members of a group that is marginalized and misunderstood, we have a responsibility to provide an environment in which further prejudice is minimized. The act in question here is offensive in a similar vein to a Dom announcing to a room that women are naturally submissive and males naturally dominant: doing so with the express invitation of a venue tells anyone who does not fit that paradigm “you’re not welcome here.”

So I should probably address why a scene is different. A scene, even a race play scene exploring and exploiting the same stereotypes as the act in question, is disturbing but not truly offensive unless persons who did not consent and were not included in negotiation are made part of the scene. What we do at clubs is disturbing, by which I mean all of it disturbs someone. I know a burn victim who leaves the room every time a fire scene starts. I can’t stand to be near knife play. But consensual, negotiated fire play does not in itself mock, belittle, or harm burn victims. Knife play, no matter how panic inducing I find it, has nothing to do with my trauma. BDSM is about the two or more people involved in a scene exploring whatever kinks they’ve agreed to explore that night. It can be disturbing, absolutely. But those who are disturbed are not made to feel unwelcome in the environment as a whole. To be offensive, it would need to be directed at someone else without his consent.

The variety and intensity of activities found under the umbrella of BDSM virtually guarantees that we will disturb. I’m okay with that: it’s that same variety that lets me stand in a corner for heavy impact (complete with screaming, sorry) while my scary friend plays with knives in another alcove and someone else performs elaborate suspension across the room. They’re all different rides at the amusement park. We can pick a favorite or try a few or stand aside and watch. It’s brilliant. The ones that frighten or disturb us, we can avoid. Hosting and supporting a racist (sexist/homophobic/other bigoted) act for all, on the other hand, is tantamount to putting a sign at the gate of the park saying “you must be this white (maledom-femsub/straight/whatever) to ride. One of these can enhance the community. The other smothers it.