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What are the limits of consent in BDSM relationships? (TW: extreme violence)

Last month, Shirley Beck, a 39-year-old woman in Clarksville, Tennessee, was killed by the people she lived with. She had been the house slave for her mistress and five other room-mates, four of whom testified in court that they had been 'punishing' her for four hours when she died.

They admitted to restraining Shirley and then hitting and kicking her, beating her with a bamboo rod, a metal pole, and cords wrapped in duct tape. Her mistress, Cynthia Skipper, watched over the beatings and occasionally joined in, while another of the room-mates beat her with an oxygen hose. One of the defendants used her phone to take pictures of Shirley while she was hanging from the ceiling and being beaten.

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Shirley was also repeatedly choked and strangled until eventually one of the room-mates was worried about her ashen grey colour. They put her in the shower for an hour to revive her and tried to perform CPR, but even so she died, in agony, as a result of her injuries.

Some people have been quick to distance this horrific murder from the BDSM scene at large. It's true that consent and safety are extremely important topics to the majority of kinksters, and most of us take them very seriously. However, this same "no true Scotsman" argument comes up frequently when stories about BDSM and abuse of power hit the media - no true or Dom or top would abuse power, so they're not part of the BDSM scene. No true Mistress would facilitate the beating of her slave to death, and therefore it's not a BDSM-related death.

I think the reality is a little different. Remember that Shirley Beck was a house slave, and the Mistress/slave relationship is one that is often treated differently from a casual relationship or even a Dominant/submissive relationship in the kink world. For a surprising number of people, being a slave is equal to signing over all rights to your Mistress. It's not uncommon to talk to people who really believe that slaves can never say 'no' to their Mistress or Master.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom's (or NCSF for short) conducted a survey on consent within BDSM in 2012. You can read the whole report on the results of the survey here, but there are a few statistics that can be pulled out that highlight the problematic views that some people within the BDSM world hold:

  • 48% of respondents agreed that a 'person of sound mind can consent to a scene in which no safeword or safe sign is allowed'.
  • 40% of respondents agreed that 'the ability to revoke consent depends on the nature of the relationship'. (56.5% disagreed.)
  • 60.9% of respondents agreed that 'the status of a relationship is a factor in determining ability to consent'.
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The answers to these questions are very different to the answers that come up earlier in the survey, where 96% of respondents agreed that 'a person can revoke consent at any time'. The idea that consent can somehow disappear within a particular type relationship is extremely worrying, and yet it's far more common than it should be.

Do beliefs like these lead directly to murders like Shirley's? There are always a myriad number of factors involved in any situation like this, but from where I'm standing it's not hard to see how allowing a culture of toleration towards diminished consent in BDSM relationships can feed into a belief that it's okay to beat your slave, someone you own, for hours on end. The murder itself was likely accidental, but those who killed Shirley had to have ignored hours of her begging and pleading to be released from her torment. Believing that consent is ever negotiable, in any circumstance, is what allowed these people to continue to beat her until she died, and allowing that belief to perpetuate in any corner of the kink world is completely intolerable.

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