The prompt of the day is “harmonise” and right now I’m so far from anything even remotely resembling harmony that I feel as though it’s a completely foreign concept. I had intended to write about trying to get back into balance and I just can’t make the words come.
The words that are coming, however, all revolve around the concept of consent. One of the things that has been most incredible about becoming part of the local leather community has been the somewhat-obvious-DUH and yet revolutionary idea that consent can be based on a “YES means Yes” model instead of the traditional “No means NO.”
“No means NO” puts all of the pressure on the person receiving the thing(s) to enforce boundaries and stop things before they go too far. There are a number of challenges inherent in this.
One of the most basic difficulties is speaking up for yourself, especially as a non-male identified person in the patriarchical rape-culture where we’ve been conditioned to repress our true selves and feelings in favor of not upsetting the ridiculously fragile cis-male heterosexual egos (especially those of the white Americans in that demographic). We’re taught not to have strong emotions (anger should be avoided at all costs), we’re taught to smile so that others feel more comfortable, we’re taught to dumb ourselves down for general consumption, we’re taught that our bodies don’t belong to us – that we have no right to autonomy because we can’t be trusted with it, we’re taught that strength is a problem if we have too much of it because we won’t be attractive if we aren’t needy in some way (and it’s infinitely preferable for us to need support financially and in the formation of opinions about life, the universe, and everything), we’re taught to “lean in” and that “boys will be boys” and so many other bullshit hypocritical things.
All of this gets internalised to some degree, despite our best efforts to recognise that these things are utter shite. So the idea that the person in the bottoming role, whether bottoming has connotations of power exchange and authority transfer or not, is the person that has to set and enforce all rules is absurd if the person in the bottoming role is not a cis-male heterosexual. Hell – even then, considering that bottoming is perceived by many to be the “weaker” role. We’re taught NOT to set and enforce those rules and suddenly it’s our responsibility to implement them and our fault that we didn’t say a clear-enough NO.
Another massive problem with “No means NO” is that when you’re playing with someone in a BDSM sense, there are likely endorphins involved. You get high, you feel drunk, without the introduction of external chemical stimuli. Something that you don’t want to do when you’re sober is inherently more difficult to say no to when you’re being manipulated by someone giving you pleasure (however you define that) and you’re high. It is not possible under those circumstances to give legitimate consent.
The alternative is “YES means Yes” and it is so empowering. It has been a basic piece of nearly every BDSM educational thing I have attended here in the Bay Area, whether they actually call it that or not. “YES means Yes” evens the playing field. Both people are responsible for discussing clearly and explicitly what is going to happen, what their needs are, what their desires are, and how much of anything is going to feel good/comfortable/safe for BOTH of them (or however many people are involved) –> and the discussion happens UP FRONT, before any endorphin release is triggered, when everyone is in their “right minds” and capable of providing legitimate consent. This shit is amazing. “YES means Yes” means that nothing can happen without a clear and explicit YES.
“YES means Yes” doesn’t remove the potential for harm, for accidents, for things to go wrong –> some of the things we engage in are inherently dangerous and no amount of discussion can remove all risk. However, the things that can go wrong are openly acknowledged by all parties and everyone agrees to the level of risk that is acceptable and again, this happens BEFORE the risky behaviour / shenanigans kick off.
I’ve been thinking a lot about consent for ages – long before I ever attended my first kinky event. It’s not something that female-bodied people can avoid in the society I live in. Inextricably linked with thoughts of consent are all of the things that we do, sometimes unconsciously, to protect ourselves from grievious bodily and emotional harm. Clothes we wear (and avoid), walking places with our keys between our fingers and our pepper-spray keychains, going to the bathroom (among other places) in pairs and groups –> these are all things that we do because we can’t trust cis-male heterosexuals to be functioning adults. They aren’t expected to respect us and our autonomy, they can’t be bothered to think before they speak, they aren’t required to do the work the rest of us must do in order to exist.
