Consent Violations in BDSM scene

In Dutch, "geel" means yellow and "geil" means horny. Which means "yellow" as a safeword can be a bit confusing :P.

In Dutch, “geel” means yellow and “geil” means horny. Which means “yellow” as a safeword can be a bit confusing :P.

Although all kinksters agree BDSM should only be practised with consenting adults, consent violations still happen. In 2013 the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom published a worrying statistic, showing that almost one in three SM-ers had a pre-negotiated limit violated, and 15% even experienced their safeword being ignored. There has been a growing focus on and development of consent culture within the BDSM scene, which has included a tense but fruitful discussion of different types of consent violations. In most simple terms bdsm without consent is simply abuse, but the reality is often more complex and nuanced. Are all consent violations bad?

Reading about the NCSF study I found myself looking back on my own experiences with consent violations. I remember a scene where I gagged my partner and then hurt him. We had the type of relationship where I felt comfortable pushing the boundaries a little, so I went a bit further than I usually did. And then I crossed his boundaries but he couldn’t safeword and I had no idea, because I’d gagged him and forgotten to give him a non-verbal safeword. He was emotional afterwards but not upset with me at all. And I think this exemplary of how consent violations in the scene often happen. I’ve had my own consent violated more than once, but I never considered it a ‘bad consent violation’. Just an honest mistake.

A group of Dutch kinksters decided to find out. They set up a big survey, which over 350 BDSM-ers finished. Their data was analysed by someone who knows what she was doing, so if you’re into statistics go download the paper because it’s good.

A quick look at the characteristics of kinksters
Over half of all subjects were female. This is interesting because there’s still this prevailing myth that perverts are usually men. Over half were submissive, a quarter dominant and another quarter switch (which means they like both roles). As usual they found that men prefer the dominant role and women are more often sub. The age group 18 to 30 was the largest in this sample, though there were kinksters older than 61 as well. People generally had one to ten years of experience, about 10% of people had more than 20 years experience.

Consent violations
Almost 65% of kinky people have experienced some consent violation, often more than once. In this study they asked about pre-negotiated limits being violated, safewords being ignored and scenes that went too far, and all of those things seem to happen regularly. All numbers were higher than in the NCSF study, for example over 20% of Dutch kinksters have had their safeword ignored (compared to 15% in NCSF).

But how bad is it?
One of the great aspects of this study is the nuanced picture it shows of the seriousness of consent violations. They asked respondents about their experiences, how bad they felt it was on a scale from 1 (not bad) to 10 (bad) and their answers were so diverse. There were peaks around 1 to 4, even for the occasions they describe as the worst consent violations. There was another peak at 8 to 10, which shows really horrible consent violations happen.

When asked if they considered the consent violation a form of abuse, the majority of people said they did not. About 15% of all kinky people have ever experienced a ‘bad’ consent violation, and about 20% have had at least one experience they consider abuse. These numbers are, sadly, similar to what we find outside of the BDSM scene. So it seems kinksters are, yet again, not different from non-kinksters.

Kinksters and the police
People how have experienced abuse in a BDSM setting usually do not file charges, even if they did consider doing so. When asked why they did not file charges against their abuser, fear of not being taken seriously by authorities was recurring theme.

Consent at parties
Consent violations usually happened inside someone’s home. Under 10% of consent violations happen at a party. The relationship between severity of the violation and location was not investigated, so we don’t know if consent violations at a party are usually mild or bad.

Around 30% of kinksters have at least once doubted the consent of a scene they saw. Doms report having these doubts most often, subs least often of all. When doubting the consent of a scene nearly all consider intervening, and nearly all do. Most people who worry about a scene notify a DM, which is arguably the best way of intervening since you don’t want people butting in on each others’ scenes the whole time. Many people also talk to the players they’re worried about afterwards. Only 8.7% do absolutely nothing and simply walk away, so there’s no evidence of a massive bystander effect in the scene.

About 60% believe a Party Safeword can help prevent consent violations. Almost nobody has ever needed one, but we believe it might help others. About 44% believe a Party Safeword is very important, and about 28% believe it’s not important at all, so people are quite opinionated about this :).

