How Can Our Networks Heal from Abuses of Power?

Man in Guy Fawkes mask with a sign that reads "Be positive. Accept others as they are."
Photo by Eduard V. Kurganov, CC 2.0

What Activists Can Learn from the Kink Community about Creating Safer Spaces

When I was nineteen, I worked as a janitor. My bosses were older men who I slowly came to adore. One was also a small-town sheriff who often borrowed our colleague’s student house for trysts with married women. He was handsy and inappropriate, but my colleagues and I laughed it off. We never felt threatened.

When I told another student about my work, she insisted I was experiencing sexual harassment. I told her to get a life. I was not being sexually harassed.

Turns out , we were both right. I was not being sexually harassed because I didn’t feel sexually harassed. My job was never threatened. I was never coerced into anything. I never felt unsafe.

But over the decades, I’ve come to realize that laughing off bad behavior may have put more vulnerable people at risk. We might have been making it seem okay and normal, which could have contributed to an unsafe work environment for others.

***

Not too long ago, I was part of a small activist community that was scandalized by reports of abuses of power. To many, the man in the center was likable and charming. To others, he was an abuser and a charlatan.

The stories of his behavior circulated for years. Each person told was sworn to secrecy. The non-disclosure agreements guaranteed that the whisperings couldn’t go public.

Ours was a small community and the network was crucial to my work. The events it held were fun, engaging, and useful, primarily for connecting with peers.  Because of the events, we got to know the individuals behind the work and it helped us in our pursuit of common goals. Even so, I never stopped wondering what we could do to bring back those of our peers who had disappeared and had been victimized. Why was it, I wondered, that the abuser was protected by an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and still an active member of the community, when the people he harassed were no longer welcomed?

The diagnosis

Once the abuse was publicly known, I hoped that we would openly discuss what we could do to make our community safe. I hoped that we would have rich and rewarding discussions about what had happened and why. I hoped we would interrogate ourselves. Most of all, I hoped that the organization at the center would strive to welcome back those who had been exiled.

As of this writing, there have been no organizational efforts to reach out to the people directly impacted by the abuse. Yes, they brought in a great consultant. Yes, they had an internal review process. Yes, they published statements, and yes they made their new guidelines public. But it didn’t feel like enough to me. It felt legalistic and shallow.

In order to learn more about healing networks after abuse, I began speaking to people, asking them what it would take to make the events and network feel welcoming and safe.

While talking to others, I came in contact with people in a kink community somewhere in North America. They had recently gone through an egregious breach of trust. I spoke with Carol (not her real name), who was one of the people who took on the task of reforming the community to make it feel safe again. As we spoke, it became increasingly clear that the dungeon she was a part of and our activist network had several things in common.

Primarily:

a) both have security issues that often require that the identities of people are protected;

b) both communities are demonized by the outside world and seen as threats to society;

c) both communities have reason to be concerned that the acts of a few can tarnish the entire group;

d) both communities are small and intimate, making it difficult for people who want to stay involved to find other networks.

In many places, being outed as belonging to a kink community can get you fired from your job and ostracized by the community. It’s true that the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey has created a more positive view of kink in the the media, but that is a very recent development.

If you think kink is demonized, try advocating for human rights. One only has to turn on the television to see how human rights activists are portrayed in popular culture. Fictional human rights activists are seen as barriers to justice or depicted as hiding their own evil natures. On screen (and in real life) human rights activists can seem shrill and annoying. In real life, human rights activists can be surveilled, stalked, tortured, killed, and imprisoned.  

It is understandable that members of both these communities are protective of identities and shy of public accountability. Both communities depend on networks of trust in order to be effective, despite the fact that this may mean extending that trust to predators.

The human rights community is especially vulnerable to divisions that would make it less effective in pursuing its end goals. It’s not unusual for outside forces to try to disrupt and discredit activist networks. For the BDSM community, consent and how it is enacted are absolutely crucial for maintaining health and well-being.

This post looks at what small networks can learn from one particular kink community about recovering from an abuse of power. It does not cover widespread systematic harrassment and abuse.

The flip-side of security

Both the activist and kink communities require security precautions and the protection of identity.  Taking these precautions protects community members from retribution from abusive governments and intolerant societies. At the same time, they make it especially difficult to enforce accountability.

The pressure to keep a space safe from abuse needs to come from the community itself. So the question becomes what can organizations that depend on privacy and are demonized externally do to ensure that the community remains safe?

Factors that lead to abuse

There are some factors that can make abuse possible:

  • The community lacks of a culture of accountability. This makes it difficult for people to understand what’s ok and what’s not okay and and means there are no guidelines for dealing with abuse, especially those types of behaviors that could have different interpretations for different individuals.
  • There is one leader who is unchecked by a board or by others on the team. Usually this person is charismatic and seen as “someone who can make things happen.” This person can be particularly good at manipulating the situation to their own benefit and making it seem as though they are indispensible.
  • The target of abuse isn’t always as likable as the abuser. Often, the person targeted may have already had their contributions hidden, suppressed, and outright stolen. This can mean that they are less visible to the community as a whole and less likely to be protected and supported.
  • The target of abuse is dependent on the abuser for funding, work, and/or community.

