The first time I learned about safe words, I’d just been spanked.
“If we ever do something you don’t like, just say ‘red’ and I’ll stop,” my boyfriend told me later that night, as I squirmed on a hard chair during dinner. “You know that, right?”
I did not know that, actually.
“Like red light, yellow light, green light?” I asked.
My boyfriend—let’s call him John—nodded.
“Exactly,” he said.
I was 17 years old. John, my first boyfriend, was 24. (In the country where we lived at the time, that combination was perfectly legal.) We were young. We didn’t know anything about responsible BDSM even as we explored our kinks together. How were we supposed to learn? Neither of us owned a laptop, and I wasn't about to research our unusual sexual fixation from a public Internet café. John and I were merely following our impulses into murky—and potentially dangerous—territory.
Consent is critical in every sexual expression. But those boundaries and responsibilities are heightened in kink. And they’re not always obvious. After all, it was only after a spanking—one of many—that John finally thought to introduce a safe word into our play. Before that, it would have been entirely possible for our consensual and mutually satisfying encounters to cross the line into assault. When hurting your partner as he or she cries and begs you to stop is part of the fun, how do we know where the fun stops? Can the foggy edge of kink teach us anything about sexual consent in general?
The need to incessantly remind people that kink is not abuse makes it hard to admit that kinky relationships—just like vanilla relationships—sometimes do become abusive.
“In BDSM, we know we’re walking on that edge,” says Janet Hardy, a kink educator and the author of several BDSM books, including When Someone You Love Is Kinky. “We go there intentionally.”
I started thinking about this after news broke that Jian Ghomeshi, a host of the popular CBC show Q, was fired. At least nine women and one man have accused Ghomeshi of assaulting them; he claims that their interactions were consensual BDSM, citing sadomasochistic text messages and emails as evidence of consent.
The volume of accusations suggests that even if Ghomeshi is kinky, he expresses his kink in a habitually and unapologetically irresponsible way. In his analysis, Dan Savage theorized that “Ghomeshi isn't a safe, sane, and consensual kinkster. He's a reckless, abusive, and dangerous one who has traumatized some women and lucked out with others.”
Despite the trendy appeal of 50 Shades of Grey, BDSM is widely misunderstood and condemned. Blog posts and articles designed to shame and humiliate kinksters proliferate online. Those perspectives aren't rare: In 2013, even Slate, a progressive publication (and one that has been a hospitable and supportive host for my own work on the subject), ran a series of articles that argued it is “perfectly normal” to reject BDSM as a healthy point on the spectrum of human sexuality, and compared consensual BDSM to domestic violence.
In an example that simultaneously promoted unscientific myths about kinksters and seemed to chuckle at child abuse, Slate’s advice columnist even joked that kink is formed by childhood trauma. It’s a common perception, but not a victimless one. There are perfectly healthy BDSM practitioners who hold major positions in psychiatry as doctors, academics, and even mainstream psychology textbook authors, but you’ll never hear about them. (Unless, for the second time in its history, someone decides to shock some sexual sense into the American Psychiatric Association from behind a mask.) Meanwhile, that stereotype only sends every other kinkster the message that we are “messed up”—and therefore shouldn’t be surprised or outraged if messed up things happen to us.
When irresponsible people smear our community with their crimes, they perpetuate the stigma that forces us deeper underground. In hiding, there are few ways for young or inexperienced kinksters to learn how to explore their orientations safely. Choking and face-hitting, for example, are widely discouraged and relatively uncommon in real-life BDSM play. But they appear frequently in two places: Internet pornography and accounts from Ghomeshi’s victims. Given that, some people within the community have suggested to me that Ghomeshi’s alleged assaults betray a familiarity with pornography rather than genuine kink experience. Porn can be great, but it’s a terrible way to learn safe BDSM practice.
When we do look for education or support, people are always there to remind us that we can’t have it. This summer, an anti-sex activist (my description, not hers) posed as a teenager and used a secret camera to record a Planned Parenthood employee giving advice on how to practice BDSM safely. The media responded with a predictable torrent of revulsion; even Planned Parenthood quickly distanced itself from the video and fired the employee. I watched the controversy unfold from a reporting trip in Madagascar and wondered, alone on the far side of the world, where I could have sought advice as a 16-year-old who had never been kissed but hid sadomasochistic fiction under my mattress.
The isolation of stigma also leaves kinky assault survivors with few ways to report crimes without exposing themselves to the victim-blaming, scorn, and condescending pity that are directed at sexual minorities even under the best of circumstances.
