than anyone else, that “yes” is not enough. We could all learn
something from this stigmatised community, if only we’d talk more openly.
I’ll stop,” my boyfriend told me later that night, as I squirmed on a hard
chair during dinner. “You know that, right?”
the country where we lived at the time, that combination was perfectly legal.)
We were young. We didn’t know anything about responsible BDSM even as we
explored our kinks together. How were we supposed to learn? Neither of us owned
a laptop, and I wasn’t about to research our unusual sexual fixation from a
public Internet cafe. John and I were merely following our impulses into
murky—and potentially dangerous—territory.
boundaries and responsibilities are heightened in kink. And they’re not always
obvious. After all, it was only after a spanking—one of many—that John finally
thought to introduce a safe word into our play. Before that, it would have been
entirely possible for our consensual and mutually satisfying encounters to
cross the line into assault. When hurting your partner as he or she cries and
begs you to stop is part of the fun, how do we know where the fun stops? Can
the foggy edge of kink teach us anything about sexual consent in general?
makes it hard to admit that kinky relationships—just like vanilla
relationships—sometimes do become abusive.
Hardy, a kink educator and the author of several BDSM books, including When
Someone You Love Is Kinky. “We go there intentionally.”
Ghomeshi, a host of the popular CBC show Q, was fired. At least nine women and
one man have accused Ghomeshi of assaulting them; he claims that their
interactions were consensual BDSM, citing sadomasochistic text messages and
emails as evidence of consent.
kinky, he expresses his kink in a habitually and apologetically irresponsible
way. In his analysis, Dan Savage theorized that “Ghomeshi isn’t a safe, sane,
and consensual kinkster. He’s a reckless, abusive, and dangerous one who has
traumatised some women and lucked out with others.”
widely misunderstood and condemned. Blog posts and articles designed to shame
and humiliate kinksters proliferate online. Those perspectives aren’t rare: In
2013, even Slate, a progressive publication (and one that has been a hospitable
and supportive host for my own work on the subject), ran a series of articles
that argued it is “perfectly normal” to reject BDSM as a healthy point on the
spectrum of human sexuality, and compared consensual BDSM to domestic violence.
myths about kinksters and seemed to chuckle at child abuse, Slate’s advice
columnist even joked that kink is formed by childhood trauma. It’s a common
perception, but not a victimless one. There are perfectly healthy BDSM
practitioners who hold major positions in psychiatry as doctors, academics, and
even mainstream psychology textbook authors, but you’ll never hear about them.
(Unless, for the second time in its history, someone decides to shock some
sexual sense into the American Psychiatric Association from behind a mask.)
Meanwhile, that stereotype only sends every other kinkster the message that we
are “messed up”—and therefore shouldn’t be surprised or outraged if messed up
things happen to us.
crimes, they perpetuate the stigma that forces us deeper underground. In
hiding, there are few ways for young or inexperienced kinksters to learn how to
explore their orientations safely. Choking and face-hitting, for example, are
widely discouraged and relatively uncommon in real-life BDSM play. But they
appear frequently in two places: Internet pornography and accounts from
Ghomeshi’s victims. Given that, some people within the community have suggested
to me that Ghomeshi’s alleged assaults betray a familiarity with pornography
rather than genuine kink experience. Porn can be great, but it’s a terrible way
to learn safe BDSM practice.
there to remind us that we can’t have it. This summer, an anti-sex activist (my
description, not hers) posed as a teenager and used a secret camera to record a
Planned Parenthood employee giving advice on how to practise BDSM safely. The
media responded with a predictable torrent of revulsion; even Planned
Parenthood quickly distanced itself from the video and fired the employee. I
watched the controversy unfold from a reporting trip in Madagascar and
wondered, alone on the far side of the world, where I could have sought advice
as a 16-year-old who had never been kissed but hid sadomasochistic fiction
under my mattress.
with few ways to report crimes without exposing themselves to the victim-blaming,
scorn, and condescending pity that are directed at sexual minorities even under
the best of circumstances.