The study is packed with more facts and figures, so go read it if you’re interested.

Is it normal to like BDSM?

A lot of people who are into BDSM are struggling with this question. “Am I completely insane to enjoy kinky play, am I the only one, or is it normal to like BDSM?” I get a lot of email from people asking for reassurance, because sometimes it can feel as if you’re a freak. The world can feel like a lonely place when you’re alone with your secret.

roleplayThe thing is, a lot of people enjoy some light kink. Many partners play with bondage, enjoy the sensation of nails going down their back, playfully bite or restrain each other or do some role playing. This is something to be encouraged actually, putting some effort and creativity into your sex life and having some sexy adventures can be a bonding experience. Heh, pun not intended. There’s nothing at all abnormal about playing around with sex. But SM-ers often go a bit further than that, sometimes a whole lot further than that. So, statistically, if you’re really into BDSM, you’re not normal.

Then again, normal is of very little value. Kinksters are a big group of people and the worldwide community is ha-huuuuuge, so your chances of finding someone into your particular flavour are quite good. Seriously, you think of it, there’s people into it. Unless you’re really into shitting on dead babies or something then you’re screwed, but other than that, there’s a whole kinky world out there to be explored.

And for what it’s worth: you might not be normal, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Research has shown time and time again that kinky people are fine. Well, we’re as messed up as the rest of the world, but we do have more sex!

Sex Ed: How It’s Done

dutchsexedGrowing up in the Netherlands I got some relatively good sex education. Obviously there was a lot that needed improvement, it was mostly reproductive biology, and sexual diversity was just a paragraph in one chapter telling us that some people are gay and that’s fine too. Still, I remember when I was around 11 years old my teacher got pregnant and asked the class if anyone knew how that happened – nervous giggles everywhere of course, but we all already knew about the penis in the vagina and the sperm reaching the egg and all that. In secondary school we were taught about safer sex practices, that masturbation was normal (including a really, really awkward movie with a girl underneath a sheet touching herself) and what all the body parts were called.

We’ve improved a lot. Children as young as five get comprehensive sex ed, which now includes a lot of focus on consent, feelings, relationships and communication. I love this movie where they discuss what you can do when grandma wants to kiss you and you don’t want that.

But I think John Oliver of the Last Week Tonight Show did an even better job. “Lube is your friend… trust me”. Every child needs to see this!

Getting your polyamory needs met!

Mitchell, M.E., Bartholomew, K., Cobb, R.J. (2013): Need Fulfillment in Polyamorous Relationships. Journal of Sex Research (10).

SplitShire_IMG_5279Polyamory is interesting because it violates very strong norms in Western culture that romantic relationships should be exclusive. There’s a (probably unrealistic) expectation that our one romantic partner should fulfill all of our interpersonal needs, from companionship to intellectual involvement to sex. When people decide to become ethically non-monogamous, or even when a partner cheat, some assume it’s because something is lacking in the relationship. “Isn’t your partner enough for you? What do you miss that you need to look outside of your relationship?”.

But this overreliance on partners to fulfill all our needs can actually cause relationship problems, because a lot of partners can’t live up to those high ideals. Some poly people argue that polyamory solves that problem, because that way we can get our needs met by different people.

And it’s true that it wasn’t untill the 1920’s that marriage became so strongly linked to romantic love. For most of our history marriage was a business transaction between two men: the one selling a daughter, the other buying a wife. But marriage quite recently became redefined as a romantic bond, and women became redefined as you know, actual people who make their own decisions instead of men’s possessions. So that was good. But it came with certain ideals around love, that you just need one person, and if you really love them you won’t want anyone else. Polyamory violates those ideals, and polyamorous people report they experience prejudice against polyamory. Those antipolyamory attitudes might have an effect on social policies and laws. So it’s important we get a better understanding of polyamory.

