Current Affairs

Bruce McArthur, Gay Culture, and the Questionable Tone of Media Coverage

When it comes to the alleged serial killer, some reporters are missing the real story because they are too busy sensationalizing the sex

BY


The Walrus
The Walrus

On March 6, 2018, Sirius XM published a fifteen-minute video interview on its website, featuring a Toronto man named Sean Cribbin. In the interview with Sirius XM hosts Arlene Bynon and Shaun Proulx, who is also a LGBTQ community leader, Cribbin describes a date he had with alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur—a date that turned into, according to Cribbin, a violent sexual assault. The video opens with white text on a black screen. A warning: “The following video contains graphic language and content that may be upsetting to some viewers. Discretion is strongly advised.”

The camera is pointed directly at Cribbin, who appears sitting on a chair. Dressed in a blue polo shirt with white trim, Cribbin’s aesthetic is similar to many other urban gentlemen—one part hipsterish, with his full, thick beard and layered tattoos, and one part biker-chic rough. Cribbin is well muscled, sports a buzz cut, and has a nose piercing. He appears ready to speak but not fully at ease in front of a camera.

In a soft but resolute voice, Cribbin describes a date gone horribly wrong. It started off simply enough. Cribbin and McArthur had exchanged messages on various apps in the past. Cribbin says they agreed to meet one sunny afternoon for sex, or for what is more colloquially called a hookup or booty call. As Cribbin says at the top of the interview, McArthur did not strike him as someone who was dangerous.

At the beginning of their encounter, Cribbin found McArthur to be someone who was likely to push Cribbin’s “limits.” They had previously chatted about a mutually agreed upon sexual S&M and fetish-sex scenario. (S&M or “sado-masochism” describes a wide range of sexual practices, all based on the concept of the exchange of power between sex partners and games of dominance and submission that may or may not include consensual physical pain. While “fetish” refers to specific sexual actions or interests, for instance, an attraction to feet, which would be a “foot fetish,” S&M and fetish sex are often used interchangeably, as interests and attractions often overlap.) Cribbin did not imagine that McArthur, a former mall Santa, could be a man with (allegedly) murderous intentions.

As I write this, McArthur is charged with eight counts of first-degree murder. Because of what police have released to the public, and from what journalists have dug up, many articles have connected those murders—in some ways and to various degrees—to the world of S&M sexual games. Though the link between the two is still not clear, it hasn’t stopped media from suggesting it’s there—a somewhat predictable, and totally unhelpful, response. But the media should be cautious not to engage in salacious, pearl-clutching coverage or to stigmatize either the kink or LGBTQ communities.

The shocking part of Cribbin’s story is not that two adults agreed to have some S&M fun nor the fact that these two adults barely knew each other and met via dating sites designed to aid such connections but that, once their sexual play began, McArthur is alleged to have broken, indeed utterly disregarded, the first rule of such exchanges. That is: everything is permitted but only with mutual consent. The sex is not the story; the kind of sex is not the story. The rule breaking allegedly indulged in by McArthur is the story. And most of Canadian media seems to have missed it.

Despite his tough appearance in the video, and his stated familiarity with the S&M world he describes to the viewer, Cribbin appears shaken by his encounter with McArthur. He appears nervous throughout the video. Still, he looks determined to share his story—after all, the fetish-sex community is his community, and he wants it to be safe. “I don’t want to live in fear,” Cribbin says. Cribbin is someone who has been in the kink and S&M scene for years (the article accompanying the video notes that Cribbin is a former Mr. Leatherman Toronto, the winner of a competition celebrating the leather community in Toronto), and yet he is shaken. Shaken because, when he met with McArthur, all of the rules were broken.

Fetish sex is an umbrella term applied to sex acts that include exchanges of power between the players, typically wherein one player is the submissive (the “bottom”) and the other is the dominant (the “top”). Types of and variations on what constitutes fetish sex are as plentiful and, yes, sometimes very strange—as strange as the human imagination can be. It’s a big, delightfully odd world, but it’s ruled by one universal principle: fetish sex is, and must always be, guided by the practice of being “Safe, Sane, and Consensual,” which means that unless all involved are comfortable and willing to engage in whatever sex play unfolds, all sex play stops. Full stop.

The interview’s primary focus is the alleged assault, not the subculture that informs how the two men met, what Cribbin believed to be understood as “the rules,” and how the breaking of well-understood and almost universally adopted practices turned the rough sex into assault. Without this information, the public is missing a key piece of context: consensual fetish sex, as sensational or incomprehensible as it may seem to some people outside of the kink world, is not itself, as a practice, causal; it has set ethical rules about safety and consent.

In other words: assault is assault, and murder is murder. As the McArthur case unfolds, the public will encounter lots of information about sexual practices that may be foreign and perhaps even upsetting. At the same time, the mainstream media will do the public a great disservice if it focuses on the sex acts without also informing the public that people from all walks of life enjoy fetish sex, feel safe within fetish sex communities, and are well informed with overarching principles of consent. To be clear: the McArthur story—and Cribbin’s story, by association—is not that one man engaged in violent play with another during sex but that one man engaged in a level of play that exceeded what had been agreed upon by both parties. Kinky sex is not dangerous. People who break the rules of kinky sex are dangerous.