The challenge

Consent is key to the success of any kink community, as is permission for  and acceptance of difference. You join a dungeon to “let your freak flag fly.” When your freak flag includes behaviors and symbols many in the community find emotionally traumatizing, you have to find a way to respect their limits. It turns out that the line between permission and consent is not as clear to some as to others. Carol explains:

All of kink can be inherently traumatic to people- it explores power dynamics and violence. However, there are some kinks that are described as ‘taboo’ in the commuity because they have a higher tendency to be disturbing to swaths of the community, or make people feel attacked because of their identiy.  Things like raceplay, dark ageplay, or Nazi roleplay are especially sensitive. These kinks can in and of themselves be healthy to explore among consenting adults, but dungeon leaders and psychologists tend to agree that they are not for everyday shared spaces because one person’s healing cannot come at the expense of another person’s trauma. Especially if the trauma is related to unethical crimes that involve identiy, like child abuse or hate crimes. Many dungeons segregate or prohibit taboo play, and those that don’t often foster very unhealthy cultures as a consequence.”

For awhile, the dungeon had been losing ethnic and religious minority members. The reasons were many, but underscoring them all was a lack of respect for boundaries and particularly for very real historical pain. The dwindling number of non-Black minorities made people of color feel especially vulnerable and without allies. Many had expressed their discomfort, only to be ignored.

Eventually Carol published a piece about the conflict in her dungeon on a popular fetish forum. She stated her case, explained how the consent of the community was violated, and demanded an end. “I was terrified of publishing the post, but I immediately got support from people around the world,” she stated.

This gave her the confidence to build alliances within her local community.

Building alliances

Crucially, there was already broad support for making the dungeon more inclusive. Most members simply did not know how to make that happen. 

The case for changing policies was brought to the owner of their local dungeon. Carol stated: “I told him: the way you handle this will determine what you will be in the future. If you don’t create safety now, the club will not be safe in the future.”

The owner had to consider a number of factors when making the decision to change the workings of the dungeon. Each decision meant losing clientele. This was particularly the case because taboo play had become normalized and those involved were very much a part of the running of the dungeon. Eventually, it was likely profit that made the difference. Would the dungeon be more profitable if it could create a safer, more inclusive atmosphere? Would it continue to lose members or would it be able to revive its community?

The owner gave Carol and those supporting her efforts for change the space to test their ideas for making the dungeon safer.

“Of course power relationships are important aspects of BDSM play, but who knew how important those same relationships would be in building alliances to change the nature of the dungeon and make it more consensual?” Carol told me.  “The good news is that people are more loyal to sex than to taboo play.”

Reaching out to those harmed

The next step was to reach out to those harmed by the abuses of consent within their community. “I’m not going to lie to you,” Carol said. “This wasn’t easy.”

Private discussions were held. People were given the space to express their grievances and together they worked out solutions for ensuring that their boundaries were respected.

The dungeon actually changed its policies based on the content of those discussions.

What changed

The first thing to change was the education committee. It was dismantled and a new one was put in place. The new committee required that each new member go through training that not only ensures physical safety, but psychological safety as well. Carol explains:

All volunteers in positions of power or who interact with the clientele have to become aware of power structures in place in larger society that make certain individuals more vulnerable to abuse, and learn how to create an environment of safety for them. Once educated, they are held accountable for acting upon this education and can be removed for breaches.

Enforcing change

It isn’t always easy to get people to change their behavior. It is crucial that leadership stand firmly behind any new policies.

“In other subcultures, those who violate others would be thrown out. We cannot do that because our collective safety depends on people not bitterly attacking us from the outside.  We have to keep everyone in, which means finding ways to incentivize good behavior and reward those who look out for others.”

Complaints process

The first thing to do is to ensure that there is shared leadership of the community. Ideally leaders must answer to a board and to the community. In the case of the dungeon, there was no board, so the community had to take on this role. It’s the community that has to ensure that management has a clear policy for breaches of trust and actually acts on that policy. Carol states: “The people in the middle must keep management accountable while keeping the trust of the people who have a conflict.  It’s a delicate balancing act. One we still don’t have right.”

A system for dealing with complaints must be put in place. And this is not an easy thing to do. Especially when some complaints may actually be criminal. [1]

Break down the barriers between cliques

A very important aspect of ensuring the long-term health of a community is to actually foster friendships. Create opportunities for people to reach out to each other across the cliques that tend to emerge.

This takes work. It doesn’t happen naturally. So the community actually has to commit to reaching out and building unusual alliances. In the dungeon, that means looking at the subgroups of kinksters who are naturally more inclusive and figuring out what they’re doing right and then giving them the power to spread that attitude throughout the community.

Share leadership

Charismatic leadership is dangerous.

Charismatic leaders come to represent the community and are often viewed as indispensible. They can have a history of complaints against them, yet remain in power. Why? Because people seem to think that the community would fall to pieces without them.

To stay healthy, leadership needs to be shared, and it needs to be shared with people who are NOT natural leaders.[2] You want people leading who are naturally cooperative and egalitarian. And because those people are not natural leaders, you need to have a process in place ensuring they are respected and heard.

Be patient

The best intentions won’t make the community safe. Training won’t change things quickly. There will be missteps and mistakes. It’s best to acknowledge that the process of recovering from predatory actions will be difficult and painful. The community will change as a result. Some people may never feel safe enough to return. Others may not be comfortable with the changes.

Maintaining a safe space and a safe community is a continuous project. Expect challenges and blunders.

Wrap-up

Sexual harassment is the abuse of power. It’s not misinterpreted flirtation. For this reason, it can damage the entire community, not simply the people targeted for harassment. Those people who come forward with complaints, or who leave the community entirely, are signalling a larger problem. Watch out for absences and departures from the network.

It might not be possible to avoid all abuses of power in a community, but we sure can try.


[1] For more on setting up a conflict resolution protocal, see How-to Recognize and Deal with Conflict http://www.civilsocietyhowto.org/10-tips-for-dealing-with-conflict/

[2] See Building a Network with No Masters, No Leaders: http://www.civilsocietyhowto.org/network-no-masters-no-leaders/

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