There’s A War On Part 5: Wallowing In The SL-Op
[Trigger Warning for the whole series, as it deals with rape and abuse. This part, however, contains less in the way of graphic descriptions of abuse than previous parts.]
In the previous parts, I talked about what I call the “Social License to Operate,” and since I’ll now talk about it a lot, I’m going to abbreviate it “SL-Op.” I repurposed the term from extractive industries like mining and oil, where it expresses the concept that aside from whatever formal regulations govern their operations, they have to maintain enough goodwill that forces are not mobilized to shut them down. Which is not far from what I mean in the rape and abuse context. Law and regulation and social structures are all dynamic systems through which power is exercised, and how exactly it is exercised is a social phenomenon. If there is sufficient desire to make something stop, usually a society can manage to change the law of the interpretation of the law to at least make it much rarer and more difficult. Conversely if there is widespread support of acquiescence, legislators and law enforcement will find that they are swimming against the tide to deploy effective measures against it. In the mainstream of American society, and I can say the same at least for the UK, you can look at the infrequency with which acquaintance rape is successfully prosecuted and punished and simply say that it is not really illegal; not in the thoroughgoing sense where the society collaborates in deploying power against it. It’s nominally illegal, certain kinds of rape are illegal, in the sense that they are often successfully prosecuted, but the most common kinds of rapes, those committed using intoxicants and no overt force, by a man against a woman he knows, are punished at such low rates that a would-be rapist is safe in concluding that if he follows the usual protocol of repeat rapists he is likely to go unpunished.
So how does this interact with the problems particular to rape and abuse within BDSM communities? We have several dynamics that operate socially to allow rapists and abusers to go unpunished. Some of these mirror dynamics in the mainstream and some don’t. This is my incomplete list:
This may surprise some of my regular readers, because one of my better known writings is all about how evidence from conversation analysis shows that miscommunication is not the reason for rape. And that’s true. This is one of the areas where BDSM parts company with the mainstream most dramatically.
If you’re reading this, depending on your play style, you’re likely to have been a party to something like the following conversation:
Top: This may hurt a bit
Bottom: Oooooow! Shit!!
Top: Shit is not a safeword.
Bottom: Fuck you!
Top: Fuck you is not a safeword.
Bottom: You’re from Hell!
Top: East Hell High, class of ’72. ”You’re From Hell” is not a safeword.
Bottom:Owww! Shit, shit shit. Oh my God. That’s really harsh.
Top: And what do we say …?
Bottom: Thank you Ma’am. May I have another?
If we simply ignore bigots who hate us or think everything we do is abuse, there’s a whole tier of the public who have gotten the message that we have lots of tools to communicate about consent and limits and such, explicit tools of verbal communication. We have negotiation and safewords and safesigns and checkins and all kinds of best practices that people could stand to learn from. And sometimes we use them, and sometimes we talk a good game about using them and are a lot more loosey-goosey in application.
When we communicate explicitly, consent isn’t confusing. I’ve written before that people don’t even need safewords unless they need “no” and “stop” not to mean “no” and “stop.” If somebody is getting caned and says, “that’s it, I can’t take any more,” unless the participants have agreed otherwise, that means, “that’s it, I can’t take anymore.” Real simple.
And when I’m doing something painful, my safeword is usually just a backup, as lots of people’s are. I want what I want, and as strange as it is to people who don’t enjoy painplay, I sometimes want to push myself to take thing that reeeeally hurt. I’m not likely to be whimpering “no, please …” I’m likely to be panting, “please don’t give up on me, I can do this, I just need a second to breathe …”
But that’s not everyone’s play style. Some people want to shout no and stop and do resistance, all of which has risks, and they’re often reasonable risks that can be managed by negotiation and safewords and other measure. But like most risks, they can’t be managed perfectly. They can only be managed reasonably.
For some people, much of what they want to do is out in the thin air where they can’t get a breath, where they’re scared and thinking that maybe what they agreed to was a bad idea. I’m not dumping on that kind of edgeplay, as long as people who do that know themselves and know how to negotiate for what they need. Ultimately, if you’re really good with just, “nothing that requires medical care and don’t mark my face” … well, okay. Some people base jump in squirrel suits and some people dive in caves, and they’re grown-ups and accidents on those edges are serious shit. I’m not lumping in people who choose, who consciously together choose, to play out on those edges with Eddie Ball and Glenn Marcus, with the abductors and the “my slave can never leave” abusers.
