BDSM & Rape: What Now?


About a month ago, Kitty Stryker wrote a piece for the Good Vibrations Magazine, I Never Called it Rape: Addressing Abuse in BDSM Communities, in which she opened up a really important topic. It’s one that’s been simmering for a while and now that it’s come up in such a public way, there’s been a lot of different responses. There’s been the predictable set of comments, both on the Good Vibrations Magazine and on Fetlife (a social networking site for the BDSM crowd).

Some folks are making excuses for doms who assault their subs, some people are asking why people who have been assaulted don’t report it, and a few are trying to find ways to make room for both BDSM and rape awareness. I’m sure that there are other ways that people are responding, but those are the most common ones I’ve seen.

This is an issue that the kink community (if I can use that term to describe such a wide-ranging and diverse crowd) has been avoiding for a long time. And I understand why- if it comes to the surface, it gives a certain weight to the arguments that many anti-BDSM folks make about kinky sex being all about rape. But one thing that few BDSM folks seem willing to acknowledge is that, yes, some people are drawn to BDSM because it gives them an excuse to hurt others. To be 100% clear, I’m not talking about the kinds of intense sensation that some people enjoy, especially in the context of erotic energy (with or without genital stimulation). I’m talking about the people who take advantage of a newbie’s naïveté and tells them that “this is how this works.” I’m talking about the people who push someone past their limits without negotiating that. I’m talking about people who use BDSM as an excuse to violate boundaries under the guise of being Lord Domly Dom®. I’m talking about people who don’t care about the consent of the other person.

In addition to those folks, there are also situations in which a top is clueless or selfish. Malice isn’t the only reason people cross boundaries, and these other motivations don’t change the impact of the experience on the person who’s been assaulted. I’m certainly not suggesting that “I didn’t mean to” is an excuse. And I do think it can make a difference in how we choose to respond.

Unfortunately, in addition to the tendency of marginalized communities to avoid “airing their dirty laundry in public” (and yes, BDSM folks are marginalized, even with all of the S/M imagery in the media), there are a lot of dynamics that reinforce this setup. I think it’s important to look at them in order to deal with them, although I don’t expect that this is a complete list.

All of the ways in which sexual assault is excused, minimized, and justified within the larger culture exist in the BDSM world, and they operate pretty much the same. It’s unrealistic to claim that somehow, simply by being part of the kinky scene, people don’t do exactly the same things to enable and excuse rape. Having said that, there are some patterns that are specific to the kink community that are worth unpacking.

When we have two conflicting pieces of information, that creates a difficult situation and we usually seek a way to reconcile them. And when one of those piece of information threatens our sense of our ability to assess someone, we often negate the other one. Or to put it less theoretically, believing that someone I like or whom I’ve chosen to trust has assaulted another person threatens my belief in my ability to assess others. It’s often a lot easier to disbelieve or blame the accuser. This is one of the more unfortunate aspects of how people work, and I’m not excusing it. But it is something we need to acknowledge and in my experience, most of us have done something similar at one point or another.


Of course, that’s not limited to the BDSM world, but it does play out a bit differently since the kink community is often very tightly knit. People’s reputations matter and if I’ve vouched for someone or if I’ve been closely affiliated with them, as often happens in both social and play circles, I have a certain emotional investment in their being seen as “good” by my community. So if that gets challenged, that can threaten my social standing and I might very well rush to defend that person reflexively. Similar patterns play out in other close communities like church congregations, but the way that social standing works in the BDSM world makes this especially likely. Again, I’m not excusing it. I’m simply recognizing it as a common scenario. (For more insight on how we manage these kinds of cognitive dissonances, check out the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.)

Another aspect of this is that, as much as some people in the BDSM world honor and value submission and submissives, there’s a lot of dominant-privilege. There’s a tendency to give more weight to what a top says than a bottom. And when the dominant is a cisgender man and the submissive is a cisgender woman, the dynamics of male privilege and heteronormativity often come into play. Sure, these same patterns can show up in any gender combination. But in my observation, the closer people are to the mainstream (in this case, cisgender heterosexuality with the man in charge), the more easily they slip into the same ways of interacting that exist in the mainstream culture. So instead of respecting bottoms, a lot of tops end up devaluing them, which makes it easier to discount their experiences when they come forward and say that they’ve been assaulted. And the community around them is more likely to fall into the same patterns of responding that happen almost everywhere else.

So what can the BDSM world do to change this?

The first step (and often, the hardest) is to acknowledge that assault happens. It happens at play parties. It happens in private homes. It happens at cons and events. Most of us grew up in a culture that didn’t teach us to value, honor, and respect boundaries. Many of us didn’t learn how to both say and hear “no”. So how can anyone expect that putting on some leather would somehow magically change that?

