Surprise surprise, the BDSM scene is as much a patriarchal, victim blaming rape culture as the rest of our patriarchal, victim blaming rape culture
The BDSM sub-culture is often held up as being somehow ‘better’ or ‘safer’ than the ‘vanilla’ mainstream, and even as being ‘feminist’, because it supposedly operates a ‘culture of consent’ where sex is actively negotiated, boundaries are respected and ‘no’ (in the form of a safe word) means ‘no’.*
An article up at Salon today invalidates this, with prominent women within the ‘community’, including women described as ‘sex educators’ only now (after almost a decade in one woman’s case) standing up and talking about the abuse they experienced within the ‘scene’.
[Maggie Mayhem,] 27-year-old sex educator and fetish model has never before publicly shared the story of her sexual assault, but the purpose of this evening’s event, a “consent culture” fundraiser, is so that she can start telling it, again and again. Her mission, along with fellow activist and sex worker Kitty Stryker, is to raise awareness about what they say is widespread abuse within the BDSM community and a tendency for players to either turn a blind eye or actively cover it up. They’ve developed a workshop meant to combat the problem and want to take it on the road.
We’re talking about real abuse here, not the “consensual non-consent” that the scene is built around, as Mayhem’s story of her first assault makes clear. As an 18-year-old freshmen and member of a kinky student club at the University of California, Berkeley, Mayhem helped raise money to bring a prominent BDSM educator to campus for a workshop. Afterward, he singled her out for a private “play date” and she was flattered. “I thought this was the best person I could start to learn from,” she says.
The scene that they negotiated was “fantastic,” Mayhem says, but then things took a turn. “I found myself tied up and unable to get away when that individual decided that he was going to have sex with me,” she says, tears welling in her eyes, “even though we’d specifically negotiated against it, even though I was saying that it needed to stop, and even though he was not wearing a condom at the time.”
For the most part, she kept the experience to herself, but on the rare occasions when she did tell people in the community about it, she says, “I got one response … which was people saying [things like], ‘I don’t do drama. This is a respected person in the community. I’m very sorry that you had a miscommunication during your scene that made it not very fun for you, but I don’t want to hear about it.’”
As she pushed deeper into the scene, trying to put this experience behind her, she had countless more encounters where her boundaries were blatantly ignored. As she gained experience, she started to talk more confidently and openly about these experiences – but, again, she got the “I don’t do drama” line. At the same time, she realized that such abuse was prevalent: “It started to look more like a systemic issue,” she says. As Stryker wrote last year in an essay for Good Vibrations magazine, ” I have yet to meet a female submissive who hasn’t had some sort of sexual assault happen to her.”
I never found the whole ‘culture of consent’ thing convincing, and suspected it was more about protecting male sadists from outside interference than anything else, and that goes double for a BDSM porn set. The article also covers how women feel under pressure not to use their safe words:
The problem spans from unwanted overtures to rape, say Mayhem and Stryker. “When I start to think of the number of times I have been cajoled, pressured, or forced into sex that I did not want when I came into ‘the BDSM community’, I can’t actually count them,” Stryker wrote in Good Vibrations’ magazine. “As I reflected on the number of times I’ve … been pressured into a situation where saying ‘no’ was either not respected or not an option, or said that I did not want a certain kind of toy used on me which was then used, I’m kind of horrified.”
Beyond black-and-white cases of rape, there is a cultural disdain for safe words, they say. “When I was a submissive,” says Stryker, now a dominant in both her personal and professional life, “I felt the pressure to not safe word because I felt like that made you a bad submissive.” That’s because she witnessed submissives who used their safe word being criticized as “difficult.” At the “consent culture” event, Stryker asks the audience, “Is it the fault of the submissive who didn’t safe word when they should have or is it the fault of the dominant who didn’t notice that their submissive didn’t safe word [when they should have] or is it the fault, as I think it is, of the community that makes it complicated?”
So, within this so-called ‘culture of consent’ women are under constant pressure and bullying to allow their boundaries to be crossed, and to not complain about it afterwards, regardless of how abusive or traumatising they found it.
