The Alt-Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team

This is a post by pro-BDSM activist Clarisse Thorn, who blogs at Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism.

BDSMers face a lot of stigma around our sexuality, and this can be a major problem when BDSMers are trying to deal with abusive situations. I’ve written before about generally negative conceptions of BDSM — they can briefly be summarized as:

* S&M is wicked,
* abnormal,
* a sign of mental or emotional instability,
* inherently abusive,
* or even antifeminist.

Given this climate, it’s not surprising that two things almost always happen when BDSM and abuse come up:

1) People of all genders who are abused are often unwilling to report. People of all genders who are abused within BDSM relationships tend to be particularly unwilling to report. Victim-blaming is already rampant in mainstream society — just imagine what happens to, for example, a woman who has admitted that she enjoys being consensually slapped across the face, if she attempts to report being raped. And that’s assuming the abuse survivor is willing to report in the first place; ze may prefer not to negotiate the minefield of anti-SM stereotypes ze will be up against, ze may be afraid of being outed, etc.

2) Members of the BDSM community sometimes push back against real or perceived anti-SM stigma by talking about how abuse is rare within the BDSM community. This BDSM blog post and comments claim that not only is abuse within the community rare, but abusive BDSM relationships seem more likely to happen outside the community. In fact, if you look then you can find posts from submissive women who found that getting into the BDSM community, being exposed to its ideals and concepts, helped them escape or understand their past abusive relationships.

I tend to think that #2 is a really good point — particularly the bit about how abusive BDSM relationships are more likely to happen outside the community, due in part to lack of resources and support for survivors. For this reason, I tend to stress the role of the community in positive BDSM experiences, and I encourage newcomers to seek out their local community. But lots of people don’t have access to a local community at all, especially if they’re not in a big city. Plus, lots of people have trouble enjoying their local community for whatever reason, perhaps because they have nothing in common with local S&Mers aside from sexuality, or because they don’t have time to integrate into a whole new subculture.

There’s also the unfortunate fact that point #2 sometimes reacts with point #1 in a toxic way — that is, it can ironically be harder for abuse survivors to talk about abuse within the BDSM community because the community is pushing back so hard against the stereotype of abusive BDSM. I’ve spoken to BDSMers who feel that the S&M community pushes back far too hard, and that survivors are being aggressively silenced simply because the rest of us are so invested in fighting mainstream stereotypes. I have never personally experienced this, but I would not be surprised if I did. And the fact is that I’m sure there are toxic dynamics in some BDSM communities — we aren’t a monolith, folks — and that even in 100% awesome communities, I’m sure there are at least a few abusive relationships. And even one abusive relationship in the community is obviously too many.

As Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote when the most recent abusive BDSM case hit the media, “Our declaration that the abusers are not us has to be substantive.” This is something we should be taking action on. But how?

Dynamics Within the Community

I have personally had excellent experiences within the S&M community. However, I am also pretty thick-skinned (unfortunately, this is partly due to lots of time spent working in a sexist industry); and I have a well-developed sense of my own boundaries. I am saying this not to sound self-congratulatory but because I believe that, due to being thick-skinned, I may be less bothered by actual harassment and pressuring dynamics than others are. Also, I am lucky enough that I’ve never experienced an assault. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon me to listen to how other S&Mers — especially female or genderqueer S&Mers — feel about their experiences being pressured within the community.

There are issues that even I have noticed. For example, I think that there is a distasteful tendency to talk about “real BDSM” or “serious BDSM”, as if some S&M is more legitimate than other S&M. That’s wrong and dangerous because it can make some people feel as though they have to push past their boundaries — do things they aren’t comfortable with — in order to be accepted, liked, or seen as “real”. On the rare occasions that I encounter this, I try to point out the problems right there and then. There is no such thing as “more real” and “less real” S&M. The only truly important part about any S&M activity is that it happen among enthusiastic, consenting adults.

Thomas once wrote to me by email that “I tend to think that the dynamics of abuse in the community are a combination of the desire to avoid washing our laundry in public, patriarchy colonizing our own, and the usual thing in small communities where people’s willingness to do the right thing in theory bumps up against their personal friends and loyalties.” I completely agree. I’d add that similar issues arise in almost all small communities, and it’s not fair to blame S&M in itself for these problems. At the same time, though, it’s incumbent upon all BDSMers to contribute to an environment where people who don’t want to participate can easily say “no”, and can rely on being supported by others when they do.

Existing Anti-Abuse Initiatives in the BDSM Community

Finding existing initiatives is a bit of a piecemeal project, but here’s what I’ve run across.

* A variety of pamphlets and written statements. For example, this was released by The Network/La Red, a rather unique anti-abuse organization for lesbians, bi women and trans people:

(Picture of black text on a white background with handcuffs. The text says: The most basic difference between S/M and abuse is Consent. It is not consent if…
You did not expressly give consent.
You are afraid to say no.
You say yes to avoid conflict.
You say yes to avoid consequences (i.e. losing a job, losing your home, being outed).

