Our community is getting increasingly tense. We hear about consent violators every day. Bottoms are worried about being violated, tops are worried about being accused. Some kinds of problems aren't talked about at all. The blowups are getting bigger and more intense. And all the while, we seem to be tightening our rules and enforcement and yet the problem seems to be getting worse.
In this post, I present an alternative approach to the issue of problematic behavior in the scene (including but not exclusive to consent violations) and present concrete, actions that community and event organizers can take to make the community both safer and happier.
At WEEHU this year, Dossie Easton presented a talk on consent, consent culture, and the state of our community. Her thoughts on the topic dovetail with some of my own views and the concern that I have about things I've seen in the scene in just the short amount of time I've been involved. Before I go into the negative, I want to reiterate that I believe the BDSM community is incredibly healthy, strong and vibrant. You people are my people. This place feels like my home, and I want nothing more than to be a part of this wonderful, vibrant, incredible community, and for it to continue to grow and thrive.
That said, I've seen two large consent violation cases, I've seen rumor mills and whisper campaigns. I've seen public and private shaming, I've seen bans and banishment, I've seen inaction taken when action needed to have been taken, and I've seen innocent people persecuted publicly for either trying to be neutral or to help mediate situations.
It's no exaggeration for me to say that people in our community are scared, on all fronts. Bottoms are scared to be violated. Tops are scared of false accusations. Event organizers are scared of not doing enough, or doing too much, or not doing the right thing.
It goes beyond discreet consent violations as well. Even in the brief time I've been involved in the community, I've seen kink shaming and fragmentation. I've seen groups become more insular, whisper campaigns and rumor mills.
The simple fact is that if these strategies were as effective as we hoped they would be, we wouldn't be in the situations we're in now, so let's have a real discussion about the issues in our community.
Our (Not-So-Great) Options
Let's take a moment to review the tools we have as a community in handling problems that arise.
Calling the Police
Oftentimes, especially from outside of our community, we hear "If soandso did this to you, why didn't you call the police?" Well let's get real for a minute- except in the most extreme circumstances, the police are not a good resource for this community. They neither understand what we do, nor are they equipped to handle the complexities of our situations. The result is that all too often the reporting person often feels unheard/ignored and or the person accused is not going to be able to present their case in a way that makes sense.
This is not the fault of the police themselves- they are there to protect the public, but in our case, it's like a domestic dispute, but with orders of magnitude more nuance and complexity. I would not ask the Red cross to fight a war, and I would not ask the police to act as dispute resolution staff at a kink event.
The Whisper Campaign
The Whisper Campaign is when someone will talk about a situation that they've witnessed or heard, and that spreads through a network of people, often with the often with either information missing or added by each person in the chain. I've even heard the same situation described to be in very different terms, in fact in such starkly different terms that I thought they were two entirely different incidents.
Anyone of us who has played Telephone as a child knows the problem with the whisper campaign in terms of accuracy, but it also does very little to address a problem. People may be heard and warnings may be given, but very little changes in a whisper campaign outside of a general increase in tension amongst community members.
The Internet Post
A recent variation on the Whisper Campaign is the Internet Post where someone who feels wronged goes online and airs their side to anyone who will listen. Fetlife itself does not allow individuals to be named/outed (unless they do so themselves) and generally tries to stay out of these disputes (for good or ill), so what often happens is that this combines with the Whisper Campaign so people get more of a picture.
In addition to the problem of accuracy and message, an Internet post does not give a lot of context to a situation. It can be a very powerful means by which someone who feels upset or victimized can express themselves and feel heard/validated, but it doesn't lend itself to anything beyond that.
The most common tool that we have for dealing with problematic people in our community is the ban. This is a very common, very easy solution to a variety of problems, but it has a host of problems of its own.
Banning has a long history- in fact it's mentioned in the bible- it's called shunning. As a community, we don't like the word shunning- probably because of our own individual and collective experiences of being shunned. Many of us were shunned when we were younger. We, by in large, were not the popular kids. And now we find it difficult to acknowledge that this is the same tool that we most often.
