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One In Three Kinksters Reports A Consent Violation

January 22, 2013

Last Spring I wrote a series about rape and abuse in BDSM communities, titles There’s A War On.  Here’s the start of the series.  One thing I couldn’t do at that time was say how many people in BDSM communities experienced consent violations.  Now I can.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom did a survey this Fall on consent.  Results are in.  The survey got over 5000 respondents.  It was broadly focused on people’s views of what constituted consent, and not experiences of violation, but there were two questions about experiences of violation.  Here are those questions, and the responses:

“Have you ever had a pre-negotiated limit violated in a BDSM scene or relationship?” Of 4,115 respondents (1,552 missing):

No 2,878 69.9%
Yes 1,237 30.1%

“Have you ever negotiated a safeword or safesign with a partner who then ignored it during play?” Of 4,110 respondents:

No 3,498 85.1%
Yes 612 14.9%

Taking the two questions together, 33% of respondents that answered these questions answered yes to one, or the other or both.  33% of kinksters who responded reported that their consent was violated.  More than 11% responded yes to both.

So … this is very, very bad.  Of kinksters responding to this question, 30% had had a prenegotiated limit violated.  Those numbers are even worse than victim self-reports of rape in the general population; which the New York Times reports as about 20% based on a study supported by the National Institute of Justice. 

Communities ostensibly based on consent, with more consent violations than the general population. 

It is interesting to note that the proportion of respondents reporting a violation of a prenegotiated limit is almost exactly twice as high as the proportion reporting a violation of a safeword.  However, there is a lot of overlap because 11% answered yes to both.  There are several possible hypotheses to explain this.  Mine is that most of this is accounted for by people who violate consent being rational actors who are more willing to ignore a preset limit than a safeword, possibly because it’s easier to claim a misunderstanding arising from negotiation.  The overlap between the safeword question and the limit question seems critical.  The vast majority of those whose safeword was ignored also reported that their negotiated limit was ignored.  This undermines a hypothesis of mistake for the majority of reports.  Either these folks are reporting separate incidents, in which case the rates of violation are even higher than the rates of people violated; or they are reporting that in the incident where a safeword was ignored, the conduct also was against their stated limits, making mistake unlikely.

There are a lot of things to deal with in the NCSF survey, and more to say about consent violations.  Among other things, crosstabs currently available don’t give a gender breakdown.  I’m seeing about getting one.  [Edited to Add: I’d forgotten that the survey itself did not collect this data.  Gender and role orientation were not collected, so some of the crosstabs I’d most like to see cannot be done.  The answers we do have, however, cry out for a much more detailed victim report survey on consent violations.]  My prediction is that if it becomes available, a crude m/f count for these questions will break down a little closer to equal than rape in the general US population, where victims are about 91% women. 

There is a lot more to say, but I don’t want to get too deeply into this because first, I think the point just needs to sink in.  The best data we have shows that a third of kinksters have experienced a consent violation, 30% of kinksters have had their negotiated limits violated and 15% have their safeword ignored.  This is much worse than any reasonable person should have anticipated coming out of this survey.  It is a crisis.  I think this demonstrates empirically that the biggest problem facing kinky people today is consent violations and everything else is less important.  I’ve said that before, in reference to things like legal reform projects, and I think the data backs me up.

43 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2013 5:43 pm

    Wow, I am surprised, considering what you said, that this community discusses consent more than most.

  2. January 22, 2013 6:04 pm

    In my experience, the lifestyle tends to attract two groups, the majority, are very big on consent, and just into different things.

    But, the acts involved can attract a darker personality, that believes they can hide behind the lifestyle to act on their more … socially unacceptable… urges.

    • January 22, 2013 7:42 pm

      Agreed. There are a great many players who are not what they claim to be, and while few of them are dangerous, some are very dangerous.

    • Mztress permalink
      January 29, 2013 5:10 pm

      Yeah, there are violent/abusive/sociopathic types who hide behind BDSM. They force their abusive actions onto a partner with an excuse roughly equivalent to “C’mon baby, it was just a scene! I thought you could handle it!”