As the McArthur story unfolds on the national stage, we need to have an honest conversation in mainstream media about how fetish sex and dating actually work. We need to speak openly about how the world of kinky sex is as protocol driven as any royal court. Sure, let’s all have the first shock wave of “people do these things to each other?!”and then have the grown-up talk. We are ready to know that somewhere between the glossy fantasy world of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise and hard-core pornography lies an entire world of sexual acts governed by one core and unchallenged rule: safety first. We would be ill advised to read the whole of a vast practice through the lens of criminality and shock. Doing so also creates a kind of finger-wagging, “you were asking for it” mentality that only revictimizes people.

More than that, we would be equally ill advised to allow homophobia to creep into said discussion of consensual fetish sex or to read the sexual elements of the McArthur case as being unique to the LGBTQ community. Fetish sex is universal. Straight people are kinky too. The codes of conduct that protect straight people from abuse during fetish sex were largely created by gay men and lesbians, out of necessity. The LGBTQ community is also too keenly aware that even the flawed resources available to heterosexuals who have been sexually abused have not been (and largely still are not) available to it. Straight people almost never recognize this reality, this inheritance, so to speak, and thus it is doubly galling when heteronormative readings of the McArthur case fall back to the outdated conflation that gay sex equals deviance equals criminal outcome—especially while all around us heterosexuals safely enjoy S&M and fetish sex based on protocols created by queers.

I do not pretend to speak for any communities, but I’ve been around. In my experience, Toronto has a diverse and vibrant kinky scene (one that, shock alert to media outlets that seek to conflate gay sex with deviance and thus criminality and/or violence, is overwhelmingly heterosexual). Kink is big money in Toronto and every other city I’ve lived in. Look around you—your neighbours are tying each other up and spanking each other, or perhaps they’re even doing both. I know because I’ve met them, and they are perfectly nice people, ordinary folks with jobs and families.

For instance, take a look at the online community fetlife.com, which informs readers on its front page that Fetlife is “like Facebook, but run by kinksters like you and me.” I first joined Fetlife when I was living in Berlin six years ago. My German was (and remains) terrible, and meeting men for sex online was difficult when I could barely type hello in German. A friend suggested Fetlife because it is primarily in English and also because it more of a social gathering space than a hookup app. I was surprised by how, well, homey the site is. Of course, people talk about and seek out kinky sex. That’s the point. But it is not the only point.

Information and education sharing takes place on the site, and users can also find a range of tutorials on everything from bondage for beginners to sex-toy usage and techniques. There are pages for gear and sex-toy swapping, as well as Consumer Reports–style pages on new devices or product lines. There are listings for “munches,” simple social gatherings held in neighbourhood bars and bistros for like-minded kinky people who want to get together and chat over drinks or play board games. Alongside such listings, there are pages alerting readers to upcoming orgies or “play parties” with various kink-centred themes. And, alongside those pages, you’ll find apartment listings, forums for discussing breakups, pages advising subscribers on how to find non-judgmental, kink-informed doctors—and it goes on and on.

What one is struck by (no pun intended) is how normal and casual this supposedly degenerate, supposedly perverse world really is—take out the references to fisting benches and violet wands, and you could be reading a suburban weekly flyer, yard-sale notices and all.

Numbers are also useful here. As of June 2018, a simple search for Toronto on Fetlife yields more than 70,000 subscribers. Assuming this includes the GTA, that’s about one in 100 people. In other words, at least one person a block away in any direction you look. Toronto is hardly alone. A search of Montreal turns up more than 29,500 “kinksters,” as the site calls them, while Vancouver boasts about 29,600. Even my small and supposedly conservative home province of New Brunswick contains more than 13,000 subscribers. That’s a lot of people who enjoy, as McArthur is alleged to have enjoyed, kinky sex but don’t, as McArthur is alleged to have done, kill their sex partners. If anything, McArthur’s alleged sexual interests might be the least of his outlier qualities. I’m not making light here; I’m simply pointing out that McArthur’s alleged crimes took place within a large and diverse community, not some secret subculture. Arguably, he may have even found it easier to prey on his victims because the community is so well established, and thus perceived as one in which shared values and boundaries are assumed.

I have no foolish hope that one article about the new normal that is fetish sex will destigmatize S&M or the thriving and diverse culture that supports and informs kinky fun. As legendary underground filmmaker John Waters famously remarked, “Everyone’s sex life is funny except your own.” Funny strange, not funny ha ha. However, more maturity, and honesty, is not so much to ask for.

Yes, people have kinky sex. Lots of them. No, they are not criminals, but yes, they might not be like you. Whatever we learn from the McArthur trial, we must at least come away with the understanding that framing kinky sex within tropes of violent crime, indeed murderous crime, is unhelpful at best and victim blaming at worst. As Cribbin makes plain in his brave interview—brave not because he reveals himself to be kinky but brave because he talks about kinky sex in non-sensational, even mundane, terms—McArthur, as Cribbin alleges, hurt him by breaking the rules of kinky sex, not by having kinky sex with Cribbin in the first place.

Mixing kinky sex with crime reporting is tricky and potentially toxic. Driving the dialogue back underground will only create new hunting grounds for predators. The media needs to take a breath, listen, and learn. Then it needs to stop trying to make lurid what is actually rather common—and make instead righteous noise against people who abuse the standards.

RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist.




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