No Chosen People
Some people will consider this an outrageous understatement, and others heresy: the BDSM community (such as it is, or communities, such as they are) is far from perfect. Because kinksters tend to have discussions about limits in overt ways and make communication a norm, lots of people sort of talk about BDSMers like we have it together on the sex and communication front. And for my part I think there’s some truth to that. There are a lot of positives. I certainly know feminist women who say they have found that they are more respected and listened to within BDSM communities than anywhere else, though individual experiences and particular communities vary. And in general my view is that there’s a sense of respect to self-definition that can be very useful, and a broader sense of body positivity — specifically sexual body positivity, than one sees most other places.
The things that folks who are not BDSMers most often note as positives about BDSM are the communication aspects. Having the tools to communicate about what people like to do and how they ought to do it so that it’s reasonably safe and everyone enjoys it is a big step, practically, from how a lot of sexual interaction goes in the general population.
However, as I hope a lot of people learned from the trainwreck of fail that was Open Source Boob Project (thanks, er, I think, to the terrific YMY contributor Latoya Peterson for reminding me), merely making the process of communication explicit, when the underlying dynamics are still coercion, commodification and cis- and heterosexism, is not progress. Explicit communication is a tool. It can enable progress, but it isn’t by itself progress, and it does not even always lead to progress. So BDSMers have some good tools to work with and some stuff that could help the general population move forward. But they are not some infallible chosen people (and I don’t believe there is any perfect community anywhere).
Some of the issues are really just outgrowths of the same or related dynamics flowing into kinky communities. For example, unless the space is specifically a queer space, the assumptions (not just in my experience, but in the experience of a lot of my kinky friends as well) are: that everyone is cissexual, that every man is het unless otherwise indicated, that every woman is bi or bi-curious unless otherwise indicated, and that women are switches or bottoms unless otherwise indicated (summary of research on actual role split here). Not that the general population has a better set of default assumptions, but that we assume at all is a problem.
Other problems are specific to the highly sexualized nature of the BDSM community. Folks can debate endlessly when and to what extent BDSM is sexual, but kinky spaces — even no-play burgermunches — are often highly sexualized spaces, and there can be a lot of pressure to be sexual and be available. Holly at Pervocracy says things about her local kinky folks that make me laugh out loud, and sometimes that make me cringe with sad familiarity. Recently, she said:
I don’t think being ugly or even weird is cause to treat a person badly. But refusing to play with or fuck someone isn’t an abuse. I’m not an equal opportunity employer, and I don’t think I have any ethical obligation to be. I think there’s also an implication that since play isn’t sex, it shouldn’t matter if you’re attracted to someone–but c’mon now, this isn’t doubles tennis, it’s a fetish and even if I leave my panties on I’d still like them to get a bit wet. And tragically, physical appearance and presentation are important fuel for my panty-wetting mechanisms.
Kink communities that are so devoted to “acceptance” that no one stands up to creeps have been a pet peeve of mine for a while. But when you start telling me that I should be “accepting” with my body… fuck that.
This is one area where the BDSM community can be even worse than the general population. The entire broader culture operates with an ongoing whore/madonna complex, and once women are sexual in any way, they wear a sort of tag that says, “up for it.” (Seriously, if you have not already, read the linked post by Stacey May Fowles, my favorite post ever on this blog, about her experiences as a highly sexual and openly kinky woman.) In the BDSM community, everyone is sort of assigned a highly sexual identity just by showing up.
[E]very single time i went to *ANY* BDSM gathering of ANY sort, at least 3 or 4 different “dominant men” [i sarcasta-quote because i dislike the specific men i am speaking of] would try to do things to me, or convince me to be involved with, THINGS I DO NOT LIKE.and my “no” was never, ever accepted. i would be smacked by men i had JUST TOLD i would not let spank me, grabbed and held by men i had just told i would not let tie my up, touched by men who i had told *specifically* that they did NOT have permission to touch me.
and almost every time it happened, two things happened. i was told that it happened because “everyone knows that all women have a little sub and want to be dominated”; and i was villified for being angry at people who refused to respect my boundries.
every woman i know whose has left the scene has left for the same reason – that underlying assumption that, if a woman “admits” she has kink, she is saying she is completely available to every single person who wants her in any way she wants her.
MOST people in the BDSM scene are NOT like this. a few bad apples, etc.
One might think that this would not be a problem. BDSM requires trust; trust requires respecting boundaries; BDSMers discuss boundaries, in explicit detail, quite regularly. And yet …
I wish what Denelian says was unfamiliar to me. I wish that it had always been my experience that women in BDSM were listened to and respected. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard it or seen it. I’ve heard it since the earth was cooling and women complained about this stuff on alt.sex.bondage on USENET. And it’s not limited to public invasions.
If any community ought to be aware of abuse issues, it’s BDSMers. And we do talk a good game about it. And when the abuser is not well connected, it’s easy to call out the abuse. For example, Glenn Marcus isn’t getting support that I can see except from his personal friends. But when the abuser is an insider; when the abuser is likable and charming and a good speaker …
I have permission to write about this. A friend of mine, a close friend who has held a leather contest title and who has been a part of various communities on both coasts for well over a decade, was nonconsensually beaten by a man with whom she was in a contractual 24/7 dominant-submissive relationship. He was tall, handsome and charming, and though relatively new to BDSM and the community, he was and is a sought-after speaker on BDSM and spirituality. Their relationship was having difficulty, and he exploded in an incident of intimate partner violence. Afterwards, other women came forward with stories of his less dramatic boundary violations. (That’s the tip-off. Small boundary violations are an indicator of large boundary violations.)
She went to court for a restraining order. The domestic violence court appointed a mediator — who the charming abuser seduced. But when he tried to convince the judge that it was all just a misunderstanding, the judge eventually told him to shut it. The judge understood what was going on. That judge sees charming abusers over and over again. She got relief from the courts — from the non-kinky power structure that BDSMers often fear will misunderstand mischaracterize and stigmatize what we do.
Not from the BDSM community. She and another woman who complained of his conduct were marginalized and feel excluded from some of the public spaces; the abuser is still welcome. He’s still invited to events. He’s still welcome in the organizations and the public spaces and many of the parties, because he’s well-connected and well liked and hot; and because people chose personal loyalty over what’s right. They just do: no way around that sad truth of human society.
(This isn’t entirely specific to BDSM as distinct from other sexual communities. As a blind item for those who know the story: “bitches weren’t complaining then.” And that wasn’t specifically BDSM-related, though the speaker is a BDSMer.)
So we are not the chosen people. We do some things right, but we also do some things wrong. And if we can’t listen to people — to women — when they say what their boundaries are, we have an urgent and pressing need to improve our own communities, rather than bask in the glow of having delivered to the world the ideas of negotiation, safewords and aftercare.
NB: Comments to the effect that all BDSM is abuse will be deleted and those making them banned. There are plenty of spaces to sling that shit; this is not one of them.