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Not What We Do

September 21, 2010

[Note: This was originally published at Feministe, and I did not cross-post here. It has since been picked up by Carnal Nation, but I wanted it here as well because some Yes Means Yes readers may not have seen it other places. ]

In fantasyland, the BDSM community is clearly defined, composed exclusively of ethical people who basically agree on our values, who have polite if lively discourses about safety and risk, and we consistently recognize and exclude people and behaviors that are unethical and unacceptable.

In the real world, the BDSM community is a conceptual construct, not an actual club with a definable membership. Some folks play in public clubs and belong to organizations and go to events and know each other. Some folks don’t. Some folks do BDSM with a partner or partners alone in their own homes. Some folks self-identify as BDSMers without doing anything that half of the couples in the US don’t do. Some folks do things at the holy-shit end of the sensation and risk spectrums, but don’t label themselves or what they do.

It’s easy, and too glib, for us to say whenever someone rapes and tortures someone and uses us as an excuse, that they are not “us”, that what they do is not what we do. That’s true, but if BDSMers want folks who are not BDSMers to understand that, we are going to have to be clearer in explaining it, and we’re going to have to be consistent in living by it. We can’t pretend that there is a central registry of “us,” like a political party, and these people are just not on the list. I’m willing to fight for the right of the woman in Waukesha, Wisconsin who gets flogged and pierced in somebody’s basement on a Saturday night to keep her job and her kids, whether she belongs to the organizations and goes to the clubs or not. Therefore, we need to have a clear voice about those people, on the fringes of our community and even in the center of them, who are predators and abusers. Lots of people say “safe, sane & consensual” (“SSC”), or alternatively “risk aware consensual kink” (“RACK”), and those terms have some currency among non-kinksters, but we have to be able to unpack what that means. Our declaration that the abusers are not us has to be more than conclusory. It has to be substantive.

What I’m working my way around to is talking about this. Irin Carmon at Jezebel picked it up, and essentially preemptively presented what is likely to be the consent defense, calling the case “troubling”. Lindsay Beyerstein – a better critical thinker would be hard to find – immediately called out that piece, and I appreciate Lindsay’s take, which I think is neatly summarized here:

It’s a bizarre notion that there’s any kind of blurry line between a consensual BDSM relationship and this. Either the government’s allegations are true, in which case this is a clear-cut case of kidnapping, torture, and near-manslaughter. Or the government’s allegations are untrue and we’re back to square one.

Lindsay linked to the indictment, which is disturbing reading probably for anyone. For me, though, the disturbing reading isn’t the things that turn most people’s stomachs. There are a lot of graphic descriptions in it, and it was horrifying reading, in context. But in an account of consensual play, I wouldn’t read those things and necessarily think, “that’s awful.” Much of it I would read and think, “wow, that’s extreme and risky. Do these people know what they’re doing?”

What turns my stomach is that the relationship had all the hallmarks of abuse. And I want to be clear here: this isn’t a close call. I’m not worried that too many people will confuse this with BDSM. If the allegations in the indictment are true, and I’m assuming that until I have some reason not to (innocent until proven guilty is a rule for the jury, not for the general public or the media), anyone will recognize that this was horrible abuse and the perpetrators belong in jail. He threatened to kill her if she escaped. He killed animals she cared about. These are classic end-stage domestic violence tactics, and abusers who say and do these things – whether what they do bears any facial resemblance to BDSM or not – often do kill their victims, and usually when the victim tries to escape. See here and here. The fundamental substance of this relationship is that of abuser and battered partner, and not similar to people who form consensual 24/7 dominant/submissive relationships.

It is obvious that this wasn’t a consensual relationship from the start. He met her as an underaged runaway. He showed her porn and supplied her with drugs. He promised to make her famous in porn. These are classic abuser grooming behaviors.

We know this because it is in the indictment. She went to the hospital after he did something so wildly unsafe that she want into cardiac arrest and nearly died. (I’ll get to that.) Apparently she reported at the hospital that she was a prisoner against her will.

A Few Declarations Of Ethics:

Though this doesn’t present a close question at all, inevitably people look for clarity. What is it that happened here that was unethical, as we see it? If I get into specifics, there’s almost too much to list, so I’ll keep it general:

(1) It is unethical to ever have an irrevocable Master/slave relationship. Here in the United States, we wrote it right into the Constitution in the aftermath of the Civil War that slavery does not exist. All dominant/submissive relationships, no matter how strict the rules, no matter what kind of written agreement there is, no matter how extreme the sensation play, are subject to the submissive partner deciding the relationship is over. We killed 660,000 Americans for that, and it’s not negotiable.

