Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

Beyond Safe Words: When Saying 'No' in BDSM Isn't Enough

In the kink scene, consent is supposed to be key. But when women try to out their abusers, they are often met with scorn or outright dismissal.

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Dec 10 2015, 5:05pm

Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

Miss Jackie* sits in the back of a dingy Leeds café in England, sipping tea and speaking urgently. She describes herself as a T-girl (a transgender woman) who has been a veteran of the BDSM scene for over 20 years, save for a seven-year break in the early 2000s.

When she returned in 2010, she barely recognized it. Jackie moved to a new town and joined her local munch, an informal pub meetup for the community to socialise and play. "To begin with, the play was very mild, people hardly hit each other. After a while, this couple turned up from one of the other munches in the county, and just seemed to take over," she says. "The woman injured my foot, and flogged me on the back of the head, which is a real no-no. She was falling off her high heels because she was drunk, but she'd more or less appointed herself safety monitor."

This behavior went unnoticed by other, inexperienced members, whose knowledge of BDSM came mostly from internet porn. Jackie shudders when she recounts the couple. "They were pushing limits." The man is now banned from a number of British clubs, after an incident when a woman was tied up and touched without permission.

Miss Jackie soon became aware that much had changed since her departure from the scene. "I was topping for a friend who was a prostitute, and she seemed surprised that I was polite to her afterwards," she says with a tinge of irony. "She didn't realize that was the norm. She'd had experiences in London where people had forced ketamine on her, and kept her against her will for days."

In the BDSM community, to 'grass' or out kink abusers is to isolate yourself. When Jackie appealed to prominent figures to help, she was met with outright hostility. In one email exchange seen by Broadly, one of the country's most influential munch figures told her that any "perceived abuse" was likely just part of a normal master/slave interaction in a power exchange dynamic. "A decent master is not going to want to harm their property on any level," he wrote, much to Jackie's horror.

"I have never been the same person since I first read that," she says. "If a dom breaks the law, it's considered vanilla law, and nobody will acknowledge it."

Photo by Grendelkhan via Wikimedia Commons

Victim-shaming is a painful reality of BDSM culture. In 2011, Californian-born writer and porn actress Kitty Stryker wrote an essay entitled 'I Never Called it Rape' for her blog, which vividly recollects her abuse. Her abusers ignored her safe word and penetrated her with sex toys, which she had explicitly not consented to. Stryker's aim was to spread awareness about the taboo that shames victims and keeps them silent.

"Unfortunately at the moment, the BDSM community plays little more than lip service to consent issues," she explains to Broadly. "When someone violates trust or is called out for abusive behavior, we don't do enough to support the victim or fix the situation, especially when the perpetrator is a popular figure in their local community."

"Towards the end of the 90s, we started to hear about power exchange. To me, it was the wrong way to go," says Jackie. Power exchange was being used to describe the psychological torment between Petruchio and Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, AKA Shakespeare's answer to 50 Shades of Grey. Jackie knew abuse when she saw it, and her instincts told her that consent was blurred when you blur those lines. "Once you've got real dominants who are really in charge, boundaries get broken away. They use expressions now like 'implied consent' and 'semi-consent.' That's what's gone wrong."

They use expressions now like 'implied consent' and 'semi-consent.' That's what's gone wrong.

According to Stryker, the perpetrators are usually experienced doms who should know better. But as BDSM enters the mainstream, the scene can reach the other extreme and become rife with 'tourists' who lack an understanding of dom/sub dynamics. "Big fringe events are full of people just getting involved because it's alternative and a bit of a fuck you to conformity," explains Rachel*, a regular on the London BDSM club circuit. "Now people are turning up, thinking they are doms or masochists, not really having a clue what they're doing and getting too intense too soon."

The safest clubs are those that still appeal to the grassroots movement. "We have loads of dungeon monitors, masters and mistresses. We've never had claims of anything going wrong yet," reports the owner of Decadence, a London club. This view is held amongst the London BDSM scene, many of who take to Fetlife to arrange meetups. Dubbed the "kinky Facebook," Fetlife allows users to post anonymously on discussion boards.