We’re not sure how need fulfillment with two partners is related to relationship satisfaction an commitment to both partners, and this study aimed to examine three different theories on that. The additive model predicts that need fulfillment ‘adds up’, so more fulfillment in the one relationship would enhance satisfaction with the other partner. The contrast model predicts that need fulfillment in the one relationship makes the other relationship look bleaker, resulting in less relationship satisfaction. And the compensation model predicts that need fulfillment in one relationship may compensate for the lack of need fulfillment in the other relationship, leading to more relationship satisfaction.

To study these theories they got a big group of poly people to fill out questionnaires for them. Some interesting findings about the characteristics of these poly people:

  • sample of 1093 (which is a very big group – awesome!)
  • 57% identified as female, 37.7% identified as male, 5.3% identified as something else (genderqueer, transgender, other, no gender)
  • 94.5% completed some college
  • 90% identified as caucasian
  • 44% had kids
  • of women, 67.6% identified as bisexual or pansexual
  • of men, 61.4% identified as heterosexual
  • 65.4% identified one of their partners as primary

So on to the measures! They used the Need Fulfillment in Relationship Scale to measure need fulfillment, which is still a bit of a new test. For relationship satisfaction they used the reliable and valid Relationship Assessment Scale. To measure commitment they used four items of the Commitment/Dedication scale. And they wanted to correct the findings for neurotisism, because that’s linked to outcomes about relationships, so they used the neuroticism subscale of the Big Five Inventory.

Some descriptives:
Most subjects lived with their Significant Other (SO), but about one in six lived with their Other Significant Other (OSO). When subjects had kids their SO usually took on a parenting role, and one in four reported their OSO took on a parenting role. Most women had two male partners or identified their male partner as SO and female partner as OSO, but 8% had a female SO and male OSO, and 4% had two female partners. The large majority of men had two female partners, 4.6% had two male partners and 1.2% had a male SO and female OSO.


Need fulfillment was consistently high with both partners across all needs studied. They didn’t find any strong evidence for any of the theories, I mean there were some very small statistically significant differences on some measures that maybe predicted a percentage of the variance but in all honesty, it was all so small it’s not really interesting.

“It is unlikely that need fulfillment with one partner has a meaningful effect on satisfaction with another partner”
“Need fulfillment with one partner was unrelated to commitment to another partner”

There were some findings that suggest that happy relationships enhance each other, so if you’re happy with your husband and then your boyfriend meets your needs as well you’re even happier with your husband. And some findings suggest that unhappy relationships are hurt by happy other relationships, if you’re unhappy with your husband and then your boyfriends meets some of your needs you feel even more unhappy with your husband. But, as the researchers say “these effects are too small to be of practical significance”. The effects were so tiny they were barely even there.

“Overall, these results suggest that polyamorous individuals’ relationships with one partner tend to operate relatively independantly of their relationship with another partner. Thus, having multiple partners in itself does not appear to have a strong positive or negative effect on dyadic relationships”

The findings show that people can have good, committed relationships with multiple partners. It also shows that people do not become poly because of low need fulfillment in their relationship. Instead, people actually scored highest for their SO, although truly their need fulfillment was remarkably high for both partners.

The researchers also mention these findings should have an effect on the clinical treatment of poly people, because some therapists want to treat the poly as the problem when a poly relationship is in trouble. The researchers recommend focussing on the problematic interactions within that relationship and only including other partners in the treatment if their specific problem asks for that.

“This study confirms that individuals can have simultaneous fulfilling, committed attachments to multiple romantic partners”.

Aww <3.

Can you put me in contact with..?

Journalists contact me on a very regular basis, and I’m not at all unwilling to help them out. I’ve been interviewed for newspapers, magazines, I’ve been on television, I really don’t mind occasionally donating some of my time to help spread correct information about sexuality. But there’s one question I’d like to answer once and for all:

“I’m a media person working on a new tv show or writing an article. Can you put me in contact with sex workers/kinky people/poly people/trans people?”

And the answer is “no”.

Look I understand how your field works. It’s fast, you have to get a story out, and you don’t have time to completely immerse yourself in this new subculture. But what you have to understand is that we’ve seen this hundreds of times before. We know you don’t mean anyone any harm, we know you want to ‘give the whole story’, we know you think we should be thrilled to talk to you. But we know exactly the type of product you’ll produce, and we’re not.

