A Disquieting Silence

 Posted by on August 16, 2011
Aug 162011


The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) is currently promoting a program called “Consent Counts.” Numerous classes on negotiation, boundaries, and safety practices are taught each year at kink events around the globe. A plethora of well-known sex educators, presenters, bloggers, and activists have spoken about the difference between BDSM and abuse. Yet, when BDSM ceases to be a consented to activity and becomes abuse, many remain silent.

Luckily, that silence is being broken by more and more brave souls. Kitty Striker and Maggie Mayham recently did an interview with SF Weekly speaking out against abuse within kink communities. International Ms Leather 2010, Mollena Williams, has shared her personal story of experiencing abuse inside the Leather community and encouraged other with similar stories to break the code of silence surrounding abuse. However, many who have experienced abuse within BDSM are ashamed or scared to come forward, they find themselves caught in what Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann termed a spiral of silence.

Noelle-Neumann, a German political scientist, first developed the model of the spiral of silence in an attempt to explain how perceived public opinion can influence individual opinions or actions. She claimed that a person was less likely to speak out about a topic if they believed their point of view was in the minority and may prompt reprisal or isolation from the majority. The theory relies on the idea that in any given situation every individual has an intuitive way of knowing what the prevailing public opinion is at the moment. The spiral is created and consistently reinforced when a spokesperson for the majority opinion confidently voices said view. As such experiences become more and more common, the minority feels less comfortable voicing their opinion for fear of being shunned.

I believe we’re unwittingly silencing our fellow kinksters who have experienced abuse within the “safety” of the BDSM community by constantly claiming to value consent and touting the differences between BDSM and abuse. Just to be clear, such things are important. Consent should be a part of all kink experiences and individuals need to be made aware of how to tell the difference between abuse and consenting adults enjoying BDSM. However, too often, the message that seems to emerge is “abuse doesn’t happen within the community” instead of “we provide tools (information on consent, BDSM practices, and abuse) to help lessen the likelihood that abuse will occur within the community.”

As individuals within a sexual minority, it’s not surprising that BDSM practitioners want to put their best face forward. The constant repetition that “BDSM is not abuse” is important for gaining the acceptance of the larger population. However, when BDSM becomes abuse, the same phrase that helped our community gain ground with the vanilla world becomes a stumbling block for those who have encountered abuse as part of their kink experience. They feel trapped, unable to articulate what they know was not “normal” BDSM for fear that their experience will be written off as them being overly dramatic or not understanding standard BDSM practices.

Sadly, the people most likely to follow into a spiral of silence are those whose voices are already rarely heard (although anyone could be a victim). Most of the people I’ve encounter with tales of abuse have identified as submissive, people that are expected to “know how to do what they’re told” and “go along with whatever the person in control wants.” Often their complaints or need for support are met with a disavowal that what they call abuse actually could be. After all, “BDSM is not abuse” and SuperDom McDomlyPants was simply helping you expand your limits as a sub, not disregarding your consent and acting in an abusive fashion.

While I’m not suggesting we stop noting the differences between BDSM and abuse, I do endorse the idea of acknowledging that sometime individuals use the idea of BDSM to hide abuse. Until we acknowledge that abuse is just as possible within the BDSM community as it is outside of it, kinksters that have experienced abuse within the community are likely to remain silent.

Take the time to read accounts of abuse within the community like Kitty Stryker’s “I Never Called It Rape” or kinkylittlegirl’s account of watching Mollena tell her story, think about what abuse can/does look like within BDSM, and support those that are brave enough to speak out. Silence regarding abuse doesn’t help anyone and this is one spiral I am not willing to be caught in.