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26 August 2014

The allure of the closet: is kink only sexy when it is underground?

Even in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey, kink is still a taboo. Margaret Corvid examines what can happen when private lives are made public.

By Margaret Corvid

Having just celebrated my 35th birthday, I have been reflecting on how much my life has changed for the better in the last five years. When I turned 30, I took a hard look at my life. I quit my prestigious job and left the wrong husband, with whom I had been planning for children I had never wanted. I abandoned my conventional, ambitious life. I said goodbye to wonderful friends, to a vibrant city and to a good man who deserved a better match, and I built a new life for myself at the opposite end of the country. Here, I’ve engaged in serious study of kink, an art form that is my great vocation in life; through that study I have found a new community and a new circle of friends, and the right husband. Although I have had my tribulations, I can say, with conviction, that my life is better now than it was five years ago. The happiness and peace I’ve gained in being true to myself have given me the calm and clarity to reflect and to write. I’ve also gained the confidence to do kink professionally, as a dominatrix, which has been the key to my self-reliance during the recession.

The downside is the kink closet. Kink, a word, and a world, that encompasses fetish, BDSM, and a variety of alternative relationship styles, is still taboo, even in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey, and because nearly all of my social and work life touches upon kink in one way or another, I am careful about sharing details my life with those who I have known from before. The most innocuous small talk, such as “How is work?” could lead to an uncomfortable discussion. I live freely and openly but I rarely use the name I was given at birth, out of respect for my family. For all I know, they would be accepting of my work and my lifestyle, but out of my own fear and aversion to confrontation, I have not yet taken the chance of coming out to any of them and I feel the loss. I can’t share my hopes and dreams with them, or my pride in being the author of my own life; they don’t even know that I am a writer.

Even in my isolation, I am lucky, because I have relatively little to lose. The real victims of the kink closet are those who live and work in the everyday world, and keep their kink lives secret because of very real and likely consequences. “People who are outed risk losing their professional and social status; access to their children; and, in extreme cases, going to prison for having engaged in consensual adult activities in private. This raises significant civil liberties issues regarding the right to a private life, as guaranteed by law,” says Myles Jackman, an incisive, eloquent barrister who frequently advises Backlash, a campaigning group which fights for the right to freedom of sexual expression. In speaking to Backlash, I heard about employees hounded out of their jobs and parents losing their children. Backlash regularly hears from those affected by discrimination, and has been able to help many of them, but even those who have won their struggles have been traumatised, and many still require medication for stress; most wouldn’t talk to a reporter.

Burdened by the world-shaking risks of outing, kinksters also bear the daily vicissitudes of closeted life. Imagine you’ve found a suspicious mole on your skin. A kinkster who has some bruises from a recent play session might have to choose between raising suspicions that she is abused or self-harming, or waiting for the bruising to fade. Or, imagine you’ve got an anxiety problem. A kinkster seeking counselling on the NHS will have to choose between keeping their sex life private, or disclosing – and hoping that they’ve not been assigned one of the many therapists who sees kink as a pathology. Discrimination against kinksters intersects with other oppressions; while the wealthy and prominent Max Mosley has mounted a robust and successful defence of his privacy after being photographed having kinky escapades with sex workers, the poor, women, LGBT people, and people of colour often have far fewer resources to defend themselves if they’re outed.

By sowing mistrust, the kink closet also weakens the fabric of our communities. Most areas offer public meet-up groups for kinksters, called munches, and many localities have regular, supervised parties for BDSM play. Although media portrayals of kink usually omit them, these warm and welcoming events are an excellent resource for those new to kink, and foment lasting friendships and relationships. Our communities educate, protect and support their members, but there is often a subtle undercurrent of worry. The most ordinary falling out among kinksters can lead to each individual worrying about being outed. Most organised kink communities avoid outing, and shun those who out others. In practice, those with the most to lose have the most to fear; the threat of outing makes it harder for the community to police itself.

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Only a fraction of people interested in kink participate in the community; to most people, kink is intensely private. But even those who would be interested in the benefits the community offers are likely to be dissuaded by the threat of outing. Without the community, and fearing judgment from family or friends, these kinksters have little support when things go wrong. “The worst part of the kink closet is that it discourages people from speaking up or finding help when they are in genuinely abusive relationships that are masquerading as kinky relationships,” says Clarisse Thorn, who writes and speaks regularly about feminism and kink. “The problem is particularly acute for people who are in kinky relationships but haven’t done any research into solid kink resources, or do not have access to a healthy and supportive kink-focused community. . .I’ve heard of many situations where someone got into a kinky relationship because they really wanted to try it – but then, when the relationship became problematic or abusive, they didn’t know who to turn to. Or even worse, they blamed themselves for getting into that position,” she says.

