The Respected BDSM Educator, the Body Modification Expert and the Solar Branding Fiasco

I can’t even right now but I had to get this out.

Sometimes I am so disappointed in my own community. The arrogance. The hubris. The complete disregard for the well being of others when one’s ego gets involved.

Strap in, this is going to be a long one.

The Solar Branding Fiasco

To understand this current situation, we need to start at the beginning, with the solar branding fiasco.

What is Solar Branding?

Put simply, solar branding is a brand – burning the skin in a desired shape or pattern, resulting in a scar – done by the power of the sun, with the help of a lens. The best sources for learning about solar branding are BME, which has a few articles on the subject, and the creator of the technique himself, Neeko Bonzini (Instagram).

bme modblog solar branding neeko bonzini the body modification expert the respected bdsm educator
One of the headers used by BME’s Modblog (none of the people in the photo are mentioned in this article)

Neeko is a professional body modification artist who melds together spirituality and modification, emphasizing the ritual nature that these modifications have historically held. With more than 20 years of professional experience, he has refined his skill by years of practice, attendance at many international body modification conventions and taking classes in everything from sterilization to scarification and more.

The dates are a bit hazy, but at some point, Neeko started developing a new technique, known as solar branding. You won’t find much information about it online – even information that was available 18 months ago seems to be gone now, quite possibly intentionally. Neeko was concerned about this very thing happening and had asked that some steps be left out of any description of the process. He didn’t want people to start solar branding before he had perfected the art and learned how to do it reliably and safely. You can find some beautiful pictures on Neeko’s Tumblr.

So What Happened? Why is it a Solar Branding Fiasco?

Sadly, as is often the case, someone saw Neeko’s work and thought he could emulate it. A person who clearly didn’t have the same skill, foresight or care for others. While Neeko took years to develop the solar branding technique and tested it on himself and well-informed friends who consented to this experimental practice, the new-comer didn’t.

Capt. Gordon, the owner of Time Bomb Tattoo, has been tattooing and piercing since the 90’s, according to his bio. He also claims extensive experience with strike branding and ordeal facilitation. He was very open about these things, using them to imply that he also had experience in the experimental field of solar branding. He spoke of the praise of his skill that his clients gave after their ordeals as if this mitigated his colossal failure with solar branding.

hook pull ordeals the respected bdsm educator the body modification expert and the solar branding fiasco
A hook pull I did on NYE 2015/2016

For those unfamiliar, ordeals in this context generally refer to ritual acts of enduring pain and/or body modification to mark a rite of passage. More “common” ordeals include ritual scarification, ritual hook suspensions and pulls, or ball dances. All of these activities come with a degree of risk which partially depends on the skill of the facilitator. All of them are also inherently risky and downright dangerous if done by an inexperienced or careless person. Full disclosure: I have facilitated and done many hook suspensions, pulls and ball dances over the past 15+ years.

BDSM Summer Camp & Branding

Capt. Gordon attended a BDSM summer camp and decided to offer solar brands as an ordeal. He told those interested about his skill and experience as a tattoo artist and body modification expert. His wording was ambiguous – he didn’t say that he had never done a solar brand before, or that the procedure was still being refined. He implied that he had skill where he didn’t – experience in strike branding isn’t experience in solar branding. It’s like me saying that I have experience driving a car and making it sound like I have experience driving an 18 wheel truck. There is a huge difference.

In case you’re wondering, all the information here is taken from Capt. Gordon’s own account of the incident, as well as the accounts of two of his victims. All three can be found on Fetlife if you are a member. I have also done my best to make it clear when I speak from my own experience or express my own opinion.

Capt. Gordon did a total of 6 solar brands on 6 people that day.

Two necessitated hospitalization. One was in for 4 days and required a debridement and skin graft. The other, the first person he ever solar branded, was in the hospital for 10 days. She had a debridement, skin graft, IV antibiotics and nearly lost her foot.  Things are bad when IV antibiotics are needed. The doctors are worried about an infection that already is or may become systemic.

