Life & Love


  • New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is the latest powerful man to be felled by the #MeToo movement, following allegations from four women that he choked and slapped them
  • Schneiderman resigned hours after the allegations were made public, but not before he claimed that they were a result of “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity”
  • Other men accused of sexual misconduct have invoked similar defenses, claiming they’re interested in rough sex or BDSM. Here’s the problem with that basic argument

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    Last night, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned from his position following explosive allegations from the New Yorker that he had slapped and choked at least four women. The women allege that Schneiderman also psychologically abused them, threatening to kill them if they left him and forcing them to consume alcohol against their will.

    The report was followed by a whirlwind of commentary on social media, with many focusing on the political implications of Schneiderman’s resignation. (Schneiderman was a powerful Democratic critic of President Trump and had led several legal challenges against the administration.) Relatively few people focused on the statement he gave to the New Yorker, in which he attributed his actions to his own kinks:

    “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”

    To those whose only exposure to kink is via Fifty Shades of Grey and the back section of a Ricky’s, this may have been a persuasive argument. But to those with a passing familiarity of the kink community, Schneiderman’s statement evoked a queasy sense of deja vu.

    The “it was just kinky sex!” or “it was just BDSM!” argument has been used by alleged abusers to justify their abuse, time and time and time again. And it reflects not only a gross misunderstanding of kink and alternative sexualities, but also our society’s misconception of sexual consent in general—a misconception that’s become all too clear in the wake of the powerful men felled by the domino effect of #MeToo.

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    The argument has been used countless times in a legal context, most notably following the death of Jennifer Levin, a New York City high school girl who was found strangled in the park in 1986. Robert Chambers eventually pled guilty to manslaughter, claiming that her death was the result of “rough sex” gone awry and that he had killed her in self-defense. The jury didn’t buy it, and Chambers was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison, but his defense became so popular that it inspired its own legal strategy for men accused of murder, the aptly named “rough sex defense.”

    The rough sex defense has become increasingly popular in recent years. In 2014, Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi was accused by a number of his former partners of choking and beating them without their consent; in a Facebook statement, he said he has “always been interested in a number of activities in the bedroom” but only participated in “mutual sexual practices that are agreed upon [and] consensual.” He was later charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking; though he was acquitted, it effectively ruined his career.

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    Since the outpouring of sexual misconduct allegations last October, men have used a wide range of excuses to justify their behavior, from sex addiction to political conspiracy theories. Yet before Schneiderman, relatively few have invoked the rough sex defense, perhaps because the allegations against them have not been physically violent enough to warrant it. And although Schneiderman did not use the terms “BDSM” or “rough sex” in his statement, his use of the term “roleplay,” as well as the fact that he has been accused of hitting multiple women, indicate that’s pretty much what he meant.

    By invoking the rough sex defense, Schneiderman was likely counting on the fact that the general public does not have a super sophisticated knowledge of the BDSM community, and that the average person might assume that things like choking, hitting, and forced intoxication are part and parcel of the average kinky sexual encounter. But this is not at all true. Such acts exist primarily on the outer fringes of the BDSM community and are widely discouraged, according to writer Jillian Keenan.

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    “It’s unfortunate when predators claim affiliation with sexual subcultures to cover up their crimes,” Keenan, the author of the book Sex with Shakespeare who has covered the kink community at length, told MensHealth.com. “We saw it when Kevin Spacey came out as gay to pull attention from the fact that he assaulted Anthony Rapp. Now Eric Schneiderman is following in Jian Ghomeshi’s footsteps.”

    “Kink without consent doesn’t exist: that’s abuse.”

    More importantly, the kink community puts a premium on consent; it is one of the very basic tenets of BDSM. Often, sex acts will be negotiated beforehand in the form of contracts, and either way, anyone practicing BDSM responsibly will implement a “safe word” to make it clear if they are uncomfortable with anything happening.

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    “Consent is so important to the kink community that it’s impossible to separate the two,” Keenan says. “Kink without consent doesn’t exist: that’s abuse.”

    While there are instances of people within the BDSM community using their kinky proclivities as a smokescreen for abuse, for the most part, this is such a fundamental practice in the BDSM community that it is engrained in anyone with the slightest knowledge of kink best practices.

    Tellingly, nowhere in the New Yorker piece do any of Schneiderman’s former partners make reference to a safe word or negotiations or any of the safeguards in place in a typical BDSM relationship. By contrast, all of them refer to being totally caught off guard by the alleged abuse.

    “This was under no circumstances a sex game gone wrong. This did not happen while we were having sex. I was fully dressed and remained that way,” Michelle Manning Barrish, one of Schneiderman’s accusers, told the New Yorker. “It was completely unexpected and shocking. I did not consent to physical assault.”

    “This was under no circumstances a sex game gone wrong.”

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    The fact that Manning Barrish had to specify that the alleged abuse did not happen while they were having sex, however, is what is perhaps the most striking thing about the New Yorker piece — and proof that we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding sexual consent in general. Even if Schneiderman and his accusers did have kinky sex on the reg, and even if they had negotiated their boundaries at one point or another, and even if the acts alleged in the New Yorker piece had taken place in a sexual context — unless they specifically consented at that time to being slapped or kicked or punched so hard their eardrums burst, it is still a gross violation.

    The idea that consent is an ongoing process, and that just because you agreed to one sex act in one context means that you ultimately agree to another is something that even people outside the kink community have a hard time understanding. This was apparent following the publication of the New Yorker article, when one of my male friends kept emphasizing perceived holes in Schneiderman’s accusers’ stories. “Why is no one talking about the fact that the abuse took place in a bedroom?,” he said. “Doesn’t that mean that the context was inherently sexual?”

    There are a lot of things wrong with this argument, but I’ll focus on just two of them: a) unless you get off on watching your partner clip her toenails or scroll through her Instagram stories (in which case, I guess, more power to you), not everything a woman does in your bedroom is inherently sexualized; and b) a woman being in a man’s bedroom is not the same thing as her consenting to sex. It’s certainly not the same thing as her consenting to being punched in the side of the head so hard her eardrum is perforated, as one of Schneiderman’s accusers claims.

    In many respects, sex is sort of like a corporate merger: the terms have to be negotiated right off the bat, but the negotiations do not end after the merger goes through. After all, there are now hundreds of employees to deal with, and you need to figure out salaries and benefits, not to mention whether or not they’ll have access to dental.

    While this sounds profoundly and deeply unsexy, it really doesn’t have to be. There are ways to make asking for consent super hot, many of which we have documented on this website. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep asking. And this is true whether you’re into “rough sex” or not.



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