The gray area regarding the punitive aspects of Francis’ behavior centers around an understanding of the BDSM community. We spoke to a woman who is part of a collective that runs a dungeon (a club for people in the community) in Ohio and has been active in BDSM culture for nearly a decade for insight on the rules and practices surrounding the culture. Because she wishes to remain anonymous due to her employment, we will call her Laura.
On the matter of consent, Laura maintains that it must be enthusiastic. In the play space she helps to facilitate, it’s also a rule that you cannot play while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. All members must sign paperwork stating that they understand they cannot enter in an altered state of mind. While judging someone’s emotional or mental state is not always possible, she says it’s important to discuss these things at length ahead of time to try and detect any distress or potential triggers.
One argument that Francis made to prove that these encounters were consensual were text messages from these women that express both their excitement to see him and assorted professions of love for him. Laura, however, says this doesn’t imply consent.
“Saying ‘I love you’ doesn’t mean, ‘I consent to you doing whatever it is you want to do to me,’” she says.
The rationale being if you take the exchanges out of the BDSM realm and consider it in the terms of a monogamous marriage, telling your husband you love him doesn’t mean you are consenting to him punching you in the face. That is why negotiation and consent in the BDSM world must be very specific.
“There’s somebody who is a leader in our community that likes to use the analogy when negotiating, [asking], ‘OK, what can I do to you?’ There are some people, especially newer, who will say, ‘Oh, you can do anything,’” she explains. “He’ll say, ‘OK, I have a pair of scissors. I’m going to cut off all your hair.’ And they’ll say, “No, no, no, that’s not OK.’ ‘But you said I can do anything.’ So it needs to be very clear, and very specific, which is why it takes time.”
Regarding the argument that these women continued to communicate and meet with Francis, Laura says that is a classic case of abuse. “You hear it all the time,” she says. “People who are in abusive relationships: ‘Why did you stay as long as you did?’ And the answers to that are countless and unknown. And that’s not really the question here. The question is, to me, how could he do what he did.”
Reacting to the testimony Francis’ victims shared with AP and on the blog, Laura says she feels that Francis’ actions were the dictionary-definition of abuse. While she points out that many parts of their stories (such as the use of the term “whore”) can be common activity in BDSM, many procedures necessary for responsible play (or the actual practice of BDSM) were ignored.
“What he was practicing—if these stories are true—was not BDSM,” she says. “It sounds to me more like torture and abuse. I wouldn’t imagine that negotiation was even part of his repertoire, because negotiation would mean that the other individual could say ‘no’ or could set their own limits. And it doesn’t sound like he made any allowance for that whatsoever.”
As many victims have stated, there was allegedly no discussion of limits, and they say their signals to stop or hold back were often ignored. Francis’ victims were purportedly never given standards of protocol from the use of safe words to a modicum of post-play aftercare.
Laura stresses that such standards are the cornerstone of this community and are discussed extensively prior to any BDSM activity. Negotiation, according to BDSMwiki, is the process by which people plan an activity, such as a specific scene, encounter and/or the dynamic of a relationship, involving decisions regarding what will and won’t happen—almost like a loose script—to establish specified boundaries, as well as obtaining mutual consent through use of assertive speech. It is an imperative part of responsible practice.
Laura also strongly suggests that those who are curious to explore the world of BDSM do so in a public space, such as a dungeon where there are others familiar with safe practices to educate, model appropriate execution, monitor and hold one another accountable. While she recognizes it is counterintuitive to refer to a dungeon as a “safe space,” it’s her personal belief that practicing in a public area with others creates an optimum environment.
“Just like anything, let’s equate it to operating a handsaw. There is a safe way to do things and an inherently unsafe way to do things,” she shares. “We would love to think that every player was aware of the human anatomy and the bone structure of the different parts of our body and where our internal organs are and what they can be affected by and what kind of damage you can inflict. I don’t even say ‘injury,’ because injury sort of indicates that it will heal. I say ‘damage,’ because there are things that will cause long-term and permanent damage.”
While the ultimate goal is to inflict pain, from speaking to anyone heavily involved in the community, it’s clear no one wants to cause actual, lasting harm to their partner. That’s why any existing injuries, personal trauma and triggers are addressed at length before any activity takes place.
“There is a difference between BDSM and violence,” she says. “Though some people see them as partial to each other. So, if I bring a gun into the space and I intend to shove it into someone’s mouth, who is to come and ask me if that gun is loaded? Do you have ammunition? Could this potentially kill someone? The answer is, it’s just too risky, and it’s also a tremendous trigger for many, many people. So that is just something that we don’t allow. We don’t allow wrestling because there is just a tremendous risk of broken bones.
“I believe what [Francis] did was predatory,” Laura posits. “I believe he knew or had some level of awareness of exactly the vulnerability and, in some cases, mental capacity of the people he was dealing with. And he exploited that.”