BDSM Ethics Part 2: Some Thoughts on Making the World Better

In Part I of this essay, I wrote some initial thoughts about the BDSM Pledge Web site. To recap briefly (as if I am ever brief): The BDSM Pledge site is an attempt by Kink.com, a producer of BDSM-related porn, to start to codify a set of guidelines for responsible, ethical BDSM.

This is not really a new idea, of course. Folks have been thinking about how BDSM is distinct from abuse for at least as long as there have been words for consensual BDSM. A lot of folks have coalesced around two short, bumper-sticker-sized expressions: “SSC” (for “Safe, Sane, and Consensual”), and “RACK” (for “Risk Aware Consensual Kink”). They both have the notion of consent in common, but after that, things go a bit off the bend.

The RACK folks like to point out that no activity, from whipping your lover to climbing a stepladder with a hammer in your hand, is really entirely ‘safe,’ and ‘sane’ is often in the eye of the beholder. The SSC folks, on the other hand, see the notion of risk-aware consensual kink as overplaying consensuality to the point where it leads into some decidedly questionable territory; if two folks decide they have a cover-the-submissive-in-chum-and-drag-him-through-shark-infested-waters fetish, does that mean the unfortunate outcome is okay because they both knew the risks and were on board with the idea?

Honestly, I see both points. It makes sense to me that both SSC and RACK are reaching toward something that’s simple in conception but slippery in the details: different people have different tastes, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and as long as the folks involved understand that and aren’t being totally reckless with one another’s safety, there’s value in letting people get down to it.

But I don’t think SSC or RACK are, by themselves, sufficient for ethical BDSM. In fact, I think they’re both so narrow in focus that they miss something really important: There is more to ethics than what you and your lover get up to in the bedroom (or attic or kitchen or dungeon, as your tastes may dictate).

It’s one thing to be ethical to your partner, your confidant, and/or the source of your nookie. It’s an entirely different thing to be ethical toward members of your community, even ones you don’t like, and toward the great mass of humanity as a whole. After all, we as human beings are arguably hard-wired to behave very differently toward people in our inner circle than we are toward acquaintances or strangers. One of the failings I see in many conversations about ethical BDSM is that the discussions tend to focus on the ways we behave toward our partners, but not on the ways we behave toward folks we aren’t involved with. I think that’s a shortcoming of ideas like RACK and SSC; a code of ethics needs to be broader in its scope.


I’ve written before about how we in the BDSM community tend to talk the talk about consent, but we often don’t walk the walk. I have seen behavior at BDSM events and play parties which I think violate the ideas of consent and autonomy, in ways large and small–swatting the ass of that cute submissive who walks by, wrongly believing that just because she’s a submissive so that makes it OK; disregarding people’s boundaries because it’s an acceptable thing to do (after all, isn’t the point of BDSM to challenge people’s boundaries? Right?); even full-on sexual assault. Granted, no community is perfect; take any group of people (folks interested in BDSM, folks with red hair, folks with medical degrees, folks who drive Toyotas) and if it gets sufficiently large you’ll find some bad actors.

But it’s particularly worrisome, to me, to see people behaving poorly in the BDSM community, precisely because the BDSM community claims to value consent so highly.

Consent is the cornerstone of what we do. Consent is the defining element that separates us from abusers. Yet, in spite of that, I have seen far too many examples of non-consensual behavior in the BDSM community for my liking, and more to the point, I’ve seen non-consensual behavior tolerated. That’s something that a code of ethics needs to address.

When we talk about people behaving unethically in the community, it’s surprising how many times it seems that everyone knows who the bad actors are. There’s a good essay on this topic called The Missing Stair over on The Pervocracy. When something bad happens in any community, far too often everyone already who the perpetrators are. The bad actors are like a missing step in a staircase, in that when you become accustomed to jumping over that step, you can forget how dangerous the missing step actually is.

A comprehensive set of ethics must include not only ethical treatment of our partners, but also ethical treatment of other people in the community. And, as an important element of that, it must include creating a community that does not shelter people who behave badly.