      I was a few years out a toxic, sorta-kinky relationship before anyone told me that it’s a BIG RED FLAG when a dom “didn’t hear” a safeword, or when it’s difficult to differentiate the end of a scene from the rest of life.

  3. existing permalink
    January 23, 2013 12:36 am

    Consider this: that number’s just based on those who actually took the survey. i didn’t know about it (due to here, due to Fetlife’s responses, and due to maymay, i have tended to avoid the NCSF) and i’m someone who can say yes to both questions as well.

    Betcha if they included the transgender in the gender tabs there’d be a high number there too.

  4. makomk permalink
    January 23, 2013 9:58 am

    “My prediction is that if it becomes available, a crude m/f count for these questions will break down a little closer to equal than rape in the general US population, where victims are about 91% women.”

    There’s no real reason to expect it would. From what I’ve seen, the only US surveys on rape in the general population that show a gender difference that large get that result be either only counting victims who were sexually penetrated as having been raped and excluding other non-consensual sexual intercourse, or by requiring victims to specifically label their experiences as rape without further prompting.

    (The NISVS, which is the CDC study that NYT article uses, is in the first category – as far as they’re concerned, if a cis women forces an unconsenting cis man to have PIV sex with her that’s not rape because the victim’s not the one being sexually penetrated. The CDC even collected stats on how much more common this was amongst men than nonconsensual forced sexual intercourse which they did consider to be rape. They used those stats to argue that other studies were overestimating the number of male rape victims by counting other kinds of nonconsensual forced sex as rape.)

    Since this survey does neither of those two things, there’s no reason why it would get similar results.

    • January 23, 2013 10:04 am

      You may be right.

      • Tamen permalink
        February 11, 2013 4:45 pm

        And the notion that women having PIV sex with unconsenting men isn’t rape isn’t something that the CDC just decided for themselves. Mary P. Koss argued for that distinction in her paper Detecting the Scope of Rape : A Review of Prevalence Research Methods.

        From page 208:

        Although consideration of male victims is within the scope of the legal statutes, it is important to restrict the term rape to instances where male victims were penetrated by offenders. It is inappropriate to consider as a rape victim a man who engages in unwanted sexual intercourse with a woman.

        I really would like to see more pushback against this type of feminist thinking.

      • March 24, 2013 3:36 pm

        Tamen, how insulting and prejudicial to label that ‘feminist’ thinking. You clearly know nothing of feminism and your comment smacks of misogyny.

      • Tamen permalink
        April 5, 2013 5:40 am


        Mary P. Koss is a feminist.

        Her research on rape is well known and widely cited. Her resarch and the paper I linked to have been cited by CDC, which incidentally did not classify “being made to penetrate someone else” as rape in their NISVS 2010 Report – just in line with Mary P Koss’ recommendations.

        Her research is cited several times by this blog, for instance:

        Some of her reseach have been defended multiple times on the feminist blog “Alas! a blog”:

        This paper co-authored by her look at “feminist contributions to the reframing and redefinition of rape over the last century.” The paper cites several other papers written by herself:

        Ms.Magazine worked with her in 1982 on the much discussed study which found that 1 in 4 college aged women were victims of rape or attempted rape:

        When a feminist thinks and communicates something about a feminist issue (which I presume all agree rape is) then it’s feminist thinking.

        Just as feminist Mary Daly’s transphobia was feminist thinking. Just as feminist Nicola Gavey writing in her book “Just Sex?: The Cultural Scaffolding Of Rape”

        That is, the meaning of a woman giving oral sex to a man who is asleep is profoundly different from the meaning of a man giving oral sex to a woman who is asleep.

        is feminist thinking.

        If hoping that other feminists would disagree more with that particular Mary P Koss statement and statements of similar effect because I’ve been told that not all feminists are alike makes me a misogynists so be it.

      • February 21, 2017 9:09 am

        I’m a feminist who thinks PIV sex with a nonconsenting man is rape. However, I agree that “women can’t rape men” is an attitude held by many feminists, including my WGST teacher (she thought sexual arousal = consent, and it’s very difficult to have PIV sex unless the man is aroused).