I’m not saying you’re a bad person or a bad journalist. Just understand we’re not so enthusiastic.

In your research you will certainly come across organisations run by the people you want to talk about. Sex workers, kinky people, non-monogamous folk, transgender people, they’re organised. These organisations often have a list of people who are available for interviews, or at least know people who are generally open to that sort of thing. Some even have PR-teams.

I’m not going to bother my friends and social circle every other week for yet another journalist.

Do your research, and when you have you’ll know exactly who to contact.

And to the person who asked this:

“But Marijke, with those organisations I’m going to get the same people again, the people who want to talk to the media. But we’re looking for people who wouldn’t normally give their story, maybe someone who trusts you, perhaps a sex worker with bad experiences, or one of your clients?”

Yeah, you? Get out of journalism. You’re a bad person and we don’t like you.

From the Web

Ashley Madison is a dating website for people who are already in a relationship and are looking for a new person to have a sexual relationship with. Obviously a lot of their members are looking to cheat, so when hackers got into the website’s database and threw all of their members’ information out in the open, this eh, got lots of people in trouble. And the response has been remarkably.. cheerful.

I enjoyed this article: The Puritanical Glee Over the Ashley Madison Hack

The Scarlet Letter [..] chronicles the life of a woman who is found to have committed adultery; as punishment, she is forced to stand before her village with the letter “A” attached to her dress. The intent is to forever publicly shame her for her moral transgression.

Busybodies sitting in judgment of and righteously condemning the private, sexual acts of other adults remains one of the most self-satisfying and entertaining — and thus most popular — public spectacles. It simultaneously uplifts the moral judges (I am superior to that which I condemn), distracts them from their own behaviors (I am focused on those other people’s sins, and thus not my own), and titillates (to condemn this, I simply must immerse myself in the tawdry details of their sexual acts). To see just how current is the mentality driving the scarlet letter, observe the reaction to the Ashley Madison hack.

It’s hard to overstate the devastation to some people’s lives from having their names published as part of this hack: not only to their relationships with their spouses and children but to their careers, reputations, and — depending on where they live — possibly their liberty or even life.

Adultery [..] “is a moral misdemeanor,” something the law does not even punish. To destroy someone’s reputation and life over it is so wildly out of proportion to the actual transgression.

None [..] of us [should] cheer when the private lives of ordinary people are indiscriminately invaded, no matter how much voyeuristic arousal or feelings of moral superiority it provides.

The Weekly Personal

Some of my family members live in Australia and a few days ago we met up with my cousin. It was great, I hadn’t seen her in forever and I don’t know, there’s something interesting about being related. You’re something of the other person, you’re their someone, so you have this bond. Anyway, Robin and I intend to go to India later this year and she had travelled there by herself so we were interested in her experiences. She loved it there, loved the food, had a great time.

I was a bit apprehensive about how I would be treated there as a somewhat young travelling woman, but she managed to reassure me. “Yeah you get remarks from men. One time a guy followed me around on a boat, asking sexual questions. A taxi driver scolded me for not dressing modestly enough”. We both shrugged, and said at almost the same time “you get that everywhere you go”.

And Robin did “whaaaaaaat?!”.

A few days later we were at a touristy thingy when I tried to read an information sign. An older man started mansplaining stuff to me, asking me if I understood English (’cause he’d heard Robin and I speak Dutch) and remarked “you know, this architect’s wife was really smart. She went to school!”. I smiled politely, not much you can do when an older ‘gentleman’ goes all creepy grandpa on you so I just ignored him. “I can’t believe how condescending he was!” Robin remarked later. “Sweety, I get that everywhere I go”.

And Robin did “whaaaaaat?!”.

I mean, Robin is not blind. He’s not a stupid guy either. But when you’re not living in it, it’s easy to be blind to sexism. You just don’t see it. As a white, cis-gendered, hetero-partnered person I’m used to being one of the ‘us’. I’m used to seeing ‘myself’ on television, of feeling represented by the main characters in tv shows, of the news being viewed from my perspective.

