Friday, April 7, 2000

Trust, Consent, Intimacy—and Rape

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #127, April 7, 2000)

Regular readers of this column, and anyone who’s hung around the leather/SM scene for any length of time, knows the community’s motto regarding SM sex is “safe, sane, consensual.” Today let’s talk about the third part of that mantra—the dynamics of consensuality and nonconsensuality.

Consent is not just for those in the SM community. All sex and all intimacy is based on consent, and that consent is based on trust. In an SM setting, if trust is violated and non-consensual things happen, it’s no longer “safe, sane, consensual” SM—it crosses the line and becomes abuse, or even rape. Intimacy implies vulnerability, and SM is an experience of both hyper-intimacy and hyper-vulnerability. Abusers and rapists take advantage of that vulnerability.

Consent, Trust, and Communication

Consent comes from trust, and trust is maintained through communication. Good communication is essential to any kind of scene or intimacy. Communication is necessary before a scene starts to establish consent on the part of all participants, and to define everyone’s boundaries. Communication is also necessary during the scene to keep it on track.

The leather/SM community has evolved a form of communication known as the “safeword”—when any participant in a scene speaks a safeword, the action instantly stops. Participants in a scene can agree on whatever safewords they want to use, but one of the most universal safeword schemes is modeled on traffic light colors: “green” means everything is okay, keep going; “yellow” means slow down a bit or lighten up; and “red” means stop everything right now. In addition, it’s usually a good idea to keep in mind the ultimate safewords: “No” means NO, and “Stop” means STOP.

Safewords are one way of communicating during a scene, but they aren’t the only way. Communication during a scene may take many forms: verbal, physical gestures, eye contact, or body language, to name a few. Obviously, if a bottom is blindfolded and gagged, the top won’t be able to get any information from their eyes and the bottom’s voice won’t be able to be used for much more than muffled moans. If the bottom is in bondage and completely immobilized they can’t gesture very effectively. Fit the safeword to the scene, remembering that it may not always be a spoken “word.”

Once a safeword has been established, take it seriously. Don’t use it if you don’t mean it. Don’t use it in a confusing manner—don’t say “red” and giggle, for instance. If you hear your partner use a safeword, the safest thing to do is bring the action to a halt immediately. Then check in with your partner and see what’s going on. Maybe the action will start up again, maybe it won’t. But don’t take chances.

Why does communication in a scene break down? 1) At least one person stops sending clear communications and instead starts sending confusing signals and mixed messages. Or they may stop communicating altogether. 2) At least one person stops paying attention to the signals the other person is sending. Whether I am top or bottom in a scene, it behooves me to send clear communications and to pay close attention to what my partner is telling me. A breakdown in communication interferes with the safe, sane, consensual nature of a scene and opens the door to an abusive situation.

Staying Out Of Trouble

Obviously, no one wants to find themselves in an abusive or rape situation, but it’s not always possible to detect an abuser beforehand. They may wear leather and practice SM, or they may not. Abusers may be someone you’ve never met before but find very attractive, they may be someone you think you know well, or they may be a well-known community leader. They may be sweet—except when they’re drunk or high. Or they may not need a chemical assist to bring out their abusive qualities. As I’ve said before in this column, a jerk wearing leather is still a jerk. Trust your gut—if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

Also as I’ve said before in this column, it never hurts to check references. If you’re considering doing something with someone, but you’re a beginner and people tell you this person plays pretty hard, maybe it’s not a good match. What seems like a hard blow to you may only be their warming-up strokes.

When things go wrong

Okay, you’ve set up the scene beforehand—you’ve both agreed on what you expect, what your limits are, what each of you will and will not do. And then the scene starts, and something goes horribly wrong. You as bottom forbade the top to do something; now, in spite of your screams of protest, it’s happening anyway. Rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse—call it what you will, it’s happening to you. What do you do?

Or, say you’re topping someone and suddenly they freak. Things they agreed to before are now not okay. They may become violent. They may turn on you and start attacking you.

What do you do? You do what’s necessary to survive. Depending on the situation, you resist, you submit, you escape, you attract help, or you incapacitate your assailant. Follow your instincts, and know that if you survive, you made the right choice.

If you’re the top, you have the power and also the responsibility to bring the scene to a grinding halt, and to do whatever is necessary for the physical and psychological well-being of the bottom—as long as doing so doesn’t threaten your own physical and psychological well-being. If the bottom is attacking you, see the previous paragraph.

According to Scott Bartell, LICSW with Family & Children’s Service of Minneapolis, “Your physical and spiritual survival justifies doing whatever you need to do in a sexual-abuse situation. Your actions may need to be passive-aggressive, duplicitous, or even violent. You need to get out of the situation, and then get professional help for trauma survival.” Both your body and psyche have been assaulted and both need attention. Get medical care if necessary, and be honest with medical personnel about what happened and how it happened. And seek out a GLBT and kink-friendly counseling resource—you will need to do a lot of emotional processing to come to terms with what you’ve been through.

Leather Justice

Do you press charges? Do you name your abuser so they don’t do this to someone else? These are tricky questions, fraught with all sorts of uncertainties. The community depends on checking references and self-policing because we know from past experience that police and the judicial system tend not to be terribly sympathetic or understanding toward SM-related issues. But even in the leather/SM community, sometimes it’s the same as with heterosexual date-rape accusations: it’s your word against theirs. Since smear campaigns and witch-hunts are not unheard of, other people may take your accusations with a degree of skepticism until they’ve heard both sides of the argument.

Generally, though, when a community member doesn’t play by the rules, the word gets around—but unfortunately it usually takes a few people getting hurt before the message hits home and sticks. In the case of serious accusations, impromptu leather/SM community “courts” have been convened to hear the complaints and decide what action should be taken, up to and including censure and banishment from the community. At the very least, someone who is accused of non-consensual or abusive behavior will be under increased scrutiny by the rest of the community. They may eventually clear their name and reputation, or they may prove there were grounds for the original accusations. Or they may move, and the cycle may start all over again in another city’s leather/SM community.

One final point: these problems are not by any means exclusive to the leather/SM community or to any geographical area. All the concepts discussed here can be applied to other communities as well. It is an unfortunate fact that assault, abuse and rape happen in all communities—and all communities, leather/SM included, firmly state that assault, abuse and rape are not acceptable behaviors.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Saturday, April 8

Atons Leather/Levi Night
Location and time to be determined
Call the Atons HotLine for more information and to make reservations. Information is also available at the club’s website:

Saturday, April 15

Bizarre Bazaar & Silent Auction presented by MSDB
11 AM-6 PM (Auction until 5 PM), 501 First Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Discover all things erotic and exotic at the Bazaar! Buy or sell clothing, adornments, collectibles, toys, furniture . . . anything related to BDSM, fetish, leather, kink, and similar lifestyles. Music by Psycick Slutz. Silent Auction: All proceeds will go to a local charity benefiting the GLBT community. Successful bidders will be announced between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. Kink and fetish attire welcome but your costume (or lack thereof) must be street legal. $4 in advance, $5 at the door. Advance tickets at Dreamhaven (912 West Lake St., Mpls.), Rainbow Road (109 West Grant St., Mpls.) or by mail using ticket order form from website. Presented by Minnesota Stocks, Debentures and Bonds (MSDB), a local pansexual BDSM/fetish group. For more information, including vendor and silent-auction donation details, visit

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