This is a guest post by Thomas Macaulay Millar. Thomas regularly blogs at Yes Means Yes, where the series summarized in this post originally appeared.
[Trigger Warning. The whole thing is about rape, abuse, and apologist tactics. There are descriptions of rape, abuse, and apologist tactics.]
In a podcast after Not What We Do , I declared that I’m not going to do BDSM community PR. We have problems. We have at least as much of a rape culture within as the mainstream, and I’m not going to shut up about it. This post summarizes what I said at the Yes Means Yes Blog, in a seven part series that ran 21,000 words. The original, full posts are at these links:
Predator Theory, backed by empirical research, tells us that the bad actors, the repeat, deliberate, serial abusers, are less than 10% of the general population. There’s no shortage of stories that start “I was abused” and end “when I tried to say something the community closed ranks around the abuser and I was frozen out.” Here is a classic example left in comments to Charlie Glickman’s blog post. This one appeared on Tracy-Clark Flory’s Tumblr, after she posted a story on BDSM and abuse in January. One woman had this to say (Sorry, folks, Fetlife login req’d and she prefers that I not cut down the excerpt and lose the nuance). In the full posts of the series, I go on and on with individual stories: some people at the fringes of or outside formal communities luring people on the internet, but too many others well entrenched and defended within social networks and organizations in kink communities. There’s a theme here: that silence and secrecy are the paramount values, and open discussion is to be avoided. It’s a basic function of institutions, but often of informal social networks as well, to protect the body from reputational damage. That’s what colleges do with rape.
“Report It To The Police” Is Not A Serious Answer
As it works on the ground, not all people are equal in the eyes of the criminal justice system. But even assuming that police, prosecutors, and judges do the right thing, the jury is drawn from the general population. Which, on rape, is terrible. That’s why a New York City cop can penetrate a woman who is too drunk to consent, lie about it and get caught, confess on tape, and still get a jury acquittal.
Roughly half of rapes go unreported, the highest underreporting of any crime; when they are reported, arrests result only 25% of the time. That’s a lot lower than other major crimes. It’s not because they can’t find the rapists: about 85% of rapes are acquaintance assaults. Numbers are hard to come by, but in the US convictions as a proportion of reports is about 12%. UK figures are even worse.
But that’s just the obstacles survivors face when they are not kinky. It gets much worse. All the things that make acquaintance rape cases unprosecutable in front of shitty mainstream juries — they knew each other, they had a prior relationship, there were messy personal dynamics, they intended to get together for sex, alcohol was involved — will make an appearance in a disproportionate number of BDSM rape and abuse cases. They’re all the kind of cases that don’t get prosecuted.
You might be thinking that you’ve seen — I’ve posted about — prosecutions in BDSM abuse cases. And I have. But the set of cases that have been prosecuted is very small, and looking at what does and doesn’t produce convictions is actually really illustrative. I’ve looked carefully at them, and the strong cases are the ones with not only allegations of nonconsensual sex and torture, but also nonconsensual sex work, and the ones where the torture was documented on video.
Let’s just look at it practically. Is reporting a sexual assault in a BDSM context likely to work? No, absent serious injuries or hospitalization, or video evidence, history shows that prosecutions are uphill battles, even for relatively privileged people within BDSM communities. So if it’s not all that likely to actually produce a conviction, the notion that we should pressure victims into the criminal justice system is busted. It’s a derail, a way of throwing up a hurdle and washing hands of the allegation. Until the system is fixed (if it can be), we can’t count on it to save us from having to figure out how to deal with rape and abuse in BDSM communities ourselves.
Social License To Operate
We have several dynamics that operate socially to allow rapists and abusers to go unpunished. Some of these mirror dynamics in the mainstream and some don’t. This is my incomplete list:
This may surprise some of my regular readers, because one of my better known writings is all about how evidence from conversation analysis shows that miscommunication is not the reason some people violate others’ boundaries. And that’s true. This is one of the areas where BDSM parts company with the mainstream most dramatically.
When we communicate explicitly, consent isn’t confusing. I’ve written before that people don’t even need safewords unless they need “no” and “stop” not to mean “no” and “stop.” But that’s not everyone’s play style. Some people want to shout no and stop and do resistance, all of which has risks, and they’re often reasonable risks that can be managed by negotiation and safewords and other measure. But like most risks, they can’t be managed perfectly.
One important thing that can go wrong is the spontaneous misread. We can’t talk about every possible direction a scene could go. It would be easy to say that no top should do anything that hasn’t been explicitly discussed; it would be easy and unrealistic. Responsible, caring tops want their bottoms to have happy, hot experiences. If the bottom responds well to something unexpectedly, tops will read that and often go with it. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing. But it’s inherently inexact. “We hadn’t talked about it and I thought you were into it because of the noises you were making” may be a completely true statement, or it may be a bullshit story someone tells after doing something willfully abusive, and the difference is only state of mind.
