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Sorry, the BDSM subculture probably can’t solve vanilla consent problems…

As a consent crisis strikes at the heart of upper-middle-class America, I’m getting a lot of people from NPR to academics asking me hopefully if the BDSM subculture has the magic answers for all of their consent problems. They’re always disappointed when I tell them… No.

If I was going to be honest, I’d tell them FUCK, NO.

Now if you’re from the Scene, you probably think the next thing I’m going to say is because we have so many violations of our own, so that must mean that we haven’t “solved” consent. But actually, that’s not it at all. I think people in the Scene have totally lost perspective, and given how much fucking we do with so many people and so many people that we play with… Actually, we’re doing remarkably well, given the considerable cultural constraints we’re starting from. It’s like Dan Savage on monogamy: if you’re married for fifty years and only cheat twice, you’re actually pretty good at monogamy. Perfect we are not, but we’re doing way better than the culture at large, I think. I think.

No, the reason that our consent norms (which I think are bad, but nowhere near as bad as everyone else’s) won’t work in the vanilla world is for a long list of other reasons–in no particular order after the first two.

The top reason BY FAR that our norms won’t work elsewhere is because we drink so much less than everyone else.

I often like to joke that the only thing kinky about the Scene is that we do the shit we do while sober. Shit, sometimes people literally come to the Scene to help them stay sober. Kink consent norms assume that you’re basically sober when you’re negotiating with someone else, and on the whole, people usually are. Meanwhile, in vanilla culture, there’s pretty much an assumption that if you’re having sex with someone you don’t know well for the first time, you’re both probably at least a little (if not a lot) intoxicated. And people are SHIT at negotiating while drunk, partly because the culture has told them that being drunk is a legitimate excuse for being bad at negotiating and taking responsibility for what they do sexually… if they’re a girl, anyway. (You still have to take responsibility for anything else you do drunk, from hitting someone to driving. But for some reason sex is special). If you’re going to negotiate while drunk, I’m pretty sure you need a different set of rules and expectations. At a bare minimum, you have to alter the cultural meanings of drunk + sex.

The second biggest reason our norms won’t work well elsewhere is because mainstream culture doesn’t teach anyone to really value consent.

In the Scene, we’ve all been taught to value consent in general. We fuck it up by pretending like bottoms’ consent is the only thing that matters, and that tops’ consent is irrelevant, but we at least have the spirit of the thing. But in vanilla culture, no one really values consent to start with, and then they fuck it up along gendered lines, with people assuming that women’s consent matters and men’s doesn’t. Specifically, I hear a lot of people going on and on about how guys don’t value women’s consent. This is such a wild misunderstanding of the problem that it occasionally makes me want to go on a violent kicking spree. First of all, in terms of what they’re taught culturally, guys don’t value ANYONE’S consent. Have you ever seen the way lots of gay men interact with other? They’ll literally grab each other’s dicks without asking; even het guys recklessly sexual harasseach other without apparently even thinking about it that way. Second, women have been taught to think of themselves as completely unthreatening, so they don’t value anyone’s consent either. Women don’t bother to ask men if they want to have sex with them; they just assume the men want it. Watch how easily women touch other women and men with total freedom in vanilla spaces, and then watch how straight men touch other women and men. Men’s touches are assumed to be laden with the threat of sexual violence, and women’s touches are assumed to be sweet. Women get passes for making consent errors; men don’t. Men would take women’s consent so much more seriously if women took theirs more seriously, so nothing changes until we teach EVERYONE to value consent more.

The Scene is a highly monitored, tightly knit social world. Reputation is everything here.

In the Scene, the social cost of fucking up is relatively high, and you’re relatively likely to get found out. You can’t just go to a different bar next week to pick up a girl from somewhere else. (This is why the key violators in the Scene were/are people who travel a lot and/or deal with a lot of new people). But there are no dungeon monitors at a frat party. Meanwhile in the Scene, it’s common to negotiate in front of your friends and play and have sex with someone in front of other people. There’s a lot more potential for others to enforce consent.

The Scene is way more gender equal.

We still have all the problems of thinking that men’s touches are potentially threatening and women’s aren’t, but overall, my statistics say we take gender equality more seriously in every way than mainstream culture. When you think men and women both desire sexual pleasure, and both deserve sexual pleasure, consent negotiations are a lot easier and less awkward. On top of that, most of the vanilla world is structured around the assumption that men have to persuadewomen to have sex, because of course, “women don’t want to have sex”.

The Scene is way more sex-positive and way less slut shamey than vanilla culture.

In vanilla culture, part of the reason girls often don’t tell their friends about Bob the Rapist is because they’re ashamed they went home with Bob in the first place and are afraid of their friends judging them (and they probably are). In the Scene, people care waaaaay less about that, so the social cost of telling your friends that Bob is a dick is a lot lower. Being more sex positive also means people feel less like they have to get drunk in order to be allowed to fuck.

The Scene isn’t monogamous.

