Heart in Handcuffs

We’d all like to think consent is key in the BDSM scene. But when I was in it, that sadly wasn’t the case.

This article contains sexually explicit content. 

BY AYAKO BLACK

The year I discovered kink, shortly after my 18th birthday, I met a Dom who I desperately wanted to impress, who we’ll call P. P. was more than twenty years older than me. We’d fooled around once at a club and we had a good time, so I wanted more. This was long before the Internet was a reliable source for information about kink safety, and I was dumb, horny, and inexperienced. I was also insecure, and I wanted to be a good submissive for him, whatever that meant.

P. asked what I wanted. I said I wanted to be spanked. Somehow, the negotiated spanking evolved into him “play-raping” me, followed by anal penetration. Afterward, I was bleeding. I still have scar tissue from the encounter.

The encounter with P. made me profoundly uncomfortable, but I refused to admit to myself that anything inappropriate had happened. “I didn’t say no,” I rationalized, “so it was consensual. Hadn’t I fantasized about submitting in that way?”

I called my cool, older friend, who was also a member of the kink scene, and described the experience to her. “It was so hot,” I told her.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “You don’t sound OK.”

“No, it was great, he was so dominant. It was like my fantasies,” I told her in a voice that belied my anxieties, wanting to sound brave and adventurous. I didn’t want to admit that maybe I hadn’t been on board for everything. I was smarter than that, wasn’t I? I must have wanted it.

I fell into a crippling depression for a week after this incident. It took me fifteen years to realize that when P. suggested “play rape” in the middle of the scene, he was actually using kink to justify actually raping me.

I was reminded of this incident recently, when I attended an event hosted by some friends from the kink scene. At one point in the evening, a male attendee cornered me, grabbed my breasts, rubbed his penis on me, and verbally harassed me.

After I told the hosts about this guy’s behavior, I was horrified when they invited him to another event I was attending. When this man showed up, I was informed by the host that he had claimed that he did not know me, the assault had never happened, and that it was a “misunderstanding.” I learned after the fact that this individual has crossed the line with other women as well, and yet he is still invited to events. Incidents like this one are precisely why I no longer interact with the BDSM community in my city.

Though I spent the better part of my adult life shaping my social life around my kinky desires, spending my nights and weekends at kink parties, clubs, and social events, I recently decided to leave the BDSM community, in part because I had witnessed so many consent violations like the one that occurred at my friends’ party.


Members of the BDSM community pay lip service to consent and negotiations,. But we have a bad habit of ignoring our own consent problems. 

While members of the BDSM community pay lip service to consent and negotiations, we have a bad habit of ignoring our own consent problems. We often talk about policing our own and punishing those who cross the line. But when push comes to shove, this often doesn’t actually happen, and it’s the victims of such consent violations who pay the price. In spite of our best intention, rape culture is alive and well in the BDSM community.

As a disclaimer, I should say that I am a sex worker and sex educator who is 100 percent pro-sex and pro-kink. I have identified as kinky for 17 years, and I believe that consensual BDSM is a normal and healthy expression of sexuality. I do not believe BDSM is inherently abusive, and I do not think that people seek out BDSM because they are emotionally damaged (well, maybe some people do, but not everyone). I think most people do it simply because it’s fun and exciting. End of story.

Yet consent violations inevitably occur in the kink community—not because kink is an intrinsically non-consensual activity, but because consent violations happen everywhere, including in vanilla life. When these violations take place, the community tends to handle them poorly. We are so desperate to paint ourselves as consent-loving, happy, “normal” people that there are no real safeguards in place to deal with real problems when they arise.

The conversation over kink and consent has surfaced on a larger, more mainstream level with the controversy over Fifty Shades of Grey, which has been intensely criticized by kinksters and their sex-positive advocates for portraying an unhealthy, nonconsensual kinky relationship. (Ana is a virgin when she and Christian meet, and for the majority of the first book she seems horrified by his kinky desires, acquiescing to them only to please her partner.)