S/M is…
Always consensual.
Done with respect for limits.
Enjoyed by all partners.
Fun, erotic, and loving.
Done with an understanding of trust.
Never done with the intent to harm or damage.

Just because you consent to play does not mean you consent to everything. You have the right to set limits.

For the rest of the pamphlet, check out the images at my Flickr account — here’s the front, and here’s the back.)

Some SM organizations have also released statements on SM and abuse, such as the national Leather Leadership Conference and New York’s Lesbian Sex Mafia. Note that at the bottom of the LSM page, they mention that they’ve sensitized a local abuse hotline; if I ever get a grant or something to start a pro-sex anti-abuse center, I’ll immediately grill the LSM to see how they got in with that hotline and what they said.

* Kink Aware counselors. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom maintains an online list of Kink Aware Professionals, which is a grassroots effort begun by writer/activist Race Bannon and includes doctors, lawyers, and therapists. The list is pretty much open and opt-in — professionals go to the KAP site and offer to list themselves there — and this is one reason it’s not a good idea to assume that any given professional will be a great fit for you. Personally, when I was coming into my BDSM identity, I found a Kink Aware therapist to be incredibly helpful — but while I was finding him, I visited another therapist who was not at all helpful.

When people ask me for kink-friendly survivors’ resources, I always tell them to seek a KAP therapist first.

* The annual Alternative Sexualities conference. This is a comparatively new effort from the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities. They describe it as “a conference for clinicians and researchers, addressing issues around BDSM/Kink sexualities and consensual non-monogamies.”

Unfortunately the third annual conference is already over (San Francisco, September 23), but there’ll be another one next year (Washington D.C., date not yet announced). Fortunately, counselors and other relevant professionals can get continuing education credits for attending. I was on a panel at the 2009 conference in Chicago, and I thought it was pretty awesome, but I am obviously biased.

* Community workshops. Most BDSM communities in large cities have educational workshops (for example, here’s a calendar of BDSM events in Chicago.) These teach SM-related ideas or skills such as community etiquette, how to use various types of equipment, etc. Every SM workshop I have ever attended has emphasized careful negotiation and has, at the very least, mentioned safewords. One workshop — “The Emotional Aspects of BDSM Play”, taught by San Francisco’s EduKink — gave a detailed list of ideas for how to tell BDSM from abuse, which I wrote down:

1) Consent. BDSM is consenting; abuse is not.

a) Assuming consent was given — was it informed consent? Did everyone know what they were consenting to?

b) Was consent coerced or seduced from the partner? Did everyone feel like they could say no if they wanted? Was anyone worried about suffering negative consequences if they said no?

2) Intent. A BDSM partner intends to have a mutually enjoyable encounter; an abusive partner does not.

a) Did everyone leave the scene feeling somewhat satisfied?

3) Damage. A BDSM partner tries to minimize the actual damage inflicted by their actions; an abusive partner does not.

a) Did the two partners learn what they were doing before they did it? Did they learn how to perform their activities safely?

b) Were the partners aware of the potential risks of their activities?

4) Secrecy. Abuse often happens in secret. This is the hardest one on this checklist, because — due to the fact that BDSM is a very marginalized, misunderstood sexuality — BDSM often happens in secret, too. But this is one of the benefits of having an entire subculture that deals with BDSM: we try to look out for each other.

a) Were the two partners involved in the local BDSM scene? Did they get advice from knowledgeable, understanding BDSM people during rough patches in their relationship?

I’ve heard of one or two workshops specifically focused on “BDSM for Survivors”. I’ve also heard of support groups for BDSM-identified survivors of abuse, but I’ve never run across one in person. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: I believe that the safest place to have a BDSM relationship is within the BDSM community.

My Fantasy Sex-Positive, Anti-Abuse Program

You can tell from the above list that relevant community efforts have focused on raising internal awareness, consolidating useful information, and educating. If I were to get a grant or something (ha!), I would certainly look for ways to use it on a dedicated pro-sex, anti-abuse initiative, hopefully more expansive than a hotline, and considerably more extensive than a pamphlet. I’ve never developed this thought too extensively — I hate to torture myself when I know there’s no money for one of my ideas — but I know I’d want my Dream Anti-Abuse Team to have the following qualities:

* BDSM is obviously my main interest, because that’s how I identify the core of my sexuality. But I have a strong interest in destigmatizing all forms of sexual expression practiced by consenting adults. Everyone involved in my initiative would emphasize that people of all genders and sexualities could come for help — whether straight, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, asexual, BDSM, polyamorous, swing, or whatever amazing fetish could conceivably come up.

Ideally, I would personally try to shock the hell out of anyone before I agreed to work with them … because anyone whose face twists up or who gasps at the idea of any kind of consensual weird sex is a person who shouldn’t be anywhere near altsexual abuse survivors.

