I’ve read a lot, over the past couple of months, on the problems surrounding the reporting, treatment, and repercussions of abusive behaviour – particularly in the scene, but also in more general terms. The things I’m thinking about, by the way, have been these two Pervocracy posts (both trigger-tastic, by the way,) that terrible shitstorm on FetLife, and – the thing which spurred me to write what I’m currently writing – this article by Mona Eltahawy, on the state of gender relations in the Middle East. While the article (from the comments) is clearly controversial, it raised a point about how easy it is to let the fear of giving offence prevent you from speaking out against something which you believe to be wrong, which set me to thinking.
There is a lot of pressure, socially speaking, on people not to interfere with one another’s relationships. I know full well that this is true in vanilla life – I grew up in an ex-pat community where poorly concealed black eyes were so normal as to be unremarkable – but there are certain (well-meant, in many ways useful) views in the kink scene which have (unfortunately, unintentionally) made it even more prone to this kind of thinking, and I shall touch on these shortly, but first I would like to write a little about the direction I am approaching this all from. Firstly, I have to say that, despite the tenor of this discussion, I am extremely fond of my privacy, like many people in unorthodox relationships, I do not appreciate attempts to pry into my private life being made without very good reason, and I am keen to treat others as I wish to be treated in this regard. I am well aware just how easy it can be to keep up an appearance of normality, no matter how wrong things actually are, and I do not believe that it’s appropriate for groups of friends and acquaintances to be constantly scrutinising and investigating one another’s relationships for any sign of abusiveness. Having said that, I do not believe, either, that it’s appropriate for friends to ignore such signs when they see them – there is a middle road to be taken between scrutinising every action and word, and turning a blind eye to everything you see. If you see something that puts your hackles up, if you overhear something which strikes you as being beyond the bounds of what is acceptable, then by all means check. I don’t mean to leap straight into the middle of the conversation with a “Now, hang on a moment”, but I have known a great many people for whom a quiet, private talk along the lines of “that sounded serious” or “you know that wasn’t fair, right?” has been all it took to give them the courage to leave, or to give them the confirmation they need to trust their own feelings. Towards the end of the most damaging relationship I was ever in, during the girl in question’s birthday party, as it happens, I had a first-hand experience of this.
The party had been going on for about four hours by this point, and had contained no fewer than three instances of her flying off the handle at me (in quite spectacular fashion) for some small mistake or other. The only way in which this was unusual was the number of other people present. I shall spare you the details, but while I was outside for a cigarette, one of her friends approached me and told me that none of them would blame me if I were to leave her (the precise words were “you don’t have to be a hero”.) Within a month, I had gone. It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed that I was being hurt, or that I was becoming ill under the pressure of the relationship, it was simply that I had become convinced that it was all my fault, that every loss of temper wasactually because of something I had done, that if I was careful enough, considerate enough, patient enough, then everything would be okay, and that – because it was my own behaviour that was forcing her to behave in this way – things wouldn’t be better for me anywhere else. Those few words, from somebody who was neutral in the situation, even from somebody who was nominally on ‘her side’, made me realise that the situation was unfair, that I could never win, and that the best and healthiest thing I could do for either of us was to leave. One of the most common ways that somebody can be kept in a damaging relationship is through games of plausible deniability – the abusive partner never quite goes too far, or at least too much further than last time. They never quite hurt you enough to leave you in no doubt, and they always leave themselves a pretext – however thin. It is in this way that they drag you further and further from normality, and it is only by getting a reality check that you can realise how far you have been dragged. People such as this have an uncanny way of finding your limits, and driving you to within a hair’s breadth of them, every time.
In the scene, however, the situation is complicated even further. Aside from the obvious concerns about privacy, which mean that everybody’s that little bit twitchier than normal, there is always the awareness that we, as a subculture, are fighting the view that all BDSM is abusive behaviour, and as such it is painful, difficult, and embarrassing to assume that anything you see isn’t part of a negotiated, consensual dynamic. It feels like buying into the most damaging mainstream view, and the consequences for calling – or trying to call – people on something that turns out to be all fun and games are pretty serious, all told. There is a debate to be had here on the way things ought to be, and whether it ought to be more acceptable to question things, but that’s something I’ll leave for another post. Lastly, of course, consent is so widely talked about and negotiated in the scene that it might simply not occur to you that either of the parties is being treated in a way that they do not want to be treated. All I can add here is that there are ways of checking which don’t necessarily need to result in embarrassment or any kind of drama or disruption, and that it’s always worth asking if you think you’ve seen something which doesn’t add up.
I have been as guilty of turning a blind eye as anyone, but there have been a few incidents in my life which have forced me to confront the pattern in myself – one of my own (which I mentioned above) and a couple which happened to other people.
Polyamory can complicate these things, particularly when one is a secondary in the relationship. On top of all the societal weight which tells you that you do not have the right to change or question anything in somebody else’s relationship, you have the logical, reasoned understanding that you do not have the right to criticise your partner’s relationship with their primary. It turns into one of those horrible situations where morals tell you to do one thing, and ethics tell you quite the converse. You are eventually stuck in a pattern of saying as much as you can without actually saying anything, doing as much as you can without actually doing anything, and hoping that something will change. The situation can be made all the more complicated, and painful, if your partner is too scared to speak out, because then no amount of prompting can make them give you the right to help them.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I love privacy, and I despise giving offence, but it’s going to be a long, long time before I can let myself not ask, or not intervene, if I think I see something wrong, and I can’t say I regret that in the least.