Consent in the Fetish Scene, or, What Am I To Do?
There’s a campaign at the moment to reveal the extent of rape and abuse in the fetish scene. It’s based in the idea that violations of consent are widespread, and that the scene’s culture conspires to silence victims and protect perpetrators. I’ve never experienced what they’re talking about. I thought that perhaps it was just a problem in America, but it seems that London has its fair share of abusive gits, too. For several months I’ve been aware of the campaign, but was unable to relate it to anything I know of the scene.
Then, a few days ago one of my posts about dancing was mentioned here. In it, I talked about negative experiences at jive clubs, mostly due to the sexualised atmosphere, including being groped many, many times by men on the dancefloor. I didn’t go into the fact that the two men from jive who have my contact details have both indulged in a bit of sexual abuse: one wanking down the phone at me, the other arousing himself while holding me down. The post explores the idea that jive is, to some degree, a heterosexual marketplace. The people at Southern Jive didn’t agree.
Well I can very happily say, I have never, ever experienced the feelings that lady/woman not girl does at a jive night (well, every dancer – man or woman will have had one of those dances; but nothing like the all encompassing lechery the author seems to percieve).
This was, I think, the only female commenter, but there was general agreement that my claims were untrue. I refrained from joining the discussion, but my reaction was, “because you haven’t noticed it, it must be untrue? Really?” I can think of many reasons why my experience of a heterosexual marketplace differs from other people’s: I’m young, I’m female, I dress in a feminine way, I don’t take a husband (ultimate protection) or friend (lesser protection) with me. I know I’m an easy target. It was brought home to me in a big way when I lost my keys at an out-of-the-way jive club one night, and found myself tearful, being circled by a man who always pulled me too close while dancing. Even after his help was politely refused, he sat in his car outside the front door, idling the engine and offering to put me up at his place. Of course, if you’re a middle aged man attending with your wife, you don’t have the same experience of modern jive that I have.
I don’t want to be like the jivers who don’t believe there’s nastiness because they haven’t seen it. When it comes to violations of consent in the fetish scene, I believe that others are telling the truth. Therefore, I’m either very lucky, or I’m not the prey.
I’ve glad I didn’t come to BDSM when I was eighteen. I’m glad even as I meet the next recruits to the under-35s munch at the beginning of the academic year. There they are, fresh-faced and desirable, about to discover a new world. It has to be a fabulous feeling, leaving home and exploring your deepest desires. All the same, I don’t envy it.
I was a stupid eighteen year old. Fortunately, I went to a campus university where there wasn’t much trouble on offer. I did the usual student things—drinking too much, clubbing for no apparent reason, snogging random men and women on dancefloors, wearing slutty schoolgirl outfits to themed nights, spilling coffee during lectures, shopping trips with no expendable cash, believing my friends when they said all you can eat Chinese buffets are good (until we got there), attending parties thrown by physics students (we were the only girls), hiding behind books in the library when the girl I fancied walked by. Stupid stuff. Not dangerous stupid stuff (although there was a very memorable drive to Glasgow just after I passed my test) but stupid stuff. I didn’t have a lot of casual sex, but then I didn’t have a lot of offers from people I would have liked to have casual sex with. Maybe travelling alone round China, a country not known for its low crime rate, would have been safer if I’d told someone which city I was heading to next. Maybe I shouldn’t have got into so many taxis with so many random men, or driven so fast on the motorway, or tried to be emotionally involved with so many men I didn’t feel that strongly about.
If I had joined the fetish scene, I would have dived enthusiastically in. I wouldn’t have had the subtley and experience to make a clear distinction between the parts of the scene I could see most clearly and the parts that would be most satisfying to be involved in. I would have played with many people. There are plenty of men in the scene who would have wanted a sexual relationship with me. I would have ended up, therefore, in a relationship with an older, sadistic, more experienced man, and while this would have played to my kinks, it would also have happened before I learned enough to hold back a little, which is necessary when you’re playing with things that encourage rushing forward. The relationship wouldn’t have worked out and I’d have been heartbroken, much more heartbroken than was at all appropriate. I’d have learned to say no to chancers and harassers much quicker and better than I did in reality, but only after some horrible experiences with men who pestered me into things I didn’t want. I’d have spent years waxing and shaving even more obsessively than I did. I’d have hurt some nice people who actually would have been lovely partners because there’s a bigger, nastier man over there to get to. And that’s not taking into account how little thought I’d have given to safety, safe calls, safe words, sexual health or where this man is actually taking me. The safety things we talk about are only the visible bit of the iceburg.
Most eighteen year olds are probably more sensible than I was. Nevertheless, without victim-blaming at all, I think we can recognise the strength of my position: older, with a male lover and a poly family who have strong links in the community, and, frankly, are scarier than me. If you’re looking round the room for a victim, you’re less likely to pick me than someone young, inexperienced and alone, and in any case I’m more likely to say no. The people who came to pester me when I went to events alone don’t bother any more, and the last time I was verbally harassed at a fetish club, a friend had reported it to the management before that had even crossed my mind. I’m in a position of relative privilege. Not as much as, say, a middle-aged male dominant, but a good position nonetheless. What’s my responsibility towards those who aren’t? To believe them and not their abusers? Check. But what can I do?
The BDSM community is a self-selecting group, anyone can turn up, and therefore I don’t expect an awful lot more of them than of wider society. We can agree basic minimums: no physical assault, respecting of safewords, that gentlemen should refrain from masturbating while watching others play. That’s great, but unless you’re in a public space yelling, “safeword! SAFEWORD!” as someone flogs you, I’m unlikely to intervene. Once we get beyond basic minimums, no intervention is on solid ground.
I don’t think one acquaintance should punch his partner’s head. Should I say something? He’s bigger in the scene than I am, and belligerent with it. I don’t think two of my acquaintances should play when drunk or stoned, so what should I do when they head to the playspace? I listened to a young woman debate whether she should spend the extra money on a return ticket to the city she was going to meet a strange man from the internet for the first time, or bank on spending the night at his, with horror. I don’t think she listened to my advice. The relationship between the man who always joked he was on the look out for fresh meat and the very young woman who has just joined the scene makes me feel slightly queasy, but they both seem very happy for now, I doubt either are interested in my opinion.
If you come to me with a story of violated consent, I will make you a cup of tea and listen to you with reasonable credulity. If you yell for help against an abuser in a public space, I have a good track record of punching them in the face.* I suspect that a real cultural change needs something more subtle, though. I understand that there’s a problem. Do any of you know what I should do?
*Yes, I recognise that this might not, strictly, be helpful, but it is active.
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