(2) It is unethical to leverage an existing vulnerability or power imbalance to push someone into any kind of dominant/submissive relationship. Nobody should be pushed into a D/s dynamic at all; it has to be freely and consciously chosen to be consensual. This girl, when she fell into his clutches, was a sixteen year old runaway from a series of foster homes, which means she was extremely vulnerable and had no place else to go. Right there, any sexual involvement is just wrong. Then, he became her source for drugs. By the time she signed the contract that he said bound her for life, she was an eighteen year old with no other options, possibly a substance dependency, in an abusive relationship with a terrifying person. She wasn’t in a position to say no to anything he wanted.

(3) It is unethical to do things beyond one’s capabilities as a top.* And this is one of the places where, even if we didn’t know any of the other stuff, we could tell the difference between abuse and BDSM. BDSMers don’t want to damage their partners. Hurt, sure, sometimes a lot. But we don’t want to do things with each other that result in unintentional injuries. We like each other, we like what we do, and we want to have good experiences, so we control risks as much as we can and still have the experiences we want to have. Like mountain climbers. Not like abusers, who ignore risk and cause injury on purpose.

I said the physical specifics didn’t make me blanch, and I meant it. I won’t gratuitously repeat the detailed descriptions, because they’ll be offputting to some readers. Some of those things I’ve done and some I have not, but I know sane people who have willingly done a whole lot of things in that indictment. The thing is, they’re highly specialized skills. Among people who know what they’re doing, a lot of this stuff is considered appropriate only for people who really know what they’re doing. Responsible BDSMers don’t just hang someone from the ceiling; they learn suspension bondage. Responsible BDSMers don’t just hook electrodes up to people; they learn electrical play. It’s easier to do that in communities where there are classes or more experienced folks to teach; but more isolated people can access books and online materials and do their own research. If they care about their bottoms, they do. Being a top is a lot of responsibility, but it’s worth the work to have the big, moving, out-there experiences and walk away from them with no more boo-boos than intended.

People who don’t do the homework don’t care. The indictment contains some things which just flat should never be done in a scene and constitute medical care. It also contains things that are heavy medical play. With an amazing top with a background in medical scenes and piercings, with autoclave-sterilized equipment, in a clean environment, those things are some people’s idea of an amazing scene. But it’s not something you see on the web and say, “hey, go get the Neosporin, I want to try something.” No ethical top plunges cavalierly into things that carry a high risk of injury, and it really announces that he didn’t care if he did permanent damage.

Breath control and certain kinds of electrical play, done wrong (and depending on who you think it right on the medical stuff, maybe even if done right) can cause cardiac arrest. That’s what happened here. Some combination of electric shock and suffocation stopped her heart and the hospital saved her. I’m guessing he didn’t really care about her, but thought his chances of getting out of it with a live kinky woman accusing him of abuse were better than his chances of hiding the body and pretending he didn’t know where she was. We’ll find out if he was right.

(4) It is unethical to do things with newbies that they don’t understand and can’t make decisions about. If they don’t know anything yet, they don’t understand the risks and cannot give meaningful consent, which is at the heart of RACK and SSC. (I don’t need to get into the difference between the terminology, as the culture of which term people use varies somewhat from the literal meaning, and a lot of it has to do with who gets to be the safety police.) Getting someone to do things that they don’t understand is neither risk-aware, nor safe, nor sane, and generally isn’t consensual. If someone is just too ignorant to fully grapple with the risks they take, that’s negligence, and that’s full of fail. But the allegations don’t paint a picture of someone who didn’t understand the risks. They paint a picture of someone who didn’t care. That’s an abuser.

This is especially true of introducing a teen to BDSM through a 24/7 relationship. I’m not a big fan of 24/7 anyway. Lots of BDSMers have no interest in ever doing dominant-submissive roles. Folks who do D/s have clear boundaries, often time limits on the scenes. Many who have pervasive D/s dynamics in a relationship live apart, which inserts a certain amount of breathing room. A few folks really have those power dynamics in effect basically all the time, but that’s a very hard thing to do and make work, and people generally only try that when they already know a lot about D/s and how they react to it emotionally and undertake it with the understanding that it’s a very, very advanced. Leaving all the other things aside, taking someone with no BDSM experience and saying, “24/7 slavery, that’s what BDSM is” … that’s delusional, evil, or both.

