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Risk and Reward

Let me just warn you, this post is long. Really long. It’s still not long enough to do its subject justice. Click the links, read the data, click the links in the articles linked to, realize that this is still only the barest beginning of a comprehensive view of the topic, and keep reading.

I only got involved in the public BDSM scene (and joined FetLife) about six months ago, so I am writing this as a relative outsider. In some ways this helps: I am not so used to or so comfortable with the scene that I find its flaws charming, nor am I dependent or attached such that those flaws are invisible. I can compare in-scene behaviors to their extra-scene equivalents with relative ease. On the other hand, I’ve been there six months. I know that people don’t tell the horror stories to newbies, and while I’ve seen a certain amount of conflict, a healthy cynicism tells me there are skeletons in closets that I’ve yet to find.

The public BDSM scene receives a lot of serious criticism, much of it justified. There are some folks who choose to ignore the issues, others who deny them, and some who steer clear of the scene altogether to avoid them. Let’s be clear here. there are problems in the BDSM scene. It needs work. It’s a messed up environment in a lot of ways. I participate in it anyway, because I think it can be made better and because I feel it still has a lot to offer. But it can’t be fixed if we don’t acknowledge that it’s broken. There are problems. Let’s talk about them.

Consent Violations

According to a recent NCSF survey[1], the BDSM and fetish community have a 33% incidence of consent violations (the exact questions were “Have you ever had a pre-negotiated limit violated in a BDSM scene or relationship?” and “Have you ever negotiated a safeword or safesign with a partner who then ignored it during play?” The 33% figure represents respondents who said “yes” to either or both.) Yikes. One in three. That’s not a number we want to see in a community that prides itself on having a better understanding of and respect for consent than the general populace.

Maymay recently contextualized this statistic by calling out a “50% higher incidence of consent violations [in the BDSM community] than the general populace,” and a post on Yes Means Yes says much the same. This is close to an accurate assessment if you look at the NISVS 2010 report which shows a lifetime incidence of rape measured at 18.3% for women (1.4% for men, but I don’t trust that[2]). And that’s still not a good number, but it’s significantly lower. If that analysis were an accurate reflection of the danger within the scene vs. the danger outside of it,  I’d agree with Maymay on that basis alone that the scene was not worth the risk of participation.

But be careful. That 18.3% represents a very specific definition of rape. It is not a measure of consent violation, but of “any completed or attempted unwanted vaginal (for women), oral, or anal penetration through the use of physical force (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threats to physically harm and includes times when the victim was drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.” That is, rape according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey includes only penetration by force, threat of harm, or complete incapacity to consent. It does not include consent violations such as causing a person to penetrate someone else (with penis, fingers, toys, or objects) even in cases including physical force, threat of harm, or intoxication or unconsciousness[3]. It does not include coercion. It does not include non-consensual non-penetrative sexual contact such as cunnilingus, tribadism, or fondling. It does not include non-consensual non-contact sexual experiences such as being flashed or being forced to expose one’s body or being forced to masturbate or watch someone masturbate.

Those things are not classified as rape by the NISVS (nor by the CDC, nor by the NIJ), but all of them could easily fall within the umbrella of consent violation as stated by the NCSF survey’s questions (“Have you ever had a pre-negotiated limit violated in a BDSM scene or relationship?” and “Have you ever negotiated a safeword or safesign with a partner who then ignored it during play?”) Thankfully, though the NISVS doesn’t call them rape, it acknowledges that these things are still sexual violence, and they gathered data about them as well. The NISVS survey reports a 44.6% lifetime incidence of sexual violence against women, 22.2% lifetime incidence against men. That means a 33.4% total incidence of lifetime sexual violence[4], nearly identical to the figure found by the NCSF survey.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that this statistic is acceptable. It’s horrific. The idea that rates of sexual violence within and outside of the scene are the same while community leaders continue to assert that consent is taken seriously within both the scene and the community at large is beyond reprehensible. Kinky folk talk about consent constantly. We devote time to negotiation. We have safewords. We have no excuse for being as backwards and fucked up in our consent practice as the general population, and we have no right to claim to the public and to naive newcomers to the scene that we are better when it’s simply not the case.

