Defenders of extreme sexual behaviour are blinding themselves to the dark side of S&M, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
by Eilis O'Hanlon
As the country still struggles to make sense of the murder of Elaine O'Hara by a man she met through an adult website, Ryan Tubridy's radio show called on Emily Power Smith, "Ireland's first clinical sexologist", to enlighten 2fm listeners about BDSM, a range of sexual practices involving bondage, domination, sadism and masochism.
She immediately reassured him that there's nothing sinister about consenting adults including BDSM as part of a healthy sex life. Between 10 and 14pc of people are said to have done so in some form.
The devil lies in those three words. "In some form." There's a huge difference between a bit of spanking and light bondage, and the more extreme practices which Smith defended last week on the grounds that "the people who are giving the pain will be trained and they will be very boundaried (sic) and very caring".
"Trained by…?" wondered Ryan unsurely, trailing off.
"Trained by other professionals," his guest replied, in what may well be the most ridiculous use of the word "professional" ever. "Maybe a dominatrix." Oh well, that's all right then.
It got worse. "For blood-letting and knife play," Smith continued, "the people who do that ethically are very highly trained."
At this stage, Ryan should have been trying to pin down this bizarre notion of "training", but such is our collective fear of appearing judgemental when it comes to sex that it never even seemed to occur to him to suggest that blood- letting might not be a valid lifestyle choice, or that those who fool themselves into thinking it's just harmless, kinky fun should cop on.
When did it become so hard to say that you really shouldn't cut women?
It's difficult to even define what consent means in this context, when the relinquishing of power to another is already so advanced that the boundaries start to break down. Emily Power Smith effectively said as much in a video on the Irish Times website, in which she spoke of the point of so-called "knife play" being not such to damage the other person but "may be more about just pushing them to the limits on a psychological level".
If your alarm bells aren't going off as you read that, then perhaps you need new alarm bells. Pushing someone to their psychological limits is already damaging them.
Abusive relationships, as Smith herself says in the same video, often "begin with the psychological torment and wearing down of a person, so by the time it gets physically violent that person doesn't have as much judgement as somebody else, or as they might have had before they entered the relationship. It can be difficult for them to gauge if they're being abused."
Exactly. And isn't that where the more extreme forms of BDSM lead? ...
A growing cohort of Torontonians are indulging their wildest fetishes—and negotiating every slap, spank and lash of the whip.
By Stacey May Fowles
...Lord Morpheous is at the centre of a thriving kink culture in Toronto, an underground community of people who derive their pleasure from pain, congregating at parties, meetings and classes. FetLife, the hugely popular social networking site for BDSM participants, lists more than 41,000 kinksters living in Toronto. Users identify their sexual tastes and what they’re looking for, post photos of their bruises and rope marks, and narrow down potential partners and friends by fetish, searching for things like caging and confinement, clamps and clips, nun and priest play, or a standard flogging.
BDSM is an overlapping abbreviation of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. It covers a continuum of practices outside of mainstream sex, which means something as tame as a blindfold or as intense as a caning falls under the same wide umbrella. A kinky encounter is often referred to as a scene: a single interaction where participants pre-negotiate safe words and acceptable activities. Scenes can involve consensual bondage, confinement and violence—including spanking, slapping, pinching, cutting or choking—but relationships can also be full-time, where a submissive is “owned” by a dominant partner, sometimes wearing a collar to indicate his or her status. Outside the bedroom, subs can provide non-sexual services to their dominants: they may cook, clean, run errands or shine their master’s shoes. Though from the outside doms seem to be calling the shots, the submissive partners hold equal power. They’ve voluntarily surrendered control—and can take it back at any time. Arrangements are as varied as the people who create them, and can be complicated and delicate to maintain, which means constant communication is key to their success.
Last October, the Toronto BDSM community was thrust under a harsh spotlight when several women accused Jian Ghomeshi, the former host of CBC Radio’s Q, of abuse. He defended himself on his Facebook page, claiming he’d participated in “a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey”: rough sex, dominance and submission. Later reports suggested Ghomeshi hadn’t received consent, and he was charged with several counts of sexual assault. “All of a sudden he choked me, slapped me in the face a few times,” said the actress Lucy DeCoutere of their sexual encounter. “It came out of nowhere. It was unprovoked.”
