Safe Words

Safe Words
Article by Megan Lieff, Illustrated by Caroline O'Grady, appeared in issue Gray; published in 2013; filed under Activism.
The history of anti-abuse activism in BDSM

illustrations and buttons by Caroline O'Grady

For years I would jokingly explain to my confused, nonkinky friends that the site FetLife "is just Facebook for us perverts." Then, in the summer of 2012, I began seeing FetLife's name in the headlines of blogs that for the most part barely acknowledged kink's existence.

That summer, the leading BDSM social-networking site had asked its users to suggest improvements—and they received a surprising response. Users formed the so-called Proposition 429, demanding that FetLife allow its users to name abusers within the community. It was a significant request, as the site's terms of use explicitly prohibit the lodging of criminal accusations against other users on the site. As John Baku, FetLife's founder, stated in a Salon interview with Tracy Clark-Flory, "We don't really allow people to attack other people on the site." In addition, FetLife typically manually censors user-written notes on the site that accuse other users of rape or sexual violence.

Many users didn't buy FetLife's argument, however. For one, within the United States, sexual-assault law varies by state, so some of the sexual assaults being described were (unfortunately) not even illegal in the places users were posting from—thus, no criminal accusations were being made. Additionally, it's not always clear to practitioners whether kinky activities are strictly legal in certain states—for example, in Massachusetts, kink parties are nearly always held at private venues, due to fear of legal prosecution. So posting an invite to a Boston play party on FetLife might be more illegal than saying that someone at this party violated your consent. Users wondered why FetLife would never censor the invite, but might well censor the accusation.

After the proposition was ignored by site administrators, several notes and event pages were formed encouraging other users to stop all donations to the site. In the following months, FetLife was beset by negative publicity, in both off-site blogs run by users and more mainstream news outlets. The articles I read on the FetLife controversy were interesting, well informed, and nonsensationalist. Writers like Clark-Flory at Salon and Molly Oswaks at Gizmodo did not come out specifically against FetLife's policy, but both gave ample space to activists and commentators who did.

While I was glad that a mainstream audience was able to learn more about activism within BDSM, I couldn't help noticing how recent the examples of antirape kink activism cited in such articles were. To an extent, this made sense—a particular controversy was being covered, and most folks are not going to be well versed in BDSM history. But antirape activism in the United States has existed within BDSM scenes for decades, holding down its own corner of the ever-evolving fight against larger rape culture.

After all, one thing that the BDSM community has always been great at is having frank conversations about consent. These conversations were standard for many in the BDSM scene long before "Consent is sexy" became the stuff of slogans. And while kinksters may not always be markedly better at practicing consent—rape still happens in BDSM, and anyone who tells you something different has an agenda—we have traditionally been great at explaining why consent really matters and why everyone should care about it.

But within feminist movements, there is a strong history of controversy around the acceptability of BDSM. Since the 1970s, many feminists (notably Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon) have asserted strongly that the violent imagery in pornography—which is often associated with BDSM practices—is oppressive to women. Even if this violence is simulated, they argued, the symbolism can be real and harmful. For some feminists, BDSM—which is rife with seemingly violent imagery—can appear to be an ultimate form of this oppression. To feminists who hold this viewpoint, the idea of women consenting to this violence smacks of patriarchal brainwashing. This has caused problems for other feminists who are themselves involved in kink—these women have often struggled to convince fellow activists that their agency in BDSM experiences, and the consent involved, makes BDSM very different from sexual violence.

A more sex-positive turn in cultural feminism means that fewer feminists today are willing to publicly criticize consensual kinky practices, but some feminists in the BDSM scene continue to feel marginalized. Popular kink blogger Cliff Pervocracy recently wrote a response to the question "How can you be a feminist and do BDSM?" (a query most kinky feminists have had to answer more than once). "If you think that there's something fundamentally wrong with [BDSM], you have absolutely no power to help the people who actually are being wronged," Pervocracy told me. "You have to understand it [as] something with the potential to either be fun or positive before you can help people who are being harmed."

If your first thought is that this goes without saying, give the person next to you a high-five. Antirape activists in the BDSM scene have spent more than three decades working toward this exact moment. They have been struggling to help survivors of rape in their kink communities without having the whole community thrown under the bus. They have promoted safety advice, standards of consent, and dialogue about domestic violence in the kink scene, and they've defended kink against accusations of being perverted, unhealthy, and antifeminist. Within the scene, these writers and activists may be dismissed, challenged, or most tellingly, simply ignored. It hasn't been easy.

