Recently I bottomed to a well-known, fairly high-profile member of the Bay Area’s leather community, and I was very upset to find that in real play this person did not live up to the high standards of safety and consensuality I had been led to believe would be all but automatic by the person’s public statements. I am unhappy and disappointed for myself, but I am also worried for the fates of less resilient bottoms than I am. Under the guise of being my Top this individual tried to play in a way I said I didn’t want to, and pushed very hard to persuade me to change my mind even though I stated clearly that I felt doing so could jeopardize both my physical and my psychological safety. Apart from my anger and frustration, which I know how to handle, I wonder what to do with my information about this person in terms of community safety: do I accuse? do I hide what I know? How can I behave most responsibly? [italics added]
In an article entitled “Ask the Therapist: What Do I Do About a Dangerous Top?” that starts off with the above query, distinguished therapist William Henkin, PhD very ably and comprehensively addresses the question of what to do after the fact.
What I want to talk about here is the fact that such people exist, whether or not they are leaders of the community, and the trap that “saying all the right things” can lead to in general, but also particularly when they are well-known, or otherwise part of the leadership of a community – and how to avoid getting into exactly the kinds of situations described in the above quote in the first place.
It is an unfortunate fact that tops not walking their talk is not an isolated occurrence. It is even more unfortunate when they hold positions of leadership because newbies in particular have a tendency to view such people as being the arbiters of what is right and good, and make all kinds of dangerous assumptions about how safe these people are to play with that may or may not have anything to do with reality.
What you must understand is that there is nothing about the structure of the BDSM subculture or any of our organizations that in any way vets presenters, owners of community spaces, members of the elected board of organizations or its appointees, or anyone else as safe players. No one is responsible to check any of these people out. No one makes any guarantees about anything. There are no tests of competence, no checklists to ensure they actually comply with what they say, no one watching over their shoulders to be sure they do it right before they are turned loose on the public.
Nothing. Zip. Nada.
You are 100% on your own to sort how who is safe and who isn’t, exactly the same as in the vanilla world, although we do have some accepted conventions in this one that can help, if used judiciously.
People who become the community leaders have one or two qualities in common, often only that they are simply the only ones willing to step up to do the volunteer tasks involved. When an organization is run by volunteers, they take anyone they can get to do the tasks involved, to the point that often even known problem people are allowed to participate, simply because there is no one else to do the job.
(This is by no means true in all cases, and there are a lot of very dedicated, very safe people involved at all levels, but it comes into play often enough that you really need to not assume anything about anyone involved in the leadership of the community just because they’re there, and to check out each individual yourself, as your personal needs arise.)
Many of the elected positions in kink organizations aren’t even really elected despite the show of the use of ballots, because the people are often running completely unopposed. In short, there’s literally no other choice, so they are accepted by default. Anyone who is merely willing to do the job can literally walk into many of these positions, even if they are known predators.
Community leaders may be the only people who have the funds to open and run a playspace, or who own spaces that are used for such. They may be people who are simply charismatic and popular and put on a good show in public. Maybe they are highly skilled at one form of play, but then someone encourages them to teach a class about something else that they don’t know as well, so misinformation gets bandied about on a large scale. Maybe they are just friends or partners of the leaders, part of the “in” crowd. Some presenters are just in it for the money (and power), as they are usually compensated for the classes they teach, and may not actually know a lot about what they’re teaching, but have been asked to do it because they are a friend of So-and-So who is often a “leader” of the community.
They will pretty much all support the same “safe, sane, consensual” party line, and talk a great line about it, sounding very much like they know what they talk about, and act as if they always do it themselves, no matter what they actually do in private.
NONE OF THESE THINGS AUTOMAGICALLY MEANS THAT ANY OF THEM ARE ACTUALLY SAFE TO PLAY WITH, OR BE IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH.
JUST SAYING THE RIGHT WORDS AND SOUNDING SINCERE ABOUT THEM DOES NOT MEAN A PERSON AUTOMATICALLY LIVES AND PLAYS THAT WAY OR MAKE THEM SAFE.
EVEN PLAYING SAFELY IN PUBLIC WHERE THEY CAN BE SEEN DOES NOT GUARANTEE THAT THEY WILL BE SAFE BEHIND CLOSED DOORS.
I cannot emphasize these things enough.
When I first came out into kink a decade ago, the Society of Janus did actually have an application process that did do some screening, which I know led both others and myself to believe that Janus members were somehow safer than other kinksters. I was stunned to find out that all that screening did was to weed out the people who were the most overtly over-the-top crazy, but in no way investigated anything else about them, let alone apply a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Nowadays, they have dropped even that veneer, which I think is good, because it accomplished nothing, and only led to a false sense of security. People still have that misimpression, but at least there’s no process now that overtly pretends or implies otherwise.
But the impression lives on that somehow, if a person is involved in the public scene, and particularly if they are among any ranks of the leaders, or the friends of the leaders, that they are the Ones In The Know, and can automatically be trusted. This is an incredibly dangerous assumption to make, and a lot of people get caught by it.
If they sound kindly, dominant, self-assured, have a lot of personal charisma, are good-looking, have big toybags, etc., people tend to believe they are good, just, safe players, even with zero actual information to back that up. Be particularly wary of the quiet ones, and assume nothing, because much is often hidden behind those facades that you will never know about until you start to play with this person and get involved with him. The worst abusers are typically quiet and present a very reasonable facade to the rest of the world in public, are pillars of whatever community they are part of, etc.