Beyond the psychological aspects of shunning, it's actually not as effective as we hope it is. That's because an event organizer can only ban someone from a specific event. That means that the same kind of behavior can exist at other events- or could be taken outside of our community and we have very little that we could do about it. While this might protect an event organizer, or even attendees at a single event from a bad situation, it doesn't address the larger community, or even possible actions by the same individual.
Lastly, the threat of banning is real. As tops especially, we feel it. And the threat of bans does not proportionally make bottoms safer any more than strict sentencing alone make crime less likely. People who are determined to harm others will find ways to do so (such as finding more vulnerable groups) and those who are not doing so purposefully (ie it's an honest mistake or lack of education) will feel ostracized and then may not pay attention to our consent message.
The Conditional Ban
Alongside permanent bans, we have conditional bans. Most of the time, the condition for re-inclusion is time based. Someone is banned for a year, or for two years. Sometimes a banned person will have an additional condition placed on their return, such a needing to prove that they've reformed. This is often an impossible task, though. No one can disprove a negative, and no one can prove that they're safe. Sometimes the condition is stated in terms of other people. "You're banned as long as no one else complains about you.". This is better, but is still problematic in that the banned individual ultimately has no control over the actions of others. What this leads to is essentially the same as an vent ban- in some cases the fear of retributive action acts to restrict this person's exposure to the community, and thus makes it harder for them to prove their safety.
When and if people return from conditional bans, of course, they're not necessarily any safer to the attendees.
Position and Title Removal
Another method of control we use is removal of people from positions of authority and sometimes removal of an honorific title. This makes a great deal of sense to me as a reaction from an organization. When a person has a title, there is explicit authority and trust. If that trust is broken, they need to have their special status removed. In addition, since titles are often not given until someone in a senior member of the community, they presumably know what is and is not acceptable behavior.
A Culture of Silence and Shame
With all the awareness of problematic behavior, one would think that we'd be awash in reports, but as others have pointed out, we still live in a culture of relative silence about problematic behaviors. Despite the fact that so many people talk about and are afraid of false reports, the reality on the ground is that most events go unreported or ignored. Why?
If there is a high risk of humiliation and punishment, then the threshold for taking a report seriously must be high- which leaves reporters being scrutinized. And because people who are already feeling violated don't want to be scrutinized further, they are more likely not to complain, choosing instead to either question themselves, choose "not to make a fuss" or to simply leave the community.
Of course if we create a culture of an accusation being the same as a credible report, then we run a higher risk of false accusations, and in a culture of high risk and shame, people reduce the intensity of their play, or be extremely selective in who they choose to play with, or simply disengage with the community.
A solution needs to address making things safer for both the accusers and the accused. Our Problematic People
When we think of people who are problematic in our community, we most often think about newcomers, people who enter the scene and act in inappropriate ways, but as recent events have shown us, problematic people can be very high profile as well, and everything in between.
Instead of focusing on whether we're talking about high profile individuals or newcomers, I think a more useful way to think about problems in our community is by thinking about the origins of problematic behavior. To that end, I think we can roughly categorize problematic behavior into three general buckets:
Problems due to lack of education
This is very typical for newcomers in the scene. They'll do things like interrupt a scene, or not understand our social values, etc. This sometimes includes behavior such as inappropriate touching or comments, but is generally due to simply not knowing the rules.
Problems due to a desire to be predatory
Even though we would like to believe that such people to not exist, there are certain people who get a thrill by the idea of harming others. I believe that these people are a very small minority, but they do exist.
Problems due to either mental illness or impairment
I think a far larger category of individuals are those who are suffering from a mental illness or impairment which effects their judgment. This can be from illnesses such as a manic episode, a personality disorder, or even something as simple as impulsivity due to ADHD. While I don't have numbers for the BDSM community, there are studies showing as many as 20% of US jail inmates suffer from a diagnosed mental illness. As with any community, the BDSM community has people in it with various conditions which effect either mood or cognition, either of which can result in difficulties.
So What Are We Going to Do About It
After all this analysis of the problem, what specific, actionable steps can we take in making things better.
The very first step is to destigmatize both reporting and being accused. We have started to see this, thankfully, in many prominent members of our community stepping up and admitting that they have been consent violators and the victims of consent violations. This underscores the fact that most consent violations are unintentional accidents. It also underscores the fact that anyone can be a on the receiving end of a consent violation. If it can happen to someone prominent and they can get through it, then there's an implicit understanding that it's safe to both report and to be reported. People who feel victimized can know they're safe and taken care of, and people who are accused can know that an accusation is not necessarily the end of the world, and that redemption is possible.