I’ve seen the BDSM community close ranks behind a member who sexually assaulted submissive women in the community, without their consent; I’ve seen how people who came forward to talk about the assault were ostracized. This is something that simple slogans like “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” or “Risk Aware Consensual Kink” don’t address. Ethics means more than “I will only engage in consensual behavior toward others;” I think it also extends to “I will not excuse non-consensual behavior on the part of others in my community,” too.

I read recently about sexual assault that took place at Burning Man, and one of the things that struck me about the story was the commenter who said “I’m sure this guy [the rapist] knew someone out there… where were they to keep him in check?”

Which, I think, misses the point. In any community, it is not the responsibility of the people who know the bad actors to keep them in check. It’s everyone’s. If you’re there, that means it’s yours. If I’m there, that means it’s mine.

It is incredibly difficult to intervene when we see something bad happening. It’s easy to ignore evil; it’s easy to rationalize non-intervention. Someone else will do something, we say. It’s not my job to police the community. Where are his friends? They should be the ones to keep him in check. I don’t even know this guy; why should I be the one to step in?

And so, nobody does. The missing stair goes unfixed.


So, let’s get down to the meat of the issue. If I were to invent a set of ethical guidelines for BDSM, what would it include? It’s important to understand that ethics go beyond simply taking responsibility for our own actions; they also extend to not standing idly by while other people behave unethically. And, most importantly, any reasonable code of ethics must include the idea that each one of us bears responsibility for making our community an ethical place.

So I were to invent a set of ethical guidelines for the BDSM community, it would probably look something like this:

• In my interactions with partners, I recognize that their ongoing participation is voluntary, even in total power exchange or M/s style relationships. I recognize the agency of my partners, and I understand that the moment I attempt to do things to a partner that he or she no longer wishes to participate in, or that a partner attempts to do to me that I don’t wish to participate in, we have moved away from BDSM.

• I recognize that my tastes are not shared by everybody, and other people’s tastes may not be shared by me. Because of that, I respect the agency of the people around me. They are more than simply a role; I will not make assumptions about what is and is not permissible to do with someone simply because that person identifies as “at top” or “a bottom” or “a submissive” or “a dominant,” without actually considering that not everyone regards these roles to have exactly the same meaning.

• I acknowledge that unethical behavior is something that can happen in my community, and when it does, that is a reflection not only of the person who is committing the unethical acts, but also on me, and on the rest of my community. I can be judged positively on my willingness to intervene against unethical acts, or negatively on my willingness to look the other way.

• Consent is the cornerstone of ethical behavior. Even small violations of consent are unethical acts. Therefore, I will make consent a priority. Sloppy attitudes about consent, such as swatting the ass of any attractive submissive who walks by, or barking orders to anyone who presents as submissive regardless of whether or not any sort of relationship exists, are not acceptable.

• In addition, I will expect the rest of my community to step up and make it clear that sloppiness about consent isn’t OK. There’s a Geek Social Fallacy that says “Ostracizers are always evil.” This fallacy needs to be recognized for what it is. Folks who behave inappropriately need to be told they are behaving inappropriately. It needs to stop being ignored. A person who witnesses inappropriate or non-consensual behavior in the community and does nothing about it, becomes complicit in it. It is not evil to take a stand against people who behave inappropriately. If I am the person witnessing inappropriate behavior, it is my responsibility to be the person who steps forward.

• I will not behave with hostility toward people, especially women and most especially submissive women, who come forward to report abuse. (When my friend was raped–and let me make clear that this was not an edge case, a fuzzy boundary thing, or an after-the-fact buyer’s remorse thing, but a he-physically-restrained-her-and-put-his-penis-in-her-vagina rape–the amount of backlash she experienced when she came forward to talk to other people about it was astonishing. And not just from self-described dominants or from men; the number of women who responded with some variant of ‘well, if you were REALLY a TRUE submissive then you wouldn’t have problems with this’ was just amazing.) I will make it my responsibility to build a community in which this kind of thing is not acceptable. I recognize that people who engage in victim-blaming and rationalization are part of the problem; whether it is their intent or not, they are providing cover for abusers.