One of the common themes I hear in BDSM abuse stories is the mid-scene renegotiation. Above, I linked to a comment on Charlie Glickman’s blog about an abuser. There was good, clear negotiation, but the victim’s nightmare started with a midscene renegotiation. Lots of bottoms, especially submissives, are not really in a state of mind mid-scene to advocate for themselves. Some folks are typically very — what’s the word I’m looking for? Oriented, perhaps — while bottoming, but many are not.
There are two major disinhibition effects in BDSM communities. The first is the disinhibition effect of sexualized spaces, where people (and not always entitled cis het men) get the sense that grabbing and groping and being intrusive is okay. It’s not okay, It’s bad in and of itself to violate someone’s boundaries, and doing that creates the underbrush that the predators hide in. A pinch because ha ha we’re all kidding around is hard to tell from a pinch to see if boundaries will be defended, which is the predators’ victim targeting device.
The second major disinhibition is mind-altering substances. We talk a good game about keeping alcohol and drugs separate from BDSM because they cause people to ignore safety, miss signals, and do what they should rather than what they want. We talk a good game and it’s a rule honored in the breach.
(3) Geek Social Fallacies
As far as I know, the list of Geek Social Fallacies is almost ten years old, but it may be older. There have been other attempts to apply the concept to sex. But I’m going to go with the original formulation, highlighting the first three:
Geek Social Fallacy #1: Ostracizers Are Evil
Geek Social Fallacy #2: Friends Accept Me As I Am
Geek Social Fallacy #3: Friendship Before All
These combine in alternative sexuality communities to prevents resolution of interpersonal conflict.
“I don’t do drama” is a contrarian indicator. There is more drama around people who say they don’t do drama than those who don’t say it. “Drama” isn’t avoidable merely by saying you don’t do it. Drama is the stress produced by resolving interpersonal conflict. When people interact, there’s interpersonal conflict. Of course, like wealth and income, the stress is not evenly distributed. A group of people can decide to resolve interpersonal conflict by ignoring someone’s grievance until they go away. That’s what “I don’t do drama” means. People who say it mean that if you have a grievance against someone they know, you’re on your own.
(4) Culture of Secrecy and the Cycle of Silencing
In BDSM communities, people operate under pseudonyms all the time, for good reasons. But it can allow people to cover up histories of going from scene to scene and place to place as their behavior gets discovered. I’ve heard stories of abusers hopping from venue to venue, group to group and city to city to stay ahead of stories that spread slowly. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. A survivor speaks out, but without transparency, people can’t evaluate the full set of information. The survivor gets a bad reception, and clams up or goes away. Graphic illustration:
Each incident exists in a vertical column, what’s sometimes called a silo. Siloed information keeps us from making informed choices about whether someone just made a mistake or is a bad actor. The thing that is necessary to have all the information on the table is to de-silo the information.
(5) Craven Self-Interest, or Don’t Bite The Hand That Gets You Laid
Never underestimate the depth of human venality. One of the things that operates to create structures where abusers have a social license to operate is that anyone standing up to groups of their leaders may lose access to play spaces and play partners.
We all get up on our high horse about Sandusky, thinking that if we had reason to believe that a trusted and respected member of our group were doing something really, really wrong, we’d tell everyone until someone listened. We’re bullshitting ourselves if we think that’s universal, and the BDSM community is no different. Number 5 and something like number 3 operated to protect Sandusky, and that was enough to let a molester have access to prepubescent kids for years.
Justice Brandeis said that sunlight is the best of disinfectants. We’ve covered abusers and how they derive their Social License to Operate by using the cover of other dynamics: the miscommunications; the secrecy; the geek social fallacies; and so forth. They can’t operate in the open in the light of day. If people are free to talk about their experiences without intimidation or ostracism, if they are as free to say, “I had a bad experience with so-and-so, that person ignored my hard limit” as they are to say “I had a really good experience with that person,” then the predators can’t operate.
Who could be against transparency?
Going to the cops isn’t realistic, and the leaders of the community may be close to the abuser. Going to the abuser only works for actual miscommunications, not for abusers. The other alternatives are (1) say what happened; or (2) don’t. Fetlife has made their position clear: don’t. They’re not saying go away mad, or even go away, just shut up.