Historically, the BDSM community has had a strong ethic of enculturating newcomers through munches, social events, and such. But in recent years, there have been many more people becoming kink-identified than community groups can work with, partially due to the proliferation of SM imagery online and in the media. While I think it’s great that so many folks are discovering ways to explore their sexual desires, one of the ways in which the expectation of Safe, Sane & Consensual (these days, Risk-Aware Consensual Kink) was transmitted has been weakened. So instead of relying on community groups to do it, maybe it needs to be crowdsourced.


As part of that, it’s important to call out the folks who talk about safewords as if they’re a sign of weakness. Or who act as if a true dominant or a real submissive doesn’t need them. Or who brag about never having used them. Or who say that once you’ve consented to something, you don’t get to change your mind. Or who claim that having no limits makes one a better or more extreme player. Or who do things that haven’t been explicitly negotiated and then argue that “We can’t talk about everything in advance.” I call bullshit on all of that. All of that perpetuates a culture that enables sexual assault. Until and unless people challenge it, it’ll continue. [Hint- if you want to do something that wasn't previously negotiated, press pause on your scene, check in about it, and move from there. It's not rocket science.]

We also get to have our limits and our boundaries. When players talk as if that makes someone less edgy or a less experienced player reinforces rape culture. (I’ve written more on consent and boundaries here, here, and here.) Interestingly, many of the tops I’ve known who are all about pushing someone else’s limits seem to be very firm about their own. In fact, they sometimes seem scared to get anywhere near their edges. In my opinion, if you want to be a guide for someone else to lean into their edges, you also need to be practicing leaning into your own. But then, I wouldn’t eat food cooked by someone who didn’t eat their own cooking and I’ve often wondered why there are so many tops who think it should be any different when it comes to kink.

People in the BDSM world also need to get a better understanding of why someone might not be willing to step forward and talk about being assaulted. Between the effects of rape trauma syndrome, victim-blaming, and being told that they’re harming the community, is it really a surprise that so many people keep silent? If you want people to come forward, then ask yourself what you are doing to create a space for them to do that. And if you’re not doing anything effective, don’t blame anyone else- the responsibility is yours.


I do think it’s valuable to recognize that it’s possible for someone to feel assaulted, even if the other person didn’t intend to violate their consent. For a lot of people, BDSM is about playing on the edge, or about exploring the boundaries of one’s psyche. No matter how graceful you are, sooner or later, you’ll take a misstep and go too far. If you’re not willing to support your bottom and make whatever apologies and amends are needed, I don’t think you’re ready to be a top, no matter how good you are with a flogger or rope. Remember- you don’t have to have any intention of hurting someone to cause them pain or trauma. If you don’t know how to deal with that, you’re not ready to ride this ride.

As far as what we can do to support people who come forward and tell us that they’ve been assaulted by someone in the BDSM world, I think we can do exactly what we can do in any other similar circumstance. We can make a space for them to share their stories with us. We can thank them for trusting us enough to tell us. We can refer them to services like a rape crisis center or a kink-aware therapist (although it’s only realistic to acknowledge that many hotline counselors and therapists may equate kink with abuse). We can let them know that we take them seriously, and we can show it by not blaming them, or shaming them, or attacking them.

People can also take steps to create a safer culture within BDSM. Confront people who reinforce patterns that enable rape. Call people out when they hurt someone. Make room for the fact that edge play will sometimes go too far and instead of creating expectations of perfection, create an expectation of amends and repair. This is how we stop coddling people and practice fierce compassion. And when you discover that someone is deliberately hurting people (as compared to someone who takes a misstep despite the best of intentions), don’t let their standing in the community or their reputation allow you to make excuses or keep silent. Because if you let it keep happening, you shoulder some of the responsibility the next time they do it.

I also like Mission Control’ s PAL system for their parties. They create accountability while maximizing flexibility by having people come to their events with a PAL (pervy activity liaison). If either person breaks the event agreements, both are held responsible. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the least imperfect one that I’ve heard of and I’d love to see it implemented more widely.

So what can the BDSM world do about this? The same thing that the rest of the world can do. Develop better practices around consent, relationships, and communication. Get educated about sexual assault and the mechanisms that enable it. Support survivors, help people learn how to navigate the edge, and confront the malicious. And stop trying to sweep this under the rug. It’s long past time to be honest and to face this issue.

Clarisse Thorn’s post Thinking More Clearly About BDSM versus Abuse has lots more specific suggestions, and I highly recommend it!