The severity of the burns, the depth of them, is part of what made them so dangerous. The care instructions, including not covering the brands, made things worse.

the respected bdsm educator the body modification expert and the solar branding fiasco BDSM summer camp

Remember that these brands happened at a campground. Think about the last time you went camping. What was the first thing you did when you arrived home? Probably had a shower to wash the smokey smell and dirt off your body and get the leaves and sticks out of your hair. Camping is a dirty affair.

Burns are also very prone to infection, more so than a simple cut. This risk increases with the severity and depth of the burn. While I agree that not all wounds need to be covered, the environment needs to be taken into account. For instance, when getting a tattoo, every reputable artist I know will cover a fresh tattoo for the first 12 hours or so, to allow it to form a protective scab. Brands aren’t always covered, but if there is a real chance of contaminating the wound, every artist I know will cover it, at least until the risk of contamination has passed.

the respected bdsm educator the body modification expert and the solar branding fiascoMaking matters worse, the more seriously injured victim asked for a circumferential brand and Capt Gordon agreed to it. Branding 101 teaches that circumferential burns should never be done because they can cause burn-induced compartment syndrome. Basically, when you have full thickness burns (3rd & 4th-degree burns), the tissue becomes dense and is no longer elastic. This tissue then acts like a tourniquet. If this happens, an escharotomy is required to reverse this effect. In fact, in some jurisdictions, a circumferential burn to the extremity triggers an automatic referral to the burn unit for further care – which this victim received upon arrival at the ER.

If you have a strong stomach, you can see some photos of the aftermath of these brands. I don’t know if fundraising is still open for the victims. I know that at least one is still – 18 months later – dealing with the consequences of that day.

In a properly done solar brand, the burn should be a fine line, precise and controlled. If you look at the photos, the first one looks to be an inch wide. The victim described it as blackened and charred. A brand may appear brown or dark brown when it’s first done, but not charred. The area around the brand that has turned white shows necrotic tissue. It looks as if the skin was literally cooked.

the respected bdsm educator the body modification expert and the solar branding fiascoAfter the procedure was done, Capt Gordon asked to take a photo, since it was the first solar brand he had done. The victim was shocked, as she assumed from the way he spoke that he had done this before. She said she knew it was something that he had recently added to his professional services and thought that meat he had practiced on others first. To me, this seems like a reasonable assumption.

 

Which leads to the part of the violation that I’m sure has stuck with many of those 6 people. They didn’t know that they were the first. They thought they were going to an expert, someone who knew what he was doing. His bluster convinced them that he had experience. One has written that they regret the question not asked “how many times have you done this? How many people have you solar branded?”

So this story, this fiasco, is made worse by the lack of informed consent.

Capt Gordon had never done this before.

The Body Modification Expert

Right out of the gate, Capt Gordon issued a lack-lustre apology. He spoke of the hundreds of brands that he had done and the thousands of ordeals he had facilitated. He made us aware of all of his “5-star reviews”, the hugs, the tears, and of course, the praise for his skills. For three paragraphs, we hear about how great he is.

Capt Gordon spoke about that while minimizing the damage he had done. He said it was a single fuck up that tarnished his record. He did say it was both “major” and “big”, but it’s still reductive.

the respected bdsm educator the body modification expert and the solar branding fiascoHe said that the path was more dangerous “than originally foreseen” and that he didn’t do enough to inform the others of what “we” were getting into. He wanted to help one of the victims by offering this ordeal, but he failed (in reference to the person who spent 10 days in hospital). The surprise that they were the first times he did this type of brand? Assumptions that they had seen a writing he had done earlier, things were “glossed over” or not “communicated clearly enough”.

Capt Gordon claims to have studied hard to avoid doing harm. He thought that the brands had gone well. From the descriptions and photos of the two victims that I’ve seen, an experienced branding artist should have known right away that something was amiss. I doubt a novice would have looked at the most serious wound and said it was okay.