Ghomeshi-gate has been a PR problem for Toronto kinksters, who worry their consensual practices are now wrongly tied to allegations of violence. Worse still, the case exposed the criminal grey area that kink occupies: in Canada, a person can’t legally consent to bodily harm. That puts some Toronto practitioners in a precarious position—a rope burn, bruise or chokehold could lead to a potential assault charge.
As long as couples have been having sex, they’ve been incorporating consensual pain, control and surrender—erotic BDSM appears in the Kama Sutra, ancient Roman poetry and Etruscan frescoes. Modern kink culture came about in the mid-20th century, colliding with the sexual revolution and queer movement. Kink as we know it grew out of the gay leather scene in 1950s New York, San Francisco and Berlin: after World War II, young men started establishing underground fetish and sex clubs, favouring chaps, harnesses and rough sex. In the early 1970s, the first two official North American BDSM organizations were established: the Eulenspiegel Society formed in New York in 1971, and the Society of Janus in San Francisco in 1974, both focused on education and support for those in the closet. It was in these societies that the movement finally crystallized, and practitioners developed a shared ethos, rules and vernacular. These early proponents characterized their behaviour as “safe, sane and consensual”—a guideline meant to distinguish kink from abuse. By the end of the millennium, BDSM imagery had bridged into pop culture—Madonna played the sub and the domme in her music videos, Isabella Rossellini begged to be hit in Blue Velvet, and CSI detectives encountered the wisdom of the dominatrix Lady Heather.
More recently, the practice of BDSM has grown from a niche subculture into a mainstream obsession. The catalyst, of course, was Fifty Shades of Grey, a kinkified Twilight fan fiction series that sold 100 million copies, spawned a $40-million movie and triggered a worldwide fascination with spanking, leather, cuffs and Ben Wa balls. All across town, entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the growing demand for kink. Over the past three years, the Yonge Street fetish shop Northbound Leather has experienced a 20 per cent increase in sales of harnesses and collars, which range from $10 plastic versions to $2,500 diamond-encrusted chokers.
It used to be a challenge for kinksters to find like-minded practitioners, but now there are dozens of places for them to congregate. “The scene hides very quietly under the surface of everyday life,” says Morpheous. “You just have to know where to look.” At pubs and cafés across the city, kinksters gather for munches—casual meetups to discuss relationships, coming out to family members or new rope tricks. Munches are designed to be as anonymous as possible: organizers prohibit photography and toys, and guests wear street clothes instead of fetish wear. “These people are often just talking about, like, the new Star Wars movie,” Morpheous explains....
Despite its popularity, kink is still the subject of intense scrutiny and stigma: until 2013, it was classified in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder. BDSM was only depathologized after a lengthy campaign by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, an American advocacy group that argued the existing definitions failed to distinguish between consensual sadism and abuse. Many kinksters still feel like their sexual preferences put them at risk of persecution: most of the people who appear in this story asked that I use a pseudonym, afraid they might be outed to their families, friends and employers. It’s legal in Canada to fire someone for BDSM activities if the disclosure is deemed damaging to the brand of the company—though many kinksters see their sexual preference as an orientation, it doesn’t fall under the protection of the Human Rights Code. Even Lord Morpheous hides his real name and face from the public. “I’m not ashamed. Anyone who wants to meet me can come out to an event,” he says. “I just prefer to have control. I like my world a size I can manage.” ...
A student expelled from George Mason University for violating its sexual misconduct policy is suing in federal court to clear his name, arguing that an encounter with a girlfriend was sadomasochistic role playing, not sexual assault.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday in Alexandria. The ex-student has sued under a pseudonym to protect his privacy. The university is demanding he identify himself publicly, despite arguments that doing so would expose not only him but the woman who says she was assaulted.
The student says he had been in a longstanding relationship with the woman, and that they frequently engaged in sadomasochistic role playing that involved using a safe word if one or the other wanted to stop.
