There’s A War On Part 3: A Fungus Among Us
[Trigger warning for the whole topic. I'm talking about rape and abuse in the BDSM community. This post specifically contains narratives of rape and abuse. ]
I said in the last section that when the predators manipulate their way into central positions in BDSM communities, they are unstoppable. We have to talk about this, and this is the uncomfortable part. Predator Theory, backed by empirical research, tells us that the bad actors, the repeat, deliberate, serial abusers, are less than 10% of the general population (depending on the population; the research is sketchy, but 4% or 8% depending on whether one looks at Lisak’s college sample or McWhorter’s Navy sample). Four out of a hundred, one out of twenty-five: someone we know. Someone we’re friends with. Someone we trust. Someone who is friends with our friends. It may be worse in BDSM communities, nobody has any numbers. Pedophiles try to become priests, teachers, coaches, run camps: places where their access to targets will be easy, where they can select and groom targets. Given the way BDSM communities offer access to targets and unwittingly or even recklessly provide cover for abusive conduct, why wouldn’t predators who want adult victims gravitate toward BDSM communities? Anyone who thinks that can’t be true is in denial.
The first step is admitting we have a problem. And we do have a problem. I’ll skip to the end: there’s no shortage of stories that start “I was abused” and end “when I tried to say something the community closed ranks around the abuser and I was frozen out.” It’s happened to friends of mine. It’s happened in communities where people insist that the community isn’t like that. And almost always, you have to actually know the participants to know what happened because nobody talks about it. It’s all secret, there’s no sunlight and no transparency. You, you out there on the internet, can search blogs until you’re blue in the face for a record of some of these stories, or some indication that you shouldn’t play with some of these people, and you’ll never find it. Even when “everybody knows,” the “everybody” is very narrow.
Here is a classic example; a pretty typical story that was left in comments to Charlie Glickman’s blog post on BDSM and rape [TW specifically not so much for the violation but for the community shut-down, but if you can, I encourage you to read this and not just TL;DR skim it]:
A good friend who is a non-masochistic female submissive negotiated “a painless singlestail scene” at a convention dungeon. She was not a novice, but had 3-4 years experience and was very active in the local community. The dominant man was a was a current title-holder, doing the circuit of regional conventions.
In midst the scene, after she was spacey and not able to speak, he re-negotiated the scene and got her agree to body punching. She expected a thumpy massage. She got three ribs dislocated.
When he punched her kidney she fell, so he held her to the floor and kept punching her. She had to pull herself together enough to speak, and to call red, before he stopped. Then he told her not to tell anyone what had happened, and he dumped her on me and left. He did not show up at the pre-arranged meeting place the next the morning.
This was clearly not a scene gone wrong, or a mistake.
The man could not have claimed ignorance. He was a trained martial artist, so he would have known the effect his blows were having. It could only have been deliberate.
Rather than dropping out of sight, she chose to warn people. When she tried the tell the kink community what had happened, she got shut out. Her forum posts were deleted. She was told to have a mediated discussion with the man who had assaulted her. The rape crisis center wasn’t interested because it had happened in a kink environment and there had been no penetration. People in the community stopped talking with her.
She found other women who had had their limits violated and had been beaten or even put in the hospital by this man. Of course, some of them dropped entirely from the scene, which made them invisible. If she hadn’t sought them out, they would have been forgotten.
People in the community still didn’t want to hear about it. She continued to fight for three years before anyone agreed to help her.
This response was not merely local. People acted in the same way in our home state, in the state where the convention was held, and the home state of the man.
The result is that this man seized the one thing she enjoyed most in life, BDSM, and took it away from her. That was the last time she ever allowed herself to to get spacy and unable to speak. And for that, the community treated her as the villain.
We tell ourselves that the kink community is self-policing, but we’re lying to ourselves. The community prefers to minimize visible conflict. If a predator says the right things in public, and abuses people in private, not only is he accepted by the community, he can be made a title-holder.
[Bold mine.] Now, I don’t know who the hell that is. I don’t know who the victim is, who the perp is, nothing. But it rings true because it matches what I’ve seen. A close friend of mine, a queer cis woman, won a leather contest title on the East Coast in the late 1990s, then moved out to the Bay Area. After playing and participating for years, she met a guy who was a relative newbie Dom and they decided to try a 24/7 relationship. It didn’t last very long, and they broke up, but when it fell apart and she tried to get back together with him, he punched her in the face. It wasn’t consensual, it was in anger. They had a written contract that specified that play in anger was a hard limit. The contract conveniently disappeared. She reported and it ended up in court. The BDSMers generally sided with him. He’s a sought-after speaker. She tells me she feels like persona non grata in her old play space.