The pressure on women within the ‘scene’ to keep quiet may be higher than that on those outside it, as they risk making their ‘community’** look bad to the outside world. Men within the BDSM ‘scene’ will know this and use it to their advantage, it may be even be easier for men within the ‘scene’ to be abusive, because they have a whole ‘community’ shoring up the illusion of ‘safety’.
Also, as women who are seen to actively choose a ‘deviant’ lifestyle (how genuinely free any such choice is under patriarchy is a question for another blog post), they are unlikely to get much sympathy or help from the mainstream, male dominated world – not that many women do, but if very few women manage to be, in Andrea Dworkin’s words, ‘clean enough’ to be raped (as opposed to being dumb sluts who asked for it and wanted it really), then no woman who is part of the BDSM ‘scene’ ever will be.
We know the kind of pressure women are put under on a porn set, BDSM porn is often held up as ‘different’ because of BDSM’s so-called ‘culture of consent’. The evidence of the Salon article suggests there is exactly the same kind of pressure on women within the ‘scene’ as there is outside it – to conform, to do what you’re told, to keep quiet about abuse – so why should we believe a porn set (where there is the extra pressure of the need to perform in order to get paid) is any different?
The ‘counter culture’ of the BDSM ‘scene’ looks exactly the same as the male dominated mainstream. It engages in exactly the same victim blaming (and, as in the male dominated mainstream, it uses a woman to do the victim blaming):
One critic, Janet Hardy[***], author of several popular BDSM books, including “The New Bottoming Book,” tells me, “My general thoughts are that it is tremendously important to build a safe word culture but that bottoms have to hold up their share of that responsibility,” she says. “A bottom who refuses to safeword when he or she has actually withdrawn consent has just turned me into a rapist or assailant without my consent, and that is not OK.”
Hardy, co-author of the bible on polyamory, “The Ethical Slut,” doesn’t deny that sexual assault is a problem in the community, but she takes issue with arguments about the social pressure to not safeword. It has “some of the flavor of the kind of victimhood that we see from some second wave feminists,” she says, “and I don’t want to get too deep into this because I’m going to get myself into trouble, but you know where I’m going with this.”
There is a distinct ‘what about the poor men’ flavour to this victim blaming, even if it’s a woman casting herself as an ‘accidental’ rapist who is the real victim here – how can the poor men avoid being rapists if women don’t take responsibility for not being raped, and ‘refuse’ to make it clear that they are being raped?
Hardy is also going for a shaming and silencing approach, by comparing the women who do speak out to “some second wave feminists”, ie anyone who speaks out can be ridiculed as in some way ‘anti-sex’.
The simple fact of the matter is that men within the BDSM ‘community’ are exactly the same as the men outside it, they will do whatever they think they can get away with, then blame the woman herself for not saying ‘no’ clearly enough; and if a man is really clever, he’ll attack the woman he raped for ‘miscommunicating’ and ‘forcing’ him to be a rapist.
I imagine these women will take a massive amount of abuse from within their so-called ‘community’ for speaking out, we should be grateful to them and applaud them for having the courage to do so.
* Let’s put aside for the moment that erotising dominance, submission and violence is profoundly anti-feminist in and of itself, and how condescending the ‘vanilla’ label is, implying that women outside the BDSM ‘scene’ are unable and unwilling to actively negotiate sexual activity and are being raped without even knowing it.
** The biggest mistake any woman can make is to think she is part of any genuine community with men, where her interests will be weighted equally with those of men. This goes for any type of community, sexual, religious, cultural, political. The men (and most of the women, who will stand by the men to protect their own position within the community) will conspire together to cover up the abuse of women and children, and any dissenters will be cast out.
*** I read this amusing description of Janet Hardy recently:
“Janet Hardy, famous among neanderthal kinksters for her vanity press, submits an essay about how she’s been living as a biological woman in a relationship with one biological man for a good long while and why that’s queer. Longtime followers of the kink community’s vanity publishing will recall that she did something similar when she wrote The Ethical Slut and went on to live the very same monogamous, heterosexual, suburban life described above. If Janet Hardy has taught us anything it’s that all it takes to be queer and polyamorous is to be a straight monogamous person.”