CW: Abuse, Assault, Vore, Sexual and Physical Violence, Grooming, Gaslighting, Abusive Relationships, Blood
Kink and Abuse in the headlines
Every few years, kink makes headlines for its connection to stories that are troubling. From the Shibari death case years ago, to Eric Schinederman, the former Attorney General of New York, passing off an abusive relationship as being kink-based. This year has, unfortunately, continued that trend.
BDSM and kink have been mentioned in the media recently, for all of the wrong reasons. Armie Hammer and Marilyn Manson have been accused of some horrific acts of abuse by former partners and acquaintances. A lot of the headlines include mentions of kinky sex, fantasies, and inferences of BDSM.
At face value, it’s easy to draw the harmful assumption that kink and BDSM is inherently abusive. A closer look at the Hammer and Manson situations actually shows the clear distinction between consensual BDSM and abuse. Whether someone is a member of the kink community or completely vanilla, it’s important to utilize these teachable moments to learn about the dangers of power imbalances and the necessity of consent, issues we should all be invested in.
If someone drew the prototypical dominant, they would look a lot like Armie Hammer. Tall, attractive, heir to an oil fortune, he seems like Christian Grey come to life. Hammer’s name was first linked to kink in the media back in 2017 when he publicly liked shibari-themed photos on Twitter. Aside from some chuckles, there wasn’t much more said, and the world moved on.
In January, something sinister came to light in regards to Hammer. Several women accused him of being abusive in relationships. According to accounts, Hammer considered himself a member of the kink community and displayed an affinity for carving the flesh of sexual partners and licking their blood. In published interviews, Hammer describes himself as “a dominant lover”. Those that engaged him recounted that he seemed heavily invested in bringing his fantasies to life, was skillful and highly persuasive (or coercive) while doing so. Ironically, one of his accusers described her time with Hammer as “50 Shades of Grey” without the love.
What caught the most media attention were the claims of cannibalism. Allegedly, Hammer told one woman he wanted to amputate her toe and carry it with him at all times. Another woman stated that Hammer wanted her to have a rib removed, for him to consume.
For his part, Hammer maintains that all of his engagements with his accusers were consensual in nature and that the more salacious statements (like cannibalism) are untrue. For their part, his accusers maintain that their experiences with Hammer were coercive, abusive, and non-consensual.
If you were a teen in the ’90s or had MTV, you know who Marilyn Manson is. A rockstar who built buzz in the pre-social media era, Manson created content and a persona that embraced being bizarre, violent, and even grotesque at times. Even as his career cooled and times changed, Manson had kept up this persona, in his professional and personal life.
If Armie Hammer personified the prototypical fictional image of the Christan Grey dominant, then Marilyn Manson seems to be the decadence and raunch of fetish brought to life. Remember, in the 90’s it was a lot easier to appear shocking. Throughout his career, Manson has reportedly been linked to violent, crass, or disturbing actions, both privately and publicly. For the most part, these accusations and incidents helped his career.
On February 1st, the actress Evan Rachel Wood (WestWorld) posted on Instagram, detailing her history of abuse at the hands of Manson during their relationship. She spoke of grooming, being gaslit, and having her physical and emotional boundaries pushed. In one particularly troubling account, Wood described being bound and tortured with a violet wand by Manson. For years, Woods has maintained that
Since Wood’s initial Instagram post, several more women have come forward to speak about the abuse they received from Manson. Manson has maintained that everything which happened in his relationships was consensual.
Ongoing Consent is key
The media have embellished both of these stories by mentioning “kinky sex”, “BDSM”, dominance, submission, masters and slaves, and other terms identified with the lifestyle. As I stated previously, a cursory look at these stories would seem to indicate that both men were in dominant kink dynamics that became allegedly abusive at some point. One could rationale that kink is either always abusive or never abusive, with discernible middle ground. This ambiguity is what requires us to dig deeper, to make a clear distinction between consensual BDSM and abuse.
In the case of Armie Hammer, we can see the necessity of mutual consent. By looking at accounts, it appears that Hammer didn’t obtain consent for the acts he engaged in, like the cutting nor did he seem to negotiate D/s dynamics. Simply, Hammer felt he had the right to indulge his desires and express his fantasies without gaining the consent of the other people involved.