* I’d want destigmatizing alternative sexuality among the mainstream, especially mainstream anti-abuse organizations, to be a major focus — so that abuse survivors could feel less anxious about being misunderstood while seeking help. So I’d need people who were willing to go out and charismatically shock the abuse officers at police stations, feminist organizations, college campuses, etc. I’d want us to be running everything from anti-stigma poster campaigns to sex communication workshops.

* I’d want the program to be well-advertised to the general public, so that people who aren’t in the community — yet who are practicing S&M or poly or whatever on their own — could still find us.

* Of course we’d also do the more traditional work of offering walk-in counseling to abuse survivors, including help making a concrete plan, altsexual-friendly legal advice, and so on.

Aaand this is the point where I throw open the floor to comments. I haven’t been directly involved with any anti-abuse organizations, so I really only know the basics — but I’m sure that some of you have. Anyone have experience with altsexual abuse survivors? Anyone have other aspects they’d want included in an altsexual anti-abuse program?

Anyone willing to fund my Dream Team?

Similar Posts (automatically generated):

50 comments for “The Alt-Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team

  1. kim
    September 28, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    i have no grants to give you, but if you like, feel free to add my resources to your list as well!

  2. September 28, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    This is so fantastic. Thanks for the links!

    In following several active discussion boards on FetLife, I see so many scenarios that make me worry. My biggest point of concern is 24/7 D/s or M/s arrangements. Folks seem to default to one extreme or the other — either it’s Those Relationships Are Always Wrong and Bad, or it’s How Dare You Imply That My Kink Is Wrong and Bad. Neither of which helps us prevent abuse. I want to see more critical, thoughtful, informed examination of 24/7 and the extent to which it may overlap with abuse.

  3. September 29, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Well done, Clarisse.

  4. poet
    September 29, 2010 at 1:51 am

    I have a friend who’s into BDSM. When she came out about this to our circle of friends, I had all the wrong notions society has about BDSM – that it’s sick, disturbed, etc. But I spent a long time getting rid of those notions in discussion with her. And in the end, she of all people is the one who taught me the importance of consent, a concept that had never been introduced to me during my upbringing (because in my childhood home, everyone did what mommy wanted anyway, and it was best to want what mommy wanted, too, so you didn’t get your sanity doubted… snap-judgment summary of a long story, too complex to tell in this place) and that in turn helped me to stop forcing myself to remain in an unhappy (and probably borderline abusive) relationship against my will, just out of obligation… My view on this is now that I believe we – the mainstream, vanilla crowd – can actually learn a lot in terms of listening to ourselves, knowing our boundaries and knowing the importance of consent from the BDSM crowd. If we all went around everyday life with that raised awareness of boundaries and consent in ourselves and others, we’d probably avoid a lot of emotional distress…

  5. September 29, 2010 at 2:15 am

    My contribution: see if you can get onto military bases and coordinate with their sexual assault response centers. There are a lot of reasons for it, but in spite of having assault/abuse resources that are very well-developed for conventional relationships and sexual situations, they could use some help reaching out to folks who are in unconventional relationships and sexual situations.

  6. T
    September 29, 2010 at 2:58 am

    The CARAS conference in DC is Aug. 3, 2011.

  7. LT
    September 29, 2010 at 8:31 am

    I came to your blog from this blog ( I must say I do not know much of anything about BDSM, but this article was very informative and interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  8. September 29, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I know next-to-nothing about the BDSM ‘community’. However, I tend to be fairly liberal and think that consenting adults should be allowed to do what they want in private. Subsequently, this article is the first time I’ve really thought about what S&M meant and I have to say perhaps it is the name that’s doing it no favors.

    I can certainly understand why Sadism is considered ‘wicked,’ I mean I can’t think of a time I referred to someone as ‘sadistic’ as a compliment.

    So basically, I have no problem with BD and M but S does trouble me.

  9. September 29, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Hopefully I’ll be able to come back to this later with some actual useful suggestions for you, but for now Clarisse, thank you, thank you, thank you for the KAP list. I’ve heard of a couple good therapists in my current town by word of mouth from other kinky/poly people, but there’s a damn good chance I’ll be moving soon and I’ll have enough trouble finding new communities and settling in without having to worry about going blindly through therapists.

    Thanks for that link and for this whole post.

  10. piny
    September 29, 2010 at 10:14 am

    I’m bothered by the framing of in-vs-out-community abuse dynamics because they assume that intra-community gossip only functions as an early warning system for potential abuse victims. Abusers also use community dynamics to proof themselves against accusations, even repeated accusations. They establish a persona based on personal charm, experience, or expertise–and shield themselves with the truism that experienced practitioners know and respect the difference between BDSM and abuse.

  11. karak
    September 29, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Students become couselors. It would be immensely important to go into college classrooms and begin to inform students about alternate lifestyles and consent. People have questions that are inappropriate and invasive to ask a stranger or a patient, but would be great to ask a representative of the community prepared for these questions.