multiple restraining orders placed against them. But how would their partners know
that? When everyone uses pseudonyms, criminal histories are easy to hide.”
within the community are afraid to reach out and learn how to do things
safely,” says Susan Wright, the spokesperson for the National Coalition for
Sexual Freedom. “They’re more afraid of being ‘outed’ than they are of being
assaulted. That stigma creates a haven for predators.”
misconceptions, we defend ourselves and our community. But the need to
incessantly remind people that kink is not abuse makes it hard to admit that
kinky relationships—just like vanilla relationships—sometimes do become
abusive. When we’re made to feel that we must defend ourselves, we become
afraid to perpetuate the stigma against us by calling out abuse. (Even
FetLife.com, ground zero for sexual fetishists online, has refused to blacklist
known predators in its midst.) One BDSM blogger described abusers in the kink
community as “missing stairs” in a familiar house: people who have lived in the
house for years avoid the gap automatically, but visitors are at risk of
communities, who asked not to be named, told me that stigma adds an additional
layer of risk when it forces BDSM practitioners to express our sexualities from
behind the veil of pseudonyms.
multiple restraining orders against them,” she says. “But how would their
partners know that? When everyone uses pseudonyms, criminal histories are easy
to hide. You can’t look up restraining orders under a fake name.”
International conducted a survey to gauge “the prevalence and extent of abuse
within the BDSM community.” Its results reflect the degree to which stigma
frightens survivors away from seeking help. Kinky victims of intimate partner
violence reported that they stayed with their abusers because, among other reasons,
the perpetrators threatened to “out” their victims to employers or family
members. Perpetrators also threatened to isolate their victims from the BDSM
community if they sought help—which makes sense, because the survey also found
that kinky abuse victims were more likely to report abuse to a friend within
the community than to police, victim’s services, or friends.
submissive roles, already had two decades of experience in the spanking
community, a category of the broader BDSM subculture, when he was assaulted.
Ron knew how to practice responsibly: he met his potential partner for meals
three times before they agreed to play, and described his desires and limits to
her in unflinching detail.
hairbrush spanking—the kind of thing that Ron had experienced hundreds of times
before. But it quickly escalated into something more painful than he could
bear. When Ron said the “slow down” word they had agreed on in advance,
expecting a reprieve, his partner began to beat him with a small handheld cane.
By the time she was done, Ron had bleeding cuts on his butt and thighs.
found out I was in this kinky world, they’d find a way to move me out of the
company. And I’m a man. What do you think the police would have said if I tried
to tell them? What would they have said if I had physically pushed her away
a flip side to that, and it’s what both consent violators in the BDSM community
and the national debate about vanilla sexual consent have missed: “Yes” doesn’t
always mean yes, either.
than anyone else, that “yes” is not enough. When I consent to a spanking, it
doesn’t necessarily mean that I consent to being flogged with a cane. If a man
consents to being tied up, it doesn’t necessarily mean he consents to sex. If
someone consents to exchanging graphically kinky emails and text messages—this
one is for you, Ghomeshi—it doesn’t necessarily mean that she consents to being
hit in the face. And if someone in a college dorm room explicitly consents to
intercourse, it doesn’t necessarily mean the conversation can end there. It
might mean the conversation has just begun.
from the details of our desires, or bury them in psychoanalysis and shame. To
truly end our cultures of rape and abuse, both within the BDSM and mainstream
sex communities, we can’t reduce sexual consent to a catchphrase. We have to
talk about sexuality, and all of its tricky details, without evasion,
self-preservation, or censorship.
consent. But as long as we continue to pretend that consent is binary—a light
switch that goes on or off—those conversations won’t go far. Consent is a fluid
target that can be given, rescinded, re-evaluated, or even seduced. We all know
that, but we’re terrified to talk about it. Safe kinky sex is exactly the same
as safe vanilla sex: we won’t have it if we never learn how. We should be
talking—really talking—about that foggy edge of sexual consent. Instead, we’re
trying to tie sex up with rules and restraints.
can be the most dangerous kink of all. And we’re all playing without a safe
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