Responsible BDSMers, when playing with newbies, are extra-careful about the basics, like negotiations and safewords – not only because newbies don’t know how they’ll react to things, but because they don’t know how to do things like negotiate yet and they need to learn. Someone teaching a new submissive needs to teach zir how to set zir boundaries, how to communicate with a prospective top about desires and expectations. Not doing this means virtually guaranteeing that something will go wrong, if not in the next scene then at some point in the future.

Do Not Be Distracted By The Irrelevant

There are some things in the story so far that I think are red herrings. I want to address them preemptively. I wish I didn’t have to say any of these things. But I do.

She has some kind of mental disability, says the prosecutor. This may be highly relevant. This may be largely irrelevant. People with disabilities are vulnerable to and targeted for abuse at very high rates. However, we don’t know enough to know what this means because we don’t know anything about her disability. I don’t think it is possible to make any broad declaration about consent from that. The depressed, the anxious, folks with learning disabilities, aspies and autistic spectrum folks, are usually sexual beings and may be kinky. Being neurodiverse, to use one term, does not make one incapable of consent.

She may have wanted at one point to be a porn performer. The defense said that in the Haidl case in Orange County – and you know what? It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It doesn’t matter if she wanted to do porn, if she intended to do porn, or if she did porn. Sex work is not an invitation to rape. She’s got a right to do porn or not do porn without it in any way impacting whether she can leave an abusive relationship.

The abuser lived in a trailer, in Southern Missouri. People are going to say some busted, classist things. I’m calling it out in advance. The problem with this guy wasn’t that he lived in a trailer. It was all that raping and abusing that was the problem. Nor is poverty an impediment to intelligence, learning or humanity – my mother lost all her teeth to childhood malnutrition caused by rural poverty, and she read all of Maya Angelou’s published works, and all of Toni Morrison’s.

Finally, the physical details really only matter in the contexts of safety (here, the total lack of concern with it) and consent (none). I expect to see reporting on this case that dwells on the details, and a great deal of commentary that states or assumes that no person would consent to X. In most cases, that assumption will be incorrect. Graphic description ahead Somebody sort of famous in online BDSM circles once put a Q-tip covered in capsaicin in her own urethra, basically because she was bored, and a top she played with said it would be a neat idea. End graphic description Say it with me: Owwww! Way past my limits, and risky. Like they say in the car commercials, “professional driver, closed course.”

Where Was Everyone While This Was Going On?

This is the part that gets me. I have no idea, though we’ll find out as the news cycle progresses, I suspect, how much contact this guy had with the BDSM communities where he lived. We know now that he had coconspirators. I don’t know whether these people were isolated from the formal BDSM community or peripheral to it. But we know that they shot a cover for a magazine with a person well known in the BDSM community, Nina Hartley’s husband. Nina’s a feminist, and I have run across her husband online though I don’t know either of them and have never met them. Probably the abuser figured out how to present a false image of a consensual relationship, and I’d like to say he would have had to. But kinky communities are not always really good at reporting abuse. I’ve written before that we don’t have a great track record of internal accountability. I think there’s a sense in organizations that their responsibility is to run off the bad apples so that they don’t endanger the organization’s members, but that once the abuser is disinvited to the party or stops showing up at the group or club, it’s resolved.

I wrote about a friend of mine – someone not peripheral but right in the middle of the high-profile scene in a major city – who was disbelieved and mistreated when she reported abuse: just like the general population shuts out and disbelieves rape survivors when the accused is one of their own. More recently in New York a high-profile top was accused of abuse. After the second report, local organizations took a stand and he “took a break” to make some changes in his life. My friend Paradox has written on this.

From the news reports so far, this woman is not this abuser’s first victim. All the reasons that rape survivors do not report abuse to the police are compounded in the BDSM community. Women who are kinky have even more fear – accurate, reasonable fear – that their sexuality will be used to attack them if they report. And they can lose their children and their job and their housing for being kinky. We don’t have legal protections anywhere, really. In the UK, and arguably in parts of the US, we can go to jail for what we do even if completely consensual and within community norms. And that’s all the more reason why we as a community have to make it okay for abuse survivors to speak.

