If you see something, say something?

I have been reading many articles recently about abuse within the BDSM community, written both from general points of view and from those who are coming forward and saying, “Why did I blame myself?” Lately there has been a lot of talk about how popular people in the scene have been protected after being accused of abusive incidents (including alleged rapes) while victims were blamed and ostracized. There are debates about whether or not a “rape culture” exists in the scene; discussions about how to define “victim blaming”; FetLife groups established to name alleged abusers, with assertions that mistakenly naming an innocent person is worth protecting more victims from being harmed.

These debates may go on for a while. No one wants to hear things like “rape culture,” especially when one is a member of the largest group that tends to perpetrate rape (men). Yes, of course women are perpetrators of abuse and sexual assault, too. And of course men abuse men, too. I’m talking about the numbers; men are most often perpetrators, women most often victims.

Blogs like “Walk on By” by Jimmy Holloway or FetLife posts like “On having my consent seriously violated in a BDSM scene” by Erin Houdini are important when one thinks about how abuse occurs. In the first case, the victim found the strength to walk away from an abusive partner after his partner’s own friends suggested it. In the second case, a popular bondage teacher known widely in the community talked about how her safewords went unheard by not only her top but by several friends (at least initially):

“My top had just spent several minutes rather painfully beating and electrically shocking me against my consent, against repeated cries of redstopsafeword, and I’m not enjoying this. She did not stop until she noticed the horrified looks on the faces of my friends watching the scene, who had suddenly realized this wasn’t ‘consensual nonconsent,’ but an actual non-consensual assault. … Looking back, why the fuck was I lying on the couch lost, blaming myself for having my own consent violated? Oh wait, I know why. Because just like in the rest of society, women are held responsible for preventing themselves from becoming victims, that if you weren’t saying NO as hard as you possibly can, then it was probably just one big misunderstanding. Except that when it happened to me, I was, as everyone in the room could understand exactly what I was repeatedly screaming through the ball gag in my mouth. So why did I still blame myself?”

How would I recognize abuse? I don’t know if I could. I know one couple in a long-term committed relationship where he’s the Dom and she’s the sub … I have sometimes heard him snipe at her in ways that sound verbally abusive. She laughs it off, calls him grumpy, and doesn’t change anything about how she acts around him (she’s often a SAM). I’d like to think I know the difference between verbal abuse and grumpiness–to me it sounds like verbal abuse and I wouuld hate it if my husband talked that way to me, especially in front of others. But if she seems happy and calls it “grumpiness,” who am I to argue?

I meant to write more about a talk given a month or so ago at Long Island Leather N Roses by a former women’s shelter counselor, “C.” C gave this definition of abuse or domestic violence: “Use of force or threat of force to maintain power and control in a relationship. … it has to benefit one person and hurt the other.” She further explained that there is a climate where one person’s free will is eroded.

Because the “abuse” word is thrown around a lot, the presenter talked about what would not be abuse. She said that lying, fighting, and calling someone a name aren’t necessarily abuse–unless they are part of a pattern of taking control. A fight is one thing, but if you have to worry about what your partner is going to do to you as a result, that’s a sign of abuse, C said.

Still, despite the difficulty in knowing what to do when one thinks abuse is happening, at least people are talking about it–a lot more than I ever heard people talk about it when I first came out in the scene. This feels to me like we are maturing as a culture; that we’re not all going to hide anymore because we need to remain anonymous. Some of us still would like to remain anonymous–I myself am very “out” in fetish circles but do not want my family knowing much about what I do. That is one huge fear I carry as a woman in the scene. If I am raped, who would believe me? After all, look what I do on a regular basis–I go to clubs and parties, half the time ending up, if not naked, at least having my butt exposed. Our community accepts that being naked is not asking for sex. The world outside may not.

So there’s some progress; more and more people are talking about it, but then there seems to be, simultaneously, some regression: Women in some cases are still ostracized and not believed when an incident involving a “popular” player occurs, which is chillingly similar to what happens in a small town when the star quarterback is charged with rape. He’s the hero and the darling of the town; surely he would never do that. Surely it was consensual and now she simply regrets saying yes, some might say.

Credible studies have shown that actual false reports of rape could be as low as 2%, perhaps averaging somewhere around 6%. See “False Allegations of Sexual Assault” for more details. This analysis highlighted the difficulty of estimating how many rape reports are false, but it was pretty obvious that in the majority of sexual assault cases, the better the investigation there was, the more police adhered to standard procedures, the fewer cases were determined to be “false” (some were unable to be prosecuted because of lack of evidence; sometimes the accuser withdrew the complaint, but those are different scenarios than falsely accusing someone).

Here’s something to end with: How would I react if one of my favorite tops, a person I’ve known and played with for years, were accused of ignoring a safeword, of sexually assaulting someone, or of abusing a partner? It’s really hard to wrap your head around this. I have to admit my first reaction would be, “No way. Not him!” But then what if I knew the victim? Being a woman, I might tend to side with the woman.


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