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No Chosen People

November 23, 2009

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.

In some circumstances, that gives rise to really ugly dynamics. Denelian said in a comment on this post:

[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 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.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. MellD permalink
    November 23, 2009 3:50 pm

    Great post. In a community that should be based on consent and communication more so than others, it is very sad when people within automatically assume you are always and readily available due to being either (or both) a female or a submissive.

  2. November 23, 2009 10:12 pm

    I was at a fetish event once and some guy asked me what I was into. I told him I’m dominant. He was like “are you SURE you’re not submissive?” Yes, motherfucker, I AM SURE.

    It’s true–people really do assume that all chicks in the scene are either subs or switches. Even when I’m hanging out with vanilla people, if I accidentally blurt out a joke like “Aw, damn, I left my handcuffs in my other pants”, some guy will always leeringly say “Oh, you like to be tied up, do you?” It gets pretty frustrating.

    Luckily, nobody [at a fet event] has ever presumed to invade my physical space. I didn’t realize that was so commonplace. It makes me sad.

    • alita permalink
      May 12, 2012 10:40 am

      heh, i got the same thing. on a dating site i listed “ball gag” as one of my fav items, and the responses i got from men were they assumed i liked being tied up-to which i had to clarify “the ball gag is not for me!” its funny how these men make out they are somehow have superior thoughts on sex that the maintream just wouldnt understand yet their ideology doesnt differ from the mainstreams which is men are dominant and women are submissive.

      • October 11, 2012 8:55 pm

        Alita – I often got the same result when I mentioned cock sucking and analsex as a like. Men would be all oogly, and then I’d say “Great, let me get my dick!” and they’d freak.

  3. November 24, 2009 3:28 am

    Other heavily communication-based sexuality communities that ought to know better have similar issues, like polyamorous circles. (While I’m both poly and kinky, I don’t do public kink gatherings so I haven’t been submitted to that particular gantlet of unfortunateness.)

    • November 24, 2009 9:33 am

      I’m not at all surprised. Our whole broader culture has a toxic relationship with sexuality and is infested with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, etc. These things don’t just disappear, and even if they are somewhat better in communities that are very intentional about sexuality, the very concentrated focus on sexuality magnifies the ways these forces interact, so … yeah.

  4. Clarisse Thorn permalink
    November 24, 2009 5:42 am

    I agree with you, but you don’t seem to have given any airtime to BDSM anti-abuse community initiatives, so I’ll just go ahead and link to my post Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse.

    • November 24, 2009 9:36 am

      Yeah, when you posted that I left a comment to basically the same effect. There is plenty of “how to spot abuse” literature and discussion. I don’t think it’s the theory that’s the sticking point. I think that, in theory, lots of BDSMers know how to spot abuse, and are against abuse and abusers. What I was shocked to see was that in practice, people who clearly know what the right thing is chose to do the high school popularity contest thing instead of the right thing.

  5. Ros permalink
    November 24, 2009 11:19 am

    So very, very true (sadly).

    I’ve run into the same issues with the poly community multiple times, as well, which always surprises me in a community that tends to place so much emphasis on clear communication.

    One of the things that made me stop going to any sort of poly gathering was a marked lack of respect for any reference to my partner (ex: “This is as far as I can go with regards to the boundaries I have with my partner”) – I’ve gotten straight-up comments about how that’s not REALLY poly, and if I was really poly/bi/kinky/etc, I’d be into whatever they’re suggesting (with them, exactly then). Charming.

    Something about being out as female, poly, bi, and kinky seems to mean that I have to be up for everything, all the time, and it’s remarkably frustrating. At this point, I’ve more or less fallen into a monogamous-by-default arrangement with my partner, and don’t go to poly or kink events at all.

    Most of the people I know in those communities are great, but there’s just a few people who keep doing this… and who keep being invited to events because they’re charming, and nice, and generally fun (for anyone they aren’t pulling this crap with). Frustrating beyond BELIEF.

    • November 24, 2009 11:34 am

      “At this point, I’ve more or less fallen into a monogamous-by-default arrangement with my partner,”

      As have I — we have small children, we only play as a couple, logistics are a nightmare, babysitting is tough to come by, so … just us for some time now. I think there’s a lot of “we used to go out, but now we stay home.”

  6. MertvayaRuka permalink
    November 24, 2009 8:17 pm

    Thomas, thank you for this post.