  12. Jadey
    September 29, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Fat Steve: I know next-to-nothing about the BDSM ‘community’. However, I tend to be fairly liberal and think that consenting adults should be allowed to do what they want in private. Subsequently, this article is the first time I’ve really thought about what S&M meant and I have to say perhaps it is the name that’s doing it no favors.I can certainly understand why Sadism is considered ‘wicked,’ I mean I can’t think of a time I referred to someone as ’sadistic’ as a compliment.So basically, I have no problem with BD and M but S does trouble me.

    Think about what you wrote and all the glaring inconsistencies. Also, your experiences /= the limits of reality.

  13. Kristen J.
    September 29, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I have no suggestions except that I would personally love to see training resources for people like attorneys who work with DV victims. Many of us do this sort of work in our free time and we may not have time to go to a conference, but if there were video presentations or literature it would help a great deal. I am fortunate to have the benefit of friends who are BDSM practitioners and who don’t mind answering my stupid, privileged questions if it helps someone in trouble.

    Ideally, I would personally try to shock the hell out of anyone before I agreed to work with them … because anyone whose face twists up.

    This is the most difficult part for me personally and the thing I’ve worked the hardest at…remaining sympathetic but impassive which is important in all abuse work, not just in helping abuse survivors that practice BDSM. As one of the above mentioned friends once said…it’s amazing I don’t cringe every time I break an egg…since I cringe at very nearly everything, paper cuts, ear piercings at the mall, slap stick comedy routines, fake medical shows…But it can be done…it just takes practice.

  14. September 29, 2010 at 11:07 am

    A word about sadism here. I write quite a bit about BDSM at my place and sometimes at Feministe. I switch, and I’m more bottom than top, and I’m at least as much a masochist as a submissive. That is to say, I don’t just do painful things because it pleases my top. I do those things because I find them fulfilling in and of themselves.

    The word “sadist,” as we use it, doesn’t mean somebody who likes harming strangers of violating boundaries, but rather the flip side to my masochism. If I love the extreme and painful feeling that comes with having clothespins and clamps all over my tender bits; if that makes me hot, makes me feel alive, makes me feel close to the partner who puts them there and takes them off (taking them off can be the most painful part!), then probably nobody here is going to say I shouldn’t do it.

    But then, what kind of person wants to do the causing of the pain, and likes it? The kind of person who wants to be my tour guide in that journey. The kind of person who wants to share that sense of intimacy I feel in those heady moments. The kind of person who wants to do the things that make my whole body pulse with desire. Not a sociopath with no sense of the feelings of others at all, but rather a person attuned to those feelings and able to drink from that fountain of powerful feelings. In my case, my spouse of over a decade.

    So, that’s what a sadist is to me. The word draws from an inopportune historical parallel, but when we’re more specifically than topping, and not about the power dynamics of D/s, but specifically about the giving and receiving of painful and intense sensation, we need words particular to that, and those are the words in common use.

  15. September 29, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Piny, thanks for saying that. I talk a lot about abuse in the BDSM community, because we’re not some charmed Eden with no abusers, and ignoring them just gives them cover to operate. Unfortunately, abusers are generally adept at convincing those around them that they’re really nice people, and folks who fall under that spell may be the next door neighbor or the coworker, and they can just as easily be the board members of a BDSM org. The BDSM community talks a great game about confronting and excluding abusers, much better than the general population. In practice, I’m not sure how much better a job we do of confronting people in the core of the community that violate boundaries and harm our own. And I say that as an exhortation for us all to do better.

  16. September 29, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Think about what you wrote and all the glaring inconsistencies. Also, your experiences /= the limits of reality.  

    Think about what you read…I was merely saying that ‘sadism’ is possibly the wrong word to describe that sort of behavior to someone like myself who is unfamiliar with the entire oeuvre.

    I’m curious, what did you think I was saying?

  17. Jadey
    September 29, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    @ Fat Steve

    You came into a space where people were talking about ways to deal with and confront abuse in the BDSM community and, despite acknowledging a serious dearth of knowledge or familiarity with BDSM and BDSM practitioners, proceeded to:

    1) Make a point of saying that your opinion on what other people do sexually matters (yeah, and that includes when you say it’s okay – I don’t need your permission)
    2) Say that you think there’s a problem with sadism, because in your experience it’s only a bad thing (uh, yeah, it’s called stigma)

    Point 2 may have been a misreading on my part (going off on Thomas’s response), although even re-reading I don’t really interpret it any differently, so I’m going to say that you were unclear at the very least.

    If Thomas’s reading is closer to what you meant, then it’s still pretty irritating for you to suggest that the issue is that kinksters are just using the wrong word. I’m not saying that the word doesn’t have problematic aspects of its history (hello, pathologizing!) and other senses and meanings that people use (hello, criminalizing!), but, yeesh, changing terminology is hardly simple. It’s not a question of corporation rebranding a product. In part the term is used because that’s what the mainstream expects us to use. I mean, geez, just look at how hard it is to introduce words like “cis” or non-male centric language – it’s actively resisted when it doesn’t fit in the preconceived box.