I’ve been involved in the local BDSM community for just over five months and the majority of that experience has been uplifting and affirming and all things positive. So much so that I’ve discussed my experience with a number of people who aren’t in the scene. I’ve encouraged friends with inclinations to learn more and, once they have, I’ve brought some of them into the scene slowly and carefully. Consent is the drum I bang hardest in these situations. How fantastic to know that you can walk into a dungeon, wearing as much or as little as YOU desire, being as provocative as YOU wish, and NO ONE will touch your body without your explicit consent. That shit is fucking MAGICAL!!!
Until it isn’t. I went through a horrible experience a week ago. It isn’t the first time I’ve had a bad experience but it is definitely the worst to date. And the fallout from it has me questioning everything about the leather community and whether or not that is the right place for me. Getting involved in leather – not just kink, or BDSM, but leather specifically – has felt like coming home. It’s felt like I finally have a home. I have been lucky to have found bits and pieces of my tribe throughout my life but nowhere else has the click been so intense, so immediate, and so general. There are certainly people I haven’t clicked with – there’s no way to be BFFs with everyone in any group – but the overwhelming majority have been people that the more I get to know them, the more I want to get to know them. And I’ve lost that joy to an extent. Not irrevocably (I hope) but in a way that makes me feel small and vulnerable and unimportant. In a way that makes clear to me that many cis-male heterosexuals don’t care about my autonomy or my consent, however much lip service they may pay it, and, since there’s no easy way to determine which cis-male heterosexuals will be problematic, it seems like the only way to protect myself is to avoid that demographic in play circumstances… and that’s a really sucky place to be in.
Which brings me to last Sunday and the fallout from that experience. Sunday involved a textbook consent violation in terms of the very basic BDSM Consent 101 concepts we’re taught as mentioned above. Below are the rules the perpetrator broke as I perceive them. Some of these may seem repetitive or redundant but I feel strongly that every one of these are worth clearly and explicitly addressing, regardless of any overlap.
- You NEVER scene with someone that you haven’t negotiated with or even talked to about playing with.
- You NEVER join a scene in progress that is NOT YOUR SCENE.
- You NEVER join a scene in progress without explicitly discussing the parameters of your involvement with all players BEFORE the scene begins.
- You NEVER switch things up mid-scene when the bottom isn’t capable of providing legitimate consent.
- You NEVER enter into any form of power exchange / authority transfer without explicit discussion of what that means for each person involved.
- You NEVER force someone to submit without explicit discussion of what form submission will take. The whole FUCKING POINT of submission is that it is a gift.
- You NEVER assume that someone saying “that isn’t ok” is part of the scene and not a legitimate NO or safeword without explicit discussion in advance of what the safewords will be and what phrases are allowed to be ignored.
- You NEVER physically restrain someone without explicit discussion of how that person will communicate in the event that there is a problem and they need the scene to stop.
- You NEVER assume that someone struggling against physical restraint is an indication that they want more without explicit discussion in advance.
- You NEVER enter into humiliation / degradation play without explicit discussion of what types of humiliation / degradation are allowed/desired/sought.
- You NEVER enter into humiliation / degradation play without a significant amount of trust in your partner.
Honestly, even though there are more than 10 items on this list, this all boils down to the very basic concept that you NEVER join a scene in progress that is not your scene. Framed from the Yes means YES perspective, you NEVER do anything to anyone without an explicit, enthusiastic YES.
I’ve been getting solid support from the community around what happened. In discussing the experience with one of the people topping me consentually, she mentioned that she would be talking to a community elder about it and asked if she could share the post I wrote about the consent violation with this elder. This elder also happens to be the owner of the house where the incident took place. I agreed. The elder asked if I would be willing to relate my experience in person and I agreed. So on Thursday we spoke about this.
At the end of our conversation on Thursday, the elder and I discussed potential next steps. He asked my permission to bring the situation up with some of his peers – without using names – to brainstorm resolution options. He would then reach out to me so that we could go over these options and I could determine what, if any, involvement in the next steps I was comfortable with. He clearly and explicitly told me that he would not pursue any conversations with the other people involved in what happened without my consent.
Most of what this elder said during our conversation really resonated with me and was supportive, and helpful. However he said a few things that don’t feel right:
- The perpetrator is an experienced player.