Shit happens. Whether for a newbie getting fucked while tied to the bed or the experienced adventurer in the middle of a two-day abduction scene, anywhere on the map of What It Is That We Do, shit can go wrong. Among the shit that happens: technical errors, landmines and spontaneous misreads.
(a) Technical Errors:
You can educate and train to minimize technical errors, but they happen. Unintentional wraps and mishits. A miss with a soft flogger is rarely a big deal, a miss with a hard striking object could be. A miss of five inches with a soft toy is nothing, a miss of an inch when slapping the face is more serious. A technical error in suspension bondage or electrical play can result in death. Some things carry a lot of inherent risk. A slip during knife play could result in an ER visit. Jay Wiseman, author of of SM 101, thinks nobody should do breath play, and that’s controversial. And so on. Hey, I’ve caused bleeding when I didn’t intend to (I don’t have the bottom’s permission to discuss the circumstances.)
In social justice communities, we generally understand that intent isn’t magic. The common example is that if you run someone over with your car, they may be dead or injured even if no harm was meant. But just because intent isn’t magic, doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant. In law, the major factors to criminal offenses (and civil liability, but that’s a more complex discussion) are the act and the state of mind, the latter being divided into broad areas like intent, recklessness, and negligence, with some subcategories. Running someone over with a car on purpose, with premeditation, intending to kill them is murder, a capital offense or a life imprisonment offense just about anywhere in the US. Running someone over with a car accidentally, even if they die, may be negligent, and may be a misdemeanor and result in no jail time and only probation. Why such a big difference? Because intent isn’t magic, but it matters a lot. It doesn’t fix the harm, but it mitigates the wrong. It’s worse to be reckless, to know of a risk and ignore it, than to be negligent, to have a duty and fail it. It’s worse to act with intent than to act recklessly.
We all intuitively know that. That’s why most people don’t freak out about technical topping mistakes. People may not want to play with someone who makes a lot of them, or makes big ones, but it’s an issue of competence rather than evil.
The biggest problem with technical errors isn’t that they happen. There are two problems with technical errors, and they are related. The first is that “safety” is used in an umbrella way to scoop in both technical competence and evil, and the second is that sometimes some people get defensive about them, refuse to own them and apologize for them, or worse, try to cover them up. Staci Newmahr talks in Playing on the Edge about tops getting bad reputations for mistakes, and people advising her to only play in public with new partners, and only with people with good reputations. This is a pretty good way to make sure that the tops one plays with are competent, but as I discussed in Part 3, not really an effective way to make sure they are not evil. The more that people who are not evil rapist pieces of shit tend to deal with being called on something by denial and coverup, the less it looks aberrant when the evil rapist pieces of shit do that, and they have to be able to do that and have it look sort of normal, otherwise they cannot operate.
So we have to normalize open communication about technical errors. Let those who are without error cast the first stone! We’ve all fucked up, mishit, flubbed it. It happens. Let’s not act like the predators act when we do.
Clarisse talks about hers, though not in any detail. Humans are messy. When we push into scare emotional territory, we may freak out over something that we didn’t know would affect us that way. A landmine is an emotional problem in a scene that wasn’t reasonably forseeable by either the top of the bottom. The bottom can’t warn or negotiate it away. The top can’t steer clear of it. There’s nothing to be done. This is the place where the absence of bad intent can do the least to mitigate the damage. There’s not much to say, except that landmines really are not anyone’s fault. They really are like natural disasters; they can’t be avoided and there’s no point in blaming anyone. They can be bad! A landmine can make it impossible for two people to play together again! It can traumatize someone so badly that they can’t do certain kinds of play anymore. But hurricanes and tsunami can kill thousands, and they are not anyone’s fault either.
(c) Spontaneous Misreads
This is where the real trouble, the real close cases, are. This is the place where the only difference between what the predators do and what ethical folks do by accident is intent, and all we can really assess that by is track record.
