Monday, January 30, 2012

What happens when it is abuse? BDSM culture, safewords, and the abusers within

 SnowdropExplodes self-identifies as a straight-ish White MAAB tubby bitch, and (most days) uses male pronouns and identification.   His belief system is largely made up from communism, Christianity, and wisdom derived from science fiction TV and novels.   He's been kinky for as long as he can remember, but only spanks you (or lets you spank him) if you ask nicely.


TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of sexual assault and (especially in the Salon article linked) rape apologia.

I've seen this mentioned in several places today, and feel that I cannot allow it to go past without making some comment.

Salon has a piece up which is about women within the BDSM scene campaigning to have the problem of abuse in BDSM recognised by the community.

I have read the original piece by Kitty Stryker that is referenced in the article, and been sickened by it. Sadly, I am not surprised by the allegations she makes (except, perhaps, that she hasn't met any submissive women who haven't been victims - but if she says that it is so, then I believe her). I have been a reader of Maggie Mayhem's blog and something rings a bell about what the Salon article says, so I may have read another piece by her about these issues, referencing her experiences.

I cannot comment on the "Bay Area scene", except to say that from other reading and descriptions elsewhere, it sounds a lot different from the scene with which I am familiar. That doesn't mean that there are not similar problems in my area.

I believe their stories because I believe that there are abusers in every subsection of society, because there are abusers in society at large. Any culture that has power dynamics will have abusers seeking to acquire power and then abuse that power. That's how come there turn out to be a lot of abusers in the Roman Catholic Church, for example. It may seen contentious to say this, but I don't think that the Roman Catholic Church is anything unusual.

So, there's a problem, and stuff needs to be done about it. My big problem with this is that my instinctive reaction when I read something like Stryker or Mayhem's criticisms is to say, "Well, I'm not like that! Don't blame me!" As I'm sure you can see, that is a very unhelpful response. I may not be like that, but the question instead is what am I doing to stop others being like that, and I have to admit, not a huge amount. In fact, the biggest thing I am doing is just believing the stories when they're told. In mitigation, I am somewhat marginal in my local area scene and just don't have the opportunity to witness abusive behaviour in it very often, and therefore to do anything about it. The other thing I do is try to drum home the message about "enthusiastic consent", the importance of a safeword, and so on. And I am vigilant with myself to see that I do not screw up and break someone's boundaries (and if I make a mistake, I realise quickly and apologise, and back waaaay off). This is not enough, but I feel like I haven't the wherewithal to do much more at the moment.

As Stryker admits, it is very hard to be vigilant against abuse in the community when people are constantly trying to shut the community down with the accusation that BDSM by its very existence is abuse. It's pretty hard when the law in this country is still officially that SM play is illegal.

One thing that I think is really important to recognise and to counteract, is the culture that inhibits safeword use. Whatever the naysayers' claims, I know and have seen (and have encountered first-hand when playing with previous partners) the belief that to safeword is somehow "wussy", "not submissive enough", or even, "topping from the bottom". A lot of the time, I feel as though this is something that bottoms bring with them and with their preconceptions of the power-exchange dynamic. But I think there are many ways in which community standards actually seem to send the signal that a safeword is an unfortunate necessity, rather than a valuable tool that should be used. And, of course, those abusers in Dom's clothing will work subtly (or not so subtly, in a lot of cases) to send the signal that using a safeword is not quite the "done thing". That is something that really does need to be countered.

I forget which sex educator it was (it may have been Maggie Mayhem, it may have been Clarisse Thorn, it may have been someone else) who wrote that when a sub uses hir safeword, the best way to respond as a top is to praise hir for doing so. The purpose of a submissive having a safeword is not simply to "tap out" and "withdraw consent", but to communicate a problem (whether physical, emotional or whatever) to hir partner, to enable hir partner to break out of role and deal with the problem, and then renegotiate the scene (or else conclude it there). That means that when a submissive partner uses hir safeword, zie is helping hir partner perform hir role more effectively. When a submissive does something right, it is good practice to let hir know so!

With all my partners, I have effectively conducted "safeword drills" before serious play started, asking them to practice it so I know they can say it confidently. I have not always been ideal on praising, but I have never given the impression that a safeword was a negative thing.

That said, a safeword is not some "magic bullet" where, if you have one, then nothing can possibly be bad. A lot of people, unfortunately, seem to believe this myth that simply having a safeword is protection enough, and that it somehow absolves the top of responsibility for hir bottom's safety. Several of the naysayers mentioned in the Salon article exemplify this problem:

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.”
There are many reasons why a bottom might not safeword when zie needs to. One of these, as mentioned above, is a fear of somehow letting down hir partner, or of revealing hirself not to be "true" enough (the problem of "twueism" being part and parcel of many of these issues of violated consent). Zie may not realise hirself that zie is in trouble. Zie may have become non-verbal through subspace or other extremely intense emotional/psychological states. Zie may, in the heat of the moment, have forgotten what the safeword is. There may be other reasons that elude me at the moment.

A top has a duty of care, in my opinion, with regards to hir bottoming partner; it is the top's responsibility to ensure that the bottom is brought back from whatever brink is approached during play, and is restored well. That, above all, means being alert and aware of what is happening with the bottom. A safeword is just one tool to enable such awareness, but it is not a substitute for any of the others. If in doubt, a top needs to stop and check in with hir partner (I sometimes think it would be good having a "safe-timeout" signal for tops to use when they are unsure of the situation; some people have clear "check-ins", but I can imagine scenes where a clear check-in could be misread as an in-character thing instead, just as "no" might not mean "no", necessitating a safeword).

What can we, the BDSM community do? As described, we can work to get safewords understood and valued properly We can start to believe the word of those who claim to have had their boundaries violated. I am inclined to suggest that most bottoms are bright enough to know the difference between a badly negotiated scene, and one in which the negotiations were subsequently ignored, and we can trust them to report accurately which of these was the case. I'm not saying that we should automatically accept every accusation, because I am sure that a small minority of accusations will be malicious and false. I am saying that we should trust a person to know what happened, and therefore that we don't try to pick apart events to see where zie went wrong and thus excuse the top by implication. Let's not do the abusers' work for them! Instead, at the very least let's pick apart what the top did wrong to miss the signals that should have told hir that this was time to stop.

It can be tricky to sort the evil from the merely incompetent, or the falsely accused. And there has to be a tendency against assuming evil. But equally, there has to be a tendency against assuming evil on the part of the accuser; if there's no clear reason why a bottom should make a false accusation, then should we not at least entertain the possibility that the accusation is real, and that something needs to be done?

And if there is something that goes wrong and it really is a case of a misunderstanding, then the culture needs to be against defensiveness, and in favour of accepting responsibility: if, by some failing, I were to be responsible for violating a bottom's limits, then the only appropriate thing I could do is admit that I screwed up, apologise, and take measures to prevent a similar screw up in future. We should always be wary of the top who tries to blame hir bottom for a miscommunication.

One final note: I've tried to stick to the gender-neutral pronouns, because I vaguely recall seeing at least one account of a male submissive being violated by a female top, so I assume it happens in all gender combinations. However, I do not know what the ratios of each would be, and it is important to remember that the initial article was focussed on female submissives being the victims of abuse.