Duty to Warn?
When I was going to therapist school, now quite a few years ago, it was not very long before the "exceptions to confidentiality" were etched into my brain. Along with child abuse, danger to self or others, court order, and Release
of Information, was a rather interesting exception called the Tarisoff decision (in California). This came into being after a tragedy where the wife of a psychiatrist's patient was killed by the patient. It was then decided in court that if a health professional --Mental or otherwise-- hears statements from a patient/client about the killing of someone who is identifiable, there is a Duty To Warn the intended victim as well as to call the police. There is, however, no duty to warn if the client/patient says: I am going to go shoot up a MacDonald's or, I have killed, etc. In fact unless there is a still alive and identifiable victim, the Mental Health professional must keep a zipped lip. An already committed murder, or threats of a random shooting are no part of the exceptions to confidentiality category. (It should be noted here that if I found myself in a situation like this I would most likely encourage the client/patient to turn themselves in, and also offer as to how therapy treatment may be compromised and a possible waste of the client's money and
I would probably engage in a few desperate but legal attempts to not have this person as my client for much longer.)
The above descriptions are fairly clear as to what is and is not ethical and legal where confidentiality is handled in the professional sense. What I wish to talk about in this writing is the much grayer area having to do with those of us in the BDSM community who have a much less etched in stone, but still quite valid and somewhat established code of ethics. Anyone who has been to a public play space (and most often private play events where some participants are not well known by the hosts) has had to sign some kind of form indicating confidentiality, the rules of the space and often an explanation of what the signer might see, as a warning. (if you cannot handle needles .. purple breasts, or loud cries of pain and delight... then go away) So here too there are standards we can wrap ourselves around and feel relatively confident our play preferences and attire, or lack thereof, will not become public unless we agree to make it so.
Now we come to conversations and relationships both on and off line, and observations of individuals, or interactions with individuals in the lifestyle. My kinky friends and acquaintances in the real world and on line have asked me a question. The question usually goes something like this "When I know an individual is dangerous, or at least unsafe, how do I warn or handle the situation given confidentiality in the BDSM community?" This is not an easy question for me to answer, especially because I am used to erring on the side of caution when it comes to confidentiality. Having said this I also find myself warning persons about possible problems or pitfalls whenever I can. These warnings, however, do not take the form of, "I saw MasterDevilmaycare ignoring a safe signal at the (put play space here) when he was caning (you get the idea)". In the world of cross over between phones, internet blogs, chat rooms,
email, newsletters, munches, educational events, etc., one thing is almost constant, and that is information is being put forth, and received by people at a pace that seems phenomenal even compared to a few years ago. And as a result
we all have had to develop our own filters when it comes to figuring out what the @#$@#$@# is going on with all of this info. Anyone can pretty much say ANYTHING! in many different forums. And it does not stop there, anyone
can create an image of practically anything, and unless one takes a fair amount of tedious time deciphering, one cannot verify the validity of a certain image they see in print or on line.
I have developed new tools in order to deal with this phenomenon, similar to the old adage "Do not believe everything you see in print." I do not believe everything I see and hear as gospel. However I also have several credos
when dealing with information. Some of these are:
1. Consider the source (friend, anonymous, "Authority")
2. Find a place for the information (how will I use it later, or will I use it?)
3. Do I have a legal and/or ethical duty to warn someone, and/or do I have a duty to warn that is consistent with my personal code of honor and breaks no other Legal &Ethical codes?
4. If I tell someone this information, can I be relatively certain they will take this information and use it in an appropriate, and ethical manor as well?
Recently I have been seeing posts to different lists about an individual who is apparently on an FBI fugitive list who is also attempting to sell certain BDSM items in various forums. These warnings have apparently been spontaneous, coming from individuals who somehow put the name together with the FBI info or did a search. To me this one falls into the No Brainer category of Duty to Warn. But what about circumstances like seeing someone behave in an
inappropriate or unsafe way at a play space. Hopefully the DMs step in and stop the activity and/or invite said individual to leave. Then lets say I see the same individual with a different partner at a different space and something
similar happens. Technically I and anyone else in the space including the DMs, host and others have signed agreements stating what happens there will not be discussed. Some people take any breaking of the rules as the Loss of all rights, and will tell others what happened as a warning. Others will maintain confidentiality no matter what, and if someone else gets hurt, "oh well, just part of the fallout of being in the lifestyle."
I mentioned Personal Codes of Honor above (which happens to be a lecture topic of mine in the vanilla world as well) and I think the area of duty to warn in the BDSM world has much to do with our own moral, ethical and decency standards. At this point I can only share where I have decided to place my personal code in relation to duty to warn when it comes to helping kinky people to stay as safe as possible. With this writing I am inviting you to think
about your own codes of honor and where you find yourself in the realm of advising, mentioning, and warning your friends and acquaintances in the BDSM population.
One distinction I make right from the beginning is BDSM verses the vanilla community. It is VERY clear to me the importance of maintaining a high degree of confidentiality when it comes to talking with non kinky folks about the
lifestyle. NO Names or hints about people, or even knowingly giving enough information where someone not in the lifestyle might be able to piece things together.
Within the lifestyle however I think some may find my confidentiality a bit lax while others may feel I am too rigid. Using the scenario I created above, on two different occasions I SAW an individual play unsafely or become
reprimanded. I would probably still not inform others as a blanket statement to all of my friends and acquaintances in the BDSM world. However if the lucky opportunity occurred where an individual tells me an experience they had
with this unsafe individual I might mention it to someone who is either asking around about the questionable character or asking me about them. I would use generalities like, "this is what I have heard" or even "this person seems to have a reputation of being unsafe." And phrase them in such a way as to not make any direct accusations while still having the intent to plant seeds, which will, at least, prompt the information seeker to become more vigilant.
There have also been occasions where certain individuals already may have a reputation of being unsafe, or some other undesirable trait. In these instances I will often put my observations in, if asked. Again though, not
phrasing it like "at 12:20 pm on the 5th of February, at the Lair I saw MasterNoLimits ignore a safe signal and at exactly 12:37:08 he was thrown out of said establishment."
In the on line chartroom, IM, email world these standards also apply with me. My perception of the attitude of many in this realm is, "confidentiality, what's that?" All's fair. And there are many unethical individuals whom I assume are that way out of ignorance, or conscious choice. To me, a screen name is a name period. There is an established personality with this name if they have said even one or two words in a chat room, or on a list, or any other on line public forum. In my opinion it does not matter if we do not know this person's real name, or place of residence. Their right to confidentiality as an individual must still be protected. I do draw a line however when there is a clear perpetration of another's rights in which case I try to be fair while also seeing that safety and the general good are maintained.
I feel it is our duty to do what we can legally and ethically to help keep our friends and acquaintances in the lifestyle as safe as possible, while also adhering to our own ethical standards, and those put forth by our community. I am hoping this has brought more clarity, rather than being as clear as mud on this issue we all seem to struggle with at one time or another.
Take Good Care,
Addendum: I have another thought to ad to the above article. This is to include a bit more clarification on the idea of confidentiality in a professional as opposed to practical (real life) sense. Legal and medical professionals have a tendency to put confidentiality first before safety. This is true, in my observation, because "the system" by its nature tends to assist with safety issues.(in a perfect world of course) Since The BDSM Kink community is still on the fringes of society, there are no real systems in place to protect them, other than those granted any citizen. Often we are flying solo.
Which is why I think in our circumstances a "Safety before confidentiality" stance is more appropriate.