Here’s the story: A well-to-do Virginian businessman takes needy women under his financial wing on the condition that they follow the rules of his “scholarship plan.” If they break these rules, which consist of limits on alcohol and drug intake, and requirements to stay in contact with their benefactor, they receive a spanking. (He’s inspired by “The Spencer Plan,” a system of domestic “discipline” intended to be used by a husband and wife.) All of the women involved are of legal age. Many of them work together at the restaurant he owns.
One day, the man accuses one of these women of stealing from him and fires her (as an employee and, presumably, as a “scholarship” recipient.) A week later, six of these women file charges of sexual assault. A scandal is born.
Many of the key players in this case seem to have already formed their own verdicts: either (obviously!) these manipulative younger women knew what they were getting into and have no grounds for complaint or (obviously!) this gross old man is a dangerous deviant who deserves to be locked up. It’s most probable that the truth is somewhere in between.
It’s pretty rare that the parties involved in a sexual negotiation arrive at a verbal agreement covering every possible contingency and impulse that might arise. That’s true even when money isn’t involved, although bringing cash into it definitely makes everything more complicated. When a client asks to spank me, I’ll usually agree, with the stipulation that he’s not to leave marks. But this is a half-guideline at best, since bruises may not appear immediately and it’s possible to inflict an impressive amount of pain without leaving lasting marks. He may want to use implements that I don’t like, or may he want it to last for a longer period than I’m comfortable with. We have to keep talking about those details as they come up, and it’s my responsibility to make clear what I’m okay with—although if he’s a good guy, he’s going to ask and not pressure for a certain response. I don’t want to trust him with my body and my silence, even though it’s often easier to not risk a conflict and agree to whatever he wants. (Of course, I write that as someone who’s not living session-to-session, where financial pressure might impact my boundaries.)
It seems that in the case of the businessman and his wards, many of them did not object to his behavior, at least not to him directly before, during, or after the incident. Six charges have already been dropped because the women admitted they’d consented to the spanking. So when one woman tells attorneys that she didn’t tell him no because she wasn’t “allowed to,” I’m not sure what that means. Does she mean she wasn’t allowed to tell him no if she wanted to keep the financial arrangement? Was that her assumption or did he tell her that? Or did he tell her that if she objected he would respond with violence?
If he threatened her, the guy needs to face serious legal consequences. Ditto if he kept on in the face of her saying “no.” (This article reports that one woman protested and he didn’t stop. The same piece claims that one of the women filing charges said she was spanked “in exchange” for a birthday party for her child, which makes it sound like a pre-arranged agreement.) But what if a spanked women were to stay silent? Is it right to fine or jail someone for doing what they thought they had consent to do? I remember Dan Savage once wrote about the “implied consent” that exists between two sexual partners, when one can initiate physical intimacy without that being read as an assault, and I tend to think that same state exists or is assumed by clients when they’re with someone they’re paying, particularly if it’s an ongoing arrangement. Right now, two abduction charges (no implied consent there) and three “object penetration” charges remain against the man in question.
I’m wondering if this man thought he had a level of intimacy with his beneficiaries that made it okay for him to try stimulating them with the end of a toy and if he tried it and the woman stayed quiet, her silence, in his mind, then confirmed that consent. (I’m not saying that’s a defense that would or should work in court, merely speculating on how circumstances may have unfolded.) I feel like our instincts as spectators are to presume malicious intent—to think that this guy really wanted to hurt or violate the women he was financially supporting. But maliciousness isn’t necessary for a violation to have occurred, and a maliciousness-motivated act, if agreed upon by both participants in advance, shouldn’t fall into the same category as non-consensual assaults.
I wanted to get an expert’s take on this dynamic, so I emailed Joan Kelly, former professional sub. Joan pointed out that there’s one circumstance in the news story, in which a woman was told she couldn’t leave his home unless he spanked her, which would clearly be a violation of the law. (Hence the aforementioned abduction charges that stuck.) She went on to write:
[H]aving been in sessions where I knew someone was not going to let me leave and I was afraid of saying “no” to him about an unagreed-upon (and frankly pre-established off-limits) blow job, I know how easy it is for males who are being sexually dominant to push WAY past what an initially agreeably sexually submissive woman has consented to. [… If the women] initially thought ‘oh this will be fine, I just won’t break any rules’ and then he changed [the rules] after they lived there, or sexually assaulted that one woman with the hairbrush, that’s not [the original agreement.]
He shouldn’t go to jail just because I’m disgusted by him using the promise of financial safety and *conditional* risk of spanking (versus mutually agreed certainty) to get women to do his thing. I still think it’s predatory[.]
I was never so high in any of my days [that] I would have thought going to the police about TRUE charges of sexual assault would come out in my favor, let alone false ones. And during my time doing pro sub sessions, I was assaulted more than once, and I never ever considered going to the police. Once it was by a client who I’d been seeing safely for months, who was literally keeping me afloat financially because times were so slow. And I kept seeing him.
In other words: this shit is hugely complicated and it’s hard for any spectator to accurately recognize or figure in all the different elements at play.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric around the issue is full of objectionable assumptions. The prosecuting attorney apparently thinks his case rests on whether or not the women involved are already “victims” by virtue of their status as single mothers and women who “need bills paid”—not because they were assaulted. And the journalist reporting the story implies that the fifty-year-old businessman’s “limp” renders him incapable of assaulting or even intimidating young women. Cool theory, bro.
This article inspired a lot of reflection on how I respond to my clients and now I’m curious to hear what you all think. I suspect that my idea of what falls into “assault by asshole” and “client assuming consent” is colored by my status as a “full service” escort. If I were a stripper and some guy jammed his hand between my legs, I’d say that asshole assaulted me, no question. But when I’m with a client who sticks his finger up my butt without a verbal invite, I think “my client assumed consent.” (That is, if we were already fooling around I’d think that—not if he were to do that a few minutes after we walk through the bedroom door! And in either situation, if I didn’t want his hand there, I would remove it.)
It’s not that I don’t have boundaries; I do, and they extend beyond the physical. It’s all about context and the nuances in the execution that determine my response. I’ve had clients commit clear acts of violation about which they couldn’t plead implied consent or miscommunication or anything other than a selfish move on their part that resulted in some type of trauma for me. Like Joan, however, I’ve never gone to the police about any of it. And I’ve even seen a client again after he injured me during an earlier date.
Please use the comments to weigh in about how you set and maintain boundaries in your own work! I can’t wait to read about how you tease out the gray areas (and how you deal with the black and white situations) that arise.