When the possibility of people telling the truth comes up, people always always raise false allegations. I direct you to this post on why that’s a derail. The relative frequency of rape and abuse, so often unreported, dwarfs false allegations, so all effort should go to dealing with the rapes before worrying about the smaller number of false allegations. And convictions just don’t result in BDSM cases except those with video evidence or severe injuries. The harm of rape and assault far outweigh the harm of an allegation of rape or assault, since all the allegation actually does is, at most, get the accused disinvited to a few parties.
There is no value-neutral choice. Anyone who says to survivors, “police report or it didn’t happen” might as well say, “I’ll side with the rapist every time,” because that’s the effect. They should just be honest about it. Instead of “I don’t do drama,” they should just be straightforward, and say, “when I hear allegations of rape, I choose to treat it as if it didn’t happen,” or even, “if someone I like does something bad to you, you’re on your own.” That’s what “I don’t do drama” means.
Self-Defense For Bottoms: Defensive Negotiation
I said in Mythcommunications that the lesson was that “Clear communication of ‘no’ isn’t primarily going to avoid miscommunication — rather … clear communication … is a sign of the willingness to fight, to yell, to report.”
I hesistate to even raise the issue of what bottoms can do to prevent themselves from being abused: because the culture of victim blaming around sexual assault is so pervasive and so damaging, there is a counterproductive aspect to even raising the behavior of anyone except the rapist. But I think there is enough potential to deter that I feel remiss not talking about it.
Hard limits and safewords in writing. There are a few items that are really important, that are usually the subject of negotiation and are repeatedly the subject of boundary violations (especially penetration and safer sex practices). These can be covered in an email, a PM or a text message and they can be covered fast, basically as a deterrent. Once they’re in writing, there’s a record and that reduces any uncertainty about what was said — and it is the uncertainty that the predators count on to protect them. I’m talking about deterence: putting in writing the boundaries that are commonly violated so as make a record that could cause trouble for an abuser later.
Self-Improvement for Tops: To Err Is Human, To Get Defensive Is Counterproductive
Talking about the things that went wrong helps the top. We learn from our mistakes only when we know what they are. And talking about things that went wrong helps the bottom. If something went wrong and it wasn’t a deliberate violation, the best way to clear the air is for the bottom to say what happened and be heard, and not get shut down. When the harm in not intentional, that’s often enough.
Talking about what went wrong, finally, helps the culture. What we need to do is separate the predators from the underbrush they operate in, the climate that grants the Social License to Operate, to put them in a position where their deliberate behavior is not easily disguised as something else. Hiding mistakes and denying them makes the mess-up look like the deliberate wrong.
We all need it to become unacceptable and aberrant to get defensive, deny, blame and shut down when our mistakes are pointed out. I’m not saying this because I think it will make abusers better people. It won’t. They do what they do on purpose and they can’t be fixed, only deterred. I’m saying what I think tops can do to look less like abusers, to create an environment where abuse looks aberrant and abusers stand out, so they can be dealt with.
What the Rest Of Us Can Do:
Talk About Ethics, Expect Ethics
Doing sexual things to people that they don’t consent to is wrong. We all need to stop pretending that it’s rude to say that. Violating limits isn’t cute or funny or edgy. Joking about violating limits isn’t cute or funny or edgy. Kate Harding, speaking in a vanilla context, said something about joking and the guy for whom it’s no joke: “that guy? Thought you were on his side.“
Zero Tolerance for Impairment
If you can’t do BDSM without getting a buzz on, you shouldn’t be doing BDSM. Call me puritan, I don’t give a shit. It’s a recipe for disaster and a way for abusers to use drugs and alcohol to incapacitate potential partners or excuse their violations. We just have to stop putting up with people who want to play impaired.
Now we come to the hardest part. We have to start to listen to what the issues are and decide how to treat the people who keep having the issues. Nobody is going to show up with a score sheet or bingo card and make it easy, we’re just going to have to pay attention and think about who is acting in good faith and who isn’t. If we really want to make excuses for our friends, we always can. We can explain away an infinite number of fuck-ups and blowups and badly handled scenes if we’re determined to exonerate. When our friends fuck up, we need to expect them to act consistently with good faith. If they don’t, we need to be willing to change our understanding about their good faith.
If you decide that your friends can’t possibly be abusers, you’re part of the problem. If you decide that anyone who is an abuser can’t possibly be your friend, you’re part of the solution. It is up to you whether you want to listen to the survivors and expect better from tops, or whether you want to pretend that you “don’t do drama.”
- The Alt-Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team by Guest Blogger September 28, 2010
- Thinking More Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse by Clarisse Thorn August 3, 2011
- Amish wife accused of not reporting sex abuse by Jill October 19, 2009
- Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing by Clarisse Thorn September 22, 2011
- The Absence of No: Re-considering the Yes focus in critique of rape culture by Guest Blogger June 15, 2010