On Monday morning, I woke up to a Facebook post by Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi defending his so-called BDSM sex. As an experienced kinkster and professional dominatrix, I was deeply offended by his apology. For years Ghomeshi has hosted a popular CBC show, Q, and has had a prominent role as a cultural gatekeeper in the Canadian arts. According to reports from the Toronto Star andelsewhere, Ghomeshi has long had a pattern of creepy and abusive behaviour; when a writer published a thinly veiled report of his behaviour on xoJane, she was attacked online by hordes of his supporters. Multiple reports corroborate his tendency to hit and degrade women without their consent, but these women, some of whom have spoken to Canadian news outlets anonymously, have been afraid to be named lest they too are harassed online.
On the surface, some of Ghomeshi’s activities may resemble forms of BDSM. I am an experienced kinkster and professional dominatrix, and one of the most intense and powerful types of kinky play that I practice doesn’t involve a lot of ropes, cuffs, chains or other toys. It doesn’t involve the formality of a planned kinky scene with a clear beginning and a definite end. It’s just rough and raw: it’s the thrill of grabbing your partner, manhandling them, shoving them around, slapping them, bending them to your will. I have a hunger for this type of play. It has an unfiltered, primal power to it, and I love it. It arouses every part of me. The edgy, dangerous, unscripted feel of it electrifies me.
But what I know, after a lifetime of studying BDSM, is that this type of play is impossible to perform safely and ethically without the most stringent and deeply understood mutual consent. I won’t do it with just anyone I pick up at a show or find on the Internet. Along with most ethical kinksters, I always start a new partner—even one who is champing at the bit—off with deliberate, slow, and limited forms of BDSM play. Every toy, every humiliating phrase, and every aspect of the tempo and intensity of the scene are negotiated carefully in advance. I wouldn’t role-play a scene involving force or reluctance on anyone whose reactions I didn’t know like the back of my hand. And when I do play that way, I’m not only listening for safe words: I’m reading the reactions of my partner, continually looking for their arousal, for that light in their eyes that tells me that they’re on board. I am looking for adverse reactions, too, and I check in if I see or hear signs of a panic attack or dissociation, like a change in breathing pace, voice tone, or the size of pupils.
If anyone ever reacted to me the way Ghomeshi’s victims reportedly responded to him, with signs of obvious reluctance and disgust, I would stop, instantly.
Maybe Ghomeshi is telling the truth and has respected the consent of his partners, but I don’t buy it. The xoJane piece and the anonymous reports from his other victims seem of a type. They tend to paint Ghomeshi as an abuser, not a kinkster. Real kinksters have a healthy fear of the devastating consequences of violating consent. If I fancy someone, I won’t lay a finger upon them until I am convinced of their eagerness. Unlike Ghomeshi, I do not slake my thirst for domination and control upon unwilling and clearly protesting people.
Last Sunday, Ghomeshi was sacked from his job at the CBC. With the help of crisis management firm Navigator, he took to his Facebook, shielding his image by writing that lengthy, impassioned post that claimed that everything he did with the accusing women is consensual BDSM. In the post he makes valid points; kinksters do have a right to to a private life and employers should stay out of people’s sex lives. But while his behavior may resemble BDSM, it is missing the magic ingredient of consent, and that makes it disgusting abuse, not kink. Ghomeshi invokes civil liberties, but he is only trying to save his own ass. The CBC should be applauded for its decision, not condemned as an agent of moral reaction.
Ghomeshi claims that his former partners sent him texts that prove their consent. I’m skeptical of this. Texts sent as part of an ongoing role play of dominance and submission do not imply consent to the physical and emotional violations he perpetrated. Consent can always be withdrawn, and even if some of Ghomeshi’s partners were initially willing, the reports trickling out indicate that, at the very least, he didn’t respect such withdrawals.
(And sadly, the existence of those disputed texts could partially explain why more victims haven’t spoken out on the record; for many people involved in kink, the risks of being outed as a kinkster, from job loss to child custody denied, mean that when the line is crossed into abuse, they remain silent for fear of being outed.)
Kinksters have spent years patiently explaining the difference between kink and abuse to the media. It’s not just an abstract point. Abuse or BDSM can look the same if you only consider the shrieking, writhing person being restrained, beaten and shagged silly. It has taken a monumental effort by kink activists to convince media to observe the careful, patient negotiation that happens before that moment, in a consensual kinky scene—and Ghomeshi’s current press strategy seeks to take advantage of the knowledge gap that still remains. Poor understanding of BDSM gives abusers a green light for their abuse, and tricks vulnerable people into dangerous, violating situations. In calling his behavior legitimate kink, Ghomeshi stands to undo all of our hard work, and by spinning himself as a victim, he is using the name of a good cause to distract from serious, repeated claims of abuse.
Thousands are already swallowing the bait. Responses to Ghomeshi’s Facebook post are overwhelmingly positive, and some kinksters are reflexively rallying to his cause. But defending Ghomeshi will not do anything to further a productive conversation around kink. It will only foment further public confusion, and arm those who use aspects of BDSM to strengthen and promote rape culture. If he thinks he is going to use the BDSM community as a cover for his abuse, he has another thing coming.
I have written before that this era is a crossroads for kink awareness. As part of the worldwide fightback against rape culture, greater understanding of consent has made a space for those who practice consensual kink to build awareness and gain respect. With his defense, Ghomeshi could wipe out the many years of patience and hard work by kinksters. Let’s switch his microphone off.[fblike]