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21 Responses so far.

  1. Miss Lyss says:

    The PAL system is good, but (at least at the parties I’ve been to in NY), the organizers hand out rules to each attendee and ask if they have any problems or questions before allowing them into the space. They really cover their bases. I’ve never felt afraid at any of the events of theirs I’ve attended.

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  2. Charlie says:

    Mission Control does much the same thing, as well. But the advantage to the PAL system is it reduces the chances of someone breaking the rules because there’s direct accountability to someone they know. OTOH, it does mean you can’t go to an event without a PAL, even though they don’t have to be a play partner, so it can limit things. It’s always a trade-off between flexibility and accountability, and I think it’s a good system. At least for some settings.

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  3. Excellent article, right on. :)

    I hope that my Safe/Ward Guide for Community Members and Guide for Community Leaders are helpful for communities trying to implement some sort of consent culture standard!

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  4. Julie says:

    Great article. While this is a long standing issue, I think the huge influx of inexperienced but willing to bluff newcomers to kink in fact are strengthening a blame-the-victims mentality about abuse within BDSM. It’s sad but even some people who spout off that “oh yes I practice RACK” (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) fail to understand that consent CANNOT be assumed, consent is NOT what’s not-prohibited or on a limit list, and that a real Top or Dominant or Master is responsible, period, for any physical emotional or social harm to a bottom or submissive or slave during their scenes.

    If you don’t know how to do something, practice some due diligence and LEARN HOW; don’t bluff and experiment on someone, don’t say “she failed to tell me not to”. NEVER assume penetration of any orifice was just “understood”. Never cop out and blame someone when you fucked up. Dom up! Take responsibility.

    And object if someone else blames a victim. Accidents happen – but even then, it’s not the bottom’s fault.

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  5. FungiUg says:

    Thank you for this.

    While there are some points I could argue, I think the brevity of your writing would lead me to those points in much the same way myself. In all, may of your points are worth expanding upon and exploring. That makes your article a good, thought-provoking introduction to a dark side of our community.

    Awareness and consensuality are something we talk about. We need to establish ways of communicating more than just the words though, and what they mean in practice. All up, we need to learn to take responsibility for ourselves and our community. Your article makes that point well.

    Thanks again!

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  6. Victor says:

    Thanks for writing this. I am really glad this is getting more awareness, as it’s something that has always bothered my about a series of communities.

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  7. Glynnis says:

    I think you are spot-on when you cite the reputation and self-perception of bystanders as a cause of victim-blaming. People don’t want to believe they are capable of being friends with rapists, so they don’t believe it. “If this is sexual assault,” they subconsciously think, “then I am in some way responsible for it, but I’m a good person, so I can’t be responsible for it, so it isn’t assault.”

    This is also the thought process behind denying the existence of racism in my opinion.

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  8. Nick W says:

    Rape is not the only thing predators do.

    A good friend who is a non-masochistic female submissive negotiated “a painless singlestail scene” at a convention dungeon. She was not a novice, but had 3-4 years experience and was very active in the local community. The dominant man was a was a current title-holder, doing the circuit of regional conventions.

    In midst the scene, after she was spacey and not able to speak, he re-negotiated the scene and got her agree to body punching. She expected a thumpy massage. She got three ribs dislocated.

    When he punched her kidney she fell, so he held her to the floor and kept punching her. She had to pull herself together enough to speak, and to call red, before he stopped. Then he told her not to tell anyone what had happened, and he dumped her on me and left. He did not show up at the pre-arranged meeting place the next the morning.

    This was clearly not a scene gone wrong, or a mistake.

    The man could not have claimed ignorance. He was a trained martial artist, so he would have known the effect his blows were having. It could only have been deliberate.

    Rather than dropping out of sight, she chose to warn people. When she tried the tell the kink community what had happened, she got shut out. Her forum posts were deleted. She was told to have a mediated discussion with the man who had assaulted her. The rape crisis center wasn’t interested because it had happened in a kink environment and there had been no penetration. People in the community stopped talking with her.

    She found other women who had had their limits violated and had been beaten or even put in the hospital by this man. Of course, some of them dropped entirely from the scene, which made them invisible. If she hadn’t sought them out, they would have been forgotten.

    People in the community still didn’t want to hear about it. She continued to fight for three years before anyone agreed to help her.

    This response was not merely local. People acted in the same way in our home state, in the state where the convention was held, and the home state of the man.

    The result is that this man seized the one thing she enjoyed most in life, BDSM, and took it away from her. That was the last time she ever allowed herself to to get spacy and unable to speak. And for that, the community treated her as the villain.