    On the other hand, given how frequently words can have complicated and even contradictory senses and meanings, I feel like most people familiar with speaking a language (and there are so many) should be able to handle the nuance, if they’re interested in trying.

  18. piny
    September 29, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Unfortunately, abusers are generally adept at convincing those around them that they’re really nice people, and folks who fall under that spell may be the next door neighbor or the coworker, and they can just as easily be the board members of a BDSM org.

    I wasn’t claiming that the post was apologist; I hope I didn’t sound that way.

    Exactly–I might phrase it more strongly. I think that many abusers are ESPECIALLY good at charming people. That’s probably what allows them to become serial abusers, especially within a small and incestuous community. I think they’re really, really good at exploiting human interactions to support their abusive tendencies. And I think this includes not only the abusive relationship but also all the other relationships they have. They manipulate people. They manipulate everyone.

    I don’t want to single out BDSM, because I’ve seen the misconception elsewhere. In fact, I think it’s universal. There’s this idea that creeps marginalize themselves, that they are creepy. They tend to be people with few friends and social graces, a short lifespan in any group, and that they have bad or odd reputations that can be scanned for alarming inferences. I know that there are people like this, but I think the opposite may be true just as often. I think many creeps are good at building social camouflage, and maintaining social credibility. Therefore, “scenester” may have special overlap with “abuser.” This is not to say that community interest in expertise and experience is a bad thing, or that aficionado status is unattractive or suspicious, or that longtime practitioners are more likely to be evil–just that none of these things really amount to security. You know?

  19. tomoe gozen
    September 29, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    @ jadey

    his first post in no way said that people with alternative sexualities need his permission or approval. Since you mention nuance, maybe you can map out the way that what he said necessarily entails that.

    2nd, the word ‘sadism’ does indeed have a troublesome linguistic and literary history relating to non-consent. the content of sade’s fictions didn’t for the most part involve things like safe words, care, or consent.

  20. September 29, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Very nicely nuanced discussion of the conflicting impulses in BDSM/kink communities between greater awareness and lower tolerance for abuse on the one hand… which results, I think, in overall less abuse than in society at large, and the possibly unavoidable “circle the wagons” pressure to downplay it when a community member is known to be abusive.

    Also, very, very excellent point about that “are you real or just playing games here” pressure tactic that can get people, especially beginners, in over their heads… and then out of the community and feeling really crappy or worse about themselves.

    But mostly I really appreciate the list that distinguishes kink from abuse.

    Riffing off Fat Steve’s comments I know what he means about feeling discomfort with some aspects of… well… almost anything one isn’t familiar with but especially some elements of other people’s sexuality. Which is one of the reasons I think lists like Clarisse’s are really helpful — they help distinguish the rules of a game people can agree to play from plain old problematic behavior. A really trivial example from my own experience might help. I’m not a big card player but I’ll play things like gin rummy, spades, cuarenta, and occasionally even poker. But I just totally balk at the game Hearts since the way you win is you stick other people with points they don’t want. Usually people just roll their eyes when I say that and they tell me “it’s just a game.” And the thing is, it really is just a game! It’s got rules, people agree to play it. They even enjoy it even though I manifestly don’t. It doesn’t even make them bad people for playing it even though my personal philosophy and upbringing has me convinced the premise isn’t at all a good one. But even if I don’t like it I get that Hearts “practitioners” see it as a rules-based game, and that players are no more likely (though probably also no less) to bring “sticking people with points they don’t want” in other parts of life where those aren’t parts of the rules. So… same with elements of BDSM or other kinks that don’t turn me on. If it’s a game, and everyone in it understands and agrees to play it, then… well, as long as I get that then I don’t have to soften my intolerance at all for those instances where “the game” isn’t agreed to. That can include crap like Pickup Artist and “The Rules” manipulation (which pretty necessarily involves “playing” against people who aren’t themselves players. It can also include card sharking and sub-prime mortgage brokering, and it can include users and abusers in alt-communities like BDSM. But that sort of crap doesn’t have to turn me off to the whole respective enterprises.


  21. September 29, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Doh! And teach me to wait too long to post a comment — other commenters and Steve clarified my own misreading of what he said. I think my points still stand, and they were riffs off something he said… they just didn’t happen to be what he meant. Sorry about that.


  22. September 29, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    tomoe gozen:
    2nd, the word ’sadism’ does indeed have a troublesome linguistic and literary history relating to non-consent. the content of sade’s fictions didn’t for the most part involve things like safe words, care, or consent.  

    de Sade also wrote about rape and murder – do you think everyone involved in BDSM feels the same about those things as he did? It’s unfair to attribute the namesake’s drives and feelings to those who practice BDSM – in fact, I imagine many many people who are involved with the community have never even read any de Sade nor would want to. Yes, his sadism didn’t involve consent and involved a lot of evil – doesn’t mean mine does, or anyone else’s does.