In her essay “Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades” in the Atlantic, Emma Green says:

This is not how experienced members of the kink community have sex. Because BDSM and other kinds of experimentation can be risky, and because it pushes people’s comfort limits, people who are interested in these kinds of activities have established communities that follow strict rules concerning safety and consent.

Kink advocates have argued that Fifty Shades of Grey depicts BDSM in a way that is nonconsensual, nonnegotiated, and abusive. It supports tired, stale, abusive Prince Charming fantasies that enforce heteronormativity and rape culture. It’s not “real BDSM.” All of these arguments are probably true, but I think the “not real BDSM!” critiques underscore the need for the BDSM community to face some of its own consent problems, before we turn accusatory fingers at Fifty Shades.

Out of context, kink can look like abuse or domestic violence to the outsider, which it decidedly is not. But members of the kink community also aren’t very good at policing our own, and what I see happening again and again is victims of predators being swept under the rug, forced to leave communities that have become intolerable while the predators remain to prey upon the next batch of innocent newbies.

For instance, when I told a few confidantes that a certain prominent male dominant had handcuffed me and duck-taped a plastic bag over my face without prior negotiation, then subsequently ignored my safe signal, I was told that he was actually a really great guy, and that it was my fault because I should have “known about his reputation.” I left the scene because I couldn’t pretend that I felt OK about these things, and I did not wish to put myself in emotionally or physically vulnerable situations with these people.

It took me over 15 years to admit to myself that P., the man I referred to at the beginning of this article, had crossed the line and committed a consent violation, or that he took advantage of my youthful inexperience and desire to submit, instead of doing what I had actually asked him to do: Give me a spanking.

In hindsight, this man was not a real dominant. Much like the BDSM community’s critiques of Christian Grey, he was an honest-to-God sadist and abuser who used styled himself dominant as a socially sanctioned way to abuse women.

P. and Christian Grey both fall into the category of what Dan Savage recently described as someone who uses their kinks to explain away their sexually abusive behavior. After disgraced former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi used his kinks as a justification for the assault allegations levied against him, Savage tweeted: “I oppose the demonization of consensual kinksters. I despise abusers who cover for their crimes by claiming to be consensual kinksters.” Savage hit the nail on the head: The problem is not kink itself—it’s confusing kink with abuse, or pretending abuse is kink when it’s clearly not.


Abusers definitely exist within kink communities, just as they exist in the vanilla world. 

Most people in the kink community are not abusers, and labeling kink as abuse when it is not has the potential to destroy lives. But abusers definitely exist within kink communities, just as they exist in the vanilla world. These people are often very socially influential and powerful. They are often the people who throw the best parties or run the best clubs. They own the nicest toys and have reputations as the “edgiest” players. They are often sexy, charismatic, and manipulative. They are the sociopaths who will look their victims in the eye and gaslight them into believing that a horrifying sexual encounter they didn’t consent to was all a big misunderstanding or that they must have really wanted it all along.

A perfect example of this phenomenon occurred when I attended a play party in the small college town where I was attending grad school. I had been to several of these parties in the past and always had fun, but this night felt distinctly different. There was a guy at the party who had a reputation for having bad boundaries who wouldn’t stop touching me and a lot of other women at the party, even when they made it clear they didn’t want to be touched. I even saw him forcibly bear hugging a girl while she screamed, “No.”

Meanwhile, in the hot tub, an older dude kept touching my friend’s penis, even as my friend repeatedly told him to stop. (When I confronted this guy after the party, he claimed that it was a “game” they were playing and that it was consensual, even after my friend explicitly told me otherwise.) I also watched a blindfolded friend get genitally fingered by the host of the party, despite the fact that she had not consented to playing with him. She appeared to be in distress, but then again so do most submissives in-scene. I had no idea that this wasn’t something she had agreed to in advance, and I didn’t feel like it was my place to step in and stop it.