“There are major figures in the BDSM community who have multiple restraining orders placed against them. But how would their partners know that? When everyone uses pseudonyms, criminal histories are easy to hide.”
“There is such a strong stigma against BDSM that even people within the community are afraid to reach out and learn how to do things safely,” says Susan Wright, the spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. “They’re more afraid of being ‘outed’ than they are of being assaulted. That stigma creates a haven for predators.”
It’s a cruel and dangerous cycle. To fight prejudice and misconceptions, we defend ourselves and our community. But the need to incessantly remind people that kink is not abuse makes it hard to admit that kinky relationships—just like vanilla relationships—sometimes do become abusive. When we’re made to feel that we must defend ourselves, we become afraid to perpetuate the stigma against us by calling out abuse. (Even FetLife.com, ground zero for sexual fetishists online, has refused to blacklist known predators in its midst.) One BDSM blogger described abusers in the kink community as “missing stairs” in a familiar house: people who have lived in the house for years avoid the gap automatically, but visitors are at risk of falling through.
A consent advocate and activist for marginalized sexual communities, who asked not to be named, told me that stigma adds an additional layer of risk when it forces BDSM practitioners to express our sexualities from behind the veil of pseudonyms.
“There are major figures in the BDSM community who have multiple restraining orders against them,” she says. “But how would their partners know that? When everyone uses pseudonyms, criminal histories are easy to hide. You can’t look up restraining orders under a fake name.”
In 2005, the National Leather Association Internationalconducted a survey to gauge “the prevalence and extent of abuse within the BDSM community.” Its results reflect the degree to which stigma frightens survivors away from seeking help. Kinky victims of intimate partner violence reported that they stayed with their abusers because, among other reasons, the perpetrators threatened to “out” their victims to employers or family members. Perpetrators also threatened to isolate their victims from the BDSM community if they sought help—which makes sense, because the survey also found that kinky abuse victims were more likely to report abuse to a friend within the community than to police, victim’s services, or friends.
Ron, a kinky man who “switches” between dominant and submissive roles, already had two decades of experience in the spanking community, a category of the broader BDSM subculture, when he was assaulted. Ron knew how to practice responsibly: he met his potential partner for meals three times before they agreed to play, and described his desires and limits to her in unflinching detail.
“She seemed like a really good person,” Ron says.
The scene they planned was a standard, over-the-knee hairbrush spanking—the kind of thing that Ron had experienced hundreds of times before. But it quickly escalated into something more painful than he could bear. When Ron said the “slow down” word they had agreed on in advance, expecting a reprieve, his partner began to beat him with a small handheld cane. By the time she was done, Ron had bleeding cuts on his butt and thighs.
“Of course I didn’t go to the police,” he says. “If my job found out I was in this kinky world, they’d find a way to move me out of the company. And I’m a man. What do you think the police would have said if I tried to tell them? What would they have said if I had physically pushed her away from me?”
In our subculture, “no” may not always mean no. But there’s a flip side to that, and it’s what both consent violators in the BDSM community and the national debate about vanilla sexual consent have missed: “Yes” doesn’t always mean yes, either.
Responsible BDSM practitioners realize, perhaps more acutely than anyone else, that “yes” is not enough. When I consent to a spanking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I consent to being flogged with a cane. If a man consents to being tied up, it doesn’t necessarily mean he consents to sex. If someone consents to exchanging graphically kinky emails and text messages—this one is for you, Ghomeshi—it doesn’t necessarily mean that she consents to being hit in the face. And if someone in a college dorm room explicitly consents to intercourse, it doesn’t necessarily mean the conversation can end there. It might mean the conversation has just begun.
But we stigmatize every flavor of human sexuality. We hide from the details of our desires, or bury them in psychoanalysis and shame. To truly end our cultures of rape and abuse, both within the BDSM and mainstream sex communities, we can’t reduce sexual consent to a catchphrase. We have to talk about sexuality, and all of its tricky details, without evasion, self-preservation, or censorship.
We think we’re having a national conversation about sexual consent. But as long as we continue to pretend that consent is binary—a light switch that goes on or off—those conversations won’t go far. Consent is a fluid target that can be given, rescinded, re-evaluated, or even seduced. We all know that, but we’re terrified to talk about it. Safe kinky sex is exactly the same as safe vanilla sex: we won’t have it if we never learn how. We should be talking—really talking—about that foggy edge of sexual consent. Instead, we’re trying to tie sex up with rules and restraints.
It’s a risky game. As some of us know very well, restraints can be the most dangerous kink of all. And we’re all playing without a safe word.