    If you’re going to say the word is problematic because of its roots, then what about other words involved? What about “slave”? I’m sure there are many people who would never be comfortable with that word, for their own personal reasons, and those reasons are valid…but I would not want to be told that *I* should also reconsider using that word in my own life because of that. There are submissives who enjoy being name-called, who want to be called bitch and whore and all of that – for many people, those words are not ever okay, but does that mean they aren’t okay for anyone?

    The fact is, anyone who talks or writes about BDSM from personal experience is pretty much always going to mention consent at some point – we talk about consent A LOT. So if someone outside the community hears the word “sadism” and shuts their ears after that and says “But that means there’s no consent!”, well I’d say – how about keep listening and don’t make your own decisions about something you’re not involved with.

  23. September 29, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Sorry I took so long to comment, everyone. I slept late!

    @poet — one of the big facets of my activism actually involves trying to get the word out about sexual communication tactics pioneered by the BDSM community. I think that getting non-BDSMers to think in those terms could help maximize consent for everyone. One of my posts on this topic discusses checklists and another discusses safewords.

    @Erica — that’s an interesting thought, thank you. I believe swinging actually first occurred on military bases. I’ve heard from an alt sex guy in the military that the military tends to be pretty cool with that stuff, but I’m sure their abuse efforts leave something to be desired … everyone’s do.

    More as I keep reading ….

  24. September 29, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    @kim — Your sites are interesting. I love how carefully you’re advising people on how to set boundaries. I think it’s also useful that you give advice on how to turn people down, or de-escalate situations, while still being friendly (though I suspect that some of those would be interpreted as flirtatious, but I guess that’s why they’re light-hearted huh?).

    Do you ever do workshops in the USA or just Canada?

    @Hot Tramp — I haven’t been exposed much to 24/7 relationships. I saw one presentation by Sir Top and slave bonnie that was about communicating within one, and I was really impressed. I guess my instinct would be to try to give more education about how to communicate within those relationships before taking the step of discussing them as abusive … though there’s no reason we can’t do both. Hmm. To rephrase, I guess I’d try to build up some cred on that topic by learning as much as I could about positive manifestations, before I try to analyze negative ones. Especially since I don’t tend to identify as 24/7 myself. What kind of framework would you see a serious discussion of 24/7 occuring in?

  25. September 29, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    @Fat Steve — It’s understandable to have hesitations around these words. The fact is that most of us BDSMers are attracted to strong terminology about power, and some of us play pretend-nonconsensual games … but because of the nonconsensual history of those words, they are stigmatized. It’s reasonable to stigmatize nonconsensual sadism, obviously! But I think the key is to recognize that no matter how extreme your initial reaction to a term or act, that reaction must be tempered if you find out that the act is done consensually.

    which brings me to ….

    @Kristin J — I admire your commitment to staying sympathetic but impassive, especially considering that you’re not in the lifestyle yourself. That must make it especially hard! For me the key has been to remind myself of how intense the stigma was when I first came into BDSM, how appalled and horrified I was and how helpful it was when people didn’t judge me or say “Yeah, that is fucked up.” Do you have any self-reminders or memories that help you stay open-minded?

  26. September 29, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    @piny — No worries, I didn’t think you were accusing me of apologism.

    It is a thorny problem. Ultimately though, it is the same problem that happens in mainstream contexts. I wish I had some idea of how to combat the super-charming, super-manipulative abuser. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it but never gotten very far, whether in BDSM or non-kink contexts.

  27. Jackie
    September 29, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    I consider myself to be open minded about BDSM. I feel, as long as it floats your boat, without sinking someone else’s ship. I don’t really see what all the hub-bub is, I mean yeah if there were a BDSM couple living near me, and there was a lot of screaming and what have you it would irk me if not disturb me. However, these are two consenting adults, choosing to go about this so what’s the big deal?

  28. Kristen J.
    September 29, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Clarisse Thorn: Do you have any self-reminders or memories that help you stay open-minded? Clarisse Thorn

    For me I think there are two things that are important. (1) Its critical to tell myself that I am not the judge of what someone needs help with. My job is to help them with what they believe needs changing.* This keeps me from doing any number of assholish things. (2) And this one is a bit silly but I hold this small round stone. Its from my favorite place on earth and reminds me of home. This is actually a technique I learned from a therapist friend of mine to manage some of the burn out I was experiencing from working with abused kids…so its not a thing that I just do for clients who are BDSM practitioners, but it something I think helps me at least.

    *Certainly sometimes I will ask if they would like help with something (some of my clients also have housing/benefit issues or may want to negotiate custody issues) and they may not realize off the bat that I am more than happy to help them with those things as well.