And then there’s a ‘Dutch person’ on Gilmore Girls and you get a glimpse of what it’s like to be othered. When I saw that episode I went all “whaaaaat?!”.

Weitzer and Prostitution Research

Ronald-WeitzerWeitzer, R. (2005) New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law and Social Change, 43, 211-235.

Ronald Weitzer is one of the biggest names in sex work research, and his article ‘New directions in research on prostitution‘ from 2005 is one that is very often cited in sex work debates. He’s published quite an impressive collection of books, studies and articles actually. Really cool. Oh and he works as a professor at George Washington University. Imagine having him as a teacher, how awesome would that be.

Anyway, a little information on scientific publications. Some articles report on a specific study done by that researcher. For example, last week I discussed the article by Wismeijer where the research team itself had contacted research subjects, administered tests and interpreted the data, and the article intends to present those findings to the world. But that’s not the only type of article that gets published in scientific journals. Another type of article is the review article, which does not cover original research but instead tries to make sense of a whole collection of already published articles. This is good for a variety of reasons:

  • It gives you a good summary of a lot of what we know about that topic at that time. Say, for example, I want to know the latest developments in the research on panic disorders. By reading a review article I get a good sense of what’s been found, and because scientists cite their sources I can look up the details if I want to.
  • It helps figure out of certain aspects of a topic are under-represented in research. By looking at lots of studies done on a topic and putting it all together it’s easier to see what knowledge we’re still missing.
  • It helps build a more coherent theory on that topic. It’s great when a single study finds that of the 20 sex workers interviewed in that study 18 like their job, but combine that with all the other studies and we might get a more holistic and nuanced idea of the realities of sex work.

So Ronald Weitzer begins by explaining why the dominant theory on sex work, radical feminism, is inadequate. Radical feminism starts with an obvious anti-prostitution agenda, which defines all forms of sex work as sexual violence. You can’t really investigate if sex work is violence if you consider all sex work violence because then obviously you’re going to find sexual violence because that’s how you define sex work and you’re not exactly investigating anything now are you. Other problems with this theory is that it is blind to any variation in prostitution experiences, it’s completely a-historic and makes generalising, essentialist claims that are not at all supported by evidence. It denies any agency of sex workers except when they leave the sex industry and uses a language that does not seem to be fitting. For example, radical feminists use the term ‘prostituted woman’ when prostitutes almost unanimously prefer ‘sex worker’. We need a more sophisticated, comprehensive model of prostitution.

Variation in prostitution

Almost all research is done on the least prevalent form of prostitution: street prostitution. These findings are then often generalised to all forms of sex work and that’s a bit of a problem, because it seems the prostitution market is very segmented between indoor and outdoor workers.

Of indoor workers:

  • 1% were beaten. Yes. One percent.
  • 2% were raped (compare that to the average population..)
  • 30% of call girls received a non-sexual massage from their most recent customer
  • indoor workers had the same physical health, self-esteem, mental health, and quality of their social networks as non-sex worker women
  • 97% report an increase in self-esteem since starting sex work
  • 75% feel their lives have improved after beginning sex work

And the list of wonderful happy findings goes on and on. But street-based sex workers, especially when they have drug-related problems, aren’t doing as well. And that’s an important finding, because that means that we have to figure out what’s going on with street workers. It’s obviously not the sex work itself that’s doing the harm, so how can we understand these findings in a broader context?

