We have been ruminating on the case of Ed Bagley, alleged sex trafficker, in Missouri, for several days now.
The charges leveled against him are severe: sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion; forced labor trafficking; document servitude; enticement to travel for sexual activity — among others.
According to the story, a 16 year old runaway, known in the indictment as FV (for “female victim”), took residence with Bagley in his trailer park home where he engaged in several sexual acts with her, as well as whipped, beat, flogged, suffocated, waterboarded, electrocuted, mutilated, suspended and caged her over a period of six years.
Upon her 18th birthday, he made her sign a slave contract and began to advertise their sessions via stream on the internet. He also influenced her to dance at a local strip club and pose for Hustler’s Taboo magazine, which caters to people with a preference for BDSM (bondage discipline and sadomasochism).
Clearly, this is illegal because for a period of two years during this time, FV was below the age of consent, which means that legally, she could not consent to any of these activities even if she were perfectly aware of what they would entail. There is also a question of whether she could consent once she reached 18, as when she was admitted to the hospital for cardiac arrest when electrical play went awry, doctors questioned her mental capabilities.
The photographer who shot her for Taboo has come forward saying he did not find her mentally incapable when he shot her in July, 2007, but the question remains and will undoubtedly be addressed during the trial.
Jezebel, Gawker media’s blog about feminist issues, wrote about the topic, glibly asking: “What’s the line between a consensual BSDM relationship — one party as master, another as slave — and a ‘brutally tortured sex slave’? Probably when the FBI says that the woman is mentally disabled and tried to escape.”
This position, while supportive of the choices made by those in the BDSM lifestyle, is extremely dangerous to take because it ignores consent laws, human psychology and the very foundation of the BDSM lifestyle, which sees consent as a very clear and necessary thing, not a gray area.
Because of the power dynamic inherent in BDSM relationships, it is essential to understand consent to avoid exploitative situations. However distasteful one may find the activities outlined by court documents relating to what Bagley did, these are things that some practitioners of the lifestyle do willingly engage in. Many BDSM communities across the country offer classes on the methodology involved with every activity and take measures to ensure people in the lifestyle have access to resources to safely engage in these activities.
Because of the dangers involved, practitioners of the lifestyle are careful to verify people’s ages and discuss activities before sessions (or scenes), what is acceptable and what isn’t, as well as what words to use to make it stop (which are called “safewords”). Some practitioners like to engage in edgeplay, which is a session with no safewords. Indeed, some practitioners negotiate scenes of consensual non-consent, where one may cry out safewords and try to escape only to be abused further.
These things vary greatly from one individual to another, which is why communication and consent are essential to any such activity.
Now, let’s disregard for a moment the fact that FV was only 16 when this all began and the fact that she may not have been mentally competent. Let’s say she is 25 and fully in her faculties. Let’s say, even, that every activity to which she will be subjected has been explained to her and she has agreed to it. Let’s even say that she has been given safewords with which to stop a scene, should she have had enough.
Is it possible to really be free, even with all of these things in place, if she depends on Bagley for shelter and resources?
We have given this a lot of thought and we’re concerned with the extreme socioeconomic disparity that existed between the victim and Bagley. Because so much of BDSM depends on consent, we have to question how much of FV’s willingness was rooted in her reliance in Bagley for shelter and resources. Given her dire situation, the potential for exploitation is extremely high.
If it’s true that he confiscated her ID, the case is sealed. But we’re not going to sentence Bagley without a trial. It is our hope that a jury of his peers will assess the evidence and give him a just decision.
God help him if any practitioner of BDSM is in that jury and assess the inherent inability of someone in so much need to truly consent to much of anything. That’s the bottom line. Consent isn’t something ephemeral the FBI gets to decide exists or doesn’t. It’s something very, very clear and very real to anyone who engages in the lifestyle.