But we’re not worse. If the communities that make up the scene can acknowledge that there is a problem, steps can be taken to improve this statistic. And to be clear, by steps I do not mean “tell people how not to be victims.” That’s victim blaming, and blaming victims protects predators. Which brings us to the next awful problem the scene has:

Protecting Abusers

Again, this happens in the vanilla world. Start a conversation about rape and the need to increase convictions to show that the crime has consequences, and some asshole is going to say “but what about false accusations?” The theory here is that if it’s not violent assault by a stranger plus sex, it’s not rape. Forget the fact that 35.6% of women and 28.5% of men report being raped, assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner (NISVS 2010 report). If person A is in a sexual relationship with person B, or goes on a date, or flirts, or gets drunk with person B, society says that on some level person A wanted to have sex. Why else would person A wear something flattering to his or her body type? Society also tells us that if you want to have sex on some level, that’s consent-ish. It’s “grey rape” or some other area on the rape spectrum that people feel doesn’t really count. Sexual violence is something that too many people believe has to be so extreme that it can’t possibly be mistaken for anything else before they will stand by a victim with any reliability. It’s nonsense, but it’s common.

Now add BDSM. The kink scene is perceived by some to be sexually free, therefore there are people who would say that attending a kink event at all is tantamount to consent. They’re wrong, but they exist and that needs to be addressed. Add the fear of exposure that most people in the community have: their involvement in kink gets out, they could lose their kids, their jobs, their standing in the community, the trust of family and vanilla friends, and you have a whole lot of folks who just don’t want to get involved in a conflict that could go public. Again, this will happen in normal life as well. I was strongly discouraged from officially reporting harassment at a former job not because my supervisor denied that it occurred, but because he didn’t want his superior to hear about it: harassment “makes the company look bad.”

Even if no one’s taking names, people who have a vested interest in their local scene (or just like kinky stuff) don’t want to hear that it’s got a dark side. No one wants to hear that about his or her own community. Even Jay Wiseman, who has acknowledged the problem with an obvious sense of horror, calls consent violation “extremely rare” and goes so far as to suggest that in almost all cases a perceived violation is just an overreaction. That is, in a book about handling dungeon emergencies, a well-known voice in the community feels the need to treat an incredibly common and potentially life-altering emergency as rare and misunderstood. He gives more credence and advice to the handling of false allegations. This is not (at least, I hope) that Mr. Wiseman is a rape apologist. He believes that he is a good man who is careful of consent and negotiation. He wants to believe that other men like him–self-identified dominants–are likewise serious and careful about consent. It’s akin to the sexual violence covered up by the Catholic church for very similar reasons. The scene needs good PR in order  to keep and attract people,  to pursue genuinely laudable goals (provide a safe environment, educate, foster community, and fun), and to keep the torch and pitchfork bearers at bay.

It’s not acceptable to base that good PR on lies and cover-ups. We need to earn it.That starts with acknowledging the problem and giving victims a voice. Maymay’s FAADE tool is a step in the right direction, but the fact that this tool is a subversion of FetLife rather than a built-in feature just shows how willing the community is to protect abusers.

Sexism (also Racism, Homophobia, Transphobia, Ableism and more)

Again, all this is rampant in the surrounding culture. I’ve touched on racism before and honestly don’t have much to add (as a very white person I feel the best I can do is be an advocate and ally). Rarely can one point out something as obvious as blackface, though. What I see is simply an overrepresentation of white, straight[5], male-dominant female-submissive oriented, able people[6].  If I mention it, people will shrug it off. After all, no one’s stopping anyone interested from joining, so if the club has these features, it must reflect the demographics of people into kink.

First of all, I dare anyone to say that about white folks here in New Orleans. It’s been suggested that there might be more cultural taboos against kink among minorities. That seems unlikely: kink is a pretty universal taboo. If what we did were normal, we’d call it vanilla. There’s a reason, for sure, and it isn’t demographic. Beyond that, I haven’t got a clue.

Okay, moving on to the straightness. Leather culture is a product of gay culture; you’d expect to see some remnant of those roots represented. Certainly kinky activity is more widely known and accepted among the GLBT community than outside of it, so if anything you’d expect a higher proportion of queer kinky folk to show up. When I scan the room at a kink event about 90% of pairings are straight. Those I’ve seen that weren’t straight were either F/f or involved one or more non-cisgender persons. I have yet to meet a self-identified gay man or witness an M/m scene at any organized event. It’s sad.

