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"Safeword “Safety” and BDSM"

on Wednesday, 11 April 2012. Posted in Front Page Headline, Media Updates

The Harvard Crimson

In a recent interview with the Harvard Independent, an anonymous representative of the newly-formed group, Munch, which stylizes itself as a resource and community for Harvard undergraduates interested in the BDSM subculture (an initialism that stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism), insisted that “the BDSM community in general and here at Harvard has a huge emphasis on consent and negotiation.” I had to cock an eyebrow.

To be clear, I do not like policing anyone’s consensual, harmless, sexual proclivities. Nor do I wish to condemn Munch, however sensationalized the Crimson’s coverage might have been. But any utopian claim that the BDSM community-at-large “hugely” upholds consent is a naiveté that is too dangerous not to address.

The BDSM community has a problem with non-consent. A big problem. In late January, salon.com published an article in which kink educator turned advocate Kitty Stryker claimed that abuse in the community is a “systematic issue” and that she had “yet to meet a female submissive [masochist] who hasn’t had some sort of sexual assault happen to her.” Stryker’s confession has sent shock waves throughout BDSM blogs and the BDSM social networking site, Fetlife.com, where a disturbing deluge of horror stories of abuse and systematic cover-ups have begun to appear.

Stryker has not been the first to claim that the problem is systematic. In 2011, prominent kink educator Mollena Williams, who spoke at Harvard as part of Sex Week, published an account of her rape within the community and her subsequent distress that her “story was common. Standard. Typical.” In 2008 in “Are We Men a Bunch of Lying Pricks?”, Jay Wiseman, author of the canonical book SM101, wrote of his similar epiphany when a woman revealed her shock that Wiseman didn’t rape her during kinky play.

At the center of this maelstrom of abuse is the nebulously defined nature of consent in the context of BDSM. According to the idealized narrative that the BDSM community feeds the outside world, the masochist and sadist agree beforehand, in a contract, what activity will or will not take place in a “scene,” the sharply limited fantasy space in which kinky activity occurs. The sadist cannot exceed the bounds of this contract, and the masochist can terminate the scene at any time by the invocation of an agreed-upon safe-word. The use of the contract prompted post-Freudian theorist Gilles Deleuze to term masochism an “ironic subjugation” of the “sadistic” partner, and ethnographers like Andrea Beckmann and Stacy Newmahr have continued to maintain that BDSM is subversive because, among other things, the supposedly subjugated partner is actually in control. ...

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