If they claim to have been in previous long term relationships, particularly of a D/s nature, and will not even identify their exes let alone put you in touch with them, or specifically ask you not to contact them, or tell you they would not be willing to speak with you, especially if those exes are involved in the public scene, run like hell and do not even look back. It’s trickier if they haven’t been out in public, as many private players are not aware of the convention for reference checks within our circles, and cannot be expected to respond well to being approached, even if their experiences with the person are mostly good. But if someone who has been around the scene for a while and claims to have had long term exes who are also long involved won’t identify them, that should be a major screaming red flag.
The hardest part is that because of the positions these people hold in the inner circle, newbies in particular tend to believe what they say and do as “the one twue way”, and thus that they themselves are in the wrong if they don’t like what is done to them.
Also, those who are injured either physically or emotionally are generally particularly reluctant to speak out for fear that they themselves will be shunned – and sadly, that fear is not without substantial basis in fact. There is a really nasty tendency for exactly that to happen, and I know of a number of situations in which the victim has been banned from the community instead of the perpetrator, even when actual criminal charges and convictions clearly support the victim’s side of the story. I’ve also seen victims banned and even known outright criminal behavior that affects everyone and even the space itself to be tolerated when banning the real problem child will result in a drop in attendance or available volunteer staffing.
But if no one speaks up, oftentimes problems go completely unknown except by their victims, so the cycle gets perpetuated.
This happens with people who are not among the leadership as well, but it is a particularly malignant problem with those who are, precisely because of their higher visibility, and the false presumption that newbies have that such people are somehow exalted beings who can do no wrong. I can think of a number of instances in which abusers ran rampant in a community for years before they were found out, all because their victims were afraid to speak up when they should have, despite the additional very unfair risks to themselves. Likewise, if the victims turn tail and run and hide out of fear or embarassment, that allows the abuses to continue unchecked.
Even the system of reference checks and checking the community grapevine to see what is known about particular tops is flawed, should be viewed with a grain of salt, and one should learn how to use it best – and what it can and cannot do. I remember a situation in which I found that a friend had previously been in a relationship with a top I was considering playing with, and she gave him a glowing reference at the time – but years later, she told me about a much more abusive side of him that actually matched much more closely with my own experiences of his less stellar qualities. The rest was true, but she’d left out this huge piece of information that could have saved me quite a bit of angst if she had shared it with me initially. It also happens that people don’t find out until later that partners they choose may be convicted (or uncaught) child molesters, scam artists, and even murderers, or that perhaps their own existing or previous partners are and they stayed with the person despite knowing these things (which says a lot about what the person condones, if he or she stays with someone despite knowing of something like this in their past or present, even if they doesn’t do it themselves). People are too afraid to tell others what they know of things like this (as well as about outright abuse of previous partners) for fear that they themselves will be shunned – so learn to ask specifically about any and all of these kinds of things in a prospective top’s past, and any others that you would care enough about to not play with them if it were to exist.
So how to deal with this? It is not the purpose of this post or blog to teach everything about safe play, how to spot a good top, etc. There are plenty of other websites and resources for that, a number of which I’ve listed in the links in the sidebar, and will continue to add to as I find good material.
What I do want to impart here is that you must take responsibility for your own safety, no matter who you are contemplating playing with – and a big part of doing that (in addition to all of the common educational material out there) is to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the differences between healthy BDSM and abuse. Use this site and the many links on the subject to learn what the difference is, what your rights are vs what abusive tops will often try to make you believe, especially when you are new. You must know this in order to keep yourself safe, and to understand when dominance is crossing the line into abuse. It is really not enough to just learn about BDSM without also learning what differentiates it from abuse – and that is a lot more than just the “consent” we often hear is the dividing line, for reasons other posts on this blog and links posted go into further.
You are responsible to find out more about prospective partners from a more private perspective before you play with them, and that involves a lot of communications, as well as checking references and asking around to find out what may be known. People are often afraid of telling the truth even when they know it, so you need to learn to dig deep and ask very targeted and specific questions. What do this person’s previous partners have to say about him, including any he may have had an unhappy parting of the ways with? If he’s not willing to tell you who those previous partners were, that’s a serious red flag – and you should ask around.
Abuse takes many forms, and you should not rely on reports that only say something like “He’s abusive” or “He’s dangerous”. Those terms are much too subjective and emotionally-laden to be of any real use, and have little to no meaning by themselves. They should just be viewed as shorthand for compacting a whole lot of information into one pat phrase for the sake of conversational brevity when it is not possible or desirable to go into greater detail at the moment for some reason – and they should always be a signal that you need to dig deeper to find out specifics, particularly if you are trying to make a decision about whether or not to play with or get involved with a particular person or not.
What you want to ask (and ideally hear spontaneously) is exactly what he did that was problematic – specific factual details and circumstances, as devoid of judgmental wording as possible. Someone saying, “He continued to hit me repeatedly in a manner I had told him was a hard limit even after I safeworded” says a lot more than just saying he’s unsafe, for example.
But most of all, just do not assume up front that just because someone is in a position of community leadership or popularity, or that they say all the right things, that that automatically makes them safe. If you take nothing else away from this post and blog, I hope it will be that.