  5. January 23, 2013 1:35 pm

    Due to the extreme pressure within much of the kink community not to report abuse or consent violations, I’m not surprised in the slightest. If it is made all but impossible to warn about people who have violated negotiation or safewords before, or even committed rape, that makes these areas of the kink community an ideal haven for people who want to go on violating others.
    This is why I stick to my happy little survivor friendly, NNT friendly, trans friendly bubble of people who I know for a fact do not tolerate abuse or abuse apologists, and seldom venture out into the wider community, kink or otherwise. It can get scary out there.

  6. danielleparadis permalink
    January 23, 2013 2:41 pm

    Generally I love the consent model for BDSM communities they’ve learned caution.

  7. jemima101 permalink
    January 24, 2013 1:40 pm

    I blogged on a UK case which i believe was abuse hiding as BDSM, i think this excellent post shows this happens more than people want to believe

  8. January 24, 2013 7:54 pm

    Off topic for this particular post, but relevant for the blog in general in relation to rape culture and social license for rapists to operate: Have you heard of the case of a Bolivian law maker who raped a woman on the floor of the Bolivian Parliament? Where he had to have known it would be videotaped? See blog post here:

  9. Danni permalink
    January 25, 2013 10:29 am

    I remember well taking that survey, and I’m one of the people who answered “yes” to the first and “no” to the second question. I think there’s too little specific data to make much of the first question, because context in situations like that can mean the difference between abusive behavior and non-abusive behavior. I think this can be especially true when we don’t separate data for individuals operating within committed relationships and more “casual” play such as one could find at a semi-public-ish party.

    In my case, the “yes” answer to the first question is a pretty straightforward example of how my long-term partner (who is the Dominant half) knows me well enough to push my boundaries and also respects me enough to stop at safeword and/or visible/audible signs of an issue. I never really considered that my answer to the first question would be seen as evidence for violation of my consent. It’s a negotiated limit being crossed because of the (we have to admit) fluid nature of “limits” with violations of consent being a specific (and usually inflexible) barrier which is pretty well described by the concept of a safeword.

    And that’s a way different context to some play that I’ve observed, the best example being a male dominant who, for about five hours, set up a specific, “edge-play” activity in a room and basically just played with sub after sub (they were literally lined up at certain points) all night long. This individual, I have to assume by the basic flow, must have played with at least 15 or 20 people in the course of a single night. My own reaction is that such an activity is inherently risky and I’m of dubious convincing that one can act in such a way and remain 100% mindful of consent.

    And that’s a big part of my own concern, because in my experience with my local community, you often see two basic models of abuse/consent-violation: the far more common example is the “casual” violation, which often occurs in scenes with little negotiation and under the auspices of a “you. me. hit me. now.” sort of interaction; or as an example of predators with SLTO. The, usually, far more severe examples are those of unbalanced, terrible people who engage in relationship-centric BDSM as a “cover” for some heinous and abusive behaviors.

    Personally, I think I find the only useful statistic above to be the safeword violations, and that isn’t because I don’t believe that people intentionally try to “sneak” violations under the guide of misunderstanding, but because the first question asked and the context behind it lacks an explicit concept of consent-violation. I know so many people for whom “pushing limits” and “exceeding negotiated limits” are somewhat normal, respectful and long-term-consensual modes of play.

    Safeword violations? there’s no question of that. Roughly 15% (and the overlap of 11%, which is probably more important) of respondents reported a serious violation of consent. And that’s the real problem.

    But these sorts of numbers always bring me back to this big-umbrella concept of “BDSM” and how it almost always, from a general perspective, gets treated as one big community when it really is a loose collection of many, many smaller communities and groups.