The sexual misconduct allegations at George Mason stem from an October 2013 encounter with the couple in the male student's dorm room on the Fairfax campus. At one point, according to the lawsuit, she pushed him away but didn't invoke her safe word. Later that night, the two engaged in a second sex act, in which the male student asked her if she was interested, and she replied, "I don't know."
According to the lawsuit, the couple remained romantically involved for several months, but they broke up after she found that he had been cheating on her. It was only then that she filed a complaint against him, according to the suit.
In September, a university panel conducted a 10-hour hearing to determine whether the student had violated the university's code of conduct. A three-person panel cleared him of any wrongdoing, according to the suit.
But the woman appealed, and a university administrator, Assistant Dean of Students Brent Ericson, overruled the panel and expelled the student.
The lawsuit says that the appeal was handled improperly. It seeks an order that would strike the violation from his student record, and $3 million in damages. The lawsuit claims that the expulsion was a result of gender bias, and also claims that it violated his right to engage in constitutionally protected sexual activity. …
In 1993, Danny Resnic was having anal sex during a casual hookup in Miami Beach when his partner’s latex condom broke. Resnic had been using condoms ever since the man he describes as “my best friend and love of my life” died from AIDS in 1984. “I have always been looking for a monogamous relationship and was never really happy with casual sex,” he says, but in the gay subculture of Miami Beach, where he’d moved from California in 1991, casual sex was the norm. When Resnic slept with men he didn’t know, he insisted on condoms.
After several weeks of worrying about the broken condom, Resnic got tested for HIV. The test came back positive.
The odds of contracting HIV from a single act of unprotected anal sex are extremely low—experts put the risk below 1 in 100. “I couldn’t believe it,” Resnic says today. “‘Cause I was really vigilant. I lost all my friends during the AIDS crisis, and I used condoms religiously. And then when one broke, I thought, ‘How could that happen?’ ”
Resnic became obsessed with answering that question: He read everything he could find about condoms at his local public library in Miami. He learned how latex condoms are made (by dipping phallic molds into vats of liquid latex, which is peeled off after it dries), and how they are regulated (the Food and Drug Administration considers condoms medical devices and dictates how they are manufactured and labeled). He discovered that three publicly traded companies—the makers of LifeStyles, Durex, and Trojan—controlled almost the entire market. And he figured out that, since the introduction of the rolled latex condom in the 1920s, not much about condoms had changed.
I met Resnic for lunch in Los Angeles last September and was struck by his intensity all these years later. To illustrate his astonishment at what he’d learned about condoms, he gestured at the salt and pepper shakers and bottle of olive oil between us. “Everything on this table—these jars, these nozzles—every year they come out with a better product,” he said. “But not the condom! And I found that baffling. I couldn’t understand it. I was like, ‘I don’t get it. Why haven’t they made some crazy new design? Why is it still the same thing, and no one likes it?’ ”
Resnic decided to rectify the problem. He set out to build a better condom—one that he hoped would make protected sex feel as good as unprotected sex (a guy can dream!), and one that wouldn’t break like the one that broke on him. Resnic set aside everything he’d learned about latex condoms and tried to start from scratch, asking: What might a condom look like if it were designed with pleasure in mind, instead of mass production and profit margins? He had taken some product design classes in college, but didn’t know much about biomedical engineering. He spent years thinking, sketching, and researching patents. In 2001, Resnic bought some wood at Home Depot, carved it into a mold with a jigsaw, sanded it down, dipped it in liquid latex, and created the first prototype of his condom in his home, which was, at the time, a house boat on Marina del Rey.
But Resnic didn’t want to stick to latex. He began experimenting with silicone—the flexible, durable material found in spatulas and charity awareness bracelets. He found a silicone manufacturer to formulate a recipe with the precise combination of tensile strength and elasticity he was looking for, and then found a medical device manufacturer to make silicone prototypes. Using grant money from the National Institutes of Health, he conducted small clinical trials with condoms that fit much more loosely than latex condoms, designed to be pulled on like a mitten instead of rolled on, allowing freedom of movement inside, and to provide sensation for men from the interior of the condom, which is lubricated. (In 2014, a former employee accused Resnic of misusing NIH funds; Resnic denies the allegations.)
