There’s A War On Part 2: The Creepy Dom and the The People On The Fringe
[Trigger Warning. The whole series is about rape and abuse in BDSM communities and apologist tactics and dynamics. This post deals specifically relays stories of abuse.]
It’s easy to be against rape and abuse committed by the Other. Someone else, out there in the nebulous “not us” isn’t a threat to our social environment. In mainstream discussions of rape, the theme is to deal primarily with stranger assaults even though they’re about 15% of the rapes, because it’s a lot easier to talk about them. That’s why almost all the “how not to get raped” advice has several items — sometimes all of them — that are primarily or exclusively applicable to stranger rape scenarios. (Take a look at this one, would you believe this shit is the first hit in a Google search for “how not to get raped”?) I won’t go into how problematic those lists are because of the limited scope of this post, but mostly because I hope anyone reading this already knows all that. The theme of the list that addresses the easy-to-discuss less common circumstance repeats in BDSM. Much of the “safety” advice addresses a certain scenario, BDSM’s own version of the stranger in the bushes.
BDSM’s stranger in the bushes is not a part of a community, not in any real way. Maybe he contacts newbie sub women (it’s a cisnormative and heteronormative trope) on the internet only and has little real-world contact with the upstanding people who belong to organizations and go to well-attended parties and clubs. Or maybe he hangs out on the fringes, shows up for a munch or at an event but doesn’t really know anyone and nobody knows much about him.
The thing is, like the stranger rapist, the creepy doms are not figments of anyone’s imagination. Oh, they exist! And they are dangerous. Some of the worst abuse cases to come publicly to light are these sort of marginal characters, with no or peripheral involvement in the local community. It’s my understanding that Bagley fits this model: sometimes attended munches, but wasn’t really integrated into the “scene.” Longoria, as far as I know, wasn’t part of any formal BDSM community. Glenn Marcus, whose case went all the way to the Supreme Court, fits that model. Travis Anton, shot and killed by his victim of several years, fit that model. Hauff, charged in Seattle (but not convicted of anything and to my knowledge still awaiting trial) fits the profile, said to have been a “wallflower” at the Wet Spot, a creepy guy who read the Gor novels, allegedly abducted and nonconsensually tortured a sex worker after his marriage to a Filipina woman 25 years his junior fell apart. It’s easy to call those situations abuse, because the perpetrators were on the fringes. They didn’t subscribe to norms and standards and pay lip service to ethical precepts that the people in the organizations do. They didn’t talk a good game about limits and consent. They didn’t go to demos and take classes, or at least not as regular participants in the formal scene.
There’s a whole cultural issue about who is in the club and who isn’t that goes along with this. I’d recommend Margot Weiss’s ethnography of the Bay Area BDSM scene – I have not read it in its book form but I did read her doctoral dissertation (I’m assuming the material overlaps heavily, though I assume the book was edited to make the academic language more accessible), and it is all about the operation of BDSM in late capitalism and how it interacts with social norms and constitutes serious leisure. It also puts me in mind of the essay Mr. Benson Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, about the valuing of form over substance in gay men’s leather communities, in the wonderful and under-cited anthology Leatherfolk, edited by Mark Thompson. There’s a middle-class-ness, a mark of approval and propriety, a performance of norms about this determination of who is us and who isn’t.
(Also, I just feel like I need to note the conflict of interest from people who say, “newbies, especially newbie women, need to play in public with the organized community for a while to get experience”: it preserves older community members’ access to a stream of younger people, and in pansexual communities particularly younger women, to play with. It should be noted that the discomfort of being constantly cruised for play by older community members is one of the things that makes a lot of younger folks more comfortable in age-restricted “The Next Generation” or TNG groups.)
Folks who remember my post Not What We Do may wonder at the tension between saying that Bagley is not Us, and decrying the people who say Bagley is not Us. I want to be clear: what I meant to do in Not What We Do was to make an ethical statement. People who say, “screw you and your ethics” are voting themselves out. I don’t say Bagley wasn’t one of us because he lived in a trailer (as some people have — that’s classist and messed up.) I say he isn’t one of us because, if you credit the statements under oath by his co-defendants, he practically owned the tee shirt that said “I don’t do consent.”