    What do these numbers look like in the “littles” community? what about the “foot fetishists”, or the “latex-glam” scene? While people tend to congregate on websites like FL, you’ll often find some stark walls between different groups even in the same city. There are, of course, overlaps, but there are also some pretty segregated little pockets. We also don’t have location data, and as communities (even the umbrella-BDSM) tend to have very different standards in say, San Francisco and Atlanta. I engaged with a group on FL from Alabama awhile back, and I was appalled as to the ingrained M-dom/f-sub, misogynistic, rape-culture supporting lines of thought that seemed to permeate everything. And that’s a huge difference from my own circle of friends and community members further north where you can’t swing a cat without finding discussions and education about consent and respect.

    But really, I’m so very personally interested in the breakdown of “casual-public” play vs. “private-relationship” play and what the numbers look like there, because in the former we’re usually discussing “consent-violation” and SLTO, where in the latter we too often find (inside and outside of BDSM) the sickos who use BDSM as a smokescreen for their sociopathic, abusive desires. And I think those are, to a certain extent, two very different problems with different solutions.

    I’m curious if there are better models for running play parties. I see so much SLTO in casual play, and I end up in a bind because on one hand I feel like part of the issue is in the decisions people make to engage in intense, sexual and sadomasochistic (etc.) play with people who you don’t really know that well. On the other, I tend to squish those ideas because I know that it isn’t the point– that people need to be safe no matter what they do. But back again, I know that when I’m in the middle of play I get spacey and floaty and all sorts of wonderful things that make me both extremely happy/fulfilled and almost completely unable to judge my own limits/safety. That isn’t to say that everyone is like that, but in our quest to be sex-positive it can feel like we whitewash a lot of the necessary “know your partner” things that are a great example of how deep respect is created. And deep respect is where value of consent is codified into trust. A top can wail on me all night in a wonderful, consensual way. However, the experience that I (and many other submissives) desire is for something that exists *deeper* than surface-consent. And that depth creates intentional/unintentional “violations” of boundaries and negotiated limits. Believe me, a limit for me isn’t going to flex by itself, and I’m the sort of person who desires those limits to bend and maybe even break. But it takes someone knowing me so intimately that I can trust them explicitly. The whole thing is woefully subjective and really personal. One person’s hard limit is another person’s cry for that limit to be shattered. In casual contexts (and especially for people who are unpartnered) it can lead to everyone involved getting in way over their heads and leaving the participants in pretty bad spaces.

    And again, it’s that 15% that is really disturbing, and I’m calling for moar data because I think this paints a really incomplete picture of what is going on. And, of course, this is all really subjective because I’m extrapolating questions from my own limited experience and that of those who I know and who I have spoken to explicitly about these nebulous concepts. Ack. Sorry for the novel.

  10. January 28, 2013 11:13 pm

    This was definitely surprising, I always thought consent was considered more among this group than others.

  11. January 29, 2013 1:25 am

    I’ve written enough about my own assault at a kink party elsewhere to not rehash it here. Suffice it to say someone did something to me we hadn’t negotiated for at all. It was a spanking scene. Why *would* I negotiate for breath play? There was no question about that sort of thing on the survey. I don’t recall if I even finished taking it or if I threw my hands up and walked away, but, if anything, this *underestimates* the amount of abuse in the scene.

  12. Katie permalink
    February 3, 2013 6:24 pm

    I think it’s not useful to think of these consent violations as “bad egg” scenarios, where predators infiltrated an otherwise healthy kink scene. The two major consent violations I’ve experienced in the kink community were from men who, to my knowledge, are well-liked and well-regarded players, often teach classes, etc. To my knowledge, they play responsibly and within people’s boundaries….except for mine. Demonizing the typical abuser makes it really difficult to see abuse when it happens in front of your nose, because “he’s a totally normal guy, I don’t know what you’re talking about, no one else has ever had a problem with him,” etc, ad nauseam.

    People cross boundaries when they can get away with it. Creating a consent culture means avoiding the trap of The Evil Secret Sociopath vs. The Totally Nice Guy.

    • Katie permalink
      February 3, 2013 6:25 pm

      This was in response to the comments above, rather than to the post!