All of this could’ve been prevented had there been a dungeon monitor (or an informal kink party security person) at this party. I later found out that the host, the same man who had nonconsensually fingered my friend, had made a deliberate decision not to have dungeon monitors at his parties. This man was rich, had a nice house, and was generally considered a “nice” guy by the community. Yet after that evening, reports emerged that he’d been nonconsensually fingering women and violating consent for years. But his victims were afraid of speaking out, because he was well-liked and had a lot of power. 

Does this scenario sound familiar at all? It’s really not that different than the recent string of allegations levied against Bill Cosby and the aforementioned Ghomeshi. In Cosby’s case, it’s notable that as in the anecdote above, the violations had been occurring for years, but victims were afraid to speak out against a powerful person. It highlights the fact that the consent violations that occur in the kink scene are not much different than those that happen in the vanilla world, except that those who practice erotic power exchange should be twice as careful about practicing consent because of what is at stake.

Kinksters cannot afford to blindly submit to the same tired-ass tropes of mainstream rape culture if we want to prevent abuse in our communities. BDSM is supposedly a subculture where consent is of paramount importance, where community members actively educate each other about consent, and where partners carefully negotiate scenes ahead of time. “Safe Sane and Consensual” and “Risk Aware Consensual Kink” are the two mottos of the BDSM community. If kinksters want to demonstrate to the vanilla world that we are not engaging in abuse, we need to start walking our talk.

Shortly after these sexual assault allegations came to light in my community, the alleged assailant’s defenders came out on the BDSM social media website Fetlife in droves. “It must have been a misunderstanding. He’s such a nice guy!” people were saying. “He would NEVER do that! And isn’t it just a little suspicious that his accusers choosing to remain anonymous?” (Similar comments were made by those who didn’t believe Cosby and Ghomeshi’s victims.)  

I’ve seen such scandals flare up in nearly every BDSM community I’ve been involved in. And I’m not the first one to discuss them publicly. In 2011, activist Kitty Stryker wrote about the various consent violations she’d experienced as a submissive in a blog post, where she called out the BDSM community’s unwillingness to address abuse and sexual assault.

“I was told I was doing a disservice to the community by speaking out, that being sexually cajoled must be some sort of fetish for me, that there are precautions I could’ve/should’ve taken to avoid it (thereby suggesting that by not taking enough precautions it was partially my responsibility),” she wrote, adding: “If I had written this when I was 18-22, I would have been violently triggered and probably left the ‘community’ myself.”

In 2013, kink educator Graydancer blogged about his concerns regarding organizers of the popular Shibaricon, “the world’s premier international pansexual annual rope bondage educational conference.” The conference had just hired an instructor who had been accused of sexual assault multiple times. Unsurprisingly, these attempts to call out abuse were met with a tremendous amount of controversy and pushback from the Fetlife community, in the form of hundreds of comments, journal entries, and blog posts.


It is typical for kink advocates and educators, including myself, to want to paint kink as this happy, wonderful, fun place where consent violations never ever happen because we’re all so emotionally evolved and amazing at communication. We’re so desperate to reverse the stigma and allegations of abuse and mental illness levied at kinksters that when these consent issues pop up, we whitewash—or, at worse, ignore—them to try to gain mainstream acceptance and approval.

It is important to remember that kink doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Kink is still as informed by rape culture as the mainstream, even if we’d like to pretend it isn’t. The popularity of Fifty Shades gives kinksters the opportunity to re-evaluate their attitudes on consent, and how consent is actually playing out in our communities. It is important that we not only talk about what healthy kink means to members of the vanilla world, we need to model healthy kink behaviors and stand up to members of BDSM communities who commit consent violations.

We need to stand up for victims of sexual assault, instead of dismissing their concerns or shunning them. We need to work to ensure that consent violations are handled in a way that is not dismissive or traumatic to victims. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the outside world and be twice as stringent about not letting the abusers and creeps slip through the cracks. We need to work on strategies for making the BDSM scene feel like the safe, wonderful place we tell the outside world it is. If we do the necessary work, I have faith that we can rebuild this community. And if we do, I might even consider coming back. 

Photo via Jason Clapp/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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