This view may be unpopular, but in my opinion, mononormativity discourages people from being honest. It encourages you to lie to your partner and pretend you weren’t checking out that girl over there; that you don’t watch porn; that you didn’t have lunch with your opposite-sex co-worker, alone, when there was nothing business-y to talk about; that you hadn’t had sex with 30 people before you met your current partner (I actually interviewed that woman); and that you aren’t still dating two other people because you haven’t actually agreed to be “in a relationship” yet. Mononormativity generally operates from a place of “some things are better left unsaid.” In that social world, bluntly asking, “Do you want to have sex with me?” doesn’t fit well because people just aren’t used to being truthful. They’re used to being cagey and coy and constantly skirting the boundaries between truth and lies. But in the Scene, polynormativity tends to encourage people to just constantly word-vomit their feelings at each other, and sometimes to feel guilty about hiding anything. It’s much easier in a culture of honesty to say things straight-up like, “can we rub bits?”

The Scene has a clearly established system about who’s supposed to start and lead the consent negotiation.

In KinkLand, for better or for worse, we’ve made it clear that it’s the top’s job to start and lead a negotiation. Things get fuzzier with switch scenes, but people still seem to be pretty good at adapting the format to their specific situation (and generally, the toppier person ends up leading the negotiation, and it becomes a way to try to establish dominance). In the vanilla world, it’s totally unclear who’s supposed to start the negotiation. Vanilla culture has sort-of decided that this is the guy’s job, but then they shame guys for making unwanted advances and so then the culture overall gets super-nervous about the way that initiating those negotiations ostensibly gives men so much more sexual freedom and power than women… so now it’s officially ?nobody’s? job. Without a clear definition of roles here, whoever makes the first move in a negotiation has the power of the initiator, but loses power based on the principle of least interest (as the person initiating, you look like you care more about the outcome).

The Scene’s norms don’t work spectacularly for negotiating sex in KinkLand.

Don’t get me wrong; I think we’re doing a lot better than vanilla people on this one. But I’ve got the numbers: if you met someone at a culturally BDSM place (munch, dungeon), you’re waaaaaay less likely to have sex with them than if you met them at a non-BDSM place. I’ve led workshops about negotiating sex for scenes, and people were like, “whoa, I never heard anyone talk about this before!” We’re so nervous about it that we constantly set up places to ease the negotiation process by functionally pre-negotiating it for everyone (gangbangs, orgies). Basically, as far as I can tell, our negotiation norms often actually prevent people from getting laid (in addition to preventing people from getting raped–can’t lose sight of that!), but I think there’s still a LOT of room for improvement.

Looking forward

I think there’s a bit of an order to the way these things have to change for things to improve in vanilla culture. I’m pretty sure that first, they need more gender equality, more sex positivity, and a more honest approach to relationships. I want to believe that fewer drunken hook-ups would follow naturally from that, but Icelandic culture (the most gender equal in the world) suggests that might be a vain hope; at a bare minimum, vanillas have to start acknowledging that reality of drunken hook-ups and try to develop realistic strategies for establishing solid negotiation systems in that context.

Even if they had those things, lacking a cultural norm about who’s supposed to start consent negotiations and a deeply entrenched system of social monitoring, vanillas are highly unlikely to be able to employ our system any time soon. I’d like to believe that the social monitoring is mostly only necessary because people aren’t especially great at monitoring themselves–basically, once you have a well-established norm, people generally start enforcing it for themselves. So perhaps the only real problem to solve there is who starts the negotiation. I suggest that the answer should be whoever asked for the date when you were chatting online/to go out/to go home, etc. But lacking blatantly defined power dynamics, vanillas need to recognize that starting those negotiations is always going to be trickier than it will be for kinky folks.

I don’t want be the bearer of despair and hopelessness. I think that vanillas can probably learn a little from the way we do things, if for no other reason than we’re showing that consent can be better. But I think that generalizing from the deeply eccentric cultural space of KinkLand to vanilla world probably won’t work too well: I think the fucked up consent culture that pervades the vanilla world is largely the product of a fucked up gender/sexual culture, and it’s basically impossible to fix the consent without ALSO fixing the gender and sex.

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I recently did an interview with NPR where I talked about a lot of these things.

Advice: Should I Be Worried about the Violent Porn My Loved One Watches?

Question:

“I found your website while trying to find and answer to the following question, which has been surprisingly difficult to get ANY real information on:

Last month, I inadvertently found some VERY violent pornography among a loved one’s belongings — extreme stuff by any standard: mutilation, broken bones and torture, even hints of necrophilia and snuff, all sexualized in one way or another.

He’s long been quite vocal about being a kinkster, and I understand that much of this is “play” — “like a violent video game,” as it’s been described to me. But is material this extreme something to worry about, in your opinion?”

 

Answer:

The short answer is that it’s probably not a big deal. The slightly extended answer is that no one really knows, but it’s probably not a big deal.

Very long answer:

So I’m not really sure how you came to be exposed to this information about the person you love, nor what the nature of this pornography is, but I’ll make some guesses and move on to the important issues…

There are basically two angles I see to answering your question: 1. Should you be worried about this person actually going out and raping/torturing/murdering people? And 2. Do I personally believe him watching/owning this is immoral?

