Solution: Support Survivors to Create Safe Spaces
[EDIT: this post, originally written in 2014 was in response to conversations, posts & controversy within the Denver BDSM community and specifically addressed on FetLife. Some of this is dated, some of it is out of context, but the problems continue to manifest, particularly among leadership.
In September of 2016 I was notified by a local group trying to book me to talk about consent that I had been banned from the our local BDSM club, apparently as a result of my consent activism. I specifically asked whether I had been banned because of being unsafe when playing and was told that it was because I publicly highlighted the ways in which that owner was perpetuating rape culture and implicitly discouraging victims reporting bad players. I have since gone back to edit this piece, just for clarity and structure but not for content, because I think this is still important to know and understand.]
How we do respond to and protect survivors?
This is something I’ve given a lot of thought and effort toward over the past year. In fact, it’s kind of taken over my life. It’s prompted me to begin the work of building bridges and identifying allies within law enforcement and victim services available outside the community. My goal has been to minimize the numerous obstacles to reporting assault and abuse, but more than anything to empower survivors through giving them back their sense of control over their own path toward healing or justice.
I think the disconnect I have seen within the community has been the pervasive denial and dismissal of the existence of harm and trauma within our community or the useless nitpicking and tone arguments made to distract from addressing this issue. This has been damaging to the community, our messages about consent and as one poster termed it, “mutual respect”. And it’s been damaging to the survivors in our midst, whether they be vocal about their experience or not. It leaves people feeling lost, angry and hurt but more than anything disappointed. Mutual respect must also include room to air grievances with the status quo, allowing for the free expression of the pain associated with such a deep trauma.
For a community that boasts “The difference between what we do and abuse is consent!”, I’m shocked at the display of hostile and verbally violent resistance to empowering that very thing: consent. I have watched survivors who finally muster up the courage to speak up be buried under an avalanche of silencing, shaming and blaming patterns. And it’s not just newbies who we do this to, we do this to seasoned veterans of our community as well. This has a detrimental chilling effect on not just survivors, but those who are actively in crisis and seeking signals of support and safety.
And it’s perpetuated in part by “leaders” who we’ve propped up with careless ego strokes. Their unchecked, oblivious vanity leads us into the abyss of pettiness, nit-picking and invincible ignorance. When given power, the goal becomes to retain power, deliberately enforcing a status quo that thrives on defensive posturing and self-protective privilege.
When we have people willing to start programs, to develop and deliver education or provide services to victims, we hollow their support systems, thus depriving them of assistance or even announcements about services available (like deleting their posts announcing these services). We just wait for them to burn out. We create a self-fulfilling prophesy by bankrupting these efforts of the nourishment of meaningful contribution and collaboration.
So when they fail to meet our artificially lofty expectations, we feel safe to accuse them of not doing enough, not being enough and not taking the pain and hurt that we launch at them in the name of “critique”. When they fight back demanding to be heard or assisted, we point the finger to accuse them of bullying and demand that they adhere to our hypocritical standard of integrity that rests comfortably on a bed made of privilege and patriarchy.
What a magnificent mirror into how abuse is enabled and enacted within individual relationships.
I don’t want to take up this space with the details of what I’ve done to help create solutions, but I can summarize it with a few key themes.
Otherwise known as: “What I did during my vacation away from FetLife and the public scene”:
– Meeting with, presenting to and aiding survivors in conversations with prosecutors at the local City Attorney’s office (which prosecutes DV) and the local DA’s office (which prosecutes sexual assault and DV resulting in serious bodily injury).
– Presenting to law enforcement, victims advocates and adult/child protective services about the difference between healthy and happy BDSM/poly/swinging and abuse disguised as BDSM/poly/swinging. (And getting outed to people working with my kids as a result of this presentation)
– Aiding MSW students in teaching their fellow classmates (and professors) about providing greater ease of access to victims from the BDSM community, including encountering and resolving biases inherent in their profession as well as creating safer spaces for victims to come forward.
– Applying to present at state-wide and national conferences about consent issues and creating model responses to consent violations within the BDSM community. (One has been approved another I won’t hear about until May). (FYI – My ability to present at these conferences is heavily influenced by my ability to be able to pay to travel and attend.
– Collaborating on community education efforts that will focus on identifying abuse within a relationship, compassionately understanding trauma responses, bystander interventions and countering victim blaming rhetoric.
And I still have plans for more. But I’m by far not the only person working on this. Many sacrifice their valuable time and energy to create the foundations of a safe and healthy community.
This work comes at a cost. Many of us are limited because this is all on a volunteer basis. There is no compensation for doing this and the rent won’t pay itself. Because many of our best and brightest advocates have day jobs, you’re stuck with me, a self-employed referee who has generous availability during the work day. I don’t make enough in my business to support this volunteer time, much less feed my family, yet others have even greater trade-offs to deal with. To do this work I have had to be fully out in my professional and real life…a heavy cost for many and one I wouldn’t ask of anyone. Not to mention, it still makes my husbands and friends nervous to have me out, to have me as visible as I am and possibly be the target for exploitation or retaliation.
What I’ve learned throughout my time in advocacy is the counter to rape culture is to create a culture of consent (duh!).
A culture that goes beyond the “no means no” and truly embraces a standard of enthusiastic yes.
A culture that confronts bad behavior and microaggressions because we value consent in all its forms that much.
A culture that recognizes that we actively play with power and control, that it is our bargained-for exchange and therefore we must be extra vigilant to ensure that our relationships honor the values of equality, consent and mutually beneficial experiences.
A culture that honors the worth and dignity of each member by recognizing the intense vulnerability and trust that we display in our relationships and scenes.
The key solution: create safe spaces
One valuable piece of advice I was given by prosecutors and advocates was that by focusing our energies on honoring and understanding the experience of survivors, giving them at least one safe space where they can heal and find support, we send a clear message to perpetrators that they are not welcome in our spaces without ever having to say it.
Perpetrators continue to operate in our community because they’ve come to rely on our community’s staggering ability to silence, shame and blame survivors who come forward…doing all the hard work of intimidation, manipulation and coercive control for them. They know that activists like me, shining the light of accountability, will be shouted down creating a safe space, not for survivors but for perpetrators. By doing so we create a void of services and support that have been exploited by perpetrators to avoid responsibility for their actions, deflect accountability for their choices and rationalize the detachment of empathy and guilt which allows them to continue their cycle of violation and violence.
Our unhealthy leadership dynamics are at fault. We protect the egos of people in charge, citing their financial contribution to providing a space or leading a group, as justification for deferring to their preferences and neuroses. We give them wide latitude and lots of benefits for doubt because we want to still have a place to play. We defer to them out of displaced loyalty and amorphous fear, enforcing the status quo and giving perpetrators freedom to continue.
But when we prioritize creating a safe space where survivors are believed, or at least given positive and supportive assistance, we send a disempowering message to perpetrators: they can no longer find a cozy spot in our ranks. This deprives them of the power and adulation that they use to justify their “leadership” positions and narcissism. By offering compassionate support and indeed, respect to survivors, we demonstrate our value for maintaining a consent culture and thus we begin to create a safe space for us all.