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Despite the closet’s burdens, many kinksters are happy to stay there. To some, that air of the forbidden is part of the appeal of kink. It’s exciting to be part of an exclusive club. It can be a thrill to be buzzed into a vast, hidden dungeon in the heart of a teeming city, or to drive slowly up a bumpy path lined with ancient trees, to a remote country farmhouse where nearly anything goes. Others might like to come out, but must remain closeted due to their personal or professional circumstances. I respect and understand their decisions, but I despise the discrimination that makes the closet necessary to so many. As David Cameron promises to make each of his policies “family-friendly,” and is cracking down on sexual expression in the media with schemes like age ratings for music videos online, fighting for sexual freedom is more important than ever.

A growing number of kinksters are campaigning for kink awareness and rights. Much of this work takes place online, where we directly refute stereotypical portrayals of kink like Fifty Shades. Founded in 2013, a grassroots project, Kink Coming Out Day, encourages those who can safely do so to raise awareness by coming out as kinky on 28 September. In the United Kingdom, groups like Backlash and the Spanner Trust are fighting on the most important front for the rights of kinksters: the courtroom. Backlash pursues an ambitious strategy, fighting legal battles that help to set precedents for sexual freedom. One case they took on was that of “Legally Bland”, or LB. A caring woman with a sharp, ironic sense of humour, LB was a dedicated and respected social worker for nearly a decade. In her personal life, she was involved in the kink community, and discreetly attended occasional kink events in cities far from home. In time, she met a man and began a relationship, eventually becoming engaged. Sadly, her fiancé turned out to be verbally abusive, and an alcoholic. When he kicked a door off its hinges in January 2011, LB phoned the police, who came and arrested him.

LB threw him out, but operating out of the same caring ethos that drove her career, she still kept in contact, helping him find services to deal with his alcoholism. She continued to support his recovery, and helped him get into a hostel and rehab, but the abuse continued, so she ended contact in June 2011. She reported the breakup to her manager, as required; he was accessing services in the local area where she worked. His harassment continued. “He was begging me, phoning work constantly threatening suicide,” says LB. Her manager was very supportive, and said she would stand by LB’s decisions in the matter. Then, LB got a text from her ex, saying he had gone to the police. She called his bluff, and asked which police; he provided the name of an officer. She called the officer, who said that allegations had been made, and police would be over for “a chat” in the morning.

“I probably should have known through my work that when the police say they want a chat, it doesn’t really mean they want a chat,” says LB. She prepared for the meeting, ready to answer their questions, but when she opened the door early the next morning, she was arrested and taken down to the station. The police showed her a search warrant, and asked for her house keys. They seized her computer and phone, leaving her with no numbers and no way to contact anyone. “I was like, oh my God,” says LB. “What on earth is going on?”

She was held in a cell for five hours. When she spoke to the duty solicitor, she found out the whole story. While they were together, LB and her ex had engaged in kink. Now, banished forever, he had vengefully unleashed the nuclear option. He had told the police that their entire relationship had been non-consensual, and had made wild accusation about activities at the public, legal BDSM clubs she had attended. Bizarrely, he had also alleged that three sadomasochistic art photographs she had taken, which were innocuous enough to be hanging in her kitchen, could be classed as illegal pornography. The duty solicitor helped an extremely upset LB prepare a statement, and she was released.

She walked out of the police station alone, twenty miles from home, and without money. “I was in absolute bits at that point,” says LB. Like many who have suffered abuse, LB had found that the relationship itself had isolated her; she had drifted away from friends online, in the kink community and in the wider world. When she eventually got home, the first thing she had to do was call work, and let them know that she had been arrested.

Her house had been ransacked; she had nowhere to turn for help. Compounding her social isolation was the fact that her work colleagues knew absolutely nothing about her kinky lifestyle, and any discussion of the case could prejudice an employment tribunal. After a frantic search, she found a greeting card from an online friend in the kink scene, listing her phone number; on the advice of that friend, LB contacted Backlash. They returned her call in less than two hours. After calming her down, they got to work, finding her an adviser who was skilled in employment law and lawyers to engage with the police. With her experience, she knew how the process worked. She would be investigated for misconduct. “I knew I would be suspended, pending the outcome of the investigation. I was prepared for that, because I knew [work] would see it for what it was,” she said.

