“In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.”
This was now-former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s defense following allegations that he had repeatedly hit, choked, threatened, and verbally abused four women who were former romantic partners. Schneiderman, regarded as a rising star among Democrats, has been a public advocate for the #MeToo movement and filed a civil lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein, accused of multiple acts of rape and harassment, in February of this year.
In response to the allegations, which were published in the New Yorker on Monday, Schneiderman told the publication, “I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”
But this is dangerous nonsense. As a sex and consent educator, I’m well versed in the world of BDSM, kink, and other sexual acts that mix consensual pain, bondage, and dominance and submission. Ethical power and pain exchange in the context of sex relies on a ton of trust and communication. Using kink as an excuse for assault is unbelievably harmful to victims — and further delegitimizes those who engage in these acts consensually.
With his statement, Schneiderman joined a shameful brotherhood of men who, when confronted with the harm they’ve allegedly done to women, claim to be misunderstood practitioners of kink. After a woman alleged that Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens nonconsensually tied her up and blindfolded her, then stripped her naked, photographed her, and forced her to accept his penis into her mouth, Greitens described the event simply as “an extramarital affair,” insisting nothing violent or criminal had taken place.
Canadian radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, charged with multiple counts of sexual and physical assault, claimed that the sex acts were “a mild form of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,” a reference to the popular BDSM-themed erotic novel. Porn actor James Deen described allegations of rape and abuse against him as “descriptions of things [that occurred] on BDSM or rough sex sets,” in an interview with the Daily Beast.
The list goes on and on — and that’s just the boldface names. It can be a pretty effective line: Ghomeshi was acquitted, Deen was never charged, and Greitens is somehow still the governor of Missouri as of this writing.
The excuse is particularly offensive toward people who participate ethically in BDSM sex acts. For practitioners of kink, specific acts like hitting, choking, and verbal abuse are negotiated in advance, and players stay in contact throughout the “scene” to make sure that what sounded like a good idea earlier still feels good in the moment. Safe words are established in the event that someone feels uncomfortable. Partners debrief afterward to talk about what worked and what didn’t, with the intent of performing even better the next time.
That kind of intense intimacy and connection is part of what appeals about BDSM to many of its practitioners. Kink is absolutely not a free pass to act out loathing or misogyny. The player in the dominant position — the role these men claimed to be acting out — bears extra responsibility to pay attention to their partner’s consent. Responsible members of kink communities know that the submissive is extra vulnerable and has placed tremendous trust in the dominant one to respect their humanity.
The problem, I think, with men like Schneiderman is they don’t see their partners as human because they see women as subhuman input/output devices. To the kind of man who will nonconsensually slap a woman across the face and then tell her she secretly likes it, there is no difference between the idea that some women like to be hit or choked under explicitly negotiated circumstances and the idea that all women like it whether they admit it or not. Conveniently, these women’s desires map to the desires of the man in question, as if these men know their partners better than even they know themselves.
Excuses like Schneiderman’s further stigmatize kink communities
Men like Schneiderman are far from alone in this belief. Not every man chokes his date and calls it kink, but plenty of people see women as passive receptacles for male sexual desire. It’s that erasure of our personhood, that basic failure to imagine us as agents of our own interests when it comes to sex, that makes “she wanted it” sound convincing coming from a man’s mouth, even when the woman in question states clearly that she did not.
This kind of high-profile incident harms more than just the direct victims. Using the “you just don’t understand my kink” defense from such a public platform tells other men it’s totally cool to hit first and ask questions never. So they do. If the grapevines I’m part of are any indication, men in kinky and vanilla relationships alike use this line with alarming frequency.
These excuses add to the general public misunderstanding and stigma around kink. Though BDSM culture emphasizes proactive affirmative consent practices — perhaps even more than their mainstream counterparts — members of kink communities already face stereotyping. When their sexual tastes become known, they are at risk of job discrimination and child custody challenges. Genuinely respectful kinky people are forced further into the shadows.
Other pernicious myths surrounding kink — for instance, that women who enjoy submissive sex under specific circumstances are secretly self-hating and are to blame for any abuse they might suffer in the future — are explicitly leveraged by abusive men to absolve themselves. When MMA fighter Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver was accused of sexual assault and attempted murder by his ex-girlfriend Christy Mack, he used the excuse that her “previous work in the adult industry ‘pointed to consent’ and noted that the pair had engaged in rough sex before,” according to LAist.
These stigmas and the real-world consequences they carry make it harder for victims of abuse in BDSM relationships to come forward, and harder for journalists, police, prosecutors, judges, and juries to believe them when they do. And it tells men with a predilection for sexual violence that kink communities are a great place to find victims and a cover story in the same place.
The first question any of us should ask when a man accused of sexual violence claims it was all in good fun is “fun for whom?” We should dig deeper and ask if partners negotiated the scene in advance, or communicated desires and boundaries. Was there active, enthusiastic consent the whole time? Was there aftercare, a space to debrief safely after sex? And then we should ask ourselves the most important question of all: Is this man really more credible than the women who have risked so much by coming forward to expose his violence?
Jaclyn Friedman is the creator of three books, including Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. Friedman hosts Unscrewed, a popular podcast exploring paths to sexual liberation.