• It is an unfortunate fact that abusers can exist at any level within a community, even among community leaders. This creates a particularly difficult situation, because when abuse done by a community leader surfaces, there can be a powerful incentive to look the other way. Rationalizing is astonishingly easy to do. “Well, I wasn’t there and so I don’t know what REALLY happened, and I’ve hung around with this guy and he seems like an OK dude to me, so you know, maybe there’s nothing really to it, I bet she’s just causing drama…” If I learn about inappropriate behavior in the community but do nothing about it, I become complicit in it.

• Reputation and references alone are not necessarily reliable indicators of a person’s character. When a community punishes abuse victims from coming forward and shields abusers, then says “If you want to protect yourself, just see what other people have to say!” the result is to create an environment that makes it almost impossible to spot the bad actors. Of course people who have had bad experiences aren’t going to come forward and say so; the price is too high. The result is a situation like the one my friend experienced where she asked a lot of folks around the community about her attacker and got glowing reviews, even though he was a serial abuser…because the community is so hostile to people who talk about abuse that none of his previous victims came forward.

• Affirmative consent is important. If someone does not say “it is OK for you to put your penis in me,” I will not put my penis in that person. It’s not enough that she didn’t say “no, you can’t put your penis in me.” I will not assume that simply because I haven’t been forbidden to do something, that means it’s OK to do it. (This does not necessarily mean that it’s not OK to play with consensual non-consent, of course. I personally am a big fan of consent play and consensual non-consent. I talk to my lovers about it before doing it; it is absolutely possible to have affirmative consent to engage in consent play.)

• It is my responsibility to be compassionate and receptive if I am told of abuse within the community. There are significant barriers to disclosure, both institutional in the community and personal in the shame that tends to follow sexual assault. I will not add to these barriers. I will not become part of the reason that victims feel they can not step forward.

• Consent for activity A does not imply consent for activity B. Consent to a light spanking scene does not imply consent to a singletail scene. Consent to being tied up does not imply consent to sexual intercourse. At the end of the day, if person A puts his penis in person B without permission, anything that happened in a BDSM context up to that point is utterly irrelevant; it’s assault and it’s not OK.

• There needs to be less trivializing and minimizing when assault happens. “So he fucked you after you agreed to be tied up. That’s not REALLY rape; I was assaulted in an alley by strangers, and that’s far worse than what you experienced!” is not OK. While it is part of human nature to do this, and identifying with the attacker and minimizing other people’s victimization are part of the defense mechanisms we employ against abuse, this kind of minimization of poor behavior creates an environment where poor behavior is tolerated. A policy of no tolerance for assault, violent or not, in the BDSM community is an important part of ethical BDSM.

• On the flip side of the same coin, it is important to understand that if I am assaulted, the assault is not OK even if I did agree to be tied up first, or even if I did agree to play with this person first. People who are assaulted will often tend to trivialize their own experience. Better policing of the community, less tolerance by members of the community for assault, and better education for what constitutes assault are all important.

• It is not OK to play the “shoulda game.” When my friend was assaulted, a lot of folks came forward to say “well, she shoulda done this” or “you know, she shoulda done that.” When the “shouldas” are about things that happen before the assault (“well, she shoulda got more experience with him before she agreed to let him tie her up,” “well, she shoulda said ‘no’ more plainly”), it’s just plain old-fashioned victim blaming. When the “shouldas” are about things that happened after the assault, they’re a form of abdication of responsibility. After the assault, I heard one person in the community who is generally an otherwise decent bloke say “Well, she shoulda gone to the police after it happened,” and then used that as an excuse not to support her, but to support the attacker instead. We can’t expeect victims to follow some script that we make up in our heads and then withdraw support from them if they don’t follow that script. The community needs to be better at policing itself and enforcing standards of acceptable behavior regardless of whether or not people who are assaulted respond to the assault the way we think they should.

