Friday, November 18, 2016

Consent Violation and The Disinvited Guest

Consent is key.

This is an oft-repeated slogan in my community. If we say it often enough, in simple words, we can be assured that everyone gets the idea. It binds and unifies us in a singular thought.

Ever wonder what it means?

Several years ago, my central community was in crisis. We regularly met for a sex party, in the same place, with the same people. But then, a decision was made to open the party to many more people. Suddenly, there were strangers in our midst, excited and thrilled to be in what they perceived as a playground of sex, drugs and rock and roll (or, at least, electronic dance music). We still thought of ourselves as a community, though now, we were a community where no one knew everyone.

A group of women had an idea. They organized a day-long meeting of long-time members of the group to brainstorm ideas for positive change. Perhaps the community should grow with new members. Perhaps it should not. Perhaps membership should be gradual. Every suggestion would be respected. To ensure this, there were rules of order, among them: no silencing and no shaming. The goal was to improve our community—we could take pride in its evolving culture and identity, possibly sustain growth but above all, maintain a bedrock of safety.

There were many subjects offered for consideration. Of course, consent was a central discussion.

At one point, as ideas flew, a moderator with a marker stood at an easel and asked for the meaning of “consent.” In rapid succession came these replies:

“No means no and the absence of no does not mean yes.”

“Most consent can be seen in body language, not heard in words.”

“People coming to this party know what they’re getting into. They consent by being here.”

These thoughts came faster than they could be written. They were spoken by three long-time, experienced and influential people, who were articulating their first thought on consent, a subject on which we were all in agreement.

Do you notice? Their replies were diametrically opposed.

The moderator had asked for “meaning” rather than “definition.” Not surprisingly, the responses had been subjective: one voiced as a slogan, a second as a communication style, a third as a reality check on personal agency. Had more participants responded in that first moment, we might have added still more meanings to a word all would swear to be a central unifying tenet in our community.

So much of what we consider “consent” happens in that first moment of understanding.

Let’s imagine the three respondents decide to play together. Each says they consent and all move forward on that agreement. What is that agreement? One understands that concrete statements will be clearly articulated and firmly enforced. A second understands that in the context of communication styles which may or may not support vocalized words. A third understands that they’ve all agreed from the starting gate and so full speed ahead. Things between the three of them may go very well. They are very likely to go awry.

As in any subculture, ideas and tenets vary in meaning and emphasis due to time, geography, generations and more, much less gender, race, class, age and other identifiers that can obscure understanding. Take, for example, the above example: three people of roughly the same age, who frequent the same environment and presume to share common values, learned that they are misunderstanding one another all the time.

In my many years in a variety of scenes, I’ve observed shifting trends in sex-positive culture, even among universally agreed upon subjects. Consent is without question emphasized more today than it was twenty years ago. It was important then, of course, at a time when, in my view, a greater emphasis was put on safer sex than is true today. At that time, safer sex was still a relatively new paradigm to absorb and teach. Now, HIV is treatable and a generation has come to adulthood after the initial crisis. Today, the crisis is consent.

I’ve been called a “consent violator.”

As anyone might, I instinctively react to such a label with defensiveness and denial. It’s hard to see oneself negatively while believing oneself to be a good person, always striving to be better. Accepting such a label means acknowledging that not only am I imperfect, as are we all, but flawed, in ways that are possibly unique to me.

I am a good person who is a consent violator.

Accepting that feels awful, but opens the opportunities for change and growth. If I believe I can be a better person—which is one of the things that gets us out of bed in the morning—then I can be someone who does not violate consent. To achieve that, I need to put aside the reaction of defensiveness and open my ears to hear.

I am a consent violator.

Three-and-a-half years ago, my life was shattered by a break up. I plunged into heartbreak, churning my pain into numb words and tears, abnegating my body and medicating my wounds with alcohol. After five years with my primary partner, I accepted offers from relative strangers for BDSM play. I was not clear on boundaries, with myself and others. I apologized, for what that was worth. In order to heal, I had to become a person who was not hurting myself and others. I was fortunate to have caring friends and—can you believe the luck?—a girlfriend who is a Buddhist and a therapist. It took me time to hear her. She led me to accept help, not just from those who love me, but from professionals. I continue to find help in harm reduction, therapy and treatment for depression. I accept responsibility for my past and take present actions to avoid triggering situations, patterns of self-destructive behavior and, sometimes with difficulty, destructive relationships.

I have had my consent violated.

A teenaged girl used me for sex when I was four years old. I’ve always remembered this with clarity and never thought it meant much in my development. I’m learning now, in my fifties, that this was wishful thinking. I can see the relevance of this childhood trauma to my response to times when I’ve experienced consent violations on the scene and within trusted relationships, most devastatingly during the aforementioned break-up.

Taking stock of one’s past may require setting right some records. Recently, a story has circulated alleging a past consent violation. The story is no secret. Anyone who knows me well has heard it told. Moreover, it’s been referenced on this blog since two-thousand-nine.