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"Club Decadence is an ace play party and very safe... Although some play may seem extreme, it is all consensual and everyone accepts a refusal to play with good grace," writes one user.

However, Fetlife is strict about what users are allowed to post, so some comments should be taken with salt. "If you want my true opinion, Decadence used to be good but the regulars have stopped attending. It's only a good time if you're with someone," notes a user in a private message, after raving about the club on the thread. Someone else mentioned that Decadence has been "flagging lately," but hastily added, "I don't want to say anything too bad in case I get banned!"

Self-censoring of this kind is typical on Fetlife. The site has raised controversy over a policy that states users can't speak out against abusers, or name and shame any member of the community. Any posts that attempt to do so are automatically deleted, and numerous attempts to rebuke the rule have been met with silence. It's part of creator John Baku's refusal to rock the boat.

How in the world can we expect the system to work for a... genderqueer person who negotiates to be slapped and pissed on, but absolutely no penetration in the front hole?

"We don't allow people to attack other people on the site. The community's very small, right? So you might lose all your friends," he told Salon. "We live in a society where you're innocent until proven guilty." So, it's your word against your abusers, and Fetlife forums are rife with debate about the issue.

"Outside Fetlife we do have freedom of speech. There is nothing preventing victims from naming their abusers at munches, at play parties, or by bellowing from the rooftop," one user writes angrily on a discussion thread. Another claims, "Everyone is to be considered not guilty until he or she is found guilty in a court of law and not in front of an angry pack of kinksters! If this rule ever gets implemented I am out of here. Not because of being guilty, but because I would be ashamed to be part of a lynch mob society."

But how easy is it the find a kink abuser guilty in a court of law? In the US, consensual BDSM activities are not explicitly outlawed, but some states outlaw specific sadomasochistic actions within their state borders. In the UK, courts do not recognise that bodily harm can be consensual, and will not be able to distinguish what is abuse and what is play. Unlike the British law against rape, with BDSM assault a jury will make allowances for past behaviour, such as previous consensual relationships, to be used as evidence in cross-examination should the case come to trial.

The criminalization of BDSM practices in England and Wales has a long history, most prominently with the Spanner case, which involved a group of men convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm as a result of consensual sadomasochistic activity over a ten-year period. As kink activist and lawyer Thomas McAlauy Miller points out, victims are often stigmatized or face possible charges if they bring a complaint against an abuser to the police. "The only cases that get prosecuted require photographic and video evidence, and physical acts must be so severe that a jury would have a hard time accepting that it was consensual," he explains.

Miller has dedicated himself to creating his own criminal justice system and whistleblowing kink abuse publicly on his blog, Yes Means Yes. He believes the current justice system is ill-equipped in matters of this kind. "How in the world can we expect the system to work for an FAAB (female assigned at birth) genderqueer person who negotiates to be slapped and pissed on, but absolutely no penetration in the front hole? Does anyone really think that a case is going to find a prosecutor, judge, and jury who will take that seriously on its face and set out to determine whether that was the negotiated agreement, and whether that agreement was violated?"

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Could the scene experience a paradigm shift in the future? "Absolutely, but the change is not in the form of immediate improvement," says Miller. "It has gone from people ignoring the problem to people arguing about the problem. That's progress, but a frustrating and uncomfortable sort of progress." Meanwhile, Miss Jackie was nearly thrown out of the community for breaking the rule of silence, but sticks to her guns.

"There are people fighting this," she tells me. "There's a munch leader who's been fighting kink abusers for two or three years, and it's like a guerrilla war! She'll start another munch and they'll close it down, so she'll pop up in another town." The munch leader, who prefers to remain anonymous, has now got the support of some club and bar owners, who are pumping money into her events.

At the moment, the community is trying its best to self-police. Consent Counts is a network of kink activists aiming to do just that—to open a dialogue and introduce an ethical system of care to the scene. "BDSM subcultures need to develop an ethics of care for ourselves and others, and this can only be achieved through collective efforts and networks of support," a spokesperson explains. "In part this will act as a deterrent from abuse, and show potential abusers that their behaviour will not get buried in the sand and forgotten easily. A collective voice is much more powerful than that of an individual."

*Name has been changed