People who “don’t do consent” can rot in hell. I have nothing to offer them: no common ground and no compromise. You might think that expressly eschewing limits or continuing consent is rare, but you can’t poke around Fetlife long without coming across groups where people — so often cis het male doms — say they don’t believe in consent or limits, they believe in TPE, total power exchange, etc. Now, the first great online battle of people using the terminology of TPE broke out in the 1990s and ruined some Usenet groups and I’m old enough to remember that. I’m not having that discussion, simply because I don’t care what the “no limits TPE” people have to say, I won’t engage with them or their “ideas” and I won’t let this blog become a forum for them. (Don’t bother commenting, assholes. I won’t put the comments up and I’ll ban you. Free speech is a right against the Government; I’m not the government and I don’t owe anyone a space to be heard.)
These people wouldn’t be so dangerous if everyone agreed that both they and their tactics are marginal. But while it’s easy to say that these people are on the margins after they’ve been criminally charged, they’re the ugly secret that the upstanding people with their SSC banners hide when the mainstream is looking around. People have an attraction to edges and extremes. One time I posted about the problems I have trusting BDSM porn made by big companies. Well, the problem is that the basement operation may be even worse: of the cases of abuse (or alleged abuse, for the pending ones) I references above, three made porn for paying subscribers. Travis Anton used photos and videos of his victim and supplied writings that purported to be hers, under the name Delia Day. Glenn Marcus used his victim, the one he punished when she tried to leave, the one he stalked after she did leave, to produce subscription porn. Bagley also ran a website, and even took the woman to a photoshoot for Taboo, a part of Flynt’s Hustler family of porn magazines. Anyone looking at this material is watching actual rape and abuse, and all of them bragged (or are alleged to have bragged) about how extreme and edgy they were.
I’ve met several people, mostly women, whose introduction to BDSM was that someone talked them into a 24/7 dominant/submissive dynamic when they were brand new. That’s just wrong. Even if someone is really, really convinced that 24/7 is where they want to end up (and I’m not saying 24/7 dynamics are always bad, but they’re always difficult and I’m always wary of them), how can they possibly know that without a background of experience doing temporary power exchange and seeing how it feels?
I’m dating myself here, but I remember back in the 1990s when Michael Payte was outed as a dangerous top. He was at Bear Stearns and it made the Village Voice. I remember people saying, “yeah, I played with that guy. You just had to know that it was a no-safeword scene. But if someone freaked out I could see him getting nasty.” So basically, there were people who thought that he didn’t respect consent or limits and sort of shrugged because he was a scary, edgy top. A friend of mine quoted Mollena Williams, who in the last part I noted had written about the violation of her consent, as saying, “tops get scared and anxious, too, unless they’re completely sociopathic. And if you are playing with someone sociopathic, more power to you … just get a spotter.”
As long as we’re romaticizing the scary, nonconsensual and evil, we can’t be surprised when the actual scary, nonconsensual and evil people manage to hang around at the fringes of the community and prey on newbies. But sadly, BDSM’s stranger in the bushes is the scenario that the formal communities actually deal with best. Asher Bauer wrote one of the best pieces about this, Field Guide to the Creepy Dom. He says, in part:
You all know this guy, or have at least heard of him. He’s the one who got banned from the local S&M club. He’s the asshole who just sent you a rude “Submit to me now” message on Bondage.com— even though you’re listed as a femdom. He’s the guy who seriously abused your friend under the guise of “D/s.” He might’ve even made the national news, but more likely, his victims have never reported him to the police.
This… gentleman… began by intruding upon a scene in progress. He proceeded to speak only to Dylan and Char, completely slighting me. He said he could get them into a private party at Mr. S. He asked us where we usually hang out, and when Char said “The Citadel” he reacted with suppressed scorn. Before any of us fully knew what was happening, he had grabbed Dylan (who was already subspaced out) and forced him onto his knees, without so much as a ‘by your leave.’ “You can always tell if someone’s submissive by doing this,” he said, digging his finger into a pressure point on Dylan’s wrist. He pointed out the involuntary twitch of one of Dylan’s fingers, then reached for my arm to do the same to me.
“I didn’t give you permission to touch me,” I hissed.
He laughed, and said something to the effect that “she,” on the other hand, was not submissive.
“My name is Asher, I am not she, I’m a transman, and not letting you touch me has nothing to do with whether I’m submissive,” I informed him.
Finding no fertile ground in me, he focused his attention on Dylan. Char sat by, not quite sure whether to interfere, but not willing, either, to leave Dylan alone with this person.