In early two-thousand-five, a friend, Audacia, asked to bring an acquaintance to our party. As I vetted her, she told me that she had genital herpes, adding how common that is and how many people have it and don’t know. “Thanks for letting me know,” I replied. “Just do with our group what you would normally do: let your potential partners know so they can give informed consent.”

That was a problem, she told me. She didn’t want to inform anyone for fear of being rejected. It wasn’t fair, she said, repeating that genital herpes is very common, and many people have it and don’t know. She would be no different than those who don’t reveal their STI status because they don’t know it.

This was a red flag for me. She intended to lie to my friends and to deny their informed consent. I was very uncomfortable being complicit in her lie. However, Audacia argued that everyone should use safer sex on the presumption that people may be dishonest or unaware of their STI status.  This was a case in point of dishonesty; now, we would also label it a consent violation. Yet, I deferred to the insistence of Audacia, who would later reveal she knew this person solely from her blog. I invited her recommended guest into my home and didn’t reveal her dishonesty.

(Note: I have had partners with herpes. I know this because they disclosed honestly prior to contact. I was able to give or withhold informed consent accordingly.)

Per my clearly stated preference, the guest and I never engaged in kissing, oral sex, intercourse or sexual acts—despite her repeated requests, in person, in front of friends and on her blog. Our sole physical interaction involved a sex toy, witnessed by a room of people, at a party on March twenty-ninth, two-thousand-five, her third visit to my home.

Our guest had heard my then-girlfriend describe our use of the toy, a speculum, and asked to use it. I agreed to participate, wearing latex gloves. The interaction was negotiated and consensual. When she asked to stop, we did so immediately. In aftercare, she said that the sensation reminded her of something that had happened years before. Comforted by the many friends who had witnessed our interaction, she returned to the party.

Soon, as she discussed our parties in her sex blog, my friends discovered the dishonesty of her STI disclosure. On these grounds—her deliberate lie that put others at risk without consent—I was asked by my friends to disinvite her from future parties, and did so.

She responded in her blog by expressing sadness and loss, eventually describing our sole interaction in a negative light. Her blog comments were sympathetic, while regularly pointing out that she described a negotiated, consensual scene that ended on request, followed by aftercare.

She concurred that the scene was negotiated and consensual. However, she maintained that once consent was withdrawn, the scene should end immediately. The toy had, in fact, been removed as quickly as was safely possible, requiring a trigger mechanism to disengage. I engaged it the moment she wanted to stop, asking, as I did so, if she was okay. She repeated the request even as I safely removed the toy. The scene had stopped immediately.

Duress can cause time to feel frozen. In her blog, she began to focus on the moment between asking to stop and the completed execution. The scene had ended immediately, but she wondered: how did I have time to speak if I was acting as quickly as possible?

Her blog commenters weighed in. One pointed out that a rope top packs safety shears so that it a scene must end, it can end as quickly as possible, though cutting rope will take a few moments. A commenter noted that if his girlfriend is on top during intercourse and he asked to stop, it would take a moment for her to move away. Compliance to consent withdrawal should be immediate. It may not be possible to be instantaneous.

Her replies turned against me personally. She posted that she knew my home address and parenting schedule. She could direct anyone who wanted to crash our party or worse, to do harm to me. She darkly joked that it would hurt me if my then-five-year-old daughter was raped.

She said this of a child. The child of a father who had himself been violated at age four.

Until this time, I had remained in contact with her. I expressed concern and apologized that the scene had caused her distress. I had enjoyed her company and felt bad about the necessity of removing her from our group.

Her threats lost her my sympathies. She had lied to my friends and put them at risk without consent. She had threatened my children. I cut her off entirely. I was angry at her threats and grateful to live in a doorman building.

A few years later, in March two-thousand-eight, my ex-wife discovered this blog and sued for full custody of our children, claiming that my sex life endangered the children. I ceased all parties and took down my blog. After a year in court, and an extensive review of all submitted material, including this blog, the State of New York ruled in two-thousand-nine that the children were in no danger and joint custody remained intact.

Per court order, I made no detailed public statements about the custody case during its duration. During my year offline, a pair of bloggers conjectured as to my silence. I had dated one of the pair briefly before ending our relationship to focus on the custody case. Seeking to cause mischief, the two bloggers contacted the disinvited guest and encouraged her to repeat her story, suggesting she leave out her shifting accounts and threats, referring to our sole physical interaction as “assault.”

In August two-thousand-eight, as a precautionary measure, I backed up all blogs that may have proved pertinent to my case, including that of the disinvited guest (no blog other than my own ever came up in court; the State of New York was concerned with the welfare of the children, not with the blogs of people who had no knowledge of my parenting). Her many blog posts from two-thousand-five concerning myself and the March twenty-ninth gathering had been expunged, leaving voids in a blog that had been updated daily. At no point prior to summer two-thousand-eight was the word “assault” used.

