One of the most grave and inexplicable problems facing our community in
general is the continued presence of downright rudeness. It takes many
forms: 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 others. It is astonishing, and terribly sad, how poorly we get
along from the viewpoint of interpersonal relationships. Why a community
like ours, whose members strive for a mature outlook on power, consent
and tolerance should feud with such violence and monotonous regularity
is a true mystery. 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 "leaders" whose mission appears to
be the personal demolition of others whose contributions to the community
might challenge their own. We know good people who have left the scene
because of the cattiness, clique-mentality, and deliberate non-consensual
meanness. This propensity, often called "Tops disease", is by
no means limited to dominants. It is nationwide in scope affecting virtually
every group we have visited in our 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
great strides in developing and documenting a wide variety of safe SM
practices, protocols, and standards for negotiation and play. Yet strangely,
the bickering, bitchiness and back-stabbing goes on unabated. The last
Black Rose election cycle produced a virtual demolition derby of friendships
over seemingly trivial issues. TES went through a similar bloodbath several
years ago, 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 due to jealously, power struggles, and malicious
The wounds inflicted by incivility exceed any damage perfumed in consensual
dungeon play. And the emotional scarring that uncivil behavior leaves
on its victims last 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, typically deport themselves
well. 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, most easily offended, readiest
to slander others. It is strange, but over and over we have seen seemingly
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 leave the community
in bitterness, anger or disgrace.
The civility question may play a role in the scene's disproportionate
absence of people of color, who understand discrimination and hostility
when they see it, may feel unwelcome, and stay away. It hurts our leather
brethren, demolishes friendships, breaks the spirit of our volunteers,
cripples social groups, invites retaliation, and weakens our claim that
SM is practiced by emotionally healthy, well adjusted people. Why are
we doing this? What can we do to stop it?
The Scope of the Problem
What is Incivility?
We will go straight to examples. By no means exhaustive, here are some
categories of incivility we encounter in the scene.
The Empathy Gap: This is subtle, but actually lies behind much uncivil
behavior. Not so much the presence of hatred or dislike, but an absence
of empathy and kindness towards other members of our SM community. In
a better world, we would all actively welcome strangers, extend cordiality,
start up conversations, feel a little compassion towards others like ourselves.
But more often than not, people feel nothing in particular towards people
they meet in the scene. This "inner nothingness" sets the stage
for much of the uncivil behavior we find in the scene.
Gossip: We all do it, and yes it can be loads of fun catching up on all
the latest dirt. Plus, gossip serves a valuable purpose when finding out
about someone you may be interested in playing with. By scene standards,
it is not uncivil to conduct good faith peer review by inquiring about
someone's lay style, experience, and reputation. But gossip conducted
with the intent to harm, or passing along dubious or inflammatory rumors,
is behavior that hurts the scene. In gossip, as with other things, there
must be some sense of proportion. Gossip can also violate the confidentiality
of individuals, possibly subjecting them to dangerous and unnecessary
risk. Both truth and privacy are cardinal principals in the scene, and
reckless gossip damages both.
Clique Politics: To have a circle of friends is a good thing, but not
when the goal is circling the wagons to shut out people who don't "fit
in". In the same way that benign sharing of information can be amplified
into vicious, destructive gossip, maintaining cliques whose purpose it
is to weaken, and ostracize others, hurts the community as well as the
individuals excluded. Ultimately clique players make so many enemies that
they themselves are resented or unwelcome.
Sweet and Sour: A clique politics tactic: Some people make extravagant
show of how close and loving they are to their circle of friends, hugs,
smiles, introductions, glowing compliments, in part to maximize the sting
inflicted against perceived outsiders, who are refused even the time of
day. A stock move among catty sorority girls during rush week (the Amish
call it "shunning"), it's embarrassing to see how many grown
men and women use "sweet and sour" to isolate and hurt individuals
whose feelings and esteem they regard as unimportant. This truly nasty
habit creates "us and them" fissures, that fragment the community,
hurt feelings and invite retaliation.
Chicken Hawk Syndrome: With a constant influx of SM beginners, some attempt
to acquire play partners under the guise of "mentoring". Chicken
hawk syndrome includes strong come-on, boastful presentation of one's
own experience and skill, sometimes in trashing other people, sometimes
attempting to isolate new people from the presence or influence of others,
all in the name of "education", or at least active attempts
to recruit them into their clique of preference. While there is nothing
wrong with expressing interest in someone (new to the community or not),
it is dishonest to couch your interest in terms of education. For new
people, we advise you to take your time in choosing exclusive mentors
if you feel the need to do that at all, and ideally to form relationships
with a circle of friends and not to rely on just one point of view.
