There’s A War On Part 7: There’s A Crack In Everything, That’s How The Light Gets In
[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.]
This is the last part. If you’ve read this far, thanks for staying with me.
The title’s a Leonard Cohen reference. If that’s trite, then I’m okay with trite. But here’s the lyric that I’m really thinking of, from Beginning of a Great Adventure, from Lou Reed’s Reagan-era album New York: “It might be fun to have a kid I could pass something on to/ something better than rage, pain, anger and hurt.” He put that album out when I was in high school, and now there are folks in the TNG groups who were not born then. Some of these people are twenty years younger than me, that’s a whole generation. Some of my kinkster friends, I’m almost old enough to be their dad, for me that just sort of changes how I look at it.
I don’t need the public scene for me. I don’t need the orgs and the parties. The cops are not going to come knocking on my door and look for a singletail or check my wife’s body for bruises. Where and how I live, with the class and race and other privileges that go with it and all that, you can tell me to worry all you want, but I won’t. I tell doctors about my kinks if I need to for complete medical treatment, and I just expect them to act like a professional about it, even if I have no idea if they’re kink-friendly: they’re more afraid of me than I am of them. (They’re right to be.) So … it’s not for me. I can close my doors and play with my spouse the way I like to play and the chances that the outside world will be able to influence that are really small.
People are being raped, and groped and fondled without consent, being coerced and pressured to do things they don’t want to do at clubs and parties, and it’s not me and it’s not my spouse. But I care that it happens. I could shut my door and play the way I like and ignore all that, but that’s what entitled privileged douches do with their privilege when they don’t care about justice. That’s “I got mine, Jack.” That’s not the right thing to do. I try to tell my kids to do the right thing, even if it’s hard, so I need to expect that of myself or I’m not much of an example. The right thing is to speak when something wrong is going on and to raise my voice until I can’t raise it any more, or until speaking up makes a difference.
It’s not very hopeful to catalogue the problems — useful, but not hopeful, and I’d rather say something about what we can do, with what we have, where we are.
Self-Defense For Bottoms: Defensive Negotiation
I said that miscommunications really happen. Anything that reduces that makes the deliberate violation of boundaries stand out more. I said in Mythcommunications that the lesson was that:
Clear communication of “no” isn’t primarily going to avoid miscommunication — rather, it’s a meta-message. Clear communication against the undercurrent that “no” is rude and should be softened is a sign of the willingness to fight, to yell, to report.
This idea, in my view, ports handily to a BDSM context, even though I think that actual miscommunication is much more common in BDSM. Clear communication avoids actual miscommunication, and also deters abusers by letting them know that a target will make it comparatively harder to get away with calling a deliberate violation a miscommunication.
(I’ll note, as an aside, that the general social disfavoring of “no” that conversational analysis, among other disciplines, identifies is a lot like the way safewords are treated. Many bottoms, particularly subs and particularly women feel a lot of pressure not to safeword: as if it’s a rejection, as if it’s a disappointment, as if it’s selfish.)
Hard limits and safewords in writing. Some people negotiate forever by email or PM or whatever, and some meet at a party and decide to play. But there are a few items that are really important, that are usually the subject of negotitation and are repeatedly the subject of boundary violations. These can be covered in an email, a PM or a text message and they can be covered fast. Once they’re in writing, there’s a record and that reduces any uncertainty about what was said. It’s not a complete solution, but it is a deterrent.
The two most frequent boundary violations I hear are (1) penetration and (2) safer sex practices. Clear, hard limits not to be renegotiated in scene can be set forth by text message even in a two minute negotiation before a public scene between strangers. Remember in Part 1, the story about Jay Wiseman and the rope bottom who kept negotiating for no sexual touching and kept getting raped? Remember Mollena Williams in Part 2? Those perpetrators would have wanted to do those things no matter what was said or written –would have wanted to, but would they have done them? In one of the blind items in Part 3, where the top punched the bottom in anger, the contract said no play in anger, and he took the trouble to get rid of it. I’m thinking of a simple text that says, “NO penile penetration, safeword is RED, not to be renegotiated” or “safeword is red, piv with condom only, no anal penetration.” There are other items that may be critical and people should always learn to negotiate for what they need: I’m not talking about negotiation best practices. I’m talking about deterence: putting in writing the boundaries that are commonly violated so as make a record that could cause trouble for an abuser later.
