Updated: Aug 23
I have been thinking a lot about apologies lately. Nationally, men have been issuing varying forms of apologies for sexually harassing women and raping them in the media. They range from the non-apology bad example from Kevin Spacey (queer community thinks you are a dick, Kevin) to a mediocre one from Al Franken and lots in between.
Apologies are really important and we need to think about them in the BDSM communities. Chances are you have transgressed already at this point (I know I have) in your kinky journey. It may have been on accident or it may have been a bit more malicious. The reality is, we all mess up in our kinky relationships.
We need to learn to apologize for our transgressions and we need to learn how to cope with people apologizing to us. The kinky world is somewhat reflective of the rest of society. We are becoming more aware of issues in our communities (e.g., racism, cultural appropriation, sexism, etc), our standards of behavior are changing, and many of our community members are becoming more strident (at least online).
Apologizing When You Mess Up
Everyone makes mistakes in kinky relationships. EVERYONE. It is important to think about how we respond to our mistakes.
A sincere apology is based on recognizing where you messed up. It might be crossing a boundary neither you or your partner knew existed. It might be making a racist, or transphobic or mean comment. It might be stepping in where you are not welcome. There are thousands of ways to make a mistake.
What is really important in these situations is to recognize where you messed up and take responsibility for your behavior. Trying to explain away the transgression or belittle the person’s response who you upset is not helpful. Simply recognizing you made a mistake and accepting that is the first step.
This is different than the female default of apologizing for everything. I am as much at fault of this behavior as most women. Culturally, we are programmed that it is our responsibility to automatically apologize for everything. Some women have decided to challenge this cultural expectation by refusing to apologize for anything. This isn’t helpful. Women can mess up as much as any gender. When we mess up, its important to recognize our transgressions.
The second step is to actually apologize. There is no weakness in taking responsibility and saying “I’m sorry, I messed up,” when we have. I was in a conversation with a man who identifies as a dominant recently. He was insistent that “Dom’s never have to apologize. It is not “dominant” behavior to “cow-tow” to some submissive’s personal gripe.” I call bullshit. Just like women can mess up, so can dominants (of all genders). In fact, recognizing your mistakes and growing from it is much healthier d-type behavior than insisting “my way or the highway” and being a bully.
Finally, a good apology indicates a real and continued effort to be better. If you crossed a boundary in play accidentally, acknowledging the transgression and making a note of the boundary so you don’t cross it again is a great way to take responsibility. If you have offended someone by calling them an insult, recognize you need to work on your acceptance of a group.
Receiving an Apology
While there is a lot of writing on the importance of an apology, there is much less on what to do when someone honestly apologizes. Here is where the kink community and the rest of American society is really struggling.
Many of us have been very hurt by others and the political climate fostered by the current administration has brought a lot of trauma to the surface. Many of us respond to this hurt by a need to hurt back. It is common feeling. I admit, I fantasize about non-consensually beating a few bureaucrats I have to deal with on the regular. This response is not helpful in many situations. [I do recognize that hitting some paper pusher upside the head with a cane will not make things better for me- even if the fantasy is fun.]
There are some people who’s transgressions do earn them an immediate need for punishment. There are several prominent examples in the kink community of individuals assaulting and harming others that should be punished severely. However, not every transgression should result in being kicked out of the community or jail time.
There is a benefit in allowing people to make up for some transgressions. I have been involved in numerous conversations with group and event leaders dealing with accusations of consent violators and participants who have a reputation for being a bully. In several of these conversations, the victim of the transgression (there is a wide variety here) have asked for the individual to be banned from events or groups.
There are instances where this is fully appropriate. However, the trend has been to automatically ban anyone who transgresses a rule or norm rather than give people the right to make amends and change. I am against zero-tolerance policies in most cases because they refuse to acknowledge that not all transgressions are equal and that some people can learn.
In the kinky world, we have lots of examples of people messing up during play. We need to create space for them to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes. I want to highlight two examples.
In one dungeon I frequented, there was a “top- identified” person who had done several dangerous things during a rope play scene, including ignoring the first call of “red.” There were calls to ban this individual immediately from the play space and brand them a “consent violator.” Instead, the dungeon master offered the option for the individual to take several courses on rope play safety and consent and then reapply for membership. The transgressor was relatively new to rope play and I find this a reasonable request. There are lots of things we can all learn from classes and reading a few Fetlife threads does not make up for hands-on teaching.
The transgressor took great offense at the suggestion his skills were not up to par. He became irate and decided to continually attack the space, the owners and refused to acknowledge he had ever done anything wrong.
I think taking into consideration the newness of the player and the scene they were trying to do, the DM was right in calling out the dangerous behavior and recognizing this would not be a safe player at the moment. There was also recognition that these skills could be learned. Temporarily removing them from the play space and putting parameters on their return to the play space is reasonable.
A second situation involved a miscommunication between two players, one who was extremely new to the scene. It was a pick-up play situation and the newbie wanted to try some impact play with an established top. The negotiated the play but failed to negotiate the aftercare. The newbie assumed every top would know what type of after care she needed. The pick-up play partner had different expectations around aftercare. None of this was communicated in the pick-up play negotiation.
After the scene was over, the new bottom was extremely upset the top had limited aftercare to about 15 minutes and experienced a sub drop. A few days later she demanded the top be banned from the space and posted a rant on Fetlife.
Here, both players transgressed. There was not enough communication on either part about needs for aftercare. There was never an attempt to work things out after the pick up play and the bottom chose to publicly chastise the other player in an attempt to get revenge. The DM did not become involved in the process and the bad feelings continued to build between the players escalating in a social media feud.
Both of these examples would benefit from apologies and a recognition that people needed to take classes before continuing the type of play they wanted to engage in. Instead, individuals became defensive and it created a bad situation.
We can’t continue to hate and ban everyone who has ever made a mistake in the community. We must protect people from predatory behavior. If an individual has a record of consent violations and is known to hurt people, they should be banned and people should be warned about them. If a player is called out on dangerous behavior or consent violations and then refuses to acknowledge the mistake or attempt to learn to be safe, banning them from groups or spaces is appropriate. Most kinky events and spaces have processes for addressing these types of abusers.
We also need to recognize that not every transgression needs to result in banishment. Here is where sincere apologies and attempts to address the wrongs are important. If you have been called out on a transgression, acknowledge it. Work with the people involved to figure out the appropriate ways to go forward.
If you are asked to take classes or discuss consent before returning to a space, this is the community’s attempt to help you become a better player. Rather than become resentful and lash out against the people you have already hurt, take a class or two and improve your skills. Seriously, classes are important. I have been playing for 30+ years and I still learn new things in classes all the time!
If you are the person hurt by the incident, try to find some perspective. It is easy to lash out against people who hurt us. It is easy to think they should be eliminated from the community. However, this creates a “one mistake and you’re out” culture. This does not foster healthy relationships or play. Just because a group or play space won’t ban someone who hurt you does not mean they are trying to foster a predatory situation.
Most of us suck at seeing our own role in transgressions and taking true responsibility for them (me included at times). Many of us are not great at accepting outcomes when we are hurt that don’t hurt the other person back. If we don’t allow growth and change, our community will die. If we don’t address transgressions, we will prevent many players from feeling safe. We need to work on how we use and accept apologies as a community.