Male and transgender prostitution

Almost all research is done on female prostitutes, while male and transgender sex workers are often overlooked. What research so far suggests:

  • men are often involved in prostitution in a more sporadic and transitory way
  • men seem to be less likely to be coerced or forced into prostitution than women
  • male workers can view their work as another form of recreational sex, and seem to experience more sexual gratification from their work
  • male workers are less likely to be harassed or arrested by police than female workers, partly because of police homophobia which tends to discourage contact with male workers
  • transgender workers face greater difficulties than cis-male or even cis-female workers
  • transgender workers do not differ from cis-male and cis-female workers in their level of satisfaction with the work
  • prostitution often gives transgender workers “a sense of personal worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem”


Customers are by far the largest group in the sex work industry, but are rarely studied. Research so far has suggested:

  • customers wish to buy a sexual service.
  • they look for providers who are friendly, conversational, kiss and cuddle, with elements of romance and intimacy. Not just mechanical sex.
  • arrested customers often feel that visiting prostitutes has caused them troubles and report that they didn’t enjoy sex with prostitutes. Arrested customers, yes.
  • a majority of customers hold the same sort of beliefs the general public holds about prostitution: that prostitutes have pimps, don’t like men and don’t like their work
  • 8% would approve of their daughter becoming a prostitute
  • we know seriously next to nothing about female customers. As in, shockingly little. But we do know they exist.


Not all prostitution is organised by third parties, for example independent escorts and street workers often work by themselves. But a lot of sex workers do have someone who has some control over their work and extracts some of their earnings, they have some form of management. People familiar with the sex industry will probably think of (often female) managers of brothels, but there’s hardly any research on these managers and the little we have is usually done on (often incarcerated) street-level management, a.k.a. pimps.

This is not covered in the article, but it’s important to note that the term ‘pimp’ is an extremely stereotypical and racist term. We all ‘know’ what a pimp is: a black man with lots of bling bling who beats his ‘bitches’ when they don’t make enough money. Research mirrors this.

Studies so far suggest that street-level management (pimps) are often abusive towards workers. They offer very little protection, but become violent when one of their workers talk to another pimp. On the other hand, findings suggest that indoor workers are often very happy with their management. There is very little known about sex trafficking, partly because trafficking and voluntary migration to do sex work are so often lumped together.

Much more research is needed on the dynamics of recruitment, socialization, surveillance, exploitation, coercion, and trafficking. Such findings will help to provide a more elaborate model of varying power relations in prostitution, ranging from those types where workers experience extreme domination by managers to those where workers experience little exploitation and no coercion. (page 229)


Almost all research has been done on female street workers, arguably one of the absolute smallest groups in the sex industry. This has resulted in a distorted and unbalanced picture. We need more research on indoor workers, male and transgender workers, customers and managers.

Additional research in these areas will also have important theoretical implications, allowing for the development of more sophisticated theories that avoid the pitfalls of one-dimensional perspectives like radical feminism.

Weitzer, R. (2005) New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law and Social Change, 43, 211-235.

Fangirl: Miley Cyrus

I was having coffee with a sex worker when a Taylor Swift song came on. “Oh, I just love her” she said. “So classy, not like some other young artists who use their sexuality to make money”. I’m afraid the irony was lost on her, but it shows how deep our cultural aversion to sex really goes. Even sex workers don’t like women who sell sex.

I first noticed Miley Cyrus when she got a short haircut and the internet exploded. We’d seen Britney Spears shave her hair when she went through a rough time, and my heart went out to her then. Just imagine being Britney, the pressure to be this perfect, girly, virgin, sexy little girl-woman, the world’s madonna-whore complex dumped on your shoulders, I think I’d crack in a day. But it was different with Miley. It felt like a statement, it felt like navigating, it felt like she was shedding the image and trying to become herself.

Miley gets hated on because she shows what we fear most: female sexuality. Active, explicit, in-your-face sexuality. Women are expected to be passive and receptive. Sexy, not sexual. A woman’s worth is still decided based on her modesty, even the quality of our culture is measured by how well-behaved ‘our women’ are. Sexual women are seen as a sign of decline.

And lately Miley Cyrus has identified as gender-neutral, as fluid-sexual, using her fame to actually help people who are in a less privileged than herself, and I’m a fangirl. I mean no, using black women as props is not acceptable. But among all the long-haired, pink-cheeked, virginity-saving, boner-arousing ‘girl next door’ types she’s… I don’t know. I’m loving seeing a young woman publicly figuring out who she is, coming into herself, navigating the bullshit thrown at her.

And she can sing!