Sex

Let’s Not Let the Jian Ghomeshi Scandal Give BDSM a Bad Name

BDSM lovers are particularly pissed off about Ghomeshi's Facebook post, because if the allegations against him are true, he was engaged in assault, not BDSM.

by Sarah Ratchford
Nov 4 2014, 4:02pm

Studded BDSM gear on display during Toronto's 2014 Everything to Do with Sex Show. All photos by Becca Lemire.

If, like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, you haven't been conscious for the past week, CBC Radio's former darling voice Jian Ghomeshi has been accused of being a sexual predator by no fewer than nine women. The police are now pursuing a criminal investigation after ​three of the women came to them directly. Ghomeshi's current whereabouts are unknown.

Ghomeshi jumped in front of the initial Star s​tory, claiming in a lengthy screed on Faceb​​ook that he simply likes it rough, that he didn't do anything wrong, that everything was consensual, and one "jilted ex" was out to get him.

People who partake in BDSM have been feeling particularly pissed off about Ghomeshi's Facebook post. The allegations against him are very serious, and if true, what Ghomeshi engaged in was not BDSM, yet his post would have dragged kinky people through the mud with him.

Sex educator Carlyle Jansen says bruising and red marks can be the outcome of a kinky session.

I called Carlyle Jansen of Good For Her sex shop in Toronto for her take. Jansen is a sex educator who teaches BDSM workshops and proudly admits to having a kinky personal life. (She was also behind the first installment of the Feminist P​orn Awards.) Jansen stresses that above all else, consent is the most important aspect of a BDSM relationship. A safe word should be established at the outset, which can put a stop to any activity that may become uncomfortable. Those taking part in BDSM must sit down with each other, and clearly articulate their boundaries before anything physical happens.

While consent is important in all sexual relationships, it's especially crucial to healthy BDSM. When defining where vanilla ends and kink begins, Jansen says the line is drawn at activities that require you to consult with your partner beforehand. Those activities could involve anything from whipped cream to choking or flogging. Sometimes intercourse is a part of it, and sometimes it isn't. Jansen says bruising and red marks can absolutely be the outcome of a kinky session, but the degree to which that happens must be agreed upon in advance.

"It's best not to begin to negotiate that when you've already started [fooling around]," she says. Whether it's anal, slapping, or even dirty talk or pinching, it's important to be clear about what's OK and what isn't. As with any sex, BDSM has the potential to be physically or emotionally damaging. "A lot of people, at first, think it'll be awkward to talk about, and they wonder How do I bring it up? But [it should be] part of the foreplay."

"Communication is crucial" for proper BDSM play, says Andrea Zanin.

It's also important to reaffirm consent regularly. Andrea Zanin is a BDSM educator and writer currently working on her PhD in gender, feminism, and women's studies at York University. She published a piece titled " Poor Persecuted Per​vert?" on her blog just after the story broke. She spoke to me on Friday to elaborate.

"Communication is crucial," she says. Consent should be established each time you play. Someone may love to be spanked and called names one day, but the next might be feeling vulnerable. Maybe she had a shitty day at work. On those days, it might be less fun to be smacked and called a slut. She may need gentler play, or none at all.

When asked if explicit verbal communication is needed for each session, Zanin says, "With people who are long-time play partners, they can sometimes forego some of the official stuff. But that doesn't mean it's not negotiated. It means it's been so negotiated, that it's considered kind of done."

As for kink being the current trend, Zanin says the only reason we seem to be talking about BDSM right now is that Ghomeshi used it to derail stories of serious assaults that had absolutely nothing to do with BDSM.

"As an educator, I'm happy people are interested. But we need to separate [BDSM] from discussions of whose story is true."

She also warns against jumping straight into rough play. The fact you've read 50 Shadesdoesn't mean you know how to safely choke your partner. Zanin writes that the community is divided on the subject of asphyxiation. Some people say it's simply too dangerous. The fact that it's erotic for many of us who wouldn't necessarily identify as kinky, she says, is the reason it can be so risky. It shouldn't be practiced by people who aren't already well-versed in BDSM. 

A woman is tied up during Toronto's Everything to Do with Sex Show

When I tell her about discussions I've had with friends who have been choked without being asked, but consented after the fact because they liked it, she says,  "I think that is probably the most dangerous territory you can play in." Though it works out sometimes, she says it's a terrible plan to assume a potentially violent act will be fine with your partner. People could have pre-existing injuries, illnesses, or triggers that would make rough sex harmful for them. This holds true even for slapping--just because past partners have happened to be into doesn't mean new ones will. If you slap without asking, well, you may actually be assaulting someone without knowing it.