What is so intoxicating, and also so dangerous, about Creepy Dom, is that he does not distinguish between the scene and reality. This is why he thinks that dominant people are dominant all the time, and submissive people are doormats. This is why he doesn’t negotiate or ask permission. This is why he has no regard for rules.
Around him, there’s no “off” time. Even when you aren’t technically in a scene, he takes control of the situation. Although he may not say he’s interested in 24/7, what he wants is complete power over you.
When all’s said and done, Creepy Dom is just a classic abuser dressed up in leather. And that, my friends, is a lot less sexy than it sounds.
I’m not summarizing the whole post here; there’s a list of characteristic red flags and explanations, and it’s really a post that I encourage people to go read start to finish.
That guy often does get banned from the public spaces and the orgs. The stories about boundary violations circulate pretty quickly because this guy isn’t any good at hiding what he is. He ends on the fringes, in the bushes as it were, looking for victims.
But he can still sometimes manage to find victims, especially among the less experienced and less savvy, because he has at least a partial social license to operate. I’m using Predator Theory language here. Some of my best-known writing is on the empirical research on undetected rapists that shows that a single-digit percentage of the population are serial predators responsible for the vast majority of the abuse. These are the predators. What they do is not a mistake or miscommunication. However, the rape and abuse they commit is under any strategic cover they can find that will allow them to escape consequences for what they do. That’s their “social license to operate,” the social circumstances which they use to conceal, justify or excuse their conduct, that make it seem grey or borderline or unknowable when in fact their conduct is intentional. ( I may shorthand it “SL-Op” from time to time.)
There’s a lot of room in BDSM communities to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Asher himself says:
It can be really hot, at first, because let’s face it– none of us fantasize about negotiations and limits. We fantasize about some big rough brute coming up to us in the corner of a dark club and demanding exactly what he wants. And that’s pretty much what this guy does. He makes it all real, and that is the source of his charm. That is also why he will destroy you.
And some people do go around making the claim that there is no “off” time, that “real” submissives don’t use safewords, that doms “just know.” In fact, some of these “real subs don’t have safewords” people have significant cult followings. There’s a whole subculture of Goreans, for example, who model their play on John Norman’s Gor sci fi novels: heteronormative, gender essentialist and, sometimes, without limits. The romanticizing of bad actors who don’t understand or respect limits and can’t be trusted even manifests in (usually) barely concealed support for the worst abusers. Apologists for Marcus are rare, but there are still apologists for Bagley. Mostly they take the form of asserting that the media may be getting the facts wrong, which is a fair criticism. But I see some folks flat-out assert that he did nothing wrong and it was all consensual and she’s only lying now because … well, we’ve all heard that one before, right?
The Creepy Dom, the guy living in isolation and soliciting 19-year-old newbies to move half way across the country to be his live-in slave, that’s the easy case. Very few people are actually for that guy, and not many are friends with that guy or make excuses for that guy. The problem is that when that guy (on occasion not a guy — the trope is gendered and cis and het but the reality is more complicated) is good at manipulating people, everything changes, and suddenly, communities are not so good at dealing with it anymore. There’s just enough underbrush to give these predators a slender SL-Op … but when they’re really good at manipulating people, and they move into the center of their communities, then they have almost unlimited freedom to operate. Abusers that work their way into central positions in BDSM communities are almost untouchable. That part is coming.
 The events of ten years ago are increasingly invisible at the bottom of the internet memory hole, and complete summaries of what happened are hard to find. Travis Anton’s victim was an artist from Mississippi from what I understand to have been a very sheltered home. He was self-employed with a software company, his children were in boarding school and he had isolated her in rural Mississippi. Nobody really knows what happened but her; she was arrested after shooting him in the chest with his own shotgun, released on bond, and then as far as I know, never charged.
 Hauff may actually claim to subscribe to meaningful, recognized community practices of consent, though it is hard to tell what the defense will be from the stories in the press. I guess we’ll all see what the trial looks like.
 True story: a fight broke out in a Fetlife group called Revoke Women’s Rights when a group of feminist and feminist-friendly women who wanted a place to explore extremely misogynist fantasy dynamics pointed out that the group had to be fantasy oriented because actually advocating a politics of patriarchy would be hate speech and violate the TOU. They got piled on by people (not all claiming to be men) who really, really insisted that the space be a forum for people who wanted women returned to conditions of legal and social subjugation long since left behind in almost the entire world.