Here’s the grim punch line: a friend of mine, a feminist, a prominent feminist BDSMer, played with that guy. After the incident. Nobody told her.
There are stories that have me gritting my teeth, ones where I’ve talked to the participants and know what happened as well as anyone except an eyewitness can, stories where the abusers are very public, very well-connected, and where there have been attempts to tell people that a top is wildly unsafe and untrustworthy. Those attempts resulted in no meaningful action against the tops, and a whole lot of personal consequences for the victims and other people who tried to speak out; so much so that in some cases the survivors have personally asked me not to be more specific because they don’t believe anyone will do anything about it and they just can’t go through it again. It makes me sick and sad not to say what I know, but … I understand. Some of the people who do very fucked up and wrong things are also the fixtures at some of the parties, or the hosts, or in the inner circle of organizations. Some survivors decide that they need to be heard, however, so I have permission to print one such story.
I’ll call her Nina, and I’ll call him Boris. Boris is charming. Boris cares more about consent than anyone, or that’s the impression he gives, and so say some of his friends.
Nina isn’t okay now, not completely, but Nina is strong enough to tell her story, and this is what she wants you to know: that she was new to BDSM and Boris was showing her the ropes; and in his case the knives, because he’s a knife fetishist. They were together for a few months, and in that time she says he repeatedly encouraged her to accept a knife insertion. She didn’t want to do a knife insertion. If she had had the language, which she didn’t then, she would have called it a hard limit. (In case the terminology escapes you, readers, we are talking about knife-in-vagina here. I’m not going to get into a safety debate here, though, which will devolve into unproductive namecalling between the knife players who think it’s fine and the people who think it’s inherently and stupidly dangerous.)
She says he would put his fingers inside her, and tell her the fingers were a knife. It made her uneasy, but she never asked him to stop the roleplay. She knew, she knew that he wouldn’t really put the knife in. She hadn’t agreed to that. She had said not to. She had said she wasn’t ready. She says she had been clear: certain that he would respect her boundaries, she let him have his pretend play. (It’s not a bad way, this sort of mindgame, to move towards opening up a limit. But then, the move from pretend to for real is the difference between consent to pretend and consent to real — all the difference in the world).
She wasn’t ready, she said to Boris. Then all of a sudden, he said it was in, and it wasn’t pretend. The knife was inside her, not Boris’s fingers; in her vagina, without telling her. (I’d explain the technique, but it’s a technique that has to be learned in person. Don’t read about it and try it at home.)
And then she had to leave, because he had some people coming over, and she was left to pick up the pieces. When she addressed it, she says he wouldn’t apologize. He told her he left her better than he found her. And she’s still picking up the pieces.
She came into the scene through him. Who else did she know but his friends? She wanted to go to parties, but he would be there. Asking the hosts to bar him seemed an impossibility: they were all his friends. People she knew and thought she trusted made excuses for him, erased what she told them and rewrote the story in a way they could accept, that neither required them to call Nina a liar nor accept what her story meant about Boris. Some people just don’t want to see Boris like that. They know Boris! Boris wouldn’t do a thing like that! And it’s easy to say, “I wasn’t there, how can I know?” Of course I wasn’t there, and unless you’re Nina or Boris, neither were you. But when Nina told me, everything I know about judging credibility said that the story she told me was true, from A to Z.
One of her fears now is that, to keep the peace, to allow them to accept that she is telling the truth but not to deal with what that would mean about Boris, mutual acquaintances will pressure her to accept an apology from Boris of the “sorry-I-misunderstood” kind, to accept that it was a mistake, an accident, a miscommunication. She knows her truth. She was clear. She did not consent. He did it anyway. And she needs to say that, even if that’s uncomfortable for the people in the scene.
This one appeared on Tracy-Clark Flory’s Tumblr, after she posted the story about Stryker that I linked in the first segment:
I was at a play party some years ago where I was seriously abused non-consensually by a woman who figured she could do anything she wanted because “sub males should consider themselves lucky to get any kind of attention from a dominant woman.” After it happened, everyone kept telling me to stop talking about it because she was a known dominant, and it would only “hurt your reputation in the community.”
One of the founders of one of a big city party operation was accused of sexual assault by a woman. His friends, on Fetlife, piled on her and attacked her. A second woman’s allegations came to light — she hadn’t wanted to say anything publicly, but she got dragged into it. Team Perp was well on their way to shutting the women down and protecting him, when a prominent youth organization threatened to boycott the perp’s parties. He took some time off to address issues in his personal life. Recently, I read a first-hand account that that guy’s co-founder nonconsensually and against event rules finger-penetrated a woman at one of the events.