We can’t set these things up as mandatory practices for bottoms because they’ll just be absorbed into the existing BDSM victim-blaming canon: self-defense training is good, after the fact a failure to take some possible precaution no more absolves an abuser than failure to lock a car excuses auto theft, and I’ve never seen anyone get victim-blamed for forgetting to lock a car door.
Self-Improvement for Tops: To Err Is Human, To Get Defensive Is Counterproductive
Aftercare isn’t only the part that looks after the bottom’s emotional needs. On my account, properly understood, aftercare has three components: the bottom’s emotional needs, the top’s emotional needs, and post-scene learning. Some folks don’t need a lot of aftercare for their emotional needs. Some tops don’t really get top drop, some bottoms don’t need or even want a lot of looking after, but there’s always room to learn something. One dominant I know always asks her bottoms, “Was there anything I did that you were not comfortable with?” and “Was there anything I did that you wish I hadn’t done?” This tends to work better after the initial rush of hormones and emotions from play has a chance to settle down, and lots of people do following-day check-ins, especially after big scenes.
There are two things to be accomplished here. The first is for the tops themselves. I top too, and with just one partner for over a decade. You know what? I am still learning. We push, we talk, we learn, we try things. I make mistakes! Yes, I do! And we talk about them. Technical errors, miscommunications, and even landmines, as I discussed in Part 5. Ignoring these things or pretending they don’t need to be discussed doesn’t do anyone any good.
Talking about the things that went wrong helps the top. We learn from our mistakes only when we know what they are. We may think that all the perceptions we have in the course of a scene are accurate. Well, every litigator I know will tell you that when you take a deposition and then read the transcript, the record you made is different from the record you think you made. And folks I know in medicine tell me that doctors who think they know everything from image tests are often surprised by autopsies and pathology results which show that you really can’t see everything from a scan. We don’t have perfect information, and cross-checking our perceptions of another person’s reactions and state of mind is an invaluable, irreplaceable process.
Talking about things that went wrong helps the bottom. If something went wrong and it wasn’t a deliberate violation, the best way to clear the air is for the bottom to say what happened and be heard, and not get shut down. When the harm in not intentional, that’s often enough. When the harm is not intentional, that is the first act and sine qua non of amends.
Talking about what went wrong, finally, helps the culture. What we need to do is separate the predators from the underbrush they operate in, the climate that grants the SL-Op, to put them in a position where their deliberate behavior is not easily disguised as something else. Hiding mistakes and denying them makes the mess-up look like the deliberate wrong, and the one who erred act like the abuser. We all need those who make mistakes to act like people who care and don’t want to make mistakes again, so that those who keep on and keep on violating limits look like exactly what they are.
We all need it to become unacceptable and aberrant to get defensive, deny, blame and shut down when our mistakes are pointed out. If a bottom says, “when I was in subspace and you were calling me names, we hadn’t talked about that and it was really icky for me,” for example, it has to be unacceptable to say, “I’m not a mindreader! You should have told me!” How about, “Sorry. I didn’t realize. I messed up. Won’t happen again.” The bottom may not have even known how it would feel; we don’t all know our limits and triggers until we stumble on them. Those are the landmines. The bottom can learn from the experience, about theirself and their limits, but the top can, too. Acting like all communication failures are solely or principally the bottom’s fault is counterproductive, first because it shuts down the conversation, but second because that’s how the abusers act; and the abusers have more SL-Op if more people act like they do.
I’m not saying this because I think it will make abusers better people. It won’t. They do what they do on purpose and they can’t be fixed, only deterred. I’m saying what I think tops can do to look less like abusers, to create an environment where abuse looks aberrant and abusers stand out, so they can be dealt with.
What the Rest Of Us Can Do:
Talk About Ethics, Expect Ethics
Doing things to people that they don’t consent to is wrong. We all need to stop pretending that it’s rude to say that. Violating limits isn’t cute or funny or edgy. Joking about violating limits isn’t cute or funny or edgy. Kate Harding, speaking in a vanilla context, said something that I think is very true in this context also:
But please listen, and please trust me on this one: you have probably, at some point in your life, engaged in that kind of talk with a man who really, truly hates women–to the extent of having beaten and/or raped at least one. And you probably didn’t know which one he was.