We can’t talk about every possible direction a scene should go. It would be easy to say that no top should do anything that hasn’t been explicitly discusses; it would be easy and unrealistic. Responsible, caring tops want their bottoms to have happy, hot experiences. If the bottom responds well to something unexpectedly, tops will read that and often go with it. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing. This is particularly true of verbal aspects of scenes; tops often say things to turn the bottom on. It’s very tough to know with precision what could cause a problem, though it is certainly possible and advisable to negotiate known issues. But it’s inherently inexact. ”We hadn’t talked about it and I thought you were into it because of the noises you were making” may be a completely true statement, or it may be a bullshit story someone tells after doing something willfully abusive, and the difference is only state of mind.
One particular issue with spontaneous reads is the mid-scene renegotiation. In the third segment, I linked to a comment on Charlie Glickman’s blog about an abuser. There was good, clear negotiation. The victim’s nightmare started with a midscene renegotiation:
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.
One of the common themes I hear in BDSM abuse stories is the mid-scene renegotiation. Lots of bottoms, especially subs, are not really in a state of mind mid-scene to advocate for themselves. Some folks are typically very conscious while bottoming — I can be doing things that are very painful and if you asked me what my mortgage payment is, I could tell you. Not everyone is like that. The victim in that blog comment and many other bottoms I know get really out of their heads, sometimes totally nonverbal and sometimes very submissive and unable to displease the top. Some folks just can’t use safewords at all because they can’t access them in scene: they have to negotiate up front and then trust.
The word “inhibited” gets a bad rap. I’m glad people are inhibited. Out inhibitions prevent us from doing every damned fool thing that we have the urge to do. We shouldn’t go around saying anything we think, or punching everyone that we think deserves it. In vino veritas, the saying goes, and while what we say under the influence comes from within us, our sober selves have more sense.
There are two major disinhibition effects in BDSM communities. The first is the disinhibition effect of sexualized spaces, where people (and not always entitled cis het men) get the sense that grabbing and groping and being intrusive is okay: okay because we’re all here to play, okay if it’s clearly a joke, and we’re all part of one community here and … It’s not okay, It’s bad in and of itself to violate someone because you think it’s funny, but doing that creates the underbrush that the predators hide in. A pinch because ha ha we’re all kidding around is hard to tell from a pinch to see if boundaries will be defended, which is the predators’ victim targeting device.
The second major disinibition is mind-altering substances. We talk a good game about keeping alcohol and drugs separate from BDSM because they cause people to ignore safety, miss signals, and do what they should rather than what they want. We talk a good game and it’s a rule honored in the breach. I’ve heard a lot of boundary violation and topping mistake stories, and a lot of abuse stories, where played drunk or stoned, and even his from their partners that they were on something. There’s no way to handle this without being judgy: everyone says you shouldn’t play impaired, because it’s true. Don’t play impaired. Just don’t.
(3) Geek Social Fallacies
As far as I know, the list of Geek Social Fallacies is almost ten years old, but it may be older. There have been other attempts to apply the concept to sex. But I’m going to go with the original formulation, highlighting the first three:
Geek Social Fallacy #1: Ostracizers Are Evil
Geek Social Fallacy #2: Friends Accept Me As I Am
Geek Social Fallacy #3: Friendship Before All
These combine in alternative sexuality communities to create a meta-ethical code that does two things: (1) criticizes the very idea of the adoption of rules, standards and ethics; and (2) prevents resolution of interpersonal conflict.
I’ll take the first effect first. In Part 2, I wrote about folks who were for “total power exchange” and fetlife groups about revoking women’s rights. Well, in sexuality communities, if you criticize anyone for anything — anything — that turns them on, somebody is apt to say, “hey, you’re saying YKINOK” — Your Kink Is Not Okay. Well, having ethical rules means that some people’s kinks are not okay. It should be pretty easy to agree that Jeffrey Dahmer’s kink is not okay; Dennis Rader’s kink is not okay, and Jerry Sandusky’s kink is not okay. I can hear the screaming now! You just compared me to serial killers and pedophiles! Well, no, I am a BDSMer, so I just compared us to serial killers and pedophiles. The similarity is obvious. Their sexual self-expressions were outside the norm and stigmatized, too. The difference between our kinks and theirs is just as obvious, too: consent. If we don’t stand for consent, then there is no difference between us and the serial killers and child molesters.