  13. February 5, 2013 9:10 am

    It’s wonderful to see more bdsm-specific research, although I have a few complaints about the survey instrument itself. But my larger concern with the way this is being portrayed is that once again, we have a survey about kinky folks with no control group, and no obvious parameter to compare to in the general population. How many people who are not involved in bdsm have experienced a sexual consent violation? 20%? 30%? 50%? After all, estimates for “having survived a sexual assault” are often put in the range of 10%-15% or higher.

    Without any point of comparison, the title claim becomes a semi-attached fact. If there is some need to refute the notion that the bdsm is a consensual Utopia, fine. But the suggestion I hear being made is that bdsm scene has an extraordinary problem with consent, and this survey really doesn’t help us evaluate whether or not that’s true.

    • February 5, 2013 10:37 am

      I think there is a need to debunk the notion that BDSM communities are consent utopias. I keep hearing from people, especially young women, who expected kinky communities to be really great about consent, and found that they really were not. I also think that there’s a need to debunk the idea that all or most consent violations in BDSM are miscommunications and as much the bottom’s as the top’s fault, which is something I hear expressed in a lot of ways by a whole lot of people in kinky communities. And I think that while there may be a lot of miscommunicating going on around negotiation, and a lot of misreading in mid-scene, we would intuitively expect very few cases of ignored safewords or safesigns. In fact, we see that exactly that has happened to more than an eighth of the respondent population. That’s pretty striking, and on my account can be attributed to something other than deliberate violation in only a vanishingly small number of cases. So … that’s big. We can’t compare it directly to the general population, but knowing that, the idea that we can make any claim that kinky communities are better about respecting consent than the general population is in serious doubt.

  14. February 5, 2013 11:02 am

    I think to me the most disturbing piece of this survey is not the absolute numbers, but the fact that participating in a group discussion of consent is not protective. (In fact, it adds 16% to the likelihood of a consent violation, and the chi-square is quite significant). What that suggests to me is that discussions of consent in the bdsm scene might increase the reporting rate, but don’t change people’s behaviors all that much.

    • February 5, 2013 11:22 am

      I suspect that participating in a discussion is often something that happens in the wake of a report, and so those discussions happen more in communities where there are serious problems. And what I’ve seen and heard is that communities with predators deal with it (as Cliff Pervocracy said in Missing Stair) by just sort of assuming everyone knows that that person is a problem and can’t be trusted; but that people are really, really reluctant to say their friend doesn’t respect consent and can’t be around anymore. People talk until they are blue in the face, and sometimes they will encourage the predator to change, promise not to do it again or whatever, but when push comes to shove they really don’t want to shove people out.

      I’ve said before and I’ll say again, my political project is to vote people off the island.

      • February 5, 2013 12:25 pm

        Makes sense. There is a pattern in sexual assault research, though, where increasing awareness makes people more confident about identifying their experiences as assault, and that can have some bizarre effects on the stats. Lots of questions here for further research.

      • February 5, 2013 12:32 pm

        _Begging_ for more research. They didn’t even collect gender or sexual orientation or trans status or role orientation to do crosstabs. It raises tons of questions and major concerns. Much follow-up is needed.

  15. Gorgias permalink
    February 11, 2013 9:53 pm

    While I don’t doubt that you are absolutely correct about the problem of sexual assault within the BDSM community, you should note the methodological flaws with the survey and take its results with a grain of salt. This used a voluntary response sample specifically advertising that it is about consent. It seems likely that those who are interested in filling out a survey about consent are more likely to have been the victim of sexual assault in the past.

    Conversely, 70% of their respondents came from fetlife, which would seem to indicate engagement with the wider community, which may reduce the incidence of sexual assault, though this premise undercuts your conclusion that the BDSM community doesn’t do a good job of policing its own.

