STICKY SITUATION

Parents Can Lose Custody of Children Just for Being Kinky

When exes and relatives call social workers on BDSM-loving moms and dads, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is there to help.

06.18.15 9:15 AM ET

Like many women, Samantha likes kink. Unlike many women, she lost custody of her children over it.

In July 2013, Samantha’s ex-boyfriend told social services that her dominant-submissive relationship with her new boyfriend was harmful to the children.

A social worker backed up the ex-husband’s proofless allegations, even outlandish ones where he claimed their eldest son had been hung from the ceiling by his wrist, and removed the children.

Samantha asked a court to order a second evaluation and waited for months. In the meantime, she contacted the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom for help. NCSF is a volunteer-run nonprofit that strives to connect kinky, poly, and “other” parents with the legal resources they need to fight custody battles and the like.

In that case, NCSF spokesperson Susan Wright said she called a local LGBT and got references for queer-friendly lawyers for Samantha. She vetted them before passing them along. Wright even called case workers in Samantha’s county and urged a second evaluation.

Within weeks, social services took back their evaluation of abuse: The kids, they said, should be reunited with their mother.

Often, parents like Samantha are pursued by an ex-partner or another relative who claims the parent’s sexual proclivities are harmful to children. Judges decide what is in “the best interests of the child,” and parents who are sexual sadists, masochists, or who have multiple romantic partners can easily arouse suspicion.

“We’re leaving this really vague standard of ‘the best interests of the child’ up to subjective interpretation,” said Brooklyn-based lawyer Diana Adams, one of the kink-aware professionals who works with the NCSF.

But Adams said individual trial judge decisions can be very difficult to appeal. Saying that a judge was biased or used poor judgment is not enough—in many areas, the standard for appeal is error.

There aren’t many lawyers who openly advertise themselves as go-to specialists for kinky families, and that’s what brought Samantha to the NCSF.

Outcomes like Samantha’s were not always this common, Wright said. Four years ago, the NCSF had about 115 parents asking for their help and Wright said four out of five of them lost their custody battles. Today, Wright said the win-loss record is vice versa.

Wright credits the reversal to two books: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and 50 Shades of Gray.

Until recently, the DSM “made it look like there was a slippery slope from spanking someone to committing some serious crime,” she said.

Proposed guidelines for the DSM-V, the newest version of psychiatric medicine’s bible, began to differentiate between harmless “paraphilias” (unusual sexual interests)  and “paraphilic disorders.” In the new DSM, kinky people still have a paraphilia, but, “[a] paraphilia is a necessary but not sufficient condition for having a paraphilic disorder, and a paraphilia by itself does not necessarily justify or require clinical intervention,” it says. Instead, the odd stimuli must cause distress or impairment to a person, or threaten to harm others.

On a purely legal level, that meant attorneys now had one of the country’s most powerful medical bodies on their side.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

“You can’t underestimate the power of the American Psychiatric Association,” Wright quipped.

The NCSF still gets plenty of requests, but Wright said social workers and judges aren’t nearly so shocked by BDSM now that the mom next door—maybe even them?—is masturbating to the deviant desires of Christian Grey.

“As much as 50 Shades of Grey does not talk about negotiation and enthusiastic consent, it also kind of broke through the media wall of sensationalism,” Wright said. “It’s a silly romance novel, it doesn’t accurately represent the BDSM community, but yet it really spread the word that the BDSM community exists because of the active engagement by the media.”

For polyamorous people, the solution may not be as easy as getting the APA to de-classify them as disordered.

The most famous poly custody battle happened almost 20 years ago, when a young woman named April Divilbiss appeared on MTV with her two male partners. They were parenting a young child from Divilbiss’s prior relationship, and her mother fought them for custody after the television appearance “outed” them as poly to the whole country.

The grandmother won.

That’s why many poly people with children prefer to stay out of the spotlight.

And it’s also why an IndieGogo page posted by a Texas man to raise money for the legal costs of keeping his children went viral.

The four adults in his household call themselves a “polyfidelitous quad”—four people, but in a closed relationship with one another.

According to online posts by James “Tank” Lowe, his legal wife’s parents sought custody of their four biological children, and then convinced his ex-wife to contest custody of the sons he had with her.

Blog posts from the organized poly community popped up quickly in outrage.

“Long and short of it: these are real people, the factual claims and court cases are documented, and the amount of legal fees they claim to have spent already is reasonable considering the circumstances,” a poly podcaster who goes by “Cunning Minx”  wrote on one site.

Because the poly and kink communities are used to self-policing to weed out people who make others feel unsafe, posts about the family highlight possible red flags about the home: One older man, three younger women (although the women are all queer-identified); 10 children and two more on the way; “an extensive collection of firearms.”

The mounting cost of Lowe’s custody battle is something that plagues many families, Wright said.

“An undue burden is being put on kinky parents,” she said. “Exes are exploiting the stigma of kink to put them through these really expensive, heartbreaking custody battles,” sometimes for the second or third time.

“If we could get just a little bit of mainstream support, I think things would take off,” she added.