SM Psychodrama: High volume yelling matches, absurd conspiracy mongering,
unbridled venom towards community peers... does any of this sound familiar?
Here's a test: If such behavior would get you fired from a professional
workplace, please leave it at home.
Failure to Separate Role from Reality: We are an imaginative bunch (witness
the number of science fiction fans, and Ren-fair enthusiasts in our midst)
and this is both good and bad. Some take the view that the scene is a
place their fantasy becomes reality, raising the specter of unrealistic
expectations which can infringe on safety, consent, even sanity. Someone
who prides herself on being an unreasonable, demanding bitch in scene,
should always watch to draw a line between what is appropriate in scene,
and into daily life, even if they consider themselves "lifestyle".
The Dom = Dickhead syndrome: While some dominants are true artists cultivating
a gourmet's appreciation of pleasure, pain and power, others are mere
peevish control queens, itchy for a chance to criticize, get belligerent,
boss others around. Still others, new to the community (but not to Gor
novels) make the classic error of equating their sexual dominance with
an overbearing, overreaching manner dominated by virtue of their presence
at an SM event. Regardless of how dominant you are within your consenting
relationships (and more power to ya!), you can no more "assume"
consent in your interactions with others, than you can in an SM scene.
Dominants who assume its okay to boss others around, and demand subservient
treatment demanded rudely are making the classic newbie error of assuming
its okay to touch or grab others bodies without out asking.
The Realness Police: In which everyone assumes that your SM should closely
resemble theirs. Scoffing at scenes for being too mild, too heavy or too
whatever. One particularly odious habit is the loudly proclaimed belief
in those great SM unicorns the "true dom" (true doms never bottom...
being a true dom means never having to say you're sorry, etc.) or "true
submissive" (If you were a TRUE submissive you would do X for me,
let me do Y to you, take it in stride while I waltz off and do Z.)
The Imperial-Imperious Confusion: Some scenefolk, in an effort to appear
imperial (kingly, of high standard, worthy of respect) conduct themselves
in a manner that is imperious (overbearing, bossy, judgmental). A surprising
number of scene-folk begin this confusion after a few years in the community,
as they assume leadership positions, or when they decide that it is time
they were recognized as authorities, if not superiors. While many feel
that imperious behavior demonstrates expertise, importance, and intelligence,
in truth it almost never fails to alienate potential friends and play
partners, and make the offender look bad. Below is a table highlighting
the differences between desirable imperial behavior and the often time
Kingly (or Queenly), regal
Just, Impartial, Fair-Minded
Brave, committed to principles
Independent in thought
Modest, friendly to all
Large hearted, generous to others
Patient with others' shortcomings
Self Aware, Mature
Social, respectful of peers
Careful with words and speech
Holds self to high standards
Judgmental, dogmatic, scornful of other points of view
Bossy, arrogant, dictatorial, domineering
Clique-Minded, ready to rally others into personal feuds and vendettas
Unjust, Biased, Greedy-Minded
Cowardly, sees threats and conspiracies everywhere
Over-reliance on politics, platitudes and maxims "All doms do this..
sub that does z cannot be a true sub"
Haughty, self important, Hierarchy-obsessed, belittling, even strangers
towards perceived "inferiors"
Greedy, Stingy, Peevish, Self-Involved
Stubborn, Inflexible, threatened by, or hostile to, change or other's
contributions new ideas.
Has difficulty sharing the spotlight
Bitchy, unforgiving, grudge-loving
Self-infatuated, Childish, Asocial,
Has difficulty getting along with others
Gossipy, indiscrete, prone to bad-mouthing others
Holds others to higher standards than self
While pecking order tactics like these are fine for beings with the intelligence
and spiritual depth of sparrows and chickens, in humans they are shallow,
unkind and run counter to the spirit of "safe, sane, and consensual".
Furthermore, people will not continue to support and tolerate people who
treat them badly. Even so, unwise bystanders occasionally reward this
kind of boorishness with attention and respect, making our collective
problem worse. New people see this behavior in community leaders and players
of high prominence and emulate it, believing it to be proper, accepted
or connoting high status.
Expert-itus (a variant of the previous point): the state of confusing
one's own expertise with the ability to pick nits, and find faults in
other people's play, demeanor, protocol, motives. While sharing scene
knowledge is generally a good thing, it can be, and often is, overdone.
Go easy on the free advice.
