Report on RACK Panel

On March 22, SF Citadel hosted a RACK panel of leaders and educators from the BDSM community dedicated to discussing this question, including its relationship to abuse.

The evening’s discussion was terrific.  Panelists included Levi (who was previously employed by NCSF), Queen Cougar, Disciple, Asher Bauer (Gaystapo on Fetlife, and author of “A Field Guide to Creepy Dom”, which I reposted here), and Chey, who together represented an excellent cross section of various branches of the kink and leather communities, which tend to have some different opinions on a number of issues.  Thorne did a masterful job of moderating, and asked some very important questions.

In the first half of the program, issues such as participants’ preferences for RACK vs SSC, attitudes towards breath play, and a couple of other matters were discussed, with a pretty predictable range of thoughts and opinions, with no two people seeing any of it quite the same way.

Asher felt that RACK is an edgier concept than SSC, because it implies more edge play and Disciple sees the two as falling along a spectrum.  Queen Cougar gave a history of the evolution of both concepts, and pointed out that the entire goal is to keep people safe, which is best accomplished, in her estimation, by just using plain old common sense, and not by mindless adherence to any particular acronym.  Levi spoke eloquently about how both are about safety in overall communications, the value of safety education, etc., distinguishing WIITWD from abuse, both being a “social expression of unified purpose” – and how NCSF feels that identifying with and playing as RACK actually increases players’ legal liability vs SSC.

Someone described RACK as often being used as “a coverup and club” for abusers, which everyone else nodded in agreement with.  My personal feeling is that they are both used that way.

The second half, however, was fully devoted to the question of consent, what it means, and whether or not violations of it should be reported to the police and/or made known to the community at large.  Thorne and I have been discussing these issues together for a while, and a number of the questions she asked were born out of issues I raised and my thinking on the subject.

Levi commented that he felt that consent is a construct, and fantasy container, that responsible masters hold the container for it, and must also take legal, emotional, and physical responsibility for their actions, as well as for their limitations.  He commented about the frequent involvement of coercion in obtaining “consent”, and how consent is sometimes used as justification for abuse, which brought murmurs of agreement from all of the participants.

Queen Cougar spoke eloquently and powerfully about how you “retain your personhood” even in the most intense relationships, and have the right to step out of it and protect yourself no matter what, despite any peer pressure to retain the M/s kind of dynamic and the twisted thinking that comes out of all of that.  Thorne added that that self protection includes emotional safety, as well as physical.

Disciple said that there are many savvy predators out there for whom consent really means nothing and are able to hide behind all the right language, and when he said straight out that they need to be “brought to light”, it drew a gasp of shock from the audience – and vigorous assent from the other panelists.  It was almost like someone had finally given everyone else permission to say out loud, and in so many words, what they had all been thinking, but hadn’t quite had the guts to say in so many words, and a virtual torrent of agreement came out.  He recommended setting aside your pride for the sake of the relationship, and not to rush into anything, taking your time to learn how that prospective partner reacts and treats others when he is under duress before you get involved, because that is highly predictive of how he will treat you.

We often speak about red flags that may clue one in that a particular person is a predator and likely to be dangerous.  Chey mentioned out that it’s a red flag if they’re not willing to come out of role and speak with the sub as equals, and Asher pointed out that sometimes there really aren’t any red flags at all, and that it’s “important not to victim blame”, no matter what.

What really stood out in this portion was that without exception, every single one of these community leaders and educators all agreed as the discussion ensued, particularly once Disciple came out and stated it so clearly, was that not only are violations of consent completely unacceptable, but that they should be reported to the police, as well as publicized widely throughout the community – and with names named.

What’s more, they all agreed that this should apply to all violations, that it is no longer acceptable to sweep so much under the rug as we have been doing for so long.

When I came into the scene a decade ago, this sort of scenario would have been absolutely unimaginable. I can’t think of anyone back then who I ever heard say such a thing, and to even bring the idea up would get one looked at with all kinds of suspicion, and generate a lecture on the importance of confidentiality, policing our own ranks, not involving the police because it would only serve to prove to the vanillas that we were indeed abusers and undermine our attempts to communicate just the opposite, and more – all of which would generally ultimately serve to protect the perpetrator and further victimize the victim.

No one would have said that abuse or violations of consent were OK, but no one would have been willing to actually advocate taking this kind of action.

And a lot more protection was given to D-types who were in M/s relationships in particular, and blame heaped on the S-type, with the admonition that she had entered into this arrangement voluntarily, and that it was all about the dom so he could do no wrong and she had to obey, etc., etc.  Sadly, we still hear some of this claptrap, but on the whole, it thankfully seems to be diminishing.

I’ve written and spoken a lot about what I see as the issues with abuse of various sorts in our circles, and while virtually every individual I can think of with whom I’ve spoken privately has also expressed similar sentiments, there is something about it being said out loud by five separate people who are respected in the community, in front of an audience of probably somewhere around 50 people, that to me, really brings home what I’ve been saying all along for several years, that abuse and violations of consent are huge and growing problems in our ranks, that we absolutely must deal with very differently than we’ve been handling it in the past.

