BDSM & Rape: What Now?

About a month ago, Kitty Stryker wrote I Never Called it Rape: Addressing Abuse in BDSM Communities, in which she opened up a really important topic. It’s one that’s been simmering for a while and now that it’s come up in such a public way, there’s been a lot of different responses. There’s been the predictable set of comments, both on the Good Vibrations Magazine and on Fetlife (a social networking site for the BDSM crowd).

Some folks are making excuses for doms who assault their subs, some people are asking why people who have been assaulted don’t report it, and a few are trying to find ways to make room for both BDSM and rape awareness. I’m sure that there are other ways that people are responding, but those are the most common ones I’ve seen.

This is an issue that the kink community (if I can use that term to describe such a wide-ranging and diverse crowd) has been avoiding for a long time. And I understand why- if it comes to the surface, it gives a certain weight to the arguments that many anti-BDSM folks make about kinky sex being all about rape. But one thing that few BDSM folks seem willing to acknowledge is that, yes, some people are drawn to BDSM because it gives them an excuse to hurt others. To be 100% clear, I’m not talking about the kinds of intense sensation that some people enjoy, especially in the context of erotic energy (with or without genital stimulation). I’m talking about the people who take advantage of a newbie’s naïveté and tells them that “this is how this works.” I’m talking about the people who push someone past their limits without negotiating that. I’m talking about people who use BDSM as an excuse to violate boundaries under the guise of being Lord Domly Dom®. I’m talking about people who don’t care about the consent of the other person.

In addition to those folks, there are also situations in which a top is clueless or selfish. Malice isn’t the only reason people cross boundaries, and these other motivations don’t change the impact of the experience on the person who’s been assaulted. I’m certainly not suggesting that “I didn’t mean to” is an excuse. And I do think it can make a difference in how we choose to respond.

Unfortunately, in addition to the tendency of marginalized communities to avoid “airing their dirty laundry in public” (and yes, BDSM folks are marginalized, even with all of the S/M imagery in the media), there are a lot of dynamics that reinforce this setup. I think it’s important to look at them in order to deal with them, although I don’t expect that this is a complete list.

All of the ways in which sexual assault is excused, minimized, and justified within the larger culture exist in the BDSM world, and they operate pretty much the same. It’s unrealistic to claim that somehow, simply by being part of the kinky scene, people don’t do exactly the same things to enable and excuse rape. Having said that, there are some patterns that are specific to the kink community that are worth unpacking.

When we have two conflicting pieces of information, that creates a difficult situation and we usually seek a way to reconcile them. And when one of those piece of information threatens our sense of our ability to assess someone, we often negate the other one. Or to put it less theoretically, believing that someone I like or whom I’ve chosen to trust has assaulted another person threatens my belief in my ability to assess others. It’s often a lot easier to disbelieve or blame the accuser. This is one of the more unfortunate aspects of how people work, and I’m not excusing it. But it is something we need to acknowledge and in my experience, most of us have done something similar at one point or another.

Of course, that’s not limited to the BDSM world, but it does play out a bit differently since the kink community is often very tightly knit. People’s reputations matter and if I’ve vouched for someone or if I’ve been closely affiliated with them, as often happens in both social and play circles, I have a certain emotional investment in their being seen as “good” by my community. So if that gets challenged, that can threaten my social standing and I might very well rush to defend that person reflexively. Similar patterns play out in other close communities like church congregations, but the way that social standing works in the BDSM world makes this especially likely. Again, I’m not excusing it. I’m simply recognizing it as a common scenario. (For more insight on how we manage these kinds of cognitive dissonances, check out the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.)

Another aspect of this is that, as much as some people in the BDSM world honor and value submission and submissives, there’s a lot of dominant-privilege. There’s a tendency to give more weight to what a top says than a bottom. And when the dominant is a cisgender man and the submissive is a cisgender woman, the dynamics of male privilege and heteronormativity often come into play. Sure, these same patterns can show up in any gender combination. But in my observation, the closer people are to the mainstream (in this case, cisgender heterosexuality with the man in charge), the more easily they slip into the same ways of interacting that exist in the mainstream culture. So instead of respecting bottoms, a lot of tops end up devaluing them, which makes it easier to discount their experiences when they come forward and say that they’ve been assaulted. And the community around them is more likely to fall into the same patterns of responding that happen almost everywhere else.

So what can the BDSM world do to change this?

The first step (and often, the hardest) is to acknowledge that assault happens. It happens at play parties. It happens in private homes. It happens at cons and events. Most of us grew up in a culture that didn’t teach us to value, honor, and respect boundaries. Many of us didn’t learn how to both say and hear “no”. So how can anyone expect that putting on some leather would somehow magically change that?