All the while, Resnic kept tweaking. He says he’s developed more than 127 versions of what he now calls the Origami condom, because it is folded rather than rolled. “The whole concept of the rolled condom is flawed,” Resnic told me shortly before asking our server for a Mediterranean lamb burger. “The premise is transferring sensation through the material. That’s equivalent to trying to taste your lunch with Saran wrap on your tongue.” …
People into BDSM are psychologically normal and healthy.
by Michael Castleman M.A.
Both the book and movie versions of Fifty Shades of Grey got a good deal right about erotic bondage-discipline-sado-masochism (BDSM). But Fifty Shades also got one thing horribly wrong. It depicts the dominant (dom, top), Christian Grey, as the product of horrendous child abuse and implies that it propelled him into BDSM. In other words, Fifty Shades plays into the widely held belief that those involved in BDSM are psychologically damaged if not pathological.
However, the research shows that people into BDSM are psychologically healthy and no more likely to have suffered child abuse or sexual trauma than anyone else. In fact, a recent Dutch study shows that compared with the general population, in some ways BDSMers just might be psychologically healthier.
What Fifty Shades Got Right
First, I’d like to commend author E.L. James for her generally accurate depiction of BDSM relationships:
• Communication. Before Grey lays a hand on his sub, Anastasia Steele, they discuss in great detail how they want to play. This is quite typical—and a foundation of BDSM. Dom/sub play opens a huge realm of possibilities, and doms and subs discuss them at length, revealing their fantasies and hearing the other person’s. In fact, some BDSMers consider these discussions the most intimate element of their play.
• Negotiation of limits. Grey presses Steele on her personal limits, the hard boundaries she can’t conceive of crossing, and the soft ones that she might cross under the right circumstances. Both players declare their limits, and pledge to respect the other’s. As a result, BDSM is play, not abuse.
• Safe words. Grey tells Steele that if she feels at all uncomfortable at any time, she is always free to invoke their safe word, for example “red light.” Upon hearing it, doms pledge to cease all play immediately and re-negotiate the scene. Safe words mean that, ironically, the person ultimately in control of BDSM scenes is the sub.
• Contracts. Grey hands Steele a proposed contract governing their play and they discuss it point by point. Steel agreeing to some clauses, modifies others, and nixes a few. Not all BDSM players codify their negotiations in written contracts, but many do.
• Intimacy. Steele is surprised by how intimate BDSM play feels, and how emotionally close it brings her to her lover. Aficionados say that BDSM produces a depth of intimacy beyond what’s possible in ordinary (“vanilla”) sex.
James captures these aspects of BDSM quite well. Unfortunately, she’s poorly informed about its psychology. ...
It may seem like perplexing question — there are different kinds? But in fact, in an era of the growing acceptance of casual sex, a better understanding of polyamory and a curiosity about open relationships, there has never been more freedom and opportunity to figure out what works for you.
Because, as one epic chart shows, the kind of relationship that works for one person may not be the kind that works for someone else.
Settling with one person isn't the only way: The chart, designed in 2010 by polyamory and BDSM activist Franklin Veaux and recently shared by sex researcher and New York University professor Zhana Vrangalova, demonstrates how much more complicated and nuanced the options are.
"It's a great reminder that there are different strokes for different folks and no one relationship constellation that works from everyone," Vrangalova told Mic.
The idea for the chart came to Veaux when someone asked him why we even need the word "polyamory," when it seemed like a synonym for open relationships and swinging, he told Mic. "This idea seems to assume that there's really only one kind of non-monogamy, which is kind of silly," Veaux writes in a blog post on Xeromag. ...
Elaine O’Hara was killed by a man with whom she was involved in a BDSM relationship. As a BDSM participant myself, I wonder if we can continue to deny any links between kinky sex and wider societal abuse of women
by Emer O'Toole
In Dublin, Graham Dwyer, a married architect, has been convicted of the murder of Elaine O’Hara, a childcare worker with whom he was engaged in a BDSM relationship. The motive was sexual gratification. O’Hara was vulnerable, suffering from mental health issues, and Dwyer exploited this, banking on the likelihood that her disappearance would be read as suicide. He hid evidence of the murder at the bottom of a reservoir. If it were not for 2013’s unusually hot, dry summer, that’s where the truth would have remained, and Dwyer would be walking free.