Many of these ideas center around the way we conduct ourselves in our community rather than simply in private. This is necessary, both to create a vibrant, healthy community that does not shield abusers, and to help ensure that our community is not targeted as a haven for abusers by the outside world. Whether we like it or not, and whether we agree with it or not, when members of our community behave poorly, it is a reflection on all of us…particularly if we fail to step up and stop it.


My buddy edwardmartiniii has written an essay on the value of policing our social groups in order to create ethical spaces. He also has some suggestions about fixing the problems we see around us. I have linked to these before, but I think it needs to be mentioned again. If we are to do what it is we do ethically and with compassion, these are important ideas.

To that end, I now wear a blue button on my jacket. That button is a reminder to myself: if I am to be an ethical, compassionate human being, it is not enough that I do no evil. I must also choose not to look the other way when others do evil within my community. If I want a community that does not offer a haven to abusers, it is my responsibility to make that happen.

18 thoughts on “BDSM Ethics Part 2: Some Thoughts on Making the World Better

  1. BDSM Manifesto

    I agree with this. I also agree that the BDSM pledge needs to have something about abusers.

    But if we are to have a manifesto, is there not some way to attach it to a simple pledge as with the BDSM Pledge site?

    The BDSM Pledge site is a great idea and it would be awesome if the community could somehow have a discussion page on there for this kind of thing, or where individuals could add their own personal manifesto, as you have done here.

    • Re: BDSM Manifesto

      Originally, that’s exactly what the plan was–to launch the BDSM Pledge site as a forum where folks could post their ideas about ethics and BDSM.

      Apparently, from what I’ve been told, there is now some uncertainty about what direction they’re going to take, and some sort of political struggle within kink.com about opening the Kink properties to outside bloggers and writers. I don’t know the details.

  2. BDSM Manifesto

    I agree with this. I also agree that the BDSM pledge needs to have something about abusers.

    But if we are to have a manifesto, is there not some way to attach it to a simple pledge as with the BDSM Pledge site?

    The BDSM Pledge site is a great idea and it would be awesome if the community could somehow have a discussion page on there for this kind of thing, or where individuals could add their own personal manifesto, as you have done here.

  3. Thank you for writing and posting this. Ethical behavior begins and ends with ethical thought and ethical behavior. Accept no other substitutes. I’ve learned this the hard way, through making many mistakes. Ethical behavior doesn’t eliminate making mistakes – it requires owning up to them when they have been made, and looking for ways to not make them a second time.

  4. Thank you for writing and posting this. Ethical behavior begins and ends with ethical thought and ethical behavior. Accept no other substitutes. I’ve learned this the hard way, through making many mistakes. Ethical behavior doesn’t eliminate making mistakes – it requires owning up to them when they have been made, and looking for ways to not make them a second time.

  5. Re: BDSM Manifesto

    Originally, that’s exactly what the plan was–to launch the BDSM Pledge site as a forum where folks could post their ideas about ethics and BDSM.

    Apparently, from what I’ve been told, there is now some uncertainty about what direction they’re going to take, and some sort of political struggle within kink.com about opening the Kink properties to outside bloggers and writers. I don’t know the details.

  6. The FetLife policies are something I find repugnant, and are one of the many reasons I no longer use FetLife.

    To be quite honest, the policies barring people from speaking out against abuse read to me as more self-interested than legal, considering that John Baku has himself been accused of sexual assault. It’s not hard, I think, to see through the nonsense rationalizations for FetLife’s policies and get down to which side his bread is buttered on.

    • “In any community, it is not the responsibility of the people who know the bad actors to keep them in check. It’s everyone’s. If you’re there, that means it’s yours. If I’m there, that means it’s mine.”

      This is a fundamental difference between many. My responsibility versus some other guy’s responsibility. This difference seems to span issues in everything in life. I always gravitate to those who see human beings as connected and see that there is something of a joint responsibility in life and all of life’s micro bits. No one lives in a vacuum.