Historically, the BDSM community has had a strong ethic of enculturating newcomers through munches, social events, and such. But in recent years, there have been many more people becoming kink-identified than community groups can work with, partially due to the proliferation of SM imagery online and in the media. While I think it’s great that so many folks are discovering ways to explore their sexual desires, one of the ways in which the expectation of Safe, Sane & Consensual (these days, Risk-Aware Consensual Kink) was transmitted has been weakened. So instead of relying on community groups to do it, maybe it needs to be crowdsourced.

As part of that, it’s important to call out the folks who talk about safewords as if they’re a sign of weakness. Or who act as if a true dominant or a real submissive doesn’t need them. Or who brag about never having used them. Or who say that once you’ve consented to something, you don’t get to change your mind. Or who claim that having no limits makes one a better or more extreme player. Or who do things that haven’t been explicitly negotiated and then argue that “We can’t talk about everything in advance. I call bullshit on all of that. All of that perpetuates a culture that enables sexual assault. Until and unless people challenge it, it’ll continue. [Hint- if you want to do something that wasn’t previously negotiated, press pause on your scene, check in about it, and move from there. It’s not rocket science.]

We also get to have our limits and our boundaries. When players talk as if that makes someone less edgy or a less experienced player reinforces rape culture. (I’ve written more on consent and boundaries here, here, and here.) Interestingly, many of the tops I’ve known who are all about pushing someone else’s limits seem to be very firm about their own. In fact, they sometimes seem scared to get anywhere near their edges. In my opinion, if you want to be a guide for someone else to lean into their edges, you also need to be practicing leaning into your own. But then, I wouldn’t eat food cooked by someone who didn’t eat their own cooking and I’ve often wondered why there are so many tops who think it should be any different when it comes to kink.

People in the BDSM world also need to get a better understanding of why someone might not be willing to step forward and talk about being assaulted. Between the effects of rape trauma syndrome, victim-blaming, and being told that they’re harming the community, is it really a surprise that so many people keep silent? If you want people to come forward, then ask yourself what you are doing to create a space for them to do that. And if you’re not doing anything effective, don’t blame anyone else- the responsibility is yours.

I do think it’s valuable to recognize that it’s possible for someone to feel assaulted, even if the other person didn’t intend to violate their consent. For a lot of people, BDSM is about playing on the edge, or about exploring the boundaries of one’s psyche. No matter how graceful you are, sooner or later, you’ll take a misstep and go too far. If you’re not willing to support your bottom and make whatever apologies and amends are needed, I don’t think you’re ready to be a top, no matter how good you are with a flogger or rope. Remember- you don’t have to have any intention of hurting someone to cause them pain or trauma. If you don’t know how to deal with that, you’re not ready to ride this ride.

As far as what we can do to support people who come forward and tell us that they’ve been assaulted by someone in the BDSM world, I think we can do exactly what we can do in any other similar circumstance. We can make a space for them to share their stories with us. We can thank them for trusting us enough to tell us. We can refer them to services like a rape crisis center or a kink-aware therapist (although it’s only realistic to acknowledge that many hotline counselors and therapists may equate kink with abuse). We can let them know that we take them seriously, and we can show it by not blaming them, or shaming them, or attacking them.

People can also take steps to create a safer culture within BDSM. Confront people who reinforce patterns that enable rape. Call people out when they hurt someone. Make room for the fact that edge play will sometimes go too far and instead of creating expectations of perfection, create an expectation of amends and repair. This is how we stop coddling people and practice fierce compassion. And when you discover that someone is deliberately hurting people (as compared to someone who takes a misstep despite the best of intentions), don’t let their standing in the community or their reputation allow you to make excuses or keep silent. Because if you let it keep happening, you shoulder some of the responsibility the next time they do it.

I also like Mission Control’ s PAL system for their parties. They create accountability while maximizing flexibility by having people come to their events with a PAL (pervy activity liaison). If either person breaks the event agreements, both are held responsible. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the least imperfect one that I’ve heard of and I’d love to see it implemented more widely.

So what can the BDSM world do about this? The same thing that the rest of the world can do. Develop better practices around consent, relationships, and communication. Get educated about sexual assault and the mechanisms that enable it. Support survivors, help people learn how to navigate the edge, and confront the malicious. And stop trying to sweep this under the rug. It’s long past time to be honest and to face this issue.

Clarisse Thorn’s post Thinking More Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse has lots more specific suggestions, and I highly recommend it!

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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