Understanding Problematic Behavior
We also need to understand that not all abuse or problematic behavior looks like a consent violation. There are plenty of other behaviors that are problems other than just this one. If we're talking about abuse, it can be more subtle, it can be more insidious. If we're talking about sabotaging others, that won't happen on the dungeon floor, and if we're talking general manners, that can be something difficult to discuss or even pinpoint.
Realizing the Causes of That Behavior
The second step is understanding that just because we may understand the cause of a problematic behavior does not imply that we are excusing the behavior and allowing it to continue. We can bring understanding and compassion to both sides and if the accusation has merit, we can still take actions that will protect the community while trying to address the issues that lead to the violation. These actions might include restricting someone's play at an event, or restricting someone from accessing an event altogether.
Addressing the Behavior
The third step is being able to talk about these issues openly with each other. I pointed this out in a previous essay about the role of conflict aversion in the scene and how this can lead to blowups. The solution is to take personal ownership of own communication styles. We can't control others, but we can control how we express ourselves, and we can bring issues up to people before things become problematic. This means treating our community as a community, and taking personal ownership over the health and welfare of every member inside it. This is hard, it's uncomfortable to talk about something that bothers you, and you may find the other person isn't receptive- but at least if you bring these issues up openly and honestly, there's a chance of them being resolved.
The fourth step is working to create roles for people in a community space that can be supportive, especially for newcomers or those who had trouble. TES did this in 2016 with its hiring of Conflict Resolution staff, and WEEHU did this in its "Troubleshooter" role. Therese were supplementary roles to the DM and other health/safety people at the events.
While Conflict Resolvers and Troubleshooters are helpful, I feel they miss the mark slightly. By the time an issue has become a conflict, or a "trouble", it's a bit late in the process. While we can't handhold everyone in the scene, we can have people whose job it is to be part of the process of helping build safer spaces, incorporate people into the space, and address problems as they come up. This is currently a role that is only being taken in reaction to problems, rather than as part of the general welcoming atmosphere we're trying to create.
One of the best things we can do as a community is that if someone is a problem in regards to play, we can and should encourage them to stick around for educational events. Doing so has a dual purpose. Firstly, it helps educate the person, not only on the class material, but on general community etiquette. And secondly, it helps being them back into the community in a controller manner. This is a win-win.
Encouraging Bans with Concrete Sunsets
If someone needs to be removed from our community, we should do so with the understanding that this situation is temporary, and that what we're looking for is a change in their behavior. That means that we should be assigning temporary bans if possible, with specific actions that the person can take to be allowed back in, such as the requirement that they take a class on consent, or (in certain cases) that they're cleared by a mental health professional. These are more difficult to check and administer than the simple time based or permanent bans of today, but they would go a long way into helping bring people back into our community.
Treating Accusers and Accused with Respect
The biggest thing we can do is to treat everyone involved with respect, regardless of what the accusation is. That may mean discretion, or that might mean offering support to everyone involved. This is hard to do when things seem cut and dry, when it looks like someone is a "predator", but respect is the only way we'll be able to ensure everyone is safe.
Being Willing to Make the Hard Choices
There will be people for who no reforms are possible. While I believe this is a very small minority, these people are real, and we as a community need to be able to see that when it happens, it's not a fault of our own, and may not even be their "fault" but rather just the way things are. This may even involve needing to bring in law enforcement at times, if the situation is dangerous enough and warrants it, but even when that happens, we must treat everyone with respect.
Recognizing the Toll On Everyone
Lastly, we need to recognize the psychic toll that these situations create, on the individuals involved, but also on the community as a whole. This might mean that after a large community-wide issue occurs, bringing in someone to help councilor various community members, or offering a place to talk openly about what happened in an effort to heal. Only through healing can we as a community move forward.
Our community is amazing, but we can do better. We can and must curb the panic that's building in our community while at the same time ensuring that we are safer. I've outlined a few ways that I think we can do that, but I hope that this is just a small part of a much larger, longer conversation that our community engages in.