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.
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.
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.