  29. Zas
    September 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    What the hell is up with this idea that BDSM is marginalized? Seriously? It’s practically glorified in the mainstream culture. All porn contains the ‘submissive woman’ ideal. MTV ran a ad showing a woman being whipped and branded on her ass. That one movie with Jolie showed her whipping a man. These are two off the top of my head and I don’t watch more than a movie a month and never watch MTV. I talked to two men randomly in my dorm and they were upfront about being into BDSM and hitting women without any sort of ‘oh I’m so ashamed about this :(‘.

  30. September 30, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    It may make for exciting advertising, but what my spouse did to me last night, consensually, was a felony in the state we live in.

    I can be fired from my job, lose custody of my children and be denied housing because of the kinky things that I do. See, for example, the international kerfluffle over former UN weapons inspector Jack McGeorge, who offered his resignation after the Washington Post picked on him for his sexual practices: if he had hidden what he did, it could have cost him all his security clearances, but being out nearly lost him his job.

    I write under a pseudonym. My spouse doesn’t want her family to know she’s a BDSMer, or her coworkers. I could probably get past it in my professional life, but my spouse thinks a woman in most fields never could, and I agree. the experience for a woman publicly identified as kinky is anything but smooth or fair.

    So, um, there is that.

    When I was in college, when I lived in a dorm, I was out to everyone. Since I’ve been in the working world I have not felt able to do that. Perhaps your experience will be different.

  31. September 30, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Zas, I’m going to bite my tongue and not say all the snide things that came to mind. Instead I’m going to say that I think you might want to actually do some reading about the legal and emotional experiences of people who are in the BDSM lifestyle. You have probably already ignored the links in my piece above, but maybe you could try this post:

    Or you could read about some of the scandals:

    It’s nice to see that some of the stigma around BDSM is decreasing, especially for young people like yourself. Perhaps you should get some actual experience in the real world before you go shooting your mouth off about how there’s no stigma around BDSM. Okay, I guess I ended up being snide after all, but really? It’s a bit much for you to come into a space that is dedicated to discussing the abuse that happens within a marginalized population and then tell us that we’re all just imagining things. Really?

  32. melancholia
    September 30, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    I am a little uncomfortable with applying the label “marginalized” to the BDSM community. Groups like women, minorities, disabled, gay, et al. do not choose their status. Whatever you say about people in the BDSM community surely it is a choice, a behavior. To me it diminishes the experiences of the truly marginalized by labelling groups like BDSM “marginalized.”

  33. Halo
    September 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Oh good! My MFF threesome activities will be entirely socially acceptable because that trope has gone mainstream in heterosexual porn. I’m so relieved.

  34. September 30, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    @melancholia: I think it’s a dangerous game to start playing marginalization police. As others stated upthread, there are very real consequences to being out, consequences that tend to be much harsher on women than on men, and thus it’s perfectly suited for feminist analysis in a space dedicated to exactly such things.

  35. MertvayaRuka
    September 30, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    @melancholia: Simply because someone chooses a path rather than being born to it does not make it any less unjust if they are persecuted for it by society. For those of us who are in the BDSM community, that were are there by choice does not make any of the dangers we face any less real.

    @Zas: Media portrayals of any subculture are invariably inaccurate and skewed by the biases of those responsible for the portrayal. Mainstream porn plays heavily on the idea that all women are inherently submissive; this is obviously false on its face. And while I’m sure that whatever movie you’re talking about showed Angelina Jolie whipping a man, I can also make a reasonable guess that the same character (as with most Dominant females portrayed in popular media) is depicted as anything from mentally unbalanced to outright murderous. I personally cannot look at the caricatures created by the mainstream media as a sign of acceptance or glorification. It’s commodification; showing us that we will only be accepted as long as we conform to specific roles (ie. the Completely Submissive Woman, much like the Attractive Lesbian Who Will Still Sleep With Guys or at Least Let Them Watch). Outside of those roles we are figures of ridicule, we are monsters, or we do not exist.

    There is also more to BDSM than “hitting women”. Either you’re asking the wrong people, or you’ve all ready determined the answers to your own questions and have no interest in those provided by others.

  36. piny
    September 30, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    Whatever you say about people in the BDSM community surely it is a choice, a behavior.

    So is religious observance; do you think that religious discrimination is impossible?

  37. September 30, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    I am a little uncomfortable with applying the label “marginalized” to the BDSM community. Groups like women, minorities, disabled, gay, et al. do not choose their status. Whatever you say about people in the BDSM community surely it is a choice, a behavior. To me it diminishes the experiences of the truly marginalized by labelling groups like BDSM “marginalized.”

    “It’s a choice, and since they can stop, restrictions on them aren’t really that bad.” Where have I heard that before?

  38. Jadey
    September 30, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    melancholia: I am a little uncomfortable with applying the label “marginalized” to the BDSM community.Groups like women, minorities, disabled, gay, et al. do not choose their status.Whatever you say about people in the BDSM community surely it is a choice, a behavior.To me it diminishes the experiences of the truly marginalized by labelling groups like BDSM “marginalized.”  

