A friend of mine was recently interviewed by The Atlantic for an article about this thing that we do.
They used very little of what she actually said, which was somewhat disappointing to me, but if you’d like to read the article, you can find it here and while most of my readers are already well aware of her blog, just in case you are not one of those, you can find it here.
The article was supposed to be about the impact of the 50 Shades movie on the BDSM community, or so I was led to believe, but it turned into a condemnation of Fetlife instead.
I don’t think that the author of The Atlantic piece did a poor job, but I think that perhaps his lack of personal experience in the arena may have made him somewhat blind to the nuance involved.
By way of disclaimer, I should point out that I’m a lifetime supporter and member of Fetlife – in fact, it is the only social networking site of which I am a member, and I have had many good experiences facilitated by that site, but I’m neither a predator nor a potential victim, so much of what they speak about in the article is outside of my experience. However, there is still the core of the message, which I still support entirely.
BDSM is not a license to be stupid.
There are people who use BDSM as an excuse to commit abuse. These are not all outliers of the community. Some of the core people who make up my own local community have engaged in practices that I find somewhat questionable, and I’ve heard accusations about others that I have not personally witnessed. A person’s standing in the community is not a blanket endorsement by the members of the community and cannot substitute for caution on the part of newbies. Even if they are wonderful, it is still very possible that your experience with them might not be satisfactory, and if you are not careful, possibly even dangerous.
It’s possible that Autumn will condemn me for what I am about to write, but I doubt it – I know her to be a rational and intelligent woman, and while she may not agree with what I am about to say, I doubt that it will lessen her opinion of me.
I have no doubt whatsoever that abuse does occur within the auspices of BDSM. However, I understand and actually commend the people at Fetlife for the way that they have handled things – primarily by staying out of the conflicts.
Fetlife is a corporate entity and therefore is legally obligated to be largely blind to anything that is not provable, so they maintain a practice that is not unlike my own faith – in the absence of the provable, I choose to believe nothing – but they differ on some very important points that I will get to after an illustrative example to follow.
Add to this the fact that personal preferences and even the individual desires of a single person can vary greatly for a given time span, and you run into the fact that some interactions between some people are simply always going to be bad and there is very little that can be done to avoid this other than to communicate and negotiate.
For instance, as a completely hypothetical exercise, let us evaluate the following scenario:
A Top in the local community is well known to a lot of people, has many friends, is known to be particularly skilled at flogging, is well known for being patient and kind, especially with newbies, and he has had strong D/s relationships with multiple partners over the years, including a few that are currently going on.
Less well known are the personal proclivities of this person – things not shared except in intimate settings: he has a deep desire for anal penetrative intercourse, he likes asphyxiation, he thinks of himself as being able to read emotional and physical cues well and so he doesn’t place a great deal of emphasis on safewords, and he always has sex as part of a scene.
Now we introduce two newbie female bottoms to the mix.
Newbie bottom A becomes involved with the community and learns that our Top might be a good play partner for her first scene. She has never been flogged, but thinks she might like it, she loves sex, including anal sex. She has a deep desire to submit and to be used as an instrument of pleasure for her partner, and this, coupled with a desire to experience the sensation-heightening aspects of light pain lead her to believe that she wants an encounter with our Top.
She seeks him out at an event, they talk briefly, and with very little negotiation, agree to a private scene. She meets him at his home, he takes her to his playroom, they engage in some petting, he binds her and flogs her, getting her into subspace for the first time in her life. She is euphoric and he decides to extend things by gagging and blindfolding her to which she does not object. He continues to flog her and she fights against her bindings, moaning and crying as she does so. He interprets this as a good sign and then proceeds to take things further, having anal and vaginal intercourse with her while she is bound and gagged, sending her into even higher and tighter spirals of ecstasy. When her thrashing becomes particularly passionate, he chokes her with his hands until she starts to lose consciousness and she immediately calms down as she surrenders and floats in subspace and then he lets go and she lies limp, savoring the experience.
When he is done, he un-gags and unbinds her while she is still floating. She is euphoric and so is he. She can barely move with the intensity of the experience that she has just had. They share some quiet time together after the scene without speaking and then she leaves, believing that she has just undergone a transformative experience and is ecstatic.
Newbie bottom B becomes involved with the community and learns that our Top might be a good play partner for her first scene. She has never been flogged, but thinks she might like it, she loves sex, but has some very deep personal aversions to anal sex. She has a deep desire to submit and to be used as an instrument of pleasure for her partner, and this, coupled with a desire to experience the sensation-heightening aspects of light pain lead her to believe that she wants an encounter with our Top.