    We tell ourselves that the kink community is self-policing, but we’re lying to ourselves. The community prefers to minimize visible conflict. If a predator says the right things in public, and abuses people in private, not only is he accepted by the community, he can be made a title-holder.

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  9. Elsbet says:

    Oh, that makes me ill! I know a girl that who used to go into deep “heady” non-talkative subspace and now no longer will. She does not speak about why, and I wonder if she had a similar experience. The complete violation of trust just sickens me. And from a title-holder? No one should be looking up to such an individual.

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  10. Victor says:

    Ugh. That’s just awful.

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  11. Hannafate says:

    Nick, I’m impressed that your friend has stuck with this, she must be a very strong person, and have good emotional support from her friends. I’m glad she has you to help her with this.

    And, Charlie, thanks for recommending “Mistakes were made”. It has helped me understand a situation that came up in the scene a few years ago that baffled me.

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  12. Nick W says:

    @Elsbet: My friend’s attitude is that she ran into a predator, and that was bad. What was much worse is that the community didn’t support her afterward, and didn’t even want to hear about it. That betrayal felt much worse than the initial attack. If she had been supported, she would have recovered much better.

    A certain kind of predator would work hard to become a title-holder, just for the prestige and added access that a title brings.

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  13. Victor says:

    Isn’t that so often the case, though? That lack of support is devastating.

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  14. Great piece, Charlie – thanks for opening up this conversation, and highlighting the other great writing out there on the topic. For a lot of us doing consent work in the “mainstream” we look to BDSM community as inspiration/guide, disturbing to see the behaviors and silencing persist, but appreciate the complexity of the conversation you have created.

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  15. bw4 says:

    Play parties and munches are just glorified pick-up events, no matter how much they’re dressed up in SANE or RACK. People attend them in order to have anonymous thrills and low-investment relationships. Small wonder then that the “community” which creates these events isn’t interested in accountability.

    People like me, who are looking for significant D/s relationships that don’t involve public sexual play and who could care less whether someone has a certificate in whipping, have never gotten any help from the “community.”

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  16. neo says:

    A local person just highlighted your article to our community. I think this is a great piece and hope to circulate it more widely. 

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  17. Edwin Mack says:

    A very close friend of mine has had something happen before we met that relates to this article and my Heart goes out to you all. Personally I have not experienced anything at all good or bad, but I can see how complicated it must be and I can imagine.

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  18. Chesh says:

    I wanted to thank you for your recent link to the Disrupting Dinner Parties “Got Consent” posts. Through reading them I came across this post from a while back.

    The things you’re addressing in here is why I dropped out of the kink scene. Ironically, I’d been a speaker, advocate, someone teaching communication skills in the Poly/Kink scene.. That probably made the shame that went with it even worse: here I am teaching the tools, and I’ve become the next statistic that no one wants to talk about.

    I don’t really remember how I got from the point where things started to where they ended up. I remember literally bleeding in the bathroom afterwards. I was told I went catatonic (I can’t remember). But I do remember being told “…as a professional you teach about this stuff, right? It couldn’t have been that bad.”

    There are times I miss it… but with the terror I experience just thinking about it, I don’t think I could ever go back. It disturbs me that I’m occasionally seeing (slightly less physically violent) echos in the Burning Man scene, hiding in the shadows of “Radical Self Reliance”, and the “Geek Social Myths” of inclusion.. which is why I love B.E.D. http://www.bureauoferoticdiscourse.org/

    Props to you and others who have been able to stick around keep talking about it, especially in the face of the kind of victim abuse and shaming that goes on.

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  19. anonymouz gorsh says:

    this is all kind of moot, considering that the ‘commercial’ bdsm site, kink.com, associates with a known person who ignores safewords and is what some would call a rapist.

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  20. GamerUK says:

    An excellent article, and I find myself agreeing with Chesh
    about those that do speak up are often ostracized and ridiculed,
    either for talking about things they know nothing about or for
    trying to save ‘everyone’.  My wife (known on Fetlife and in
    our local community as SweetGeekGoddess) started a website
    specifically to address abuse concerns within the Kink Community.
    Only by educating ourselves and others, by being the example and
    speaking out can we start to change the culture. We should not have
    to, indeed we *must not* tolerate the abuse that damages,
    marginalizes and scares off the most valuable asset we as
    kinksters, fetishists and leatherfolk have…each other.

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  21. GamerUK says:

    To clarify, I should have said
    …. those that do speak up are often ostracized and
    ridiculed, and told they ‘ are talking about things they know
    nothing about’ or ‘you can’t save
    ‘everyone’, often by the same person in their
    attempt at a rebuttal.

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