Not long ago, someone started a thread in a FetLife group about the concept of giving references within the BDSM community—as in, the practice of asking Person A to tell you things about Person B before you’ll play with Person B, or alternately, asking Person B to refer you to one or more people who can vouch for his or her sanity or skill before you play.
It definitely got me thinking, and led me to realize that I have very mixed feelings on the concept. References can be really useful between the right people and when the process is carried out with great respect, but they can also be license for people to indulge in some really awful habits like gossip and slander.
Much of it comes down to the concepts of trust and reputation.
When it comes to trust, do you trust your own instincts and judgement? Do others trust you and what you have to say? Whose word do you trust? And most of all, why? For me, it’s exceedingly important that I pay attention to my gut feelings about people. When we talk about having a “sixth sense,” I think that’s quite accurate, but it’s not ESP (extra-sensory perception) at all. I firmly believe that our sixth sense is actually the finely detailed perceptions provided by all our other senses combined. Because the resulting gut feelings are not immediately tangible or measurable, our conscious and reasoning minds tell us we should ignore them and proceed with logical assessment. But in my mind that’s actually as foolish as ignoring the oncoming traffic you can see before you cross the street, or the funny smell coming from the gas stove, or the lump you can feel in your breast. Most people give a ton of information about themselves in the first few minutes of meeting, and almost all of it is unintentional, and it’s all true—perhaps with some leeway for exceptional circumstances, but even then, it’s wise not to make too many excuses for someone. By processing that information, our guts tell us what we need to know, and much like a musician can learn how to tune her ear to make the fine distinctions between a perfect note and one that’s slightly off, we can tune and enhance our gut instincts by paying close attention to them on an everyday basis.
With all this in mind, for me, when it comes to bringing a new person into my world, whether it’s a professional relationship or a friendship or a romance, the first thing I trust is my own gut instinct about people, and it rarely leads me astray. To be sure, it’s taken me years to hone it to the degree I have now, and my choices in the past have certainly at times stood as a testament to my own blind spots; but often those were due to me not taking my gut instincts as seriously as I should have.
The second thing I trust is what other people have to say, when their values mesh with mine. References are only useful when you already trust the person providing the reference, whether that’s because you feel a sense of common values or because you know them well enough to know you have common values. Beyond that, I don’t generally see the relevance of asking for a reference, not because it’s a bad idea in theory, but because it’s too much of a crapshoot to be helpful. If your values don’t match up with the values of the person providing the reference, the process just risks looking more like gossip than anything else.
You can ask a relative stranger for a reference, of course, but in that case I think there’s a lot to be said for listening to the subtext of the reference and not just the reference itself. If I ask Jane what she thinks of Bob, and she says “Bob’s got the coolest toy collection evar! And he’s such a hottie. He plays with all the super-pretty girls at every party. I really hope one day he’ll notice me.” Well, that tells me that the values espoused by Jane are materialism, mainstream ideas of beauty and popularity, and traditional man-makes-the-move ideas of how relationships should be formed. Her reference is useless to me because I don’t value those same things. Does it tell me much about Bob? Not really, except that he has toys and likes to play, and is probably a hetero top or thereabouts. And that’s the nice kind of useless reference—let’s not even get into the mean-spirited ones. In fact, if I’m interested in knowing some key things about a person’s ethics and value system, one of the easiest ways to find out how they think and behave is to ask them for a reference about someone else. So it’s entirely conceivable that if I wanted to play with Bob, I’d go ask him for a reference about Jane, rather than the other way around.
As for giving references, I think it’s always possible to say things with respect, and to judge what’s wise to say to the person who’s asking for that reference. If I’ve met Joe a couple of times and I think he’s a jerk and my best friend wants to play with him, I’ll go out of my way to talk her out of it. If a stranger asks me about Joe, I might say, “I don’t know Joe very well, and I don’t find myself particularly drawn to him. You might want to ask someone who knows him better, or observe him in action a few times before you approach him.” As a very active community member, I’ve been asked for references more times than I can count, and I always agonize over the appropriate way to respond on the odd occasion that I have a less than positive opinion about the person in question. But it comes down to honesty and respect. Diplomacy is always in order; I’m never dishonest when I give a reference, but a person can certainly learn a lot from what I don’t say as much as from what I do. That said, of course I’ll warn someone away if I believe their object of interest to be truly dangerous—a statement I’m happy to say I would apply only to a very tiny number of people.
In the BDSM community, like in any other, we each develop a reputation whether we like it or not. That reputation is based on other people’s gut feelings about us as players and as people, and on the cumulative effect of our decisions over the time we’ve spent in the community as shown in our actions—the way we handle social situations, relationships, responsibilities and so forth. We can’t divorce our actions from other people’s observations; even if we’re not under scrutiny for some specific reason, others will have impressions of who we are. With that in mind it’s up to each of us to act with integrity. This is not to say we should act with an over-investment in what others will think, or with paranoia, or in a scheming and politicking manner. We just need to act in keeping with a solid set of basic values, and let that speak for itself.
Some people get upset about this and declare that they owe no explanations to the community; that people should simply keep their opinions to themselves. But let’s be realistic here. It makes no sense to demand that people never talk about you. It might be fine and good in theory, but in practice, human beings are social creatures who bond in social situations in which other social creatures are also present. Of course we talk about each other. That doesn’t mean it’s all gossip and nastiness. It just means that if you’re going to participate in the community and reap its benefits, you can expect that the community will also have things to say about you. This is largely a good thing—it means you’ll get invited to parties even if you only know a few people there, people will admire your outfit or your play style, you’ll get let into a club without a police check, and people will hit on you once they find out from others whether or not you’re available. But it also means that if you behave in less than savoury ways, people will notice that too. If you can’t handle all this, go ahead and be a GDI (goddamned independent) and find your kinky friends by fishing in vanilla waters. You’ll find them, it’ll just take a lot more work.
If someone were to ask me to give them the name of someone who could act as a reference for me, I’d probably refuse. It feels like a false premise—I mean, I’m hardly going to tell them to go speak with someone whom I know has a hate-on for me. Instead, I’d rather just tell someone to ask around in the community. I trust that if people know me, they’ll probably think I’m a sane and basically nice individual, and won’t hesitate to say so. If they have even better things to say, hey, that’s okay with me! If my potential play partner should come across someone who doesn’t like me and who chooses to mouth off about it in a disrespectful way, then I hope my potential play partner would have the wisdom to note the poor ethics being demonstrated by that person and make their own opinions accordingly; if they don’t, we’re probably not a great match anyway. And if someone has a genuine concern about my safety as a top or my sanity as a person, I do hope they’d express it in respectful terms. Ideally I’d hope they’d express it directly to me in respectful terms so that I can either allay their fears or correct the problem at hand (we can all learn!), but at the very least, I hope they’d think of a potential bottom’s safety first and give that person whatever information they need in order to maintain it.
But really, what I hope for the most is that someone who’s interested in me will trust their own gut instincts, much as I trust mine about them. Background checks are fine and good, but there’s no substitute for your senses… all six of them.