In 1978, a group of lesbian BDSM activists formed a woman-only BDSM collective, Samois. Two of its founding members, Pat (now Patrick) Califia and Gayle Rubin, were prominent voices defending BDSM during the Feminist Sex War debates in the early 1980s—a period when feminist activists bitterly disputed whether BDSM, pornography, and sex work encouraged violence against women or could ever be considered feminist. Califia and Rubin pushed back against these arguments and flipped the narrative on its head. In a 1981 interview with the feminist publication Heresies, Rubin asked, "What happens if an S/M person does get assaulted, battered, or raped? Will they [anti-BDSM feminists] say, 'They wanted it'? They are in a position of rationalizing violence against S/M people."

Around this time, BDSM activists developed strong standards for consent in their communities. Activists in the early '80s showed a strong sensitivity toward positive affirmation and negotiation during sex, years before "Yes Means Yes." This ideology is best encapsulated by the popular BDSM phrase "Safe, Sane, and Consensual," a guiding ethic developed as part of the bylaws for the group Gay Male S/M Activists by david stein in 1983.

The 1990s saw the creation of the National Leather Association's anti–domestic violence project, Safe Link. Described as "a clearinghouse for materials and questions about domestic violence, specifically for persons who are into leather, S/M, or fetish sexuality," advertisements for this project appeared in many BDSM journals alongside resource lists, and marked the beginning of anti–domestic violence organizing within BDSM. The BDSM community did not invent its anti–domestic violence campaigns from scratch, however. Rather, building on the ever-evolving interplay between feminism and BDSM, they were able to use existing feminist advocacy and public health work and simply tweak it to address their own community.

In fact, longtime activist Califia, who transitioned to male during this period, continued his sex-positive work through these anti–domestic violence conversations in the 1990s. His essay "A House Divided," from the 1996 anthology The Second Coming, is among the first articles to confront the BDSM community about domestic violence. In it, Califia tells readers that "It's time for us dykes to admit that we have a problem with violence in our community. The problem has been longstanding. And nothing we have done up to now has adequately addressed it."

In the '90s, articles like "Domestic Violence within the SM/Leather Community" and "S&M Safety vs Abuse" were relatively common in kink magazines. Bet Power, an activist archivist who runs the Sexual Minorities Archives in Northampton, Massachusetts, told me that "handouts [were] given to people who came to play parties to set the ground rules for safety for that particular party." Contrary to narratives of BDSM as thoughtless violence that oppressed women, this work was all focused on keeping BDSM practitioners safe from anything abusive or nonconsensual.

Today, BDSM activists are still working on the same antirape activism, though they've updated their methods. Widespread access to the Internet has changed all of our lives, but this is especially true for sexually marginalized communities. Historically, BDSM has existed underground, and often anonymously, which meant it was difficult for folks with an interest in kink to find one another safely. Now, sites such as FetLife—and its predecessors like CollarMe.com (which has been around since 2002) and Usenet (where two newsgroups for the BDSM community were formed in the '90s)—can transcend these barriers.

Now, conversations about rape in BDSM are both easier to find and to create. Bloggers like Pervocracy and Thomas MacAulay Millar, from the Yes Means Yes blog, both write about kink, sexual violence, and feminism. They are working to create conversations about what they feel is an underdiscussed subject, and they have dedicated readerships. In an interview, MacAulay Millar told me that his writing "is overwhelmingly antirape. I didn't set out to do that, but it's what I feel called to write."

He and Pervocracy are two of many who have found themselves actively speaking out against rape within the BDSM community, and they exemplify a growing trend. Both see their writing as trying to resolve problems in the broader community, and their blog posts frequently reflect this. In a series of blog posts entitled "There's a War On," MacAulay Millar wrote, "It's invisible to the mainstream. There's a war on within the BDSM community about whether to face up to abuse within." In a post called "Why I Didn't Just Call the Cops," Pervocracy movingly writes about her own experience with sexual assault to illustrate the difficulties survivors face within the BDSM scene. She notes, "There's been a lot of talk lately in my local BDSM scene about how to make the scene a safer place. Which is an awesome thing, but it's depressing to see the pushback it's been getting."