To repurpose a piece of propaganda, “if you see something, say something.” BDSMers are not a formal community. We’re a group of communities and subculture and fringes and affiliations and common interests that overlap. We don’t have investigators and tribunals and we can’t revoke membership cards. If some guy kidnaps a woman and keeps her in an underground bunker or a storage shed and tells nobody, then there’s nothing we can do. (And abusers will use any excuse. Religion far outstrips BDSM as the excuse-of-choice for abusers.) If an abuser is running a website and contacting BDSM-oriented publications, I suppose it is possible that he managed to never say or do things that raised anyone’s eyebrows. But did people miss the signs, or did they choose not to look? Did people who would never do irresponsible and nonconsensual things choose to ignore the signs that this man was? It’s easy to look away and to accept the explanation that requires us to do nothing. The parole officer that visited Phil Garrido accepted glib explanations for the presence of his captive at his house. But if we do that, if we ignore the things that make the hairs on our neck stand up, then we are complicit, and our whole community has to pick up the pieces.

* A terminological note: some of us use “top” and “bottom” as umbrella terms, others use “dominant” and “submissive” for essentially the same purposes. The latter have become more common in the last few years, and are more descriptive, and for that reason many folks, including my friend and BDSM educator Clarisse Thorn use “dominant” and “submissive.” However, many of us think that those terms become a habit of mind and perpetuate the myth that to bottom is necessarily to submit and to top is necessarily to dominate, when there are riggers and sadists who top but don’t dominate, and masochists and bondage bottoms who don’t submit. I generally use the more flexible, and in my view more correct, umbrella terms rather than the more accessible ones.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 10:16 am

    Thank you for this. I love how open and communicative the BDSM community can be, but we really need to step up and confront problems instead of just exiling them and pretending that they’re not going to find victims elsewhere.

    My roomie had someone sexually assault her at a play party (she had agreed to be tied and spanked, not penetrated), and when she tried to call them on it, they and other people at the party blew her off with, “Well, if you didn’t want it, why did you let them tie you up naked
    ?”

    Nevermind that the pre-scene negotiation CLEARLY stated that she expected to be tied up and flogged, and that she in no way, shape or form was agreeing to penetration.

    Until we clean up our own slut-shaming, victim-blaming bullshit, we really need to quit breaking our arms patting ourselves on the back over how much better we are a communication.

    Sorry, may have been slightly OT, but damn it, I still get livid when I think about what happened to her. Which has also had the side effect of reinforcing my inclination to never want to go to a play party.

  2. September 23, 2010 10:49 am

    That’s not off-topic. That is the topic. And it’s a topic I insist on addressing over and over. The BDSM community has done a great PR job over the last 15 years of getting out the idea that we have norms and ethics. But we have to be as good as our word. And as far as I can tell, the BDSM community looks a lot more like the general population, with its share of abusers, than like Shangri-la.

    • September 23, 2010 2:20 pm

      I give lectures on introductory BDSM at local Sci Fi conventions, and I constantly harp on boundaries, limits, communication, not pressuring people into things they don’t want, checking in.

      Now, it seems a lot of folks get it, but every once in a while you see someone in the audience and you can just watch it go in one ear and out the other. Or worse, they will occasionally speak up, usually sneering, with their question or comment trying to rationalize their bad behavior.

      Fortunately, the majority of the folks who come to these things are just as ready as I and my other moderators are to smack these guys down. But there are a few folks in the scene out here, who while they would not personally do any of this shit, are really hesitant to tell someone else they’re doing it wrong, even when they really, really are, and dangerously so. And I wish I could ascribe it to age or something else readily apparent, but I can’t. It crosses generational boundaries.

  3. Abby Tallmer permalink
    September 23, 2010 2:01 pm

    Thanks for a really thoughtful, nuanced piece which tackles prejudice against BDSM folks while also voicing the truth that in our loose community, as in larger society, there ARE unfortunately some abusers who perpetuate relationships or engage in behaviors that are NOT consensual with “bottoms” who are actually victims. It is all too rare to have someone within the BDSM community brave enough to rightfully argue that we all are responsible for being aware of instances of abuse, and for believing and supporting the victims/survivors of it.

  4. September 26, 2010 8:31 pm

    Another great post on a topic I’ve never thought about. I am very “mainstream” and not kinky but this blog is like college and I’m always learning something new.

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