She seeks him out at an event, they talk briefly, and with very little negotiation, agree to a private scene. She meets him at his home, he takes her to his playroom, they engage in some petting, he binds her and flogs her, getting her into subspace for the first time in her life. She is euphoric and he decides to extend things by gagging and blindfolding her. He continues to flog her and she fights against her bindings, moaning and crying as she does so. He interprets this as a good sign and then proceeds to take things further, having anal and vaginal intercourse with her while she is bound and gagged, causing her to panic and fight against him. He mistakes this as more of the same sort of euphoric passion and continues to have sex with her. When her thrashing becomes particularly violent, he chokes her with his hands and she, unable to take any more abuse, begins to withdraw as the violation completely overwhelms her.
When he is done, he un-gags and unbinds her while she is still floating. She is in shock and nearly catatonic and he is deeply euphoric. He lies back to savor the experience and she lies there, unable to respond for some time until finally she wordlessly leaves, believing that she has just been raped and abused, while he thinks that things went extremely well.
Now – in this scenario, who is right?
You probably have your own opinion, but in my opinion, they are all wrong.
I’m going to momentarily overlook the complete lack of aftercare in this scenario (which is all too common in my opinion) and just talk about the interpretations of the scene itself.
It is convenient to assign blame for the bad experiences to either our Top or even to bottom B here, but in my own personal opinion the issue is not that simple, and turning Fetlife into a yelp-like rating system for Tops (or bottoms) is not going to help because the problem comes down to one of communication and personal preferences.
If you take the prevailing wisdom of the common culture from a few decades ago and apply it to these scenarios, it would tell you that our Top had no ill intent in either case and that the ideal scenario as presented with bottom A is wonderful and that the worst case scenario as presented with bottom B is the bottom’s fault. She should have understood what she was getting herself into better and the fact that she didn’t object at a time where she could have objected is her own fault.
If we instead take the prevailing wisdom of today’s post-Feminist-revolution society and apply it we see the polar opposite. The Top is entirely at fault for not explicitly getting permission for his actions at every step with bottom B and is even guilty of abuse in the case of bottom A, because while she enjoyed the experience, he did not fulfill his duty and it was mere happenstance that she felt good about things instead of bad.
Personally, I believe something different. They’re all at fault for failing to properly communicate and negotiate.
Our Top did not do his duty in communicating up front, and as the more experienced partner, he bears the majority of the burden here. He should have known better, but he did not intend to hurt anyone and felt that he was in the right all along. That does not make him right. He screwed up, to the point of breaking the law and deserves whatever consequences befall him, but if our bottom had been better informed, this scenario would never have occurred. Our Top is not a predator, he was just criminally negligent.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it until I can’t speak any longer. The heart of what it is that we do is negotiation and unfortunately people just don’t do enough of it.
The reason that we have contracts and safewords (or other signals when gagged, etc.) is to help ameliorate situations like these. If you are in scene with me and we didn’t negotiate something in advance, I’m unlikely to try it, but if I do and you don’t like it, I’m counting on you to use your safeword or other signal to cue me to stop. If you fail to do that and I fail to stop, we are both at fault. I misread your cues and you didn’t explicitly signal me. Our lack of pre-negotiation creates a bad experience for us both.
I think I’m an anomaly though and that most people don’t see things the way I do. People like black and white outcomes. They like to feel that they are right, and sometimes that has to mean that the other person is wrong.
Fetlife does not have the resources to adjudicate these cases, and therefore they simply refuse to allow their platform to be the battleground, and I believe that is the only viable course of action they have. That’s what we need to remember. Yes, there are people at Fetlife. Yes, there is the Fetlife community itself, and communities are often capable of policing themselves – as they should – but Fetlife is not a community itself, it is a platform that hosts many distinct communities, and unless we want that platform to fail (which I don’t think anyone is suggesting) we have to view it as a what it is.
Fetlife has not failed its users, because Fetlife has no stake in these arguments and they are right to try to remove them from the platform completely.
If you have been abused, you have every right to seek restitution, and you should do that through the channels available to you. Your own local meatspace community is a good place to start. Most real-world communities are generally self-policing, and word of mouth can get you ostracized. You may be the Top in this scenario and may have an encounter turn bad on you despite your intentions, and if that’s the case, you screwed up by not negotiating properly and you deserve the consequences that you receive. The police might be another good place to go. Only you can determine whether or not what you experienced is actually abuse, and only you can determine what the proper course of action should be, but Fetlife is a platform for people to engage with each other and is not itself a policing force, nor should it be.
This is all, of course, very complicated, and I’m not a lawyer.
But if I can get one message through to my readers, it is this: think before you act.
Have an exfiltration plan.
Have a check-in person.
Have a safeword
This thing that we do is extremely risky – for Tops as well. Protect yourself.
Trust, but verify.
Distrust gets you nowhere, but misplaced trust can get you hurt, badly.
And the last thing I ever want is for anyone to get hurt.
Fetlife is a tool, and use it for what you will, but remember, no tool, no database of players, no word of mouth reputation, nothing whatsoever can take the place of mindfulness, caution, and good sense. There is always a first person to be abused – make sure that it isn’t you.