This antirape writing is also tied to on-the-ground activism in many communities. MacAulay Millar and Pervocracy both told me about consent working groups that were started within their local scenes. Neither felt that these groups had made a lot of headway, but MacAulay Millar was hopeful about his group in New York. Describing one of the working group's early meetings, he told me, "It was amazing. Some people got up and told stories about things that happened in the scene, both consent violations and community reactions, and it was powerful."

Just two years ago, activists Kitty Stryker and Maggie Mayhem created a project specifically to promote antirape activism in kink. Both Mayhem and Stryker are sex workers who are active within BDSM—and both had experiences with consent violation and sexual assault. They created the website ConsentCulture.com in hopes of "encouraging communities to cast a critical eye on their own practices around reports of sexual assault." They also developed a workshop called Safe/Ward, which they describe as "a free, public workshop for community members and leaders who are looking to understand and address sexual, physical, and emotional abuse within their communities."

Activists like these are all aware of the tensions that exist for kinky antirape writers and activists. On Consent Culture, Mayhem and Stryker note that they are both thanked and condemned for their work. When I talked to MacAulay Millar and Pervocracy, they both felt strongly that the folks who run FetLife are promoting a rape-tolerant culture in BDSM. In his "There's a War On" series, MacAulay Millar writes, "There's no shortage of craven self-interest when it comes to stifling discussions of rape and abuse." These stifled accusations are the stories of thousands of kinksters who have been violated or abused in a community that many marginalized people call home.

FetLife still hasn't changed its terms of use, and some feel that an online petition is a good step but cannot, by itself, change the culture at large. And in a sense, this is true. But the longstanding dedication of a cadre of activists working in a variety of mediums over a span of decades to lessen rape culture in their communities? Well, that just might. 


Megan Lieff is a trained rape-crisis counselor, activist and educator with a more-than-academic interest in making the BDSM community safe for all. She lives in Western Mass. and can be found at snarksy.org

Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

The Fetlife silencing policy

The Fetlife silencing policy is definitely helping rapists. It's the one thing I actually am ashamed of on Fet. People have even said John Baku must empathize with rapists himself, otherwise why would he help them?

The way it is now, some guy can post a story bragging that he did all this stuff to a girl and name her publicly, but if she tries to write back and say it wasn't consensual, that he assaulted her, her post gets deleted. And I HAVE seen this happen.

Yeah I have seen this too on

Yeah I have seen this too on Fet and it pisses me off and makes me sad.. especially when the rapist's "story" makes kinky and popular. eruugh.

Phrasing

I love this article.
One thing I noticed is that when you mentioned Patrick Califia, you first used "Pat" to describe them. Do you think there is a way to describe this person in the context of history without using a name they no longer identify with?
I really appreciated how you highlighted Rubin's discussion of how some "feminist" critiques of bdsm communities can lead to upsetting victim&survivor blaming stances. Thanks for all your valuable commentary!

I don't disagree!

The issue of how to name folks whose names have changed through time is always interesting, and can be challenging.

The reason I chose to have "Pat" and Patrick appear in this article is partially because of the nature of the Feminist Sex War debates in the early 80s. While we can't know how Califia felt internally at that time, his public identity and activism based on a lesbian experience was central to his work. At that time, he was definitely living and writing as "Pat", and I think honoring that is also important.

But I agree, it is complicated! In my work, when possible, I speak of Califia from the present moment looking back, and in those instances I am using his current name and pronouns. I try to also make very clear anytime I need to write of Califia's earlier activism, that he is now identifying as male so folks know going forward how he currently identifies.

It is a hard balance to strike, and I am glad you brought it up! I am not sure my method is perfect, but I think maybe it is hard to find one that is. I am always happy to talk this out with other thoughtful people though! So thanks for you kind words, and your commentary as well!

Actually, Califia has

Actually, Califia has addressed this very issue. In the introduction to his anthology "Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex", he states, "Even though I am currently calling myself Patrick Califia... I chose to leave the older, female-gendered essays alone... I'm envious of FTMs who found a way to transition shortly after their 18th birthday, but I would give away the life I had being a wildwoman. I don't think it's possible (or desirable) to erase the years I spent in the leatherdyke community and the sensibilities I acquired there. Fortunately for me, trannsexual identity has undergone a metamorphosis, making it possible to be more honest about one's individual experience of gender, and create a label that is more accurate than the old chestnut of 'a man trapped in a woman's body.'" And then he continues to talk about how he doesn't feel he fits into the standard trans narrative easily, and how he wishes his transition didn't so frequently mean others erase his work under Pat or discard what he had to say at the time. So, I think how you did it was exactly in line with what Califia, specifically, wants.

