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Sexual Bondage Deviances, Domination and Submission

Bondage, domination, and sadomasochism, also commonly known as the leather scene. When the average person hears these terms, visions of women bound and writhing in chains, or of fierce men in studded leather towering over cowering weaker ones are often the first images that come to mind. Visions of severe injury and blood, of crying and apparently non-consenting submissives being abused by sadistic and unfeeling dominants are images provided over and over again in films, fiction and even in the news. However, such images are not the norm within the BDSM and leather communities; in fact, they are the unwanted exception.

While the advent of the internet has assisted in providing more access to correct information on the realities of these communities and to like minded individuals interested in such activities, it has also proven a double-edged sword. The anonymity provided by the internet that can be freeing to someone curious about leather or BDSM but embarrassed due to the “taboo” nature of that interest. It also, however, can provide a fertile hunting ground for predators that prey on those same curious individuals. Police are faced with the realities of men like John Edward Robinson the self-named “Slavemaster” who met women in online S&M chatrooms, lured them in and then killed them (Hickey, 2002, p. 169) or Cameron Hooker who kidnapped a young female hitchhiker, held her captive for seven years as a sexual slave and claimed at his trial that her servitude had been “consensual” as she had signed a “contract” to stay several years into her imprisonment (Ramsland, 2008).

Too often, the only view of the insular BDSM and leather communities available to those outside the communities comes from fiction or from sensationalistic crime reports concerning abusive individuals such as John Edward Robinson and Cameron Hooker, who are mistakenly identified as members of the BDSM or leather communities. While an abuser may employ similar activities — bondage, sexual domination, extreme sexual behaviours — to those that a member of the BDSM or leather community might employ, their motivations are very different. There is one very important thing that separates practitioners of healthy BDSM and Leather from abusers — consent.

The concept of consent may seem simple. Merriam-Webster defines it as: “to give assent or approval: agree” (consent, 2009). Yet in the eyes of the legal and psychological systems, the concept of consent has many grey areas: informed consent, inability to give consent due to mental disease or defect, verbal and non-verbal consent. It is within these grey areas that practitioners of consensual BDSM and leather often find themselves, as the activities engaged in can appear non-consensual to those unfamiliar with the lifestyles. Such grey areas can lead to issues for practitioners of consensual BDSM and leather such as loss of job, loss of child custody, and even arrest for domestic violence or sexual “misconduct” — i.e. abuse.

While the Leather and BDSM lifestyles work to address the realities of abuse versus consensual BDSM and Leather activities on the professional level with certain groups, such as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) and the National Leather Association – International Domestic Violence Project, there is little scholarly work being done to more formally study those differences (Moser, 2006; Weinberg 2006). Additionally, the information that has been gathered is generally kept to those already inside the communities or those who are familiar with the communities. It is hoped that this study will provide a tool to open up communication between those within the communities and those outside of them, especially with regards to the realities of consensual BDSM and Leather as practised by those within those communities.

This study attempts to address the concept of consent, its practice and its importance in the Leather and BDSM communities by those who identify as members of those communities. Through interviews with fifteen self-identified practitioners of BDSM/Leather, the research attempts to define consent, identify the importance of consent, and how consent is practised within those lifestyles. It also seeks to address some of the commonly held misconceptions concerning the BDSM and Leather communities held by those outside the communities.

The stigma associated with the BDSM and Leather lifestyles and the reluctance of those in the lifestyles to participate in research has made such in-depth studies difficult. It is the hope that this study will help address those fears in a professional and accessible manner and serve as a foundation to further research into these lifestyles. It is also hoped that it will provide an accessible tool for family members, friends, legal and medical professionals, and concerned outsiders who wish to learn about and better understand the BDSM and Leather communities. In addition, it is hoped that this research and thesis can serve as a way to assist those new to the BDSM and Leather communities to better understand a primary building block for a healthy BDSM/Leather relationship: consent. With a better understanding of what is and is not “standard” within the communities regarding consent, a newcomer to the community will be better able to judge whether the relationship he or she is engaging in is healthy or if it is abuse being mislabeled as BDSM/Leather. To quote one interviewee, “You build the consent, you build the community.” (I3) Consent is, therefore, also a matter of identity as well as a matter of behaviour.

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