In the “old days”, when the scene was much smaller and more underground, self-policing was much more feasible, and much more essential.  Nowadays, though, attitudes are changing, the police and the rest of the vanilla world are increasingly aware of WIITWD as a fundamentally consensual activity, and as a result, it is less taboo to discuss openly, and in a number of jurisdictions, local law enforcement is actually quite enlightened, so reporting abuses to them, when indicated, is far less likely to have negative repercussions for others than it probably was in the past.  We still have a long ways to go to achieve full understanding and cooperation from law enforcement, but the road is better paved than it was before – and just by virtue of our sheer huge increase in numbers and accessibility, self-policing the way it was back then, especially as a sole solution, is truly no longer a viable solution to these problems.

Parameters of Consent – Part 1

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and speaking with others about the issue of abuse within the kink community, and how best to identify it, deal with it, and prevent it.  This post is the first in what I expect to be a series on the topic of consent and how that ties in with abuse, identifying it, and helping prevent it.  Many others, including the NCSF (National Coalition for Sexual Freedom), Midori, Thorne, and many more, are also looking in much greater depth at questions pertaining to abuse and consent than we have done before.  This is an idea whose time has come, and is gaining ground quickly.

We must get a better grip on the problem of abuse in our subculture, because it is at an all-time high, and part of that is examining consent much more deeply.  If we want to remain safe ourselves, much less expect to find acceptance by the mainstream, we’ve got to name the beast that lives within our walls in order to rout it out and put our energies more into how to solve the problem rather than continue to try to delude ourselves that there isn’t one.  There is – and it’s huge – and until we accept that, and examine what we do in much greater detail, and look at how we can improve on that, we will never be able to resolve the abuse problem.

Many of the concepts I will discuss here are actually equally applicable in vanilla relationships as in kinky ones.  Healthy relationships of any sort share most of the same qualities, and consent is equally necessary in all, although it is rarely articulated in the same way in vanilla contexts as we do in the kink world.

For many years, we have identified the difference between WIITWD (what it is that we do) and abuse as being about consent, or lack thereof.

And that’s true – always was, still is.  At the most fundamental, basic level, that is what it ultimately comes down to.

If you honestly agree to X, enjoy it, get off on it, etc. – great!  If not, you’re in abuse territory if your partner continues it despite your objections – or if you are the dominant continuing what your submissive objects to.

However, years of reading and hearing about literally thousands of people’s commentaries on and complaints about their relationships and what differentiates kink from abuse (not to mention my own experiences) has left me feeling like this is far too simplistic a way of looking at things, and that it’s time that we take a much deeper and more nuanced look at exactly what consent is, and learn some new ways of eliciting it, ensuring it, and otherwise working with it.

It is no longer enough to say “She consented” or “He did not consent”.  It is no longer a simple “yes/no” question.  Relationships of all sorts – and particularly BDSM relationships – are far too complex to leave such a critically important notion dangling by such a thin thread.  Even the most detailed of negotiations need to look at consent with new eyes.

Consensual Non-consent

The most obvious place where this simplistic definition of the difference between BDSM and abuse breaks down is with the concept of consensual non-consent.  That works when both players really trust one another, and no one crosses boundaries the other objects to enough.

By definition, however, such scenes often do cross them into territory that is truly nonconsensual.  What makes it OK (when it is), and allows it to work, is a whole constellation of considerations, not the least of which is prior agreement that that is OK and desirable, lots of negotiation, knowing each other really well, etc.  I don’t want to go too deeply into this particular question at the moment, but this is one of those most infamous “grey areas” in WIITWD in which the lines between true consent and abuse can be very blurry indeed.

Playing with consensual nonconsent, while an important and often critical part of many people’s dynamics, is basically edge play at its very edgiest, and there are tremendous risks involved.

Contrary to popular belief, too, consent can still be withdrawn during a consensual non-consent scene.

I think we can also place many of the stricter master/slave, 24/7, TPE (call it what you will) relationships in this category.  Many of these relationships operate under an agreement that the slave/submissive is not allowed to leave, and has to do everything the master/dominant requires, whether she likes it or not.  For many, there is the notion that she cannot leave, and many go so far as to turn over control of literally every area of their lives to their partners, and many will speak in terms of being physically “unable” to leave – as if she is somehow permanently chained.  For some, this works great.

At the end of the day, though, this is still a relationship construct that requires a suspension of disbelief, and is unenforceable in most of the world, since slavery is illegal almost everywhere, and even the contracts that people in relationships of this nature often draw up are legally unenforceable.  People do build their lives around these notions, but they are still fundamentally fantasies, and consent is still absolutely essential from the get-go, and on an ongoing basis.  Because slavery is actually illegal, consent can also still be withdrawn in these relationships at any time, regardless of the prior agreements, even though you will hear loud screams of outrage and disagreement at the very suggestion from many quarters.