"Talking about it is terrifying for some people. But the possible consequence is that maybe you'll wind up a rapist if you don't," Zanin says.

Many acts that fall under the category of BDSM require more groundwork than just a quick discussion before the session. If you want to tie your partner up, Jansen tells me, it's crucial to be careful in tying the rope so that you don't cut off your partner's circulation and cause permanent nerve damage. You should also have surgical scissors on hand, in case you need to make a quick escape.

"This is good for when you have housemates or kids, or if your parents are around and you're thinking, Ahh, get me out of here! Once, I knocked over the candle and set the pillow on fire."

And if your partner wants to be punched, Zanin says, there are safe ways to do that. She's apprehensive in offering these details, though, and stresses that she in no way recommends trying this at home. She wants people to be safe, and she says there's no way to safely bring punching into your play from reading a few lines in an article. Then there's the fact that some BDSM is not quite legal in Canada. As U of T family law professor, Brenda Cossman, explained last wee​k in The Globe and Mail:

"...When it comes to BDSM--or at least its more intense versions--the law doesn't actually care about consent. The Supreme Court has said that a person cannot consent to an assault that causes bodily harm."

Historically, the inability to consent to violence has largely been applied to sports-related cases, but they have occasionally applied to sex as well. The Canadian Supreme Court has said that consent given in advance, many times, isn't good enough. If someone is engaging in erotic asphyxiation, for example, and loses consciousness, they cannot very well be engaged in an ongoing form of consent.

Because of this precarious legal scenario, it's incredibly important that BDSM play does not veer into the lane of excess. Jansen says it's important to go slowly. If you're into five things, for example, only try one at a time. That way, you and your partner(s) can gauge how well it went and whether there are any issues. She says if you cross a boundary because you move too quickly, you might feel horrible about it the next day.

With BDSM, consent can be a grey area, according to Jansen. Some people will consent to a certain activity, begin to partake in it, and then change their minds part way through. But they may be reluctant to use their safe word for fear of letting their partner (or themselves) down.

A spanking exhibition during the Everything to Do with Sex Show.

Most of us think of consent as having very clear lines, but that's not always the case in a BDSM scenario. No doesn't always mean no, for starters. Often a safe word will be stand-in for the word no, so particular focus has to be placed on reacting to that word if it is said. You need to monitor your partner's reactions to what you are doing, even if they have given you their consent. If someone says they're OK with anal, or a series of spankings, but is clearly not enjoying it, you should stop and check in. Don't just keep going at them because they already said you could.

Kinky folk should also be aware of pre-existing power structures: If you're a man dominating a woman, if you have more money than your sub, or you're a white person dominating a person of color, you need to give those circumstances special consideration.

And if you're drunk or high? A lot of people might refuse to play with you, because that, in their view, can affect your ability to give meaningful consent. The same holds true if someone is on the rebound, or if one partner is very into kink and the other isn't.

"If someone says, 'I love you, I'll do anything for you,' is that really consent?" asks Jansen.

Checking in regularly is a must. "The conversations don't have to be super long," she says. "You can just say 'No names today, floggings are good, you can pinch my nipples, but no anal.'"

"Even non-kinky couples should do this," Jansen says. "How many women do you know who endure what goes on? It's the same with kink. I don't wanna be playing with someone who's just going along. I want to play with someone who's really turned on. I would recommend every five to ten sessions, for any couple, have a discussion."

I ask Jansen what people should do if they're in a situation like the ones some of the women who have come forward against Ghomeshi are describing. Particularly, I'm curious about the scenarios in which women are punched and choked very hard. I know there can be no official answer. The old stand-bys for assault--saying no, blocking the person, screaming for help and running away--are all good bets, unsurprisingly.

"[Many people think] you just leave, you just say 'Fuck off,' you get out of there. But relationships, and sex, and how women are socialized--it's not that simple," according to Jansen.

For the record, then: Random punches to the head that are wholly without context do not constitute BDSM play. BDSM play involves (often very hot) discussions about who is into what. It involves parameters being put around the play to ensure everyone is feeling comfortable and safe, and usually, both partners get what they want.

"The rest of the world could take a real cue from the way BDSM is negotiated," Zanin says.

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