I talked a bit about my experiences at University of Birmingham, and their weekend about consent, in this post, focusing on explaining my presentation’s first two parts (on mainstream depictions of kink, as well as the construct of “drama” and how it gets in the way of consent culture in these spaces). Here I’ll finish the job by discussing desire, both within kink and in culture at large.
One thing that stands in the way of good communication is the way our culture idealizes desire. We’re taught via Disney movies that we’ll “just know” when we meet someone compatible, that we won’t need to talk about anything or negotiate, we’ll just read each other’s minds. That’s very romantic, but also a fairy tale. Understanding someone’s cues and body language comes, not through magic, but through knowing that person, their likes and dislikes. It also comes with a lot of mistakes, and hopefully a willingness to admit you’re wrong when you misjudge. These practicalities, however, don’t tend to weigh into the actual heartfelt desire to find someone with whom you have that mystical “chemistry” that just can’t be put into words.
Because of this longing, I suspect the whole fantasy of moving “beyond safewords”, beyond negotiation, and/or beyond a contract, is fairly prominent within the BDSM community. I hear a lot doing Consent Culture work (and on the radio, as you can hear on this show “Edge of Insanity” I did this weekend with Betty Blac) the declaration “we don’t need safewords!” and “safewords aren’t sexy!” I feel that when erotica, movies, porn and even our own dungeon behaviour look on the safeword as something that “ruins” a scene, we’re creating a dangerous dynamic where people won’t say “stop” or “no” when they want to, because that’s not part of their fantasy. It may not be part of your wet dreams, but then, neither is a court case, is my opinion on the topic. We need to have methods to stop BDSM behaviour when it crosses the line, while also acknowledging that people may struggle to safeword when there’s so much pressure to be a “good” submissive or a “tough” dominant… often which involves this “no limits” construct.
Now, this isn’t something that’s just an issue among kinky communities. I’ve noticed this with people I’ve dated, too. As someone who isn’t a touchy-feely person, I tend to need someone to let me know through flirting and physical touch that they’re interested in sexytimes. If that doesn’t happen, I tend to assume we’re still at the casually flirting stage. One ex partner would become furious that I didn’t know when she wanted us to sleep together, while I was trying to take a step back and leave space for her personal needs, expecting (and asking) her to communicate what she was interested in and when. Instead, she wanted me to read her mind, and, I guess, try to initiate sex at random, taking the responsibility if I was wrong for her being upset. Talking to other people, this doesn’t seem to be all that rare, but it’s incredibly frustrating.
Even though this is common in vanilla couples, there is a certain concern for BDSM couples. I’ve noticed that bottoms/submissives who make themselves available for the most varied amount of play have more social currency and get more attention. Therefore, there’s a reward for saying you have “no limits”. On the opposite side, Dominants who communicate that they “take what they want” are seemingly desirable, with some profiles coming across as downright sociopathic… and yet they seemingly are actively engaged in local communities and no one looks askance at this behaviour. I do notice male Doms get away with this significantly more- unless you’re a professional, female Dommes are expected to be caring with their submissives at a much higher standard. Now, I’m all about fantasy (I have some seriously dark ones myself), but I feel it’s important to critique the ways in which these social norms end up being formed, how that impacts on kink in the media, and how it creates an ideal of what a “valuable” Dom or sub is and how they behave that might actually be damaging in the real world.
I don’t really have answers for all of this except more honesty in blogs and profiles, and rewarding that honesty. I think it’s important to deconstruct how gender norms impact our sexual spaces. I think it’s important to examine the impact of racism, ableism and classism in our spaces, as well.
I also said to the room that I felt we in the BDSM community need to really work out what we’re going to do in terms of addressing assault and domestic violence among ourselves if the police are not an option. I really want to see us figuring out some standards of accountability that would make us a cohesive community. I’d like for us to decide what sort of responses we’d support seeing from someone who has crossed boundaries for us to feel like they understood what damage they had caused, and what support we, as a community, should have for that boundary-crosser and the person/people whose boundaries had been crossed. I suspect that until we do this work, our use of the term “community” will be casual, not uniting.
I want to close with a bit from a piece Mollena Williams wrote on community, leadership, and trust. I recommend you read the whole thing, because it’s right on.
I have seen, over the years, people take “reputation” and “community standing” as carte blanche to entrust themselves into the hands of those who are not worthy of trust.
I have questioned friends who work with those who have questionable histories, who have shadowy pasts, who have seen others stand up to say “That person violated me and my trust.” and had those friends shrug and say “Well, it isn’t my job to police the community.”
I have seen people endorse, by word and deed, people they KNOW to have problematic histories and shrug it off with “Well, I have never had a problem with them, so it isn’t my problem.”
I have seen people who are “leaders” in the community duped, swindled, ripped-off by people who, after the shallowest of digging, were revealed to be liars and thieves.
I have been sexually harassed and treated dismissively by men entrusted with instructing people about BDSM.
I’ve watched people who are bullies and liars intimidate and swindle their way into positions of (relative) power and trust, and surround themselves with the weak-minded who thoughtlessly protect and bleat the chant they’ve been taught in order to support those unworthy of their trust.
I have had handshake promises breached by people who will then turn around and evoke “Leather Values” and “community pride.”
I have been lied to by people who smile in my face and in the same breath trash talk and belittle me to others.
I have had people to whom I appealed for help in taking a public stand against injustices instead opt to remain silent against racism, against rape, against consent violations.
And ALL of these examples involve The People You…We…embrace as “Leaders.”