One friend of mine started asking questions about a prominent, well-connected Midwestern kinkster. He and his wife started making threats, and they’ve threatened other people who have made inquiries about whether his conduct was all consensual. Some of his friends then tried the good-cop approach: they were trying to change him, to make him be better about consent and limits, but if she attacked him, he’d just get defensive and would stop trying to change. Charming, right?
(I’m listing blind items here. Some of these incidents, I don’t know who it is. Some, what I know I know only second-hand. Some, I got the stories firsthand and I do know who it is, and I have not said. I could give you all kind of excuses for why I’m not naming the names I know; but the blowback if I tell other people’s stories isn’t just on me. I’m not afraid of the abusers, or not afraid enough to shut me up anyway. But I am afraid to set in motion events that will harm people who trust me. So … right now I’ll just say that I did what I did. I’ll return to what it means to name names later.)
There are more. Kitty Stryker collected some stories for a blog carnival. If you follow online BDSM communities, the stories sometimes pop up, but then they are sometimes quickly hauled down, or they occasion a flurry of attacks on the victim, and only occasionally the victim’s supporters returning fire. Some I get by private email or PM, some I hear third-hand, some are laid out in personal blogs, under the radar with a readership of a dozen. Those are the stories that you don’t hear unless you’re already close to it. You have to know somebody to find out what was said.
The plural of anecdote is not data. The plural of anecdote is evidence. How many does it take to make a pattern? One woman, a friend-of-friends, had this to say (Sorry, folks, Fetlife login req’d):
I joined the New York scene around end of summer or early fall of 2009. I wasn’t new to kink, but I was brand-new to joining public groups about it. I got to know a bunch of people, but I made closer friends with a group of maybe 10-12 women who bottomed/subbed at least part of the time, and who got into the scene at around the same time I did.
It’s now spring 2012. Out of these 10 or 12 women, 3 (including me) are still in the scene. Out of all these women, 100% were raped, abused, assaulted, drugged without their consent, or had their hard limits totally ignored by members of the scene.
Most of them didn’t even think of going public for fear of backlash. If you asked one of their acquaintances why so-and-so left, they might say “didn’t she move?” or “I thought she got a new job that kept her busy” or “oh, I think she left after her breakup with that guy” or “you know, people just drift in and out sometimes.” You wouldn’t know the real story unless you were one of their close friends. I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten an “I can’t believe what he just did to me, but don’t tell anyone” call. Single digits would be unacceptable; double digits is incredibly disturbing.
I think at least 90% of people in the scene are good. I think the others get around a whole lot.
I think even in a relatively small sample size, a violation rate of 100% is a sign that something really needs to be fixed.
[Emphasis mine.] There’s a theme here: that silence and secrecy are the paramount values, and open discussion is to be avoided. It’s a basic function of institutions, but often of informal social networks as well, to protect the body from reputational damage. That’s what colleges do with rape: they use nondisclosure agreements so that whatever the result, nobody can talk about it. When I was in college and there was an accusation of a sexual assault on a woman I sort of knew, I got the account from her, and she said it happened and I believed her, so I told anyone who would listen about the perp. So the administration told me I’d be punished if I didn’t shut up. That’s how it happens. Not talking about it is rule #1.
I said before that even when “everybody knows,” everybody is really narrow. Even when there’s a paper trial, a police report, a restraining order, people who are new in the scene often don’t get told. When I was a teenager, I believed that reputation was the gold standard and that if there were stories about a top violating boundaries, that it would get around pretty quickly. It turns out that it doesn’t. People sit on what they hear. To tell you, the people who have heard need to trust you, and the people who nobody knows well enough to share the story with are those who are newest and least protected.
I titled this series, “There’s A War On.” There are two sides, and the two sides are Transparency and Secrecy. Justice Brandeis famously wrote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” People who are against sunlight have arguments, some of them even sensible arguments. But when it comes down to it, either you think things have to change, or you don’t. For reasons that I’ll write about in greater depth in the sections to come, the only real way to make change is to let the sunlight in.
There’s a way I think I need to come at this. Some of the people on Team Secrecy are not evil, just misguided, and on my account they’re misguided because they’re not seeing the critical relationship between the predators, and the environment that allows them a social license to operate. So the rest of what I have to say is about those factors and that relationship.