And that guy? Thought you were on his side.
Bold in original. I talked in Part 2 about the “that guy,” the “stranger in the bushes” of the BDSM community. That guy is around, on the web and the fringes, and sometimes even at the core of our communities. If you joke, “hey, I know she said no X, but we should totally X!”, that guy loves your joke. He thinks it’s awesome that you said it, because he totally wants to do that. And while you know that you absolutely may not do that …that guy doesn’t. And now he thinks you’re on his side.
Zero Tolerance for Impairment
If you can’t do BDSM without getting a buzz on, you shouldn’t be doing BDSM. Call me puritan, I don’t give a shit. It’s a recipe for disaster and a way for abusers to use drugs and alcohol to incapacitate potential partners or excuse their violations. We just have to stop putting up with people who want to play impaired.
I said it in Meet The Predators, and it’s still true in this specific context:
If we refuse to listen, he can continue to pretend that the rapist is some guy in the parking lot late at night, when it’s actually him, in our friends’ bedrooms half an hour after last call. If we let that happen, we’re part of the problem.
The rapists can’t be your friends, and if you are loyal to them even when faced with the evidence of what they do, you are complicit.
The only way we can really change what goes on is to change the culture, to eliminate the dynamics that allow the abusers to blend in and make their conduct look normal. We need to create environments where the abusers stick out like a sore thumb. It’s not easy to say I fucked up. It’s uncomfortable. It’s easier not to take responsibility. That’s how children deal with it: they blame the dog, their sibling, or pretend they don’t know. Grown ups take responsibility. I just don’t think there’s any serious downside to admitting to mistakes, owning bad judgments. The harm is done; acting grown up about it can only help the healing.
I hear a lot of people who top saying that they’re afraid of the conversation that has started, that they are afraid someone will name them for having done something wrong. I understand that. I don’t like being criticized either. But there’s a huge difference between being criticized for fucking up and blowing a boundary, and being criticized for deliberately blowing a boundary. The first is just ordinary human fallibility, and the second is evil. I do not believe that there’s any reason to think that people are going to be shunned if they fuck up and own it. Shit, all the people I know who have made serious fuck-ups doing BDSM, if they’ve owned up to it, they’re good with the person on the receiving end. (It’s a lot like doctors in malpractice suits: the statistics show that doctors who admit mistakes tend not to get sued, even for serious mistakes, while those who act like assholes and try to shut down the discussion do tend to get sued.) There may be a few exceptions, but as a general proposition, there’s every reason from human experience to believe that saying, “I messed up” is not only the right thing, but the smart thing.
And what we end up with is an environment where people don’t try to sweep the past under the carpet, where a top can say, “yeah, that went really wrong, zie went nonverbal on me and I didn’t realize how deep zie was.” If we can all just say, “yeah, that happened to me once,” we have an environment that the predators can’t really operate in, because when three people say, “yeah, ze did that to me, too …” the game is up. People who admit mistakes and learn from mistakes tend not to repeat them. People who tend to repeat the same mistake … well, usually it’s not a mistake.
And as we create the freedom to air this stuff, we come to the hardest part. We have to start to listen to what the issues are and decide how to treat the people who keep having the issues. Nobody is going to show up with a score sheet or bingo card and make it easy, we’re just going to have to pay attention and think about who is acting in good faith and who isn’t. If we really want to make excuses for our friends, we always can. We can explain away an infinite number of fuck-ups and blowups and badly handled scenes if we’re determined to exonerate. When our friends fuck up, we need to expect them to act consistently with good faith. If they don’t, we need to be willing to change our understanding about their good faith.
If you decide that your friends can’t possibly be abusers, you’re part of the problem. If you decide that anyone who is an abuser can’t possibly be your friend, you’re part of the solution. It is up to you whether you want to listen to the survivors and expect better from tops, or whether you want to pretend that you “don’t do drama.”
 It may be terror play, but terror play is the kind of thing that you negotiate first. We all know, if we’re half-way competent, that terror play could do permanent damage to some people, and none of us would do that without making a solid effort to ascertain whether the bottom has a significant history that would make it unsafe, or limits that preclude it. Right? Otherwise, we’d be abusive or incompetent, right?