- The elder mentioned that I should’ve said RED or SAFEWORD instead of No and Stop.
- The elder, knowing how I prefer to play and how the perpetrator prefers to play, would not have recommended that I play with the perpetrator.
- The elder, knowing that I am a newer player, would not have recommended that I play with the perpetrator.
- The elder would recommend that I be more careful with my negotiations in the future to protect myself and ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
- The elder doesn’t think that the perpetrator heard me tell one of the people topping me consentually that I don’t like power exchange or degradation / humiliation.
The first statement is problematic because an ‘experienced’ player would know better than to break the rules I mention above. The other statements are problematic because, for all the elder’s assurance of my lack of culpability, there is a strong implication that I sought out the perpetrator for play – that part of what happened is that I got in over my head with someone who plays harder / differently than I was expecting – that this was somehow a failure of negotiation.
Let me be clear and explicit: this was NOT a failure of negotiation. There was NO negotiation. This was a CONSENT VIOLATION.
Ever since our conversation Thursday, I have been struggling with this and trying to decide how to approach the elder to express these thoughts. Then last night I got this message:
One of the blacked out names of people that could be present at this hypothetical meeting is the perpetrator’s partner – someone that I have no direct relationship with, that I met for the first time on Sunday – and the idea that she is willing to be present for this doesn’t exactly fill me with warm fuzzy safe secure feelings. There is no possibility of me believing that she would be there to support ME. Not to mention that this conversation happened when I had been clearly and explicitly told that it wouldn’t and not to mention the ludicrous request to share my phone number with the perpetrator so that he can express his “upset” to me. I’m glad that he is upset – he SHOULD be upset – but the idea that I meet with him now – instead of when I’m ready to do so – is offensive. It’s all about him and his needs. I already don’t feel safe around this person, now the elder has broken my trust as well … I, quite frankly, need to protect myself in this situation and have lost faith in this elder’s ability to ensure my safety is taken into account. I don’t give a fuck about what anyone else needs right now – I have to make myself the priority.
I have been told that the perpetrator has done this sort of thing before to someone else and that the other person, after initially sharing her story, tried to back down from it and sweep it under the rug. I have no details beyond that something happened and that she tried to downplay what it was after relating it to someone else. There could be a million reasons for that and there is a distinct hole where the context of her situation should be –> knowledge of these things makes my rational mind hesitant to jump to any conclusions but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wondering how much of her decision to retract was because she felt pressured to do so. I’m intensely curious to know if she is still involved in this community.
This community elder is someone that, as far as I can tell, is heavily involved in one of the leather groups that, until now, has felt like home to me. I know that he regularly teaches classes and hosts events in his home. He is highly regarded and deeply respected by people that I care about, people that are quickly becoming important pillars of my life – including one of my regular partners who is involved in a service relationship with this elder.
Right now, nothing associated with this elder feels safe. I don’t want to throw the proverbial baby out with the dirty bath water but I’m questioning what, if any, involvement I can continue to have with this particular group. If a group harbours a known consent violator, then that group – whether this is their intention or not – accepts that behaviour. I am not saying that a single mistake makes someone a terrible person. Unfortunately, I’m not certain this is a single mistake and if someone is a repeat offender they should not be allowed to play with anyone new until and unless the basic safety of potential partners can be protected. If that level of safety is never achieved, NO ONE has the right to practice kink to the detriment and harm of others. If I continue my involvement in a group that allows someone like that to play in the general population, I am acquiescing to that and that is not ok. I have brought friends to this group and I no longer feel safe recommending this group to anyone – especially not female-bodied persons that are new to the scene. This is not to say that my relationship with the group has been irreparably damaged… but in this moment I have no idea how to go about repairing it.
I’m a newbie and I’m certainly not in the position to make ultimatums so it seems easier to quietly fade away from this group. I’ve been explicitly asked NOT to do that without further conversation by someone very important to me in this group and I’m not making any decisions about this today… but it feels pretty fucking urgent.
This whole thing fucking SUCKS.