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An Open Letter to Law Enforcement

© 2006 Ambrosio
May be reproduced in whole with credit to the author.

This article is based in part on material from the NCSF and an article written by Sir Bamm!


Dear Law Enforcement Agent,

First of all, I want to thank you sincerely for all the good work you do in the difficult tasks of fighting crime, protecting the public in general -- and combating domestic abuse specifically.  I understand that the last task can be sometimes difficult in that the victims of domestic abuse can be the unwitting allies in their own abuse.  Some of them will defend their abusers and not cooperate with the people who are trying to help them.  They have become convinced that they deserve the abuse -- that they have "asked for it."  They might lie in defense of their partners and deny that any abuse has taken place.  I can only imagine that it would be very frustrating.

On the other hand, we know that ignoring such situations can't be an option.  Too readily assuming the best in what might seem to be a simple domestic disturbance can lead to tragedy.(1)

Which brings me to the purpose of this article.  I want to bring an issue to your attention -- assuming it hasn't come to your attention already.  As a member of the BDSM and Leather subculture, I know that many in my community are at risk of being mistaken for perpetrators and victims of domestic violence.

I don't want to claim that everyone who identifies with the BDSM or Leather community is innocent of domestic violence.  I know some of us have been guilty and I suspect there are more.  But I am saying that the community as a whole practices consensual BDSM and that we do not encourage, promote, or condone -- pedophilia, abuse or rape. Quite the contrary. The maxim of "Safe, Sane, and Consensual" has become the moto of our subculture.

Unfortunately for us, our community likes to use -- or more accurately, misuse -- words with strong negative connotations: "sadism," "exhibitionism," "slavery," and "rape," among others.  What we mean by these terms and are very different from the legal and medical terms.

Here are some of the terms and concepts we use in the BDSM and Leather communities that bring up red flags for the uninitiated:

In the scene, a adult male or female who often relates to another adult who adopts a father role to the "boy."

  1. In both the Lesbian subculture and the BDSM scene, "typically referring to a biological female who presents herself in a typically masculine or "butch" fashion." (anon.)
  2. In the BDSM scene, an adult -- most often a biological female but sometimes a male or transgendered person -- who identifies as a "boy" (2nd definition above) but with qualification and understand that he is biologically female.
  3. "A boyish gay guy or a biological female with a boyish presentation." (Rona Marech)
  4. In the BDSM scene, a adult male or female who looks to another adult to act as his father figure in part of a "Daddy/boy" relationship.


In the scene, a dominant man (or a woman) who is the father figure to a boy.  The parent child role playing is usually loving, nurturant, and educational.

  1. As defined in Psychology, exhibitionism is a paraphilia -- an abnormal or unnatural attraction -- involving exposing one's genitals or sexual organs to a nonconsenting stranger but with no further attempt at sexual activity with the stranger. Exhibitionists are sexually aroused by the shock or surprise of the victim. (Psychology Today)
  2. The act or practice of so behaving as to attract undo attention sometimes by indecent exposure.  (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  3. As practiced in the scene, exhibitionism is deriving erotic pleasure through the provocative display of one's body -- often during play -- in front of a consenting and hopefully appreciative audience.

  1. In the scene, similar to a "boy" or "boi" but the adult "girl" identifies as female.
  2. In the scene, "typically a biological female who presents herself in a typically feminine or 'femme' manner and may be lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual"

In the BDSM subculture, "rape" -- often but not always coupled with qualifiers such as "fantasy," "play," and "scene" -- is often used to specify rape fantasy roleplay, in which two parties agree in advance to enact a scenario where they both pretend to engage in non-consensual sex. As Larry Townsend writes in Ask Larry "There is a great deal of difference between consensual SM and rape, and if you are not able to distinguish that difference you don't belong in the scene." (p. 85).  Because of the dangers of miscommunication, "rape" play is not a type that is to be engaged in lightly. The use of safe words (2) and careful negotiation is strongly encourage but even then there is a potential of the scene going seriously wrong.

In the scene, someone who has freely, willingly --- under NO coersion or threat --- and completely relinquished all freedom to a specific person or persons in a structured relationship in order to satisfy their personal phychological need to serve another.  Some consider it is fantasy role playing.  Others are quite ouspoken in their belief that "consensual slavery" is real.  (Slave is often written in all lower case.)

In the scene, vanilla is a term to designate "not BDSM" -- people and practices outside the scene. As the term implies, it's "plain, ordinary, normal."

(For more terms, please see "Perverted Vocabulary: a Glossary of Terms Used in BDSM" at http://www.evilmonk.org/A/terms.cfm .)

While I can't speak for the entire community, I will say that most of us aren't dangerous criminals or irrational nut cases. My experience has been that we're just as healthy -- or just as screwed up -- as the rest of our society. While many of us fit a few of the points in a profile for a rapist or a serial killer -- sadistic fantasies and an enjoyment of hardcore porn for example -- it doesn't follow that everyone who reads or watches hardcore porn is a rapist or serial killer.

In my opinion, there are three very important ways the people in my community are not like sexual predators:

  1. We have empathy

    Most of "masters," "tops," and "dominants" in our community are not true sadists in the strictest sense of the word.  Sadists enjoy causing pain to unwilling victims.  What most of us create is what seems like pain to an outside observer but is really intense pleasure for our masochist play partners.  That's what separates us from real sadists: our partners enjoy what we do to them.  They seek us out because what we do to them brings them real pleasure.  I have no interest in coercing a vanilla girlfriend into doing something that she doesn't enjoy.  We'd rather not play than cause real pain.

