The Soapbox: On Abuse Within Kink (Or This One Time Some Really Bad Stuff Happened To Me)
Recently I went home with a kinky man after our first date. The experience phased in and out of being consensual throughout the night. I distinctly left his apartment feeling violated and I continued to feel violated for several days after.
We found each other online because both of us were interested in dominant/submissive (D/s) sex, particularly in spanking. I thought this man would be dominant in bed, as per his online dating profile and a conversation we’d had about it on our date. But instead of just dominant, he was controlling. Before we started playing, I told him the “safe word” I wanted to use. A safe word is a word or phrase used by kinky people during sexual play that they want the play to stop immediately; I never play with a partner without one. To my surprise, this guy told me that safe word I chose was “terrible” and to use something else. That raised a red flag right off the bat.
Another red flag came at one point during play when he called me a “bitch.” I’m not against being called names in bed. In fact, with a partner whom I know and trust, being called a “bad girl” or a “slut” can be really hot! But we never had a conversation about using words like that, and if we had, I would have told him that the word “bitch” was not OK with me.
The physical transgressions between us, of course, were scarier. He had been spanking me at various points throughout the night, for a long time and quite hard. And at some point in the evening as the pain he was inflicting on me hurt worse and worse, I used his safeword: “Pineapple!” He stopped spanking me, like he should have. We did other things. But later on that night, he started smacking my butt again. I felt so sensitive there that I wasn’t enjoying it — it wasn’t “good pain.” Come to find out the next day when I looked in a mirror, I had a constellation of small bruises all over my ass: three on one butt check and one on another. Because of the position he had been holding me in, this man most certainly saw those bruises. My safewording should have been the indicator to ease up the intensity of the spanks, or spank in a different location. But he didn’t. So later on in the evening, I safeworded again.
“A safeword is supposed to be for when you’ve reached your limit,” he admonished me.
I wasn’t sure what he was saying. “I have reached my limit,” I told him. “That hurts. It doesn’t feel good anymore.”
“It’s not supposed to feel good,” he said. “You’re supposed to use the safeword when you can’t take the pain anymore, not just because you don’t want to.”
“But I don’t want to,” I told him, aghast at what I was hearing. It was like he was suggesting I wasn’t being a “good enough” submissive or something, as if consent to one thing (spanking me) was consent to all things (spanking me extremely hard, calling me a “bitch”). This subject wasn’t debatable to me; I wasn’t going to be pushed further than I was physically or emotionally comfortable with. I thought about leaving his apartment immediately and going home in a cab. But it was the middle of the night and I was in an unfamiliar and questionably safe NYC neighborhood. Besides — to be completely honest — I still wanted to have penis and vagina sex.
That’s how the arguably-more-scary part of the night happened: this guy ejaculated inside me without a condom without warning me first. (I know this will be a question I’ll get in the comments — Why was I having sex without a condom? The answer is that we started with a condom on, but he kept going soft, and I wanted to have sex so badly that I said to just take it off.)
We were fucking, he pulled out of me, and I saw his sperm on my pubic hair. “You just came inside me?” I said, panicked. “Why didn’t you tell me first?” I hadn’t consented to him doing that. And I wouldn’t have consented to it had he announced he was going to come instead of just silently going ahead and doing it.
“Aren’t you on the pill?” he replied by way of response.
“No, I’m not on the pill,” I said, thinking FUCKING FUCK FUCK FUCK.
He looked at me pained. “I just came inside a girl who is not on the pill?”
“Yeah, you did. Why didn’t you ask me if I was on it if you were going to come inside me? I thought you were going to pull out.”
“I just assumed you would be on it.”
“You assumed wrong. I’m not. I haven’t had sex since I broke up with my boyfriend, like, six months ago, so I stopped taking the pill. You shouldn’t just assume everyone is on it.”
The next morning, at the encouragement of my coworkers, I got Plan B (the morning-after pill) from my local pharmacy. Three weeks later, I had a doctor’s appointment where I got tested for pregnancy and STDs.
But as much as I felt like I was “supposed” to be worried primarily about unplanned pregnancy or STDs, that wasn’t what weighed on my mind on my mind in the days afterward. The fact this man had ejaculated inside me without a condom because he just assumed I would take care of everything contraception-related made me feel dirty. The fact this man had kept hitting areas of my butt that had started to bruise made me feel dirty. Literally, dirty: all I wanted to do was bathe myself, even after I’d already bathed. I felt distinctly violated.
Over the next few days I felt crampy and bloated and hormonal from Plan B and stinging pain my bruises. But every time one of my girl friends asked if I was okay, I didn’t know how to answer. I think they meant physically okay. And I was, for the most part. What I wasn’t was emotionally OK with everything that went down. I felt angry. I felt angry that my limits had gotten pushback. I felt angry that assumptions had been made that put me at risk for pregnancy and STDs. There has been no enthusiastic consent for either of these things that happened. The spanking had not been about me being reluctant or unsure; I clearly used the safe word twice and he clearly heard me, because he stopped, twice. The safe word exists solely to signify consent has stopped. It is supposed to be heeded, no pushback, no questions asked other than “how can we make this feel better?” Simply put, he didn’t play by the rules. “Kinky sex” is not actuallydismissing a partner’s boundaries, demeaning their limits, or taking liberties with the temporary power and control you have over their bodies. It’s playing at it. Toying with it. To breach those boundaries are to shake the foundation of trust we hand over.
