Whip Appealed

A BDSM court case puts master/slave relationships on trial

Shortly after Glenn Marcus and Jodi (referred to in public records by her first name only) started their master/slave relationship in 1998, he began photographing her as well as other women during BDSM scenes for a website he created called Slavespace.com. In 2001, Jodi left the relationship and asked Marcus to take her photos off the site, but he refused. Two and a half years later, she told the FBI she endured intense sadism at the hands of her master, was forced to work on his website, and felt like she couldn't leave him. The U.S. Attorney charged Marcus under three federal statutes: sex trafficking (coercing or selling a person into a situation of sexual exploitation, like prostitution or pornography); forced labor (using threats or violence to obtain labor or services); and obscenity (for the content of his website). The prosecution offered Marcus a plea deal that included no jail time, which he declined. On March 5, 2007, he was convicted on the first two counts, but the jury ruled that the website was not obscene (a significant and surprising victory, considering it featured images of extreme activities like asphyxiation and temporary genital piercing). The majority of the press coverage focused on the salaciousness of it all ( USA Today: "He punished her by putting a ball in her mouth, closing it shut with surgical needles and hanging her on a wall"), but no one has examined if the verdict was fair or what far reaching consequences it may have for people who practice BDSM.

In court, Jodi painted a picture of a monster-master who abused her. She said she was afraid to leave because Marcus threatened to show her family the photos, an abundance of which helped illustrate her horror story—the New York Post called it "a website filled with depraved images of her bleeding and bruised body." Curiously, Jodi socialized and vacationed with Marcus several times after the break up. Marcus asserted that their master/slave dynamic, their scenes, and her work on the website was consensual; Jodi's former roommate and Marcus's ex-girlfriend, Rona, testified that nothing was done to Jodi against her will and that Marcus was "lots of fun."

I suspect it was tough for the defense to get a jury to understand such an unorthodox dynamic to begin with, let alone the difference between a healthy one and a dysfunctional one. Ideally, consensual d/s relationships are designed for both partners to get their needs met, but they can be complicated and very intense.

Much of Jodi's testimony was about being subjected to pain, punishment, and humiliation. Most people don't want to be controlled, used, hurt, tortured, or degraded, so it's hard for them to comprehend that some people want to experience sensations and emotions that are generally considered negative or painful. But successful d/s relationships are like well-choreographed dances: there is a clear leader and a clear follower and both partners get a lot out of their respective roles. The dominant provides structure and guidance, and the submissive wants to surrender control. Each person has equal power within the relationship, but the dominant has more authority. But the lines between dominance and egomaniacal control or between submission and low self-esteem can be blurry to the untrained eye. A dominant on a power trip who likes to manipulate and prey on weakness is as dangerous as a submissive who doesn't know what she wants and can't stand up for herself, and neither is fit for a d/s relationship.

I don't know enough about Marcus and Jodi to know if there were some serious personality flaws lurking beneath their chosen roles. What is clear is that the relationship began as consensual but, for Jodi, at some point this changed. It's possible that she regretted her participation and re-wrote her role into an unwilling victim, but it's equally likely that Marcus lost touch with reality, believed he actually owned her, and behaved accordingly. The relationship was even thornier because it was entwined with a for-profit business. Masters and mistresses order their slaves to do lots of things: clean the house, lick Mistress's boots, give Master a blowjob, and so on. When Marcus made his slave do things or he did things to her, there was profit to be made from it—more specifically, from the photos he took and posted on Slavespace.com, which was membership-based. Furthermore, he tasked her with working on technical aspects of the site and considered that part of her service to him as a slave, so he didn't pay her. (Sources I spoke to said they both lived off the site's profits.)

We may never know the whole truth of this he-say-she-say story, but jurors determined that Marcus crossed the line. Alan, a lawyer who spoke to several experts who testified and who blogged about the trial (alanesq.livejournal.com), told me he believes Marcus's fate probably hinged on the fact that Jodi consented to non-consensual play—a concept not unheard of among players, but one which negates the consent.

"After eight days of deliberation, it's hard to accuse the jury of being less than diligent," Marcus's attorney, Maurice H. Sercarz, told me. "They were put in a difficult predicament. If they feel like he did something wrong, their only option was these really serious charges, which I believe do not fit what happened." In other BDSM cases, defendants have been charged with assault, and Marcus could have been charged with unlawful imprisonment or extortion if the case wasn't tried in federal court. (The reason this became a federal case is because Jodi's lawyer first reported the incident on her behalf to the U.S. Attorney, not local law enforcement.) Because these are federal charges, Marcus faces life in prison, a fact that has sent a chill down the spines of some BDSM community members. The charges and potential sentence do seem unnecessarily severe and could set a precedent for future cases. Although experts say that such a harsh sentence is unlikely, under federal sentencing guidelines, if BDSM is part of the crime, a longer sentence is recommended. Sercarz's motion to dismiss is pending and he says they will appeal if he is sentenced. Others see the verdict as positive for the community. Alan wrote: "What this trial says is that people can choose to engage in whatever safe, sane, and consensual relationship they desire, but when someone goes beyond the spectrum of consent, they open themselves up to substantial criminal liability. And frankly, if there are people who do venture into activities which are non-consensual, they now know what to expect."

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