Consent is conditional in nature. When someone grants consent for one thing, it doesn’t mean that consent is granted for everything. It’s very possible that Hammer felt simply being in a relationship gave him the right to initiate physical actions, to engage in a dynamic, and to express taboo fantasies. If this was the case, then Hammer’s actions were non-consensual and therefore abusive, especially if those involved weren’t giving their consent for specific acts.
In relationships, the process of communicating and consenting is continuous. It’s also contingent upon everyone involved giving their fully informed consent. Hammer may have had consent for a relationship or even for sex, but that doesn’t mean he had consent to engage in a kink dynamic or to engage in play. Every time Hammer did so without having express, informed consent, he violated his partner’s consent.
Hammer’s apparent kinks, such as vore, were provocative and would seem pretty outrageous to someone who’s uninitiated to more taboo kinks. The truth is, kinks and fetishes are a spectrum, running from mild to extreme. That means different things, depending on the person. For some, a spanking or light flogging is intense. For others, barb wire suspensions, branding, and deep psychological scenes are the elements they play with. Regardless of the activity, consent is required. Even the most benign kink or action can be abusive if it isn’t done with consent. Conversely, exploring harder kinks and dynamics is possible when centered in negotiation, communication and consent.
Conversely, consensual kink allows consenting partners to explore harder themes in a risk-aware manner. But that requires excellent communication skills, the ability to negotiate and space for non-coercive consent to be granted or withdrawn.
The Hammer case also tells us something about communication in relation to consent. According to reports, Hammer was vocal about his fetish wants and desires. These desires weren’t reciprocated by his partners. Part of consent is approaching discussions about needs and desires in an open and honest way, as well as receiving no. Everyone involved has to consent.
In the case of Marilyn Manson there clearly wasn’t a BDSM relationship or kink dynamic. achel Evan Woods stated that there wasn’t one. She clearly defined her interactions with Manson as abuse. Speaking about Manson, Woods spoke about the pain and suffering she endured, even saying she feared for her life several times. She’s stated that Manson was the person she’s referred to for the past several years when speaking about a past abusive relationship.
Manson, for his part, maintains that people have mischaracterized his past relationships. He hasn’t directly addressed the accusation, beyond a released statement.
Looking at the accusations against Manson, we come back to the idea of consent as being central to kink. Using the language and tools of kink doesn’t make something BDSM. If Manson used rope and a violet wand in his partner, it doesn’t matter if those things are used in the kink world. Without consent, they became abusive implements.
Kink, abuse, and power dynamics
When people are quick to defend BDSM, they often say, “kink isn’t abuse”. That’s very true when speaking about consensual, risk-aware kink. However, the dynamics and methods of BDSM can be absolutely utilized in an abusive manner. Making that distinction doesn’t harm kink, it makes it clearer to separate abuse disguising itself as kink.
Another element of the Manson case is power imbalances as related to abuse and consent. Evan Rachel Woods stated that she was groomed by Manson as a part of the abuse she endured. This grooming began when Woods was 18 years old and Manson was 37 years old. One has to look at the potential power imbalances when a 37 year old multimillionaire, with influence and clout is engaging a teenager.
Consent doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If one individual has access to more power, that person has an inherent potential to manipulate someone’s consent, without fear of consequences. If someone has less power, then their consent can be compromised. Non-consensual power imbalances are a place where abuse can and do occur, even if they outwardly resemble kink.
Yes, consensual power imbalances and dynamics are an important part of kink. But the emphasis has to always return to the standards of consent, negotiation to separate these dynamics in kink from harmful, abusive relationships.
Hopefully, both Hammer and Manson can serve as an opportunity to learn for both kink and mainstream communities. Whether someone is kinky or not, consent should be the basis of relationships while serving as the dividing line between kink and abuse. Perhaps a light will shine on other issues like agency, power imbalances and the necessity of clear, honest, and non-coercive communication.
As a community, let’s educate ourselves and others, to support those that are harmed and to call out those who subvert kink (or any behavior) into being abusive.