Culture

When Abusers Hide in BDSM Dungeons

In the world of kinky sex play, the issue of consent is often murky.

By Jesse Donaldson 4 Nov 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Jesse Donaldson is an author, journalist, photographer and one of the founding members of The Dependent Magazine. His first book, This Day in Vancouver, was recently shortlisted for a B.C. Book Prize. Find him previous articles published in The Tyee here.

"He pinned me down and started groping me aggressively. He grabbed a blindfold that was proudly hung on my doorknob and roughly put it on my head. The harder I fought, the more he laughed. He slapped my ass and bit my neck. Now. This was TOTALLY something I was into. And? He was pretty to look at. Only thing was -- I had no freaking idea who he was. He had not asked about any safe words, limits or health issues. We had known each other for all of an hour-and-a-half, aside from some drunken flirting at the party where we met. Had he bothered to get to know me, he would have known fun little facts like where I kept the good toys or that I had an abusive ex-husband and was not a fan of being unexpectedly pinned to the floor and laughed at."

In the wake of last week's media chatter, you might expect that this blogger -- who goes by the handle "Dead Cow Girl" -- was adding her own story to the recent series of Jian Ghomeshi abuse allegations. In fact, she's not.

She's describing a consensual BDSM encounter that suddenly turned frightening. In the world of kinky sex and role play, inhabited by participants describing themselves as a submissive or a dominant, the issue of consent can get murky.

It turns out, even within communities where consent and boundaries are considered sacred, abuse can still happen.

"They (abusers) figure out ways to build in excuses," says New York City attorney and BDSM activist Thomas MacAuley Millar. "'He was drunk. He's not like that sober. She was kidding. It was a toxic relationship. They were both at fault.'"

Because of a lack of data, activists have had difficulty compiling statistics on the frequency of abuse and consent violations in BDSM circles, and the evidence that does exist is mostly anecdotal.

The encounter, described by "Dead Cow Girl" appeared in the website Consent Culture, one of several websites that are speaking out against abuse in the BDSM community.

The sites host events and support groups, and even develops workshops to take on the road.

Consent Culture's founder, Kitty Stryker, is an activist who has written extensively on consent and abuse in the BDSM community. Stryker founded the site, in part, to help her sort out her personal issues within an abusive relationship.

"The site was launched first to be a space where we could host multiple pieces of writing on the subject of consent, particularly focusing on abuse in BDSM communities," explains Stryker. "[It] was also a deeply personal project. I started it when I wasn't ready to confront my own kinky and abusive relationship, and when I reflected on my own experiences as a young submissive woman.

"As I spoke to other kinksters, I realized that my experiences of having my boundaries pushed 'for my own good', and questioning if I was a bad submissive for feeling violated, were actually more universal than individual, I realized we had to talk about this publicly if we ever wanted things to change for the better."

Millar, a consent activist who has been connected to the kink scene for 20 years, published a seven-part series on consent and abuse in BDSM circles for the Yes Means Yes blog.

"The problems of the mainstream culture intersect with the problems of any small, tightly-knit community," notes Millar, "and those in turn intersect with the issues specific to sexuality and BDSM communities -- like a sense of entitlement to be sexual with others. And what it leads to is an environment where people talk a good game about consent but violate it in small-to-medium ways, both unintentionally and intentionally, all the time."

When safe words are ignored

Millar, whose "network of kinksters" includes communities in the San Francisco area, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle, said he's heard scores of stories of abuse in the BDSM community.

"Not one or two dozen," he notes. "Dozens and dozens."

In many cases, he notes, victims won't come forward. In some cases, abusers are in power positions. They may be well known in the BDSM community with connections to people who own venues. Stryker noted that repeat offenders can often operate with impunity.

"Historically, when someone has come to event hosts about experiencing a consent violation, responses has been varied because of the accused abuser's standing in the community, as well as the standing of the victim," she says.

Millar adds: "They may run their own party, and have contacts with a venue, and people want an invite to that party because that's where they find play partners and get laid, and nobody wants to alienate the head honcho or the honcho's friends, because that'll get your ticket to the party pulled."

Education to combat abuse

Although abuse and consent violations can be a part of any BDSM community, responsible practitioners say abuse runs contrary to the spirit of the scene. Many of them are fighting back any way they can -- starting with education.

Seminars and pamphlets are dedicated to understanding the difference between BDSM and abuse. For meticulous kinksters, exhaustive negotiation forms are available on the Internet, including discussions of every possible detail -- everything from roles and phobias, to medical issues, to who's keeping track of the time.

"We, as a community, also do our best to educate and protect," explains Sara Blaze, president of the Metro Vancouver Kink Society.

"MVK hosts a newbie munch every month where we go through the accepted code of conduct in the community and what basic expectations are. We have also started a series of classes being held monthly that are geared at topics like consent and safety. In addition to what MVK does, there are groups, like 'Bottoms Up' where people who identify as submissive meet and discuss how to navigate the scene and what to do when they feel that their boundaries are not being respected."

According to Blaze, reports of abuse and consent violations among Metro Vancouver's Kink community -- which includes about 500 members -- are, mercifully, "minimal." Like other communities worldwide, there are safety protocols in place, including "safe calls," in which friends check in by phone with a person who has been involved in a private BDSM encounter.

"Generally, we believe it's better to educate people first rather than dealing with the aftermath," she notes. "We teach people to get references for play partners. To not play in private for the first time. To establish safe calls to ensure their safety. We believe that the more aware people are, the less likely they are going to be the victim of abuse or consent violations."

Awareness on the rise

In recent years, Stryker and Millar say they've noticed positive changes within the BDSM communities, including increased awareness.

"There are a lot more people talking about consent, and talking about supporting survivors, and talking about recognizing patterns," Millar says.

"What I am hoping we're changing, doing consent activism, is the cycle time on that. I think the recognition of the abusers' patterns and the patterns of enabling has changed for the mainstream as well. And that partly explains why the Ghomeshi PR situation has turned from whispers and anonymous tweets into a major news article into nine survivors and counting. And both of his PR firms have cut ties to him in just days. I think the cycle-time to wise up about charismatic and well-connected abusers is getting faster."

That said, the battle being waged by victims and activists is far from over. Fetlife, the Canadian-based website for kinksters, has regularly been in hot water over its community guidelines, which prevent any user from accusing any other user of a criminal act.

Still, Millar says activists have made inroads in the conversation about abuse.

"It's an uneven process," he says. "But it's a process that gains strength over time. We're winning in slow-motion, grinding and grunting and pushing. And some of us fall down and cry. That's the only way anything worth winning is ever won."  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality

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