The police, who had rightfully responded to allegations of abuse, declined to press charges. But at work, the investigation continued. A bundle of nerves, LB reported to an investigatory meeting. At this meeting, officials pored through the police file, which included a list of BDSM equipment that had been removed from her house, such as floggers and rope. Even a packet of 99p craft knives, that had lain unopened in a garage toolbox, well away from her kinky toy stash, had been removed by the police. “Are you in possession of knives?” an official asked. When she explained that she used them for crafting, her service manager rolled his eyes. “I just thought, ‘I have absolutely no chance. No matter what I say or what I present, you’ve made your mind up’,” she says.

At two tense disciplinary hearings, LB’s large, public employer put her private life under a microscope. LB tried to pin down the officials on what their exact problem was. Was it the allegations? If so, she had evidence to refute those. Was it the taking of the kitchen photographs? Again, they were clearly legal, coming nowhere near the description of extreme pornography. Even though colleagues from police, council and NHS had appeared, attesting to her excellent performance at work, her employer concluded that her private practice of kink could impact her work and bring her employer into disrepute. In December 2011, she received a letter of termination.

She was dumbfounded, exhausted, and angry. She had no job, and as a social worker she fell under the Notifiable Occupations Scheme, which empowers police to share information about arrests and convictions more freely, in the public interest. Anyone from an airline baggage handler to a taxi driver to a veterinarian can fall under the scheme; in LB’s case, police had reported her to her employer, and the General Social Care Council, her licensing body, also got involved. Although she was never charged, her police report – then known as a CRB report – had a record of her arrest. With her license under review, a blemished CRB, and no reference from an employer she had served loyally for nearly a decade, LB couldn’t work as a social worker. “I was absolutely devastated. I’d trained really hard. . . it’s in my blood. When people say what defines you, it defines me; I am a social worker,” she says. “I work in a profession which is meant to be non-judgmental, equal opportunity. That was not extended to me,” she says.

With the help of Backlash and Leigh Day, a highly rated employment law firm that they had sourced, LB took her employer to tribunal. LB’s lawyers believed that she had a chance of overturning a precedent, Pay v UK, a 2009 case in which a probation officer sacked for his kink activity had appealed all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, citing his right to a private life, but was disappointed when his case was ruled inadmissible.  If she could overturn her dismissal, LB could vindicate herself and lay essential legal groundwork for others. With the financial support of well-wishers including the London Alternative Market, Leigh Day and Backlash assembled an array of legal experts, in areas including psychology, employment law and the differences between public and private. Their job was to debunk the prevailing misconceptions about kink in court.

With their help, the tide began to turn. In their 2011 hearings, LB’s employers had based their case on their reading of the rules of LB’s regulatory body, the General Social Care Council, but in March 2012, the GSCC ruled that LB posed no threat to service users, and that her private life was irrelevant to her job conduct. While it had come too late to save LB’s job, the ruling strengthened her case at tribunal. It took over a year before the tribunal was held, during which time LB, too ill to work, faced economic hardship and ongoing stress. Her benefits wouldn’t pay her mortgage, and she was nearly evicted. Finally, in March 2013, LB won her tribunal. As part of the judgment, she secured the excellent reference she deserved; in parallel, she had started the process of judicial review to contest her CRB report, at which point the police backed down and removed the record of her arrest. With clean paperwork, LB was able to work again as a social worker. Her vindication is a win for civil liberties, and for all of us. She has paved the way for other kinksters who face discrimination at work, who now have her strategy as a blueprint to follow.

The year and a half LB spent fighting for her rights changed her. She no longer participates in the public kink community, but she has used her years of experience as a social worker to develop advice for kinksters on how to respond when a social worker comes to visit. Her nuanced, thoughtful advice helps kinksters understand a social worker’s essential role in uncovering real abuse, and advises on the best ways to ensure that a social worker understands the difference between abuse and kink. Like many good activists, circumstances brought her to the struggle; like many of the best activists, she builds bridges.

Those of us on the edge of what is perceived as “respectability” – kinksters, trans people, and sex workers – often remark that, when it comes to our rights and social status, we are a generation behind gays and lesbians. While our experiences are often quite divergent, we all take inspiration from LGBT history. We owe a debt of gratitude to campaigners like LB, whose struggles and deprivations benefit us all. She should inspire action; those of us who can come out, should. Veteran kink educator Raven Kaldera agrees. “LGBT liberation means that a number of brave individuals put themselves on the line to make their practices better known and more ‘normalised’, and that gave the next generation of LGBT people a better choice around whether to tell anyone about their sexual preference or just keep it private.

“The point is that we ought to be able to make that choice, and not be penalised for it, and that never happens unless a certain percentage of that population grits their teeth and talks about it in public. Someone has to make the sacrifice for all the closeted people. That’s what activists are for,” he says.