    Look, that’s what a lot of people say about being gay, still.

    Being kinky is as important to me as being gay is – not the absolute centre of my life, but still a part of me. And it’s about as much choice as anything else I do – it’s not just a “hobby” I picked up. It’s part of who I am and how I have been for as long as I can remember.

    I seriously want some people to start picking up some knowledge before they start laying down opinions.

  39. Cole
    September 30, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    melancholia: I am a little uncomfortable with applying the label “marginalized” to the BDSM community. Groups like women, minorities, disabled, gay, et al. do not choose their status. Whatever you say about people in the BDSM community surely it is a choice, a behavior. To me it diminishes the expe

    I didn’t choose to be kinky anymore than I chose to be queer. I won’t be arrested for having sex with a same sex partner (at least, not where I live) but my partner could be arrested for being kinky towards me. You might see BDSM as just a “choice,” but I find non-kinky sex as unarousing as a lesbian woman would find sex with a man. Why does only one of those sexualities get a gold medal in the oppression olympics?

    I suppose it’s possible you were arguing that participating in the BDSM community = a choice, which is true, but instead of comparing that participation to being LGBTQ, you should compare it to joining a PRIDE group and think of being sadomasochistic as being LGBTQ.

  40. October 1, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Sounds like a lot of other commenters have already responded to the idea that kink is not marginalized, but if anyone wants further reading, there’s an excellent post from SM-Feminist on the matter:

  41. thefallgirl
    October 1, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    I can only speak to my own experience, but the abusive partners and non-consensual sexual encounters I’ve had have been with people who weren’t kinky. I think some of the safety I feel around kink practitioners has to do with the fact that consent is such a big deal in the BDSM community, and the sense that people are, in a way, just waiting for us to screw up. I’m certain that there are people out there who use BDSM as an excuse to abuse and that bondage and D/s or M/s dynamics in particular can lend vulnerability. I have heard the stories people who were raped in an S&M context, and their reluctance to do anything but use their story help the community police itself speaks to your point, I think.

    There’s enough margin to go around, and the fact that we’re still stuck arguing whether kinkiness is a choice people make or not instead of recognizing the real discrimination that kinky people face if they get outed says to me that we have a lot farther to go in understanding marginalization in general.

  42. Luc
    October 5, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Ms. Thorn, I’d be interested to hear your views about “consensual-non-consent,” the practice some D/s and M/s couples have of eroticizing activities the submissive partner really doesn’t want to do- but nevertheless enjoys being forced to do them, and consents to *that*. I suspect there those folks are mostly in the 24/7 crowd, so you may not have come across it much, but I’d be really interested in your thoughts if you have any.

  43. October 5, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Luc, I’ve come across c/nc a bit, and frankly I do eroticize it somewhat myself, so I’ve thought about it a fair amount.

    I think that there’s nothing wrong with c/nc in itself, but the negotiation to get there is very difficult and I worry sometimes that people basically don’t try hard enough. I think that people who do c/nc are sometimes dismayingly easygoing about it, basically. I wish that there was more conversation about the ethics of it, and trading ideas about how to talk about it. But it’s such an extreme, it makes sense that the community doesn’t devote as much space to that topic as we do to, say, Flogging 101.

  44. Trinityva
    October 8, 2010 at 10:40 pm


    I really like this post, though I do want to say that it’s been a while since the post of mine you reference and I’m not sure about something. I don’t remember exactly where my head was at that day, but I don’t think I was so much trying to say abuse is rare in the SM community (I don’t know the numbers, and abuse isn’t rare, period) as I was trying to talk about this presupposition I see in some places where it’s assumed that almost everyone in BDSM is a predator (possibly because of the misguided assumption that BDSM is itself a form of violence against women.) I was saying that the spaces I was in seemed healthy and didn’t seem to reek of misogyny or weirdness. Which is something I stand by, but these days I’m more inclined to temper that with understanding that creepy people are sometimes obvious and sometimes really good at blending in, especially if they can convince you to ignore “little” signals that not all is well.

    So I’m not sure I’m comfortable with what I said then, or with it being held up as some kind of proof that abuse in kinky circles is rare. What I would still say is that the equation of “kink” with “abuse” is wrong, and that the presupposition that there’s more abuse in BDSMland, without something like a study to back it up, is wrong.

    I think it’s good that we have community standards. I do think it helps. But I also think that it is – as some folks said, like piny – not a magical fix. I’d like to see a real discussion of abuse in BDSM communities take into account those standards and talk frankly, and hopefully backed up by hard data, how they help and how they don’t.

  45. October 12, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Hey Trinity!

    You know I’m a huge fan of your work, so I’m sorry that I misrepresented your thoughts. Obviously, I agree with your comment. Wouldn’t data be amazing? If anything tempts me to go to grad school, it’s the thought of getting actual data on these subjects. You haven’t heard of any attempts to gather that information, have you?

Comments are closed.