Why Do We Do It?
In fairness, we don't want to suggest that leatherfolk are inherently
rude people. The scene, as wonderful as it can be, contains many subtle
and seldom discussed "stress factors" that contribute to uncivil
behavior. Like water over a stone, these stress factors wear on the nerves
year after year, thus setting the stage for impatience, irritation, depression,
and the empathy deficit we have already discussed. These are the rudeness-producing
actions that prompts retaliatory rudeness in return.
The scene is a small world, and quarters are close, closer than we might
like sometimes. Because BDSM is an interest that selects at random, we
often find ourselves spending a lot of time with people we might not otherwise
choose as friends.
The scene is an intensely intimate place, we express our inner fantasies
and fears, sometimes share partners, see each other nude, watch each other
come... Is it any wonder people are sensitive about how we are treated
Because these practices are incredibly diverse, we find ourselves in the
occasional presence of activities that make us uncomfortable. The scene
is a strange place and it takes a while to adjust. And some things you
may never get used to.
The pressures of closeting: The pressure of maintaining a secret life,
of hiding your leather life from friends, colleagues, and family adds
a constant overlay of tension to daily life. Scene folk have to manage
the presence of fetish contraband including toys, clothes, literature
and erotica whose discovery might be catastrophic. The risk, real or perceived,
can encompass loss of employment, of friends, of family, even custody
of one's kids.
Jealousy, loneliness, and competition for partners are facts of life.
People without play partners may become unhappy or angry. People seen
as getting more than their share can trigger insecurity and resentment.
Even people with partners may see threats around every corner.
The scene, like any fringe group, attracts its share of eccentrics and
outcasts, some fascinating and agreeable, others less so. New people unacquainted
to the scene's protocols occasionally touch, grab or conduct themselves
in an inappropriate manner. Although individuals typically learn to deport
themselves over time, the constant influx of newcomers means newcomer
naivete is a constant, grating issue.
The realities of the party circuit: It is a hard fact of scene life is
that most parties are private and their invite lists finite. For every
guest invited there are twenty left outside. The guest list is dictated
by what the hosts can afford, their circle of friendships, the size of
their home and many other factors. But it still stings to hear about a
party without getting an invite. And it happens all the time.
EMAIL (the medium of choice for many SM participants): Without a friendly
face or modulations of human speech, text encounters can be easily misstated/misunderstood.
Couple that with the sometimes blunt writing style of emailers everywhere,
the added gravity of the written word and the ease of escalating a private
remark into public rebuke with a misplaced keystroke, and you've got the
makings for an on-line food fight.
Guy Baldwin, keynote speaker at Leather Leadership III, and a prominent
leatherman psychiatrist, found that an unusually high percentage of his
SM-practicing patients suffered abuse as children. Others - because of
their SM interests - have grown up feeling alienated, alone and have led
difficult lives. The upshot is that there is a lot of anger and insecurity
out there that can manifest as uncivil behavior.
Thoughts on Fixing It
One of the more sobering aspects of the list above, is that there really
are no easy solutions to any of these problems. The scene is small, people
are sensitive, invite lists are short, and we really do have some truly
eccentric people who will continue to behave eccentrically. But there
is room for hope. We do a good job of establishing and enforcing play
standards to make SM safe and hot. We are improving all the time as educators
of play practices. But interpersonal conduct outside of the SM encounter
itself, has not been made a priority and it's probably time it should
be. We must recognize civility (defined in part by the examples in this
report) as a threat to the health of our community, and commit ourselves
as individuals, to improving our own behavior first. We must extend civility,
decency, care and concern beyond our personal circle to members of the
community at large. This doesn't mean we have to be everyone's bosom bud,
but that concern for others is a priority instead of the non-issue it
is for many at present. We are not talking about sainthood or communism
here. The goal is not to stand around a campfire in a ring, holding hands
singing Kumbaya. But if we all improve our behavior, and extend our compassion
by ten percent, we will be living in a completely transformed universe.
Secondly, through mentoring and our education programs we must elevate
civility as a requirement for our leaders and citizens. While scene etiquette
(a subset of civility) is an SM staple, it deals mainly with deportment,
protocols and standards of interaction, and doesn't address the deeper
issues of cultivating compassion, tolerance and awareness, towards our
SM brethren. These are tougher ethics-driven issues often without simple
answers. And, though vocal, it is a minority of scene-folk who do the
worst of this callous behavior. Most want a scene that is friendly and
supportive. Many are willing to work to make it so (hopefully you too
if you've read this far). And though the gossips, scolds and assholes
among us often succeed in hurting their intended targets (and incidentally,
our community), their greatest casualities are ultimately their own reputations.