    Little background on myself, I’m a Dominant, married to a bi submissive woman and we have a bi female partner who is submissive to both of us. I may or may not have spoken to you on one of the sites we both frequent before but under a different nym; I’ve had to abandon the one I normally use due to safety concerns.

    My partner and I are also in the “we used to go out, now we stay home” category, partly because of this kind of situation. I think that some of what causes this is exactly the “high school popularity contest” attitude you spoke of. Those who are charming enough or fit a universally-approved standard of physical attractiveness or both tend to get cut a lot of slack for their behavior. It’s a shame too because we have met some truly wonderful people in the lifestyle but we just couldn’t deal with those who felt that if more than a few moments went by where I wasn’t physically holding onto my partner’s collar, that meant she was up for grabs. This included the one who took hold of her from behind and then said he”mistook” my partner for one of his subbies, even though the subbie in question had a shoulder to shoulder back tattoo and my partner was not adorned in such a fashion.

    Our partner has had similar problems online. She’s a photographic model who always wears the collar I made for her when she models. This attracted the attention of a self-styled Dominant who figured that meant it was okay for him to start telling her how he’d spank and discipline her and how he knew what she REALLY needed. Of course I don’t know if he has any standing in the BDSM community at all, my impression is that he’s likely just a fringe lurker but his behavior is all too familiar.

    This is just my own opinion, of course, but I think that male Dominants in particular sometimes drag their entitlement baggage with them into the BDSM lifestyle. They feel that being in the lifestyle allows them to shed the shackles of “Political Correctness” and treat women the way THEY feel women should be treated. Unfortunately it’s entirely possible for their behavior to be validated, either by people who don’t understand their true motivations or, as you suggested, they get a pass for being attractive or charming enough. We are more self-policing than average for the whole of society, but that self-policing can still be circumvented by clever abusers.

    • November 25, 2009 9:42 am

      “but I think that male Dominants in particular sometimes drag their entitlement baggage with them into the BDSM lifestyle. They feel that being in the lifestyle allows them to shed the shackles of “Political Correctness” and treat women the way THEY feel women should be treated. ”

      A lot of people I know get all offended when I say that I am suspicious of het male exclusive tops. But I am, for that reason. There’s asshole behavior in all communities and all walks of life, but misogynist attitudes combined with a pattern or putting them into play under cover of a highly sexualized environment where power dynamics seem normal is, IMO, a disproportionate problem among het male exclusive tops with gender essentialist notions that women are inherently submissive. So I distrust them, and that’s how it’s going to stay.

      • MertvayaRuka permalink
        November 25, 2009 1:42 pm

        “A lot of people I know get all offended when I say that I am suspicious of het male exclusive tops. But I am, for that reason.”

        Yes, I recall you’ve said that before somewhere, I also recall the offended reaction you mentioned and I’m pretty much in complete agreement with you. It’s a lot like the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” discussion not too long ago only with, as you said, the additional problem of the power dynamic granting potential cover to abusers. IMO, this creates a greater need for het male exclusive tops to earn the trust of female submissives than under regular circumstances. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of other people who think similarly. What I do see is an even worse variation of the insulted and offended attitude of “How dare you suspect such a thing of me/I would never do something like that/I’ve all ready earned a good reputation” that I’ve become all too familiar with in other arenas as well. I’ll have to share with you some of the incidents that come to mind when I get a chance.

      • November 25, 2009 7:10 pm


  7. November 25, 2009 1:29 pm

    I don’t know what BDSM groups you all are associated with, but I’ve never seen behaviour like what is described here. If I had seen it, I have no doubt that the offending parties would have been promptly ejected and/or ostracized from the community immediately.

    I’ve heard tales of communities like this that are closed off, restricted, damaged or cliquish in unfortunate ways, but it appears that our group leaders have decided this is self defeating and actively discourage it. Our group pretty seamlessly integrates all the ‘problem’ categories above: homosexual males, dominant females, the leather community, a pile of switches, furries and age players, just as examples.

    This is not to say that everything is ideal here. I may be deluding myself, or missing something important – but so far what I’ve seen is a pretty healthy, well balanced group with few prejudices or jerks.

  8. November 28, 2009 11:18 pm

    Is the BDSM community really that heteronormative?