      With the Fetlife and John Baku debacles, there are a herd of people crusading for letting some other guy be responsible adding the “it’s none of my business and has nothing to do with me” and advocating for gagging victims.

      Saying to these people, “this abusive event is a reflection on all of us and we all have to work towards a better way to relate to each other so it is less likely to happen,” doesn’t make it’s way through the brains of the “it’s not my problem” folks. They simply say “doesn’t reflect on me,” etc. It’s like talking to wood.

      I’ve read the three year old discussion (and the recent follow ups) between folks who witnessed the reckless behavior and the sexual assault that John Baku was accused of at the very well known BDSM establishment. There was remorse over inaction and some defensiveness here and there.

      I’m not a student of psychology. Was it really so simple as ‘peer pressure’? I suppose there was a mighty bit of rationalizing happening there. It seems disgusting.

      Whatever the case, it is more incentive for personal examination, sticking to a personal code and surrounding oneself with like-minded people.

  7. The FetLife policies are something I find repugnant, and are one of the many reasons I no longer use FetLife.

    To be quite honest, the policies barring people from speaking out against abuse read to me as more self-interested than legal, considering that John Baku has himself been accused of sexual assault. It’s not hard, I think, to see through the nonsense rationalizations for FetLife’s policies and get down to which side his bread is buttered on.

  8. “In any community, it is not the responsibility of the people who know the bad actors to keep them in check. It’s everyone’s. If you’re there, that means it’s yours. If I’m there, that means it’s mine.”

    This is a fundamental difference between many. My responsibility versus some other guy’s responsibility. This difference seems to span issues in everything in life. I always gravitate to those who see human beings as connected and see that there is something of a joint responsibility in life and all of life’s micro bits. No one lives in a vacuum.

    With the Fetlife and John Baku debacles, there are a herd of people crusading for letting some other guy be responsible adding the “it’s none of my business and has nothing to do with me” and advocating for gagging victims.

    Saying to these people, “this abusive event is a reflection on all of us and we all have to work towards a better way to relate to each other so it is less likely to happen,” doesn’t make it’s way through the brains of the “it’s not my problem” folks. They simply say “doesn’t reflect on me,” etc. It’s like talking to wood.

    I’ve read the three year old discussion (and the recent follow ups) between folks who witnessed the reckless behavior and the sexual assault that John Baku was accused of at the very well known BDSM establishment. There was remorse over inaction and some defensiveness here and there.

    I’m not a student of psychology. Was it really so simple as ‘peer pressure’? I suppose there was a mighty bit of rationalizing happening there. It seems disgusting.

    Whatever the case, it is more incentive for personal examination, sticking to a personal code and surrounding oneself with like-minded people.

  9. I think we also need to recognize that consent does not exist in a vacuum. There are layers and layers of personal, relationship, individual and collective historical, social, and cultural context, especially in a sexuality that plays with the eroticization of gender tropes, power, and inequality. I feel it’s very important when offering, and especially when receiving, consent to pay close attention to these contexts. I consider terms like “fuzzy boundaries” and “buyer’s remorse” when used to distinguish between “grades” of rape to be yet another form of victim blaming. “Fuzzy boundaries and “buyer’s remorse” are signs that the context of the consent was not properly attended to before the activity was undertaken. I would also like to say that penis in orifice without proper consent is not the only criterion for rape. Any form of sexual contact without proper consent is rape in my book.

  10. I think we also need to recognize that consent does not exist in a vacuum. There are layers and layers of personal, relationship, individual and collective historical, social, and cultural context, especially in a sexuality that plays with the eroticization of gender tropes, power, and inequality. I feel it’s very important when offering, and especially when receiving, consent to pay close attention to these contexts. I consider terms like “fuzzy boundaries” and “buyer’s remorse” when used to distinguish between “grades” of rape to be yet another form of victim blaming. “Fuzzy boundaries and “buyer’s remorse” are signs that the context of the consent was not properly attended to before the activity was undertaken. I would also like to say that penis in orifice without proper consent is not the only criterion for rape. Any form of sexual contact without proper consent is rape in my book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *