For years, vulnerable people in Silicon Valley have whispered warnings to each other about the unethical behavior of multiple Alphabet executives who sexually harassed individuals they held power over in the workplace. On October 25, two New York Times reporters released their yearlong investigation, and the scandal burst into the open. Andy Rubin, founder of Android, and Amit Singhal, head of Google Search, were paid off to leave the company in 2014 and 2016, respectively, but Richard DeVaul, inventor of Project Loon, didn’t resign until shortly after the article’s release. David Drummond is still Alphabet’s chief legal officer. A week later, 20,000 employees walked off the job to protest Alphabet’s systematic mishandling of harassment and discrimination. Why did it take so many years for even a modicum of accountability to happen?
To be clear, these newly documented abuses are not merely the aftermath of a few bad apples. There is a systematic pattern of influential figures in entertainment, media, government, and business using their positions to coerce and silence those with less power, especially women and nonbinary people. Complicity in covering up Rubin’s abuse came directly from Alphabet’s CEO and board, who spoke positively about him upon his departure and must have authorized the $90 million payout. We as workers certainly cannot be safe while our leaders engage in, reward, and cover up sexual harassment and abuse.
Although the New York Times article shed light on workplace harassment, the stigmatizing depiction of polyamory and BDSM counterintuitively hurts victims and makes them less likely to speak out. We cannot agree with its characterization of the practice of polyamory and BDSM as inherently abusive or salacious. The executives’ excuses about their participation in polyamory and BDSM are yet another layer of deflection of responsibility. In fact, it is victims who are polyamorous or who practice BDSM who fear being shamed, isolated, and further retaliated against when reporting abuse, should they be outed in the process.
As women and nonbinary people who work at Alphabet (but who do not speak for our employer), and as people who have dealt with sexual harassment and assault, we want to set the record straight: Our existence as sex-positive and polyamorous people is not inherently abusive or scandalous. The abuses reported in the New York Times arose from corporate power dynamics and misogyny, not from polyamory or BDSM. The perpetrators’ appropriation of polyamory and BDSM terminology simply exacerbates existing power dynamics and makes their victims less likely to come forward.
We want to set the record straight: Our existence as sex-positive and polyamorous people is not inherently abusive or scandalous.
Ethical practice of polyamory and BDSM does not entail abuse or harassment. To explain this, let’s briefly define polyamory, BDSM, abuse, and harassment.
- Polyamory is an ethical framework for conducting multiple romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved. Cheating, or having an affair without the consent of one’s existing partners, is not polyamory. The potential to have multiple loving partners, romantic or platonic, who all know about each other and have freely agreed to that relationship structure, is at the heart of polyamory.
- BDSM, in contrast to polyamory, is not a relationship framework but a dynamic that can be practiced within any type of relationship. It’s a wide umbrella term for a variety of sensory and/or erotic practices, categorized under bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism, and is usually referred to colloquially as kink. Like polyamory, the key principle behind BDSM is consent.
- Abuse involves disregard for and violation of established boundaries and consent or a lack of meaningful and freely given consent. It frequently involves elements of secrecy, isolation, gaslighting, and deflection of blame.
- Workplace harassment involves a person with power using coercion to force someone they have power over to relent to inappropriate requests. For instance, a manager propositioning a subordinate to have sex would constitute workplace harassment, as would viewing pornography in the workplace or asking an interviewee on a date.
Consent is key to the practice of both BDSM and polyamory. Given the position of these men, however, meaningful consent was impossible. Saying no to someone in power carries a much greater potential cost than saying no to someone on your own level. For instance, if during her interview, Star Simpson had said no to the Burning Man trip that DeVaul invited her on after stating he was “polyamorous,” that could easily have cost her the job, even though DeVaul never explicitly said so. He didn’t have to — the implication was there and always will be there in cases like this. It didn’t matter whether the decision about her candidacy had been made by the trip; the mere request during the interview was inappropriate.
There are countless more stories in chapter six of Emily Chang’s book Brotopia involving the power dynamics of Silicon Valley and women coerced into sex. When you have power, your “suggestions” carry a much greater weight, and abusive people in power use that to get what they want without ever making a clearly inappropriate request. If victims attempt to call them on it, they wind up being gaslit about the abuser’s intentions (“I didn’t mean it that way!”) instead of being able to obtain justice.
Adding in the dimension of stigma around polyamory and kink exacerbates the power dynamics in play. For one thing, if someone isn’t out as either polyamorous or kinky, threatening to expose them as such is an easy way for abusers to preemptively silence them. Even victims who aren’t polyamorous or kinky may be afraid to expose the abuse for fear of being publicly perceived as such because their abuser has used those words. Because of how polyamory and kink are often portrayed, being known as either can result in anything from social shaming and ostracization to loss of employment and custody of children. Furthermore, coming out early in one’s career can lead to further inappropriate propositions and being objectified as “that person who has weird sex” rather than being known for one’s accomplishments. But someone in a position of power can escape most of these consequences by simply denying the accusations. Even if they admit to being kinky, their careers won’t be affected — they are “too valuable to lose.”
Furthermore, abusers sometimes misuse polyamory and kink to excuse their unethical behavior. “If you were really kinky, you’d participate in this act.” Or, “Don’t worry, this is okay because I’m poly. You said you were poly, too, didn’t you?” Statements like this, coming from someone already in a position of power, places yet more pressure on the intended victim. In essence, they are no different from statements people make in other abusive relationships, such as “If you really loved me, you would…” or “You’re just overreacting.” Such coercive statements are indicative of predatory behavior rather than inherently being a part of polyamory or BDSM — abuse should not be conflated with ethical, consensual relationship practices. In a healthy polyamorous relationship, everyone is free to withdraw consent at any time, and their boundaries are always respected. The same holds true in healthy BDSM dynamics. Even when people consensually engage in authority-exchange relationships, the submissive (who gives up some of their power to the dominant) still must consent to everything that happens and has a safe word so they can withdraw consent.
Just like monogamous people, polyamorous people can conduct themselves in shitty ways. They can be abusive, unethical, or both. But polyamory itself is not abusive or unethical, despite the way it’s being framed in the media. More Than Two’s Relationship Bill of Rights is a good guide to the rights people should expect to have in any healthy relationship, whether that’s monogamous or polyamorous, vanilla or kinky. Coercion and “suggestions” with the force of orders play no part in such dynamics. Similarly, kink is neither inherently abusive or unethical. Watching bondage porn at home is perfectly ethical, as long as it stays out of the workplace. Though, like polyamory, kink is often portrayed in a negative light, people practicing BDSM are no more likely to be abusive than vanilla folk. Again, consent is key — kink without consent is abuse, and the BDSM community places a high value on enthusiastic, informed consent, as well as on checking in often to ensure that people are truly enthusiastic.
It should be clear now how the abuse and harassment described in the New York Times article is abhorrent and far outside of ethical BDSM and polyamory practice. Propositioning prospective employees, groping people at off-sites, pressuring people into sex? We shouldn’t have to explain why that’s wrong. But it’s not the “bondage sex” or “ownership relationships” that are the issue; it’s the fact that a senior executive was using company property and time to watch porn and had relationships of any kind with his subordinates.
As a culture, we need to separate abuse and harassment from the ethical practice of BDSM and polyamory. As long as journalists and the public continue to conflate such practices with abuse, victims will face far too many barriers when seeking justice. If people don’t feel safe seeking out support or asking questions about whether behavior they’re experiencing is normal, they will be easy prey for predators. Communities dedicated to education about polyamory and BDSM practices exist, but they’re forced to exist in the shadows because of the fear of being outed and losing jobs, children, and more. Let’s work together to destigmatize ethical polyamory and BDSM so that powerful men will think twice before offending and past victims of abuse can seek justice.