Some new headlines about the Robert Pickton case are making the rounds. It seems that Jim Brown, one of the police officers involved in the investigation of the serial killer, had some photos on Fetlife, a social network for the BDSM world. The images of him holding a leash that’s connected to a collared woman while he kisses her, and of him standing with a foot on a woman’s sacrum while she kneels on her hands and knees in a dress made from saran wrap, as well as other similar images, have led some people to argue that there’s a link between his sexual practices and the fact that the police took so long to track Pickton down. And I think that’s exactly the kind of red herring that distracts people in order to divide them.
A little background on the case: Robert Pickton was convicted of six counts of murder, spanning two years, and faced charges of an additional twenty murders over several years. Many of the women he killed were sex workers and women of color, and the police took years to even acknowledge that sex workers were being killed, much less invtesitage the crimes when someone reported them. When they did start, the case was given low priority.
I feel a deep anger that so many women could be considered so unimportant that their disappearances weren’t worth investigating. I feel a deep anger that sex workers can vanish and not be even notable. I feel a deep anger that when sex worker activists and family members of the missing women tried to raise attention, they were ignored. The fact that our world sees people as disposable, that they can vanish and the police don’t look into it, fills me with a rage that I have difficulty containing.
And even so, I think that Jim Brown’s sex life is a red herring.
It’s a red herring because there were entire systems in place that failed these women. Brown might or might not have played a part in that, but no matter what his role was, there were many, many other people who participated. To suggest that one person’s sex life was the deciding factor, as if a different person in his position would have led to a different outcome is exactly the sort of thing that happens when we want to use kink or any other non-normative sexuality to avoid looking at the real issues at play. Given that two different police agencies are blaming each other for the delay in the investigation, I can’t help but wonder how much of this “revelation” is simply an attempt to use kink as a pawn in interdepartmental politics.
It’s also a red herring because we don’t actually know what Brown’s kink life is like. It’s entirely possible that he’s a misogynistic man who uses BDSM as a way to abuse women. That happens, unfortunately. And it’s also entirely possible that his BDSM life is one of respect, care, pleasure, consent, and fun for all participants. That also happens. We can’t know what his attitudes towards women are, simply on the basis of a few photos from his Fetlife profile.You can’t plot a curve from one point and you can’t accurately assess someone’s sexual practices or mental health from a few images they posted online.
The only way to know how Brown treats women, during scenes, his personal life, or as a police officer, is to ask them. Contrary to what some people have argued, it’s quite possible for him to enjoy sexually dominating women within a consensual, negotiated scene AND have a deep respect for them. And it’s certainly possible that his SM practices reflect misogyny and abuse. The BDSM world encompasses both of those, just as the rest of the world does. Research shows that the SM world is a microcosm of the larger society it exists within, so the full range of attitudes towards women exists there.
But would the investigation have proceeded more quickly if Brown’s sex life was entirely vanilla? Given how rarely the murders of poor sex workers of color are prioritized, I really doubt it.
There’s plenty to be angry about in this situation. And there’s no reason to let ourselves get distracted by the question of one officer’s sex life. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have plenty of good reason to look at how sexism, abuse, and consent play out in the BDSM world and in fact, several new projects have recently engaged in that work more deeply.
If information comes to light showing that Brown’s attitudes towards women were a factor in the delays in this case, that would also be a reason for anger. But BDSM isn’t synonymous with misogyny, despite what some people have argued. The lived experiences of plenty of kinksters shows that. So until we have more information, can we please stop assuming that there’s a connection there? Please?
Update: Meghan Murphy pointed me to this post from yesterday, which was written by a woman who has had personal interactions with Brown that set off a whole lot of warning bells for me. This added information most definitely changes what I think about this situation and although I’d have liked to have had it before writing this post, I’m glad I have it now. I’m going to leave the original post, if only because I think it’s more honest to show what I thought at the time that I wrote i.
Having said that, given that there have been several days of media speculations based entirely (as far as I’m aware) on the existence of Brown’s photos, I still think that my point that judging someone based on their photos is valid. And I also still think that there were whole systems in place that shaped the police (lack of) response, beyond whatever role Brown had to play.
Brown could have been a sexually dominant man who respected and valued women and made the exact same photos. It seems to not have been the case, and unfortunately, that’s going to color public perception of kink even more. I really hope that we can find a way to keep abusers from using consensual BDSM as camouflage.