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What Happens When S&M Sex Clubs Sprout Up on Ivy Campuses and Coercion Becomes a Problem

Sexual abusers get spanked online.

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A week later the two went to a “play-party.” After some reluctance, Victoria agreed to negotiate some tentative participation, defining safe words and off-limits actions. But once the two were alone in a corner, she said, Eric put a knife to her throat and began groping her. Victoria was shaken, but she couldn’t help doubting herself. Maybe this was how it was supposed to be, she figured.

The next day, when Eric asked her to send him an email stating what had happened and describing it as consensual, she complied. “At the time, I felt like this must be normal,” she said. “Now it seems obvious he was just building up a defense.”

The BDSM scene can be violent by nature. Physical and psychological power, and the lack thereof, are at the heart of the erotic experience. As a result, sexual assault can be harder to define and harder to prove. But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Indeed, awareness of the problem seems to be growing, and controversies around the issue have been roiling the tight-knit fetish community all year.

Kitty Stryker and Maggie Mayhem were up late one night, chatting online. Both are known as sex-positive activists and celebrities within the sadomasochism world. That night, they began to swap sexual-assault stories and realized the experience was more common than either had known. The pair began collecting similar tales online, and it wasn’t long before they had amassed more than 300 anecdotes. The stories ranged from more benign assaults (unwanted groping) to tales of being drugged and raped. Many of the victims described abusers who were well-known members of the community, people who hosted parties or helped to organize the scene.

“What we found is that the abuse was systematic,” said Ms. Stryker, who regularly goes by a pseudonym. “People had these stories, but when they went to report them to community leaders, they were dismissed as drama. Not only that, but people were ostracized for reporting. It becomes clear how easy it is for an abuser to swoop in on a newbie.”

Meanwhile, Andy, a 24-year-old law student who lives in New York City, also began collecting abuse stories, publishing them directly on FetLife. Andy is something of a New York scene fixture, known for throwing massive BDSM galas that include such attractions as “glitter bathtubs” and fake-blood tableaux modeled on the TV series Dexter. A transgendered male, he quickly collected hundreds of anecdotes, many from fellow New Yorkers, some of which called out abusers by FetLife username. “I knew the people they were naming,” Andy said. “There were party organizers and influential people that users were saying had done horrible things to them,” he said. Publishing these accounts on the social network had a galvanizing effect. Every time someone “loved” a post it showed up on their feed. Soon, everyone on the site knew who was being accused of what—though they didn’t always know the identities of the accusers.

When FetLife employees caught wind of the posts, they began removing usernames. Employees warned that lodging criminal accusations against users violated the site’s terms of service. CEO John Baku then got involved, stating that he was sorry for everyone who’d experienced abuse and suggesting that victims go to the police. (Mr. Baku declined to comment for this article.) The CEO’s involvement spurred hundreds of comments from users, many siding with the site’s administrators and warning of an epidemic of false accusations. Others backed Andy, arguing that the community should police itself and support victims. BDSM is illegal in some states, and many practitioners do not feel comfortable going to the police.

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