Remember that we are all brothers and sisters in a community no matter
how diverse. If we behave like we care about and support one other, we
will all find ourselves, by definition, in an environment that is more
caring and supportive. Improved civility should presented as causal to
the following desirable conditions:
Stability of friendships
Respect of peers
Trust of potential play partners (civility means stability)
Strengthens ones personal network of contacts,
Supports the position that SM is practiced by sane, well adjusted people.
Elevates fairness and justice/ (which are eternal) as the coin of the
realm as opposed to popularity, and bureaucratic clout (which are fleeting
and can vanish at any moment)
Strengthens the community and makes it healthier
Raises the comfort quotient for newcomers
A Proposed Approach: Extend SSC to Interpersonal Relationships
Strive as individuals and organizations to extend "safe, sane, and
consensual" into the arena of interpersonal conduct. So let's turn
the laser beam of SSC onto our civility concerns and see what it tells
Uncivil behavior is non-consensual: Unless assured otherwise, good manners
and general kindness should be the coin of the realm. To do less is to
engage someone without their consent. Doms should restrict their dominance
to those who have consented to it. Submissives who pester others with
unsolicited subservience are likewise in violation. And non-consensual
dominance in the name of "mentoring" doesn't wash either. Gossips
and scolds should likewise consider their behavior in terms of consent.
Subjecting someone to a tongue lashing or a gossip campaign is really
no better than drawing out a flogger and hammering away at them without
Uncivil behavior is not safe: Cruel, thoughtless behavior can damage hurt
people, deeply, for as long time, and that cannot be called safe. In the
same way that humiliation can be more damaging than physical pain, the
emotional harm inflicted from incivility may far exceed what you intend.
Unsolicited advice can come across as cutting, and judgmental. Incivility
also sets a diminished community standard for others to follow, making
incivility more acceptable and social environment suffers often scaring
mature decent people away, and can in time bring a group to its knees.
Small acts of rudeness, or disregard, even if only perceived as such can
balloon up into clique wars.
And if the well being of your intended victim means nothing to you, consider
this: If you make trouble for people, chances are it will come back to
haunt you later on. People have a way of reciprocating behavior. Be nice
and people will be nice back. Be a jackass and that's how others will
see AND speak of you. This is a small world and if you screw someone,
you are handing them a motive to get you back later. Even if you are queen
of the in-clique at present,
no one controls the future, and over time the leather gods have a way
of evening things out. The community is close, memory is long, and paybacks
are a bitch. For this reason alone, uncivil behavior is unsafe. To you.
Uncivil behavior is not even all that sane: For years many of us felt
we were solitary freaks before finding this community. To reinforce feelings
of rejection in our brothers and sisters by deliberately withholding human
decency, or subjecting them to deliberate hardship is just not defensible.
People who find themselves helpless to resist clashing with or inflicting
imperious behavior on their scene fellows, would do well to begin some
serious soul-searching and perhaps seeking out the help they need. A lot
of uncivil behavior is retaliatory. Someone does something that hurts
or offends you prompting an aggressive response. Unfortunately this may
be exactly how it looks to the person you just dissed. If you find that
your actions and behavior are building up to a feud, it is a great idea
to apologize for your part in the situation and disengage from the conflict.
Furthermore the long term gains from uncivil behavior are so meager, and
the costs so high that it really does not pay for people who hope to stay
in the community for some time. Even if they win a short term victory.
Taking care of your community. Take care of its members.
Agree to disagree.
You don't have to dis, just because you dislike.
Civility demonstrates stability
Piss off a bigot; be nice to a leather person
Imperious does not mean imperial
SSC is always in effect, whether or not a scene is in progress.
Resist the urge to reward slanderous gossip, with your attention and involvement.
It's not consensual, and not safe (for it leaves you open to accusations
of being a scold, and gossip). Even its sanity is questionable.
Tithe: (give ten percent more in kindness appreciation gratitude, forgiveness)
Never assume Safety.
Never assume Consent.
SM does not stand for super man. Nobody is perfect and everyone makes
mistakes. Be willing to concede the point if you have been uncivil. Being
willing to fess up and apologize makes you stronger, not weaker.
Always try to be the voice of sanity and reason.
Incivility is uncivil, whatever the excuse.
Try to maintain perspective.
Maintain a healthy sense of humor.
True wealth is the ability to give kindness.
Never forget your pleasure.