Then sexism. Oh, the sexism. There are plenty of women around, but the default assumption that we’re all submissive is frustrating. Many submissive men assume it and don’t join the public scene [7]. Many dominant men assume it (though some of that is clearly wishful thinking), which is off-putting to women who aren’t submissive. Heck, it’s off-putting to me even though it’s half-true. And the prevalence is sexist, not because that’s what individuals like to kink on, but because femininity and submission are so intricately bound in people’s minds. When my husband wears heels, people assume I’m forcing him. (I’m not. He does it to annoy me when I brag about being taller than him, and because it makes his calves look amazing.)


This one I have not encountered at all. I’ve seen people complain about it on FetLife–that to participate in their local scene they’d have to drop a ton of money, but it just doesn’t seem to be a local problem. Membership is free. The educational demos and munches are free. Parties cost less than a movie, and there are occasional free parties as well. No one seems to have a problem with my thrift store clothes and homemade implements of torture. In fact, there’s a monthly workshop for making affordable BDSM gear and dungeon equipment. I like to play dress-up, so I will wear leather to some parties, but t-shirt and jeans are perfectly accepted and just as common. If anything, I’ve seen folks in the scene snigger about guys with fancy expensive floggers until they’ve thoroughly proved that they can use them. I’m guessing there are for-profit or just more expensive clubs out there, or parties where fetishwear is required (fetishwear can be had on the cheap, but not easily). That would definitely make things more difficult for folks on a budget. I’m guessing New Orleans is just too poor in general to support a snobbish kink community (median income in NOLA in 2009 was $36,468, compared to a national median income that year of $50,303), or maybe I just lucked out on a good group in this regard. If a group does require a significant investment to join, I’d recommend avoiding it.

So that’s a lot of issues. What makes the scene worth hanging around?

Education (classes, demos)

I’ve done stupid, stupid things in the name of getting kinky. I ended up with second degree burns thanks to fire play gone wrong as a teenager, dangerous loss of blood flow due to inexpert bondage, all sorts of nonsense. The scene wouldn’t have been an available resource to me at fifteen/sixteen anyway, but I’ll always point to this as a reason to have classes and demos. Not everyone knows how to be safe. Not everyone knows that they aren’t being safe. Risk-focused classes, skill demonstrations with extensive Q&A, seminars on negotiation and group sessions for kinky relationship talk are an invaluable resource. The toy-making workshop is a great idea (I haven’t been to one, as I am very antisocial when I focus on hands-on projects, but yay homemade toys). The public kink scene is a great resource for these things. If your local scene isn’t, it is time to bother them about it. Outside books and trial and error, the scene is the only way I know to get this. (Wait, can you learn kink by osmosis? That’d be cool.)

Education (corrective and influential behavior)

Sometimes it seems that being into BDSM makes folks forget how to act like normal humans. New subs will want or expect to call doms Master or Mistress on sight (and possibly some doms expect this, too). New doms will show up and act shocked that sometimes doms do nice things for their subs. It’s a chance to show people who haven’t seen it a side of kink that isn’t based on creepy porn. It’s way to talk to the new girl who says she’s a sub but whose eyes light up when you show her how to swing a crop. Will some of the creepy porn attitudes persist? Sure. But some of them go away and leave people more capable of introspection and relationships than they were before, and how freaking great is that?

Social acceptance

Sometimes we all feel like freaks. I know the vanillas do, too, but we feel like freaks about things we can’t talk about to most people because they’d just agree. I like that I can go to a munch and talk about nutrition for an hour with a guy who likes to be electrocuted because hey, we’re actually just normal people who like some freaky stuff sometimes. It’s nice that there’s a space to talk about relationship problems specific to D/s where no one has to worry about other people in the group staring from the position that D/s is bad. It’s nice that this discussion is made of kinky people, not just kink-friendly ones, because then if someone says “that’s not D/s it’s abuse,” you know they have a framework to speak from [8]