Last week saw a big ol’ Internet fight about BDSM sex, prompted by a piece by the columnist William Salean on Slate.com. (I already said my piece about it; I’ll also direct you to responses by Clarisse Thornand Dan Savage.) Similar conversations were started by this week’s episode of “Girls” in which Adam effectively date rapes his partner Natalia: he has sex with her from behind even though she says “no” and then ejaculates on her chest, ignoring her protestations. Adam is quite obviously into more kinky, rougher sex than his partner and he forces it upon her without her consent or enjoyment.
The most vociferous point that Saletan and those who agree with him made — including a lot of kinksters who wrote comments on my post — was a concern about how closely aspects of BDSM resemble domestic violence. Sexual violence is about power and control, which is also at the root of what motivates dominants and submissives — albeit for the latter, it is in the realm of fantasy and play. When people like Saletan make these bombastic accusations which reinforce harmful stereotypes, people like me feel a knee-jerk reaction to defend the “community.” Since I first playing with BDSM with my high school boyfriend at age 16, I’ve had overwhelmingly positive experiences. I’ve been safe and thoroughly consensual playing both partners and near-strangers, both at organized parties and in my own home. I was 28 years old before that one kinky asshole violated my boundaries.
William Saletan’s statements about how submissives don’t care about safety and how BDSM is “consensual domestic violence” were just concern-trolling for pageviews, in my opinion. But his statements have caused a lot of people, both with extensive experience in BDSM and with no experience at all, to voice their concerns about this kind of play and predatory individuals within it. I’m quite clearly aware from my own experience that there are so-called “dominants” who push past boundaries. I’m aware — although I have no experience in it — there are players within BDSM who sexually assault or physically abuse their partners or prey on the underage.
But despite my own negative experience, I hate to see the extreme examples of abuse being used to describe everyone in the whole community. It is really important to me to state strongly that BDSM sex as a dangerous haven for abusers has never, ever been my conception. The first thing to understand is the extent to which BDSM relationships are built on a trust in the safe space you have both created, a space where this person could touch you or talk to you in ways that make you extremely vulnerable. It’s over and above the general trust one needs in a partner. By exposing our vulnerability, we are voicing our trust that that the power and control being handed over will not be abused. We are voicing our trust that the space is safe: we will discuss boundaries fairly explicitly in detail before play even happens and then it will proceed just like we discussed. I treasure BDSM’s strong emphasis on consent and attendant feeling of safety. In fact, I’ve long felt like, generally speaking, kinky relationships are several steps ahead vanilla relationships regarding consent. The writer Stacey May Fowles explains this concept the best I’ve ever read it when she described it in the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions Of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. In her essay about being a sexually submissive feminist, she describes how the strict emphasis on consent is a good pattern for vanilla sex to emulate:
Those of us invested in ending rape culture also need to start discussing kink or BDSM (bondage/discipline/domination/submission/sadism/masochism). Kink isn’t superior to other consensual sex practices. (Sex-positivity, after all, is about doing away with the valuing of some consensual practice above others.) Mainstream culture could, however, benefit greatly from considering some of the principles that BDSM communities practice routinely. Kink, in my ways, may be the most responsible form of sex because you have to talk about it. You have to articulate exactly what you do and do not want to happen before anything starts happening. Consensually playing with power and control, for many people (survivors included), is a safe way to confront the twisted, violent, inequality-ridden society that we live in and to muddle through the ways our lives and experiences intersect with that. […] [B]y its very nature BDSM is constantly about consent. Of course, its language and rules differ significantly from vanilla sexual scenes, but the very existence of a safe word is the ultimate in preventing violation—it suggests that any moment, regardless of expectations or interpretations, the act can and will end.
That’s the BDSM that I know and love. I couldn’t help but feel like this man’s disrespect and disregard towards my pleasure was indicative of a larger, problematic rape culture, not an inherent problem to BDSM. Rape culture, to me, felt not so pervasive within kink as in the “vanilla” world. Playing at a spanking party with a near-stranger, for example, he asked for my consent so often that it almost seemed comical. You can understand, then, why I felt so extremely angry that my “safe space,” so to speak, had been invaded.
Those of us who do engaged in BDSM know that any loss of power, any loss of control, any degradation, any submission happens within the context of the fantasy play. When it happened outside of that context, I didn’t know who to talk to about it with or what to say. I spoke with my therapist, of course, and a few friends. While everyone agreed what happened had been fucked up, no one quite knew what else to say about it. One friend wished that some kind of web site existed where I could warn other women from the online dating site not to go home with this guy. I toyed with the idea of confronting the guy and spelling out for him how each of these things that had happened were really not OK. Mostly I felt guilty that what happened was upsetting me so much, as if it wasn’t “bad enough” for me to feel upset. It’s not like I was raped, right?
Of course, I also blamed myself for taking risks. I shouldn’t have gone home with a man on a first date. I should have gone home after the spanking incident. I shouldn’t have had sex without a condom. I shouldn’t have done D/s play with someone I didn’t know. I should have communicated better. I know better than all of that! This whole thing could have been avoided if … I’ve written and read enough about rape culture, victim blaming, and slut shaming to know that these are completely normal feelings to have, but it doesn’t mean any of them are true. A part of me still wants to go back to that guy and tell him what happened. But I don’t think I could handle it if he denied what happened, or, worse, blamed me for being upset about it by insinuating I’m not “kinky enough” or “submissive enough” or “too feminist” or whatever else.
The experience shook my world, so to speak, in that it sullied whatever innocence I had from never before having experienced any abuse within kink. I am already more cautious now with men. It also made me promise to myself that I would never again ignore red flags. And most definitely I would never again have sex without a condom with someone I’m not in a relationship with. I wish this experience had not happened. But it did and I’m trying to make the best of it. And I hope that my own candid experiences shed some light on BDSM. It’s not all bad, it’s not all good, it has problems, but it also has things that most of the time are very good.