When the case resolved, I restored my blog and wrote about the events of that year: the custody case and the online flame war of sex bloggers, including the disinvited guest. Since two-thousand-nine, this writing has been continuously available here and linked at my FetLife account. I have often told the story onstage, for many years, to large and small audiences, in multiple cities. In two-thousand-ten, the story was also compiled and published as Feverish, Sad Drama. Anyone who knows me closely has heard the detailed story privately. It’s no secret.

In public accounts shortly after the custody case, I generally avoided specific details about the disinvited guest for a simple reason. As bloggers conjectured about my undisclosed custody case, they were unaware that while my ex-wife’s case rested solely on my sexuality, the state was concerned only with the welfare of the children. Opposing counsel wanted to prove that my sex life put my children at risk. The disinvited guest’s online threats could be used in an effort to prove them right—she had offered to provide my address and parenting schedule to anyone who might do harm, specifically targeting my five-year-old daughter for rape. It was not in the interest of my family to draw attention to her threats.

Over the years, the disinvited guest has sought to interfere with my opportunities and relationships, no doubt bolstered by my reluctance to address her reception during the two bloggers’ smear campaign of two-thousand-eight, while I was offline and my custody case remained active. She could be confident that I would not respond. And rightly so: I could afford lost opportunities, but I could ill afford to return to court with my ex-wife.

However, she references events that occurred over eleven years ago. I have long since left the address she visited. Two of my three children affected by the court’s custody decision have passed the age of maturation. I do not foresee my ex-wife returning to court. If we do go to court, I’m confident the threats of the disinvited guest would no longer be relevant.

For the record, here is how she described the incident in a blog post dated June twenty, two-thousand-eight, over three years after the fact. At the time, the interaction was of new interest to those behind the smear campaign accompanying my family's custody case. All of her earlier accounts and their comments had been deleted. 

For the first time ever he decided to play with me, and he decided to use a speculum as a sex toy. I wasn’t comfortable with that but in the spirit of trying new things I figured if I didn’t like it I could just ask him to stop. After all, that had always seemed like the un-transgressed rule of the parties—no means no. So he put it in and it hurt. And I told him, ‘That hurts, take it out.’ He not only ignored my request, but when someone else reiterated what I said he shook his head no and shifted the speculum inside me, which only served to jab me further. I started to panic, looked at a friend I had there that night for help, unfortunately said friend was otherwise engaged and I panicked further. I decided that this was going to stop right then and there and shouted out my request for everyone to hear. That stopped the guy in his tracks. After he removed the speculum, I slapped his arm (not as hard as I should have) and ran off to the bathroom where I burst into tears

Her account focuses on the time between her first request and my reaction. Only she can say what was going on in her head in that moment. For my part, I removed the toy as quickly as was safely possible. 

The detail about reiteration wasn't included in earlier accounts. It was added in this version when an eyewitness recalled that she may have interjected, although she wasn't sure. The disinvited guest then added it as fact, creating the impression that it was among reactions that happened sequentially rather than  concurrently. I don’t recall shaking my head. If someone else spoke, I may have been responding to that. I certainly didn’t refuse to act on her request. I was focused only on that task. I can’t speak to the attention of others in that moment. There were a handful of people in the room and they were understandably interested in watching; all eyes were attentive as I narrated each step, by way of explanation, throughout the brief interaction.

I have no interest in revisiting this story. I regret that recent events compel me to do so, reluctantly.

To reiterate key facts:

  • She knowingly lied about her STI status, refusing to reveal that she had genital herpes, and put others at risk without their consent. I was complicit in her dishonesty. When her lie was revealed, she was disinvited from future parties. I apologized to my friends.
  • Our sole physical interaction was negotiated and consensual. Her request to stop was met immediately and followed by aftercare, including weeks of conversation.
  • Following her dismissal from our parties, she bitterly offered my address and parenting schedule online to anyone who would harm me, my friends and my family, specifically targeting my then-five-year-old daughter. I immediately severed all contact with her.
  • Her early accounts of our sole physical interaction confirmed a scene that was negotiated and consensual, ending on request as immediately as was safely possible. Three years after the fact, in two-thousand-eight, she created a new account of the story, deleting her own contradictory and shifting original accounts as well as all comments. She did so with the stated intent of negatively affecting an active custody case. Once more, her target was my family.
  • She never had any direct contact with my children.
Our narratives do not neatly dovetail. Our memories of a moment over eleven years ago are not in exact concurrence. I’m sure she has replayed the memory many times since it occurred. I know I have. I know she has told the story many times. I have as well. I’ve read her shifting accounts. Now, she has read my account. We are unlikely to fully agree.

Research demonstrates that revisiting a memory in mind, words and/or images, gives it form and shape that move it further from fact, not closer. She can hold fast to her facts. I can hold fast to my facts. We can call in the surviving eyewitnesses to learn their facts. Everything that is known about the mind and memory indicates that the more views we add, the further we will be from a firm truth—particularly, as in this case, concerning a traumatic experience of fleeting duration. (To be clear, I don’t mean to diminish trauma with the word “fleeting.” Much research on trauma focuses on limited moments of time with lasting durations of impact.)

I’m immensely grateful to my extraordinarily patient partner.

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