Safeword “Safety” and BDSM

In a recent interview with the Harvard Independent, an anonymous representative of the newly-formed group, Munch, which stylizes itself as a resource and community for Harvard undergraduates interested in the BDSM subculture (an initialism that stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism), insisted that “the BDSM community in general and here at Harvard has a huge emphasis on consent and negotiation.”  I had to cock an eyebrow.

To be clear, I do not like policing anyone’s consensual, harmless, sexual proclivities.  Nor do I wish to condemn Munch, however sensationalized the Crimson’s coverage might have been. But any utopian claim that the BDSM community-at-large “hugely” upholds consent is a naiveté that is too dangerous not to address.

The BDSM community has a problem with non-consent.  A big problem.  In late January, salon.com published an article in which kink educator turned advocate Kitty Stryker claimed that abuse in the community is a “systematic issue” and that she had “yet to meet a female submissive [masochist] who hasn’t had some sort of sexual assault happen to her.”  Stryker’s confession has sent shock waves throughout BDSM blogs and the BDSM social networking site, Fetlife.com, where a disturbing deluge of horror stories of abuse and systematic cover-ups have begun to appear.

Stryker has not been the first to claim that the problem is systematic.  In 2011, prominent kink educator Mollena Williams, who spoke at Harvard as part of Sex Week, published an account of her rape within the community and her subsequent distress that her “story was common. Standard. Typical.” In 2008 in “Are We Men a Bunch of Lying Pricks?”, Jay Wiseman, author of the canonical book SM101, wrote of his similar epiphany when a woman revealed her shock that Wiseman didn’t rape her during kinky play.

At the center of this maelstrom of abuse is the nebulously defined nature of consent in the context of BDSM. According to the idealized narrative that the BDSM community feeds the outside world, the masochist and sadist agree beforehand, in a contract, what activity will or will not take place in a “scene,” the sharply limited fantasy space in which kinky activity occurs. The sadist cannot exceed the bounds of this contract, and the masochist can terminate the scene at any time by the invocation of an agreed-upon safe-word. The use of the contract prompted post-Freudian theorist Gilles Deleuze to term masochism an “ironic subjugation” of the “sadistic” partner, and ethnographers like Andrea Beckmann and Stacy Newmahr have continued to maintain that BDSM is subversive because, among other things, the supposedly subjugated partner is actually in control.

The theory does not match the reality. In an essay that draws on work by ethnographer Margot Weiss, Thomas M. Millar discusses what he terms “domism and sexism intersectionality.” He joins a chorus of other voices, including those of Stryker and those of bloggers Bitchy Jones and MayMay Moscovitz, in confronting the rampant prejudices at work within the BDSM community, in which all women are assumed to be naturally masochistic and all men are assumed to be naturally dominant. Dominant women, submissive men, and the non-heteronormative are stigmatized, while submissive women are often plagued by men who assume that they are constantly in the mood to be dominated by any male, consent-be-damned.

More sinisterly, the alignment of sexual roles along gender lines results in a community in which sexual violence, far from being differentiated from consensual kinky play, is normalized and glamorized. The result is the crumbling of the distinction between the fantasy of a sharply limited, contractually controlled scene and reality. Stryker, Millar, and others have written extensively on the problems this breeds: scenes with unclear beginnings and ends, scenes that begin without negotiation, the glorification of “edge-play” (play that is dubiously consensual), the pressure on women to play the submissive role, the pressure on submissives not to use their safe-word, the confusion between kinky play and actual rape or domestic violence, and the insistence that abuse cannot happen in the community because, after all, submissives like to be abused.

I do not believe that Munch, due to its small size and isolation from the broader community, is as infected with these problems as, say, the Boston scene.  Nonetheless, I urge Munch to be as aware of issues around consent as possible and to strictly maintain the boundary between fantasy and reality.

Samantha A. Berstler ‘14 is an English concentrator in Kirkland House.  She is currently pursuing research in trauma theory, consent, and alternative sexual communities.

This article has been revised to reflect the following: The original version erroneously claimed that Contact Peer Counseling and the Office of Sexual Assault and Prevention Response did not have literature to help differentiate between kinky play and abuse. In fact, CPC and OSAPR have such literature available.

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