Public play

This one is a bonus. No one needs the public scene in order to get their kink on. I use it, sure. I live in an apartment, and keeping mindful of noise levels for the neighbors’ sake can be a mild annoyance. If bondage were my thing, I couldn’t reasonably create a suspension point in the bedroom without either breaking the terms of my lease or building the sort of structure that would be difficult to explain to visitors. I like knowing that if I’m worried about playing with someone, there’s a dungeon monitor, my husband, and a friend or two who know my limits keeping a vague eye out. It won’t prevent something going wrong, but it’ll end it quick and I probably won’t get axe murdered. So that’s nice. As I said, though, it’s a bonus. You don’t need to go to parties or publicly scene if you do go to them in order to benefit from the scene. It’s just fun.

I try to minimize my level of frustration with the scene in a few ways. Using the public scene as a social network and educational tool, not a means of seeking play partners or relationships. Ditto FetLife. Jump in there. Meet people. Learn to talk about all the kinky stuff you love or want to try: it’s a useful skill, and a munch is a way lower-pressure environment than negotiation. As for the problems? I’m active. I advocate. I annoy, and question, and ask what we plan to do to fix it. Maybe not enough yet, but I’m new still.

Please Note

I should be clear that even though I don’t agree with his conclusions, I respect the hell out of Maymay and am incredibly grateful for all his campaigning, warning, programming, and high-level gadfly activity in the name of kink. He’s mentioned so much here because he provides the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen collating specific, serious problems with the public BDSM scene and FetLife and provides practical software to help kinky people extricate themselves from those networks. I still use FetLife. I still participate in my friendly neighborhood kink club. Maymay is still right that they aren’t safe. Where I disagree with him is that I think they can be made safer, and that even with risks they have value.

Yes Means Yes has a series of posts titled “There’s a War On” (part one is here) discussing the consent violations and protection of predators within the scene in great detail. Highly recommended, along with the rest of the blog for good measure.


[1] This survey has issues, serious ones that make me really wish that the NCSF had gotten the help of an actual public health or sociological researcher in designing it. The two questions referred to here are fairly straightforward and I’m inclined to trust them to be close-ish to accurate despite those issues. I am however disturbed by the survey’s lack of a reliable method of sample generation, screening questions, acknowledgement of limitations of data collection method, or fair data analysis, among other things. I’d go into it here, but frankly survey writing/data collection/statistics 101 would overly derail this post. Maybe I’ll write it later.

[2] Male self-reporting on rape is dicey at best. Underreporting due to shame occurs across gender and sex lines, but men, especially straight men, are under a huge amount of pressure to want sex at all times from all women. A man who admits that he at any moment does not want sex with a partner of his preferred gender is admitting a lack of masculinity that can prove challenging to self-identity and therefore be difficult to confess even anonymously. Similarly, there’s a strong chance of underreporting because a man having sex when drugged, intoxicated, or unconscious is less likely to identify the act as rape even if he was incapable of consent.  Add the fact that the limited scope of the definitions used by the survey do not permit a man to say he was raped unless he was penetrated, and you’re going to get a deceptively low number.

[3] Shame on you, NIPSVS. Really.

[4] If we assume equal proportion of men and women in population (I know it’s not but I don’t want to math today. We’re close here.)  ignore all non-cis folk the way these surveys do, and assume similar levels of inaccuracy are inherent to both surveys.

[5] I’m counting bi women as “straight” here because women who sleep with both men and women are perceived–sometimes correctly, I’m sad to say–as straight women who are not averse to engaging in lesbian acts for their male partners’ pleasure, and bisexual women are thus afforded the privilege of straightness for women in most of secular society. (Bisexual men, on the other hand, are afforded all the stigma of gay men. Because that’s fair.)

[6] The club I’m part of does have a large number of transsexual, genderfluid, genderqueer, and cross-dressing members. I have not seen any rudeness or stigma on that count (of course as a cis woman, I wouldn’t), but I have been told that some of the other groups in the area are less welcoming.

[7] This is not a guess. Half a dozen submissive men now have explained why they never joined the scene with some variant of  “there are like 20 submissive men for every dominant woman, so what’s the point?”

[8] Not that all kinky people know the difference between D/s and abuse, but at least we don’t think it’s all abuse.

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