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Many people have argued that the BDSM community has a higher rate of sexual consent violations than the outside community.

As far as I’m aware, the largest study on this issue is the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s Consent Counts study, which found that 33% of respondents had had a prenegotiated limit violated in a BDSM scene or relationship or had negotiated a safeword or safesign and had it ignored. On the other hand, only about 18.3% of women and ~6% of men have been raped. Does that mean that the BDSM community has a higher rape rate?

Yes. But complicatedly so.

First: many people do not play with safewords. For instance, in pretty much all the kinky sex I have, “no”, “stop”, “ow”, etc. have their ordinary meanings, and therefore I don’t really need a safeword. While it’s possible that people would consider “we negotiated a flogging, it was too much for me and I said ‘stop’, they kept on going” to be ignoring a safeword, it’s also possible they wouldn’t– even though that is clearly a case of sexual consent violations in the BDSM community.

Second: most data about sexual consent violations in the vanilla world is divided up into smaller subcategories. For instance, NISVS divides sexual consent violations into:

  • “rape” (being penetrated in the anus, vagina, or mouth, against the victim’s will, through physical force or threats of physical force or when the victim was unconscious or too intoxicated to consent)
  • “being made to penetrate someone else” (penetrating the attacker in the anus, vagina, or mouth, against the victim’s will, though physical force or threats of physical force or when the victim was unconscious or too intoxicated to consent)
  • “sexual coercion” (unwanted anal, oral, or vaginal sex that occurs after the person is pressured in a nonphysical way)
  • “unwanted sexual contact” (unwanted sexual experiences that involve touch but not penetration, such as unwanted kissing or unwanted fondling)

It seems plausible that many of the things the Consent Counts survey is talking about would fall in the “unwanted sexual contact” or “sexual coercion” categories. Unfortunately, NISVS doesn’t offer a percentage of people who have experienced rape, unwanted sexual contact, being made to penetrate someone else, or sexual coercion (given that these groups no doubt often overlap), but eyeballing it it looks like somewhere between a third and half of women and somewhere around a fifth of men. There are very large margin-of-error bars on this, but it seems about the rate that is in the BDSM community.

On the other hand, you could argue, while a lot of kinky consent violations would technically be put in the “unwanted sexual contact” category, they’re not central examples of unwanted sexual contact. Nonconsensual electricity play, needle play, or verbal humiliation might usually be more similar to nonconsensual vaginal penetration than nonconsensual kissing, in terms of how the experience affects the victim. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of unanswered and unanswerable questions, such as “what percentage of kinky consent violations are in the more-like-rape and more-like-unwanted-sexual-contact categories?” and “is that even a meaningful question to be asking or is it more like asking which chicken is most like a dog?”

(This confusion is why I chose the perhaps awkward phrasing “sexual consent violations” instead of “sexual assault” or “rape.”)

Third: The Consent Counts survey only examines sexual consent violations in the BDSM community, as opposed to the percentage of people in the BDSM community who are survivors of sexual consent violations. This makes sense, because you wouldn’t want the data to be confounded by, say, the hypothesized link between an interest in nonconsent play and being a survivor of rape. However, the lifetime rate of rape in the general population includes things like child sexual abuse, which means that we’re comparing apples to oranges. Unfortunately, the CC survey does not include the percent of people in the BDSM community who experienced a sexual assault in the last year, so we could compare apples to apples.

Furthermore, the Consent Counts data explicitly excludes consent violations in vanilla sex. However, other data includes all sexual consent violations, vanilla and nonvanilla. So a naive comparison probably massively undercounts how much being a member of the BDSM community increases your risk.

In conclusion: the Consent Counts data underestimates the increase in risk of sexual consent violations you experience by being a member of the BDSM community. We can’t know how much it underestimates that risk. In their next survey, I hope they ask about the rate of consent violations in the past year and include a question like “did anyone have sex with you when you said ‘no’ or ‘stop’ and had not negotiated a safeword?” Also, comparing kinky sex and vanilla sex is hard.

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