    I’m not really in it, but have good friends who are in it, and maybe the sectors of it they’re in are unusual, maybe not, but my impression of it is that it’s overwhelmingly “queer”, and a straight, cisgendered person would be a rarity in it. Most of the people i know who do BDSM are trans or genderqueer, bi- or pansexual, polyamorous and involved in feminist and/or queer liberation activism. OK, that sentence would also be not far off true if you took the words “who do BDSM” out of it, but the correlations between BDSM, polyamory and non-binary gender identity are particularly strong among people i know. I don’t think i know any exclusively-het BDSMers.

    I agree that explicit communication and negotiation is necessary, but not sufficient, for a “good sex” culture. But i desperately wish that the explicit-negotiation norms of BDSM culture could become an integral part of our wider sexual culture. While it certainly wouldn’t do everything to solve the existing problems, it would IMO be a massive step of the way, and on a more personal level, for people like myself who have impairments preventing them from using or understanding all or nearly all implicit methods of communication, it would make ethical sexual relationships possible.

  9. November 29, 2009 10:17 pm

    I see stories like your friend’s on FetLife all the time. In one thread, a woman explained that during a bondage/medical-kink scene, she safeworded. The top ignored her and continued unabated. She was disturbed by the experience, but she didn’t describe it as “rape” — instead, she was wondering if she’d just been too timid by safewording when she did. In some circles, there seems to be a glamor and prestige to edgeplay, which makes subs/bottoms feel pressured to give more and more and disregard their own boundaries.

    • November 30, 2009 10:12 am

      Do you know where I can find that discussion on Fetlife? I have a profile that I don’t do much with, and that I started mostly because some folks in the feminist kinksters group linked to this blog and discussed the book. There are some smart and wonderful folks and some good discussions … but some of the shit I see is just dispiriting.

      (BTW, anyone looking for me there, I am ThomasMMillar on Fetlife).

      Blowing through a safeword is, IMO, not a little thing at all. A negotiated safeword if the boundary of consent; IMO, a top who negotiates a safeword and then ignores it should be arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced for assault and battery and/or sexual assault for every single act that happens after that point. Tops who don’t want to have to worry about their bottom giving up on the scene too easily should negotiate for incentives and/or no safeword — but the latter a lot of people won’t do ever, or will only do with partners with whom they have years-long relationships of trust.

      If Dudely Dudemaster wants a no-safeword scene with whatever thin, conventionally attractive 19-29 year old cis female bottom shows up for the party … well, he can want whatever he wants, but he doesn’t have a right to it and probably can’t get her to agree to it. IME, some of them think they do have a right to it, which not to put too fine a point on it, is exactly the attitude rapists have outside kinky communities. It’s almost impossible for us to completely eliminate the attitudes of the wider culture, but we ought to be able to do better than we do.

      • November 30, 2009 2:17 pm

        probably can’t get her to agree to it

        I wish I were more confident about this. 😦

      • December 1, 2009 11:03 am

        Sadly, there’s some truth to that. I think a lot of kinksters have been or know a woman who has been bullied out of her limits with some variation of “if you were really submissive …” I know in my friend’s case, what led up to the final blowup was a lot of “if you were a real sub” guilt tripping. It’s not even an undercurrent; there are people that really say “real X don’t have limits”, “I don’t allow my subs/slaves to have limits” etc.

      • alita permalink
        May 12, 2012 10:52 am

        “I think a lot of kinksters have been or know a woman who has been bullied out of her limits with some variation of “if you were really submissive …”

        would like to add my name to women who know a sub woman who has had that exact line used on her. fortunatly i had spoken to her before the incident, and she told the dom to fuck off because she could see right through him.

  10. GinnyC permalink
    November 29, 2009 10:47 pm

    I find dominance submission dynamics sexy, but as a femme gay woman I avoid kinkster circles for exactly the reasons you mention in this post. Men assume that I can’t possibly only be interested in women and (at least in the few kinky spaces friends have taken me to) people tend to touch without permission. If I felt confident with the scene I would sub or switch but by my rules and with no bondage or restraints what so ever, but I’ve never been able to enter explicitly sexualized spaces without harassment.

    For me, the dynamics you note are not limited to mostly straight circles either. I’ve had men who will not take “she’s not interested in guys for an answer” ask my friends whether I am available in queer spaces too. (They never ask me directly). I’ve also had men touch me without permission in gay bars. Apparently femme presentation equals interested in men and interested in them to a certain type of man. Needless to say, I would never go to any type of bar or kinkster space alone.

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