    • March 11, 2013 6:52 am

      Gorgias, neither of those suggestions you made as to what type of people filled out the survey seem that probable to me. They sound like hypotheses with no evidence. The first hypothesis sounds more plausible to me than the second, though. FetLife is a really scary, creepy website, in my opinion, and merely requires interacting from one’s computer, so I don’t see it as indicating engagement with the wider community. As to your first hypothesis, it sounds plausible, but I wouldn’t say probable. To my understanding, one of the people running NCSF also runs FetLife, and I have seen ads and mentions of NCSF on FetLife. The way FetLife and NCSF talk about consent is pretty much the same, and that is – they both talk about consent as being mostly the responsibility of the bottom/sub/woman, or at least not as being particularly a matter of actually *not violating someone’s consent*. Most of the things I’ve read on FetLife about consent have been about how people need to stop complaining about consent violations, or wrongful accusations of consent violations. NCSF has the same focus when it comes to talking about consent – it’s primary focus is on protecting those who are wrongfully accused of consent violations. Therefore, it is equally if not even more plausible that a disproportionately high number of respondents to the survey were those who think the same way as FetLife and NCSF about consent, because those who do not might not even be on FetLife or take NCSF seriously, and those who do would be eager to fill out the survey to demonstrate how supposedly *low* the consent violations are. If anything, it might be in NCSF’s interest to keep the numbers low.

      Again, it’s just a hypothesis, but I wanted to argue against yours because you sound overly convinced of their probability without so much as explaining why.

  16. Crystal permalink
    March 10, 2013 5:19 pm

    This seems like a flawed study. Was this a blind study? If it advertised that it is a survey about consent, there is some major problems with that. People interested in filling out a survey about consent might be more likely to have a history of sexual assault. Thus, bad data.

    The large problem is that there was no control group. How many people who are not involved in bdsm have experienced a sexual consent violation? I’d say the number is very high. It has been said that 1 in 3 American women will be sexually abused during their lifetime. Throwing out that 1 in 3 kinksters report consent violations, without anything to compare to, leads us to make some unfounded assumptions about increased consent risks in kink. All this shows is that the BDSM community isn’t some sort of consent utopia. It does absolutely nothing to prove that there is increased risk. We need better studies. Use critical thinking skills people.

  17. Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, DST permalink
    July 6, 2014 4:23 pm

    There are a host of limitations to this survey that are cause for moderation in how we interpret it, even though it is the best look we have at the prevalence of consent violations. And I say this fully acknowledging that consent violations are a genuine problem in the BDSM community. Caveats include:
    1) Not all consent violations are rape. Some are misunderstandings, miscommunications, and seen by the respondents as the inevitable consequences of risky behavior. The survey did not provide opportunity for the respondents to endorse or deny this definition of their experiences as ‘rape’ and we are free-associating to their reports.
    2) We have no idea of how experienced or peripheral respondents are to the kinky communities NCSF had best access too. Respondents are likely to be at widely varying levels of sophistication about scene educational efforts re: consent.
    3) Respondents who bothered to participate are likely to be activated about this issue. There is a great deal of missing data. Scene politics also probably played a part in willingness to respond.
    4) CDC data about 20% among college women is non-comparable to a survey or people who average in their late 30’s, as the the NCSF data do. In some ways this makes the findings more alarming, as older people might be expected to have, on the average, better negotiation and communications skills, and greater social power to bolster their limit setting skills, admittedly a mildly ageist assumptions.
    5) As noted in the comments above, we do not know the percentage of respondents who are female, nor do we know whether the alleged consent violators are tops, bottoms, or switches. Consent violations could harm an party, and harm the community. This is obviously less of a consideration with safeword violations.

    Author Susan Wright still thought this initial result serious enough to warrant further investigation. There is certainly plenty here to justify further research into how the community can support improved adherence to standards of informed consent. And it is reasonable to consider that, at least for some, the traumatic nature of trust and autonomy violations in BDSM consent violations might be more severe than many cis experiences defined as rape.

  18. February 21, 2017 9:12 am

    Regarding the limitations of this study – all of these points are valid. But this is still a very worrying finding, and definitely calls for more research and discussion about consent violations in kink.


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  6. Yes means Yes, or why safe words might perpetuate rape culture. | It's Just A Hobby
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  8. Consent Violations in BDSM | Belasarius & curvy_bottom
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  10. Rape Culture, Kink Communities, and Ways of Consenting – A handout by Cordelia Nailong | Discerning Poise ; Poised Discernment
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