All four defendants were found guilty in the beating and strangulation death of “house slave” Shirley Beck, reports the Leaf Chronicle in Clarksville, Tennessee. Beck, who was 39 at the time of her death in 2014, had come to Clarksville in 2012 to be trained in BDSM* and meet the man she’d developed an online relationship with, whom she hoped would become her Master.
The relationship didn’t work out. Beck moved in with next-door neighbor Twila Ours, and a few months later asked if she could be Ours’ slave, according to Ours. Ours said she took Beck on as a house slave, a term the Leaf Chronicle calls “the lowest level in the BDSM community”. Though Ours and Beck had a BDSM relationship, it did not include sex, said Ours.
She loaned Beck to the mistress Cynthia Skipper at the house at 108 Wilson to do some cleaning, and Beck eventually moved in there, where she did the housework and chores for all six housemates, none of whom worked. Skipper received Beck’s disability checks and controlled her money.
One day in June, 2014, one of the housemates (Alphonso Richardson) became enraged because of what he thought was boric acid residue on his girlfriend’s glass. He said his girlfriend was blind, and he thought Beck was trying to kill her. He woke up the other housemates yelling, and four of them suspended Beck, took turns beating her until she passed out, revived her, continued to beat her until she passed out, revived her again.
They beat her for four hours, and revived her three times to continue their punishment. Matthew Lee Reynolds was responsible for at least 50 strikes and kicks using martial arts moves. Alphonso Richardson continued to beat her well past any of the others, sometimes using a metal pole he’d taken from a military cot. Skipper sat by and continued to inspire the men to beat Beck. Derek M. Vicchitto helped suspend her, revive her, and suspend her again. He beat her with an oxygen hose. At one point she was moved from a bedroom into the living room because the roommates didn’t want to damage the electronics in the room.
The defense argued that the beating was consensual, that Beck never uttered her safeword, and that this death was the tragic result of a BDSM play session gone bad. There is a difference between BDSM and domestic violence, and that difference is consent.
The defense attorney stated, and the press asked:
Was this BDSM?
No. According to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, consent must be “informed and freely given.” In its “SM vs. Abuse Policy Statement” the NCSF says that sadomasochistic activity relies on activity that is safe, sane and consensual.
In guidelines developed by the Leather Leadership Conference in 1998 (then in New York), there are questions that one can use to determine whether the activity is BDSM or violence.
Informed consent must be judged by balancing the following criteria for each encounter at the time the acts occurred:
- Was informed consent expressly denied or withdrawn?
- Were there factors that negated the informed consent?
- What is the relationship of the participants?
- What was the nature of the activity?
- What was the intent of the accused abuser?
Whether an individual’s role is top/dominant or bottom/submissive, they could be suffering abuse if they answer no to any of the following questions:
- Are your needs and limits respected?
- Is your relationship built on honesty, trust, and respect?
- Are you able to express feelings of guilt or jealousy or unhappiness?
- Can you function in everyday life?
- Can you refuse to do illegal activities?
- Can you insist on safe sex practices?
- Can you choose to interact freely with others outside of your relationship?
- Can you leave the situation without fearing that you will be harmed, or fearing the other participant(s) will harm themselves?
- Can you choose to exercise self-determination with money, employment, and life decisions?
- Do you feel free to discuss your practices and feelings with anyone you choose?
BDSM was the label the group of housemates put on their behavior to justify it. But calling this horrific case “BDSM” is like calling rape “sex”. If Shirley Beck were asked the questions above in the weeks before her death, no doubt her answers would have been “no”.
This case wasn’t about BDSM. It was about psychopathy, group-think, a cluster of people who brainwashed each other into a culture in which it was okay to beat a disabled woman whose money the house mistress controlled.
Beck had a safeword, yes. She did come to Clarksville in search of a BDSM relationship, of course she did. Another article in the Leaf-Chronicle reports that she left Illinois, a marriage and a child, because she felt like something “was missing from her life”.
Her housemates said she never used her safeword. The prosecution pointed out that she had socks stuffed in her mouth and was barely conscious for much of the beating.
And there is also this: though a neighbor had reached out and asked if he could take her to a domestic violence shelter a few days before, she had declined that help. Other neighbors stated they felt she was afraid, terrified of the people she lived with, but more terrified to leave them.
In such a state of mind, consent is not possible.
The Leaf Chronicle called a “house slave” the “lowest level in the BDSM community”. As if there were a single BDSM community that had hierarchical rungs up a ladder, and if you weren’t good enough you would be knocked down to the next-lowest rung. This implies that disrespect of the slave is the usual basis of a Mistress/slave relationship.
It isn’t. In many power exchange relationships, the power goes both ways, exerted by both partners within their roles. The one who identifies as a “slave” may serve because he or she feels an almost holy vocation to serve others, or finds it very comfortable and natural.
Of course there are as many ways live a BDSM lifestyle as there are people who live it. But how these people expressed their kink that day in June has nothing to do with BDSM. It doesn’t touch the way the kinky people I know live their lives: gently, lovingly, ethically, and creatively.
Was this an injustice? Yes. A tragedy, yes. A beating death. Group violence. But not BDSM.
This was just pain old murder.
*BDSM refers to some part or all of these: Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism. For a more involved definition, see the wiki.