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Fifty Shades of Consent: Gender and Anti-Violence Work in the BDSM Community


All practices within the BDSM community are built upon a firm foundation of consent, which I, as an insider-outsider, interrogate in this study. This thesis critically examines the construction of consent and gendered policing of sexual violence in pansexual BDSM (bondage and discipline, Dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) communities. Participant observation and interviews with 29 individuals representing more than 15 distinct BDSM challenges the binaristic approach to consent in that it establishes consent as interactional and ongoing, rather than episodic, while also illuminating the role that non-verbal communication and interaction plays in the giving and revocation of consent. Two types of consent violations occur within the community – “newbie fuck-ups” and “purposeful predations” – each of which is responded to differently by practitioners because of the assumed intent of the violator. Moreover, men’s and women’s approaches to preventing sexual violence in BDSM communities, while similar in nature and practice, have different outcomes: men’s work results in a reification of their masculinity while women’s work serves to build community, often as a result of women having themselves experienced sexual violence. Implications of this research for future projects is discussed, as we can never bring the problem of sexual violence to an end if we do not explicitly define consent and reflect on the power relationships that constitute it.

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