  2. We don't allow all of our impulses free reign.

    When we first start exploring our proclivities, many of us in our community ask ourselves if we are sliding down a slippery slope into complete unrestrained amorality. Are we made out of the same material as a Ted Bundy or a John Edward Robinson? We have to look into our personal abyss and stare directly at the monsters there.  The healthiest of us look at our monsters and realize that they can only be as evil, destructive, and dangerous as we allowed them.  We make peace with our monsters on our own terms: While we allow ourselves unrestrained freedom in thinking and fantasizing, we restrict our actions to what we consider ethical.

    For example, Ted Bundy tried to shift blame for his crimes to the porn he read. But he was responsible for his own actions, not some overweight nudie photographer in New Jersey.

  3. We are not violent

    Violence means the perpetrator has lost control over his action and given into his anger.  In our community, we retain control over our actions and discourage playing when we are in a bad mood.

  4. We don't have real "Fetishes."

    In Psychology, a fetish is a single something that's absolutely essential for the fetishist's sexual arousal and sexual gratification.  When we use the word "fetish," we mean something that really turns us on.  If Halle Berry or Angelina Jolie jumps into my bed, I'm not going to kick them out because they didn't first address me as "Master Hughes-Coq" and let me put a collar around their necks.  If I like a woman enough, I'm happy to make love with her in the vanilla style.  (It's just that BDSM adds so much to the experience for me.)

    Also, much of the play and many of the scenes in communities and lifestyles are negotiated. They are compromises between the top and the bottom and they many evolve over time.

Granted, I'm not in law enforcement and I don't have a degree on psychology.  But my opinion is valid in that I have an inside perspective on my community.  Whether or not I'm right about the three ways in which we're not predators, we are certainly not abusers.

Which brings us back to the issue I mentioned. How can you as a law enforcement agent recognize which situations are a case of domestic violence and which are innocent games practiced by consenting adults?  I have tried to help by collecting the following list of "Consensual BDSM Indicators"

I'm not presenting these items as a comprehensive checklist that will definitively identify whether what has taken place is consensual or not.  On one hand, some people play rougher than others so none of these indicators might be apparent.  On the other hand, what might have started out as a "Safe, Sane, and Consensual" BDSM relationship could conceivably degenerate into abuse.  It has happened.

There are people within our community -- or on the periphery of the community -- who have adopted the trappings of consensual BDSM but -- either wittingly or unwittingly -- are really abusing their partners and exposing them to unwelcome risk.

I've known of rapists -- in the truest sense of the word -- who have victimized novices under the guise of consensual S&M.  Their victims have had difficulty reporting the crime and even more difficulty articulating how the crime was real.

For example: A victim might report "I told him over the phone that I had rape fantasies  "Then when we met he suddenly attacked me without negotiating first: He ripped my clothes, hit me, and them forced himself inside me.  I screamed my 'safe word' but he ignored it."

If you are a police officer unfamilar the mores and informal rules of BDSM, recognizing the difference between a consensual fantasy scene and an actual rape, can be difficult.  The predators on the periphery count on that.  To the uninitiated, the complaint by victim in the preceeding example might seem unwarrented.  Didn't the rapist give the victim just what she told him she wanted?  Not if you recognize the central importance of consensuality and negotiation in our community.

I can understand why some people in law enforcement would find this confusing.  There's a great potential for misunderstanding.  You'll have to use your best judgment.  I wish you well.  I hope I've been helpful in this unsolicited advice.


PS. This article is based in part on material from the The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and BDSM vs. Abuse by Sir Bamm!



(1)  For example, on May 27, 1991 in Milwaukee, WI, 14-year-old Laotian boy Konerak Sinthasomphone escaped -- naked, drugged, and bleeding -- from the apartment of Jeffrey Dahmer -- a convicted child molester on probation and an unrecognized serial killer.  When three police officers arrived, they found the boy incoherent.  Dahmer claimed that the boy was drunk, a legal adult, and that they had had a lovers tiff.  Two black women who had reported the incident tried to convince the police that something far more serious was taking place.  It seemed to them that the naked Laotian boy was afraid of the man.  In a terrible mistake that would cost five lives, the officers believed Dahmer and returned the teenager to Dahmer.  Immediately after they left, Dahmer killed Konerak Sinthasomphone.  Two months later on July 22, 1991, a 32-year-old black man, Tracy Edwards, escaped from Dahmer's apartment with a pair of hand cuffs locked on his wrist.  He was stopped by police and he told them a coherant story about his escape from Dahmer's apartment.  The police brought him back to Dahmers apartment but this time they were suspicious.  Dahmer tried to explain away the incident but the officers discovered incriminating polariods and a human head in the refrigerator.  In the investigation that followed it was discovered that Dahmer had murdered Sinthasomphone along with sixteen other victims -- mostly black and Asian.  The ensuing fallout was understandable.  The Milwaukie police were widely critized for their failure to take the Sinthasomphone situation more seriously.  Two of the officers who returned Sinthasomphone to his killer were discharged (but they appealed the termination and were reinstated with back pay.)

(2) Safe Words

Safe Word:
A pre-arranged signal to notify the other play partner(s) -- usually the top -- if they go beyond negotiated boundaries, the sensations become too intense, or it becomes necessary to slow down a scene or stop it for any reason.  (For more on safewords see the "Safeword" section of "Some Notes on Safety for Meeting Online and Off" at http://www.evilmonk.org/A/safenote.cfm)

Additional Reading for Law Enforcement

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