Irin Carmon of Jezebel put a disturbing spin on the very disturbing case of a cognitively disabled teenage runaway who was allegedly tortured, mutilated, tricked into fictive bonded servitude, pimped, waterboarded, partially suffocated, and shocked into cardiac arrest by the middle aged man who took her in at 16. Read the indictment here.
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.
According to federal prosecutors, in 2002, a sixteen-year-old "mentally deficient" woman who had grown up in foster homes was invited to live in a trailer with Ed Bagley of southern Missouri, who allegedly promised her she would be a model and a dancer. Over the years, he gave her drugs and sexually abused her, and when she turned 18, prosecutors say, he "started to sexually torture her and persuaded her to sign a 'sex slave contract,'" tattooing her with three marks of her slave status. [Emphasis added.]
What is this "line" Irin speaks of? Why would you even ask that question in this context? As far as I know, the alleged perpetrator's lawyer hasn't said anything about what kind of defense he will pursue. Since the girl was discovered in a house full of torture devices, and since her captor allegedly tortured her online for paying customers, it's going to be hard to argue that the torture part was made up. Logically, "she consented" would appear to be his only out. But why are Irin and some commenters on Jezebel preemptively floating the "consent" theory before anyone has made the case?
BDSM (short for bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism) is a very general term for various kinds of power-tinged sex play. It's a game, a hobby, a community of consenting adults. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage likes to call it "cops and robbers with your pants off."
It's a bizarre notion that there's any kind of blurry line between a consensual BDSM relationship and this. Either the government's allegations are true, in which case this is a clear-cut case of kidnapping, torture, and near-manslaughter. Or the government's allegations are untrue and we're back to square one.
If it's safe to take any part of the government's case for granted, we can assume they got her age right. According to the indictment, she moved in with now-43-year-old Ed Bagley, Sr. when she was 16 and he started sexually abusing her right away. Any sex at this point would have been statutory rape. Allegedly he didn't start in on the really hardcore torture until she turned 18 and he convinced her to sign a bogus "slave contract" that purportedly bound her to him forever. Thereupon he allegedly sewed her vagina and urethra shut to "show her what was expected."
No reasonable person would believe that an 18-year-old could consent to the most hardcore and potentially lethal forms of BDSM play in the most intense kind of 24/7 relationship while she was in the midst of a sexually exploitative relationship with a middle aged man harboring her as a teenage runaway. Bagley allegedly confiscated her ID. The indictment says he threatened to kill her if she left. Any sex between a prisoner and her captor would arguably be rape.
Maybe they played some consensual sex games in addition to the torture. The indictment alleges that the perp routinely disregarded pre-established safewords and kept on torturing her. Being a kinky teen doesn't make you unrapeable.
The victim may have independently aspired to be a fetish model or a porn star. Bagley allegedly lured her in by promising to make her famous. She may have outwardly consented to appear on the cover of Larry Flynt's "Taboo" magazine--which she did, after Bagley took her to California. If she was his prisoner at the time, she couldn't meaningfully consent to participate in a shoot he arranged.
Even if the victim was interested in being a porn star, that doesn't give the alleged perp carte blanche to torture her. Being in porn doesn't make you unrapeable, either.
There could only be a blurry line between consent and non-consent if we assumed that the girl was of age throughout her sexual relationship with Bagley and mentally competent to consent generally and not tricked by a bogus contract and fully appraised of the risks of the potentially lethal stuff he was doing to her (heart-stopping electric shock, home surgery, suffocation to unconsciousness, and waterboarding), and not physically or financially coerced... I've only covered some of the relevant "ands" here. In fact there are so many provisos that would have to be met before this case even approached ambiguity that it seems absurd to raise the possibility that we're dealing with a "blurred line scenario" without a lot of additional evidence.
Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The allegations in the indictment are so extreme that they have an aura of surreality, like the litany of bizarre charges rattled off in various spurious satanic ritual abuse panics of the eighties. But this time the charges are provable, if true. The girl ended up in the emergency room in cardiac arrest after after being electrocuted. Bagley allegedly performed abortions on her at home with medical implements. A search of his house found speculums and other medical tools--plus enough torture devices to stock several dungeons and a substantial arsenal. He allegedly charged customers to watch him torture the girl on the internet. If these allegations are true, they should generate a damning trail of medical, financial, and digital evidence.
It's insulting to devotes of consensual BDSM to even suggest that it's hard to tell the difference between their hobby and the alleged kidnapping, rape, torture, pimping and near-killing of a disabled teenage runaway.
[Photo credit: Sparr0, Creative Commons.]