A Feminist BDSM Expert Weighs in on Jian Ghomeshi

Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi has claimed that the multiple abuse allegations from women he’s dated (with more alleged victims speaking up daily, bringing the total up to 8) were actually consensual BDSM — and his defenders have picked up the rallying cry. Given this, we decided to catch up with Clarisse Thorn, author of The S&M Feminist, to clarify some of the issues and myths about alternative sexuality that have come up surrounding the story. Here are a few highlights from our chat.

BDSM doesn’t work without boundaries.

Thorn says she was surprised by how little negative coverage she’d seen about BDSM in the wake of the Ghomeshi story, but added that more clarity is needed to help people navigate and understand BDSM. “The community needs to step up and make sure we are providing good thinking and guidelines,” she says. “I think a lot of feminists have a nightmare scenario where BDSM becomes socially acceptable without any boundaries, and then it becomes acceptable to attack and abuse people.”

“Miscommunication” can’t be a shield for abuse.

As in any relationship, Thorn notes,”Miscommunications do happen. But not everything that could be a miscommunication is actually a miscommunication. It can also be used as camouflage” for misconduct or worse.

People engaging in BDSM — as the women in the Ghomeshi story were — can be afraid to speak up when abuse happens because of the stigma of their practice. 

“The fear of reporting is something that feminist BDSMers have been concerned about for a long time,” Says Thorn. In particular she’s  written about what it would looks like to have “supportive anti-abuse resources for people who engage in alternative sexuality.” It’s a world that doesn’t exist in a widespread way yet.

When abuse happens, we should blame the perpetrator, not the practice.

I asked Thorn if there was commonality between the “they were asking for it” response we’ve seen to this story and victim-blaming in other rape or domestic violence cases that don’t involve BDSM. “There is a victim-blaming script that you see happening in non-BDSM scenarios and in BDSM scenarios,” she says. “But when it happens in BDSM, people try to make it about the BDSM. There’s a general rule of alternative sexuality communities that I call the ‘blame the sexuality rule,'” she says. “BDSM and polyamory and other alt sex activities… they’re complicated. They require skill and time to handle. So, there are sometimes failures. But that’s not because these types of sex are ‘wrong’ or ‘can’t succeed.’ It’s just that these types of sex are difficult and complicated.”

If you’re pursuing a mutually agreed-upon BDSM relationship, as Ghomeshi claimed he was, that means you’re interested in safety for both parties.

Thorn noted that if Ghomeshi was, as he now insists, someone who was into mutually agreed-upon BDSM and not merely using it as a screen for abuse, he ought to have known that he needed explicit consent. “He may try to say something like, ‘We didn’t use a safeword but it was consensual anyway,’ and that might be true — the same way it might be true that a politician who said that he didn’t rape an aide might be telling the truth,” she says. In other words, there’s no more or less reason to believe him than any other person accused of assault.”There are many communication tactics that people can use to minimize problems in BDSM encounters. Safewords, pre-negotiation, checklists, simultaneous journals,” Thorn says. “The point is that if Jian really wanted to have a consensual BDSM relationship, then he would work hard on his communication. And everything I’ve heard is that he did not.”