(For BDSM Ethics According to Thomas, read Not What We Do.)
The second effect concerns the resolution of interpersonal conflict. I’ve noticed a funny thing: “I don’t do drama” is, in my experience, a contrarian indicator. There is more drama around people who say they don’t do drama than those who don’t say it, IMO. Why should that be? Because “drama” isn’t avoidable merely by saying you don’t do it. Drama isn’t actually avoidable at all, if we’re engaged in social interactions. Here’s why:
Drama is the stress produced by resolving interpersonal conflict. When people interact, there’s interpersonal conflict. Nobody has found a way to avoid that yet, in about 10,000 years of compex human interactions. People disagree about stuff, and resolving it produces stress. Trying to avoid that stress means simply being in denial about the conflict instead of trying to resolve it. That just increases the conflict, until it can’t be avoided, but the resolution then produces more stress.
Of course, like wealth and income, the stress is not evenly distributed. A group of people can decide to resolve interpersonal conflict by ignoring someone’s grievance until they go away. That’s what “I don’t do drama” means. People who say it mean that if you have a grievance against someone they know, you’re on your own.
(4) Culture of Secrecy and the Cycle of Silencing
In everyday life, the things we consider private are the exception and we mostly expect transparency. Someone who prefers opacity sort of stands out and requires explanation. In BDSM communities, people operate under pseuds all the time, are cagey about their identities and jobs and real lives and it passes without notice because it’s so common. That is for good reason! I write under a pseudonym, and I’m not about to stop. My wife shouldn’t have to live with everything I write; that alone is a good enough reason. But by allowing people to cover up histories of going from scene to scene and place to place as their behavior gets discovered. I’ve heard stories of abusers hopping from venue to venue, group to group and city to city to stay ahead of stories that spread slowly. It takes a long time for the victims to realize they’re not alone, and to reach out and tell their stories, and by the time they do, the abuser can move on and get a clean slate. One might naively think that the stories of rape and abuse would follow, and yet … they often don’t. See above, “I don’t do drama.”
This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. A survivor speaks out, but without transparency, people can’t evaluate the full set of information. The survivor gets a bad reception, and clams up or goes away. Then, the next time a survivor has to decide whether to speak out about the same person, they make that decision in isolation, because the other survivor has already disappeared and their account is down the memory hole; and for that same reason, if the second survivor does speak, people lack the whole universe of information because they can only consider the allegation they know about, not the whole universe of allegations. And so forth. Graphic illustration:
See how each incident exists in a vertical column, what’s sometimes called a silo? Siloed information keeps us from making informed choices about whether someone just made a mistake or is a bad actor. The thing that is necessary to have all the information on the table is to de-silo the information, to tear down those walls and allow the information to flow freely. What does that is support. If survivors get a supportive reception, they’ll say what happened. We need that. If they don’t, they won’t, and that allows predators to hide their history.
(5) Craven Self-Interest, or, The Pussywagon
Never underestimate the depth of human venality. One of the things that operates to create structures where abusers have a social license to operate is that anyone standing up to groups of their leaders may lose access to play spaces and play partners.
We all get up on our high horse about Sandusky, thinking that if had reason to believe that a trusted and respected member of our group were doing something really, really wrong, we’d tell everyone until someone listened. We’re bullshitting ourselves if we think that’s universal in the BDSM community. Number 5 and something like number 3 operated to protect Sandusky, and that was enough to let a molester have access to prepubescent boys for years.
 For this reason, I’m skeptical of the “orientation model” of BDSM, which positions BDSM as a sexual orientation. It has rhetorical advantages, but mere immutability is not justification. The reason BDSM is morally acceptable can’t be a characteristic that it shares with pedophilia. BDSM is morally acceptable because we’re not doing anything wrong, and to be morally acceptable, we have to circumscribe the boundaries of what we do at the point where it becomes wrong, not look for some metaethical cheat code like immutability. My metaethical views are very nonmainstream even in philosphical circles, and I won’t take the space in an already long series of long posts to get farther into it than that.
 This reference is a bit obscure. Feel free to guess in comments.
 Pretty obvious Tarantino reference, footnoted for anyone living in monastic isolation from popular culture.