Leather Ethics: Civility And Incivility in The Scene

Author: Chris M © 2002

Used With Author(s) Permission


Due to the size of this article, it has been split into fourpages. At the bottom of each page will be a text link that says the next page's number (Page Two, or Page Three etc.)


Of all the pieces I've written, none has prompted more visceral reaction than the one you are about to read. My piece on civility and incivility in the scene, first published in the Black Rose Petal and Thorn in the spring of 1998, has drawn both the most praise and the most hostility of anything I have written to date. When I wrote it, I was mad as hell, and gravely concerned for my community. Black Rose had just completed its tenth anniversary celebration, the first of the now annual bashes we throw in suburban Washington, a splendid time had been had by most, and we were all feeling flush with pride. But all was not well in old D.C. BR insiders had always boasted how well its core of volunteers worked together, but as I came to be a member of that set, I saw trouble brewing. There most definitely was an inner circle. Help, ideas and people from outside that circle were often more than unwelcome; they were regarded as an affront. The massive tenth anniversary festival became a catalyst. Some who had worked hard felt disrespected and unappreciated. There were intimations of money being stolen by organizers, a long-standing Black Rose conspiracy theory. Rumormongering reached levels verging on paranoia. And there was more open hostility in the talk than I had ever heard before.

In the board election six months later, all hell broke loose. Accusatory gossip reached all time highs. Four incumbents - two who had served on the board for almost a decade - refused to run. It was at this time I became aware of what I started calling "the body count" - the alarming number of once active BR volunteers who were no longer at private parties, at BR socials, or the Tuesday night meetings. It was kind of spooky. As if they had died dishonorable deaths.

Over the next contentious year, three board members would quit, quickly joining the ranks of the disappeared: good, enthusiastic volunteers who had once believed in, and worked hard for the club, passed from the inner circle to oblivion, essentially unmourned. It was in this climate that I wrote the first cut of the civility piece, an article focusing on interpersonal conduct in our community, and on just how bad things had. Without naming names or citing specific incidents I put forth a simple proposition: Us SM types don't treat each other as well as we could or probably ought to. Later, I expanded the article to include some experiences of my friend Lady Medora of the late, great New Orleans Power Exchange, and have recently expanded it again. I have been blown away by the passionate responses I have received from individuals and groups from Sidney to Main to Berlin. Indecent and unkind interpersonal behavior seems to be a problem virtually everywhere SM is practiced. Hopefully, by shining a hard honest light on our sometime bad behavior we can better understand what causes it, and how to reduce the intolerance, vindictiveness, harsh judgment, and hypocrisy we sometimes encounter in the scene. If enough of us strive to make the SM scene a more tolerant, more friendly, and safer place for people to explore their inner fantasies, we will surely be successful.

One of the stranger attributes of the SM community is the prevalence of downright lowdown behavior. We get it all: gossip, arrogance, slander, ingratitude, interpersonal cruelty, rumor mongering, the propensity to snub, shun or belittle, a refined sensitivity to slight paired with strident disregard for how one's actions and words effect other people. It is frankly shocking, and terribly sad how poorly some of us get along from the viewpoint of interpersonal relationships. It is a true mystery why a community like ours, whose members strive for a mature outlook on power, consent and tolerance, should feud with such violent and monotonous regularity. In our community, we see behavior one would never dream grown adults could stoop to. We have seen SM groups who ought to get along fine bicker endlessly and mindlessly. We have seen "scene leaders" whose mission appears to be the personal demolition of not only bad people, but good people whose contributions to the community might challenge their own. We all know good people who have left the scene because of the cattiness, clique-mentality, and deliberate non-consensual meanness. This propensity, sometimes called "Tops disease", is by no means limited to dominants. The problem is international wide in scope, affecting virtually every group I have visited in my travels.

It isn't hard to imagine a universe where this kind of behavior never occurred at all. Aggression, power, and consent, to say nothing of etiquette, are concepts SM folk deal with all the time. The BDSM community has made huge strides in developing and documenting a wide variety of safe SM practices, protocols, and standards for negotiation and play. But the bickering, bitchiness and backstabbing goes on nearly unabated. The 1998 Black Rose election cycle became a virtual demolition derby of friendships over seemingly trivial issues. TES went through a similar bloodbath several years earlier in the wake of their 25th anniversary celebration. And many small groups have closed, not because of legal persecution, fiscal mismanagement, or lack of membership, but from jealously, power struggles, and malicious gossip. The wounds inflicted by incivility go way beyond the damage performed in most consensual dungeon play. And the emotional scarring that incivility leaves on its victims lasts longer than any bruise.

You might guess that the worst of this behavior comes from scene novices, but you would be wrong. Beginners, usually eager to fit in and make friends, generally deport themselves well. Oddly, the worst of this behavior comes from people who have been in the scene for years. People with experience, with play partners, with contacts, are often the most judgmental, least generous, quickest to take offense, readiest to slander others. Over and over we have seen friendly newcomers arrive in the scene, become avid pupils of our craft, grow into competent players, then unexpectedly mutate into arrogance, self-importance, and interpersonal ruthlessness. Many of these perpetrators are later driven from the community in bitterness or disgrace. Or drive others away themselves.
The civility crisis hurts our leather brethren, demolishes friendships, breaks the spirit of our volunteers, cripples our organizations, invites retaliation, and weakens our claim that SM is practiced by emotionally healthy, well-adjusted people. The civility crisis may play a role in the scene's disproportionate absence of people of color, who know discrimination and hostility when they see it, may feel unwelcome, and stay away. Why are we doing this? What can we do to stop it?

Page Two






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