The international BDSM list of which I am a member has been sustaining a number of discussions about the concept of domestic discipline, consent and related topics. This inspired my last post, on domestic discipline, but the ongoing discussion has inspired a few more thoughts, this time with regard to non-consensual bad behaviour on the part of dominants, and whether or not such behaviour is more likely in people of a given gender. For those of you who are on the same list, you may well have read most of this already. I guess this makes me a lazy writer – from list post to blog post with just a bit of editing – but hey, when something’s on my mind and the words start to flow, why not make the most of it?
So. I’m a bit of a traveller, and I’ve been to SM events in easily a dozen or more cities, many of them multiple times. While I certainly don’t claim to know what things are like everywhere, I can definitely say I’ve run into insecure, easily threatened and frequently rude dominants in pretty much every place. I’ve never noticed one city to have markedly more than another, though I’m sure there are regional and community-based differences. (We will talk about non-consensual submissive behaviour at another time. It’s definitely out there too, and often just as icky as its counterpart.)
There was the dominant guy who grabbed me in a choke-hold as a last resort when his flirting didn’t work (him: “I’d love to put you in a dog cage” – me: “Ah, really, no thanks, that’s not my bag”). There was the female pro-domme who lambasted me like a schoolchild in front of a crowd for showing up late for an event she was hosting (that had no cut-off arrival time, might I add), and was quite surprised when the entire group walked out on her following her rudeness. There was the male dom who, without bothering to introduce himself, pulled the strap of my shirt down and said he liked it better that way. There was the dyke dominant who went off on a loud and vicious tirade, in front of me and another gal, against my friend for speaking to her without the proper submissive tone – when my friend was in no way submissive to her. I could go on for a very long time with this sort of story…
Or hey, read Mathew Styranka’s book Endless Knot. He’s a male submissive who spent years in an abusive relationship with a psychologically unstable female dominant who from his account seems like an absolute nutcase, and nobody ever called her on it – including him, even in his own book about it! You’ll have to read it to see what I mean. It just about made me scream. I ranted about this in my recent post “Still Knotted, or Don’t Do Us Any Favours, Buddy” so I won’t repeat myself here.
This brings us to the question of what makes someone a dominant.
I think some people come to their dominance because it fits with their turn-ons, others because they have a certain personal power or dominant character, and doubtless others for many other reasons. But taking on a dominant persona could just as easily happen precisely because of insecurity – fear of losing control, need to push others around because otherwise you feel weak, and so forth.
Some people with that sort of personality or emotional make-up wind up in classically abusive positions, whether they’re the domineering co-worker or the nasty boss or the authoritarian parent or the controlling boyfriend. Some of them of course wind up in the SM scene, and find that the codes and mores of the community provide just enough legitimacy to their behaviour that they can get away with it under the guise of dominance if they use the right terminology, learn how to use some toys and wear the right clothes, and find some willing submissive with just the right combination of desperate desire to live out their D/s fantasies and lack of sufficient experience or self-awareness to discern precisely when they are being manipulated or when things are straying from a healthy D/s paradigm.
From the outside there’s no way to judge a person’s motivations or emotional reality, until they behave in ways that clearly betray it. In addition, most of the people who fit this description don’t know it – rarely will an insecure person openly admit, to themselves let alone others, that their behaviour is inappropriate or that there’s anything wrong with them at all. The whole point is that they’re small and frightened, in denial and puffing themselves up in a dominant fashion to cover that up.
In a sense our community is set up to make it easy for these folks to get away with it – not only to get away with behaving badly, but to get away without having to take a good hard look at themselves. For every person (dominant or otherwise) who behaves badly, there are dozens willing to say “oh, that’s just Bob, he gets like that,” or “you’re just upset because he didn’t want to play with you,” or “you should be more tolerant of others’ kinks” or “he’s been around longer than you, leave it be” or “oh, he’s in a dominant headspace, just steer clear.” And much like in any other situation of sexual harassment, inappropriate flirting, rude and condescending comments etc., the burden is left with the person on the receiving end to do something about it – and like those other situations, there are often many reasons to just leave it be.
Theoretically, our ethic of “safe, sane and consensual” is a safeguard against this kind of behaviour. Practically speaking, that ethic is not enough to prevent abusive or inappropriate behaviour, especially when we’re conditioned to be so open-minded that we sometimes fail to ask critical questions about the health of others’ relationships and our own.
I don’t think this is a gender-related thing. I think it’s a question of emotional and psychological health, period. Not everyone who is attracted to power exchange will do it from a healthy place, plain and simple; many people let their D/s bleed outside the bounds of their consensual relationships, and not everyone in consensual D/s relationships is there for healthy reasons in the first place.
That’s not to say that gender or community cannot begin to play a role. In the BDSM community, there is, at least in theory, no particular expectation that a woman must be submissive, or that a man must be dominant, and no community enforcement of either role. People switch, people change over time, we’re all kinky, let’s hear it for diversity. But when a given community starts to more and more predominantly feature, and therefore value, a specific sort of dynamic, the factor of social pressure may begin to rear its head, and create a situation where people make assumptions about role based on gender, or where people are discouraged (sometimes subtly, sometimes with great force) from taking up a role that doesn’t fit with the norm, or where power structures are set up such that the people on the receiving end of non-consensual behaviour are discouraged from calling the perpetrators on it.
Unfortunately, given that there’s a smaller ratio of female dominants out there in the first place (if we refer to general community perceptions, which are supported by Trevor Jacques’ huge study of the BDSM community from the late 90s), this sort of situation is probably statistically more likely to exist with the predominant dynamic being male dom / female sub. (This is true in pansexual communities at least – in same-sex communities we are usually spared the gender assumptions, though not always, and either way that certainly doesn’t guarantee a lack of rude people.) This is not because male doms are more likely to exhibit bad behaviour, it’s just because proportionally speaking there are more of them. I could enter a full analysis of the reasons for that skew in the first place – a good place to start would be the relative ease with which a guy will be assumed and encouraged to be dominant in a patriarchal society, whether in life or in the dungeon, versus the relative challenges facing a woman who wishes to assume a similarly dominant position, whether in life or in the dungeon. But I digress.
All of this to say that there is still plenty of inappropriate behaviour in the BDSM world, and the more skewed the gender/power dynamics of a given group, the more likely the odd ones out will not be taken seriously, or be made to feel unwelcome, if they raise a complaint about non-consensual behaviour, whether within a relationship or in a larger social setting. Also, the more likely the dominants of the predominant gender are to be ignorant of the problem, as they are the people least likely to be the target of the bad behaviour and so least likely to experience it first-hand. Again, this simply mirrors larger society, so it should come as no surprise that it is the case within the BDSM world. And, like in larger society, jerks come in all genders – but some genders are given a riper environment in which non-consensual behaviour can flourish unchecked. In a subculture where power play is valued and eroticized, and where open-mindedness and tolerance are prized, we are not always as sensitive as we could be to assessing the relationships around us by our own standards of consensuality.
I realize this all sounds quite pessimistic, but I don’t really feel that way. I just think it’s a good idea to balance our acceptance of people’s diverse roles and kinks with open eyes to potential instances of non-consent, whether between relative strangers at a munch or in our best friend’s D/s dynamic. These problems can arise as easily within our culture as outside it, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that SSC and RACK are enough to safeguard us against them 100%. Just by virtue of being kinky, we are not immune to being human.