None of the things that happened – none of them – should have been unforeseen.  Especially not to someone who had done hundreds (thousands?) of brands and other body modifications.

the respected bdsm educator the body modification expert and the solar branding fiascoThe risks associated with circumferential burns are well known. As I said earlier, this is branding 101. Anyone, with any degree of experience in branding or burn care, would be aware of this fact. Agreeing to do the brand like that in the first place was part of the error. Capt Gordon says that he’s done circumferential brands before and that they were riskier (quite the understatement) but hadn’t caused any serious complications. To me, this just shows a pattern of risky behaviour and that he had been lucky up until this point.

Knowing that burns are more prone to infection is also common knowledge in both the body modification world and the healthcare world. Practitioners of heavy modifications (like scars, branding, hook suspensions, etc – all things Capt Gordon claims to have a lot of experience in) would know this simple fact. They would be expected to have a solid understanding of the medical knowledge associated with these modifications, things like basic wound care. Leaving a burn uncovered in a dirty environment with limited access to basic hygiene facilities is negligent.

The second attempt at an apology was better, but still self-serving. Capt Gordon said he was listening to the community, but he needed to be pushed into doing the right thing time and time again. He did offer some financial support to the victims, how much was not disclosed. This happened in the United States, so one can only imagine how much the hospital bills must have been.

The Respected BDSM Educator

Lee Harrington is a well known and respected BDSM and sexuality educator. He follows a spiritual theme in his teachings and writing. He has many books published, teaches via video online and travels to present at conferences and other events regularly.

the respected bdsm educator the body modification expert and the solar branding fiasco

Recently, Lee announced two workshops that he will be co-presenting with Capt Gordon. The first of these workshops includes information about exploring kinky sex, including the line “from verbal and non-verbal communication and negotiation to looking at the layers of consent and safety”.

Given what we have seen of Capt Gordon, should he really be in a position to teach others about verbal and non-verbal communication? A man who failed to clearly communicate that he had never done the dangerous and experimental procedure that maimed and hospitalized two of the six people he used as guinea pigs? Is this the person who should teach consent and safety?

Sadly, this has only gained momentum today, when the second of the classes were taught. The first was last night (this was written overnight Saturday into Sunday).

I am sad that an educator that I respected has chosen to give a person like Capt Gordon a platform. Especially after inadequate apologies and with at least one victim still suffering from his actions.

Disappointment

I love the kink community. It’s been my home for more than 20 years. Even when I’ve been away, doing other things, it’s always welcomed me back when I returned. I’ve learned so much from the community, earned my living from that knowledge and continue to do so. It means a lot to me.

the respected bdsm educator the body modification expert and the solar branding fiascoThat’s why it hurts so much when respected members of the community let us down. I wrote previously about a leader who behaved in a disgusting and horrific way. This situation is obviously different, but the same feelings are brought up. I feel betrayed that people who violate consent and harm others feel they can operate with impunity. That they can go away for a while and be welcomed back with open arms.

If I, a person completely removed from the situation, feel betrayed by the Capt’s return, I can only imagine how those he has harmed must feel. My heart breaks for them all over again. They deserve better than this.

Lee wrote about transformative justice and how “fucking up” shouldn’t mean a loss of access to the community.  But we aren’t talking about a simple “fuck up” here, that would imply an accident or mistake. We are talking about a man who lied by omission and implied he had much more experience in a dangerous and experimental art form. A man who should have been able to see the serious harm he had caused the first victim immediately, who chose to ignore it and went on to brand five more people.

If we want our community to be better, we need to do better. We can not allow people who put ego before safety to operate with impunity. We can not welcome back people who play fast and loose with informed consent so easily. We need educators and community leaders who will stand up and say that this isn’t right.

For what it’s worth, none of this is right.

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