Safe Words and Responsible Authorship
The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rarely quoted in full. We often hear:
All human beings are born free and equal (in dignity and rights).
This opening line is, of course, extremely important. The question of freedom is one that I have discussed here at great length, on several occasions, and it is something that many people devote many hours to in consideration, particularly as concerns situations where the expression of one person’s freedom impedes another’s. Which is why what follows this first line is so important:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
The latter sentence suggests to me a particular kind of responsibility, and to my mind, nowhere is this responsibility so apt as in freedom of speech. When I’m writing articles (rather than fiction) I spend a lot of time considering how best to express what I have to say in a way that is neutral and discussable rather than offensive and provocative. Of course, this is something I do out of choice; I have the freedom to choose how to write and how to express myself.
With that in mind, do we, in fact, have any right to censor or condemn those who choose to express themselves with less care?
Just before the weekend Discerning Dom wrote a piece called ‘No Limits’ which earned him a barrage of comments from disgruntled and offended readers, myself included. Generally speaking I am an avid reader of his blog; it is regularly insightful, oftentimes exciting, and DD himself is an elusive man which lends a sense of mystery to his writing. But I, as a reader, a submissive, a masochist and a writer, have also come to rely on a certain amount of level-headed good sense in his articles.
As a writer I feel that DD is particularly good at blurring the lines between his fantasies, his memoirs and his thoughts on BDSM. For the most part this is done quite seamlessly and it simply makes the reading experience richer. However, with ‘No Limits’ I felt this line blurring became less elusive and more irresponsible.
In the first paragraph he writes:
And while she was suffering, whimpering and wriggling, we had a most interesting conversation about safe words. I haven’t got one, she said (‘Can I take the clamps off now? Please?’ ‘No.’)
From the moment I read this, I felt uneasy. Of course it is completely up to DD and his partner how they choose to play; if it’s consensual then, to my mind, it is their decision. However, the way that sentence is constructed – “And while she was suffering […] we had a […] conversation about safe words” – hit a nerve with me. It seems to suggest that the question of safe words had never come up before. Again, everyone has the right to play in whatever way they want to, but as the piece goes on and the pair discuss limits, DD begins to draw some pretty clear boundaries, and lay them down as though they are absolute truths:
Let me explain, I said, being a reasonable man. You are my submissive, right? Yes. That means you will always do what I say. You have agreed never to say no to me. OK, she said. Submission that draws a line and says no further isn’t really submission at all, I said.
At this point, as someone who engages in dominance and submission, I felt my freedom had been somewhat impinged upon. DD is clearly a seasoned dominant as well as a knowledgeable writer, and personally I feel that these two things give him a voice or, at the very least, a tone of authority; so when I read his ideas and his thoughts on D/s, I take notice because I feel fairly sure he knows what he’s talking about. I think for a blog that does very little self-promotion, he is very well read; his pieces get a fair few comments and he seems to have a group of ardent followers. This suggests to me that I am not the only one who trusts his words, nor the only one who promotes his blog. So you can imagine how these words, coming from someone whose authority I usually trust, felt like an attack on my freedom to submit in whatever way my partners and I choose. The closest simile I can get is this: imagine you fall in love and then you go and see your therapist and s/he tells you you’re not in love.
Furthermore, reading the above section I couldn’t help but feel worried; had I read it two years ago, maybe even a year ago, I would probably have been far less skeptical and perhaps even adopted his apparent devil-may-care attitude towards safe words. To me that is a frightening idea, particularly when followed by sentences like:
That’s what submission is all about. It’s about giving in, not about negotiating.
A submissive who isn’t a little bit scared isn’t really a submissive at all.
I find his ‘this is the only way to do kink’ use of language deeply unsettling. Not only is it irresponsible in regards to his readers, but it is also disrespectful to dominants and submissives who choose to play or interact differently. If he had simply taken the time and forethought to premise these sentences with “the way I play” or “in my personal opinion” (for example) none of what he wrote would have offended me.
As I mentioned, I am not the only one who commented on DD’s piece negatively, and I have discussed it with others as well; different people had slightly different takes on it, and I’d urge you to go and read their comments as well. But I also think it is important that I direct you to DD’s rebuttal. Reaffirming his own sanity and level-headedness, DD wrote a second piece – in response to our comments – which did allay several of my own fears:
I think that if you read the blog as a whole it’s pretty clear I am not a psycho and that I don’t advocate abusing women, no matter how submissive.
This is true. I have read his blog for a long time and this is the first time I have ever felt uneasy about something he has written. He also mentioned that his partner was not in the room with him in the scene he describes in ‘No Limits’ which, I’ll agree, does make a difference; I have played a lot online but have never felt the need to use safe words in that setting due to the fact that there is only a limited amount of power you can give up over the internet. However I don’t think that was made explicitly clear in his original piece. He goes on to explain the level of trust he and his partner share:
And because she trusts me she is willing to dispense with various props like safe words.
Recently someone described consent to me as something that can evolve into trust; where you might first have a list of things you consent to, over time, as the relationship you share with the other person evolves, the list gives over to your trust that the other person won’t hurt you. Although it is perhaps worth mentioning that I still felt a little irritated by his careless use of the word “props” to describe safe words. I know for a fact that many people don’t consider safe words “props” so much as they do essential foundations. But again, that is really up to the discretion of whoever is playing.
In this second piece DD also defended himself on the basis that he does not, nor has he ever claimed to, write an instructional BDSM blog; in fact, his blog has the word “memoirs” in the title. Whilst that is unequivocally true, I think the following comment, posted on DD’s rebuttal, illustrates pretty well that his blurred non-fiction style does sometimes read like advice or guidance on BDSM:
I have just read you last posting and as a very new sub I agree with what you have said it is your views and anyone reading should either go away if they don’t like what they see and read or like me read and say thank you because reading your blog is what has helped me with what for me was a very difficult time and transition. so thank you for your help.
Personally I think this comment speaks for itself, so I’ll let it do just that.
But I have hugely digressed. Whilst DD’s piece does beg discussion, is for me only one example of what might be considered ‘careless’ writing, and when I come back to this point, I have real trouble justifying my complaints. After all, what I would like to champion overall is everyone’s freedom to make their own choices. What is most important to me is that DD – and all other writers for that matter – has the freedom to write his blog, be it fantasy, memoir, or advice, in whatever way he likes.
However, blogging and commenting are communal activities, so while he has the right to write what he chooses, if the comments are left open, we, the readers, have the right to comment as well, and I have said many times that, for me, discussion and debate are the most rewarding parts of blogging.
So perhaps it is just that; whilst each writer has the right to publish whatever s/he chooses, s/he also has a responsibility to do so consciously, and if the author chooses to waive that responsibility or genuinely doesn’t see what in their writing might be offensive, the responsibility then falls to us, the readers, to respond.
Which is exactly what I have done.