When the line between “playful sex romp” and “violent assault” is thin enough to be the subject of dispute, something’s gone terribly wrong.
In an article published yesterday in the The New Yorker, multiple women accused New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of monstrous emotional manipulation and physical abuse. Most of the allegations took place within otherwise consensual relationships – except for the one high-powered attorney who claimed he slapped her across the face when she rejected his advances. The allegations are extremely distressing, from degrading language to assault so severe it caused lingering physical damage. Schneiderman resigned almost immediately, but not before issuing an enigmatic response:
“In the privacy of intimate relationships,” he told The New Yorker. “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.”
Never having assaulted a person isn’t exactly a boast worthy of a merit badge – it’s the bare minimum for existing alongside other humans in society. But what was baffling was using the phrase “I have engaged in role-playing” as an attempt at self-exoneration.
It’s a startling admission: he’s simultaneously declaring that his accusers are lying, while also confirming that he engaged in … well, something that he feels was outside of his normal behavior. What role, exactly, did he play? What roles did his partners play? Who consented to what – and how did he make sure they consented?
The former AG’s statement raises more questions than it answers. It’s also a reminder of the importance of consent, and that when it comes to high-impact sex games, claiming role-play doesn’t give you instant immunity. If that was the case, he’d probably have heard a lot more defendants explain, “I was just role-playing when I robbed that bank.”
I’ve been photographing and writing about sexual subcultures for over a decade, from flogging workshops to furry conventions to acts involving gummy bears that defy the nature of reality itself. Imaginative sex pushes the limits of erotic exploration, uncovering wild new methods for unleashing pleasure. But it can also go terribly wrong, as it always, invariably, unfailingly does in the absence of consent.
In just about any encounter, sex often involves some imbalance of power: a big spoon and a little spoon; a top and a bottom; a master and a slave; a pred and a prey.
Power plays are fun and normal and enjoyable – provided everyone knows that they’re playing. A sexual role-playing game isn’t subject to unilateral declaration. It’s not something that is sprung, unbeknownst, to participants like they’re on a nightmare version of Improv Everywhere.
In healthy relationships, relatively little negotiation is required for a cuddle, but as activities shift along the spectrum of intensity between vanilla sex and BDSM, more discussion is required.
That’s particularly important when role-play transforms the participants. If the parties have grown accustomed to gently spooning each other, the sudden appearance of whips and chains in someone’s hand is likely to cause alarm. Role-playing a character in the bedroom is like introducing an entirely new person into your relationship, and every good guest should give their hosts time to prepare for their arrival – or decline to host altogether.
This weekend, for example, I watched as a man was pulled from a crowd, stripped of his clothes, bound so tightly in rope he couldn’t move and hoisted into the air to dangle helplessly from a metal frame over the heads of passers-by. Under normal circumstances, it sounds like a violent abduction; but the context was a rope bondage demonstration at a my neighborhood gay bar. The “victim” was beaming throughout the experience, particularly when dangled upside-down into the crotch of a friend who was tied up beneath him.
Crucially, this experience was infused with consent. Before it started, there was a conversation about what was to happen, what the boundaries were, and who was in charge. The bottom, it’s worth noting, was in charge. The bottom must always be in charge, even when everyone’s pretending they’re not. Deference should be given to the most vulnerable parties and those who have willingly exposed themselves to the greatest potential harm.
Once the preparation is done, a sexual encounter must always have an emergency brake within reach, allowing any of the participants to end the experience with a safe-word. And the encounter doesn’t simply end once everyone’s reached the climax of pleasure: Participants have a duty to engage in after-care, a tender check-in to assess each other’s physical and emotional well-being.
There’s more to role-play than simply playing a part. Though Schneiderman claims role-play and consent, his terse statement makes no mention of negotiation, of safe words, or of after care. Which makes it very difficult to believe.
Role-play can be cathartic, such as in a scene where participants express feelings of affection they previously felt too shy to confess. It can be relaxing, as with catplayers curling up in the laps of partners. It can be goofy fun, exemplified by hypno bottoms who adopt a dumb jock persona when their baseball caps are turned backwards.
And it can also be violent.
In his statement, the former AG confirms that he did something that was so far outside the boundaries of his normal identity that it required the playing of a role. But role-play alone doesn’t exonerate all deeds; we’re all responsible for our actions, even when playing pretend.