BondageTape2

(Image “BondageTape2” by kris krüg. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

As I’m sure most of you already know, October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  This is a wonderful effort to bring awareness about DV and offer resources to those both facing DV and those hoping to intervene.  The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has great resources which you can find here.   During this month, the awareness posters I saw had a catchphrase “Love shouldn’t hurt” as a way of presenting their message against DV.  While I understand where this is coming from, when considered in the context of BDSM this motto doesn’t work.  In BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Domination/Submission, Sadism/Masochism), partners consent to activities that can involve varying levels of emotional and physical discomfort or pain.  These consensual dynamics are not necessarily abusive due to the informed consent involved.  However, the BDSM community is not immune from abusers or abusive dynamics.  It’s important then to ask – how do you tell the difference between BDSM and abuse?

One of the biggest distinguishing features between BDSM and abuse is the consent, communication, respect, and planning involved in BDSM.  This article on Miss Alice Grey includes these indications:

  • Pre-play negations
  • Educational workshops
  • Having a safe word – preferably two (one for slow down, one for stop completely)
  • Having a discussion on soft limits and hard limits, and not breaking them without full prior discussion
  • Discussions and reassurances afterwards, particularly if a scene has gotten very emotional
  • The use of contraceptives (unless in total agreement about not using them)
  • Safety equipment such as first aid kits and paramedic scissors (if one person is tied up and starts to panic, releasing them quickly is of utmost importance)

Sir Bamm includes some helpful comparisons as well:

D/s or Abuse?

D/s is about the building of a trusting relationship between two consenting adult partners. Abuse is about the breach of trust between an authority figure and the person in their care.
D/s is about the mutual respect demonstrated between two enlightened people. Abuse is about the lack of respect that one person demonstrates to another person.
D/s is about a shared enjoyment of controlled erotic pain and/or humiliation for mutual pleasure. Abuse is about a form of out-of-control physical violence and/or personal or emotional degradation of the submissive.
D/s is about loving each other completely and without reservation in an alternate way. Abuse is hurtful. It is also very damaging emotionally and spiritually to the submissive.
D/s frees a submissive from the restraints of years of vanilla conditioning to explore a buried part of him/herself. Abuse binds a submissive to a lonely and solitary life of shame, fear and secrecy… imprisoning his/her very soul.
D/s builds self-esteem as a person discovers and embraces their long hidden sexuality. Abuse shatters and destroys a person’s self-esteem and leaves self-hatred in its place.
SM Abuse
An SM scene is a controlled situation. Abuse is an out-of-control situation.
Negotiation occurs before an SM scene to determine what will and will not happen in that scene. One person determines what will happen.
Knowledgeable consent is given to the scene by all parties. No consent is asked for or given.
The bottom has a safeword that allows them to stop the scene at any time they need to for physical or emotional reasons. The person being abused cannot stop what is happening.
Everyone involved in the SM scene is concerned about needs, desires, and limits of others. No concern is given to the needs, desires, and limits of the abused person.
The people in the SM scene are careful to be sure that they are not impaired by alcohol or drug use during the scene. Alcohol or drugs are often used before an episode of abuse.
After an SM scene, the people involved feel good. After an episode of abuse, the people involved feel bad.

It can also be helpful to examine some questions to ask yourself to determine whether a situation is truly consensual BDSM.  Several of these lists are online, including this one and this one.

So now we have some good guidelines and questions to ask to determine whether a relationship might have abusive dynamics.  The answer, then, would be to point these out, right?  Unfortunately, sometimes when a submissive identifies as Dominant as potentially abusive or assaultive, there can be backlash in the scene against these actions.  Tracy Clark-Flory explores this in depth in When safe words are ignored.  She explains the dilemma, writing

BDSM has long been a target of criticism from outsiders, but these two are devoted members of the scene. Stryker argued in her essay, “I Never Called It Rape,” that the community is so “focused on saying how BDSM isn’t a cover for abuse that we willingly blind ourselves to the times that it can be,” she wrote. “How on earth can we possibly say to society at large that BDSM is not abuse when we so carefully hide our abusers and shame our abused into silence?”

Clarisse Thorn also explores the dilemma of recognizing problems in an already marginalized culture.  In her article, Thinking More Clearly About BDSM Versus Abuse she takes a strong position about the importance of the BDSM community becoming more willing to call out bad behavior.  She writes,

Still, I’ve seen things happen in the BDSM community that turned my stomach. Terrible manipulative behavior exhibited by people who have the greatest reputations. Blaming the victim when they try to speak up. Telling “rumor mongers” to shut up when people are trying to talk openly about problematic community members. The BDSM subculture has its own version of rape culture, where “lying bitch” and “drama queen” and “miscommunication” are used against abuse survivors. Miscommunications do happen … but not everything that could be a miscommunication is actually a miscommunication.

Oh yes, rape culture can happen in BDSM just the same way it happens in the “vanilla” mainstream. And there are certainly people in my local community who I would never get involved with, because I do not trust them . . . Being defensive about BDSM and abuse won’t help; yes, BDSM is stigmatized and stereotyped, but the abuse is still a problem.

Her article also references the Power and Control Wheels which can provide good reference points in general about what are healthy versus unhealthy situations.  All of those wheels can be found here.

I think, however, that focusing solely on identifying when something is wrong may not go far enough.  While our starting question was how do we know the difference between BDSM and abuse, I think we should go even further.  How do we determine whether a relationship is healthy?  One of the best checklists I’ve seen is Franklin Veaux’s blog post at More Than Two.  The ones I think are most applicable with regards to BDSM are:

5. Can I say whatever I need to say, whenever I need to say it, and have a reasonable expectation that I will be heard and understood? Am I creating an environment where everyone else can tell me what they need to say, even if it’s something I don’t want to hear, and I will hear it?

6. Is this relationship fair to everyone concerned? Not “fair” as in “everyone gets the same thing,” but “fair” in that “everyone has a hand in the relationship, everyone’s voice can be heard, and everyone has the ability to help build the things that make their parts of it happy and healthy.”

7. Does this relationship give all the people involved the opportunity and support they need to pursue their joy?

Whew!  That was a lot of information!!  When I first started talking about this blog and researching it, I know that I quickly became overwhelmed but just how easy and yet complicated the topic can be.  I started asking my friends for their ideas, and they gave me two of the best gems I’ve ever heard to replace the “Love shouldn’t hurt” slogan: “Love shouldn’t harm” and “Love has a safe word”.  In closing, no one ever deserves abuse and if your BDSM dynamics have started to feel unhealthy or unsafe you absolutely can re-establish your boundaries and leave the negative situation.  If you don’t feel comfortable or supported disclosing these problems to others in your community, sometimes the help of a therapist or support group can provide you the support you need.  If you have any more questions or want to talk about relationship concerns, feel free to contact me.

Here’s to healthier relationships!