 

Should I be worried about him actually going out and raping and murdering people?

…Probably not. There’s a pretty big difference between watching fucked up shit and doing fucked up shit. There’s at least one study (which to the best of my knowledge has never been replicated) that found that in countries where (fake) child porn was legal, child molestation rates were much lower (see Perv). Thus there’s actually some reason to believe that people watching “bad” porn might make them *less* likely to do “bad” things (I know I get therapeutic experiences from playing violent video games, and I think there’s every reason that the same idea could be applied to violent porn).

I have a partner who jerks off to (free and publicly available) videos of people being (actually) tortured because he figures the videos have already been made so he might as well as enjoy them. He’s not even looking at “porn”–just eroticizing the torture that someone else experienced, which might objectively be way creepier than what your friend is doing. Yet I’m fairly certain that my partner’s not likely to go on a serial killing spree any time soon, but I guess you never know. All of which is to say that watching, reading, and jerking off to “extreme” stuff doesn’t necessarily make someone more likely to do those things. If he’s deep into the BDSM subculture, a big motivation for a lot of kinksters is to find ways to do super fucked up things in safe(ish) and consensual ways.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no reputable or meaningful academic studies that have looked at the actual violent tendencies of people who watch extreme porn. There’s good cause for them to look at it, too, because merely possessing such pornography became a crime in the UK in 2009. For a great look into all this, check out Clarissa Smith’s chapter on snuff (linkand Jonathan Clough’s article on extreme pornography (link).

Okay, now I know you’re thinking about the three million studies you read where a psychologist took 36 undergraduate men, showed them some violent porn, and then they said they thought the idea of raping women was more appealing. The problem is that those studies have nothing to do with real world behaviors. And lest you appeal to the “common sense” argument here, let me point out a “common sense” contradiction between experiments and real-world findings that is much better understood: condom use while intoxicated. Common sense says that people are less likely to use condoms when they’re drunk, experiments say that men who are drunk find condoms less appealing, but… real world data say that there’s just no connection (I wrote a paper on this in 2013). Really, the question that they should be researching is if a taste for violent pornography is linked to actual violent behavior, but I can’t find anything that does that.

And I know you’re thinking about all those news stories about the crazed serial killer rapist dude with his terrifyingly creepy porn collection, and forensic researchers who insist this is real evidence. The tricky thing there is that’s a one-way correlation: my understanding is that there are pretty decent odds that people who do fucked up things will watch really fucked up porn. But the correlation doesn’t necessarily go both ways: there’s decent reason to believe that lots of people watch really fucked up porn but don’t do the really fucked up things. I think Smith’s article (cited above) does a pretty decent job of explaining why that might be.

 

But what about the moral implications?

For me, it mostly depends on whether the people making the pornography in question are doing so in an ethical way. According to Smith, a lot of these websites promise that no one was actually harmed in the making of their pornography. To that, I say, cool. If the porn is not ethically produced, then I think it’s super creepy to financially support it (and kind of neutral to say, steal it off the internet). But people buy stuff that’s immorally produced all the time (from illegal drugs to the literal clothes on our backs), and I personally think that anyone who’s supporting the Mexican drug cartels has way more to answer for than people supporting an itsy-bitsy basement industry of criminally produced pornography. They’re both terrible, but… hey, that’s just me…

The British government, by the way, decided they didn’t care about the ethics of production. They decided it was just bad, end of story. So if your loved one lives in the UK, he’s in potential legal trouble, regardless of the ethics of the thing.

 

The thing that actually matters

True story: I once went on a date with a guy who did in fact commit first degree murder just a couple of years later. After that single date, I decided there was no way I would ever go out with him again because he was “clearly too violent.” This was blindingly obvious to me, but clearly not quite as clear to many of his friends…

My point here is that the majority of the time, people don’t randomly turn out to be serial killers and rapists; there are usually a thousand clues around them that have nothing to do with porn and everything to do with how often they’ve beaten people up, talk about beating people up, and how much they believe “women really want sex from you even when they say no”. There are a small number who aren’t so obvious, and they generally have NO friends; the ones who actually have friends and still manage to pass as normal people are absurdly rare.

So. In my opinion, the real question isn’t, “Should I be concerned that my friend has creepy taste in pornography?” but far the far more complex, “Does my friend seem like someone who gives a shit about the well-being of both men AND women in general and his partners specifically? Do his partners seem afraid of him? Does he seem to have violent tendencies in general? Does he often cover up things, lie, constantly make excuses, hypocritically slut shame, seem really into sex but weirdly and disproportionately uncomfortable talking about it in a personal way, or massively exaggerate?” Even in the BDSM scene, I’ve met a number of people who were really bad people, and every single one of them so far was easily identifiable to me by one of those traits. And in my experience, those are the things that separate the kinksters with disturbing tastes from the future convicts of the world.

And believe me when I say I know, have played with, banged and AM a kinkster with slightly disturbing tastes.