What does consent really mean, and consist of?

One of the major issues I keep coming back to, and finding new angles to think about, though, is the question of exactly what “consent” means, even beyond the boundaries of consensual nonconsent, and I’ve come to realize that there are many different parameters involved in creating consent that is truly meaningful and useful.

There are a number of these – far more than most people realize – and I will address them a couple at a time so as to not make any individual post too long.

Informed Consent

The first issue we really need to look is at informed consent.  There is far too little of this going on in our little corner of the world, and that really needs to change.

It is not enough to discuss a scene, for example, and say you want to do some flogging, some needle play, some humiliation play, breath play, etc.  An eager bottom may agree to these things without even fully understanding what is involved – and what the real risks are.  Unless the pros and cons, accurate information regarding the anatomical and physiological issues involved in the activity, and real, concrete information as to what the risks and dangers are are fully communicated, then even an eager “Yes, I want to do that!” has no real meaning.

You also need clear definitions, as far as such things are possible.  “Humiliation”, for example, means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and you cannot assume that the person you are speaking with has the same understanding of it as you do.  Until and unless the specific kinds of actions, language, etc. are discussed in detail, and agreed upon, you do not have consent to proceed with that sort of play.

Negotiation

You most assuredly do not have consent if you just start playing with someone without explicit negotiation, or at least there is a serious risk that you don’t, or that it’s not clear cut – and a good case could certainly be made to that effect. This is obviously closely tied to informed consent.

In order to have a valid negotiation and agreement, you need two adults who are of sound mind to basically sit down ahead of time and discuss exactly what will and will not occur and be permitted in that scene or relationship.

The old hand in the submissive’s hair and calling her “slut” as you bring her to her knees is fine, and hot, and all well and good – but only if it’s been negotiated.  If you’re doing even something this simple on the fly, by the seat of your pants, as far too many people do, you are asking for trouble.  So far, most people have been OK – but we are moving in the US in this day and age into an era of far greater litigiousness than we have ever known before, and particularly as kink goes more mainstream, we are going to see more and more lawsuits, arrests, and problems resulting from lack of adequate negotiation of even matters this simple.

Paradoxically enough, too, as we see more and more newbies flooding in our doors from the Internet, and we are less and less able to adequately educate them, we need all the better emphasis on how to effectively negotiate scenes and relationships and to elicit consent properly.

With respect to definitions, likewise, with relationship labels such as “dominant” and “submissive”, “master/slave”, etc., explicit negotiation as to what these means is essential.  No two people mean the same things by any of these terms; the best they are good for is shorthand for starting a conversation.  You must get into much more detailed discussion as to what each term means to each party, and what their expectations are of themselves and each other before you can say that a given relationship (or scene) involves real consent as to the nature of the relationship and interactions.

Absent such detailed discussions, informed consent does not exist, and thus, arguably, no consent at all is present.  The more that is left open to interpretation, the more slippery the slope.

These are the issues that most people think of most readily when the question of consent vs the lack thereof comes up.  There is much more, though, and I will cover those elements in later posts.

What are your thoughts on these issues?

Alternative Sexual Practices – Kent State article response

first posted 9/17/06 @ 5:34 PM EST; updated 12/17/09

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In response to the 9/14/06 article in the Kent State “Stater Online” entitled “Alternative sexual practices abound among college students“, I would like to offer these remarks.

While it is true that sadism and masochism are still listed in the DSM-IV, and that there *are* some people who enjoy these practices when they are nonconsensual, when you start to speak of *most* practicing sadomasochists, consensuality is a *very* important part of what we do.

As a community, the kink community decries people who inflict pain on others without their consent as much as any other normal people do. Those nonconsensual practices are *not* part of what we do. Such people are *not* welcome in our midst any more than they are welcome anywhere else.

I also concur with Susan Wright‘s comment that the DSM-IV is quite clear that as long as these practices do not interfere with a person’s daily functioning, they are not considered mental illnesses – although that clearly only applies to people who are practicing these things consensually in the first place, not to the rapists and torturers of the world. Ms. Wright it quite correct, but I don’t think that her comment fully addresses the actual issue raised by Laurie Wagner’s comments, and how they are reported in the article, and that is the distinction between consensual and nonconsensual behavior.

It is exceedingly unfortunate when people in positions of authority and in a position to educate young minds such as Ms. Wagner don’t even have their information straight, because it is uninformed attitudes such as this that perpetuate this myth that what we do is somehow evil and dangerous.

The distinction between S&M and dominance and submission is also *not* as Ms. Wagner has stated it, and I concur with Ms. Wright’s assertion that she clearly has no idea what she is talking about, either on the psychological diagnosis side, or especially on the side of referring to the most common practices that typically carry these terms. Continue reading