It's not that simple

The main issue with FL allowing users to be accused of sexual assault and consent violations, is accountability and credibility of the accuser. The website (and those managing it) cannot verify or negate these accusations in any legitimate way.
This leaves the forum open to a wide range of misuse, and leaves its users vulnerable to a Pandora's box of lies, false revenge-accusations, and blackmail.

Unlike a legal judicial system that has the ability to investigate, verify and ensure that accusations are legitimate, a website...any website... cannot take on the onus of providing such a forum. I think the current policies are well within the limitations of the cyberworld. The anti-name-calling policy is the only way to protect users who have *not* violated consent. Hopefully, this number is far larger than those who have.

I don't see why a website has

I don't see why a website has to verify or guarantee any truth about personal posts of it's users. There are plenty of forum discussions that go on all the time with people writing stories that may or may not be true.

No one is saying Fetlife is a legal system or that there will be legal consequences for people who name attackers. It's about being able to warn others--writer's friends can decide whether they want to believe their warnings or not for themselves.

Saying we cant post stories of what happened to us because it can't be legally verified is once again, holding the victim to a higher standard of behavior then the attacker. Attackers can post whatever they want about what they did and no one cares if that's legally verifiable or not.

And like the author here

And like the author here said, many of the BDSM activities that users post about on Fet ARE illegal in their states. But they don't arrested for posting them on Fet, because it's not a legal system. If a user confessing to their own illegal activity does not get them arrested, why do you think one person's accusations against another would?

The only people being protected are the rapists. Protected from everyone realizing exactly how many people would outcry against them if they could.

Rape

This was a good article and brought up a very relevant topic for any lifestyle, but this lifestyle in particular has it's own difficulties. In non-kink society women are still hesitant to report rape, so I can imagine how difficult it would be in this context.
But it kind of misses one point here , how about the times a submissive agrees to everything, safe word and ground rules are laid down and then later decides to call it rape for whatever reason. This happens too.

Does it come to a point of having to put everything in writing??? I wonder. Plus not only women get raped, just thought I would point that out.

Though having safe words, consent and ground rules is important, perhaps someone should keep a data base of those who do rape or play beyond what is safe. Either way though there will be those falsely accused of rape and those who get away with it. My suggestion is that women , even men take self defense classes , but in this lifestyle perhaps part of the attraction is putting yourself at risk.

For more on FetLife's problems on rape culture and privacy...

Great piece! For even more discussion of FetLife's many problems, and how its technological insecurity and its protection of abusers spring from the same rotten tree, please check out this post:
"Got Consent? III: FetLife doesn't get it"
http://disruptingdinnerparties.com/2013/05/08/got-consent-3-fetlife/

FetLife not only protects abusers, but it may have a financial interest in doing so. Moreover, "FetLife represents a particularly egregious example of pervasive problem of Internet culture and structure, which is an environment where we don’t recognize that we have a right to say no to sharing information, much like many women were socialized traditionally to not recognize that they could say no to sex."

Something else to add...

Great article - a good commentary and sum-up for people starting to explore these issues. I especially reccommend the Thomas Millar 'There's A War On' series.

However, I'm puzzled that neither you nor any of the subsequent commenters mentioned the work of maymay, both in exposing the problems of Fetlife and providing a work-around for the problem of abuse reports being censored, namely the PAT-Fetlife browser extension. It highlights people who've had abuse reports against them in yellow as you browse the site, and you can find out what the reports are (and whether to ignore them or not - some are just trolling) by clicking their profile. Maymay's been doing some pretty unethical things to promote the tools (a viral marketing campaign telling people to 'kill themselves' on twitter for instance) which I don't agree with, but I think the tools themselves still should be publicised and used. The code for them is publicly available, so they could be taken from maymay and hosted by someone more impartial and trusted. The more of us who use them, the safer Fetlife becomes for those who still want to use it.

It seems unlikely that you'd accidentally leave maymay out of a discussion like this (even just to disapprove of them) so my conclusion is that you're trying to deny them the oxygen of publicity because you disapprove of their methods. In which case, perhaps this comment will not be published. I do think the PAT-Fetlife tool is too important to ignore, though.