A woman is dead: another victim of intimate partner violence. And treating her death with due respect should mean an examination of the social context that allowed a man to convince a woman that his sexual desire to stab and kill her was within the bounds of the acceptable. It should mean attention to the cultural mainstreaming of BDSM.
On Valentine’s Day this year, Universal Pictures released its film adaptation of EL James’s erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Back in 2012, The Guardian asked me to review the book to mark the sale of its ten-millionth copy. I kept it light – riffing on James’s infamously terrible prose and characterisation, and musing as to whether the far-away film version wouldn’t leave us feeling a little less glib and little more, well, worried. The day is come, and I admit a heavier feeling. What is, at heart, the tale of an abusive relationship in which a reluctant, inexperienced and infatuated young girl is controlled and beaten by a rich sadist, is now being offered up as a sweet Valentine’s Day treat for naughty couples.
BDSM communities have been quick to distance themselves from Fifty Shades, and, indeed, from any beliefs or behaviours incompatible with informed, enthusiastic and uncoerced consent. This is because BDSM communities are often, in my experience, very politically switched-on places. However, it’s also my experience that kink communities are reluctant to acknowledge problems with the ideologies underlying their sexual practices, focusing instead on the pleasure or relationship benefits to be gained from BDSM.
I’m making this critique not as a judgmental outsider, but as someone who participates in BDSM behaviours and events and understands the excitement to be found therein. I’m making this critique not as a kink-shamer, but as a challenge to myself: what are my reasons and justifications for inviting or accepting male sexual violence? And, at this point in history, when kink is becoming ubiquitous, I’m calling on all responsible, egalitarian kinksters to take a step back from personal desire and pleasure and ask similar questions.
We live in a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist society. This gross fact informs our identities, our beliefs and our desires: it’s part of us at the most fundamental cognitive level. A prevalent theory in kink communities is that BDSM creates a sandbox or play space around impulses that have their roots in sexism or other prejudice, consensually mirroring non-consensual societal power dynamics. The sandbox allows role play that expurgates, inverts or otherwise contains hierarchical desires. It may give subs control over situations that would – in reality – make them feel powerless, or allow doms to cathartically express violent urges: in short, the sandbox gets it all out of our systems. ...
NCSF’s Incident Reporting & Response received 54 requests for assistance from individuals, groups and businesses in January, February and March. NCSF maintains the confidentiality of those who come to us for help. However we balance that need with the need to report the services we are providing and to provide the community with a record of where the need is the greatest. Here is a breakdown of the cases we assisted on in the first quarter of 2015:
There were 18 requests for assistance with incidents involving criminal law. 12 of those requests were from survivors of a kink-related assault/sexual assault who needed assistance in connecting with kink-aware victim services, education of law enforcement, investigators and prosecutors. 5 were requests for kink-aware defense attorneys and expert witnesses knowledgeable about BDSM vs. abuse. The other incident involved obscenity law.
13 professionals and organizations asked NCSF for information and resources to assist in them in providing their services to kinky clients. These included victim services, medical clinics, therapists, prosecutors and college professors. We also provided information and resources to 2 kink activists to assist in their training of professionals in their area.
There were 12 requests for help involving BDSM and swing groups. 6 groups asked for advice on banning members and dealing with consent violations. 4 groups asked for assistance in setting up a club and dealing with zoning. 2 groups needed assistance with reporters who wanted to attend one of their events.
There were 8 requests for help with child custody in which BDSM was brought in to contest custody. That is an increase from the 4th quarter of 2014 in which there were 6 requests for help with child custody. We assisted in family court cases in Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Canada.
There were 2 requests for help with kink-related discrimination. One person is being denied hospital visitation and the other needed help finding a kink-aware therapist in her area.
Civil law incidents
Only 1 request for help with a threatened outing, involving their FetLife profile.
If you need NCSF’s help because of discrimination or to remove kink as a barrier to service, please contact our Incident Reporting & Response today! Email